Fearful Attachment

There is a dog that comes to school. He belongs to VP Ma’am. Keep in mind, she has mixed feelings about pets and feels sorry for animals and feeds them, but doesn’t really like them. So it’s her dog, but don’t imagine great affection between them.

He comes to school, as  lot of dogs, and it’s probably partly about company and partly about free food, because whatever the kids don’t eat, they just dump on the ground for the dogs. Since parents here are often worried about their kids getting enough to eat (an era of starvation probably remains lodged in their subconscious), our dogs are well fed.

What strikes me about the dog is that, unlike other dogs around here that are kept as pets, he won’t allow anyone to touch him. He does not believe anything good can come of physical contact.

It brings home to me how, in human beings, dysregulated parents too unpredictable to decipher create children who have worked out what distance it is safe to be from other people to stay safe while getting enough of their needs met to survive.

I wrote in a previous post about something I read regarding abused children, especially children taken into care having intrusions during the Strange Situation Procedure in which they approach the stranger for comfort and then, en route, collapse in confusion and fear. They really are caught between two instincts: to seek proximity and to flee.

When I think back on C’s simmering anger, sometimes it was because I had crossed that line of what felt safe or, in some cases, she had crossed that line: she was braced to defend herself. I don’t know how to describe the change in my perspective. Declarative knowledge of how traumatized children experience the world alone lacks sufficient detail to be convincing. You need to know how feelings feel, what it makes faces look like, and the kinds of experiences which lead to those reactions. I had not fully grasped the reality of it.

In college, I had a much older friend enrolled alongside the rest of us emerging adults, and she was caught up in a destructive relationship with one of my classmates. Once, she described the classmate as, “Come here, Now go away.” Traumatized people can rely on exerting inappropriate or excessive forms of control, but I don’t know that giving conflicting messages about closeness was exactly a form of control. Equally likely, she was responding to her own instinctive responses to needing support, but feeling afraid during an approach.

I also think maintaining the distance that kept you safe as a child is likely to be taught to the next generation, however distance is maintained–whether you skate lightly over the surface in conversation, or strive for perfection so as not to have any vulnerability, or avoid in-person or real-time interaction. I think the child who finds the right balance between need and fear grows up to be a parent who teaches this same balance to her children, because memories of parent-child interactions surface when she is with her own child. Fear of her parent colours into fear of her child. It’s also carried into romantic relationships, because these are support-seeking/support-giving (attachment) relationships.

It may look and talk like independence, but it is not. It is fear.

In couples therapy, we once completed an exercise in which we drew our personal space in the carpet with our fingers. Mine was so small, I couldn’t stay inside it. What the therapist missed was my wish that at least my own body might be safe. It’s not that I don’t want any buffer space between me and the rest of the world, but I had never had the right to any space at all.

My partner at the time said that we would both need to leave the room for her to feel safe–not even a bedroom-sized therapy room was enough.

I realize now the default for mentalizing other people’s desires and intentions on her part was so determined by previous, abusive or exploitative experiences that she really could not contemplate what anyone might be trying to do in the present. Which, of course, makes it even more scary and confusing, because if you aren’t trying to harm or exploit her, you become an inscrutable mystery.

One of my realizations a few years ago, which sounds slight, but has massive implications for my social life, is that I am unlikely to be the only one in any group to have been traumatized. It’s not me in the midst of normal people. It’s me with a scattering of people who have psychological issues similar to mine, and I had better get it worked out what’s going on with all of us, because I can’t just excise all of them out of my life.

Even if I don’t want to be close to other people with my issues–and they are the ones most likely to understand what I am going through–I work with them. They sit in my classroom.

It helps a lot to understand why people might be acting on instincts to move forward or flee (or fight) and to be mindful when it’s happening so that I can recognize it and react in a gentler way. It should also be helpful to see when I am caught up in these conflicting instincts myself.



The brain seeks coherence. It looks for continuity and applies previously learned knowledge.

