Unresolvable problems: the paradox of disorganised attachment

The paradox of disorganised attachment is that we have a biological need for closeness, security and comfort from parents or caregivers even when those parents or caregivers instil terror and a sense of threat in us.

Children with disorganised attachment are placed in a “paradoxical injunction” by the caregiver, according to Professor Erik Hesse from UC Berkeley, activating both an approach and a move away tendency in the child.

The search for answers

Spiritual teachings promising freedom from fear don’t necessarily work for people suffering from a disorganised attachment.

In my case, the search for spiritual truth and “answers” is an attempt to overcome the paradoxical injunction; yet the answers I found were too generic or insufficiently tailored to my circumstances of temperament and upbringing.

But it’s not just a matter of insufficient answers: the very act of searching can be seen as part of the disorganised dynamic…trying to overcome the feelings of fear and satisfy the need for secure attachment albeit in a highly abstract and intellectual way

Searching is therefore a symptom or expression of the paradoxical injunction, and is itself paradoxical – a search for answers that is never complete.

When I search I feel like I’m approaching a resolution. But in fact I’m acting out my approach, sublimating the desire for secure attachment with a caregiver into the desire for a spiritualised state of freedom and peace.

And that’s why it fails, because from within that dynamic I can only conceive of such a spiritual state as implicitly very difficult to attain.

The search is my attachment.

Resolving the unresolvable

How can this unresolvable problem be resolved? I think the only way to stop the cycle is before it begins, to stop feeding it with my search and acknowledge how I’ve kept it alive all these years.

I already know from my Abraham-Hicks work that I can feel better easily. And the more I practice feeling better, the better I feel.

I’ve also observed that my need to search for answers has been disruptive, making me feel worse in the long run despite the allure of finally finding a resolution.

On the most basic level I have an association of love with terror and security with instability. Things that are “safe” don’t offer the deepest happiness and things that offer happiness are beset with obstacles and threats.

But I can be mindful of this association now. I can observe it, see the pattern, and begin to let it go, instead of acting on it and thereby keeping it alive.

Practicing happiness 04

When you feel like crap “just feel better” is the most unhelpful-sounding advice. After all, there are reasons why you feel bad right now, it’s not simply a choice, right?

Well that’s true: it’s not simply a choice; it’s also a practiced habit. That’s why feeling bad comes easier than feeling better, at first.

As I’m learning about attachment theory, I can see how feeling better is like a child turning to his or her parent or caregiver for security, comfort, reassurance and affection.

Perhaps the sense that feeling better is trivial or not enough is related to our attachment style? If we never learned to find genuine security and comfort with a parent or caregiver then we implicitly never learned to value simply feeling better when we feel bad.

Bitter self-reliance

For me the inability to find reliable security and comfort in my attachments led to a kind of resignation towards suffering, and self-reliance in seeking to avoid future suffering.

That’s why “feel better” seems insufficient to me…I never learned how. Ingrained in my childhood was more of a “endure until it goes away” approach to suffering, followed by an intense search for deeper answers that promised to help me “overcome” suffering forever.

And that pattern has helped shape my life. Alongside my perennial search for “answers”, I’ve done my best to avoid suffering as much as possible while also silently enduring whatever conditions I consider unavoidable.

Securely feeling better

That’s why feeling better is ultimately such a powerful thing to learn and practice especially when I feel like it’s “not enough”.

Every moment of intentionally feeling better is retraining my mind and body into a completely new pattern capable of maintaining equilibrium and balance.

Imagine what a difference that makes, to go from an attitude where suffering is inevitable (and can only be overcome through extreme effort) to one where suffering can be quickly and effectively neutralised and soothed, and the opposite – genuine good feeling – can be developed and grow.

That’s why those moments where I feel bad, and feeling better seems insufficient, are the most valuable moments to practice.

Are you searching for coherence?

I recently learned about disorganised attachment and immediately wanted to share it with you all.

Attachment theory is all about our childhood need for secure attachment to parents or caregivers. But when those attachment figures are not available or unreliable it shapes our attachment and our subsequent view of life and relationships.

