Category Archives: Attachment

Reality is an Agreement

Claudius Ptolemy, an astronomer who lived in Rome about 100 AD asserted that the sun orbited the earth. It was logical to presume the sun was orbiting the earth, since the sun seemed to arrive in the morning and leave at night, return the next day and leave that night.

Many centuries after Ptolemy’s model was formulated, Polish mathematician and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus revealed a different way of seeing things, a different way of perceiving consciousness.

In 1543 he introduced the idea that the sun was the centre of the solar system. At the time Copernicus’ sun-centred theory was considered radical thought that went unproven until science eventually had the tools to confirm his reality.

Although centuries ago it was commonplace to hold the belief that the sun orbited the earth, no one asserts that old reality now.

The story of the shift from the belief of an earth-centred to sun-centred universe is an example of the summation over time of our experiences. Even culturally, when we accept new and contradictory information, the old reality or program of thought is pruned away.

Summing Human Experience

The possibility of the brain appears limitless.

In actual fact, the structure of our brain depends on summation of the brain’s information.

In the same way that our individual brains sum up, the enormous mass of information makes it necessary to sum up human experience as well.

Because we have so many different experiences, the information that is summed differs widely across different groups, which creates cultures.

When the information is summed and edited in a group, it reinforces the culture, and enables individual and collective brains to retain evolutionary knowledge to survive adversity from wars, clashes, poverty, and famine.

Reality is an agreement. It is what people say it is.

Although we may think our particular group’s consensus is reality, this belief contributes to the silly argument that one culture has more validity than another.


Brain/Mind Interface

Two very distinctive kinds of thought originate in the brain. The brain organ itself produces automatic thought. Flexible thought occurs via the plasticity of the mind. Paradoxically, the organ stays the same, and changes at the same time.

The brain as an organ is fixed in its capacity. Consequently throughout our lives the brain prunes or changes its content and removes memories and other forms of information that are stored in the organ, and it allows new information to enter, through its characteristic of plasticity.

Since there is only so much room within the organ, the brain summarizes our memories and other information, over time, and organizes itself in order to have the capacity to receive more information.

It is probable that we humans operate from automaticity most of the time. This results in us having formed relatively fixed conclusions about ourselves and others and how we interact, and how we go about the day-to-day tasks of living.

Within the fixed capacity of the brain, our stored personal narrative becomes an edited version of our reality, and not a reflection of the entirety of the experiences of joy and pain that occur throughout the span of our lives. For example, when our brains are stuck on the narrative of traumatic events that we have endured, we may become unbalanced towards our trauma; the brain not summarizing the daily joy that has occurred, instead, pruning away the joy. This may explain the onset of depression: when a person’s central experience is, “I’m in a terrible situation. My life is hopeless,” desperation readily sets in.

In the revolutionary T-groups of the 60’s and 70’s, participants stepped away from the automaticity of the ‘real world’, and experimented with interactive behaviours that stretched their sense of self. They summed up positive experiences in a way that balanced their sense of mistrust, fear of being hurt, and hopelessness, with actual experiences of trust in others, and frequently came away with a sense of hope.

Today, our ever-evolving knowledge of the organ that is the brain and the brain’s process, and the interface between the two (which we can access by the practice of mindfulness) makes it possible for us to challenge our automaticity in relation to others, and consciously re-write our attachment narrative.



The process of memory represents our ongoing personal narrative that is recorded in the organ that is the brain.

This narrative guides our behaviour and interactions, and is the story we tell about ourselves to ourselves.

The brain/skin connection

When you ask an adolescent why he or she cuts, or you talk to them about cutting, you need to be able to put it into a context so they can understand what it is they are doing.

It is more complex, and simpler than the mysterious action it seems.

Our skin is our largest sensory organ. Stimulating the skin can be a form of self-soothing that can be achieved by touching, rubbing, massaging, and piercing. Some of our children have discovered that scratching and cutting are stimulating.

This stimulation creates an external and an internal response. The internal response can be mediated by endorphins, and have a physical representation in the brain.

The rush of endorphins from the physical side is what people tend to focus on, but often we don’t take the next step, which is “Why is it necessary for a child to seek that response in order to change their mood?”

Typifying self-stimulation as an act of self-harm can cause us to miss the underlying meaning and purpose of the behaviour.

Whether the behaviour is in the context of the child themselves without any reference to the outside world, or whether the behaviour is an action that causes a response from the outside world are two separate things.

There is an internal psychological response to a physical action that affects the child’s mood, and an external response in relationship to how other people respond to the child’s action. The action was done in private, and the later observation of the effect of that action results in the response.

Often the person who is self-soothing in that way will be at pains to demonstrate that they have done it.

The internal soothing behaviour then becomes an external attempt to have others notice us and attend to us.

We can see this as part of the attachment configuration, both attachment to self and attachment to others.

A context for self-harm

When we discover our child is engaged in self-harming behaviour – whether burning, cutting, or otherwise interfering with their body – our automatic response as a parent is to be fearful. We fear because we don’t understand why our loved ones are doing this, and we intuitively know it relates to their attachment to themselves.

The child’s relationship to their harming behaviour is a private one. It provides him or her with a physical and emotional form of stimulation.

Our skin is our body’s largest organ, and we use it in many ways to soothe ourselves and to present ourselves to others. We manipulate our skin through dying and styling our hair; getting a tattoo; piercing a body part; tanning our skin; reshaping our body; or adjusting, and changing our appearance. This is a widespread phenomenon, and when taken to the extreme, it can result in what we refer to as self-harm.

