Healing Avoidant Attachment: Awakening the Body with Neuroscience and Empathy
August 12, 2015
People have patterns of brain use. One person will make decisions based on categorized data and available facts, another will depend more on relationality and community. The first might mobilize their force of will, and the second might rely on intuition and riding organic flow.
Our parents are/were people, too, people with brains. And the way our parents used their brains has an effect on us. We learned from them. We learned what to put first, when to be rigid, and when to be flexible.
If our parents were avoidantly attached, with their consciousness resting in their left hemispheres, then we are likely to also rest the main part of our conscious awareness in the part of our brain that thrives on structure, action, strategy, facts, production and accomplishment. This is a different part of our brain than the relational, intuitive and body-centered right hemisphere.
Another path to avoidant attachment is the discovery, often when a person starts going to school, that it is possible to focus on the left hemisphere for success and learning, and leave behind a chaotic or disorganized home environment, in which case it is like we learn to build a scaffolding over the hell of the dysregulated right hemisphere. In neither of these cases of avoidant attachment are our integrated fibers of relationality fully supporting our well-being.
But if we have the right prefrontal cortex of the brain on-line, then both of these sides of our brain are integrated, and there is flow and directional movement to our lives. If we are living in just one without the other, then we are not whole.
My own journey of the deepening practice of Nonviolent Communication, undertaken over the last 10 years, has been one of awakening my body and my resonant awareness of others. I was both attracted and repelled by feelings and needs in those days. I was coming from a lovely, brain-oriented, body-avoiding family that looked perfectly well-adjusted from the outside: no addiction, abuse or neglect; a focus on accomplishments and intelligence; and committed to community service. I didn’t know it, but this was a very characteristic picture of avoidant attachment. My family looked so good that I felt desperately confused about the amount of pain I was in most of the time. Happily, empathy stopped the pain for moments at a time, so I was very drawn by the relief that would come when an empathy guess landed. But when people tried to ask me what might be happening in my body, I felt ashamed and panicked. Almost the only sensation I could capture was the prickling of tears behind my eyes, and I didn’t want to talk about that.
Gradually, over time, questions about how my body was doing made more and more sense. I still had very little access to my own physical experience, let alone being able to comprehend what might be happening for others, so I soon discovered that if I asked my empathy buddies what was happening in their bodies, it filled in the knowledge gap between being my own isolated self and my longing to connect with another. And wonder of wonders, with what my left hemisphere calculates to be close to 5000 hours spent offering and teaching empathy over the last 10 years, people started to make sense, and my own body came alive. My immune system, sense of meaning, and my overall feeling of well-being all came on line with my physical aliveness. This is the movement out of avoidant attachment into what Daniel Siegel calls “earned secure” attachment – a movement toward hemispheric integration.
There is actually research that supports our understanding of the importance of integration, and shows what the health effects of avoidance are. This kind of research demonstrates the importance of the movement toward the body, the breath, and the present moment. Knowing how this contributes to well-being helps our left hemispheres to commit to the path of healing.