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

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

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If Robert Frost were still of this world, could I persuade him to rethink his philosophy? Even as the ground is carpeted with evidence that “nothing gold can stay,” I hope this spring morning will light my way through the coming year. This moment of equipoise, when the chartreuse maple flowers that scatter the ground are equal to those still gracing the tree—I hope in darker moments to recall it.

Those moments do come—though they come less often, and I recognize them now for what they are. As above, so below; as within, so without. It’s as easy for people today to mistake their shadows, their trailing rainclouds, for something permanently, metaphysically wrong with them, as it was for people in times past to mistake epilepsy for demonic possession. I have learned, thankfully, to make connections between my physical and emotional states.

I know, if I wake in a seeming panic, to reflect on what I ate the day before. Too much sugar? Too much salt? I know, when I feel my steps grow heavy, that my body still struggles with wheat and dairy, that my system is still in rehabilitation.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, continues to be the holy grail of mental health interventions, but I feel it’s sorely lacking. In the “cognitive triangle,” thoughts evoke feelings that result in behaviors. Where is the body, in that model?

Research is now abundant, and still growing, about the effects of diet on anxiety and depression, the role of probiotics in emotional resilience, the fact that trauma gets stored in all our cells, not just in the brain. But in this market-driven culture, genuine wellness—bodily integrity, emotional stability—turns too little profit. For every news item about, say, the microbiome, there are thousands of ads for, as Michael Pollan put it, “edible foodlike substances.”

This is not to say that everything I feel emotionally is purely a function of my physical state, that I can live unperturbed so long as I avoid x, y, and z foods. For one thing, the picture is a little more complicated; making generally good choices may not, alone, correct for deficits present from birth or some exposure.

For another thing, we’re social beings; attachment is itself biological. Loss is still loss, grief is still grief—and hard as they are, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have no wish to be disaffected, to nod placidly to others as they come and go from my life. All I mean is that a kind of physical resilience helps steady me now, in a way it never did before. On stormy seas, I’m lashed to the mast of my health.