Attachment – why we say and emote one way when we truly feel and think a different way

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Quick summary: I was just re-reading some articles on Emotionally Focused Therapy and on Attachment Theory and I thought I might offer a noteworthy piece of information. Often we say what we don’t mean and we offer an emotional response which is different from how we truly feel in order to protect ourselves from attending to our attachment concerns or fears… ok, so what does that mean? Quite simply it is easier to attack, avoid, defend or distract than it is to allow yourself to be vulnerable and to express your vulnerability concerning an important relationship… it is easier to be mad than it is to be sad… very often anger and emotional withdrawal are very effective means of distracting yourself from your sadness or your fear. Vulnerability arrives when we acknowledge that we hold fear about losing relationships which are important to us… Relational bliss lies within the honesty of allowing yourself to acknowledge your vulnerability in a supportive and empathetic relationship.

Examples:

–         It is seems easier to get mad at your teenager for being late for curfew… were you also afraid for your child’s safety… what is typically expressed with greater effort, the anger or the fear?

–         It seems easier to get mad at your partner for his or her choice of seductive clothing…were you afraid that your partner would leave you for another mate? Was this ever expressed? How was this expressed?

–         It seems easier to focus your attention on a fair way of dividing the estate of a deceased family member – most families experience angry and hostile interactions during these times… was the family prepared to talk openly about the sadness they felt for a lost relationship? Where do we learn to express our vulnerabilities?

Please do not interpret this as blaming – in truth we are very well trained in distraction, avoidance, defensiveness, and attack strategies – we tend to be less prepared to express vulnerability.

  • There are many negative associations with the word ‘vulnerable’ – what does it mean to you? What do you believe that it means to your partner?
  • Is allowing yourself to be vulnerable considered a strength or a weakness in your relationships?

 

Society can tend to label vulnerability as a weakness and defensiveness, attack strategy, avoidance and distraction as strengths (defensive – rational/intelligent, attack – powerful/leader, avoidance – clever/independent, distraction – witty and humorous).

–         If everyone feels vulnerable at times than is it truly weak to acknowledge your true feelings? Does it not take strength to be authentic and honest?

The Answer – we say things different from what we honestly think and we display emotions different from what we actually feel because somewhere along the way we learned that it was easier to do that than to express vulnerability.

Solution – (note: this is tricky stuff and it is very helpful to seek a Couples and Family therapist) – much of what therapists are trained to do is to bring behaviors, thoughts, and emotions into your conscious awareness – self-awareness can be difficult to achieve unassisted.

            – sometimes our vulnerabilities need the support of a professional helper – in becoming a therapist most therapists seek therapy in order to sit more comfortably with their own vulnerabilities.

Identify your patterns – what do you usually do when your are feeling vulnerable (attack, withdraw, defend, distract etc)

Identify what you feel vulnerable about – (breaking trust, abandonment, losing love, unequal degree of love in the relationship, not truly loved, being used, being replaceable etc)

Externalize – separate yourself and you partner from the behavior patterns in your relationship – they are not a permanent part of you or your relationship, they are separate – once you see this… once your allow the pattern to be separate… you can use your freedom to choose a new pattern.

Identify where these vulnerabilities might have grown from – (divorced parents, adoption, infidelity in a past or current relationship, troubled relationship with a parent, lack of safety or neglect in childhood etc)

Identify what gets in the way of your ability to be empathetic, genuine, authentic, and to be a good listener. – If you are going to seek support from your partner you should be prepared to learn how to be supportive back (again a therapist is very helpful here).

–         There is not one way of being supportive – you must identify how your partner feels supported – a willingness to accept constructive feedback can be important.

–         Note: many people do not know how they like to be supported.

When support, safety, and empathy are present you get to express your vulnerabilities… the listener is responsible for compassion and empathy – they are not enlisted to ‘fix’ anything – (empathy and the resulting increase in intimacy is the ‘fix’)

           

When this happens most people feel a significant decrease in relational conflict and they feel more attached or bonded to their partner.

 

Pragmatic solutions – once you have acknowledged your vulnerabilities it is significantly easier to handle more surface level conflicts as you have learned to be more self aware, more aware of your partners needs, a better listener, and more honest.

