Attachment: Why letting go of unhelpful behaviours is hard

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What’s it all about?

Much of the work of therapy is about understanding, about meaning-making and making sense of. Often changing our more dysfunctional, unhealthy and downright self-destructive patterns of thinking and behaving can be surprisingly difficult until we have really got to grips with why we did them in the first place. What purpose did they serve? What did I think I would benefit from them? Otherwise it is difficult to reconcile these unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours with a concept of ourselves as their originator. If they don’t make sense then on a fundamental level neither can we. Of course the original reasons are usually long past their sell-by date but having our attention drawn to this can help tus to change by highlighting the contrast between what was and what is now.

And what are we about?

And as well as being meaning-seeking creatures, we are also social, relational beings at heart. The need for attachment drives and shapes us from our very first days. So here I want to reflect on some of our apparently unhelpful behaviours and put them in the context of our desire for attachment, as a way thinking about them differently and perhaps reaching a greater understanding of what we need to confront in order to let them go.

Rumination

The act of obsessively focussing our thoughts on something over and over again. Most of us will cast our mind back to times that didn’t go as we wanted, mulling over what went wrong and how things could have been different. Done constructively, it’s with the intention of learning and doing something different next time. But rumination creates a vicious mental cycle, interfering with and blocking out healthier thought processes. When we ruminate over past events and our part in them, we relive the lead up to it, we experience again the detail of the moment and then the emotional intensity of the aftermath. Usually there’s an unpleasant outcome, a hurt or loss of some kind for which we blame ourselves. And this can bring a range of difficult emotions: guilt (more later), remorse, disappointment and despair leading to depression.

But why? What do we gain from it? We are in effect re-traumatising ourselves by bringing the physical and psychological sensations of the past into the present time and time again. But perhaps – perversely – it’s a way of staying attached to someone. We keep ourselves psychologically close to them even after their physical presence has gone. These absent people, these unchangeable actions can now only be connected to us through our mental activity and this might seem a last resort worth clinging to, no matter the toll on our psychological well being.

Often what is driving our rumination is a need for some sort of resolution. We want things to have happened differently and are struggling to come terms with the fact that they didn’t. So when we relive that event we are taunting ourselves with the possibility of a different course of action. We put ourselves back there in the driving seat and we relive, moment by moment, the build up to the point where that fatal decision was made or those offending words were uttered. We bring all the benefit of our hindsight back to that moment when so many options are tantalising within reach. If we only keep our mouths shut this time, don’t press “Send” or manage to say “I’m sorry” then things get put right and the loss is avoided. We can suspend ourselves in that moment of possibility before we are once again confronted with reality and the familiar feelings of sadness, grief, guilt and remorse return. Freud talked of repetition compulsion to describe how we seek to repeat experiences or relationships in the hope that they will have a different outcome and we will be left with a different set of feelings at the end. It is a story of hope and disappointment.

Guilt

Guilt is both a feeling and a belief, and like rumination can be thought of as a form of atonement. A sort of psychological self-flagellation. We think we are responsible for something which has caused harm to someone and we must suffer in return. And guilt fills the void where apology, acceptance and re-connection are missing – or unattainable. But without the prospect of resolution with the other (the hurt one), there is nothing to ease the guilt. It might be lessened by seeing them move on but then we have lost them and we have to face that loss. Guilt keeps us connected to the other and it changes our relationship with them, even if only in our own world. We offer up our own feelings as recompense for the damage we have done to theirs. We respond to all our imaginings about how they have been hurt, what they are thinking and feeling and all of this binds us to them.

This emotional binding – or attachment – is always going to be painful and far less satisfactory than the real thing. But it is the lack of real thing that we are defending against so, like the toddler for whom negative attention is better than none at all, we continue to seek it.

Holding a grudge

This is another way of holding ourselves in the past, holding onto people or memories. Holding a grudge necessarily requires another and therefore creates a (pseudo) relationship with them.

And what does it achieve – apart from a festering sense of hurt and resentment? It keeps a sense of debt between us: we have reason to feel wronged and demand compensation. Remember Shakespeare’s Shylock talking of his bond? It was a monetary debt but also a binding of two people together. It created a financial and emotional right – to feel hurt, wronged, let down. Grudges are the flip side of guilt and keep the other bound to us, even if they are unspoken. And they give us a sense of power – or at least perceived power, if not control. And power is needed because grudges tend to persist where there is no opportunity to exert control. They are often held over a distance where the opportunities for normal talking-things-over and resolution are limited.

Grudges are often insular, we keep them inside where they are allowed to remain intact, safe from any reality testing which might challenge our rationale for keeping them in place (actually they didn’t mean any harm, you’ve just taken it personally). And by internalising them, they become centred on two people and their connection with each other, rather than a more general feature of people’s behaviour and how it impacts others. I choose to feel hurt by this particular person rather than by particular types of actions (not replying to letters, passing me over for promotion).

But most of all it keeps us in a sense of relationship – persecutor to victim, do-er to done-to – where there might otherwise not be one.

Summary

What do these obviously unhelpful but hard to shake off habits have in common? They are all rooted in past events or situations. Crucially they create or maintain a sense of relationship and so are ways for us to remain attached to others. Moving out of them involves separation and it is the pain of this loss which makes it so hard for us to let go of them. Grieving, acceptance and self-compassion are all essential for us to move into healthier, more self-respecting activities.

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