I have this idea that rejection is so painful for some people, because the search for coherence calls up previously learned negative information about the self. Rejection is always painful, but some rejections hurt more than others.

I had a borderline/narcissistic mother. My informal diagnosis–it’s the best I can do to make sense of things. I’ve started to realize she was very stressed for many quite real reasons, she had few strategies for coping and few reliable resources, and she fell back rather heavily on anxious (expressive/emotional) strategies.

Anxious strategies signal but don’t strategize. So if a parent is using anxious strategies to seek care from a child, the child is left wondering what to do. Something must be done. The parent is clearly distressed and escalating signals of distress, but the child is left without solution. The parent’s confusing, dysregulating distress prompts flight in the child.

And then there is this intrusive phenomenon, which I have witnessed, but don’t understand in which the parent directs attention towards herself in the face of the child’s distress. When the child signals distress to the parent, the parent overwhelms the child with her own signals, rather than the child activating the parent’s strategizing capacity.

The take-away from the borderline parent is the feeling in the child of being inadequate. The parent, who eventually gives up in despair, leaves the child feeling abandoned.

I don’t remember any of this consciously and yet, at a feeling level, I think this is exactly what happened. The sense of being discarded in favour of someone or something else who can provide comfort to the parent, because I was unable to meet my parent’s needs seems utterly familiar.

I think it means that all separations are first considered through this lens. It’s like assuming if it’s light out, probably the sun came up. Sun leaking though the curtains has happened so many times, it just seems like the most likely explanation for lightness.

The thing is that I think this is also passed on, and that my mother was triggered by my distress as an infant because she experienced the same dynamic with her own mother as I experienced with her. She had to stop my expressions of distress, because they triggered in her overwhelming, confusing and unintegrated memories of her own mother discarding her after she failed to provide adequate comfort.

This has very, very serious implications. If I learned during infancy, in the process of signalling everyday needs and desires, that I will be either silenced or overwhelmed by my parent, then in times of emergency, that’s what I will remember.

I can’t run for help when there’s a dead body on the ground, because my experience has been that asking for help means I will be expected to comfort the other person rather than be helped myself and, moreover, I will be abandoned for failing to provide that comfort.

Indignation and lying in bed

We have a few more days of vacation, and the wheels are still turning.

drainI struggle with this sometimes. Many holidays, I start off with all these plans and then it’s like, yeah, but being productive is cutting into the time my mind wanders. I’m never sure whether it’s worth it or not, or even necessary.

I did finish cleaning the drain, although not up to my expectation, because my neighbour could not really bear to watch me work and both helped me and discouraged me from reaching a point that felt like completion to me. (Where does that damn thing go, anyway?)

I do have some interesting ideas kicking around in my head, though. I have been thinking about myself and my behaviour, the little daily struggles and spirals of bad feelings, and seeing it through the lens of intention and perception–mostly intention. Very specifically, “What am I trying to do right now?” So flipping the script away from trying to control my thoughts and impulses, and towards seeing (inner) communication and behaviour as goal-directed, whether that’s working out for me or not.

The backdrop to this is that I have also been thinking about these moments as very likely shaped by attachment styles: even when I am alone, how I relate to myself is probably not different than how I might relate to other people.

dirtOf course, attachment has to do with how you seek care from other people, but I just keep trying on the lens, not expecting it will always fit. Maybe this is an attachment moment. Maybe I am soliciting my own help in something. What is that something?

My main assumptions about attachment are that dismissive attachment involves greater involvement of the cerebral cortext. It relies on cause-and-effect reasoning, sequence, prioritizing, and planning, but it does not move the individual towards getting the support of other people.

Anxious attachment solicits support, but has no plan. It relies on signaling to others that support is needed, but does not move the individual towards other people for support. The cerebral cortex is underinvolved.

I’m reminded of traumatized children who will keep everything inside all day, not ask for help (dismissive attachment) only to get home and tantrum about the problems without being able to articulate what the problems are. If the parent doesn’t get it, they just signal harder (anxious attachment).

