ATTACHMENT VIGNETTES -
For all humans, the impact of our early attachment experience is profound, touching almost all aspects of our lives. This is particularly problematic for those of us with insecure experiences of early attachment - whose bonds were fragile with those we most depended on. This experience often creates deep patterns in relating that many of us continue to grapple with as adults.
Insecure or pre-occupied attachment radically disrupts our contact with ourselves. Our tentacles lean outward, scanning where we stand. Our bodies and minds are not quite our own, they are radar to the external. We may be inclined to lose ourselves continually in our quest for contact. Reclaiming inner space is something we need to achieve, but both our survival instincts and the momentum of a life-time of habit are stacked against us. For those of us who grow up anxious, in any moment of conflict, we dread the ‘loss’ of the other. We are preoccupied with our continual need to establish the others' presence and good will; and this creates an inner sense of dependence more appropriate to infancy, a hyper-vigilance to any signs of disapproval or withdrawal from those we are close to.
We need to develop a healthier relational rhythm - to find a way of processing experience and forming bonds that does not continue to repeat this early shaping. We need to learn to withdraw – in a healthy sense – to temporarily abandon our ‘primary concern’ for the other, in order to rest into our own experience more fully and develop our own ground of security. This allows us to expand our relational capacity, and move toward something precious and sacred: the development of a true I:Thou capacity with others, and the space for love, communication and acceptance amidst difference, conflict and disappointment.When we find a balance in our care for self and other, and learn to take time and space for ourselves, we begin to alter life-long patterns of self-abandonment.
Below I try to capture three strands that may be in play for those of us with insecure attachment:
a haste to repair or reconnect before we have processed our own experience
a tendency to intuit and prioritise the emotional states of others
an (often unconscious) belief that self-abandonment is necessary for successful relating
1: OUR HASTE TO REGAIN CONNECTION
When we are too preoccupied with connection to process our own experience, we are inclined to deny conflict or difference. Our sense of space and time are crushed. We struggle to feel ourselves, and to know what we experience with those who matter to us, particularly if it is something bad, sad, or disappointing.
This means that in our relationships with those who matter most to us, we are often deeply compromised in what we can bear to let into our awareness. To ‘know’ we feel bad may seem catastrophic, because it threatens to jeopardize our already-too-fragile attachments. This feels too big a risk, and so we disavow impacts and hurts for the sake of staying 'close'. At times we may be inwardly reeling in shock, dismay, or disappointment, yet unwilling to feel it, because at a more primitive level, we need the contact back.
Like the baby we once were, we are trying to get back to ‘us’. But the ‘us’ we return to when we return too fast, has no room for us; and it often has no room for the other either, so clouded is it with need, anxiety and compromise. The closeness we achieve is only temporarily satiating, damaging us even as we cling to it.
Because we are so essentially insecure, we do not know and cannot trust that another will ‘come back’ to us from difficult moments. We do not trust that they will care to find us. Instead, we sense a bond breaking. And this is terrifying. So we are always checking and always trying – checking the other is there; trying to secure connection. We alone must keep the embers warm. This be-comes hard-wired; it is what we have always had to do.
We pay an enormous price in inner wholeness, in order to belong. So when we take up the invitation to make room for ourselves, to attend more fully to our insides, we are discovering time and space, offering ourselves holding and breathing room. We move closer to ourselves to digest. In being there with ourselves, we actually become less needy. We move toward space, toward reality, toward ‘things as they are’...
2: a 'GIFT' for ATTUNEMENT
Another thread in the experience of the insecurely attached is our apparent gift for attunement. Such is our anxiety to maintain connection, we instinctually attend to and intuit the feelings of others. We lean out naturally and may sense more about what is happening inside others than we do ourselves. We know how to bond by abandoning ourselves, but not how to bond from ourselves, with room for two of us.
