Rewriting the Script
In this blog post, we focus on the concept of attachment where Family Specialist Tyler Buckhout reflects on his experience at COMPASS. All of the examples described in this piece are hypothetical and are used to demonstrate “real-life” examples of the theory.
Over the past year at COMPASS, my lens for helping has sometimes been focused on “Attachment Theory.” This theory came from John Bowlby who painted a picture around early childhood development (I.e. asking questions like: “Is my environment safe or not?” and “Can this world meet my needs?”). He found that we, as children, turn to whoever is present at birth for the answers.
Bowlby realized that connection to caregivers is paramount. So, he categorized the variations of successful connection to our caregiver into four primary groups: Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent, and Disorganized Attachment. These are very complex, so I’ll only touch on them!
Secure attachment – the goal – is achieved when all of our needs are completely met. We can say that our world is comfortable, non-threatening, and brings healthy, loving relationships. This is an ideal that most of us are striving to achieve. When newborn, this ideal looks like a very well adjusted baby: wanting to explore, engage with the world, and be happy. However, life is not an ideal. All babies cry, and all babies go through hardship at some point.
So, we get variations in Attachment. Ambivalent Attachment shows an anxious, insecure and angry child. Avoidant Attachment shows a child that doesn’t explore the world and appears emotionally distant. And Disorganized Attachment shows a depressed, passive, angry, and non-responsive child.
However, the categories do bring to light some of the reasons why a child may be going through their stages of development, and how that affects adulthood. For example, the Secure Attachment style pairs with a quick, sensitive and consistent mother in relation to the child’s needs. The Ambivalent attachment style pairs with a mother that is more inconsistent, sometimes sensitive, and sometimes neglectful. The avoidant attachment style pairs with a distant and disengaged mother. And the disorganized attachment style pairs with a mother that reacts in extremes: scared, angered, and sometimes passive.
We aren’t “bad” caregivers if we don’t always get it “right.” We are humans who came from somewhere. And these categories help inform – on a spectrum of human experience – where we came from.
So, how does this relate to the work we do at COMPASS? One example of an Ambivalent Attachment style could be when a client who was told – off and on – that he was not loved. From this, the child may grow to understand that sometimes relationships just don’t work. Fear of rejection in intimate relationships could result. Tumultuous times with friends happen. And a love – really desired through his caregiver – may not have been met with comfort always. Thus, that inconsistency in message is exactly where the client and I would try to repair the attachment style.
One way we do this is through Cognitive Reframing; a strategy in which thoughts are retrained. If the inner thought process is to say, “this relationship won’t work,” or, “I’ll never want to be close to this person,” then our job – client and my own – is to figure out how to shift it. The thoughts could sway towards, “I don’t know if the relationship will work, but there is an opportunity for growth,” or “I may not want to be close to this person just yet.” And then, we can get some progress.
But, in any event, this work – this practice – is not like waving a magic wand. We can do this through kindly offering such words when referencing therapy, and it’s true: There is no magic wand. The work of therapy is one of reflection, insight, and practice – along with many laughs in car rides and sometimes joyful tears midsession. It’s not this picture of a guy asking “And how does that make you feel?” while he looks down his glasses. Don’t get me wrong, I love the aesthetic. But, the work is profoundly humbling for both client and therapist.
Attachment theory is just one way in which I get to explore such a relationship with those clients that I interact with. What does a “secure” relationship really look like? How do we achieve such a thing? And what does all this really mean for me? The beauty is that I don’t really know. It’s not for me to tell others what to know. It’s for them to find out, and me to listen. That’s just what COMPASS does. Finds out what it means to be you, not us telling you how to do it.