By: Camille Pack, MA, BLCF
She couldn’t look at her husband while she spoke to him. “I told you I felt sad, and you told me, ‘it wasn’t that bad if I looked at it differently.’ Then my heart sank, so I shut up. I thought, ‘Fine, I’ll handle it alone, like I always do,’ and I changed the subject.”
Her tears spilled over. “It made it worse. I felt more alone.”
She almost hadn’t brought up the exchange. It seemed like a small example, but we know attachment wounds are born in such moments.
“Lack of support in the midst of wounding seems central to the movement from potential trauma to embedded trauma,” says Bonnie Badenoch in The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.
Left without emotional closeness many times over the years, you won’t be surprised my client was skilled at hiding her feelings.
Until this conversation, her husband was unaware of the rupture. Now, to me, he looked blindsided.
Perhaps from confusion about how the distance had ballooned between them, or distress he’d contributed to her pain, or hurt that his intentions were grossly misinterpreted, or fear that it happened outside his awareness. From this soil, a crust of anger and defensiveness seemed to flit across his face.
Later, we found out he had no idea he’d minimized and dismissed her experience—he’d withdrawn so fully and innocently in the protective perspective of the exploratory system that he couldn’t see his impact on her. He didn’t know he’d been emotionally absent long before she put up the wall.
Attachment is the study of emotional safety and the impact it has on the human nervous system.
What does a nervous system do when it has emotional safety? What does it do when it doesn’t? How does emotional safety change our views about our place in the world?
Four predictable attachment patterns give us a window into how well two brain systems are integrated: the attachment system and the exploratory system, described by Harvard psychologists Daniel P. Brown and David Elliott in Attachment Disturbances in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair.
Our exploratory system prefers a state of certainty, action, and doing. As the exploratory system activates, we automatically turn down the dial on emotion. This attachment position is commonly referred to as an avoidant pattern.
The exploratory system attends to analytical details, information-gathering, and problem-solving with logical efficiency, but it removes events from their context and gets judgmental. We might metaphorically experience such coping strategies as though they dip our feelings and relationships in liquid lidocaine.
In high doses, it may leave us with a numb sense of growing despair.
We might be alerted to someone’s shift into an exploratory perspective when we feel the loss of their presence as they scroll through their phone. Perhaps we notice being assessed with judgmental eyes. Maybe we see a parent prioritizing their child’s behavior over the quality of their relationship. Maybe we notice ourselves getting brisk and task-oriented, impatient or annoyed by interruptions.
Even as you read this, you may notice how the quality of our experience has changed as I moved from a shared moment to analysis.
We need our exploratory system to make sense of our lives. We need it to support our relational values, so we can have a rich and full life. But as we shift into exploratory-dominance, as Bonnie Badenoch says, “meaning has a tendency to get lost.”
It’s difficult for us to notice and interpret body language correctly. We are more likely to misinterpret people’s intentions. We miss the hurt in our child’s averted eyes. We overlook the changes in our partner’s tone that might tell us of their unmet attachment needs.
Western culture leads with, prioritizes, and celebrates the independence of the exploratory system. It is the adaption our nervous system shelters in to turn off conscious awareness of pain when relationships have been a source of emotional rejection, as far back as infancy.
In neglectful or critical environments, if we sought emotional support and experienced rejection, such as a well-intentioned caregiver repeatedly telling us to push down our feelings, buck up, toughen up, and do it on our own, we will orient to the world through our exploratory system.
We’ll be successful, independent, and emotionally isolated—often without awareness of our isolation.
. . .
When our nervous system defaults to the exploratory view, we tend to get more rigid and isolated. But without the support of the exploratory system, our attachment system enters the chaos of pursuit. This attachment position is commonly referred to as an anxious pattern.
The fourth pattern, called disorganized, combines these approaches, alternating unpredictably and sometimes simultaneously between hyper-activation and down-regulation of the attachment system and the exploratory system.
Our sweet spot seems to balance the two with the attachment system taking the lead, knighting our exploratory system as its able emissary. This attachment position is called secure.
Co-regulating presence is the wellspring of security.
Presence. Intuitively we know it’s a gift. It is where we come to be together in the unknown. It might call to mind a space of firelight and laughter, poetry and lingering meals, blowing bubbles and softly meeting each other’s eyes as we sing. Our attachment system needs such co-regulating accompaniment to connect to our aliveness and meaning.
The perceptual world of security is present, curious, open, accepting, comfortable with ambiguity, sensitive to suffering, and quick to offer our support without expectation that someone be any different than they are.
Our attachment system prefers this state of being. As we attend to being fully present in this moment, we are wrapped in the awareness of many streams of somatic communication coming from our body, our environment, and each other.
Security is a state of mind we may easily return to when we cuddle our animals and listen to their responsive snurffle-sounds, or when we get out on a trail and into the embrace of the forest, or when our partner gently strokes our arm and whispers.
From this fountain of security, even without words, the softness in our face, our gaze, and our voice will convey messages of safety through our presence: I see you. I’m here. I treasure you. Your feelings make sense. Thank you for letting me be with you.
In our shared Zoom room, the husband looked at his feet for help. They were both standing on the Connection System®, a floor mat that’s part of the Building a Lasting Connection® Workshop. BLC structures sharing and listening to increase intimacy and strengthen secure attachment.
The Connection System® helps us release judgements and share a new moment as it unfolds in the space between.
This is where intimacy and compassion bloom.
The husband found what he was looking for and returned his gaze to his wife. “I’m really glad you’re sharing,” he said, offering his soft presence. “I want to be with you when you’re sad, and I’m glad you’re giving me another chance.”
Her eyes filled with tears of relief and warmth. She smiled.
Later, when it was his turn to share, he told us about the tightness he felt in his gut when she shut him out and the fear she wouldn’t come back. His wife cried and squeezed his hand, fully with him now. It meant so much to hear his feelings and even more to simply feel him with her because he usually kept such a tight lock on himself.
As he shared and she attuned in kind, their connection cleared away the knot in his gut and a radiating warmth filled his heart.
The flow of emotional support and deep sharing gave them a window into the secure connection they longed for.
. . .
In what feels like sacred moments, such as these, I witness what Stephen Porges says: “Safety is treatment.”
It also brings to mind memory reconsolidation research. How when we remember a trauma, the neural net where it lives activates, bringing up a felt sense of the original loss. When this activation happens gently, and we’re accompanied by a trusted-other who provides a disconfirming experience, healing may begin as that neural net weaves with other more resourced areas throughout the nervous system. Each subsequent awakening may then be accompanied by the integrating nourishment of remembered support.
“If we felt alone, we needed a sense of accompaniment,” says Bonnie Badenoch. “If we were frightened, we needed protection. If we were shamed, we needed acceptance. If we were hurt, we needed comfort. It is as though the part of us who experienced the original rupture of safety has been waiting ever since for the repair to arrive.”
I’m grateful to know the power of such arrivals, that shared presence can weave a nest of safety and belonging around our pain.
Camille Pack is the founder of StoryKeeper, a safe, healing community for cultivating the art and practice of secure attachment skills to increase authenticity, mindfulness, and belonging. She is a certified facilitator of The Building a Lasting Connection® Workshop developed by Rebecca Jorgensen and Debi Gilmore and offers facilitated mat work for couples on the Connection System®. Camille also offers IPF (ideal parent figure) coaching to individuals seeking to heal early attachment wounds. Learn more at officialstorykeeper.com.