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The story of how infants connect with their caregivers (called “attachment”), and what happens when this goes wrong, could be the most important untold story in mental health. What I’m about to tell you, will help you make sense of life-long patterns, perhaps in your own life or the lives of those who you care about.

Have you, or people you are close to, experienced problems with any of the following?

  • Ongoing Anxiety: Chronic worry, always feeling like you should be doing more, hard time relaxing, beating yourself up, or having difficulty “turning off” your brain?
  • Negative Sense of Self: Negative self talk or feelings of low self esteem?
  • Difficulty Connecting with Others: Problems with boundaries or advocating for your needs? Choosing the same kind of “wrong” person repeatedly?
  • Impulsive or Risky Behavior: substance abuse, risky sexual or other practices

While we cannot say that anything causes the above conditions 100% of the time, disrupted human attachment (aka “attachment trauma”) comes very close. While the phrase “human attachment” may sound academic or vague, it’s really important to understand it, because it has a ton of explanatory power, and knowing why we feel a certain way, can provide some peace and help point us in the right direction to start healing.

So here goes...

Successful, or “good enough”, attachment is monumentally important for the physical and emotional development of an infant. It is instinctual. An infant's brain is physically developed in communion with its caregiver. Not attaching is stressful and can become traumatic for children, who develop adaptions, or ways of coping, in the face of disrupted attachment. These adaptations help children survive and cope, they are instinctual and automatic, and they can lead to painful patterns later in life.

Attachment disruption can result for a variety of reasons that are not nearly as severe as the neglect or abuse we might normally think of. For instance it can result because a caregiver is simply not physically or mentally present (e.g. “dad worked all the time”, or “mom told me I was super needy”), a caregiver has mental or emotional health issues, or has substance or alcohol abuse issues.

To attach, kids need to feel an adult is emotionally and physically safe. They need to feel that their caregiver “gets” how they feel and that they care about them. However when faced with attachment disruption, children will take on adaptations to maintain their emotional safety, and they often begin by blaming themselves for the disrupted attachment. There are several reasons for this. First, when we are young children, our caregivers are everything to us, and that, coupled with the fact that we are almost 100% reliant upon them for our survival, means that it is absolutely untenable for children to think that caregivers are unable to meet their needs. This is simply too much for a child to contemplate, and so the child will blame themself, and may start to think along the lines of “if I could just try harder, or be somehow better or perfect, then maybe I could get the attention I need”. So children may adopt a number of strategies to try and get the parents' attention.

While these strategies are necessary for emotional survival in the moment, later in life these strategies have outlived their usefulness - and become sources of pain. Consider a person who is stuck with patterns of endless striving, rumination (over thinking) or hypervigilance. Have you ever felt like you can’t relax, or that you can’t “turn your mind off”, or that you must always be doing something more? There is a good chance these are ingrained strategies that we adopted to counter attachment loss. Simply think of these behaviors in the context of attachment, where it might be reasonable that a child might think “I’ve got to try harder [and then I’ll get my needs met]”. The result is what feels like endless striving, anxiety and difficulty being at peace.

We can also see how faulty self beliefs can arise that impact self esteem. For example, maybe you or someone you know has a deeply held (and incorrect) belief that “I’m not enough”, or “I’m not a good person”. We can see where these beliefs might come from when we think of them in terms of attachment loss. It’s simply a kid blaming themselves for something that is not their fault - the inability to attach. This was the failure of a caregiver, not the child. It’s important to understand that while blaming ourselves for something that is not our fault is frankly a bit sad, it was also adaptive, and this is often the only option we had. Self blame was the only way for a child to feel like they could do something about the problem.

In addition to elevated anxiety and reduced self-esteem, children will make their needs “wrong”. They might think something like “if I didn’t need to feel loved, then I wouldn’t have this problem” and so they push away their need to feel loved. Children might push away many of their needs, because they are not being met, and as we grow up we might even start to take pride in not needing anything or anyone. We can see now how denying our needs can contribute to poor boundaries. I.e. If I make my need for safety “wrong” then I might open myself up to potentially dangerous or abusive situations. Looking at this another way, have you ever had a hard time advocating for yourself? Sometimes it’s hard to ask for things we deserve, and this may be traced back to disrupted attachment.

If this has stirred up feelings in you, please take a deep breath, and know that there is hope to address these negative effects, and there is power in the knowledge of (finally) understanding where these issues come from. Also, please remember that we had no choice but to adopt these strategies, we are not alone in this, and they were necessary for survival. Given that we did not have a choice but to adopt these ways of being, I invite you to have compassion for yourself. You did what you needed to to survive. But now it may be time to move from surviving, to more fully living.

Please contact me if I can support you in seeing what is getting in the way of the relationships, peace and self esteem you seek.

People commonly believe that we go to a therapist only when we are broken, our lives have become unmanageable, or we are suffering severe symptoms of mental illness. But I suggest we can go for another reason - to grow into our best life...

I can’t think of a higher calling than living one’s best life. When we are at our best, we experience more joy and peace, and have a better day-to-day experience with more energy to do what’s important to us. The people around us benefit too as we can be better friends, parents, lovers, sons and daughters and community participants. I believe this kind of deeply abundant life is available to us, particularly when we take the time to address early trauma.

But our society’s view of mental health can get in the way and stop us from achieving our best life. People commonly believe that we go to a therapist only when we are broken, our lives have become unmanageable, or we are suffering severe symptoms of mental illness. I suggest we can go for another reason - to grow into our best life. I believe we have an opportunity to optimize ourselves and our lives. Everyone has challenges - we’re all human - but simply being “functional” may not be enough. Let’s move from merely getting by, from surviving and getting through each day, to thriving and living our best life.

What would it be worth to you to have more confidence, more day-to-day peace, or to have deeper connection in your most important relationships? I suggest it’s worth everything because these factors are fundamental to our happiness, to our fulfillment.

When we are ready, these ways of being are within our reach. Also, modern approaches to gently healing early trauma can work faster than we might suspect.

In another blog post I share how disrupted connection between children and caregivers can be traumatic and cause us to reject ourselves, impacting our self esteem, and creating difficulty in connecting with others. We are relational at our core, and we often look for happiness through connection with others. Healing these early traumas can allow us to have more fulfilling connections with others, the foundation of a better life.

I suggest that proactively focusing on what we want for ourselves - better relationships, more self esteem, a greater sense of peace - can lead to a better life, particularly when we have the support we need to address attachment-related trauma.

Thank you for daring to think about how life can be more fulfilling in the ways that are most important to us. I look forward to talking to you about how I can support you in that journey.