I have two ideas about myself that I am just observing to see how they play out. One comes from the idea I wrote about in my last post: the intrusive parent interferes with their children’s development of the skills they need in the world, so these children do not really feel confident about their abilities.

I think their are many reasons behind this: the parent may over-empathize with the child’s vulnerability and be intolerant of the child taking small risks, but it’s equally likely that when the parent sees the child’s engagement and interest in something other than the parent, the parent experiences the child’s independence as a threat to themselves.

As I consider this, I do understand it as a variation on normal. We don’t let our kids touch hot stoves or run out in front of cars. We all restrict children’s independence to what we see as being a reasonable degree of risk.

But I’m talking about an impulsive, almost random interference of the child that seems more about crushing the child’s aliveness. I think of it in these terms, because I remember my ex remarking at the beginning of a couples therapy session after a week when I had been particularly depressed that she had never been happier in our relationship.

I do suspect my childhood was something like this, and just as my partner at the time wanted me to be present without making demands or being involved in my own thing to the extent that I might become unavailable or make her jealous of my fulfillment or in any other upset her delicate balance, I think my mother also wanted me to be present, but emotionally dead.

The consequence of that kind of childhood is what it’s intended to be: a child who easily feels vulnerable and lacks confidence in their abilities, although this may be masked. If your parent is kind of a Whack-A-Mole, it’s really hard to know what you can actually do and not do.

The parent doesn’t want to (or can’t) provide comfort, but they want you close at hand, so that at least some of their attachment needs are met. So I have been thinking that it may be, as I go about my normal day, I may feel more frequently than I would expect that I may not be able to handle a challenge, and some of my negative moments may be about an activated attachment system. I have been thinking this may specifically be intrusions of anxious attachment in my otherwise dismissive day.

The thing about anxious-resistant attachment in children is that the parent is unable to de-activate the child’s attachment system very quickly. Even when comfort is offered, the child keeps on expressing distress, as though the parent could not figure out what was wrong and could not help the child and the child needs to keep the parent’s attention until she can identify what it is.

The other thing is that what is often observed at this point is punishing or rejecting behaviours from the child. Comfort is offered and the child slaps it away. The child is very expressive of anger. I have been thinking that the child is trying to de-activate the attachment system by shifting into the dominance system.

Normally, I speculate, the child shifts into the cooperative system: if you’ve ever changed the diaper of a child who doesn’t want changing, you’ll understand that fairly early on, babies are helping you. They understand you need to lift up their butts, and babies help you with that.

I suspect the child with anxious attachment sees other people as being unwilling to help: cause-and-effect are shaking in anxious attachment, and the effect of not being comforted may be confused with the cause. The anger is about expressing dominance: I’m going to intimidate you or frighten you into helping me.

I think this may show up later as indignation. “People should be helping me. Look how wounded I am?” But exaggerating my feelings of woundedness to myself is really painful for me.

So I’m just tracking this as the day goes.

At the same time, if you have a parent with anxious attachment, who does frequently express anger and hostility and is very rejecting and punitive, then what you will feel in response is submissiveness, which might be: I’ll just go lie down for a while.  Submissiveness is low-energy, despairing. It does not reach outward. It gives up. Fatigue may be an attachment strategy of last resort.

My idea is to notice this and to ferret out what the danger or discomfort is.



With my mother

I have zero contact with my mother and have not had any for decades, so when I think about how our relationship shaped, I have to rely on some degree of imagination. I don’t actually “remember” very much about her.

I do think our relationship is at the core of what happens to me in the mornings when I wake up. As an infant, I woke up, I felt separation anxiety, I cried. And then something upsetting and frightening happened between us.

What was it?

I don’t think it was exclusively acts of physical violence. Violence followed it. That’s my supposition, anyway.

And this is my idea about it.

