Updated: Mar 24
As infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, and adults, we all have a core need to connect with another human and feel safe in their presence. In fact, this need to be understood, and accepted by another is the driving force fueling our choices and impacting our relationships. We don't just want to love and be loved. We need it! Yet, there are so many different ways we didn't have that need met, and just as many ways that attachment injury from long ago surfaces in our adult relationships.
When we have consistent and reliable caregivers who help us meet this need, we grow up feeling safe, secure, and understood in relationships. This can be called having a 'secure attachment style', because we feel secure with ourselves and safe in relationships. The baby who is consistently receiving smiles and eye contact from the mother, as mom coos and lovingly holds him/her is getting that need met. S/he has a great foundation for secure attachment. Unfortunately, not all of us have this experience as babies.
So what about mom or dad who is running late for work, stressed about money, anxious about their own life, and therefore not connecting to the inner world of their child? Or, when the child is upset, Mom/Dad isn't able to be soothing and present? Well, it's probably not a big deal if this happens once in a while. However, if this is ongoing (chronic), the little one may experience an attachment wound.
An attachment wound means the inner world was not understood/recognized/accepted by the parent. This emotional attunement, someone 'getting' us, is a universal core need for all of us, and is especially necessary to little ones.
When this need isn't met, the first reaction may be to protest: the nervous system will actually go into fight/flight. If/when that doesn't work, the child may shutdown, in essence, disconnecting from that need. The kid will internalize the message: I am unimportant or unworthy of recognition. The message isn't something the young one can verbalize, or intellectually understand in the moment, but is a felt experience. When this goes on and on, and for a lot of us, in much more dramatic, unhealthy, and even abusive ways, the young one internalizes these unhealthy messages, which then become core beliefs about themselves (or about relationships).
This form of self-betrayal occurs when we learn to relinquish our needs and emotions in order to gain love and approval of a parent.
Let's take the example of a child reaching for a cookie without the parent's permission. The mother/father says 'no!', and the kid reacts with crying or a temper tantrum (which is what kids do, because they're kids!). If the parent lacks the emotional maturity and the ability to contain their child's emotional outburst, the parent may end up shaming the child: 'Stop crying, why can't you just behave like every other kid?!'. The parent not allowing the child to be sad or disappointed is teaching the child that it's not safe to authentically express these emotions with this person. Or, 'Don't make your father angry!' The child has just been taught that anger is something that should be avoided at all costs. The result? The child disconnects from these emotions, or represses them, and learns to survive in more inauthentic ways.
When it doesn't feel safe for my outside (expression) to match my inside (state), I must repress this feeling, or this part of me, in order to survive in this relationship. This is the beginning of being disconnected from emotions and authentic parts of ourselves, for the sake of maintaining the relationship. We also call this: abandoning authenticity for attachment. This not only applies to certain feelings, but also to not feeling safe expressing certain parts of oneself, or having certain qualities. If it's not safe to be spontaneous, creative, exuberant, overweight/underweight, a dancer, an artist, etc., the natural reaction is to feel ashamed, and disconnect from that part of ourselves. The imprint on the nervous system is: In order to survive and maintain this relationship, I can't be like this.
Criticizing the child (unhealthy shame), instead of sternly and gently disciplining him/her (explaining what the child did wrong), can be the attachment wound. Even healthy shame is ok: "Steven, No!" However, after unhealthy shame, the message the child has just heard and internalized is: 'It's not safe to be sad, disappointed or frustrated (or for some of us: it's not safe to be happy, spontaneous, etc.). If my natural expression of a normal human emotion results in disapproval and shame from my parents, I must not be ok. Something is wrong with me.' Or: 'Relationships are not safe places to express this/myself.' This could be the origin of an insecure attachment style. Seeking love, connection, and intimacy but always feeling like rejection or abandonment are right around the corner.
Other internalized messages that lead to self betrayal: girls don't act like that, boys don't dress like that, don't be so sensitive, my life would be so much better if never had kids, etc.
Attachment injury, or attachment trauma, results from a felt experience of being unsafe, rather than literally being in danger (although this can also be the case). The parent, who has good intentions, still provides food, shelter, and basic necessities. Even so, the child can find it unsafe to be authentic in his/her relationship with his/her parent, because the little one's anger, sadness, spontaneity, impulsivity, creativity, and curiosity were not met with acceptance and understanding. S/he was not seen, felt, heard and understood.