This uncanny sensitivity does not necessarily equate to genuine concern. It looks like empathy and may even seem mature, but its origins lie in a hyper-vigilance that has never settled. We could say that we are other-preoccupied and fundamentally self-involved: our ‘empathy’ reflects a fear system trying to regulate, rather than a heart spaciously opened. This may be dismaying to recognise, shattering a life-long pride in our exceptional sensitivity to others.
Those of us built like this find in the presence of others, we can be attuned, available, open to feel with in a generous and often sensitive way. Yet ‘thinking about’ the other in their absence, solely on their behalf, may be a weaker, or almost non-existent function. It doesn’t happen naturally, and we may be dismayed that it does not.
Instead, in the aftermath of contact, we are generally trying to reclaim our body and mind as our own, to recover and take stock, to organise what has ‘happened’ to us. And we are also continually worrying where we stand with those we are close to.
MATURE EMPATHY, TAKING SPACE
What would a more mature empathy look like? It would not leave the self-behind, would not be fueled by fear, and would be reflective about others in their absence as well as instinctual. Mature, secure selves do not continually need to prove their value to others, to ascertain where they stand. Instead they are free to love and understand from separateness, distributing their awareness more naturally....including themselves more fully in their attention.
DEVELOPING 'NEGATIVE CAPABILITY'
Zen teacher Stephen Bachelor often draws on John Keats' lovely concept of 'negative capability' in his teaching. Here's what Keats wrote in a letter to his brothers:
"a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A poet, then, has the power to bury self-consciousness, dwell in a state of openness to all experience, and identify with the object contemplated."
For me, there is a relational equivalent to what Keats wrote of - a way we can learn to extend our tolerance and not knowing which expands who we are as humans.
As we use learn to temporarily withdraw, to host our own hurt, to hold it, we develop a relational version of Keats negative capability. We train ourselves to get used to the luxury of space, to the absence of pressure and urgency, enabling us to trust a softer rhythm, and to learn that temporary withdrawal need not destroy our bonds.
When we withdraw, we are developing our tolerance for uncertainties, insecurities, anxieties, and discord without any premature attempt at repair, resolution, or even communication. We are learning to tolerate our own experience, and to bear the tension of distance, without editing or altering our self-knowledge to calibrate or adapt to another.
This discovery of space – for separation, differentiation, digestion - is a radical and transformative gift to those of us who have never known it was available. Life waits. For us. Not always, but enough. This can feel like a miracle.
3: ‘THERE IS ONLY ROOM FOR ONE’
- the demand for self-abandonment
It may seem strange that we often act as if truly considering others must involve over-riding ourselves. But there is history in this error, in how we have been related to and the conclusions we have drawn from it.
For some of us, this will have been demanded of us as children, by parents who failed to see that our inner lives were as real as their own. They cannot support our subjectivity, because they are too compelled by their own. And so we learn, in Wallin’s phrase, that there is ‘only room for one’ – for one person’s view to be right, one person’s feelings to be relevant, for one person’s voice to be heard. And we learn that this one is not us.
When we are asked too young to abandon our own minds and hearts and take on the truths of another, a fundamental break occurs in our contact with ourselves. We learn, in a certain way, to disappear. If this demand is consistent, something inside us gets used to being invisible. We come to expect neglect, and learn to neglect ourselves as the most successful way to bond.
We ‘know’ that we don’t matter and adapt. Our ‘adapted self’ knows how to show concern for another. We identify with their experience; and we demonstrate our understanding in order to gain their love and approval. We see them and we show them that we do. This may win us praise and closeness, but it is a type of closeness founded on self-contortion. It creates a dangerously skewed template; and one that we risk replicating in other relationships. Our true self is paralysed, held back, isolated and alone.
This true self accumulates a host of denied developmental needs that may come back to haunt us; including the need to be seen, to be attended to, to be heard, to be known, to be treated fairly, to be at times the only one who matters.
It is catastrophic for any child to learn that the price of being connected is self-abandonment. Yet, unintentionally, this learning occurs in many lives, leaving us with an apparent capacity and sensitivity to others which has its foundations in self-abandonment and relational pain.