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Understanding a disorganised attachment

Attachment isn’t a choice, we have to form one in order to survive. This means we are capable of being very adaptive, even if the people caring for us are unpredictable or at times, dangerous.

With a disorganised attachment, you learn very quickly what gets you the right kind of attention and how to avoid making things worse. You are likely to form a trauma bond with dangerous carers as a child. You learnt to track their every move and recognise signs of upcoming trouble. This means that from a young age, you become hyper-vigilant and learn to keep people in your sights. Proximity can be safer than separation, as you need to know what’s happening around you. You also learn to suppress any needs or emotions, which might have angered your carers, meaning you become very disconnected from your body and your emotions as adults.

People with a disorganised attachment have to learn how to get their needs met in a very indirect way. This means they learn to play the long game, setting things in motion, planning in advance or learning to manipulate, rather than being open and direct. They might get really good at forgetting incidents, changing their moods really quickly, not dwelling on things and are able to wipe events out as if they never happened. They learn to dissociate on a regular basis, so they don’t have to deal with whatever is happening. They also get really good at making it look like everything is fine, even when it’s not. Getting good at telling lies can also be a really good coping mechanism, believing the lie is even better.

This kind of attachment style happens when our carers frighten and hurt us, and we don’t receive any empathy from them. We’re usually told it’s our fault and that we deserved it. This means that we ourselves don’t develop the ability to empathise with others, resulting instead with the potential to hurt others, have poor understanding of the rules of conduct in the outside world, and develop poor social skills. We usually have to minimise and hide what’s going on, so forming close relationships with others is both unwise and not a skill we have.

None of these things are planned, they are part of our development. They become such a way of life and of operating that we can be completely unaware that we’re even doing these things, or that there’s anything wrong with them. As with any style of attachment, there are varying degrees of how we are affected and how much of an impact events have on us. It also depends on what else is available outside of the family home. Some children find solace with grandparents, friends, even school can be a safe haven, allowing us a totally different experience.

We are so adaptive that it’s possible to have more than one attachment style. We have learnt through studying behaviours of people being taken hostage how quickly we adapt. Hostages can form a very close bond with their captors, this is known as Stockholm Syndrome. Hostages would thwart attempts to rescue them, because of the bond they formed with their captors. The fear of being killed meant alliances were formed. Sometimes these bonds stayed in place with people visiting their captors, or writing to their imprisoned captors long after the siege ended.

So what does this look like?

Some of the ways our disorganised attachment can show up is through characteristics or behaviours. These are all in degrees and not an exhaustive list:

  • Having a high pain threshold, they may seem impervious to pain.
  • Having very little recollection of their childhood.
  • Showing little or no empathy, they can seem cruel and may even seem to get pleasure from hurting others.
  • They can seem very manipulative, getting people to do things without being direct. They can cause a lot of chaos without actually doing anything.
  • They can be very disruptive, causing problems and unrest, but being able to function really well in these conditions.
  • They can be accomplished liars, unable to tell the truth even when all the evidence points against them.
  • They can also be very cruel towards animals, sometimes inflicting deliberate pain and appearing to enjoy it.
  • They can be very isolated, having few acquaintances and poor social skills.
  • They can be very hard to read and hard to predict.
  • They can be fearless, nothing seems to scare them. They may love really gruesome and scary films.
  • They might play violent games for hours on end.
  • They will be drawn to people of similar attachment styles and possibly drawn to things like gangs.
  • They may have no qualms about breaking the law. The only consideration might be if they are likely to get caught or not.

While a lot of these things can be viewed as negative or antisocial traits, some of them can be useful skills to have & many have really established professional careers. It can be useful if you’re a prosecutor to be logical rather than emotional. The less empathy you have for the defence, the more effective you are likely to be. This can be the same for a lot of professions, to only focus on one objective and be unaffected by the potential damage to others. For some professions, it’s necessary to feel no fear and be able to function under conditions that others, with a secure attachment, would be unable to.

It’s only if things cause a problem to ourselves or others, that we might seek help and understanding. We stay adaptive all of our lives, we’re all capable of forming different attachments, or changing and healing attachment wounds that are causing us distress or difficulties.

We also don’t always parent our own children by repeating the same pattern of attachment and behaviours. I’ve seen many people bring their own children up completely different to the way they themselves were parented. We are incredibly adaptive and creative, we all have value and the ability to grow and develop.

