(The following is an excerpt from my book Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World)
In 1995 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram assigned journalist Tim Madigan the task of writing about children’s television icon Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood). In the book, I’m Proud of You, Tim describes the unexpected and healing bond the two men formed. When the friendship began, Tim was a depressed man. He and his wife were on the verge of divorce. He could not escape depression, which he called “the furies.” Through letters and phone calls Tim began to understand that his emotional state was rooted in the fact that his father had never been able to share how proud he was of Tim. Fred Rogers became a surrogate, letting Tim know how proud he was of him. Surrounded by the love of one man, Tim learned to cry and be honest about his feelings. This alleviated his depression, and soon Tim’s marriage healed and his family blossomed.
For the first few years of my counseling practice I read and believed a lot of books that taught the way to mental health was to pull away from others and to have a clear sense of self. If there were relational problems, it just meant you were too connected – enmeshed — and needed to pull back. Some counselors call this differentiation. I’ve now changed my thinking. Having a sense of identity is important, but connection with others is essential to self-care and happiness. All the happiness research points to connectedness; not money, as many would imagine. Maintaining a healthy sense of belonging and attachment is critical. The answer to why people feel and act the way they do lies in the profound effect of a child’s bonding process with his or her caregivers early on.
One of the most frequent problems I see in my counseling office is people who are afraid to be seen. They tell me how they want to slither into the cracks of my couch. They seek to disappear through eating disorders, through being perfectly pleasant, or hiding all emotion. They smile and tell me they are fine, but from their body language I know otherwise. It makes sense that they would want to be invisible: In their family of origins, showing up meant getting hit or sexually violated or emotionally leaned on by adults. Juvenile brains aren’t equipped to deal with adult problems. Being invisible keeps people unconnected. This may have helped someone survive childhood but sooner or later loneliness takes root. Human beings are not meant to be alone.
Connection Starts Early
When parents attend to their youngsters’ needs, children gain the ability to self-soothe – they learn to calm themselves after experiencing life’s ups and downs. They also achieve something psychologists call emotional object constancy, which means they are able to experience themselves as loved, even in the absence of loved ones. That’s because the loved one is internalized. Children can go out into the world successfully because, in a sense, Mom and Dad are inside them. Important research now points to Attachment Theory as a major factor in marriage research: Partners who did not securely attach to parental figures in childhood struggle to attach to each other in adulthood. How successfully children form and maintain relationships throughout life is related to those early bonds of attachment. Attachment Theory states that everyone has a relationship style that will show up especially during times of stress and duress:
- Avoidant – Has an overinflated view of self and a poor view of others. Maybe a child had a depressed mom, or he was a colicky baby. If Mom didn’t respond he learns to rely on himself for soothing. He learns to turn towards things for comfort. Perhaps addiction is sewn early into a child’s life.
- Ambivalent – Has a poor view of self and an overinflated view of others. These people constantly seek approval. They are typically the worker bees in the church but eventually become exhausted trying to win affection from others.
- Disorganized – This person surely grew up with trauma. She has a poor view of self and of others. She can’t turn to herself or others for comfort.
- Secure – This person has a healthy view of self and of others. She sees her good and bad traits, and she can turn towards others without idealizing or fearing them.
Every day you are asking these questions of yourself and others: “Are you trustworthy, accessible, capable of loving me?” The answers you tell yourself not only impact your horizontal relationships with others, but also your vertical one with God. (There are some terrific books if you want to learn more: Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson, Attachments by Gary Sibcy and Tim Clinton, and How We Love by Milan Yerkovich.)
Created for Relationship
I believe God created us for relationship and that this has a profound influence on our life. First consider the Trinity. The Trinity reflects the social nature of God. God made angels and humans. This too shows God’s social orientation. Consider how in Genesis 3, God said everything was good. What was the only thing not good? For man to be alone. The Old Testament word Azar (‘ezer, ‘ezra, often used for God) means to come alongside, to protect, to support. Even from a very young age, being included seems to be “hard-wired” into our nature. Studies show the same areas of the brain are affected when we are excluded as are affected when we experience physical pain. Social isolation, not surprisingly, is as big a risk factor as smoking, and people with non-existent or very small social circles are at greater risk for cognitive decline and memory loss. Some of us think we can get by with our “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” mentality, but try doing that long enough and you’ll realize it’s not very effective. Sure, it keeps us safe; but it keeps us alone.
In the past few years I have trained in a model of marriage therapy called Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). This model was developed by the brilliant Sue Johnson and is based on Attachment Theory, which has as its premise the idea that people need to be attached and attuned to a safe “other” in order to branch out into the world. When marriages struggle, EFT therapists focus on people not knowing how to turn towards each other and ask for their needs to be met from a vulnerable place. They don’t know how to say, “I’m scared when you talk to that other woman,” or “When you yell at me like that, I feel like I can’t meet your needs. I feel like I’m not a good man.” Instead couples either pursue or distance — screaming and demanding for their needs to be met, or pulling away in fear of not being enough. This creates a dance that eventually turns into a toxic misstep. A pursuer may think she told her mate how much she needs him, but she does not do it in a vulnerable way that comes from her core needs (e.g. fear, sadness, longing). She verbally attacks. And the withdrawer may think he has told his mate that he’s scared he can’t meet her needs, but all she senses is his pulling away again. Consider for a moment how you learned to feel safe and get your needs met as a child.
Those who’ve suffered violations of human connection in previous relationships find it difficult to learn to trust and rely on others later in life. Secure attachment is the natural antidote to traumatic experiences. In fact, the best predictor of who will thrive after a traumatic experience are those who can seek out attachment with others and who are able to find people who will respond with comfort. Think about what you did after 9/11 or any other tragedy. Most people rushed to get close to the ones they love.
Two brilliant researchers, Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. Edward Tronick, tie all this information up in one short clip. I beg you to watch.
Attachment is one of my favorite topics so I hope this post was helfpul. To learn more, read one of my most popular blogposts.
Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.
She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."