Attachment and Therapy – How Does it Work?

As part of the 12 Step programme, people with addiction issues are asked to define someone or something as a ‘higher power’. This could be God (of whichever form or description you choose), or someone you admire like a parent, friend or footballer (I imagine someone, somewhere has David Beckham set as their higher power, which as a person who was watching when he scored the goal that got England to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002, I completely understand).

I have worked with lots of people who are or have been part of the 12 Step programme and as such have been asked who my higher power would be many times. I have two people who I hold in awe and as my own personal therapy Gods. One is Irvin Yalom, someone I will no doubt write about in detail someday. The other is John Bowlby. Most recently Bowlby has been my preferred choice, mainly because I attended a CPD event a few years ago that was run by his son, Sir Richard Bowlby and I actually got to shake his hand and talk to him!! Starstruck I am not very often, but starstruck I was on that day and the memory of that experience still makes me smile as I sit and type today.

Why do you tell us these things Mark I can hear people shout? Good question and one I am happy to answer now.

I read the most wonderful article today and it has spurred me into blog writing action once more. I have posted the link to the article at the bottom of this blog and I would heartily recommend anyone considering engaging in counselling or psychotherapy, practicing as a counsellor/therapist or anyone who is actively engaged in counselling or therapy to read it. Immediately!!

The article explains beautifully how counselling and psychotherapy can influence lasting change in people with any and all forms of mental health issue. I will not go into too much detail as the article explains itself much better than I, but it shows clearly the link between the client and counsellor having a positive and healthy therapeutic relationship, alongside being aware of and understanding of the clients patterns of attachment when they were growing up, as well as their attachment patterns as an adult. This is where John Bowlby comes in, as he was the genius who first put down onto paper his observations, research and practice around attachment theory.

Every one of us is influenced by our past experiences. They inform our thoughts, feelings and behaviours as adults, but we are often completely unaware how much they do influence us. As human people we are prone to repeating negative experiences, relationships, feelings from the past in the present. It is not obvious at all that losing a parent when a child, or having any form of traumatic experience where someone we trust leaves, hurts us, lets us down, shouts at us, is inconsistent or does anything that we do not wish or appreciate, can leave us stuck in a pattern of thought and feeling that limits us as fully grown adults, in terms of our relationships, view of self and interactions with other people. Yet this is what we do. We often develop neuroses, negative views of ourselves, negative views of the world, that are not based on reality, but based on how we experienced certain people and things as children, and my gosh, are those beliefs or thoughts difficult to challenge by ourselves.

This is where therapy can make such a huge difference to people’s lives. A therapist can help a person firstly identity where their issues may stem from through looking at their patterns of attachment to key people in their lives, the therapist can also offer themselves up as a positive attachment figure to the client and help them challenge their internal negative thoughts and feelings and put more realistic, grounded and healthy views in their place.

As I read that back, it all sounds very simple doesn’t it? In some ways it is, but often those entrenched patterns of attachment, behaviour and thought can be difficult to change and there is often a reluctance to trust fully the therapeutic relationship as it normally only consists of one hour a week together in an office or therapy room. How can that be enough to challenge 20, 30, 40, 50 years of belief around self and/or others that has ostensibly been negative? How can that be enough to heal traumatic wounds that have been open and festering since childhood?

All I can say there is that it can do and often does in my experience. A lot rests on finding the right therapist and being motivated to push to make changes and face difficult things from the past. I am going to steal a quote from the article here and put it below:

‘What happens between client and therapist goes beyond mere talking, and goes deeper than clinical treatment’

If we can accept that the clients internal struggles are likely due to issues with their patterns of attachment and often trauma associated with those struggles, then to me it makes sense that the therapist needs to put themselves in the therapy room as a secure attachment for the client, so the client can have a different experience of being attached to someone safely. Once they have had this experience, they then have a choice about how they wish to attach to people in their personal lives. Some (I would say most in my experience) clients choose to change and they notice their personal relationships change (some for the better, some relationships end, which is positive for the client if sometimes upsetting).

Sometimes clients choose to stay the same and that is something that the therapist has to respect and honour also. It is a therapist’s job to offer a client an opportunity to understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviours better and also provide them with a different experience of themselves, people and relationships. It is not a therapist’s job to tell a client they have to change once they know what their options are.

If you do one more thing today after reading this, I would recommend it is clinking on the link below and reading the full article. It goes into much more depth than I have time for today and it really does get to the crux of what counselling and therapy is and how it helps people.

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