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Understanding an ambivalent attachment

Ambivalent attachment is the most common style of attachment I see with my clients. This has led me to believe that’s it’s the one which can cause major issues in everyday life.

It’s how we respond and adapt when we’ve had very inconsistent care growing up, or there were significant changes in our formative years. It can happen so easily, if there is a divorce or separation, a bereavement or any major upheaval at vital times. If our carers were under a lot of stress, or using substances which might have made their behaviour erratic.

Any of these factors mean that it becomes very hard to trust any positive experiences, the fear of loss makes it too hard to invest in things. The pain of our loss can be so great that subconsciously we don’t want to put ourselves in that position again. This inconsistency can have varying impacts on us.

So what does this look like?

Some of the signs to look for are:

  • Extreme indecision, not knowing what choice to make for fear of it being the wrong one. Spending hours/days struggling to make a decision, often just getting stuck or trying to get others to make the decision for us.
  • Mistrusting our own judgement. Once we’ve made a decision, then not being able to fully commit. Constantly worrying if the other one would have been better. Talking about it over and over, going round in circles.
  • Not being able to fully enjoy what’s going on. Having the constant nagging in your head, ‘What are they really thinking about me?’, I’m talking too much/not enough’.
  • Looking for things that are wrong, feeling on edge, not being able to relax & feeling on guard the whole time.
  • If you’ve been out, you’re reflecting on everything you said, worrying that it was the wrong thing. Ringing friends asking for reassurance.
  • Feeling to blame and taking responsibility for everything, ‘It must be me’, ‘everyone turns against me in the end’.
  • Trying too hard to please. Going over the top, offering to do things you later regret, but keep doing them anyway.
  • Never feeling good enough. Judging yourself against others and finding yourself lacking. Not being able to put yourself forward for anything, even though you know logically that you could do it, and even be good at it. Always finding an excuse not to.
  • Having more than your fair share of broken relationships. Feeling unable to fully trust someone, ‘why would they want to be with me?’. ‘It’s only a matter of time before they leave me’. Finding fault with things, even when things are going well. Feeling really uneasy when it is going well, picking an argument. Having some sense that you’re sabotaging things, but not knowing why and not being able to stop.
  • Doing things in the extremes, all or nothing. Going to the gym every day, or not at all. Crash dieting or total indulgence. Being a perfectionist and very particular about the way things need to be done.

All of the above has grown out of uncertainty and control being taken away with painful consequences. The need to be alert for any negative sign means it’s much harder to be present and enjoying the moment. Because you’ve had experiences of your needs being met, when it suddenly changed the loss felt dramatic and very painful.

Knowing where this has come from means we can start to prepare and look after these parts of us. It affects our behaviour without us knowing why. Staying in the moment and learning to enjoy and appreciate little things can be a great re-learning. Experimenting with little choices and decisions, picking one and being curious about what happens, instead of trying to work out if it’s right or wrong. You need to learn to find the middle ground and stay away from extremes, but in a mindful knowing way.

Understanding our own attachment style can be very revealing about why these behaviours happen. Giving us an opportunity to observe ourselves and do something different. Understanding why will help us be more compassionate and empathetic, instead of self-critical. All of these things can change once we understand what’s going on. Consistency is key for this style of attachment, resources that work every time that we can depend upon. Growth and healing starts with little, manageable, consistent steps that we can build on. Don’t aim for the stars, just the first rung on the ladder for now.

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How our attachments are formed as newborns

This is a topic that most people have some awareness of, however, what I hear from people is that they believe it’s complicated and confusing, but they also know that somehow it’s important and plays a big but unseen part in our lives.

Our ability to form an attachment is crucial for our survival. Newborn babies are completely dependent upon those looking after them to keep them alive, but they have very little means of communication. Initially, babies can only really cry, which is why they cry for everything they need. It’s the response to the crying, and how able or willing the caregiver/parent is to deal with it and to meet the babies needs, that forms the basis for attachment.

Obviously we don’t know how our own parents/caregivers responded or reacted, we only know what we’re told. However, their responses tend to be pretty consistent throughout our life. This can make it easier to work out what that experience was like when we were babies by assessing how our caregivers respond to us, even as adults.

