Note: If you are a parent please read this article with yourself in mind, not your children. It is important we have compassion for ourselves, knowing we have done the best we could with the tools we were given. The intention of this article is to understand where challenges may have come from.
Whether you call it self sabotaging, people pleasing, addiction or something else, all of these behaviours could be characterised as strategies to navigate life.
In my growth journey I found that I can long to do something, I can feel so committed to it, I can tell myself all the positive affirmations in the world and try to change the way I think about it; I have all the hope that it will change and yet somehow the pattern still comes back around and hits me like a ton of bricks. Again.
I noticed this with myself and others around me as we tried to shift patterns and our experience of life. It could be around doing work that we love, or having relationships in our lives that nourish us, setting boundaries and having time for things that we like to do and many other patterns and behaviours. As my awareness began to grow and I explored attachment work, I learnt about the relationship between authenticity and attachment and how this lies under all of the above, which is what we will explore here.
When we are born we have two key needs.
The first need is attachment — our attachment needs are met through contact, love and connection. Without attachment a baby will not survive. We know this from tragic events in orphanages and hospitals: in less than a year even if an infant is fed and kept warm, they do not survive without touch and affection (love).*
When human babies are born, we are the least developed of any babies — our brains are the least developed and we are dependant for the longest period of time compared to any being on earth. Our need for attachment is huge and it remains critical in our life because we need it in order to form social groups and society. As we look back at our early evolution we can see that without these attachments we wouldn’t survive; we need one another to look after each other. Our attachment is a very basic human need. We have to belong, be loved and love.
The second need is authenticity. Authenticity the ability to be connected to our bodies, to feel, to identify what it is we feel and to be able to express this — and therefore who we are in our relationships and lives generally. If you think of a human being in pre-historic times. If they're unable to connect to their body and their gut feelings they do not survive out in the world for very long because they aren't able to connect to their senses to know if there is a predator nearby, or some other form of threat.
Living in our authenticity today means having the ability to know our truth; to express it and/or act on it; to know when something is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, whether in small everyday moments or when it comes to significant life choices. When our fundamental need for authenticity is met, we find ourselves in healthy relationships, exercising strong boundaries and making decisions with ease.
Modern day society.
We used to live in communities where children from different families would all play together and infants would be cared for by grandparents, aunties, uncles and other members of the community, as well as their parents. This is what you see in connected indigenous communities and in secure functioning families. Because many parents today are overloaded with their own stresses and pressures they can sometimes find themselves with limited capacity for their babies and children — especially when pressures mount. Parenting is hard. Society today is not set up to support the wellbeing of parents and children, it is often incredibly isolated and unsupported and often new parents have not been taught how to parent because their parents suffered from the same situation. These pressures differ depending on what community we live in and what our socio-economic status is — for many it is that there isn’t enough money and parents have to work incredibly hard. For others there is a pressure to ‘have it all’; for both parents to have a strong career, to parent, to own a house etc. For others it is that they either don’t have supportive families and communities or they have had to move away from any possible support. They also may have their own traumas and weren’t brought up in a connected loving way so may well parent their own children the way they were shown.
If we think about our understanding of these two essential needs (attachment and authenticity) then what does our society look like today for young families? What happens to infants and young children? Here are some examples:
Example (1): Ellie is shut down. She has had a lot happen in her life: her parents grew up during the war and weren’t available to give her the love and nourishment she needed as a child. She lives in a state of ‘freeze’ a lot of the time and also has a baby, Tom. Tom is alone in his crib in a separate room. When he hears a noise, he becomes afraid. If he could formulate thoughts they might be ‘I want to be with my mum and to know I’m safe’. Tom cries because this is the only way he can get his mother’s attention. ‘I am trying to get her attention, to tell her I need her.’ Ellie is shut down, feeling flat and depressed and has no energy. She leaves him to ‘cry it out’. Tom is left and cries and cries and cries and eventually shuts down because he realises that when he reaches out his needs don’t get met. So he learns that he must adapt his behaviour. When this happens a number of times without repair** he learns to shut down straight away when he has these certain needs. Fast forward 25 years, today Tom might walk around unable to know or connect to his needs. He struggles to know what he wants to do with his life, where he wants to go, to make decisions and so on.
Babies only know how to communicate with crying, they develop different cries for different things; hunger, fatigue, change of diaper and affection. If a baby consistently makes those requests for needs to be met and if they are regularly missed or not attended to, then the secure attachment that a child is born with is then adapted. The child will learn to change their behaviour to get their needs met. The more consistent this experience is the quicker he is going to shut down, and the more ingrained this response is. Research has found a child only needs secure attachment 30% of the time, as well as healthy repair** when it isn’t there, in order to grow up with a healthy attachment.
