This post is a continuation of this previous blog post...
"Am I Good Enough?"
A smaller percentage of people than those who receive ‘good enough’ care giving as infants, do not develop a secure attachment. These people are said to have an insecure attachment style. It is worth remembering though, that all attachment styles, whether secure or insecure, are adaptations to the early environment, to the quality of care and attunement received by the primary caregiver, and are therefore by their very nature adaptive and creative. There is no such thing as an attachment style that is ‘wrong’. Each style of attachment makes perfect sense in terms of a person’s early experiences.
However, the problem for people who have early experiences that do not meet their needs, is that when the infant grows to an adult and attempts to form secure relationships with others they run into myriad obstacles. Their style doesn’t work so well anymore. The person’s template is one of insecurity, of trust being a dangerous thing to experience in relationship to another, and the expectation that they will be abandoned, rejected, or deemed unworthy of the love of another. The early environment is internalised, often unconsciously, and manifests in the belief that they themselves are not good enough.
These expectations manifest in different emotional and behavioural patterns. These patterns are usually categorised (a bit too neatly for some) into three insecure attachment styles, known as anxious/ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganised attachment. I will be focusing mostly on the first two styles here as they are the most common.
Anxious or Ambivalent Attachment
People with an anxious/ambivalent style of attachment usually experienced their early care giving as inconsistent. Everyone can be a bit inconsistent, of course, but for some this occurred to the extent that they became unsure whether they were likely to receive a response from their care giver that was well attuned to their needs. Children who develop this style may express their emotions with great intensity as a means of ensuring the attention of their care givers. They are anxious to ensure that they receive the attention they need, unsure as they are that their care giver will be either physically or emotionally available. Their experience is one of unpredictability, and so they may attempt to make the environment more predictable, and thus ensure their own safety, through their style of emotional expression.
(This unpredictability is different to the ‘rupture and repair’ cycle that occurs in the development of a secure attachment bond. In this, the caregiver will inevitably make mistakes, but more often than not, they will repair the rupture in the relationship by identifying, holding, and acknowledging the misattunement. In this way, the child learns that mistakes happen, but that repair is possible – an essential learning. This is what’s meant by ‘good enough’ care giving.)
This attachment style is often characterised by fear of rejection and abandonment, worrying about whether or not loving feelings are reciprocated, a wish for constant closeness or ‘clinging’, and possibly angry outbursts. People with this style can have great difficulty relaxing into and enjoying their relationships, and may have a persistent fear that their partner does not really want to be with them. They may experience a kind of ‘push and pull’ feeling in their relationships, as they get close to allay their fears, and may pull away angrily if their needs are not met. Close relationships can frequently be experienced as distressing.
The second style, avoidant attachment, tends to occur when the child experiences their care giver as more or less consistently unavailable to them. As a baby this child may not have received the ‘holding’or affection they needed, whether as a result of the care giver being emotionally unable to attune to the child, or being unable to offer their physical presence and affection. Essentially, it seems they turn this experience in on themselves, by attempting not to feel, or by not expressing emotion, and by attempting to meet one’s own needs rather than looking to the caregiver for assistance. This child seems to ‘grow up’ very quickly, at least to the outside observer. On the inside though, their needs are still very much present.
This attachment style in adults is often characterised by over self-reliance, being emotionally ‘closed’ or having difficulty with emotional expression, difficulties with closeness and intimacy, and discomfort with dependence on a partner or needing help from others. The person with this attachment style may seem to experience less distress in relationships. However, what this person seems to be doing in actuality, is minimising the importance of closeness and relationships to themselves. This is a result of a felt necessity to not need, as a consequence of the disappointment and attachment distress experienced in their early years. Not needing can be a defence against the possibility of unmet needs.
Counselling and Psychotherapy for Attachment Difficulties
In counselling and psychotherapy, the counsellor works with clients experiencing attachment difficulties by exploring their current experiences, their early experiences, and the client’s experience of the therapeutic relationship. The immediacy of the therapeutic relationship can be extremely useful in exploring these issues in a here-and-now context. That is, the issues experienced in relationships outside the psychotherapy room, in the client’s life, may well show up within the therapeutic relationship and can be worked through experientially.
Essentially, psychotherapy is an opportunity to explore new ways of relating in a safe and supportive setting, and to examine and reality test the templates we bring from our original experiences and how they can impact our experiences in the present. It is a chance to increase awareness of ‘blind spots’ and assumptions which may be negatively affecting relationships in the present.
Over time, psychotherapy can help to create a new template for relationships. The skilled counsellor or psychotherapist is trained in providing attachment focused therapy, in which the needs for good-enough attachment may be met, and healing can become a real possibility.