Understanding Attachment

Understanding Attachment

Many clients seek therapy feeling stuck in a painful place and unsure of how to move forward.  Moving forward often involves developing a deeper understanding of how you got to where you are, and what may have happened in the past that may be creating anxiety or unhappiness.  To do so effectively through therapy, it helps to be grounded in a particular psychological theory that can guide the process of therapy.  Attachment Theory is the psychological school that guides my professional approach.  To this end, I find it helpful and empowering for my clients to understand the basics of Attachment Theory.

Infusing therapy with this intellectual element introduces a language that the client can then use to develop insights and make meaningful changes.  When describing Attachment Theory to clients, I focus on three main points:

  • Secure and Insecure Attachment
  • An Attachment Figure
  • The Impact of Attachment

Secure Attachment equates to a secure emotional base.  This base encourages and enables an ease of connection and ease in life.

An Attachment Figure, early on in the course of life, is typically a parent or caregiver.  When the relationship with a parent or caregiver is reliable, grounded, supportive and calming, babies develop into childhood feeling understood, seen and heard.

Impact of Attachment: As a result, they typically grow confident to take risks, become able to go through life with ease, build a resiliency of mind, and an ability to attune to others.  According to Attachment Theory, children raised with a secure attachment figure can more easily develop insight and empathy towards others and are more likely to have a strong moral compass.   Without a secure attachment during formative years, childhood and adult relationships are often fraught with anxiety, tension, anger, and volatility.  The fallout from these insecure attachments can lead to feelings of sadness, loneliness, isolation and hopelessness.  Risky, detached combative behavior is common among those who have never felt a secure and reliable attachment to another.

Of course, some attachments with primary caregivers are exceptionally reliable and secure, some are entirely insecure, and many fall somewhere in between.  Furthermore, relationships with primary attachment figures may change or become compromised in the face of trauma or tragedy.  To this end, it is important to understand one’s personal history of attachment.   Early in the therapy process, I work with families, couples, and individuals to construct a personal genogram to do so.

A genogram is a visual map that delineates family history and – in my personal approach to therapy – emphasizes the importance of attachment and relationship dynamics.  Through this impactful conversation and its subsequent visual output, my clients learn to talk about and see what relationships in their life worked and which ones didn’t.   Through the genogram, clients consider who, among the primary formative relationships, allowed them to experience anger, sadness, happiness and joy.  These are called “primary emotions”.  Underneath such primary emotions are more intense “secondary emotions” such as rage, fear, shame, hopelessness and isolation.

If you are experiencing a wealth of these intense secondary emotions, they may be surfacing as a result of early experiences of feeling misunderstood or unseen.  By exploring and understanding more about WHY you may become particularly agitated or triggered at the office, with friends, or with your romantic partner, this empowering knowledge can allow you to move forward, problem solve, and build more intimate and meaningful connections.

Elisabeth LaMotte


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