ATTACHMENT THEORY

I recently read an article about the long-term impacts of institutional neglect in Romanian orphanages. The consequences of life without early attachment-bonding could scarcely be starker. Attachment theory, hearkening back to John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, is one of the most powerful concepts in the field of therapy. I think about it a lot, albeit not with the strict categorical breakdown of attachment styles—secure, avoidant, resistant, disorganized—as I find those limiting. We humans are too complicated, ever-evolving in our hardships and strengths, our risks and resiliencies, to say that we are one thing or another. Interpersonal dynamics reveal our complexities. One person can leave us feeling secure, another can disorganize us, but even secure relationships can have their moments of feeling abandoned, and therein lies some of the work of commitment. Then, too, we are also biological, not merely relational, and research increasingly demonstrates the impact of, for example, the microbiome on mood, which can impact our self-presentation and the responses we get from others.

I also think that attachment is an ongoing process as we encounter different types of relationships in our lives, and that early positive experiences, so formative, can nonetheless fail to protect us against later negative ones. Working for a mercurial employer, sometimes warm and sometimes belittling, can leave a person in a compromised psychological state, cowed and demeaned, as one example I’ve experienced firsthand. Then, too, the chilling, heart-breaking still-face experiment reminds me of the distress that can come when romantic relationships fail, when one person demonstrates continued investment while the other ceases to. Similar to a baby’s response—which is, after all, a human response, at its most transparent—an adult’s emotions can encompass confusion; familiar bids for closeness that used to be returned; distress when efforts fail; and, sometimes, total shutdown to avoid further pain. Like the famously misunderstood stages of grief, such feelings can cycle, too, and layer. We are mammals, and mammals are social. Is attachment only about safety and bonding within primary relationships? No, it’s also about being alive, being human, feeling recognized as meriting care and experiencing connection to others in a world of mutuality where we can survive and thrive.

Because I think so much about therapy, and also about contemporary culture, I have lately been thinking about racism through the lens of attachment as human mutuality. Not adult to baby, not parent to child, not caregiver to dependent, but person to person—that version of attachment, the version that I perceive to be ongoing across a lifespan. As humans, we present our faces to one another and show each other that we care or don’t. Blank faces can feel deadly, nullifying one’s existence—and that’s only one type of adverse response. The face of racism can be blank but also hostile, hateful, leering, condescending, and other damaging things I’m failing to list. But it seems to me that what’s consistent about racism, whatever face it wears, is its failure to interact in a human-to-human way and to register the deep and destabilizing distress of another being who rightfully looks for recognition and respect, and who finds none. Over and over again, down centuries. And I’m talking about all forms, in all places, all indigenous persons, all persons of color. The first-hand pain of racism isn’t mine to speak about, and so I’ll stop here. Until it’s addressed, and redressed, though, that betrayal of humanity remains.

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Text and image copyrights on this site are held by me. I value your time and appreciate your reading. There are many things to do in a day, and I’m often ambivalent about posting my monthly contribution to the overwhelming world of content we live in; for a little more on that, see my updated About. Ambivalence notwithstanding, this month marks my 6th year of blogging. Feel free, as always, to share this post. Take care, and give care. EA

BEHOLDER AND BEHELD

 

 

Scilla is having its moment, and as ever, it mesmerizes me like Ruth Wilcox’s skirt trailing among the flowers and grasses in “Howard’s End.” This photo does it no justice. Blossoms that were electric to my eye are overpowered here by stalks and leaves. Still, if I squint, there’s a hint of Van Gogh’s irises, so that’s something. It’s been raining a lot, and I’ve been reading Patricia DeYoung’s fine book on chronic shame, which she defines and explores in, I think, extraordinarily clear and detailed interpersonal terms. It’s a book written for clinicians, but full of observations that I wish could be wider spread. It’s an especially interesting read for me at this time of quarantine. While many of us are looking forward to being with others again—mingling and enjoying contact—for some, the self-other encounter is one of private chagrin. Healing from shame requires safety, and safety requires attention to connection and disconnection, a commitment to emotional being-with. Perhaps all our current contact through phone calls and screens could be seen as an opportunity to fine-tune our awareness of voices and faces. There’s so much information there—sometimes subtle, but sometimes as vivid as indigo and ultraviolet, hovering above the plainer stems of speech. The more attention we give, the more we perceive.

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LETTERS AND WORDS

The waiting room had been freshly painted over, institutional off-white where once there’d been a warm robin’s egg blue. Not my choice, needless to say; the change felt aggressively bright and depleting, uninviting and not at all therapeutic. Someone else apparently took issue with it on some level, too, as a bit of vandalism appeared in short order where none had ever occurred before, at least not in my time. A defacement of the wall that I noted but blocked out, the way I note and block out the crumbling exterior details of the building and the grout in the bathroom tile that probably hasn’t been clean in decades. My client had studied it, though. “Um, do you see this?” Nodding toward the damage that suddenly resolved from random scrapes into a rough approximation of the word “slut.” Weeks passed, with kids and adults coming and going, sitting in the chair under that word. Was anything done about it? I could have submitted a work order, but at that point I was perversely curious whether anyone involved in admin or maintenance would notice and address it. Weeks more passed. Finally, an act of vandalistic intercession: someone scratched away diligently to transform “slut” into “slurp.” I appreciate that anonymous act of transformation while disliking both words for different reasons and finding the whole scenario to be yet another reminder that I need to be moving on from this place where I’ve dedicated so much energy. I need to be in a place more of my making, and that time is coming. I know it won’t be easy leaving, though. The collegial bonds forged in shared adversity are uniquely strong, of uncommon mettle, continually tested by the agency model. And then there are the children and families, and the honor and inspiration of working with them. The proud pencil marks on my door where I measured the heights of kids whose growing wasn’t always celebrated elsewhere, and other reminders in my office of clients who’ve come and gone. A paper painted fish above my coat hook. A little wooden house balanced atop a picture frame left over from a game of object-hide-and-seek. Sparkly stones on my windowsill. And this message on a post-it from a girl who used to end every visit by challenging me to a race down the hallway, glorying in her own speed: “Strong is the new cool.” A lasting gift that she, so fleet, gave to me.

 

 

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Text and image copyrights held by me. My posts have gotten shorter as I deal with other things. As ever, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.