Possibility Two: Repairing Disorganization to the Attachment System
As someone who spent much of his early life as a curmudgeonly, reclusive misanthrope – “people are stupid and dangerous and I feel way more better spending time alone” – I was more than a little surprised late in life to discover many things about how I got to think and feel that way.
One of the first surprises was that not everyone thought and felt this same way about other people. Some folks actually genuinely like other people, no matter what their faults or limitations. What a concept! In fact, they actually find such qualities interesting and endearing. “It’s what makes Dan, Dan,” my friend Jan once told me. “I simply relax and accept Dan for who he is.”
And that simple statement held a big clue for me. Jan could relax around Dan and other people. Unlike me, she wasn’t constantly having her limbic system high-jacked by what other people said and did. She wasn’t having to put in a lot of overtime and work really hard to calm her nervous system down. Her brain was clearly organized differently than mine.
So, the question for me became, how did Jan develop a nervous system that allowed her to so readily relax in the company of other people, especially intimate strangers? She wasn’t blind and deaf. She wasn’t dumb.
The Roots of Attachment
As the well-known ACE Study, which traced the childhood histories of 17,000 HMO members suggests, the way we are born and received into the world affects much that comes afterward, often unwittingly, over the whole lifespan (we’re also only now beginning to intimately learn how important conception and gestation – fetal origins – are, but that’s a different column). Psychology researchers call our early reception experience: attachment. Much time, energy, money and creativity has gone into studying attachment in the last half century plus. You can find a brief overview of that research here. The upshot is: if early on you’ve experienced anything but secure attachment, intimate relationships will be more challenging for you than for those who were securely attached from the beginning. The limbic structures in your brain are going to have people be more apt to make you nervous. Perhaps your brain will even distort your hearing and your vision, making you see and hear them as more stupid, irritating and dangerous than they actually are.
Such nervous distortion might then be the result of three other possible attachment options: avoidant, ambivalent or disorganized. Each of these less-than-securely-attached early beginnings makes us much more easily stressed by other humans. The ways and means open to us for modulating that stress are to mostly avoid other people, alternately approach and then avoid other people, or … “go off” emotionally on or in the presence of other people. Not the best options for having people feel like they might want to spend significant portions of their lives with us. We don’t usually choose to spend time with people who scare us or repeatedly upset us. The work required to do so is just too hard.
So, given that menu of options, secure early attachment would seem a very good way to be received into the world. Here’s what naturalist and prize-winning poet Diane Ackerman recently had to say in her NY Times Opinionator piece entitled, “The Brain in Love.” It sums up secure attachment well:
Every great love affair begins with a scream….During idylls of safety, when your brain knows you’re with someone you can trust, it needn’t waste precious resources coping with stressors or menace. Instead it may spend its lifeblood learning new things or fine-tuning the process of healing. Its doors of perception swing wide open. The flip side is that, given how vulnerable one then is, love lessons — sweet or villainous — can make a deep impression.
For those of us who have had too many villainous love lessons, the good news is something called “Earned Adult Secure Attachment.” Hanging out with safe, loving people, even if they aren’t partner material, allows our brains to grow connections – mostly connections that dampen the fear circuits and strengthen the connection and compas- sion circuits (mediated by my favorite brain structure – “the heart in the brain” – the Anterior Cingulate Cortex [ACC]).
Finally, what it has taken me more than a half century to understand is that the way my brain secretes thoughts and feelings about other people, affects the neurochemistry and the connections my neurons are later able to make. This, in a self-reinforcing loop, then affects the thoughts and feelings my brain secretes in response to other people. So, for example, the thought (or worse, the spoken words), “She’s ugly and her mother dresses her funny,” trigger the same neural patterns in my brain as they would if I were saying those same things to me about me, or if someone else was saying them to me about me. The old children’s retort: “I’m rubber and you’re glue, everything I say sticks to you. Everything you say bounces back to you” is only half right – everything I say and think sticks to … ME! Sticks in and takes up residence in my own tangled, neural network of a brain! How challenging is that to begin unraveling?
If you want to know more ahead of time about what it actually IS we’re all trying to unravel, and some useful ways to go about that process, click HERE.