Controlling attachment

I read some interesting things today. Fonagy’s research ties together the most interesting and resonant theories on trauma and mental illness I have found. Reading one article opens up a rabbit warren of new and interesting ideas.

I read them with some degree of desperation, as I am trying to figure out how to help The Boy, who pretended he was sick on Friday so that he could bring his friend to my house and play rather than sit in class. Then he stole money from me. I had to attend an event at school last night for 3 hours and he disappeared, taking the key with him, leaving the house unlocked.

C’s fear of me at midterm I still find difficult to understand.

The Girl goes through various odd and intense expressions when she sees me, but has not returned.

I don’t always feel prepared to stay in my right mind. There is a purpose behind my reading, although I also just like it.

Fonagy researches what happens to infants with disorganized attachment symptoms as they grow up. Most of them don’t continue to show signs of disorganization: they develop what are called controlling strategies instead, where the child works hard to direct the parent’s attention in ways that seem more typical of a parent directing a child.

He speculates this is because the child suppresses the attachment system (which has care-seeking as its goal) by activating other behavioural systems that compete with attachment.

Researchers have divided these controlling strategies into two types: punitive (where the child humilates, criticizes and embarrasses the parent) and caregiving (where the child is overly cheerful and solicitous in interactions with the parent).

There are several other behavioural systems which govern the behaviour of all mammals: ranking (dominance/submission), caregiving, sexual reproduction, and cooperation. The child using a punitive strategy is relying on the ranking system in order to avoid invoking a terrifying and confusing internal working model of the self and others which is contained within attachment experiences.

This explains to me some of the strange ways that C sometimes interacts with me: where she orders me around, for example: “Sit here.” “Go inside.” It also explains The Girl’s chronic irritability and dissatisfaction, in which she seems to imagine life as a struggle in which (for example) some people win in the contest over the window-seat and some people lose and, if there is not enough salt in the lunch, it is a grave transgression.

They are trying desperately to control the impulse to seek support by doing something else instead. It isn’t just that they don’t know whether I will be dangerous or not, but maybe that they think I am not dangerous, and what happens in the mind when they give in to the urge to seek safety is too terrible. In other words, it’s not the outer world that feels dangerous, but the inner world.



Peter Fonagy says that abused children adaptively fail to transfer mentalizing skills from one context to another. So their ability to take into account motives, feelings and thoughts in one situation may not be available to them in another situation. It’s a new word for me, and I am not entirely clear on what it means. It did remind me somewhat of compartmentalization and of the black-and-white thinking borderlines are especially known for, although they aren’t the only ones who do it.

I thought about how an abusive parent must be split into the “good” and the “bad” parent in order for the child to maintain enough confidence in the willingness of the parent to meet their needs for the child to go on presenting them and ultimately survive.

I began to think this splitting persists into adulthood, where other important people, including the self, are also seen as divided in this way and social decisions are based on very incomplete information (only the positive or only the negative).

It connects to what Fonagy considers extrojects: these unacceptable parts of the self which are attributed to other people and then rejected or abandoned in order to maintain coherence and a sense of safety within the self. (How else do you manage if parts of you are so bad that terrible things are done to you?)

I began to wonder if some of my difficulties come up in those moments when I see the parts of myself that began to fall under this umbrella of extreme badness and if I am alert to situations in which people seem to be seeing things in black-and-white terms and if I know, in fact, when abusive behaviour of varying degrees is likely to start up because I recognize the onset of the kind of thinking that leads to treating parts of one’s own group as a dangerous other.

Only how I have learned to respond to that is to mimic the behaviour of the abusive person by disowning and punishing parts of myself, rather than attempting to reflect on my own intentions which it is possible could be translated into more effective behaviour.


Peter Fonagy is the pioneer of Mentalization-Based Therapy, which is primarily used to treat borderline personality disorder. Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy is the other method that’s been shown to be effective at least in increasing functioning and decreasing symptoms. DBT has been around for a long time now. There are many times I wish my mother had seen someone who was aware of it. She started seeing a therapist in 1975, and at that point, I don’t think anyone had any idea what to do for her, but in the 80s, people began to have ideas. However, her therapist–although he saw very wounded people–did not seem to. He was one of the other helpers who did not help, and sometimes I feel so angry at him, because my mother needed help so badly. We needed help.

I read an article by Peter Fonagy which explains my mother’s behaviour as someone with BPD better than anything else I have ever come across. I think it will take some time to digest it, but it was powerful yesterday as I was reading it to have my experiences reflected in something someone had written. There is something immensely powerful about having something you have lived and experienced be something someone else has seen.

The loneliness begins to recede when what is in your mind is found to exist in someone else’s mind also. as though what is inside you is suddenly real and not a ghost. We call this validation, and yet when people say validating things, it is not always accompanied by any common experience held within our minds. It is mechanical and unreal.