Babies aren’t manipulative, difficult or controlling, they are very simple. It’s what happens in the relationship that can make things difficult. Having a baby to care for is totally exhausting, scary and all-consuming. It changes every aspect of life and can be a huge strain on adult relationships. None of us know how we will cope until it actually happens, but the more we can understand about the importance of attachment and what affect our actions will have in later life, the better.

The impact of the babies crying isn’t something we can prepare for and some days caregivers have more capacity to deal with it than others, that’s just normal. If we have enough support then we stand a better chance of being tolerant, kind and relaxed. If, when the baby cries the caregiver can respond quickly, acknowledge the distress, and set about trying to work out what the baby needs and get the baby settled and happy, then two things happen. Firstly, the baby learns that their crying is met with closeness and what’s distressing them is sorted out, even if it was trial and error, they get there in the end. Secondly, the carer learns that the baby’s crying is relatively quickly stopped and they are able to identify, through trial and error, what the problem was and solve it. This creates trust between baby and caregiver, and there’s more time for interaction. Then a level of understanding, empathy and love can develop between them.

The availability of the carer and ability to soothe the baby, gives the baby the experience of someone settling their nervous system and regulating them. This is crucial and allows the bond to deepen. The baby learns that proximity is a good thing and the carer also gains confidence in regulating the baby, but also their own nervous system. When the baby calms down, so does the caregiver.

If this is the experience for the majority of times, (not every time, because it’s tough going) then we form a secure attachment. This in turn means that with this confidence, the baby and caregiver can encourage independence, growth, a sense of joy in achievements, and a feeling of safety and consistency. The experience of an open, honest relationship therefore becomes familiar, and when we start to grow up, it’s honest, open relationships that we will be drawn to.

If however, there are factors that make it difficult when the baby cries, a different attachment will form. These I will explore in this series of blogs, which you can find on our website, released weekly every Thursday. Next week, I look at one of the most common attachment styles; ambivalent attachment.

Cover photo with the text, what stops us being productive and motivated?

What stops us being productive and motivated?

Being productive really came into the spotlight as lockdown wore on. In the beginning, lots of very well meaning ideas started to appear on social media. We were encouraged to see this time as an opportunity that we might never have again. We had more time on our hands than ever before and the pressure to achieve something and be productive was really on. People said they were going to write a book, learn a new skill or get really fit. This all sounded very enticing to a lot of us and a great idea in principal, however, for a lot of us the reality was far away from this.

Lockdown has been completely unknown, we have never experienced outside-life just closing down before. The level of fear is huge, mostly from the unknown. In the beginning, none of us knew what was going to happen, we worried about our friends, family and no-one in authority seemed to agree on the best way forward, which still seems to be the case now as areas are put back into lockdown. It was in so many ways a frightening and isolating experience, even people who normally would choose to isolate felt panic because the choice had been taken away from them. We spent way more time checking news and reports to try to get some information or reassurance. When we acknowledge these factors, it really is a bit unrealistic to expect us to just shut all this out and throw ourselves into a new project. Fear just doesn’t allow this to happen, our alert system won’t be quiet and it becomes really hard to focus and stay attentive to anything.

Lockdown just made this harder, when it started easing a lot of us had a sense of guilt that we weren’t more productive and we wasted the opportunity. Carrying this added burden made it even harder to get motivated and start trying to be productive again. This is on top of what makes it hard in the first place to be motivated and productive.

Accomplishing a task is a process that has stages in it, for some people the enormity of what needs to get done is too overwhelming and it’s impossible to start. For others, there are different factors often stemming from our past experiences. When we were younger, if we received a lot of criticism, like being told we could have done it better or quicker. If the bar was always set higher than we could jump, just to make us try harder, then this can be crushing. If we were always pushed and our faults pointed out or we were compared to others, then it gradually erodes our motivation and sets up a belief system that says “there is no point” or “I’m never good enough.”

Once this belief system is firmly set, we live by it, often unconsciously, but it can play out in patterns and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with each failure confirming our belief. It also stops us from being able to build on any positives and make progress. When we have been criticised we internalise that and it becomes our own voice, therefore we view everything we are doing through those eyes. We look for the fault or tell ourselves other people don’t struggle, that we should have done it weeks ago, or others would have done a better job. This takes away any positive and makes doing anything a waste of time. It also takes all the pleasure out of achieving anything and makes taking the next step seem pointless, anxiety inducing and filled with dread. This is light years away from being able to celebrate any achievement. If we are trying something new and taking little steps towards something, our inner critic will say it’s too slow, not enough and tell you it’s pointless.