Because my mother sometimes got it right, sometimes cared for me, and wasn’t entirely rejecting or unresponsive, as an infant I developed an anxious attachment to her. And I think what happens in situations of anxious attachment is that the working model of the self and others revolves around the idea that the caretaker does not want to care for you, but can be forced to do so. There is an underlying assumption of rejection.

The child exaggerates and intensifies signals of distress so that the parent cannot possible overlook the signal, but when comfort is offered, the child appears to reject it, because in fact the presence of the parent triggers feelings of rejection.

The closer the parent comes, the more painful her feelings of rejection are. Given that the parent seems willing to listen to the child, the child’s instinct is again to exaggerate and intensify this feeling: the child wants to communicate to the parent her pain at expecting rejection, and this desire to communicate strengthens the feeling. The child appears to reject the parent and expresses ambivalence about being comforted, because she is trying to regulate the intensity of her rejection pain by trying to get the parent to move away again, so that she is able to lessen this impulse to communicate her pain.

Due to the working model that the parent’s intention is not to offer comfort, and comfort is only being offered under duress, the child is overwhelmed by the pain of rejection. The child’s expectation of rejection is stronger than the reality of the comfort being offered. Anxious attachment emphasizes feelings, and in this mode, feelings strongly shape perceptions of reality. Even if the parent is not rejecting the child, the expectation of rejection is so intense, it will cause the child to perceive rejection even when it is not there.

At a sensory level, my intense expressions of distress overwhelmed my mother. More than that, my apparent ambivalence about accepting her comfort led her to feel incompetent as a parent. I think she saw me and saw failure, saw rejection, saw pain and so she learned to be afraid of me.

This became internalized as my view of myself. In moments when I saw myself, this is who I saw first: someone frightening, monstrous, malignant. Because that’s what my mother saw. I didn’t at that age have an ability to symbolically manipulate images of myself. If my mother saw me as frightening, then I was frightening. Monstrousness seemed to be who I was.

And I think I became frightened of self-awareness.


Intermittent Reinforcement

I read some very interesting things today about anxious-ambivalent attachment.

Now, keep in mind that people with disorganized attachment usually have a primary attachment style that breaks down under extreme stress, leading to disorganization. So my likely-borderline mother was often disorganized, but she had a substrate of an organized attachment style.

I’ve not really been normal since I came back to Y-town. I function, but I don’t feel okay. My mind feels squishy, prone to irrationality and intense feelings I can’t understand. So I suppose this made me begin to think about my mother’s attachment style and how it might have felt for me. I seem unable to be productive.

Actually, I didn’t read about preoccupied attachment in adults. I read about anxious-ambivalent infants and the kinds of caretaking relationships they have, which seem to lead to their preoccupation with keeping their parents close.

I don’t necessarily think I have a preoccupied attachment style, but I recognize the kind of mother described and perhaps also the expectations of relationships which this kind of mother passes on to her child.

The primary supposition is that the most effective reinforcement schedule for a behaviour is intermittent reinforcement. Given this, the parent who creates a preoccupied child is inconsistently available. Sometimes the child’s bids for attention and soothing work. Sometimes they don’t. Consequently, the child is conditioned to make a lot of these kinds of bids. She is also fearful of letting go of the parent’s attention, because she has no confidence in her ability to regain it.

The child’s exploratory efforts are curtailed, as her focus must stay on the parent. The result is an impairment in the development of skills which lead toward self-regulation, goal-directed behaviour, and social interaction with peers.

The unconscious goal of the parent creating this kind of needy little monster is to meet her own attachment needs, to ensure that the child remains available to the parent in her order to soothe her, and to prevent feelings of abandonment by undermining the child’s efforts toward developing independence. In fact, the mothers of anxious-ambivalent children are observed to be intrusive, actively blocking the child’s attempts to play or self-soothe.

As the child develops a self-image, it is likely to be one of dependence and helplessness. She is kept helpless in order to support her parent’s need to feel confident. She finds the world difficult to manage, as her ability to explore and develop the skills necessary for independence lag behind that of other children her age, and exploration actually feels more difficult because her mother interferes with it rather than supports it.

