Attachment and the Unconscious Mind
“We’ve been programmed by evolution to single out a few specific individuals in our lives and make them precious to us. We’ve been bred to be dependent on a significant other. The need starts in the womb and ends when we die”. – Levine and Heller
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, founders of the Attachment Theory, proposed that genetic selection favored people who attached themselves to a significant other because it increased their chances of survival. Those that went it alone, more often became prey.
“The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become”. – The Dependency Paradox.
“People are only as needy, as their unmet needs.” –Levine and Heller
In a culture that cheers “rugged individualism”, intimacy, closeness and especially dependency are often scorned, and the above quotes may then seem prehistoric. However, as we see below, historically, and perhaps evolutionarily, we have in fact created and capitalized on strong neurology that supports the quest for dependency, especially safe dependency. Our survival rate as babies or children would diminish greatly without this neurology. Levine and Heller purport that the brain has a biological mechanism called the “attachment system”; that this system is a combination of emotions and behaviours that have us stay safe and protected by remaining close to loved ones. Their three types of systems are “Anxious attachment”, “Avoidant attachment” and “Secure Attachment.
“Protest Behaviour”, the behaviour you see when a young child becomes frantic in his search, when separated from their mother, or cries uncontrollably until contact is re-established, can still be seen in grown-ups. If you haven’t heard from the person you are dating you may become preoccupied with his or her whereabouts, when you haven’t connected with your life partner for some time, you may withhold affection or attention, when your teenager has been keeping you at arm’s length in the process of her individuation, you may become obsessively focused on re-establishing a connection. All these behaviours have one common goal, and that is to bring you closer to your attachment figure. The specific behaviours you use are connected to your “Attachment Style”, anxious or avoidant attachment for example. Neither of these are labeled healthy or unhealthy, nor are they deemed pathological, but simply a system you use to keep yourself safe in the world of intimacy. Understanding your style, and perhaps, their origins and purpose, gives you the understanding for why you and your loved ones do what you do. It also reframes the behaviours from negative to positive; as an attempt to connect or reconnect, and alternately, can demonstrate a fear of connection and intimacy or a need for separation/individuation. Either way, it’s a dance that moves in and out of intimacy, primarily motivated by our biological need to connect, be loved, be safe, also involving our fears that our needs will not be (or have not been) responded to.
From literature on the unconscious mind, the part that occupies perhaps 80% of our brain, the part that is 60% more powerful than our conscious mind, that runs our bodies without us having to think about it, that allows us to focus on new learning while continuing to run our lives in – for the most part – a fluid manner, we learn that its’ primary directive is to keep us safe. If our unconscious mind, the part of our brain that stores memories, known or unknown to the conscious waking mind, senses potential danger, -- physical, emotional, psychological or otherwise, it often is triggered into survival mode, i.e. fight, flight or freeze. If intimacy has been troublesome, dangerous, or even inconsistent, unreliable or undependable for us, then our survival instinct does what it needs to do, to re-establish safety. Some of these actions serve to bring us back to safety and security with little growth, in other words we are safe but circumstances remain the same, some increase the potential for further danger, that is we find ourselves again and again in similar or increasingly dangerous circumstances, some re-establish security with growth, we get what we need with breakthroughs in our circumstances.
When we understand that we are all very much similar in our needs,( we all have a conscious mind that is the linear, goal setter, methodical, rational... and an unconscious mind – the domain of our emotions, the irrational, the safety and security meter, the biological/physical/emotional/psychological regulator), and understand our unique and individual ways of getting our needs met, then there is the groundwork, or a meeting place for us to work on our relationships, be it romantic, blood, or friendship. And furthermore, we can enhance or develop a relationship to ourselves, in the ways we like others to relate to us.... respectfully, kindly, nurturing, responsive, etc.
I always like to say that if our unconscious mind is in fact 80% of our mind, (as it does have to regulate our physiology, while storing years of learning, facts, experiences, thoughts, feelings, beliefs...etc,) then we want to be best friends with that powerful mechanism. When we think about how we might ideally treat a best friend, and reciprocally, how they would ideally treat us, then we may want to extend that same treatment to our unconscious mind. If we listen to it enough, even give it the message that it is valuable enough to be listened to, we might find out what it is trying to tell us about the parts of our lives that are not working as well as we would like them to. Additionally, it might also remind us of the parts that work fantastically.
If intimacy and attachment are issues you are dealing with in your life, and or if it seems that you are feeling, doing, thinking or saying things that you seemingly have no control over, then ask yourself if now is the right time for you to walk below the surface of your life and explore and befriend the beautifully intricate terrain of your inner world.
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