Alone or attached?

"An alone self is a bad self."  I read that somewhere several years ago, and it's kind of like one of the first things God said about human beings:  "It is not good for man to be alone." In psychology, attachment theory talks about what happens to human beings who have been alone, with inadequate love and attention, as infants.  Back in the early 1900's, theorists began observing three distinct categories of behavior in young children who were exposed to new situations.  These "attachment styles" correlated to the attention, or lack of it, that the children experienced from their parents or primary caregivers.

Here is what researchers observed:

  • When secure children got into a strange situation, they were able to explore, return to their parent if they needed to, then explore again.  If they got fussy, they could be comforted easily by their parent.  If the parent left the room, the child was upset, but when the parent returned, the child went to the parent immediately for comfort.
  • Anxious-resistant children tended to be quite upset by new situations.  They were clingy, whiny, and difficult to comfort.  They wanted comfort but they also seemed to be resistant to receiving that comfort.
  • Avoidant children appeared to be less upset by new situations, and they didn't seem to mind being left by their parent.  But when the parent returned, they would avoid contact by doing something like playing with toys.  Researchers believed that these children had tried for comfort, experienced the fact that they would not receive it, and had given up.

To a baby, caring attention means way more than a clean diaper and some mashed banana.  It means that somebody will attend to what I need and make sure that I am OK.  It's calming, it's comforting to know I'll be taken care of; it means I can get out, explore the world, and have some brain space left for something besides my basic needs.  Babies don't understand words; they understand our actions toward them.

Of course, other researchers have gone on to study how childhood attachment patterns affect us as adults.  Last year, a friend of mine passed on a book called How We Love:  Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage by Milan and Kay Yerkovich.  The authors ask probing questions to evaluate your own attachment style as an adult, like:

  • Did you learn about trust and respect?
  • Were you allowed to have your feelings?
  • Were you allowed to be a kid?
  • Do you know how to wait?
  • Can you say no?
  • Can you ask for help?
  • Can you say you're sorry?

The point of this kind of self-examination is not to make you feel like a bad, hopeless person unfit for human relationships.  The point is that, since we are grown-ups now, we have the capacity to recognize our own maladaptive patterns and do something about them.  And before we can change, we have to recognize that what we're doing that doesn't work.  The truth sets you free.   After it scares you half to death first.

Which is why it sometimes helps to talk about this stuff with somebody while you're working through it.

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