The 7 ways the science of attachment will transform your practice
The science of attachment, or attachment theory, shows that our mental health - and, somewhat surprisingly, our physical health - is tied to the strength and quality of our intimate relationships. Our training modules in attachment science will help you understand how you know the best way to support your clients in their relationships.
Attachment is a biological and psychological necessity for survival, as grounded in evolutionary theory as the work of Darwin. Decades of empirical research have shown that our earliest relationships are the most important, but also that they alone don’t define our psychology. We are adaptable, and our brains and nervous systems can change.
Although neither we nor our clients fit neatly into diagnostic boxes, the research evidence shows that most of us will fall broadly into one of four core attachment styles, that will flex depending on who we’re with, and the context we’re in. So, for example, we might feel generally secure in our relationships, but we have a boss at work who reminds us of our angry father, and feel insecure and unsure of ourselves in our relationship with him. The four styles are:
- Secure. The secure individual is someone who balances the need to be close to, and intimate with, other people with the need to take risks and explore the world. They are flexible and resilient, and feel they can rely on others. They get upset when hurt, but they are able to express that to, and talk with, the person who hurt them. They generally have a strong sense of self, and a good ability to self-soothe.
- Avoidant. The avoidant individual has learnt that their emotions - especially the need for intimacy - are a threat, and need to be buried deep down to ensure they remain safe. They will avoid relationships where they can. They tend to be self-sufficient, and emphasise action and career achievement over relationship satisfaction. They may not even seek therapy unless something catastrophic has happened in their life.
- Anxious. The anxious individual is hypervigilant to being let down by others, looking for possible rejection and abandonment everywhere, even when their friends and partners are re-assuring them that everything’s fine. They find it hard to identify and vocalise how they feel - other than that they are stressed and anxious - because they are so focused on pleasing the other, and they inevitably find it hard to self-soothe.
- Disorganised. Although this is often described as an attachment “style”, it is best described as the collapse of any predictable style in response to relationships; a “fear without solution” state most commonly learned in response to abuse and neglect. Other people are a source of safety and fear at the same time, leading to a paradox that can’t be resolved: should I approach them, and potentially get punished, or avoid them, and not get my needs met? This leads to confusing and contradictory behaviour - sometimes complete numbness and unresponsiveness; at other times, explosive anger and hostility.
We can help you use the science of attachment to improve the lives of your clients, straight away. We have developed our attachment training to help you feel skilled in healing your client’s attachment injuries. In the meantime, and as a taster for what’s to come in the training, here are seven ways in which our training modules on the science of attachment will help transform your work with clients:
- You’ll understand how your clients’ early relationships - whether they were soothed or not when they were scared; whether they learnt that certain feelings were safe or unsafe to express; whether they feared or loved their parents - helped shape their attachment style.
- You’ll understand the potential benefits to your clients of their learned attachment style. Even insecure attachment styles are learned for a reason; they keep the child safe. One of our roles with our clients is to help them understand the limitations in their adult relationships of any insecurities they developed when they were young.
- You will know whether you need to help your client with an attachment issue, or something else. Depression can look like avoidant attachment. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can look like anxious attachment. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) can look like disorganised attachment. You need to know the differences, so you can build an appropriate and effective treatment plan early in your work with clients.
- You will understand their “inner working model” of attachment – or, more simply put, what they learn to expect, consciously and unconsciously, from other people when they seek care and intimacy.
- You will identify when those expectations of relationships become live in the relationship with you; are you someone they fear or admire? Do they want to smother you, or do they stay far away from you, emotionally?
- In line with our training modules on the common principles of change in therapy, the evidence shows that one of the key factors in effective therapy is how successful we are in helping our clients step back and notice the factors associated with their difficulties. An understanding of the science of attachment will help you assist your clients in taking perspective on their thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and noticing the impact they have on others. Put another way, once you have identified that your client’s expectations of relationships are being expressed in their relationship with you, you are being given an opportunity to offer them a new emotional experience. They can use this new experience to alter their conscious and unconscious expectations about what they should anticipate when they seek care and intimacy.
- You will have an awareness of how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have on your client’s attachment style and relationship behaviours and expectations. We’re talking here about the real world impacts of growing up in a violent household, in a household where one parent is absent, or in a household where substance abuse is rife. These impacts have historically been ignored by the world of psychotherapy. No longer. The evidence shows that ACEs are significant and cumulative, meaning that the more adverse experiences you have, the higher the likelihood you will develop an insecure attachment style, and the bigger the impact it will have on your life chances. This has implications for you as a clinician: you need to show your clients you understand how the circumstances of their lives have influenced their ability to develop and maintain intimate relationships. We’ll help you develop that understanding.
The science of attachment has transformed the way we think about relationships and mental health. It has also transformed our understanding of how therapy can help.
We understand that you need to know about attachment and how it can be central to your work with clients. So we’re building a small set of simple, contemporary and affordable training modules to give you everything you need.