Cultivating Connection to Self and Other
Growing in popularity is attachment theory, you may have already heard about it from a friend, family-member, therapist or social media. I will discuss attachment theory in this blog and then later offer a nature-based practice that could be useful to support one’s earned secure attachment. First, let’s take a look at a practical definition of attachment theory, but before we do I want to invite you to pause here, reflect on, and become curious about your adult relationships before moving forward—here are some example statements of the different styles of attachment.
When we are born into this world we are utterly defenseless (more so than any other primate species) to any and all outside forces. Due to this vulnerability, humans, as do other primate species, attempt to ensure their survival and safety throughout early developmental years by maintaining physical and emotional closeness to their caregiver(s)—this is the theory of attachment. Provided that our survival and safety is in the hands of our caregiver and attaching to our caregiver is an effort to secure our physical and emotional well-being then whether we establish a secure attachment relationship with them carries an important significance. In fact, Mate (2022) says, “attachment is the foundation of our emotional lives. It shapes who we are, how we relate, what we value, and what we seek.” So, what does it look like to foster a secure attachment with a child or a caregiver and what does or doesn’t happen when an insecure attachment is developed. .
In short, there are two categories of attachment—secure and insecure attachment. Secure attachment is developed when a caregiver is consistently available and attuned to the child’s physical and emotional needs. An insecure attachment may develop overtime when a caregiver is inconsistently available or consistently unavailable and/or misattuned to the child’s physical and emotional needs. In this case, three subtypes of insecure attachment can arise: anxious (inconsistently available), avoidant (consistently unavailable), and disorganized (marked by unpredictable availability and intense fear of caregiver).
Developing a secure attachment is dependent upon whether our primary caregiver is consistently available and is able to provide consistent “enough” attunement to the child’s physical and emotional needs while also accurately reflecting the child’s mental states back to them, otherwise known as, parental reflective functioning. It’s important to highlight that this definition of secure attachment does not intend to suggest that caregivers have to be perfect and without flaw or mistakes for their child to develop a secure attachment. In fact, let’s entertain the idea that being a perfect caregiver were a possibility. In this case, if a caregiver were 100% of the time available and perfectly attuned that would not adequately prepare the child for the dynamic reality of conflict in their current and for future interpersonal relationships. Namely, relational conflict is inevitable and it can be a natural and healthy characteristic of a relationship—so long as there is a soft communication about the conflict or unmet need—a process known as rupture and repair. Being exposed at an early age to the rupture-repair process teaches and encourages children to maintain connection with others (co-regulation) and themselves (self-soothing) amidst relational conflict. An inability to maintain connection to others and the self is the underpinnings for how insecure attachment forms early in life which then influences our adult relationships.
Looking closer now at insecure attachment styles, someone with an insecure attachment style may not have had the same opportunity for rupture and repair as did someone who developed a secure attachment with their caregiver. I want to highlight a few things here. First, developing an insecure attachment is not a bad thing nor inherently unhealthy; rather, the behaviors associated with insecure attachment are adaptive strategies that at one point served the purpose of ensuring survival and maintaining safety for that person. Second, the type of attachment relationship we form with our caregivers is heavily influenced on an intergenerational cycle of abuse or neglect, in short, how we were taught how to love as a child sets the blueprint for how we know love as adults. Third, an infant or child’s typical response to neglect or abuse is not to blame their parents, but to instead internalize the blame as a means of maintaining an internal sense of safety with their caregiver. For example, a child might unconsciously believe, “something must be wrong with me because if something were wrong with my caregiver then I might not be safe or protected from my environment.” These unconscious beliefs become internalized, otherwise known as introjections. Introjections may take the form of shame-based thoughts and become a part of one’s psyche through development and into adulthood. For example, one may have the unconscious belief of “I am not enough”, “I am too much”, or “I am incapable of being loved by another or loving another”. This is how our relational wounds experienced from an insecure attachment in childhood might show up in our adult relationships.
In our adult relationships, depending on our tendency to lean toward a particular attachment strategy, certain behaviors will show up later in life that were at one point protective that are no longer serving the same purpose they were originally intended to serve. For this reason, in adult relationships, we may at times feel overwhelmed by the pain we feel when someone forgot to text us back, cancelled plans at the last minute, distances themselves from us, etc. This overwhelm might occur because the pain that is being felt originates from a relational wound we experienced at a younger age. Whether we respond to this overwhelm by becoming anxious or avoidant depends on the attachment we developed with our caregiver. If we were anxiously attached we might begin to feel high levels of anxiety about the prospect of being without that person and introjections may begin to arise. On the other hand, someone who tends to be avoidantly attached will likely distance themselves and withdraw from the relationship. In this state, the avoidant may attempt to avoid their feelings and repress what is coming up for them by fixating on self-soothing strategies that leads to a dissociated state. In both cases, there is some degree of a losing connection to self or others. Whether you identify with having a secure or insecure attachment there are some practices below that you can do by yourself or with others, whatever feels the most comfortable for you, to reconnect to oneself and other beings.
