We have evolved as a social species. A part of this process means that we actually get a survival advantage when we connect and care for each other.
For example, babies are hard-wired to cry when their needs are not met, which activates their stress response (sympathetic nervous system). Their system down-regulates when someone attends to them to comfort them, activating the para-sympathetic nervous system. This down-regulation restores the body’s attention to maintenance needs, like the immune system, digestion etc. This is different than when the stress response is on, which focuses us on preparing to escape from a threat, in a state of fight or flight.
We have all heard of the negative impact of chronic stress; it predisposes us to heart attacks, stroke, high blood pressure, pain issues, sleep issues, autoimmune disease and cancer, not to mention all forms of mental health issues, learning issues, memory issues, anxiety, depression, drug abuse, over-eating etc. However many people do not know that merely talking to another person when we are stressed, when met with validation and support, actually mitigates many of the negative impacts of stress. In fact when we connect with each other at times of stress, our bodies release oxytocin, which has a protective effect on the heart, protecting us instead of harming us!
What happens when we do not grow up with consistently healthy tribe? When we reach out and we are dismissed, ignored, invalidated, rejected, intimidated or harmed?
It won’t take long before we learn NOT to reach out, and instead we learn to detach, to avoid, and to distract (using worry, over-focusing on things in our control- like cleaning or appearances, being unkind to ourselves or others, over-eating, drinking, creating and maintaining drama in our lives through unhealthy choices, etc). All of these mean we stop being emotionally available to ourselves, since we never really had it modelled to us, and we also don’t learn how to do it for others.
Being emotionally available requires us to be attuned to our own emotions AND those of others, using our mirror neurons, which mirror other people’s emotional states, as a way of empathizing and gaining insight into what is happening with the other person. We will still have moments here and there where even without prior modelling it will happen, but day to day, we learn to ignore our own needs as a means to survive, putting other people’s needs & opinions ahead of our own and fretting about not being good enough in most of what we do. Understandably, this all makes it very difficult to be present enough to attend to ourselves, much less to the other people in our lives as well, after all-
WE CAN’T TEACH WHAT WE DON’T KNOW!
Humans are resilient though, and we intuitively look for places where we can have a sense of competence or mastery, and we will put all of our energy into that, which distracts us from our attachment issues in the short term. However, if for some reason whatever gives us that sense of mastery becomes unstable or threatened, it usually becomes to straw that broke the camel’s back.
For example, someone with an unstable and traumatic childhood, discovered they were good at their job, so they invest everything into it. Work becomes the centre of their identity and their sense of safety and worth. It becomes the one place they feel they can relate to others from a place of feeling as close to “good enough” as they know. Not surprisingly, their spouse and kids often feel like they choose work over them, and this creates issues along the way. Then one day, something happens to make work feel unsafe, or unstable, this will often be enough to send people into a depression or other serious mental health crisis, and their physical health often declines quickly and significantly along side of it.
So what happens then? The lucky ones go to therapy, and start to deal with their stuff.
Assuming no additional trauma, it takes 4 GENERATIONS to heal attachment trauma
without an active intervention to change it!
Let’s look at an example:
Generation #1: Jane grew up in a home where both parents were alcoholics and were both physically and emotionally abusive. She decided even as a child, that she will never hit her kids- and she didn’t.
Generation #2: Jane didn’t hit her kids, Mark and Kate. However, Jane and her husband were alcoholics, just like her parents. Jane and her partner were also emotionally abusive, telling Mark and Kate they were good for nothing pieces of crap who would never amount to anything, and criticizing almost everything they did. Mark and Kate decided they would never be emotionally abusive like their parents, and they weren’t.
Generation #3: Mark and Kate were not physically or emotionally abusive with their own kids, Lisa and Jackson, but they were alcoholics. Their kids grew up never knowing what they were coming home to, being neglected because their parents were intermittently passed out or not quite with it and basically didn’t grow up feeling emotionally safe, or at times physically safe, because their basic needs were not being met. Lisa and Jackson decided they would never be alcoholics and do that to their kids- and they weren’t.
Generation #4: Lisa and Jackson did not hit their kids, were not emotionally abusive to them, AND they were not alcoholics. They didn’t really have a template though for being emotionally available. Consequently, they didn’t really talk to their kids, didn’t really know much about them. Jackson spent his time at home watching TV or was on his computer and Lisa over-invested in work and just wasn’t really around, and even when she was, she was still distracted by work stuff.
Generation #5: Lisa and Jackson’s kids, Jonathan and Isabella, promised not to be like their parents and vowed to consciously put effort into getting to know their kids – and they did! This was the first generation who had consistently emotionally available parents.
Attachment trauma just means that there is a mismatch between people’s needs and the physical and / or emotional availability of their caregivers. We ALL have some degree of attachment trauma AND we are wired to be able to overcome it. Parents are fallable, we get distracted by marital stress, work stress, being in the sandwich generation and caring for elderly parents and our kids, especially if there is a high needs kid in the family, and lets not forget financial stress. How we deal with these stressors depends on what we saw growing up, what our default survival maps are.
The healing will happen much quicker when there are opportunities to have our experiences validated and acknowledged between the generations involved, ideally between parents and kids. Unfortunately, unless there is an active intervention like therapy, people get caught up in feeling attacked and only focusing on the fact that they did so much better than what they grew up with. Because the people involved have often not had the experience themselves of feeling SEEN, HEARD or like they MATTER, they automatically go to feeling not good enough and the maladaptive patterns get activated again. This gets in the way of accelerating healing that could potentially benefit generations to come!
I tell my friends that I know that despite being a Psychiatrist and my husband, Ryan, being a Psychologist, we will mess up our kids in many ways, but it won’t be in the ways that are important to us!
If we are lucky, they will have the tools and the self-awareness to recognize and address any other harm we inadvertently caused along the way AND if we are truly fortunate, we will have the presence and courage to hear it, validate their experience, so we can all move forward together.