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So What's This Attachment Thing You're Always Talking About?

My daughter loves her baby doll. It’s part of our bedtime routine, to wrap the baby up, give her kisses, and lay her down to sleep. The other night, as I was teaching my daughter how to swaddle her baby doll with a tiny blanket, I remembered the Labor & Delivery nurses teaching me how to swaddle my daughter that first night in the hospital two years ago. (I never could get that second arm secured just right. Turns out, it’s much easier on a baby doll that doesn’t move.)


I remember the surge of emotion when I finally met my daughter. The sweet smell of her skin that quickly became an addiction. The restlessness I felt whenever someone else was holding her. How the tiniest sound from her could rouse me out of the most exhausted sleep in an instant. The way her shrill little cries pierced me, brought me running to her. The exquisite delight of touching her soft skin, her flower petal lips, her delicate fingers. My endless fascination with her every expression. The hours I spent just watching her sleep.


I couldn’t have ignored her needs even if I’d wanted to. It was love…but it was also biology.



Attachment is about survival.


This the most important thing to remember—attachment is about survival. This is why, no matter how old we are or how independent we think we’ve become, our attachment needs always flood us with a sense of urgency, or sometimes even panic, when they’re triggered in relationships. Attachment is the biological system that keeps infants and caregivers connected, because the only way a helpless infant can survive is if she maintains connection to her primary caregiver.


We are born ready for relationship. Eye contact, soothing touch, utter dependence on our caregivers for nourishment, comfort, and safety—these interactions are a part of the attachment system with which babies are born. The way an infant’s cry tugs at a parent like a deeply embedded hook—that is her best survival tool. And over time, in the dance of needs expressed and met, attachment between the infant and her caregiver deepens and becomes the bond upon which all of later development rests.


The quality and characteristics of our initial attachment bonds are one of the most formative forces in our lives. Attachment shapes our future relationships with partners, friends, children, ourselves, and even our higher power. It establishes resilience—or lack thereof—that buffers the impact of traumas and losses. It influences our response to stress and the choices we make to re-establish equilibrium when it’s been lost. It even impacts neurological development, including the development of memory, mirror neurons, the coordination of our right and left hemispheres, and our overall neurological integration and regulation.


Psychologists, researchers, and clinicians have developed ways of assessing patterns of attachment interactions to identify attachment styles in infants and adults. Attachment styles are relatively stable throughout the life span, and closely tied to the attachment styles of primary caregivers—that is, parents tend to pass on their attachment styles to their offspring. Securely attached adults usually raise securely attached children; insecurely attached adults often raise children with similar traits of insecurity.



Attachment needs are just as critical as physical needs.


Humans of all ages have the same physical needs for nourishment, shelter, and safety. Humans of all ages also have the same attachment needs, and if they are not met, humans cannot flourish. Infants whose attachment needs aren’t met can fail to thrive or even die; even in adulthood, lack of human connection is more detrimental to one’s health and life span than smoking or air pollution. Our need for emotional connection is vital to our survival, just like our need for air and water—and our need for emotional connection never goes away. It’s biological; we don’t get a say in our attachment needs.


And just like babies, crying to summon their caregivers to meet their needs, we each have our own patterns of behavior that start as soon as we begin to feel the ache of unmet attachment needs.



So, what are attachment needs?


Affectionate touch. Comfort and soothing. Belonging. Being delighted in. Freedom to explore. A balance of connection and autonomy. Feeling seen and understood. Emotional resonance, seeing your emotion accepted and reflected in the face of another. Validation and esteem. A safe relational space to return to, bringing sorrow or joy that you know will be shared. Knowing you exist in the mind of another, even when you’re apart.


Slow down. Pause. Take another look at that list. What comes up for you as you read it? What sensations do you notice in your body? What emotions are you feeling? What value judgments are you making? These are clues about your relationship with attachment, or your attachment style. More on that to come in future posts.



What does it mean to be an “attachment-based therapist”?


It’s in my bio. It’s how I identify myself to other therapists. I use it to describe myself on the phone when I do introductory calls with new clients. But what does it mean to practice “attachment-based therapy”?


Essentially, it means that my model of wellness is based on secure attachment, and my conceptualization of many of the emotional, behavioral, and relational problems my clients express is based on attachment principles. It means I pay close attention to any evidence of early attachment trauma—chaotic or painful relationships with caregivers, loss of a caregiver, lack of emotional connection with caregivers. It means that cultivating secure attachment in the therapeutic relationship is the most important part of my work with clients. It means that I take seriously my responsibility to address and repair ruptures to attunement and emotional safety in sessions. It means that attachment is often the lens I use to track a client’s progress, sometimes even more so than whether or not symptoms are increasing or decreasing (though attachment healing almost always corresponds with symptom improvement). It means that my awareness of my own attachment tendencies and how they impact my clients is paramount to my work.


I first learned about attachment theory in my first semester of graduate school; it grabbed me then, hard and tight. It made sense of my own experience of others and myself. It felt like finally having the picture on the puzzle box to guide everything I was learning and doing, instead of just a jumble of indecipherable shapes and colors. I still feel that it’s the most important thing I learned in graduate school, and the most foundational theory to all the work that I have done since.


 

If you want to learn more about attachment, check out pretty much any of Dr. Dan Siegel’s books (but especially The Power of Showing Up and Parenting From the Inside Out), or the excellent book, Raising a Secure Child, by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell (even if you’re not actually raising a child). If you want to get deep into it, do some reading on John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist who developed attachment theory in the mid-20th century. If you want to learn about attachment and romantic relationships, check out Hold Me Tight or Love Sense by Sue Johnson. If you want to learn about attachment and parenting, attend one of my parenting workshops (and if there isn’t one coming up, contact me about hosting one!).


And, of course, keep checking back on this blog. I have a whole series of posts about attachment styles I’m planning to write.

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