Congratulations to Brenda Kerr, from the KZN Midlands, for having won last week’s competition and the prize of free access to my new 8-week online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course for herself and her friends!
As ever-growing numbers of individuals and couples visit my office for therapy the common difficulty that is being voiced, perhaps more than ever before, relates to relationship conflict and dissatisfaction within the household environment.
These relationship difficulties are almost always related to the attachment styles of the individuals in the struggling relationship.
An attachment style is a set of over-learned relationship processes that each of us developed to help us cope with our specific family/parental environment in childhood.
And because these patterns of perceiving, understanding, and coping with the interpersonal environment are practiced so many times across our childhood and adolescent years, they become automatic processes that are ingrained, not only in our thoughts and behaviors but in the structures of our brains and emotional systems.
It is because of this that your attachment style continues to strongly influence how you behave and respond within your adult relationships.
In this newsletter I will again be drawing on the writings of well known US psychologist Hal Shorey to help you to identify the healthiest of all attachment styles, termed the secure attachment style, and to start to learn the processes needed to build the associated relationship behaviours”.
Three key questions for you to consider in terms of how you relate to other people:
Do you find it relatively easy to get close to important others and depend on them and have them depend on you?
Do you very rarely worry about being abandoned and about others getting too close to you?
Do love and trust come relatively easily to you?
If your answer is “Yes” to each of these questions, then it is likely that you have a “secure attachment style.”
Whether you do or do not have a secure attachment style, however, this newsletter will help you understand yourself and the people you interact with. Understanding how and why people behave as they do will help to make it easier for you to engage in new behaviors that will support positive interpersonal interactions within your home environment and elsewhere.
And because attachment styles never stop developing, you can also learn to choose and shape your present-day social environments in a way that works for you.
So, how do some adults come to have a secure attachment style?
Well, it starts with how parents respond to their child’s needs and soothe (or don't soothe) the child when they are distressed. When parents are consistently available, warm, and responsive when the child feels distressed, the child develops a secure attachment style.
One way that parents respond consistently is by being sensitively attuned to their child’s emotional cues. This means that parents accurately gauge the level and type of distress that their child is feeling. When parents show that they perceive their child’s feelings accurately they teach their child that their emotions are valid and deserving of recognition.
Parents who recognize and validate their child’s emotions provide the “mirrors” through which the child learns that what they are feeling inside corresponds to events in the real external world.
Responsive parents do not just mirror and reflect back their child’s emotional experiences however. They take it a step further to soothe and calm the child when upset or distressed.
For example, a toddler who falls and hurts her knee will typically look at her mother’s or father’s face for a non-verbal signal as to how serious the injury is. If the child sees a pained expression that says “Ouch, that hurt!” the crying starts immediately.
The child learns that what she sees expressed on the parent’s face is what she is feeling inside. Once the parent accurately mirrors the child’s feeling, the astute parent will then alter her facial expression into a subtle smile, hug, and expression of compassion that says, “That hurt. But, now you are going to get better and be OK.” And thus the child learns that he/she can get hurt, but that it will pass and he/she will feel better again.
In other words, our parents help us organize our emotions until we develop the ability to do this for ourselves.
Because the child learns that he/she can feel distressed and then get comforted in order to feel better, they learn that difficult emotions can be tolerated and managed effectively.
And so once the person grows into adulthood, they don’t worry too much about getting hurt in relationships. They know that they can tolerate such pain, so they are free to be themselves and not behave in a needy, aggressive, or demanding fashion.
As they mature into adulthood, secure children become increasingly efficacious individuals who believe that; (a) they are lovable and worthy of support, (b) others are available and responsive, and (c) the world is a safe and predictable place.
Secure adults can tolerate frustration and ambiguity in relationships, and can deal effectively with others (without being over or under responsive).
In the next newsletter, I will describe what happens when parents do not respond to their children in ways that foster secure attachment.
If you have one of the “insecure” attachment styles, you will learn how you can capitalize on your specific strengths and use the processes of secure attachment to override the problematic emotions or behaviors that get in the way of having satisfying relationships.
And as has been my personal experience, taking a mindfulness course can help you to begin to identify your habitual way of relating to others especially during difficult and/or stressful situations. This will enable you to gradually make the changes that will allow your relationships to flourish within the home environment and elsewhere.
With warm regards,
Alistair Mork-Chadwick (Psychologist)