When we take a step back from our concerns about the child’s behaviour, we can see the behaviour in attachment terms.

When we try and take choices away from our adolescents, we change the meaning of the behaviour and it becomes an interactive rather than a private one.

We relate to the behaviour as it appears to us. It becomes something we see as harmful, and we want them to stop. Therefore it has a different meaning. The behaviour moves into the relationship, and we begin to say, “I want to control you. I am determined to control you.”

When we intervene, the cutting becomes involved in the context of our relationship with the child.

The child has a personal and individual reason for the behaviour, and in order for them to stop they will have to meet that reason for doing it in another way.

By stepping back and offering proximity and conversation, we begin to understand the reason for the behaviour, and thus we are able to offer them substitute alternatives.

When we are triggered in this way by our adolescent’s behaviour, mindfulness helps us get past our automaticity and move into the present moment. Then we are more able to have a conversation in which we might ask, “How does that behaviour help you?” rather than, “How does it hurt you?” Our curiosity can be interactively mindful, non-judging, and intended for the benefit of the child.

In my practice I try to see behaviour, including self-harm, in the context of choice. I see the person separate from the behaviour. The harming is what they do, not who they are.

“I’ll do it myself”

Your three-year-old won’t be reciprocal. She says, “I’ll do it myself,” and pushes your hand away.

What goes into separation is appreciation for the other person’s ability to be separate. Do we let the three-year-old tie her own shoes when we see that she is struggling? Or do we do it for them?

The parent who is really attached to the child lets the child button her shoes by herself, because the parent is not anxious about their attachment.

Some of us can’t do that – can’t establish a bedtime for our children, or let the children go to bed by themselves.

These are building blocks.

At each developmental stage there is a new building block everyone has to engage in.

We can take joy in watching our children separate from us, and take pain as we watch their separation.



“Yes” and “No”

We want to be close but we know how dangerous it is to be close. In the balance between being connected and being separated, we put up boundaries to maintain separation; because when we offer love and support the other has the option to say they don’t want it.

We are two separate entities in the world, and we know losing the other is going to hurt. When we are bound to another, if they die, we die. Survival demands that we separate.

We can all run away from each other, or we can run towards and try to console each other.

At times we make up for lost years spent apart, and put out the flame of pain and separation through simply setting it aside. A little bit of joy can change everything.

When we have a  balance of pain and joy, the pain that comes along is not overwhelming. It doesn’t mean that we avoid the pain, but the affect becomes softer. Perhaps we return to someone we have lost and suddenly discover all of the things we had with them, and notice that those things still exist. We still have them. We may have lost the person but we have pieces of joy inside us as we remember the past, and we soothe ourselves with that joy.

It is magical how this structure comes together, and we see it happen around great pain, during periods of separation, or in times of danger.

In many cultures, funerals are safe places to express affection we have for the departed that we may have been afraid to fully express in life in the danger of being close. In that safety we say, “Yes”.

Consolation springs out of our shared experience, and everyone takes on a share of the pain.

Celebrating “No”

Just as we all have different ways of saying, “No” we all have different patterns and ways of separating that are habitual.

Much of our pain comes from our lack of balance between “Yes” and “No”. We tend to separate the two cognitively, but we don’t separate them affectively.

If we respect our partners we are able to say, “No” to each other in a way that cements the partnership.

We can think about this in terms of saying, “No” to other people, but we can also think about it in terms of, “How do we say, “No” to ourselves?” How that fits with attachment is that we have to be willing to say, “No” to ourselves in the moment so the other person can get their attachment needs met at this particular time.

Saying, “No” is fundamental and therefore is a principle of attachment. When we are born we say, “Yes” but we also say, “No”. The crux of it starts there.

The growing organism inside the mother is a “No” to her because it will stop being part of her. That is the price of being. Detachment from Mother is both a physical and emotional insult to her. But at birth, back to the paradox, the infant latches on and says, “Yes”. As we follow Nature, we learn that we go away in order to stay.





Saying “No”


“No” is a functional word in relationship, not a dysfunctional one.

Most of the time the exchange of “No” is disguised by automatic behaviour patterns from childhood and infancy, wherein we learn how not to be offensive to others when we are the one who says, “No.”

Tracing that back to where it’s an actual “No” – “No, I’m not going to do that” – becomes disguisable. We ask:  “Do you want to go to the movies?” And the other person says, “That sounds like a good idea.” The next question is, “What movie shall we go to?” Negotiating the movie means that someone has to say, “No, I don’t want to go to that movie.”

We have many ways of avoiding. For instance, we might say, “I would prefer…” But when we say, “No”, our message is that we are a separate person with separate attachment needs.

This gets confusing when we are dealing with children. We say “no” to kids without the subtlety, because they have to learn how to create reciprocal relationships with other people. Children just want what they want. We ask them, “Do you want to share your toys?” They say, “No,” and we say, “I think you should. There’s a benefit to sharing your toys.” As one of the children refuses to share, the other child cries. Mom and Dad intervene, and the event becomes an avoidance of the issue: we distract one of the children and give them something else so they don’t fight for the toys.

Learning to say, “No” is about peeling the onion of attachment down to the basics of reciprocal behaviour, which is based on appreciation for the other person, and trusting that the relationship is strong enough to allow, “No”.