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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.

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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.

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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 to successfully manage your extreme behaviours

I realised recently how much I work on ‘extremes’ with people, managing their extreme behaviours in multiple areas of their lives, a real ‘all or nothing’. One of the areas of extreme behaviours they struggle with is eating. This looks like them either trying to eat a totally clean, organic, healthy diet or finding themselves in a loop of fast food, ready meals and snacks. This can then ramp up to fluctuating between eating practically nothing or binge eating.

Another extreme is exercising, where they really go for it, fitting in as many sessions as possible, or they do the opposite, doing nothing, maybe just thinking about exercising, then watching Netflix instead. Alcohol is another extreme they struggle with, either drinking way more in the week than they were planning to, or going for abstinence. Smoking and any form of drug use also falls into this subject, either doing loads or trying to abstain totally.

There will be all sorts of places in our lives that we can see the same kinds of patterns. If we name the clean abstinence and highly motivated phase as ‘Phase 1’ and the other end of the spectrum as ‘Phase 2’, we can look at how they play out.

The problem with extreme behaviours, is that we end up swinging between the two phases, sometimes slowly but sometimes rapidly. It’s then easy to feel defeated, unmotivated and negative, as we don’t feel like we’re making any progress, or if we do make any progress, we can’t maintain it.

If we are in Phase 1 and we’re really keeping on track with our plan, but then something comes along to interrupt it, it can throw us off course completely. Sometimes one little slip or diversion can send us back into Phase 2. Internally, this might sound like, ‘well I messed up yesterday so I might as well just start again next week’. The more often this happens, the more time we tend to spend in Phase 2. We plan to get out of it but will find various reasons to delay the big shift it takes to move all the way over to Phase 1 again. During this time we’ll be very negative about ourselves. We might be making plausible excuses to tell ourselves and others why it’s too difficult, but we end up just berating ourselves.

So how can we make a change?

Deep down we know that this process isn’t really working, that we’re just going in constant cycles, yet we keep doing it anyway. Most of us have heard things like ‘diets don’t work’, ‘it’s about making changes in our lifestyle’ but it can be really hard to do things differently.

I can relate all these things to regulation issues. Our nervous system doesn’t operate well when we’re in extremes, we work best when we are balanced and in control. Sometimes we know when we need to be more activated and energetic, and then when we need to be more relaxed, we need to recharge our batteries and settle. It’s the same way we go about meeting our needs and managing ourselves. If we know we have a tendency to live in extremes, then we have to be prepared to start building some middle ground, a place where we stop bouncing from Phase 1 to Phase 2, and back again.

To really start to do things differently, we have to be realistic about the things we really want to abstain completely from, the things we honestly know we can’t have moderation with. This is different for each of us, but it requires being honest with ourselves, and it usually includes evidence from our past experiences. We might want to be occasional smokers or drinkers, but if we know that one slip sends us into the extreme again, then we maybe have to accept that we can’t be occasional with it.

We also have to look at what we think or feel about the idea of a middle ground. Could it be that we consider it dull or boring, or not enough? Do we think of it as too easy? That things that are worth having, have to be hard-earned? Do we believe that unless it’s extreme, it might not work? Are we too impatient to build a middle ground? Do we just want fast results?

We have gotten used to a very immediate way of life, we rarely have to wait for anything anymore and can feel quite outraged if we are expected to wait for anything. To create change, we have to know what we really think about building that middle ground, as our thoughts will creep in at any opportunity, urging us to do more or less, telling us it’s a waste of time or not working. We then have to decide what our middle ground will look like, how much flexibility we can have in it, and what signs would be there that tells us that we’re slipping into either Phase 1 or Phase 2. We also have to consider what support we might need to help us build our middle ground, and to maintain it until it feels like the normal. It will be a struggle at some points, but we need to expect that. Regulation takes work, whether it’s keeping us in a settled functional state, or making big changes in our lifestyle. Therefore, we need to know what’s going on in order to help and what isn’t. If we are trying to do less of something, then we need to know what we are going to fill the gap with. We might need to have a bit of structure planned in. If we are forcing ourselves to do something, then we have to accept that it won’t last. Relying on others doing things with us is also precarious, in case they drop out.

The more balance we can get into our lives, the more regulated all round we are going to feel. If we are constantly stressing about not doing something, or doing too much of anything, it’s going to be really hard for your nervous system to keep in balance. A holistic approach is always the most successful and actually, the easiest! Making little tweaks in several different areas can make an overall big difference over time, but we need to be patient and keep an eye on our extreme tendencies. This way we can successfully manage our extreme behaviours.

