And how we try to escape the wounds from childhood.
When we are born we develop an attachment to a caregiver. It is our biological need to seek security and care as well as a protective factor. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were the pioneers of attachment theory.
Bowlby proposed that attachment is an evolutionary process; children are dependent on adults for emotional and physical nurturing and to teach them about safety and trust. Understanding this has been crucial to the development of psychology and psychotherapy.
The caregiver will act as a ‘secure base’ for the child which will help them to regulate emotions and to develop resiliency.
Having a secure attachment as children allows us to explore and learn. If you have ever watched a child and caregiver in a park you will see what I mean by this. The young child might play in the sand pit with other kids for a short while and will then go back to the caregiver for a while. The unspoken language there is, “Am I ok? Are you still here watching out for me? Shall I go and play, and am I safe while I am doing that?” If a child hurts themselves they will instantly go to the caregiver for comfort.
Caregivers are constantly giving children cues about what is safe in a secure attachment. It might be a look that will pass between them, facial expression or the tone of voice that the caregiver uses. All of this will give the child messages about safety, security, empathy and boundaries. Attuned parenting teaches the child about the child’s own inner world; their hunger, emotions, thoughts, etc.
The most important take away from this is that having a secure attachment as a child helps us to emotionally regulate and we will have a healthy self concept; we will feel worthy of love.
A secure attachment has been said to lower cortisol levels; the body’s main stress hormone, and this is important to regulate mood, stress and emotions.
When we have not had a secure attachment as a child; if the caregiver has been abusive, neglectful or emotionally unavailable, due to mental illness for instance, then as adults we can suffer mental health issues or relationship problems. Without emotional regulation we are at risk from anxiety, depression, psychosomatic illness as well as physical illness.
Let’s use the above example again of the child playing in the sand pit.
When a child has an insecure attachment to a caregiver the child will join the other children in playing in the sand pit. However, these children have learnt from a very young age that returning to the caregiver to seek reassurance is pointless. This might be the child that you see wandering around seemingly alone, or that child may return briefly but be ignored which will reinforce the idea that “no-one is here for me.”
So, how can this make us turn to substance abuse or addiction?
If a child has caregivers that are abusive, alcoholic, emotionally unavailable or neglectful the underlying messages that are given to the child are that they are unlovable or unworthy of love and attention. The child may believe that everything is their fault; if they were lovable then these things wouldn’t be happening. Their self confidence and self esteem will be low. They will have a distorted self concept.
The child will learn to self soothe and will withdraw. In adulthood, they may seek other ways to self regulate their emotions. This may be a numbing through drugs or alcohol; in effect this in itself is a form of withdrawal; from their own emotions, from society, from body awareness. They may binge eat or become addicted to shopping; anything to escape the constant gnawing emotional pain left by lack of insecure parenting.
The survivor of abuse or neglect may not realise or understand that what they are they are doing is trying to escape from their wounds. Sometimes, they may not even remember what has happened to them; they just know that they feel ‘bad’, unhappy, shameful and undeserving of love. It takes self exploration and help with understanding our emotions to begin to heal.
Healing our attachment wounds can take time.
Making sense of our past narrative is a step towards healing an insecure attachment. Speaking out loud what has happened to us can help us to make sense of our pasts. We can begin to understand how we see the world now and how we saw the world as children, as well as how our past impacted our self concept. Speaking through our narrative can bring to light the deep wounds that have been buried over many years and we can begin to process our stories.
A therapist can act as a secure base. In a safe, therapeutic relationship trust can begin to develop and we can tell our stories. The therapist emulates that of a secure attachment figure which will assist in helping to explore and regulate emotions. The therapist will become attuned to the client’s needs and become a ‘container’ for the expression of the client’s emotions.
A secure attachment figure in adulthood can also be in the form of a relationship. A partner with a secure attachment can become a solid, reliable figure who we can begin to develop trust in. This is not always easy; if our concept of ourselves is that we are a ‘bad’ person and unlovable then we may feel that we don’t deserve such a relationship. It’s usually advisable to seek help through a therapist and begin the work to raise our self esteem and understand ourselves and our pasts first.
Healing can take time but we can become secure in adulthood with understanding, awareness and patience.