This is one of the more confusing goals of couples and family therapy – often the goal is to help the structure, dynamics, and interaction patterns of the clients so that they can be better able to solve all the problems that inevitably surface in life.

As I have stated in an earlier blog post this is all scientifically substantiated – studies have even been shown to display positive changes to the brain itself. Dr. Sue Johnson has done an excellent job of applying the science to the subject of emotions as they relate to relationships.

 

Attachment theory is mind-blowing – if you want to have that ah ha moment surrounding the mysteries of psychotherapy I suggest you read about attachment theory (Emotionally Focused Therapy and most of the successful childhood trauma recovery strategies are largely based on attachment theory).

“The more that you show your partner the more he or she will have to love” – me

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Why Feeling Questions? – Emotional Expression Enhances Bonding

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Quick summary: Exciting new research done by therapists such as Dr. Sue Johnson (the pioneer of emotionally focused therapy) have added efficacy to therapeutic interventions which help clients to express emotions. By sharing your most intimate feelings to your partner you can increase the overall intimacy and relational strength of your union. This makes common sense if you think about it – when you decide to trust someone and to confide in him or her – most believe that this makes you closer or more bonded to that person.

Couples therapy can offer a safe place for partners to finally release the emotions that they have been holding; the therapist is available to help the couples to sit with and to support the expressed feelings. – In this way there does not need to be anything ‘wrong’ in the relationship for people to seek couples counseling; If a person chooses to heal with their partner present they will gain in two ways – they will overcome their difficulty and they will strengthen their relationship.

Need the scientific answer? – new research is finding that emotional intimacy (which can be arrived at by sharing emotions with your partner) can increase Oxytocin levels – (there is too much information about this for this blog) – in short Oxytocin is the hormone/neurotransmitter that is released during birth which elicits the love and bonding feelings. Oxytocin is also thought to be responsible for that “crazy – can’t sleep at night – miss the partner after minutes” type of love found typical in the beginning of relationships – this, by the way, goes away naturally (the ‘honeymoon period’ in biologically substantiated – so if after between six months to a year and a half do not fret when your love changes in feeling). So in short, there is a biological explanation for why sharing emotions increases bonding.

The “how do you feel” question has long been the punch line for satires about therapists… In reality some therapists are very interested about the client’s feelings, but they are significantly more tactful in their questions than Hollywood typically portrays.

The goal is for the clients to feel the emotions (both for themselves and empathetically for their partner), the reason that therapists get the reputation for asking lots of feeling questions is that it is very common for people to ‘tell’ about their emotions without allowing themselves to experience the emotions.  Most people have probably witnessed what I am talking about (as we all do it) – we watch people talk in a ‘matter of fact’ way about something incredibly emotional… it is not that these people are cold – they have just learned throughout life that restraining emotions in adaptive. For example -after a job I had in which I had to display and extremely high degree of emotional control I had to re-teach myself to cry… there was nothing to cognitively fix… I just needed the comfort of my wife’s presence and the freedom and safety of our bond to express myself.

Telling about your emotions instead of allowing yourself to feel your emotions has become very important in today’s professional cultures. There are unwritten rules at work which state that you are to restrain from expressing emotions fully (both laughing hysterically and crying tearfully tend to be looked down upon.)

Restraining emotions is also an adaptive way of ‘getting on with life.’ For many it would be hard to function if they were not avoiding, denying, or rationalizing etc. their emotions.

We all do it (or most at least) and I can only begin to tell you how good it feels to have your partner hear and care for the emotions that you express. A therapist can be very helpful as we have a tendency (men and women) to try and ‘fix’ our partner’s ‘problem’.

Emotions can get really bottlenecked… which often leads to stress, anxiety, and irritability.  Sometimes acknowledging an emotion to your partner is the best way to unburden yourself while reaping the benefits of increasing your intimacy. Again, a therapist can help to ensure that your partner does not “pick up” the emotional weight that you are sharing – supporting an emotional does not need to involve taking the emotion.

We can all struggle with blaming, defensiveness, avoidance and denial – so sometimes it is best to let a therapist help you on this journey.

In closing, I had a teacher who used the word dignity in relation to how to empathize with a person expressing emotions that you are supporting.

Allow your partner the dignity to carry his/her own emotions – your partner’s emotions are not for you to carry, but for you to support with your love, hope, compassion and trust.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.