The original theory covered anxious attachment and avoidant attachment and I couldn’t see myself in either of those…or maybe in both? But that didn’t make sense.

Well it turns out there were enough people who didn’t fit either category that they created a new one: disorganised attachment.

Disorganised attachment means you weren’t able to find an attachment style that worked, because the people you turned to for security were themselves threatening and unsafe. As an adult you may struggle to find a stable way of relating to yourself and others.

If you find it hard to know who you are, or to understand others, this may apply to you. Listen to this excellent podcast:

https://www.therapistuncensored.com/tu61/

How to unlearn conditional happiness

I recently told a friend struggling with feeling appreciated that:

No one can appreciate you more than you appreciate yourself.

But I think there’s probably a better way to explain it, albeit a less pithy one.

What I was trying to say to my friend was that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to get others to appreciate him. His sense of appreciation is limited by how much he appreciates himself.

If you are unwilling to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, love yourself, value yourself, then no amount of seeking those affirmations from others will succeed.

I know this is a bit of a cliche, but it’s no platitude.

We have the capacity at any time to regard ourselves more positively, but instead we defer this positive self-regard, setting conditions for ourselves to attain it.

Most theories suggest that we have a natural approval for ourselves as children, but are conditioned to lose it as we grow up.

As we attach to our parents or carers, we learn how to relate to ourselves from how they relate to us.

A self-absorbed, unavailable parent who can’t put aside their own frustrations to show love and comfort to their child teaches the child to apply the same conditions within themselves.

“I can’t show you love and affection because you spilled your milk, or because you won’t listen to me, or because I have more important things on my mind”

So the child learns that love and affection are conditional…they are only forthcoming when the conditions are just right.

The parent has the capacity to let go of their concerns and give the child the love and affection he or she needs. But they choose not to, albeit under the influence of their own weighty internal conditions.

Likewise, we ourselves have the capacity to let go of our concerns and conditions and give ourselves the love, affection, respect, appreciation, and other qualities we desire.

Have you ever looked at a happy, well-adjusted person and wondered “How dare they?” How do they let themselves off so easily? How do they treat themselves so well when they haven’t done anything to merit it…at least not by our harsh standards.

Or perhaps you assume they must have done something to earn it. They must be special or different, or perhaps you are the one who is different in some deficient way?

But the truth is that the capacity is there in all of us, to love ourselves, treat ourselves well, with respect and kindness and…whatever is required to feel happiness and joy in our lives.

That’s what we most desire from others. But it’s a paradox: the only way to get what we want from others is to accept it first in ourselves.

Otherwise we will sabotage our own efforts – either by trying too hard and too desperately, or by picking the wrong people, or the wrong timing, or going about things in completely the wrong way.

You may not walk around thinking it consciously, but implicit in your desire for others’ love and approval is the recognition that then you will be able to feel good in yourself.

And that’s what creates the paradox. You refuse to feel good now because you believe you’re not good enough or deserving enough. You haven’t met the conditions you internalised while growing up.

Then you meet someone and you think “if this person loves me, or appreciates me, or approves of me, that will mean I’m good enough now!”

So the other person becomes the condition of your own self-approval. It doesn’t really work though, because self-approval is intrinsically unconditional. External factors are irrelevant.

When your parents or carers mistreated you, their excuses were irrelevant too. It’s because they were irrelevant that they cannot be resolved, and if you’re lucky, you will have observed these never-ending patterns of behaviour in people’s lives.

You can start to witness that people who find excuses for mistreating you go on to find more and more excuses. People who love to complain have a knack for finding things to complain about. People who live in misery carefully avoid things that might draw them out into happiness.

And if you can see it in others you can probably see it in yourself too, the artful way you flirt with calamity or keep yourself in a state of anxiety. It’s immersive and it feels “real”, but every now and then you can see the genuine multiplicity of options that surround you, the unfathomable range of directions your life could go, and how suspicious it is that you nonetheless keep it firmly on a single track.

That doesn’t mean you’re doing it “wrong”, it just means you can change when you’re ready, when you want to.

The best part of that change is to realise you can give yourself, enjoy for yourself, the wonderful positive feelings that you thought had to wait until conditions were met.