Having trouble connecting with other people? Trusting even those that are closest to you? Maybe you feel that happiness is something that other people have but not you? If you answered yes to any of these questions you may be suffering long-term effects of early attachment difficulties.
Attachment – What is it?
Attachment is the primary drive to connect with other people or to belong. It is important for us in early childhood to form an attachment with our parents or caregivers as a form of protection from danger. This relationship forms a model for us to interact with the world and people in it.
Secure vs. Insecure Attachment
Whether our attachment is secure or insecure depends on our personal experience of childhood. If we felt unsupported, unloved, or unsafe in childhood, we may be at risk of an insecure attachment, which can then go on to influence relationships with family, friends, and romantic relationships.
Disruptions in attachment may come from distressing events such as trauma, loss, and abuse, but it can also come from more mundane events that seemed trivial to our parents but mattered so much to us as a child. A bad earache in childhood can temporarily rupture the attachment bond. Pain is a traumatic experience for a child who is learning what pain is, it makes us feel unsafe and we aren't sure if it will ever end. On the flip side, parents feel helpless and frustrated when they can't fix the problem or stop the pain, leaving both child and parent feeling scared and helpless.
Poor attachment in early life can lead to many issues in later life such as:
- Depression and anxiety;
- Over-expressing needs, attention is drawn to our distress (externalising);
- Under-expressing needs, we defensively turn away from our distress (internalising);
- Difficulties coping with overwhelming emotion;
- Difficulties experiencing and expressing anger;
- Trouble trusting and building deeper connections;
- Discomfort with other people’s distress;
- Difficulties making and/or maintaining friendships;
- Conflict in relationships with family, friends and romantic partners.
Seeking Help – What do I do?
So how do we recover from these early experiences? If you have read this far you are on the right track! Recognising the problem is a solid first step as attachment difficulties are harder to spot than depression and anxiety, and can be overlooked.
Treating attachment problems in adulthood focuses on building a secure and trusting relationship from which to begin development of a new “model” of the world. This experience will be highly personal and tailored to suit the individual attachment needs, as no two childhood experiences are the same.
So how can this be provided in therapy? After a thorough assessment of the attachment system, a “map” is developed of the models developed over time to interact with the world and other people, focusing on unhelpful patterns and identifying the essential ingredients for a new attachment experience. Challenging the old system and finding a new system often brings anxiety because our early experiences, however maladaptive, were normal for us and thus feel "safe".
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