How past experiences can still affect us today

It’s been an established fact by a lot of therapeutic modalities that our past experiences can have a profound effect on the way that we behave, react and relate to others, in relationships. A lot of talking therapies require clients to dig deep into their past to try and explain their present day symptoms or behaviours. This can be helpful for a lot of people and can also assist with making sense of things happening to them right now. However, it’s not always that simple, and it isn’t a good option for people who have no memory of their experiences. A lot of Catriona’s clients have little to no memory of their childhood, their recall can be sketchy or even non-existent. All they are aware of is their repeating patterns of behaviour, or that their reactions to things or people seem to make no sense. They usually find that these behaviours are really hard to change. They aren’t aware of how their past experiences are affecting their lives today.

When Catriona is working with clients, whatever behaviours they are exploring, whether it’s eating patterns, obsessive traits, anxiety about certain things, she always views them with an acceptance. Accepting that at some point in the clients lives, this behaviour was a solution to a problem and it made sense back then. Therefore, if that was a solution, we can then be curious about what it was a solution for. If you have grown up in an environment which was unpredictable or volatile, then a good solution will have been to shrink yourself and be as quiet, still, and invisible as possible. It may have even been the best solution to freeze and be completely still, or to dissociate. These responses don’t then simply disappear when you change your environment or when you grow up, as our coping mechanisms can follow us and play out wherever we go. If it feels like these coping mechanisms or behaviours are no longer needed but still keep happening, they change from being a solution, to something that actually gets in the way or causes problems.

The freeze response might show up again in the present day at any sign of potential conflict, or in a situation that you would have perceived as threatening when you were much younger. Clients will notice that their breathing gets tight and shallow, or they may be unable to move or think about what to do, or even speak to ask for help. They may be completely oblivious to the trigger that’s just come up and just come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with them. These responses can then very easily get misdiagnosed, or treated with the wrong medication, resulting in no understanding about what’s happening to them and no improvement in their condition.

It’s very hard to just stop behaviours if they are hard-wired into our survival system, even if we can have some success, it usually takes a huge amount of effort. It feels like an ongoing, never-ending battle, which can be exhausting and demoralising.

However, sometimes when we grow up, go to uni, get a job, meet new friends, or get into relationships, these behaviours and coping mechanisms can start to fade and sometimes even stop. But if we then have a new traumatic experience or something happens in our life that reduces our resilience, or triggers any past events, then these behaviours can suddenly reappear. When this happens to us, we always blame it on what’s going in the present and we often don’t recognise that something from our past might have been triggered, as there isn’t always an obvious connection between the two.

A light bulb in hands representing energy levels

The great thing about working with the body, is that your body will tell your story. When you can learn to notice and track what your body is doing, you can then question why a certain behaviour might have been a really good response in the past. You can then begin to make links to the present and try to make sense of what’s happening to you. Once you can do that, you can explore different resources to find a new solution which allows the body to have a new present-moment experience. If you are in a freeze response, then you can find something that will help you to unfreeze, in a new, safe way. That way, when the past triggers you again, you will recognise the early signs of the trigger, as they will be consistent, and you can then resource yourself so you don’t freeze or shut down. This allows you to be in control and not let past events take over what is happening right now.

Just because you don’t know why you might react in certain ways, we can always assume that there was once a good reason for this, and it was a solution at the time. If you tend to get overly anxious, or you have panic attacks, then you can find some resources to help your breathing and then use them before the anxiety gets a chance to build. This way you can heal from the past without having to go over all the details of what happened to you.

Our past will always be there but the influence it has over us can be massively reduced and we can heal from the past experiences that have happened to us.

Our Body Work Course is a really way to start understanding your body and connections to your past experiences, we put it together to help you learn to understand the different behaviours and messages from your body, to help put you back in control of yourself. You can check out the course here, or send us any questions you may have here.


How our childhood experiences affect our adult lives

We’ve probably all heard about the nature nurture debate, are we the way we are from our genetic code, or is it our upbringing that plays the dominant role? Whatever we believe, there is no doubt that our childhood experiences play a major part in how we operate in our adult lives. Every day I help people understand the ways that these experiences affect them in all aspects of their life, finding ways to function and do things differently.

These early experiences can result in developmental trauma. We don’t have behaviours and coping mechanisms for no reason, we have them because they were needed and useful at the time. The more extreme the coping mechanism, the more extreme our experiences were. For a lot of my clients, they have very little memory of their childhood and find it hard to recall how their carers or parents behaved towards them. For those people, we have to rely on the body, and the way it moves and reacts to get some kind of clue as to what growing up for them must have been like.

