Attachment

I haven’t planned for all my counselling posts to start with A…

Attachment here refers to a counselling approach developed mainly by John Bowlby in the 1950s. It seems like common sense now as that’s how much it’s integrated into the way we do things, but it was revolutionary then.

You may have heard of or seen a tv program about different approaches, one being the strict routine where you didn’t pick the baby up if it was crying but not the time for cuddles/feed. That was the norm for Bowlby’s time. Children would go stay in residential nurseries when their mother had another child or needed a hospital stay. Parent’s wouldn’t stay with children in hospital. Long periods of time apart was normal and people didn’t really think anything of it – except the children of course, but no one was really listening to them until people like Bowlby started to.

One of my college peers, a lady in her late 50’s, could remember that happening and it was the only time I saw her cry when she told that story. Although she knew why she had been placed in the residential nursery and knew it was the only choice for her family at that time, although it was over 50 years ago, the emotions were still so strong that they overwhelmed her every attempt to keep them back.

That moment showed me how powerful attachment issues were.

This isn’t a complete history of the topic so I will be missing names and events and important things about attachment as I try and get the general idea across. If you want to know more, just google attachment theory and john bowlby and you will get more links than you can read in your lifetime!

Attachment forms a foundation for the counselling approach I practise. I believe that it’s the relationship between the client and counsellor that’s where the important stuff happens, the work, the change, the challenge. Although this is simplified so much as to be almost untrue, I see counselling as a reparative relationship and a re-parenting relationship. The counsellor models the behaviour they want their client to adopt – acceptance of things, willingness to explore, tolerance of frustration and pain, patience and so on – in the same way a parent models what they want their child to pick up and children pick up lots from their parent’s whether it’s planned or not!

Often a client becomes dependent on their counsellor, perhaps can’t imagine coping without their support and that space, and then the work turns toward reducing that dependence and allowing the client to stand more and more on their own, as I imagine parenting is. Again, that idea is so simplified as to almost be a lie.

Most of us are lucky enough to grow up with a Secure Attachment. Our parents loved us and would support us, encourage us to explore and be there when we got hurt/scared. We had a Safe Base to return to (mother’s arms for example) that was always there when the world got scary, but that wouldn’t restrain us when we wanted to explore it.

Some of us are not so lucky. Our parents weren’t there for us, either physically or emotionally.  We were neglected. Or our parents caused harm and we were abused. With no Safe Base, the world is a freaky strange scary place indeed and we must be careful for there’s no safe place to go to if we get out of our depth, so people treat more cautiously or perhaps decide not to explore at all for fear of what lurks in the shadows.

We can create our own Safe Bases. For those with Secure Attachments, we do this in our friends and partners easily, they are the ones we return to for comfort and security. It’s our home or town. It’s where we feel safe and supported and protected from the world. We Securely Attached people are also able to move our attachments. If we move home or lose a friend, we grieve the loss, but we move on and attach to someone or somewhere else. We tend not to see it as a loss of self or identity.

Secure Bases can also be created from things and substances. Computer games, drugs, a clean house, an immaculate work record, A* in every exam – all these things can be safe bases but… what happens when an exam is failed, hobbies or substances start being misused rather than used. An Insecurely Attached person will put too much into their Secure Base once they’ve created one. I’m sure you know someone who can’t be without a partner. They only seem to exist in the reflection of someone else’s eyes. Put them alone in a room and they have no Self. Without the Safe Base they have created, they are vulnerable babies abandoned in the world.

If you have ever experienced anyone seeming to overreact to something ending – say, a relationship break up means the end of the world! A house move shakes their entire world. A failed exam means the end of all their future chances and a breaking of their self worth. This might be an explanation as for why.

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