1. Establish a sit-spot
A sit spot is any place outside that you feel connected with and the list could be infinitely long, but here are a few examples (backyard, local park, with your desk plants, local hiking trails, a tree at a bus stop, etc). Choosing your sit-spot is a personal endeavor and should be done with care as it’s important to recognize that not everyone feels safe outdoors, so please engage with this activity in a way that feels most comfortable and in alignment with you.
2. Become curious about your sit-spot
What are you noticing while sitting, standing, walking around this area? Are there other people around you? What being or element is asking to be admired by you? (A weed, a tree, a bug, the wind, the sun, the clouds, a house fly, a plant, etc.)
3. Is there a felt-sense of safety at your sit-spot?
What might need to change in your environment for your sit-spot to feel safe? Asking a trusted love one to come with you? Being alone? Letting someone know where you are? Not telling someone where you are? If you are still feeling unsafe, you might consider choosing another sit-spot and repeat the process above.
4. Establish a threshold
What is something near or around your sit-spot that you can walk by, under, through in order to get to your sit-spot that will act like a door into the sit-spot? (A large rock, tree, patch of grass, etc)
5. Immerse your senses with the sit-spot
Grant yourself permission to start narrowing in on one of your senses at your sit-spot. Take as much time or as little time as you want with any sense that is available to you.
How is your physical body in contact with your surroundings? What are your feet standing on? Are the sensations pleasant or unpleasant? You might place your hands on the ground or in dirt nearby.
What aromas are in the air around you? (dirt, wet pavement, flowers, weeds, food from a neighbors house?) Where are they coming from? Do the smells remind you of anything?
What are you seeing around you? What sticks out the most to you? Can you touch or smell what you are seeing? What’s your relationship with all that you are seeing?
What sounds are you noticing around you? Do some sounds appear to be further away and some to be closer? What is the furthest sound you can here? What’s making the most sound around you?
Since we do not recommend tasting anything in the environment that you are unfamiliar with, you might choose to instead of physically tasting something you might try and take a deep breath and taste the air as it hits your tongue, try walking around your area to see if there are different tastes as you walk around breathing (you might be surprised!).
After noticing how you are experiencing your sit-spot through your 5-senses, check back in with yourself about whether you are still feeling safe in this environment. Perhaps, your relationship with this place has shifted to feeling more safe or less safe… notice what you are noticing and make any appropriate adjustments.
You might choose to journal about how your relationship to yourself shifts over time while at this sit-spot—what thoughts, feelings, sensations are most present with you here? What are you wishing wasn’t present with you or what are you glad is present with you? Journaling at a sit-spot or after is a great way to help you track your experience. If you do not enjoy writing, you might be intentional about remembering just one of the senses that are available to you in any method you wish (taking a picture, memory, painting, drawing, etc.)
8. Again, notice what you notice
Noticing any excitement or resistance to going to your sit-spot will serve as a window into some information for you. Whatever you decide to do, listening to what your body is wanting to do in that moment is how we can cultivate a greater connection to self which you may find opens you up to connection with others.
Over time, if you decide to return over and over to the same sit-spot, notice how you might be showing up each time by checking in with yourself about how you’re feeling. If you are feeling overwhelmed by any thoughts, feelings, or sensations you might ask a being in your environment if they would be willing to hold any pain you may be carrying—you can always ask that being to have the pain back when you feel ready. If you do this, perhaps, be intentional about reciprocating some act of kindness toward this being who is holding onto your pain for you. You might simply tell them, thank you or extend some form of gratitude. In this way, our sit-spot might begin to take the shape of an auxiliary attachment figure that will help us over time earn a secure attachment.
In the end, we may start experiencing some of the physical and emotional benefits of having a place that is consistently available and predictable which might not be something you have always had access to. As well, the natural world tends to mirror back to us our inner-psyche as we project onto the world our inner states when we pause long enough to bring awareness to our senses and immerse them with the more-than-human world. This may allow you some insight into your experience and how you are showing up in relationships. For example, which people do you feel most comfortable with? What social environments are most comfortable? What smells or noises bring you comfort? I hope this practice brings you some comfort and opens you up to connecting deeper with yourself and others. Thank you for reading!