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Re-telling, Re-embodying: Attachment Healing

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

Ever seen those posts on social media asking people to describe what they do for a living?

The firefighter says, “I bust through your front door and spray all your possessions with water. You thank me afterwards.” The English teacher says, “I demand young adults read books by dead people and expect them to learn life lessons from it.” The labor & delivery nurse says, “I watch tiny humans exit larger humans.”

What would a therapist say? How about this:

“I use my words and presence to break curses and free people from pain inherited from their ancestors.”

Sounds pretty cool, right?

I’ve never given an elevator pitch before; ask any of my college professors and they will tell you that succinctness is not one of my strengths. But if I had to condense all of what I do and what I love most about it into one sentence, this is what I would say (as of today; I may find a better way to say it someday): I help clients retell and re-embody the narrative of how the people in their past have shaped them, so they can shape the narratives of the people in their present and future in beautiful ways.

Maybe that doesn’t sound as cool as curse-breaking, but it’s essentially the same thing. Every day, I get to see people make choices (most of them small, some of them huge) that break generational patterns of harm—“family curses” or “generational trauma” are other terms for this—and open doors onto new generational patterns of blessing.

The easiest place to see this kind of change is in my work with parents.

There is nothing like becoming a parent to dredge up the unresolved pain and loss of our own childhoods. (To learn more about attachment bonds, read this post.) In the mental health field, it’s a well-known fact that parenthood reactivates both attachment insecurity and attachment trauma. This is why new parents sometimes feel like they’re going crazy: “Everything was fine, and then this little person showed up, and I feel like I’m falling apart!”

Every parent loves their child, and when we see our unhealthy patterns inflicting pain on a little person we love more than life itself…there are few experiences that cut deeper. Some parents shut down or numb out to avoid the pain. Some lock up tight to try to control themselves, to try to stop doing the only things they were ever taught to do, and then get stuck in rigid cycles of reactivity, recovery, and relapse. Some parents, though, recognize what’s happening, seek help, and start to heal.

I don’t always do this work with parents; though I’m sure many of my younger clients will go on to become parents, I know not all of them will. The outcome is the same, though, because all of us live lives that are intertwined with the lives of others—friends, partners, colleagues, cousins, neighbors, the barista at the local Starbucks, the cashier at the grocery store, the next patient or client or customer.

The way our lives are linked, in endless and continuous patterns and an ever-shifting myriad of possibilities, reminds me of how neurons link to create an infinity of thought, experience, and action. With frequent activation, the impact deepens and the linkages become stronger. Over time, with mindfulness and intentionality, this can lead to integration—wholeness, wellness, shalom. This integration takes place intrapersonally (within ourselves), interpersonally (within our relationships), and even cosmically (within our connection to the entire planet and beyond).

I’d like you to meet someone who has been doing this work of integration; her name is Mary.

(Please Note: Mary is not a real client. I would never blog about my real clients.)

Mary grew up in a stable suburban home, with an attentive stay-at-home mother and a father who was a good provider but was not often present. Then, when Mary was eight years old and her brother was five, Mary’s mother died suddenly. Mary’s father, devastated at the loss of his wife and overwhelmed by the demands of raising two young children with whom he had previously not spent much time, shut down and withdrew. He continued to provide, but he was incapable of facing his own grief, much less the grief of his young children.

Without anyone to help her process the abrupt and terrifying loss of her beloved mother, Mary was all alone, doubly abandoned by both of her primary caregivers. Comforting her younger brother fell to her. Taking care of his daily needs while their father worked fell to her. Shielding him from their father’s angry outbursts fell to her. And there was no one in Mary’s world to help her make sense of everything. Mary’s memories of the years following her mother’s death are dim and colorless, and when she talks about them in therapy, she reports facts mechanically, rather than talking as if she herself experienced these things. This emotional distance is much safer than getting in touch with the wounded and bewildered little girl still inside her.

Now Mary has a five-year-old daughter of her own, named Ruby. Mary adores Ruby, and wants a beautiful life for her. But she finds she cannot cope with Ruby’s age-appropriate neediness, and feels resentful and distant toward her, even though she loves her. When Ruby expresses sadness or gets upset, Mary finds herself spiraling into angry reactions. When Ruby is excited or joyful, Mary can’t seem to connect or share any of her positive emotions. This isn’t the kind of mother Mary wanted to be. This is what drove her to therapy.

To meet Mary’s goal of becoming a better mother, more attuned and connected to her daughter and less reactive, therapy has to accomplish three things.

One: Mary must feel safe enough in the therapeutic relationship to get in touch with the grieving little girl inside her and, with her adult self, offer that little girl the compassion she deserved long ago; in this compassion, there is space to finally process the grief she was left alone to carry. Two: Mary must learn mindfulness skills and self-regulation techniques to recognize when her attachment trauma is intruding into her relationship with her daughter, and to soothe her own attachment-related distress when her daughter’s needs or emotions trigger Mary’s unresolved grief. Three: Mary must learn to tell a coherent narrative of what happened in her childhood and how it has affected her, including the roles her father, brother, and others played in this narrative.

Through this therapy process, Mary is integrating. She is integrating within herself as she welcomes pieces of herself she has shut out, integrating within her relationship with her daughter as she heals the disconnect between them, and integrating across time as she comes to understand her own story. All of this leads to neurological integration: telling a coherent autobiographical narrative integrates bilaterally between her right and left hemispheres, and mindful awareness and regulation integrates her cortex and limbic system, giving her the ability to choose responses and behaviors in line with who she wants to be.

And because of all of this hard, heartbreaking, and hopeful work, Mary’s daughter will someday have the narrative of love, connection, and security that Mary lacked. Mary’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren will benefit from these changes, both relationally and epigenetically. Mary is building a legacy of love, generosity, and secure attachment in her family. This will ripple out to every part of the world she and her loved ones touch. Mary will have broken a family curse.

This is how it works. It’s beautiful, incredible, awe-inspiring. And I can’t think of any other kind of work I’d rather be a part of.

Mary may not be real, but I have seen so many parents heal through raising their children.

First, they learn to give their children what no one was able to give them. Then, eventually, they learn to give these same gifts to themselves. As they parent their children, they have an opportunity to re-parent themselves, to turn toward exiled young parts of themselves with kind attention and gentle acceptance. The downstream effects of this are tremendous and incalculable.

Relationships are where we are wounded. They are also the only place we can heal. What I love most about my job is getting to create a relational space between myself and a client where healing can start, and then getting to watch it spill over into so many other relationships in a client’s life. And I can assure you, this beautiful process continues to spill over into my own life, too.


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