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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Are You Safe?


Safe means feeling safe on the inside, even when unsafe things are happening on the outside. Unsafe things might be people shouting, people trespassing your boundaries, people trying to manipulate you, people trying to steal your energy and so on. Safe means feeling safe on the inside even when your partner is talking about leaving you or when you think you might be down-sized from your job, or when you have just found out that your partner is having an affair, or even when someone you love dies. Safe means that the place you feel safe, and the why you feel safe, and the what and who determines that you feel safe, all originates with you, inside of you as opposed to anywhere else. The fact that you feel safe has nothing to do with:
  • The state of your love relationship / marriage
  • The state of your bank account
  • The state of your health
  • The state of your job or profession
  • The state of your friendships
All of those parts of your life are undoubtedly enormously important, but they do not determine – in a healthy individual – the state of that individual’s inner feeling of safety because that – if it is real - emanates from inside, and not from anything external.

Attachment Theory

So let’s look a bit at how this inner state of safety evolves. To do that, let’s examine a basic tenet of developmental psychology: attachment theory. The attachment bond is what evolves (or not) between the child and its primary caregiver (the person who most cares for it after birth and during early childhood). This bond refers to a lasting emotional and psychological connection with another. Around 1970, researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth demonstrated that there are four basic ways in which we develop attachment. Children between 12 and 18 months were observed in their homes in order to get a baseline of their interaction with their parents (or caretakers) in a familiar surrounding, and then were brought to a lab for an experiment (called the “Strange Situation”) where after arriving in a room and settling in, the child’s parent left the room for a short time. The important thing was observing how the child reacted upon being left alone and how it reacted when the parent re-entered the room.
  • Secure Attachment: these children explore happily while the parent is still in the room, they get upset when he leaves and are comforted when he returns. They also know they can count on the parent for comfort when they are upset because of the way the parent normally responds to the child. If a stranger comforts them while they are upset, they respond well, but clearly prefer the parent. This parent responds well to the child at all times.
  • Avoidant: these children explore, but not in connection with the parent. When the parent leaves, they are not upset, nor are they happy when the parent returns and if the parent picks them up they turn away, and show little reaction. If a stranger tries to connect with them they react in a similar – avoidant - fashion. This parent does not react to the distressed child, and further, has shown the child that no tears and independence are desirable.
  • Ambivalent/Resistant: distrusts strangers, becomes very upset when the parent leaves but can not be consoled when the parent returns. There may be low maternal availability in the home or the parent may be inconsistent between appropriate and neglectful behaviour.
  • Disorganized: there is a lack of clear attachment type. When the parent returns, the child may freeze or rock itself. The parent may be frightened or frightening, may be withdrawn, intrusive or abusive. Because the child feels both comforted and frightened by the parent, it becomes confused and disorganized in its attachment.
Adult Relationships

As you can imagine, these different styles of attachment lead to different ways of feeling safe and secure within the self, and this becomes particularly evident in the adult love relationship. So the securely attached adult will tend to have loving, trusting and lasting relationships, has good self esteem and has no problems sharing feelings with friends and partners, the ambivalent adult may overly worry that the partner does not love them and become very upset when a relationship ends, the avoidant adult may show difficulty with intimacy, invest little emotion in social and romantic relationships and may have problems with sharing thoughts and feelings with others, and the disorganized adult may take on – even at a very young age – a parental or caretaking role for the parent (the articles referenced throughout this article about boundaries, emotional unavailability and neediness all fit this type).

With this article my main focus has been on giving you some information you may not have been aware of. At the same time, I would like to encourage all of you, both those who have recognized themselves, as well as those who have recognized their partners, parents, or children, that cutting-edge research in neuroscience very clearly indicates that none of this is set in stone. While clinicians, therapists and others may have insisted in the past that these early developmental stages tended to leave indelible scars that were nearly impossible to eradicate, we know differently now. In other words, the brain is so flexible – hence the word neuroplasticity - that with awareness we can change much, improve much, and make the quality of our lives better. This awareness must be learned and practiced, and I certainly don’t pretend you will be able to do that from reading this brief article, but know that it can be done. The awareness I am referring to is much more than just being aware of the possibility of negative situations from your childhood having led you to current problems. More than that, it is an awareness of the self, the conscious choice to take complete responsibility for the self – taking responsibility for everything you think, feel and say, and every action and reaction you have - and in so doing, begin the path to inner peace and freedom.

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