There was certainly a lot more going on in my relationship with my mother than this, but I can relate to this, and I have a uncanny sense of being able to “remember” my childhood in a way that feels like remembering to me. Something about the narrative of why things happened connects emotion to other sensory information.

In this kind of relationship, the goal of criticism is to diminish the child’s belief in her efficacy and intensify her dependence on her mother for support. Although her mother is the source of her loss of self-esteem, it’s the parent who must be turned to in its absence.

This makes more sense to me as a part of my mother’s attachment strategy than believing she was merely searching for ways to self-enhance by comparison. Not that people don’t do that, but this fits better.

It explains my otherwise vague sense that she did not like me. She was angry at me for appearing to leave her. Criticism was my punishment, but also the means by which to keep me around. And the thing is this was passed down. The chief conflict between her own mother and herself was a tendency to criticize. Blow-ups followed my grandmother’s criticism of my mother, as it had its desire effect of causing my mother to turn to my grandmother for restoration of her self-image without my mother understanding this as the (unconscious) motive.

It places her sudden intrusions into my attempts to self-regulate and explore into a better context: why she abruptly told me to stop reading and go outside and play. She didn’t really mean it: she just wanted to interrupt me. Why she (twice) went through my trash can for old drafts of stories I was writing and then had rage fits over their contents. She didn’t care if I read or wrote or not. She just didn’t really want me to do anything.

It created in me an expectation of relationships being consuming and that I probably needed to flee them in order to carry out my own interests, but I think it also explains how I feel throughout the day as I have these seemingly irrational states of mind in which I feel hopeless or helpless for no apparent reason.

It’s something I want to track, as I have these negative feelings and intensely bad images of myself: is this about having my independence curtailed? Is it about feeling as though I have failed at eliciting a caretaker’s support? These are the questions for the days which lie ahead.


I have an idea kicking around about the dynamic which develops between a parent like mine–maybe very anxiously attached, maybe borderline, but someone whose cognitive functions are easily overwhelmed by instinct. Things seem to be a certain way, because it feels that way.

A parent like this is difficult for a child to decipher. In a more typical growing-up experience, patterns emerge. These may be stated or unstated, but most children can work out not to touch the hot stove whether or not the parent says “hot” or not, because when the child tries to touch it, the parent consistently acts in an angry way. A parent like mine doesn’t create these kinds of patterns for a child to begin to internalize, because the parent’s perceptions are so strongly biased by small elements of the experience or by traumatic linkages not evident to the child.

A sense of danger increases internal motivation to form judgments and make decisions based on less information: the man caught in the line of fire may only see the gun and not the shooter. A stressed parent’s mind may be especially likely to be biased towards making decisions based on little information, and an anxiously attached parent will do it based on the intensity of emotional experience, rather than its relevancy.

Because the parent’s perceptions of reality are so easily biased, the child has great difficulty interpreting when a situation is dangerous or not. Her task in childhood is to be able to cope more adeptly with situations of danger so that as she grows, everyday experiences are no longer dangerous for her. But, because she is unable to internalize her parent’s viewpoint, her ability to cope with danger is impaired. It becomes important to stay close to the parent, because the parent’s affect seems to be a more reliable indicator of danger than circumstances. Although it is the parent’s mind which is impenetrable, it seems to the child to render life inscrutable.

This need to stay physically close in order to get a read on life inhibits the child’s developmental need to play and experiment, and the exploratory system is impaired. He does not have the chance to develop goal-oriented behaviours: progress towards something desired is shaky. She may grow up to find frustration difficult to manage or inclined to give up too quickly. Or, she may perseverate and ignore signals which indicate maybe she should give up or try another tack.