For instance, if they are asked to make a decision, they will often try to work out what the right decision should be. They may fear getting it wrong or that they’ll make the wrong decision. If they can’t get the clues or affirmations from the people around them, then they might panic or get stuck, not knowing what to do. This tells us that either their environment was unpredictable, the rules may have kept changing, or they were expected to take responsibility for things that they just weren’t ready to take. They may have been told off for not making the right decision, therefore feeling a huge responsibility for the enormity of even the smallest of decisions.

These experiences can actually be seen in a physical way in the body, when asked to make a decision, the person might begin to look quickly around the room, they might stare intently at the person in front of them. This might then be followed by a shrinking or a slump in their body. They might then say, ‘it’s all too overwhelming’, or ‘I just don’t know’ and have multiple different examples of not being able to make a decision. Their head will have some pretty critical things to say about this, none of which are helpful, and so the cycle continues.

For some people, they do have some childhood memories. This can be useful, as they can then recall how their carers reacted or behaved in situations. It can be helpful to ask them what was expected of them growing up. Some people were encouraged to be grown up and they were praised for doing more adult things. Some were pushed to do better, but often didn’t receive praise for the achievements they actually made. Some were criticised and shamed if they did things wrong, or they were told off for being spontaneous and childlike.

Whatever the message, we internalise it and are are deeply affected by that message later on. These messages become beliefs and they affect the way that we behave and what we believe about ourselves deep down, these then get stored as a lived experience in the body. The job of the therapist is to notice these unconscious movements and responses, and bring the clients awareness to them.

One of the problems with developmental trauma is that it becomes so natural, it’s not in our conscious awareness, therefore it’s really hard to spot the physical evidence and body responses. The other difficulty with developmental trauma is the same as with any trauma, it doesn’t change in time, the reactions & coping mechanisms stay, the younger parts of us that are attached to the reactions, stay at the same young age. This means that when we react, we are reacting from a much younger part of ourselves but we are totally unaware of it and think it’s just us. We don’t know when it’s a triggered response.

The good thing is that these responses are pretty consistent, which is why they keep repeating. It’s can be really hard to try to behave differently. This means that if we begin to start observing ourselves in everyday life, it makes it easier to begin noticing these reactions and responses. If we can notice where our eyes are drawn to, if our body position shifts, if our breathing changes, then it gives us some clues as to what our body is doing, and why this might have made perfect sense in the past. It gives us a clue about what might be helpful and how we can bring a present moment experience to this triggered past one.

We can try things like, tapping things around us to feel things and hear the noise they make. Moving our feet inside our shoes, shaking our hands. Doing something that we can feel and experience right now. When we understand that we are taking care of a younger inner-self, it can make it easier to engage our adult brain and then try some different experiments.

If decision making is hard, then we have to start a retraining programme for ourselves, where we start with little decisions at first like tea or coffee, wearing a white t-shirt or a blue one, eating a cheese sandwich or a ham one. We’re replacing the fear of a negative consequence with curiosity, giving it a go and seeing what happens. We can also help these unconscious movements by waking up the unconscious a bit. For instance, when we make a cup of tea, we can try observing the order we do things and asking ourselves why we do it that way? If we drive, then we can try noticing the order of each step as we get into the car. Doing this can really help our observing part in its retraining programme. When we begin new experiments, it’s always enlightening and even amusing, it’s such a good way to help the unconscious be more seen and noticed.

When we listen to our bodies, even if we have no memory of our childhood experiences, we can bring some awareness to our behaviours that have come from that time. We can find things that will help us to manage these behaviours or coping mechanisms in our adult lives.

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How developmental trauma shows up in the body

Most of us understand what a traumatic event is. We often associate it with an accident, an attack, something terrible that is witnessed, etc. We know that extreme events can cause PTSD and trauma, however, we often miss or don’t fully understand developmental trauma. This is what I treat day in, day out, it is far more common and goes misdiagnosed and mistreated.

When we are little, we have very few defence mechanisms, we are far more vulnerable and we’re not able to understand complex situations. It’s much easier for us to then be terrified and overwhelmed, things that we wouldn’t normally give a second thought about can be a big event when we’re little. We usually recover from one-off events and often we don’t remember them at all. However, if we are consistently scared, if our punishment has been overly harsh, or if we are regularly shamed or humiliated, then this can result in developmental trauma.

