Trauma & Attachment - Part 2
In my last blog I introduced the concepts of #attachment and #trauma and attempted to draw a link between the two. We explored these theories through the example of an anonymous boy who grows up in a family where he is neglected by his significant caregiver leaving him with a sense that in this life he will have to fend for himself. He then enters the world expecting it to be predictable and kind and quickly realises how harsh and unpredictable the world can be. With no soft or safe place to fall on at home, he retreats into isolation and develops ways of coping with his utter aloneness. He grows into a man who then seeks #relationships in the hope that his partner will perhaps redeem his perception of the world and provide the safe place that his primary #caregiver inadvertently failed to provide. Unfortunately, his brain has now developed complex codes that automatically respond to any perceived threat. The more intimate he becomes with his partner, the higher the threat of further pain and disappointment and so at the slightest trigger, the brain reacts, producing responses that mirror the initial responses when the traumatic experiences occurred. We ended with a sense of despondency and asked the questions, is there any hope for this man? Will he ever be able to get past the trauma and have #healthy relationships? Will he ever be able to trust in the goodness of the world and the ability for another person to be there for him and to provide him with what he needs? This blog will address those questions.
Firstly, I want to vehemently assert that when we speak of attachment related issues, it is purely for the sake of understanding. It is not meant to disparage the caregivers or to turn into a finger pointing exercise regarding who is to #blame for this predicament. Most caregivers do the best with the knowledge they have and are also just people with their own attachment and trauma related issues. Secondly, I need to declare that what I suggest in this blog are my thoughts based on my experiences both personal and witnessed in others and theory I have come across over my many years as an avid student of #psychology, #theology and #anthropology. It is important to also note at this stage, the complexity of individuals, which invalidates any predilection towards generalisation.
I believe one of the reasons that these issues are difficult to deal with is that the solution lies in confronting the threat itself. In my first blog on identity I spoke about how I identify relationally. I also believe that attachment and psychological trauma are essentially relational in nature and can therefore ONLY be truly addressed effectively within the context of relationship. Unfortunately for many of us this presents a conundrum due to the brain’s complex modus operandi. Not only does it store trauma related memories in the same place as it stores our capacity for #connection and intimacy, but it also makes links between the trauma and other things, people etc. in our current reality. Like a stone cast upon the sea, the ripple effects can extend further away from the initial trigger point to include more things, people. For instance, if my first girlfriend Amiko, who is Japanese, is unfaithful, my brain could respond by developing a self-protective code that says any woman called Amiko who is Japanese is to be avoided because she is likely to be unfaithful. If this is not addressed adequately, this code could extend to include any woman who is Japanese. This could then morph into the message that all Asian women are to be avoided and further still I could end up with the message that all women are perfidious. At this point my commitment to self-protection could overwhelm my desire for love because falling in leads to too much pain.
Because the self-protective codes are created as a result of relational disruption, it seems reasonable that in order to write new codes to override the existing ones, this needs to be done in the context of relationships. The brain needs to have new experiences that challenge the stored message. As Amiko’s ex I need to have experiences with women who are able to be faithful. I need to have encounters with people who unlike my caregiver/s are able to express unquestionable care and loyalty towards me. I need to have experiences in the world where instead of being judged I am accepted. I need to feel celebrated not necessarily because I have done something worthy of celebration but because I am worthy of being celebrated just as I am. Rather than the ignominious reality experienced during and after the traumatic early years, I need to be able to sit with people who have the ability to see me as I am without requiring me to be anything other than myself. Many times, I hear people say, “I just need some time to work on myself first”. The irony is that the real work only happens in the context of relationships and not in isolation. It’s no wonder that we can spend years ‘working on ourselves’ and then once we feel like we are ready to conquer the relationship demons, we finally re-engage only to realise that we are right back where we were prior to our relationship-improvement boot camp. In short, in order to re-wire the self-protective codes in our brain we need empathy. Empathy towards ourselves and empathy from those around us.
Self-empathy requires an ability to get in touch with ourselves not as an end in itself but rather as a way of gathering data to make sense of the big picture. As a child, I was extremely fearful, and this would express itself through stomach aches. Mum would prescribe a dose of antacids which rarely helped take away the pain. As an adult I experience the same pain whenever I am faced with a threatening situation. When a significant other sends me a text saying, “we need to talk!”, I have an immediate sensation in my tummy similar to the one in my early years. I am learning to acknowledge the #somatic experiences I have and let them inform me as to what is going on #psychologically. Rather than take antacids I now talk to myself. Firstly, acknowledging the stomach pain as an essential alarm that danger is imminent. Secondly, I question whether the perceived threat is a reality or not. Thirdly, I then envision the threat being a reality and visualise what the worst-case scenario is. Will I be okay if the worst-case scenario becomes a reality? Will this kill me? By this stage the pain has usually subsided significantly. I am also able to be a bit more rational about the situation. “Maybe she doesn’t want to tell me she’s leaving me”. “I won’t really know until I talk to her and that’s ok”. At times the need to control the situation gets the better of me and I have to text back asking “what exactly do we need to talk about?”
#Empathy from others is more obvious but harder because it requires us to be vulnerable and trust others before empathy can be shown to us. I believe trust is not necessarily something that is earned primarily, but rather is a gift we give to others. It is the ability to have the attitude, “I am not sure what will happen if I allow myself to fall backwards with you standing behind me. You may catch me, or you may not but what I do know is that even if you don’t, and I fall and get hurt, I will eventually get back up and be ok”. As supporters of those struggling with the effects of negative attachment and trauma, it means that catching them when they do fall in front of us is critical. Each experience of non-judgment and empathy is part of the new code. It means that if we are in relationships with people who have triggers that we are aware of, it is imperative that we try and avoid pushing those buttons. A subtle shift from “we need to talk!” to “can we please discuss what we are doing for Christmas this year when you get home” can make all the difference. Eventually over time with repeated experiences of this nature, the brain begins to associate differently to the point where “we need to talk” is no longer associated with times when a caregiver said those words which occasioned punitive action.