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How to put yourself first: Meeting your own needs

Meeting our own needs is something that we all struggle with. For some people it’s just mystifying, for others it gets messy when they are in a relationship. It can be really difficult to put ourselves first. The first question we need to ask ourselves is, how were our needs met when we were growing up?

Our needs are the fundamental things in life, the way we were fed, the comfort, the support we were given and how we were treated when we were frightened or upset. It’s also how we were encouraged, or allowed to make choices for ourselves. For instance, if we were always told what to do, what to eat, denied an opinion, had our choices ignored or worse, we were belittled, then we become very used to others making the decisions and providing for us. We might even start to become fearful about making a choice or expressing a need because of the reaction we might get from someone. These patterns then become ingrained in us, they become second nature and we don’t realise how we’re operating. It means that we start to rely on others to either make these decisions or choices for us, or we learn to read others and second guess what they might want. The problem with that is, is that other people can be very unreliable and we end up feeling frustrated about not having a say, without really knowing why. Sometimes we might actually know what it is we want, but instead we give clues to other people hoping that they will pick them up. If they don’t, it then becomes frustrating and it reinforces the idea that we are invisible or we don’t matter, suddenly we don’t know how to put ourselves first.

It can be really infuriating when we are actually presented with a choice, but we have no idea what to say or do. We really beat ourselves up about it. It can also make things quite limiting, if we can’t make a choice and always defer it to others, then we can’t protest if we don’t like the outcome. When we can start to recognise this and notice what our patterns of behaviour are, then it becomes easier to spot them and it gives us an opportunity to work on them. Some people find that they are quite good at meeting their own needs when they’re on their own, but this then gets disrupted when other people get involved.

So how can you put yourself first and start meeting your own needs?

Our needs cover so many different areas of our lives, so it’s easier to break them down into smaller chunks to explore. Emotional needs can feel a bit daunting as a starting point, they can also be more complicated and affected by a lot of different things. If we start with a need that’s easier to pin down and quantify, this can be a good place to begin working on them.

If it’s not too much of a triggering subject, then you could start by looking at food and your relationship to feeding yourself:

  • Firstly, you can look at how you can tell when you’re hungry. Are you eating at set times, because that’s what you’ve always done, or are you eating when your body is actually telling you it should eat?
  • Do you eat differently when you are alone? If so, how differently and is it the way you like it?
  • Do you cook more and make more effort for others, more than you do for yourself?
  • Are you making what others would like?
  • Are you eating the amount that is right for you, and at a time that suits you, or are these things regulated by others? In other words, are you putting others needs before your own? If so, then you are minimising your own needs.

We can take a moment to just be curious about that

  • Consider what it would look like if you put your needs first. What reaction do you have to that prospect?
  • How much sleep do you need?
  • What time would you like to go to bed and what time would you like to get up?

What’s getting in the way?

If the reality of what you actually do is long way off from what you would like, then it’s worth wondering about what’s getting in the way.

  • When it gets to the time at night you have identified, what stops you going to bed?
  • If it’s cold, do you put the heating on exactly when you need to, or do you wait until it’s freezing? Would you put the heating on earlier if someone else was there?

If we really struggle to identify our own needs, knowing what is right for us and why, then putting boundaries in place is going to be really difficult. If other peoples needs take priority, then we will have our boundaries dismantled really easily. It’s very easy to get lost and end up feeling controlled, or even just insignificant, which does nothing for our self worth or self esteem.

It’s really beneficial to consider what our needs are and what our relationship to ourselves is like, it allows growth in so many different areas. We often do things in a certain way just because that’s how it’s always been, when we take some time to consider different options and choices, it can open up all kinds of possibilities.

Some people express a worry that this will be seen or lead to selfishness, it won’t. It’s not self-obsessed or self-indulgent, it’s about getting the right balance and getting a say in what is right for us. It’s about taking responsibility for ourselves and not needing to be so reliant on others. It’s never selfish to discover more about ourselves and grow in confidence, it just makes our lives and the lives of people around us easier.

Our body work course that recently went live is packed full of different ways you can learn to recognise your own needs and build a strong, connected relationship to your body. It’s the best way to learn how to put yourself first and meet your own needs. We designed it to make it accessible and easy for everyone to use and do, and we wanted to create something affordable for everyone. To check it out, click the button below.

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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.

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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.

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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.