I have many clients who actually have no clear memory of their trauma, they often have virtually no childhood memories and therefore no idea why they are struggling. Developmental trauma can have many different presentations, like feeling highly anxious for no apparent reason, they are often fearful and scared to go out amongst people, they may have panic attacks or dissociate easily. They often have body-related problems like IBS or unidentified pain, they may often have eating disorders and body image difficulties. They also may have self harmed, have substance addictions or a series of failed relationships. They all know there is something wrong but it can be difficult finding out what exactly is wrong, why it’s affecting them the way it is, and most importantly, what they need to get better.

99% of my clients have had lots of different prescription medications over the years. Many of them have been diagnosed with BPD, bipolar, ADHD, plus many more. As the medical profession are not trained to spot and treat developmental trauma, because it doesn’t usually come with flashbacks, the symptoms are treated with medication and the most they will be offered is talking therapy. Developmental trauma affects the body, the nervous system, all the regulation systems, the way we move, our posture and certainly our behaviour. When I begin working with people, they often are totally unaware of the movements their body is making and the reactions they have to certain things. It’s my job to notice these often subtle things, to spot patterns of behaviour and feed that back to my client. This way they can start noticing too and being curious helps them observe what’s happening. Because we know everything happens for a reason, the way the body responds can give us a huge clue as to why this might have been an effective strategy.

The most frequent things that I notice are: them pulling away when they talking about something, they go really quiet and still, they lose the ability to move certain parts of their body, or one half of them trying to hide. Developmental trauma will often show up in particular parts of the body, it’s not an overall uniform response. Sometimes the left and right sides of the body do completely different things. Clients will often have a certain place they sense the trauma, if they pull away or begin glancing over to one side, this will be consistent every time a particular subject is mentioned or thought about.

We bring up small pieces of memory, or a recent triggering event, then observe what the body does and give it a different experience. If our body tries to disappear, then we have to find ways to be seen safely and use resources to help achieve this.

It’s really hard for people with developmental trauma to work out what’s happening. They are so used to the body responses they don’t notice them. Also, if we have an activated part of the body, our first instinct is to stay away from it, to not pay attention to it. It takes an experienced therapist to make sense of all of this and help to find different ways to help and heal. Once the client gets on the right path, they can do so much on their own. Additionally, sometimes the memory comes back when the body trauma is revealed, but not always.

If developmental trauma was more widely known and understood, it would save so much heartache and time for everyone, including expense. Almost everyone I see for the first time has an overwhelming sense of relief, that finally someone gets them and knows what is needed for them to get better. It shouldn’t be such a mystery, having a troubled childhood is sadly an all too common experience, we should know how to help this.


Why we need more than just affirmations to set a boundary

We all know that boundaries is something we all need in life. I often read articles about setting boundaries, where they give tips and advice on what to do. It’s actually quite a complicated process, if it wasn’t then we wouldn’t struggle with it. There is no point just deciding on a boundary we need to set, then trying to do it only to find the minute someone pushes against it, it crumbles and we beat ourselves up or feel defeated.

Like everything else in life, it’s a process. If we have very low self-esteem or a lack of self-worth, then it can feel inconceivable that we even deserve to have a boundary, or have any idea what it would look like. If we have had our boundaries walked all over, or we grew up in a household where there were very few boundaries in place, instead there was chaos and unpredictability, then it’s hard to even have a concept of a boundary. If we grew up with super rigid and inflexible boundaries, we may have an aversion to them as we perceive them as suffocating. Therefore, the first part of the process is identifying what our response to a boundary is, what happens if we start exploring what one would look like and when we would need to use it. Once we can do this, then we can look at how we would build and use our boundary.

We also have to be aware of how we react both emotionally and physically when someone challenges our boundary, because they will, especially if it’s something new or we are doing this to stop or change unhealthy behaviours. We all have an achilles heel, some of us cave in when we are made to feel guilty, some of us fear a negative or angry response, some of us fear rejection, or we dread being accused of being selfish. If someone is determined to get us to do what they want, they will likely use all of these to get us to dismantle our boundary and not try it again. This is why we need to know how we respond and what we need, both as thoughts and answers but also physically, so we can stand solid and not feel wrong for putting this in place.

In order for us to do this effectively we have to know for certain that this boundary is necessary for us and we are not doing it to cause anyone any harm or upset. If we can be really sure of this, it makes it much easier to keep it intact. What we don’t want to have to do is apologise for having a boundary. This erodes our acceptance of it and instead of coming at it with positive energy, it comes with less-solid energy and will not be respected in the same way by others.