Example (2): We have all heard of ‘the terrible twos’ in relation to toddlers. What is happening during this age is that children are learning their ‘yes’ and their ‘no’. This can be really challenging for stressed parents. For example, I’m 26 months old and my parent/caregiver gives me mushed up peas for dinner but I’m learning my ‘no’ - ‘no, I don’t want mushed up peas so I say no, and try to move them away’. The parent is tired, and exhausted from months of having no support in looking after their young family, they get frustrated, and they say “just eat your flaming peas”, 'I get angry and start to cry, I push the peas away again and they fall on the floor. I try to get away from the peas. The parent gets further frustrated and looks at me angrily and expresses their frustration and I experience that they withdraw their love. They might then put me in my room because they believe then ‘I will learn’. I do learn but what I learn is that when I say my ‘no’ I am rejected, love is withdrawn. Eventually I stop crying, my parent might think that I have now learned to eat what I am given but actually it has just taught me that when I say my ‘no’, it is not okay. My need for attachment is so strong that I soon learn that in order to have it met, I must suppress my ‘no’(let go of my authenticity). ‘If I am authentic, my parents will reject me’ is the felt experience.
When this rejection happens and love is withdrawn multiple times without repair we might find our adult selves in relationships with people that we don't want to be. This can create binds of not being able to say 'no', experiencing self doubt, and even finding ourselves engaging in activities that are inauthentic, and possibly dangerous. The more consistent this experience was when I was young the less I am going to know my ‘no’.
Imagine if parents were taught and supported to help toddlers to find their ‘no’. if, when a toddler was saying ‘no’ to every option given to them, the parent was able to say “wow you have such a strong no, that’s so cool! Make sure you don’t lose that! How about we both say no really loudly together”. If the child had this experience multiple times they would learn a strong no in themselves and would be able to take this into their teens and adulthood, better able to set boundaries and make decisions.
Influences that might impact an infant could be the above or it could be that the parent or the child needs medical care urgently, or there is an accident so there is a separation with the caregiver/parent, and there is no one there to care for the infant the way they need it. Many unfortunate things happen when children are young, such as deaths, postnatal depression, witnessing horror, displacement, environmental disasters, war and so on.
What is displayed in the above examples is the opposite of what a parent wishes to convey; that their kids are not okay the way they are with the emotions the way they are. Unfortunately in our modern society parents convey those messages unconsciously all the time. They’re not doing this because they mean to; they love their children and are doing their best but they themselves are stressed, hurt or potentially traumatised. It is likely that they did not experience attunement, nor did they have their attachment needs met as a child, so they carry this forward in how they live their lives and how they parent. Unfortunately this is the message that many of our children are receiving.
What does this mean?
What do children do with that? Well as a child if I give up my attachment for my authenticity I lose the relationships by which my life physically depends on, so there is no contest and what I suppress is my authenticity and my emotions. This is how we arrive at adulthood not knowing who we are. As children we use innate intelligence to become experts in orienting to others and ensuring that we get our attachment needs met through them. Even though physically we have become adults, we are still living out these patterns from when we were so young. Have you ever had a strong gut feeling about something and then ignored it? And ignoring it has led you into trouble? It may be that at some point you found out that being in touch with your gut feelings had such a high cost for your relationships (attachments) so then it became your ‘way of being’ to suppress your gut feelings and emotions and to lose touch with yourself.
If we continue to live in these patterns then later in life we can pay the cost in many ways such as addiction, depression, anxiety, physical illness, and many more. For instance, this is how addiction might show up: because my true self is either inaccessible or too risky to show, my nervous system or unconscious has to find a strategy to survive and so I numb - becoming so consumed in my work, I ‘take the edge off’ with a bottle of wine and more every night, or I might act out sexually. This began with the devastating conflict that babies and young children are so often faced with. Authenticity or attachment? Then as adults, many people suffer because they desperately want to be themselves but are terrified to as they're afraid (often unknowingly) that they’re going to lose important relationships (attachments) in their lives if they are themselves.
It is through the process of shifting our nervous system’s experience of these attachment wounds that we can start to change these patterns. There is no quick fix as we’ve lived with these patterns normally for our entire lives but as we continue to heal, these patterns trip us up less and less. My experience is that my patterns are radically different to how they were 10 or 15 years ago. Things that I never thought possible and patterns I couldn’t seem to shift have radically changed in my life. Of course, things still trip me up but the baseline of my life has drastically improved.
With the help of an experienced practitioner you can really start to alter how your adapted attachment style influences your way of being in the world. Having a different experience of being in relationship with others helps you heal and shift patterns. This also means that we don’t pass on these same patterns to our children.
I want to acknowledge the amazing practitioners, educators and researchers who I have learnt about attachment from over the years (and in turn influenced how I have shared in this article). These include (but are not limited to) Diane Pooler Heller, Peter Levine, Gabor Mate, and Stephen Porges.
* You can read the work of psychoanalyst Rene Spitz work in the 1940’s, Paediatrician Harry Bakwin, and Psychologist John Bowlby to learn more. The death rates of infants in orphanages, foundling hospitals, and nurseries at the start of the 20th century were in some cases close to 100%. Documents in London’s Foundling Museum show these realities.
**Repair is when we come back together. From the parent this could look like acknowledging what happened and their part in it, expressing remorse, offering an explanation and expressing sincere intention to resolve the situation and prevent it from happening again.