There were a few small moments when I felt understood in therapy last year–not many, but maybe three–and there was an immediate sense of value I felt at being understood rather than merely heard. This was like that for me, only on a larger scale, because it explains a very significant portion of my childhood as well as many parts of why I am the way that I am.

What is in my mind is sometimes a fossil of what was in my mother’s mind: we learn how to understand the world, including ourselves, from other people. During traumatic experiences with my mother, I remember intense feelings of shame, but also a sense of monstrousness–of being frightening and evil as well as frightened. I remember arguments with her when she told me I was a monster.

Now this doesn’t entirely make sense. Of course, in reality, extremely dysregulated and out-of-control children are frightening and can seem monstrous. Parents of adopted children with attachment disorders will tell you this. An 8-year-old who is frightened out of her mind can be more dangerous than we might expect when what normally contains fear (the authority and comfort of the parent) is absent. But I remember this from being quite small.

What I am getting at is that I have memories of my feelings and self-states during traumatic experiences that do not seem to make sense. In the past, what I have been told is that this is a product of my own mind: children blame themselves. This has not ever felt adequately explanatory, nor does it make moments when the memories surface feel any better.

Following the principles of Kurt Fischer’s “dynamic skills theory” of development (Fischer, Kenny, and Pipp 1990), we may assume that maltreatment is associated with a fractionation or splitting of reflective function across tasks and domains…

At the same time, the child’s understanding of mental states is delayed by the avoidance of thinking about the malignant intentions of their parent and remains stuck in a teleological (concrete) stage rather than moving towards an intentional stance (one in which false belief is possible as a motive).

The person who grows up like this can understand behaviour only when the outcomes are predetermined (you care about me only when you do things I have already identified as caring actions). They must be controlling, or the person they are with becomes frightening and unpredictable very quickly.

At the same time, the abusive caretaker becomes split into to entities: there is no way to integrate abusive intentions from those which are more benign. This is extended to other relationships.

At its simplest level, people are “good” when they do what you want and bad when they other things. The good and the bad person are not seen to occupy the same body or to have the same mind. This is my own idea, but another kind of prementalizing is pretend mode, where thoughts and reality are uncoupled. I would presume in moments of stress, this can play a role.

If my mother savaged the “bad” me, she did not understand this as damaging the body of the “good” me she was trying to frighten into returning. She did not realize the “good” me had the same brain as the “bad” me and later remembered being frightened by her behaviour. Her thoughts had become partially divorced from reality.

But as a child what I was left with was a sense of myself as someone who was sometimes, unpredictably monstrous. When I understand this monstrousness as something which existed in her mind, then I am no longer confused by my traumatic experiences with my mother. They are coherent, and the mind seeks coherence.

My unprocessed memories of my mother’s abuse are of me being deeply afraid or ashamed and also sometimes angry, but having no access to or connection with her mind. She feels machinelike to me, like someone with a body and no consciousness, because I could not fathom her internal experience. For me, there wasn’t one.

But actually there was.

(PDF) Attachment and Borderline Personality…. Available from: [accessed Aug 05 2018].


Empathy and mentalization

I have started to be able to recognize affection. I can’t explain to you why I was unable to recognize it before. I think it created so much cognitive dissonance, I didn’t process it. I didn’t realize it was a distinct feeling, with its own facial expression, its own tone of voice, or that it was as evident as happiness or anger.

I am beginning to recognize it because there is one boy in my class who feels it for me and it’s very clear and obvious in his face. I also hear it in C’s dad voice when I talk to him, and sometimes in his older sister’s manner. (She lives in Y-town.)

I was writing last time about mentalization. I read some things that were interesting to me. I am trying to organize them in my mind this morning, because they are lying there in my head in disarray, like loose threads on the verge of tangling.

The first of these threads is that the ability to understand inner states–to make sense of motives and beliefs and feelings–develops over time. Under stress, we tend to lose later-learned abilities.

Our initial ability to mentalize is teleological–in other words, concrete. I know what you are thinking or feeling only from easily recognizable physical actions. If you do things that I understand will bring comfort to me, then I know that you care.

The process of learning to mentalize is disrupted in abused children, because the malignant intentions of the parent are so unfathomable, and it is stalled in neglected children because of loss of opportunity.

Under stress, we are all vulnerable to regressing to this earlier state.

To me, it explains the controlling people I have encountered, as well as C’s tendency to make demands for money or possessions which can feel exploitative to me. If only actions can communicate care, and even then only actions which you have predetermined to be caring actions, then the only way to feel cared about is to control someone’s actions very carefully. It also explains to me why when I first began to work with parts, I needed to find things which were very sensory and physical to help myself calm down. Self-talk had no impact, because I have learned people can lie. I am even capable of lying to myself.

