Monthly Archives: February 2016

What is “process”?

When I talk about process I’m fitting together a number of abstractions, including empathy, mindfulness, and conflict. Then there is the question: How do each of them relate to each other, and how do they fit into attachment?

The summation of all of this is “process”.

We can understand and translate our child’s process back into empathy, and use that empathy in such a way that we can understand our self in relation to our child.

The practice of empathy

Our task as parents is to encourage a process within our families whereby we minimize the cataclysmic solutions of violence, on one hand, and the giving-up that can occur through lack of protest, and turn instead towards a more acceptable resolution of attachment conflict.

This is available to us through the practice of empathy.

Empathy, sometimes called “the heartbeat of attachment”, is a feeling and thinking solution to comprehending the feeling state and actions of another. It is the skill of experiencing another person’s feelings as if they were our own, through suspending judgment and stepping into the other person’s shoes.

Empathy is a tool, and the foundation for understanding conflict and expressing reciprocity, and though for most of us it is a skill that takes time to learn and practice, mothers and babies appear to achieve the state of empathy in its most clear form. They appear to simply know the other’s present experience.

We might have the awareness, “I have feelings and you have feelings, and I want to understand that, and I am trying to get to a particular place in our relationship.”  When we use this awareness we are attempting to get to empathy – a place where, “I don’t impose my values on you but I try and understand your life experience so I can understand where you are in this fight.”

Attachment is active all of the time, and each of us finds a balance somewhere, except for those people who end up killing others, or those who just give up.

That is what empathy allows us.

This psychological paradigm is not based on a value or moral system. It represents what is, not what we might prefer. It is neither dualistic nor dichotomous. We do not subscribe to either self-destruction or violence as a preferential solution to attachment conflict.

The feeling and the urge

The perfect state of attachment is a balance between a safe base and a safe capacity for exploration. As this base is never absolutely stable, the experience of attachment includes a feeling state of anxiety.

The drive to meet one’s attachment need creates an active, ongoing urge that is life-long and implacable, which we will call aggression.

There is a feeling and there is an urge. They are connected.

Our experience consists of the interaction between anxiety (feeling), attachment, and aggression (urge). We continually attempt to balance those competing facets of our attachment experience.

Our attachment system is never turned off. We always have a level of arousal, and we use “anxiety” as a way to talk about that arousal.  The ongoing interaction of the urge of aggression, the feeling state of anxiety, and the biological imperative of attachment maintain a permanent psychological state of conflict.

The conflict state can be resolved, and indeed must be.

On the one hand, we can solve the conflict by giving up the quest for attachment entirely. Simply by solving the conflict in this way, we give up. This solution will be effective at times, and it is important to recognize when giving up is appropriate to the circumstances.

The aggressive urge mounts in order to resolve the conflict and confirm the attachment. At this polar extreme we may become violent and attempt to dominate through force in the emotional, intellectual, or physical realms, or any combination of these. Examples of this process explain much of the violent incidents witnessed in intimate attachment experience.


Exploration and seeking autonomy

Bowlby clearly stated that Attachment Theory functions in the realms of threat, separation, and loss and the need for security.

Central to Bowlby’s theory is the reciprocal relationship between being attached and being separate.

Exploration and seeking autonomy occurs in our children in direct relationship to their feeling of security with us.

The movement towards and away from others is always in a dynamic balance between the need to be attached and the need to be separate.

Secure = autonomous

The need to have a secure attachment experience in order to be autonomous may appear to be somewhat paradoxical, but in fact, attachment is a process between being secure in attachment experiences and being separate with a comfortable working self.

Competing needs

In order to break out of the automaticity of our parental behaviour, it cannot be stated enough that attachment can be understood in terms of the tension between competing needs.

The achievement of a balance between those competing needs is central to the development of our children’s intimacy, mutuality, and reciprocal behaviours.

The gift of conflict

When our family begins to shift their focus from fearing conflict to acknowledging conflict, our attention is placed on the value that each person brings to the relationship, despite our differences.

Conflict is celebrated as a sign of growth and change, and as an acknowledgment of the attachment needs of each family member. As a result, intimacy within our family can be enhanced.

Achieving balance

Conflict resolution, or achieving balance, demands that we take into account the other person’s process. We may be discouraged to find ourselves in conflict with our children, but if we are mindful despite the challenge, we can access a teachable moment.

At this point in time we have the opportunity to let them know,  “You have your process, and I have mine. I respect your process and in return I ask that you respect mine. Let’s talk about what’s going on for each of us, so we can move forward.”

Despite our child’s response, achieving balance in this way helps us stay in the moment, and out of outcome mode.

Building self-efficacy and mastery

Our children have the right to trust in their abilities, and eventually to develop mastery in their lives. The path towards self-efficacy begins in infancy, with a need to be attached, but just as importantly, with a need to be separate. In order to fulfill the need to be separate, children must build the capacity to look after themselves.

The family’s routine activities are opportunities for children to practice the life skills that lead to self-efficacy.

Each small task done well becomes a competency. Competency leads to self-efficacy. Self-efficacy builds confidence. Confident children feel useful, able, and significant.

 Later, the individual’s ability to look after himself or herself will be actualized through the world of work, but the seeds of competence, sown in the family’s activities of daily living, are planted early.  

Automatic strategies

Everything we do is about getting our attachment needs met. Most of our strategies are automatic or done with automaticity because that is what has been successful for us in the past. We filter out the stuff we don’t think works, and we do the stuff that we think works, but our automatic responses limit our outcomes, and we have to settle for what we can get. We often settle in our daily living: a young person stays up all night on their computer and can’t get up for school. They met their attachment needs last night but they are unable to meet their attachment needs today.

When we parent, we attempt to guide our children through this process.

Human brains are organized and structured to do things repetitively, and all of our biorhythms are established by evolutionary principles over thousands and thousands of years. Much of what we do is below the level of consciousness, below the level of decision-making. So we find ourselves with processes that lead in a certain direction, and we talk and think about, and sometimes want to change them, but when push comes to shove, when we’re stressed, when we can’t get our cognition to work because we’re anxious or upset or traumatized – we fall back on established principles that have organized our decision-making. We act in a way that is habitual, though it appears to us to be free will. Perhaps we find ourselves going in the direction that we’d rather not go.

Trying to bring our actions from an automatic response into the decision-making realm is a difficult process.

We may recognize our habitual behaviour, but because of the automaticity of our thinking process we often cycle around in a big circle.

In a similar vein, we might assume our children are acting in some way on purpose, or as a result of a deficit, when in actuality they are stuck in a pattern of automaticity, and the behaviour has become a habit.