Attachment theory Part Three

We’re pondering attachment theory, and this is part three and the last in this mini-series.

And while all writing must stand on its own, to have read the previous two parts may help.

At the heart of attachment theory is the child’s relationship to their feelings.

The opportunity to express their feelings clearly and plainly – without being ignored and without fear of reprisal – is crucial in a child’s development.

If this opportunity isn’t offered to the child, and the trauma of the experience denied or ignored, then there is no way out of their psychological circumstances and they are a danger to themselves and others. 

Alice Miller, a personal hero of mine, puts it well:

‘The denied trauma is a wound that can never form a scar and which at any time can begin to bleed again. But given understanding surroundings, this wound can become visible and be healed.’

The central concept in Miller’s writing is the effacement or abandonment of self in the early years of life, when the child must bow to the parents’ needs rather than their own.

When the choice is between their own feelings and parental approval, there is no choice for the child. Parental approval trumps everything: one must survive and so true feeling will be denied, skewered or repressed.

When the child grows up, however, the price for this loss of self is paid in full, whether in anxiety, depression, emptiness, disorganised rage, indifference, control or distance.

But, as Miller says, given understanding surroundings, the wound can become visible and be healed.

And in this journey to health, the adult will need to grieve; there is bereavement here. They will need to grieve for the emotionally-denied childhood, which is lost and can never be recovered or lived again.

This can be a slow process, because the idealization of the inaccessible parents must slowly be dissolved before a true recognition of childhood reality can appear.

(There’s a lot of fake news in families.)

Such dissolution can be difficult for some, still hoping for parental approval, not wishing to rock the boat.

‘I don’t think its worth saying anything now.’

Or they say, ‘I’m sure my parents did their best’ – when wishing to perpetuate the denial of their true feelings. ‘And, I mean, she is my mum, after all!’

An insecure attachment style will persist throughout life, unless there is some well-supported inner work or an unusually secure attachment with someone in adulthood, like a partner, or perhaps in long-term psychotherapy.

Sadly, non-therapy relationships are sometimes unable to survive the work of undoing childhood insecurity. There can be a clash of baggage between friends or partners and therefore no safety.

Whatever help we find along the way, however, most of the work will be our own, as we allow the grief and the anger – for all emotions are allowed; as we notice our attachment patterns with kindness and accuracy; and as we find safe space to tell our story, space to be and so begin to meet with, and recover, the self that we lost and the feelings we had to deny.

The journey to health will be lost and found… found and lost… lost and found… it will be a dance in which we trip and stumble occasionally.

But it’s a good homecoming, and the begetter of fresh energy and new attachments…

wiser, cleaner and better ones.


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