The really good thing about having firm boundaries is that when we can own them, others sense them before we even have to actively do something. If you say no to something with total conviction, people are much less likely to try to get you to change your mind as they hear and feel the solidity of the ‘no’. Children usually only have tantrums if they know they work. They scream loud enough, for long enough and the parent will change their mind. If the ‘no’ stays a no regardless, then children learn quickly that a tantrum won’t work. Adults, in a less dramatic way, (hopefully) are the same. If we can be fully confident of our boundary, then instead of others taking offence, the opposite happens, it just gets accepted.

People who have good, solid boundaries actually feel safe to be around. We like to know where we stand with people and we like to know what the rules are, whether these are spoken or unspoken. We actually feel more unsafe on a subconscious level with people who don’t have boundaries, as we feel unsure or can perceive these people as unpredictable and difficult to navigate or be around.

We’re all very different and we’ll all have different boundaries. This is fine, so long as the ones we have are right for us and enough to keep us safe or in control, but not so much that we use them to keep everyone out. We can all respect each others boundaries and live very harmoniously together. We all have different measures of personal space, for example, some people are happy in close proximity, while others need more space. We usually sense this in a somatic way through our body, by either picking up signals or energy, we rarely have to ask someone to move back, we navigate this unconsciously.

The clearer our boundaries are, the easier it can be to navigate all sorts of situations, it’s really worth starting to be curious about it, as the benefits are huge, but we have to start at the beginning of the process. We can’t jump to the end and hope for the best. Like most things, we have to work at it, but it’s worth it in the end.


How do you know if someone has a secure attachment?

A secure attachment style is formed when our needs are met in a consistent and appropriate way. It means our carers were able to provide what we needed, when we needed it, most of the time. As babies, our carers were able to work out why we were crying through either trial and error, or learning to read our different cries. It also meant that our carers were able to soothe and comfort us when we were frightened or distressed and gave us reassurance. This results in us learning to trust our carers, forming a close safe bond, and knowing that they are the safe people to go to when we need reassurance. Being regulated and reassured by our carers allows us to build trust and confidence that no matter what happens, things will generally be ok. This allows us to feel safe to explore our environment, looking at things with curiosity and fascination instead of with fear and distrust. It also teaches us how to read people emotionally and we are able to form good friendships and relationships, as we have a good capacity for empathy. We also learn how to have good, firm boundaries as we have a good sense of our self-worth as well as valuing others feelings.

To form a secure attachment, we don’t need these things to be in place and happen all of the time, just most of the time. We can deal with our carers getting it wrong or having a bad day as they have taught us resilience, so repair can happen very quickly.

How do you know if someone has a secure attachment?

How we can recognise this in others is through behaviours and a felt sense. People with secure attachments will have a settled nervous system most of the time, so we feel comfortable being around them.

  • They are relatively comfortable in their own skin and are not overly dependant upon others approval.
  • They are easy to read as they have no need to hide their emotions and they are very in tune with the emotions they are feeling.
  • They will have a wide window of tolerance, so less likely to shy away from potentially tricky situations, they will also recover quite quickly from adverse events.
  • They often make good long-term friendships, as they are very empathic and value these  friendships highly.
  • They are unlikely to be needy or demand too much from others, as they are comfortable meeting their own needs.
  • They often don’t need to assert their boundaries, as others are able to sense them without them having to be stated.
  • They are unlikely to have unpredictable or extreme mood swings as they are emotionally intelligent and able to regulate themselves.

This is a very clean explanation of a secure attachment, as with all the other attachment styles we are rarely just one type. As we progress through life we have a lot of different people who will respond differently to us and we will experience different kinds of relationships. Each parent may have different responses and their own attachment styles, grandparents may be involved, as will teachers, group leaders and our friends.

We usually have one dominant attachment style with others, which kicks in depending on what’s happening at the time, especially if we are upset or frightened. Our attachment styles will be activated when we are involved in relationships, often the first thing we notice is a change of behaviour. If we can see a pattern always occurring, then that’s a big indicator that it’s an attachment part showing up. Because our attachment system is hardwired into our survival limbic system, we act first, then wonder afterwards what just happened and often feel baffled as to why we did that. When we look at things through the lens of our attachment styles, then this can give us a big clue as to what’s going on and allow us to observe these behaviours.

Each attachment style has its own advantages and disadvantages and should not be viewed in hierarchal way, it has very little to do with love and should not be measured in this way. People with a secure attachment style are unlikely to be big risk takers or thrill seekers. Their levels of empathy would make certain professions very difficult, as they would be able to see everyone’s point of view. You probably won’t see people with secure attachments working as prosecuting lawyers, high court judges, stocks and shares traders, or even surgeons.

