Have you ever been in an argument with someone and they suddenly agree with you?
You are left with all of your heated energy, well thought out debate points and fervor to prove your position.
It’s like, “Oh yeah, welllllll…uuuhhhhmmm. Wait a minute did you just agree with me?”.
Being in a relationship that is mutually loving, strives for understanding, welcomes and honors boundaries, needs, and wants after years of being rooted in insecure attachment is much like having someone suddenly agree with you during an argument.
You’re not quite sure what to do next, or what to do with all of your long-held beliefs about yourself and others, or your well-developed and quite sophisticated patterns of behavior.
The evolution toward change can be scary and confusing in the way it plays out. You are aware, you want to do it differently, you notice what is happening and it still feels scary and you long to return to what you know because you know what to expect and that is comforting.
Let’s consider how insecure attachment is developed. Imagine a baby who has let their need be made known and parent repeatedly dismisses them as they have grown and developed over the years either by letting the need go too long so that baby, now child, now youth has learned to pseudo self-soothe. Parent was maybe overwhelmed, lacked confidence in their own abilities, or deemed their needs more important.
Suddenly, we are in a relationship where our partner/friend/therapist wants to attend to our needs or attune to us. The adult child in us now has a well-developed independence and sense of distrust; which might look like, dismissing, or being suspicious of our partner/friend/therapist attempts for connection.
How about the baby who let their needs be known and parent consistently sent mixed messages like you’re fine, stop crying or let me take care of you, you aren’t able. This baby, child, youth lacks the confidence that they know what they need or that they can manage, so they learn to desperately reach out to others to feel stable. Parent might have been overwhelmed, lacked confidence in their own abilities, or had fears of their own abandonment.
Suddenly, we are in a relationship where our partner/friend/therapist is interdependent in that they know how to ask for their own needs, set boundaries, as well as offer support. The adult child in us desperately clings to our partner/friend/therapist for support and reassurance and feel abandoned when our partner/friend/therapist has a need of their own and/or sets a limit.
We want to do it differently, but we don’t know how because we haven’t had enough practice at noticing our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, or challenging them. We also may not have developed our bandwidth to tolerate distress, so moments of emotional distress feel life-threatening. We may become overwhelmed, shut-down, or amp up.
That means we need to learn how to self-regulate, and allow others to help us co-regulate.
What does that look like?
It means bringing our nervous system back to a calm state. We can practice this by engaging our five senses when doing pleasurable activities. Also, by noticing moments of distress that rate a little lower on the scale, then practice focusing on our breath. We don’t have to do any kind of special breathing. Simply focus on your natural breathing pattern in the moment. Another is to take a deep breath, notice the pause at the top of the breath, and then slowly breathe out. Visualizing a place that is peaceful to you is another while imagining the smells, tastes, sounds, touch in that space. Co-regulation would look like allowing another to do any one of these with you. The better we get at this when we are not in a heightened emotional state, the easier it will be to engage this help when we need it.