Sometimes being able to look back, see how we were treated and thinking about the message given to us when we tried anything, can be quite revealing. If we realise we have taken on that role ourselves and are constantly putting down or finding fault, then we can get to know that inner critic so we can start to observe how it works and what it tells us.

We encourage people to get mindful, just begin to notice what your body is doing and then visualise yourself taking the first step in the task. We then ask you to notice what comes up, what thoughts, what sensations in your body and make a not of them. This way we get to know what we are up against and observe it, rather than be immersed in it and totally believe it. Sometimes knowing it’s a parents voice can be helpful, also knowing what we would be saying to others about taking on a task and what different support we would give them but not to ourselves. We can then begin to question what different message we would have liked back then, which is an unmet needs and the missing pieces. If we can remember doing something, trying our best and getting put down or ignored, we can try, from a mindful place giving a kinder, more encouraging message. If we then bring that to the present day, we can hear the negative thoughts and give ourselves a softer message, something like, ‘it doesn’t have to be perfect, we’re going to only do this bit and that’s enough the rest can wait.’

After we do one thing we can then, from a mindful place, hear the critic and observe how it tries to minimise or rubbish what we have just done. If we can find a way to give a different message, give some value to what we have just done, then we are building steps towards doing things differently. More importantly, we are developing a different relationship with ourselves, seeing the critic as a person from the past, who isn’t necessarily correct, and then growing a new, more curious voice inside. Allowing ourselves to sit with what we have just done and make it good enough, stopping the flood of all the other things that need to be done and having a more positive connection to what we have actually done.

We encourage people to start with deliberately small things, so you really get insight into what you are up against. When we can be ready and expect the negatives, we can be better prepared and see how repetitive they are. This way we can have things to build on, one step at a time and add value to our life instead of taking away all the time.

We wouldn’t expect to just run a marathon without first undertaking a training programme, these things are just the same. It’s never too late to start, if we want a better future it has to start somewhere.

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Let’s talk about anxiety

Feeling stressed and anxious is normal for us humans. Normal that is if we know why and the levels of anxiety seem appropriate. However, a lot of people experience almost constant levels of anxiety from the minute they wake up, or at certain times of the day. This kind of anxiety is a different and can affect us in a number of ways. It can make us feel really down, as if there is no end to it and nothing that seems to shift it for any length of time. It can send our head into overdrive, thinking about what is wrong, this can lead to quite catastrophic thoughts. It can affect our behaviour, making us fearful of seeing people, going out, scared that we might have a panic attack and isolating ourselves. 

This type of anxiety affects our emotions, our thoughts and our physical health over time, it sends the head into overthinking. It’s unlikely that talking about it will help, firstly, because we probably don’t know why we are anxious in the first place but secondly, it just makes us think even more.

We need to focus away from our thoughts, stop trying to work out what’s wrong and help our body feel calmer when we do that the head becomes quieter. There are many things we can try, the ones which work need to be noted and practised on a regular basis. If we can try to notice where we feel the anxiety this can be a good measure if some of these things work.

Then try some experiments and notice after each one if anything has changed. Here are some things to try:

  • Squeeze your arms tightly into your body really hard hold for ten seconds then release. You’ll take a big breath automatically then notice what your body tells you, repeat.
  • Press the palms of your hands together in front of you and push them against each other, feel all the muscles working, hold for ten seconds than release, repeat and notice.
  • Link your fingers together, hold them in front of you and pull, feel the different muscles working hold and release. Try and see which one your body prefers pulling or pushing.
  • Sit down and place your hands on either side of your knees, at the same time press in with your hands and push out with your knees, create resistance, hold for ten seconds then release, notice and repeat.
  • Stand with your back against the wall, walk your legs out in front of you so you can really feel your leg muscles working, push down through your feet and press your back against the wall, really notice the solid feeling of the floor and the wall. 

The main thing is to really listen to what your body tells you about each of these experiments. How can you tell which ones work better than others? If some of these work then set a timer or a post it on the fridge and aim to do them two or three times a day. Even if you only get a break from your symptoms for a few minutes remind yourself that you gave your head and body a break.

Noticing is the first step in mindfulness and so important in knowing what helps.