It impairs the parent’s ability to function as well. The child’s need for constant proximity and interpretation of her experiences interferes with the adult’s pursuit of normal life. Last year, around this time, we had a day when dinner got on a bit late and we all decided we wanted French fries, which take a bit of time, and it was really stressful for me to do it, because one of the kids kept walking back and forth behind me the whole time I was trying to deep fry as though she thought I might forget she was hungry if I didn’t have her body constantly in danger of colliding with mine….It creates a dynamic in which intense closeness is both craved and suffocating.

Of course, it’s not always so benign. The parent’s adult goals may not be caring for the child and creating a stable life for the family, including themselves. The parent may find themselves blocked from lying in bed all day, unsuccessfully self-soothing (as mine did) ,or abusing drugs, or creating with an intimate partner the same kind of consuming relationship the child seeks from the parent.

The child with this kind of parent may grow up to turn this pattern on its head with her own child, simply because that’s the kind of relationship she knows. It serves no real purpose, as monopolizing her child’s attention in the way she attempted to monopolize her parent’s attention serves no real purpose. Her own child is neither unable to inform her of potential danger nor able to help. But it can be instinctive, deeply learned.

When we talk of attachment wounds, I don’t think that wound stems from unmet needs in the past which have left some kind of gaping hole in the self: I think it’s this instinctual craving for a confusing parent to come and make some sense out of life for you, because the parent’s brain was never lucid enough to pass on a reasonable understanding of the world to you.

Some of the layers of experiences with rejection stem from this: the child’s craving for constant attention is incompatible with the demands of modern life; The child must reject the parent in order to develop her own skills.

A more subtle pattern may also develop, in which either the parent or the child may come to avoid relationships altogether as these are experienced as activating this hungry mouth of attachment need.

I think it’s possible, with an adult mind, to undo this, and to develop an understanding of the world which is comprehensible based on observation. I don’t think it always has to be like this, nor do I think one necessarily has to continue to return to enmeshed, consuming relationships.

The Journey

I have been on the two-day journey back to Y-town, only the monsoon is doing what it often does and causing landslides. This is partly due to bare-bones road construction, which involves shaving off the sides of the mountain while doing nothing to prevent inevitable erosion. It’s partly due to global warming, which has led to more rainfall and less snowfall. And it also just happens.

So all was well until about 4 hours away from Y-town, when we came across 2 baby elephant-sized boulders in the road, plus a bunch of mud and stones, but the big boulders were the issue. There were no bulldozers or backhoes available to clear it and they had a couple of short-handled hoes, a shovel, and a metal pole for using as a crowbar. Plus some not very robust-looking road-workers. They tried to dynamite the boulder to no avail. The road workers got back into a truck and left us to wait for divine intervention.

Instead, many of us got our things and walked, not aware of the rock slides ahead. Or maybe we were aware and tried our best not to think about it. I know I was aware that sitting and waiting to see if rocks would fall on us too did not seem wise.

We met two taxis on the other side of the boulder which carried us to the next rock slide and we again walked, this time met by a truck trying to turn back. We all climbed in the back, and rode in that until we were stopped by a fresh rock slide we could hear ominously roaring as we approached. We walked past that and and continued walking past a total obliteration of the roadway. At that point, unable to see where to stop without simply sliding into the canyon, I fell behind the others and I wonder what might have happened if a former student of a volunteer teacher from Thailand hadn’t come back to give us a hand.

It’s my personality: in times of trouble, I slow down and look very, very carefully. It’s never been more clearly on display for me before.

The thing is, I had two backpacks–not that heavy, but unwieldy, and other people were carrying a sack full of pots and pans, because someone was moving into the area from somewhere. I don’t know how people carried all of that.

But anyway, we got there.

On the other side of this death trap, we were met by another taxi, but not all of our group fit, and I am haunted by the faces of the two who chose to stay behind. Not that they looked sad about it, but I don’t think anyone was coming for them.

Then it was home free, more or less. The Thai teacher had called the Teacher Leader from my school, because she’s the wife of my principal, and she persuaded the VP of a nearby school to pick us up and we drove to the school campus in the cab of their luxurious pick-up.

And then for the moment I could rest.