In this blog I will briefly discuss avoidant attachment strategies and how what can look like independence is actually a sort of suit of armour designed to protect and hide a locked box of vulnerability and need, preventing mutual dependency and intimacy.
The person who has developed the avoidant strategy has done so in order to cope with a lack of understanding and attunement to their needs from their caregivers, and have therefore had to deny their needs to themselves and make the decision (unconsciously) to repress or bury these needs and create an equilibrium for themselves where the pain, disappointments and griefs of these unmet needs are locked away. They can often find alternative ways to feel good about themselves and compensate for the shame of the disappointments and low self-esteem that they feel as a result of this lack of attunement. These alternative strategies can lead them to developing their intelligence as a way to circumvent their feelings and they are often very successful in their field of work. The problem of course is in their relationships, sometimes their relationship with themselves or parts of themselves.
The strategy seeks to enable them to have self-worth while keeping painful feelings of rejection at bay, they have found others unreliable and can therefore only trust themselves. They create an image of themselves that appears independent and strong but comes at the cost of denigrating others, especially those that are more comfortable with the parts of themselves that seek mutual reliance and inter-dependence on others. In extreme forms these others can stir up painful feelings of envy and hatred although these feelings too are disavowed. A calm state of coolness is sought that numbs any sort of emotional aliveness. However, this defence is often a fragile one and when a crisis occurs as it always does at some time or other in life then these defences can shatter, leaving the person distraught and desperate, unable to manage or deal with the emotions that now can’t be neutralized. Suicide can be one tragic outcome.
Brett Kahr, a British Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist, discusses the pain of this strategy which can be handed down generationally: – “Although many people inflict horrific cruelty upon their partners, the vast majority cause pain as a result of emotional unavailability, fuelled by avoidant attachment structures.”
Therapy takes time and requires an enormous amount of patience and keeping the patient in therapy is no easy task. However if they stay then perhaps the patient can slowly start to develop a more trusting relationship with the therapist, who can attune to them, who doesn’t need them to be other than who they are, who can accept their need for distance and who can digest their sometimes overt, but often covert denigrations, understanding them without retaliating or shaming them but not colluding either, calmly without judgment bringing to awareness what the patient is doing and the fear and pain behind these defences against relatedness.
The Author, Colum McCann, describes the work of literature, and I think his description also describes the therapeutic process.
“The job of literature is to acknowledge the heartbreak of the world and then to share that heartbreak in the hope that somehow you can find a little light, just a little, no matter how damaged and bruised. This light, then, must necessarily acknowledge the darkness. At the same time, it might just lift a portion of the dark, past the curtains, awaken us.”
He goes on to quote Kafka, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
So too must therapy.
Paul Salvage is Psychodynamic Psychotherapist trained to work with adolescents from 16-25 and adults across a wide range of specialisms including depression, anxiety, family issues, self awareness and relationship difficulties. He currently works with individuals in our private practice in Hove.
Further reading by Paul Salvage –