The more we understand about how we function, the more curious and open to observing ourselves we can become. We can hopefully be less critical about what we do and why we do things. Understanding can help us accept who we are and help us be open to growth and development, it can help us break cycles of behaviour and let us have more control over our reactions and behaviours.

Understanding an avoidant attachment, in a graphic Featured

Understanding an avoidant attachment

As with all the attachment styles, avoidant attachment forms depending upon how our physical and emotional needs were met.

We develop an avoidant attachment when our needs were consistently not met. This can be for a number of reasons. The carer may not have known how to respond due to a lack of confidence, they may have been very triggered by crying or other expressions of emotion and shut down. There may have been substance misuse or mental health issues which muted the responses. The carer may have been advised to not respond or not spoil the baby, this approach was well documented in the 70’s and unfortunately continued for years.

When a babies cries are not answered, if a young child gets no attention, if they are hurt or scared, then sending out a distress signal does not work. These children have to find some other way of dealing with their distress themselves, therefore developing coping mechanisms. Some get very used to self soothing, rocking themselves to settle down. Some get attached to a toy or blanket, basically using something in their external world to help soothe whatever distress they are feeling. Another way they cope is to just shut down their needs, cut off from feelings and not show any outward sign of distress. All of these coping mechanisms serve a purpose but have consequences for emotional well being.

The main difference between an avoidant and an an ambivalent attachment style is consistency. With avoidance, the lack of attention or care was consistent. There is no point having adaptive behaviour if there is no response coming.

What does an avoidant attachment look like?

Children who learn to self soothe develop a high level of self-reliance. So then as adults, they learn quickly that the only people they can depend on is themselves. They will get so used to doing things for themselves it barely occurs to them to seek help.

  • They can have issues with authority as they are used to making decisions for themselves.
  • They can be very particular about the way they like things done and hate their routines being broken. These children can be labelled as oppositional, when in effect they are just used to being solely in charge of themselves. It can feel quite threatening if they feel someone else wants to take their control away, as it’s been their main source of survival.
  • As they grow up they can be seen as inflexible or controlling, they often have one way of doing things and it may never occur to them that there might be other ways. This can be a difficult learning curve when interacting with others.
  • For the children who learn to shut down and minimise their needs and feelings it can be a lonely and disconnected existence. We can’t discriminate between the feelings we want to cut off from and the ones we like, we cut off from both the negative and positive. Of course, there are degrees of cutting off but in the extreme.
  • Children and adults with an avoidant attachment find it difficult to connect with others. They also find it difficult to read expressions and gauge moods.
  • They find social situations overwhelming and confusing, as the rules of engagement can seem like a mystery. In groups they may watch others and learn the rules that way, however, if there is a sudden change in activity or emotion within the group, they don’t pick it up and can seem out of step with everyone else.
  • They will probably prefer isolation to group events and can come across as rude or overly blunt.
  • Growing up they find regulation difficult and tend to rely on external things for regulation.
  • They can come across as controlling, as they may need things to be a certain way in order for them to feel safe or calm.
  • They might always be a different body temperature to others, needing windows open when everyone else is cold. This is because body temperature is part of our regulation system, if we are very disconnected we don’t get reliable messages from our body, or our temperature control is offline.
  • They may have a high pain threshold, as they don’t feel and register pain. They may have bumps and bruises they don’t recall getting.
  • They can also be quite hurtful to others, but be completely at a loss as to why they have caused offence. Empathy is a connected felt sense, they may seem cold and uncaring but in fact it’s just a lack of empathy.

People with a very pronounced and dominant avoidant attachment style can be misdiagnosed with Aspergers or Autism quite easily. The ability to detach and avoid also displays itself through behaviours. As the title would suggest, they are experts at sidestepping and avoiding difficult emotional situations. They don’t even have to try, it’s like automatic guidance system. Anything they are likely to find difficult, a radar will go off and they will skilfully avoid it, purely because they know they do not have the means or capacity to deal with it.

As with all the attachment styles, we can relearn different ways of doing things. We can awaken our physical and emotional feelings, and widen our window of tolerance to cope. This attachment style also has it’s advantages; it means we have people who are much more likely to meet others needs rather than their own, or we have people who can go through really difficult experiences and come through relatively unscathed.

As with all the others, it’s only a problem if it gets in the way of living the life you want, in the way you want to.

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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.


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.


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.