The parent may be unable to tolerate/understand/accept the child being childish, because of their own emotional immaturity, past trauma, or a variety of other reasons. It doesn't mean they're a bad parent. However, when a child has the feeling and experience of: 'it's not safe to have this need. This need is not going to be met in this relationship. I must detach/disconnect from having this need.' In that moment, the little one isn't able to understand that it's the parent's emotional immaturity that caused the lack of connection. They just have the experience of feeling unsafe expressing this need. The result? The potential beginning of an avoidant attachment style (I must shut down, avoid intimacy, because it isn't safe to rely on this person and/or a relationship to get that need met).
The definition of trauma is evolving. It is now less defined by a specific incident, such as war, abuse, neglect, an accident or natural disaster, etc., but more defined by the body's response to a given event/situation, whether acute (short-term) or chronic (long-lasting).
We now see trauma as the nervous system's inability to manage an event. That is to say, it is unable to return to homeostasis after the protective and adaptive flight/fight/freeze response kicks in. When an activated nervous system is unable to come back to equilibrium and gets stuck 'looping' in that dysregulated (fight/flight/freeze) state, it becomes a problem. Whole lives can be lived in that state. When in such a state, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to connect, empathize, attune to, and feel safe with another. This is what it means to be living with unprocessed trauma.
The (nervous) system responds to relationship (attachment) disruptions, because our survival is dependent upon feeling safe and connected to those we love. Hence, an impressionable kid can be heavily affected by a mother/father who is not paying attention at important moments, preoccupied with their own shit, and/or not emotionally present in other ways. In other words, just not recognizing or validating the experience of the child.
The fight-flight or shutdown response of the nervous system kicks in as a result of feeling unsafe in these relationships. If it's not possible for the nervous system to come back to baseline, because we live in the same house, with the same parents, month after month, and year after year, this reality of not getting our needs met results in our system being dysregulated. The system stays looping in these dysregulated states, in an attempt at protection.
With trauma, there doesn't have to be an obvious incident and it doesn't mean the parent is a bad person. It just means they were not there to emotionally attune (understand the child's inner world). If this happens over time, it may result in developmental or attachment wounds/trauma. This means the child has now interpreted in a very felt sense (not a cognitive/verbal way) that this attachment/relationship that s/he depends on for survival is not available in a reliable way. It is at this point that the system feels unsafe and the fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in.
This is why we see a child disconnecting or acting out in ways that allows him/her to survive without getting core needs met. It's also why, as adults, relationships can be so challenging. Even though we are no longer children, when this felt sense (connected to these past moments) is triggered, we act in ways that are meant to protect us (like they may have in the past), but are actually hurting us/our relationship. The key here is the awareness that in this moment, as an adult, we may very well be safe, and the person we are in relationship with is likely able and willing to meet our connection/intimacy needs, but it's that protective response of our system which gets triggered in these moments of intimacy. Thus, we resort to our old ways of disconnecting, fight/flight, and shutting down. It just wasn't safe in the past so our system's threat detector sees it as unsafe now.
When dysregulated, the nervous system releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). This happens when a child or young person learns that their primary attachment person cannot be relied upon for safety and regulation. Living in this state means a person feels insecure, stirred up, and basically unsafe to be in a relationship. This is the attachment wound. As adults, whenever a person, situation, or experience triggers this felt sense of not being safe, we react in ways that we had to resort to in the past, which is to say we don't act in alignment with empathy, connection, and authenticity. In other words, we had to betray that need or that part of ourselves in the past, in order to survive. So it makes sense that we feel unsafe in the present.
As a result of the wound, we form core beliefs about ourselves or about relationships. 'I'm not ok', 'I'm bad', or 'I don't measure up' are common ones. 'Relationships don't last', 'I'll be abandoned', or 'I'm unlovable' are some others. Beliefs then become the identity.
Guess when our unhealthy core beliefs and attachment wounds surface? In moments of intensity and intimacy.
Relationship (attachment) trauma impacts us more than we think. This is not to say we all suffered from abuse or neglect. It could be much more subtle than that. It's also not to blame anyone. Our parents likely were good people and did their best. Still, we want to understand and recognize how our attachment wounds are manifesting in our adult behaviors.
Learning to recognize your attachment injury, and how to work with it and heal from it, is necessary for your mental health and the maintenance of healthy relationships. However, this article is not about the healing path forward. More on that will come soon.
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I'm a licensed psychotherapist (similar to a psychologist) in Vietnam. To learn more about your attachment wounds and how to heal, please contact me for a therapy session. Otherwise, stay tuned for the next article on how to heal from your attachment wounds!
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