The other strand lying loose in my mind, ready to tangle, has to do with non-mentalizing. Because borderlines hypermentalize (and I think I do too), then trying to make sense of other’s and one’s one mental states can seem impossible or even destructive. I think I ended up in therapy which discouraged mentalization. I and the therapist lived in worlds where attempts to understand motives, especially the motives of others, felt destructive. The only way to stop the spiral of trying to grapple with real or imagined malignancy was to suppress one’s natural attempt to make sense of the world.

My therapy became action-oriented, rather than reflective. “How do you take care of yourself?” stopped me from attempting to make sense of my partner’s motives and encouraged me to stay in a concrete mode, where I could at least act in ways I understood.

The end result of this, however, was to increase my sense of loneliness. Without engaging in the imaginative process of trying to understand other people or find ways to communicate my own inner states to others, the loneliness was unbearable.

In one article I read, it warned clinicians of this: that people form systems, and clinicians can become part of systems along with their clients in which mentalization is no longer engaged in and curiosity about mental states is discouraged.


I read some things yesterday and the day before about borderline personality disorder and also about mentalizing which were very explanatory, both about what’s going on with me and what was in my mother’s mind when she interacted with me. Some of it explains C to me.

It’s still kicking around in my head.

The newer idea is that borderlines hypermentalize. They are hypervigilant about social interactions and ascribe motives and feelings to people beyond what’s really observable and most of the time these motives and feelings are very negative, so the borderline lives in a hostile world of their own making. They may even begin to ascribe motives and feelings to objects which do not have motives or feelings.

This is not meant in as critical way as it sounds. They aren’t doing this on purpose. That is just what their brains do. I think there are times when I do this, even when I do not verbalize to myself what I am responding to and do not know. I can tell you it’s not fun.

But you can see that if you start making up ulterior motives with a crying baby, it would not go well. You can also see if my mother did this, the image of the parent that would emerge in my mind would be of a very malignant caretaker, and if it happened enough, I would internalize an image of myself as being malignant, because that is what my mother saw when she saw me.

There is more to say, but it’s six am now. Time to get the kids up and make breakfast.

Motor Empathy

We don't copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it's about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.
We don’t copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it’s about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.

There are actually three systems that work together to help us understand how others are thinking and feeling and that allow us to relate to each other as social beings. The third one, which I haven’t really mentioned up until now, is motor empathy.

Motor empathy is the reason you find yourself looking in the same direction a stranger suddenly turns toward. It is the reason you tend to cross your arms if your conversational partner is crossing hers.

It is probably also the reason my cat smiles after more than a decade of my smiling at her.

Motor empathy is also called mirroring. We do it unconsciously for the most part, although life coaches and job interview tips might advocated doing it on purpose. Mirroring the actions of others makes us likable. It is an advertisement of your success as a social human being. It says you are skilled at understanding how others feel. It says you care about other people. It says you share your toys and play nicely in the schoolyard.

To some extent this may really be true, because motor empathy may be the precursor of affective (emotional) empathy. And you need affective empathy to develop real concern for other people. Cognitive empathy alone doesn’t seem to do it.

It works like this. Someone smiles at you. you smile back. The smile makes you feel happy, and consequently you understand that people who are smiling are happy.

The Russian doll model (that I don't totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.
The Russian doll model (that I don’t totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.

So motor empathy may be the mode of transmission for contagious emotions. You mimic the expression and the expression creates the emotion that goes with it.

But it’s not entirely clear. Autistic people have great difficulty with motor empathy. However, we don’t know whether they have difficulty with affective empathy. They may not. The jury on that is still very much out.

Even if it is, good motor empathy as an indicator for other kinds of empathy only works for some people–most people, in fact, but not everyone.

It doesn’t work for people with personality disorders. They all have perfectly fine motor empathy skills and major gaps in others systems. Borderlines feel what you feel, but cannot make sense of it. Narcissists lack affective empathy. Psychopaths do too. They do not feel what you are feeling, even if they are doing what you are doing.

Motor empathy is a part of what makes us feel connected to others. There are other elements involved, but motor empathy is one of them. That is why you can develop the most intense feeling of connection to a narcissist or psychopath–they can seem so absolutely in synch with you–but still be dropped like a hot potato.

They don’t feel what you are feeling, even when they look like they are. The connection is entirely on your side.

Empathic Distress, Guilt and Moral Reasoning

A Chinese vendor selling halal meets. Photo credit:  Aaron D. Feen
A Chinese vendor selling halal meets. Photo credit: Aaron D. Feen

I’m wondering something today.

I’m wondering something that I don’t have any answers to yet. But let’s just play with some ideas for a while, shall we? Let’s just hypothesize today.

