Finally, I feel I have the time and the space to write about the attachment style issue. I don’t think I’m going to mention the other attachment styles because to be honest I have ‘done them to death’ after doing a psychology degree. I want to concentrate on the attachment style I exhibit to help those around me understand me, and to help me understand myself.
After identifying the other attachment styles, the psychologists found a category of children who were left over – not quite fitting the secure, insecure-avoidant or insecure-ambivalent categories. (Of course whether you can fit children/adults into categories of attachment is a whole separate issue. But loosely, one attachment style seems to dominate).
The mothers of these children were observed to:
- exhibit frightening behaviours to their child such as looming behaviours, sudden movements, sudden invasion, attack postures.
- or frightened behaviours such as backing away, a fearful facial expression and so on.
- may exhibit role confusion so eliciting reassurance from the child
- may exhibit disorientation so adopting a trance-like expression and wandering around aimlessly in response to the infants cry
- intrusive behaviour such as pulling the child by the wrist, withholding toys or mocking and teasing
- withdrawal so not greeting the infant and not interacting verbally with no eye contact
On top of this the mothers were usually abusive or neglectful and forcing state switches on the child without interactive repair. For example, scaring the child purposefully without helping the child to calm down afterwards so the child is left in a heightened state of arousal for long periods of time.
Personalising this a little, my mother everyday exhibited frightening behaviours with sudden invasions into my personal space brandishing a knife, or a rope, or hands around my neck. When she had heightened my sense of arousal and fear by ‘attacking me’ she would walk away with a laugh. Of course she wouldn’t stay to help calm me down and or help me process why she had suddenly inflicted terror on me. It would be up to me to self-soothe down from that heightened state. My mother also to this day exhibits disorientation. Not orienting to my face or my speech at all. Gaze avoidance sums her up very well. (Consequently, gaze avoidance sums me up pretty damn well too!)
So how does this affect the adult when they are out of this traumatic atmosphere?
- Sequential contradictory behaviour. For example when I reach out for some affection (proximity-seeking) and this is followed up by a fearful response, dazed behaviour or withdrawal.
- Simultaneous contradictory behaviour. For example when I reach out for some affection but at the same time am being held back by the fear in my head (this happens often). Proximity seeking is often done verbally whereas avoidance is often communicated physically.
- Incomplete, interrupted or undirected behaviour and expressions. For example when I get upset and needing comfort but withdraw away from those close to me.
- Behaviour that indicates disorganisation or disorientation such as aimlessly wandering around with a dazed confused expression. Well, I do this quite often at home!
These behaviours are especially apparent in the context of discussing past relational trauma and can get played out especially with current attachment relationships, especially with the therapist.
Why does this simultaneous proximity-seeking and avoidance happen?
Children and adults have two opposing psychobiological systems: an attachment system and a defense system. When these are simultaneously triggered or alternately stimulated the above chaotic attachment ensues; proximity seeking behaviours are mobilised AND flight/fight/freeze responses are aroused. An infant who is upset will seek proximity to the caregiver BUT what if the caregiver further upsets the infant or causes the upset in the first place? What if they fail to provide any comfort or safety? The infant/adult will have a conflicting fight with their attachment system and defense system and it never is really resolved.
“This attachment behaviour has been demonstrated in 80% of maltreated infants (Carlson et al 1998) and is a statistically significant predictor of both dissociative disorders (Carlson et al 1998; Liotti 1992) and aggressive behaviour (Lyons-Ruth & Jacobvitz 1999).”
How this plays out particularly in the therapeutic relationship
Past relational trauma understandably leads clients to have great difficulty utilizing relationships for interactive regulation. Traumatised clients have a desperate need to form a trusting relationship but their fears and suspicions learned from their trauma inhibit this and the client feels somewhat unable to engage in adaptive relational behaviour. The client may be stuck trying to see the therapist as safe and reliable but their history constantly reminding them of otherwise. One of the first tasks of therapy is to strengthen the social engagement system to help clients overcome the phobia of attachment to the therapist. What I find is that even when you feel this phobia of attachment is overcome, like my other phobias, it comes back thick and fast and sweeps you off its feet. Overcoming phobias seems to be a life-long process.
What the therapist can do to help
The therapist almost has to play the role of an initial caregiver to make up for the caregiver that failed the infant so dramatically in the past. The therapist needs to stay tuned in with the client to attempt to keep the client within their window of tolerance so that any ground covered in the therapy hour is ground that can be integrated into the person. Re-traumatising the client and then dropping them to self soothe themselves is an exact replica of the abusers actions.
It takes a therapist good at tracking to be able to determine if the client needs help to down-regulate hyper-arousal or counteract the numbing from hypo-arousal. Though, thinking personally, my therapist and I will sometimes leave a session with me in a hypo-aroused state (trance-y). This I don’t mind. If I had to leave every session in an optimum state of arousal I fear the sessions would go on for a very long time. At this point in therapy, my hypo-arousal is a coping mechanism and one that I am happy to keep on using, as long as I am oriented enough to know and feel comfortable that I need to drive home safely!
Eventually, the client can begin to track their own levels of arousal and employ their own techniques to stay within their optimum level. This is especially important for the days/nights when the client is not sat in front of the therapist. Dependency on the therapist to keep themselves regulated is not going to be a good long-term solution. However, the complication in DID systems is that with each alter at different ages, as my own therapist keeps pointing out to me, they will be at different levels of maturity and have differing abilities to self-regulate. For example, I do not reach out to Wolf every single time I feel in crisis. However, if Kerry is in the body, she does. She simply has no idea how to self soothe herself, understandably. So the therapist may need to teach each alter separately and go through this lesson multiple times.
As the therapist continues to display characteristics of a safe and secure caregiver that the client has never had, they can be awarded with an “earned secure attachment”. This can be the first secure attachment the client has ever experienced.
Of course the client has a huge part to play in this process. For the client it is about recognising the behaviours that highlight the damaged attachment style. Being aware when they are trying to pull the therapist/partner/friend in and push them away at the same time or simultaneously. Being aware where this pattern of behaviour originated and acknowledging that reality is different now. Of course it is going to be a very long hard process. I can only imagine though, that interpersonal relationships will be much more fulfilling and less chaotic for those who can adopt a secure attachment style.
Another important point that I want to simply reflect on is that different members of a DID system may have different attachment styles. For instance, I wouldn’t put Poppy down as having a disorganised/disoriented attachment style.