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Transforming Insecure Attachment (Part 1)

Some time ago, nestled in a rural village found in upstate New York, my eyes were filled with tears as I took in a play about two of my most beloved heroines. A group of sixth-graders performed the intense story of a wild little girl lost in darkness only to be brought to light by her fierce teacher. I was moved to tears as these sprouting actors and actresses fumbled their way through the profound relationship between Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan. Their delivery was earnest, and the lesson remains powerful.


Young Helen was surrounded by the kind of privilege that most would perceive as everything a young girl could want. She had two loving parents who had the means to provide her with all of the care and comfort that many have only dreamt about; except that Helen was ‘deaf, blind and dumb’ as termed long ago to describe an individual who was unable to hear, see or speak.


Helen was wild in her darkness, unable to take in others or communicate in a way she could be received and understood. Her world was dark, silent, and detached.


Moving through life with the roots of an insecure attachment can express itself similarly in that the individual is in the darkness of understanding when it comes to connecting with others.


In the same way that Helen thrashed against her parents and those around her, unable to understand how they were trying to love her; an individual with an insecure attachment to their primary caregiver might thrash against healthy bids for connection. Mindful and meaningful connection is unfamiliar and therefore frightening. Essentially, living in the dark, largely unaware of what it means to be carefully considered. In many ways there is a difficulty with hearing, seeing, speaking, and receiving love and/or emotional needs.


How does an adult develop this kind of insecure attachment? When a child makes bids for connection to parents by crying or verbalizing their need and the need goes unattended to, is openly denied or the parent seeks to have their own needs met the child becomes distressed and confused. A child then develops a low tolerance for distress (anxiety) because their need was not soothed or attended to, or possibly shuts down turning inward (depression) to avoid this type of painful distress. They may stop asking for needs (distancing/dismissive) or become more demanding (perceived as clingy/needy). Over time, the child learns to fiercely take care of themselves and possibly others or depend on others solely for their happiness; which can look like independence, dependence, or codependence (the goal is interdependence).


This can be acted out with over-functioning or under-functioning in relationship with self and others with little to no understanding of why relationships are so difficult and/or disconnected.


Helen's understanding came to light when another human, Ann Sullivan after much persistence was able to make a connection with her. It was not without struggle, but the day Ann held Helen tightly signing w-a-t-e-r into the palm of her hand over and over as cool water poured over her pink flesh, Helen was able to make the connection.


Attachment transformation requires a persistent, gentle, kind human connection from caring other(s). If you are thinking, where will I find someone like this? A therapist trained in attachment can be that person while you are learning how to trust and receive.


This kind of work can take years, so be prepared to stay in it, but the results are life-changing. We are talking about the re-wiring of the brain that develops a world view between ages 0-7; which happens through human experiences. This is not something that can happen in a few sessions or be gained through the reading of a book, listening to podcasts, or watching youtube videos. It happens through the experience of healthy human connection.


With or without therapy, begin to notice when others you are in relationships with (who are safe: know how to listen mindfully and with care as well as receive) offer interest, kindness, gentleness, and follow-through; which are all bids for connection. As it becomes easier to notice these moments, begin the practice of relaxing your body into the moment by taking deep inhales and longer exhales allowing the tension of resistance to melt away so that you are able to receive and experience the connections that others are attempting to make with you.


Cross-reference and reflect on connections where an emotional need was met, and practice the same type of breathing to allow the experience in.


We are relational beings and we need healthy mutual connections.

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