And tomorrow, if I have time, I can read like hell and see if I’m right.

What I’m wondering is if empathic distress leads to guilt, or is part of what leads to guilt. Specifically, I’m wondering if the equation for guilt is this: suffering —> empathic distress –> cognition, “I did that,” –> guilt.

There are two kinds of morality, two categories of things we tend to feel guilty about. The first of these involves harming others: Thou shalt not kill; Thou shalt not commit adultery; Thou shalt not steal, and so on.

The other involves following rules that don’t obviously result in harm to anyone else: Remember the Sabbath Day, for example. Many of these are dietary or involve hygiene rules, such as keeping kosher or halal. When I was growing up in the 2×2s, we had a thousand different rules with very strong moral implications: don’t own a TV, don’t watch movies, don’t go to dances, don’t play on organized sports teams, to name a few.

Tharold Sylvester, Eldon Tenniswood, Ernest Nelson, and Howard Mooney, ca. 1970s.
Tharold Sylvester, Eldon Tenniswood, Ernest Nelson, and Howard Mooney, ca. 1970s.

If you really want to know all about them, you might enjoy a sermon I heard as a child from one of our most respected ministers, Eldon Tenniswood. He may have missed a few things, but it’s rather hard slogging anyway.

They seem different, but I’m not sure they are. What will happen if you are an orthodox Jew and fail to keep kosher? Well, bad things, right? God will be angry at you. He may be angry at your family. You will most likely be punished, or at the very least, he’ll turn his back on you when you most need him. People will be hurt in the long run by what you have done. You will be hurt.

And in the short-run, you will wound the hearts of those closest to you, who will take your failure to support your shared traditions as a personal betrayal.

I know I felt that way, leaving the church. My grandmother probably had a heart “episode” over it, as my mother always called them. Like it was TV.

Certainly, I would be hurting those around me in the long term. They were very clear about this. Car accidents came up a lot, as did drug and alcohol use.

Eldon gave this example in his sermon that night in 1982, “There was a young mother in Ohio who was quite angry when I went there for a visit.  She said to me, “When my little girl ( five years old) goes to school, she is going to be like other little girls.”  She told me about her parents, how hard they had made it for her.  Twelve years later it was my privilege to visit the same mother who sat in the same rocking chair.  Tears were streaming down her face when telling me about her 17-year-old girl.  She was just like other very rebellious girls and now the mother wanted her to be different.”

Guilt isn’t just about fear of punishment, even when the cause seems to be a bunch of silly rules. It’s not even about disapproval or rejection. It’s about not wanting to hurt our parents, our siblings, our children, or even God. It’s about feeling we have caused someone harm or will cause someone harm and we regret it.

It’s about empathic distress: seeing someone in distress and feeling it as if it were our feeling. With one additional element: a sense that we are the agent of that distress.

People who feel the most painful guilt are the most confused about their own agency, what power over others they really have, and what others can and should be expected to do for themselves.

Borderlines are famous for this. Individuals with BPD typically have difficulty regulating their own emotions and consequently expect everyone else to do it for them. People who spend a lot of time around them usually end up with the same belief–that we have a control over others we simply don’t have. If the BPD is experiencing distress, someone else must have caused it, or should have acted to prevent it, or should be able to stop it.

No, no, and no. The distress is partly just a normal part of being alive, partly about the deficits in cognitive empathy associated with BPD, and partly the result of difficulty with emotion regulation: the BPD may be no more distressed than anyone else would be in the same situation. It’s just that she can’t calm down.

Alcoholics have similar beliefs.

If you feel an unreasonable amount of guilt, you can deal with it in one of three ways: act to minimize the harm you feel you have caused (make amends), reconsider the extent of the harm you caused or might be causing (maybe it’s not such a big deal), or reevaluate your role as a cause (maybe it’s not your fault).

“It wasn’t your fault,” is necessary and so powerful.

I started thinking about this all a few days ago, watching Longmire. This is just a trailer, but you might like it anyway.

There is an episode in which a young girl with a developmental disorder is gang raped by four boys. One of them, it is later discovered, was not a willing participant, but he is nonetheless racked with guilt and rage. Another boy held a gun to his head. What else could he do?

A deputy tells him, “If someone threatens you with violence and makes you do something you don’t want to do, that’s kidnapping.” In fact, it isn’t. Not unless it’s a felony. But rape is a felony.

It’s not your faultIf someone threatened you, directly or indirectly, into taking off your clothes so that someone could more conveniently rape you, if they told you to go to an isolated area so that no one one would hear your screams, if they made you harm someone else, if someone said hold still or I’ll hit you harder, that’s kidnapping.

And it wasn’t your fault. If you still think it was, it’s because you won’t admit how powerless and terrified you really were.