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Things we've gotten wrong about attachment trauma (hint, it's not a disorder)

Updated: Jun 24



The longer I do this work, the clearer I see that attachment trauma is not a disorder (i.e. an abnormal condition). It is an injury-a profound and enduring wound that reaches into the very essence of an individual, casting a wide range of issues and causing deep pain.


The effects of attachment trauma are pervasive, affecting one's relationship to themselves, others and life as a whole. Understanding attachment trauma as an injury rather than a disorder is crucial in recognizing the profound impact it can have on an individual's life. By acknowledging the depth of this wound, we can begin to explore healing pathways that address the underlying emotional and psychological scars left by early relational experiences.


To understand attachment trauma, we must start at the beginning...


 

Injured life


To love a child is to have deep and unwavering regard for the potency of life inside of that child. Loving the way life is expressed through the child is the basic and perhaps the most important requirement for being a good parent. That is the ethical baseline and from that, everything else flows. We learn to protect and nurture because we love life inside the child, because it is important and precious to us.


We learn to love life as the result of being loved. Or perhaps, more specifically, we learn to love life because someone loved and protected life inside of us.


Much depends on the child's ability to survive. If the child doesn't make it, the adult doesn't make it. The weight of this burden is enormous and yet when the child does make it, he rarely gets the credit or the recognition. In fact, the child is often devalued, dismissed or put down.The world communicates to the child that she is less than whole, not-yet-fully-formed- being, on the way to becoming an adult.


The child is vulnerable. The child is dependent. The child is open, spontaneous and naive. These conditions make it particularly hard for the child to survive, let alone to thrive fully. Her life is seemingly always one decision, one choice, one missed step away from disaster. She is at a mercy of those who make decisions on her behalf and she can only hope that those she depends on would do right by her.


Many things have to go right and many factors need to be considered for the child to arrive to her adulthood. The culture reflects this degree of devaluation in a number of ways from the lack of proper postpartum leave to the institutionalization of children within the malnourished educational system that itself is trying to survive so desperately, it has very little to offer by way of true nourishment to the children. From the lack of proper nourishment of creativity and imagination, to the lack of adequate education about the particulars of specific childhood needs and development, we are the collective of adults disconnected form The Child.


 

this article is for:


-Every one who still carries in their bodies, hearts and minds the painful memories of their childhood


-Every one who, as a child, learned to disconnect from their gifts and their dreams, who learned to stay small or be easy and who, in the name of survival, disavowed their proper self-protective instincts or the ability to use their voice


-Every (inner) little one who went unnoticed and unseen. It is also for those (inner) little ones for whom being seen has brought much torment and pain


-Every one who was trained to give themselves up in the name of loyalty or fitting in and for all those who have found safe belonging elusive or impossible


-Every one who wants to leave their painful childhood behind without leaving behind their (inner) child.


-Every one who is here to do the very important work of maturing and growing beyond the tight boxes they were brought up in


 

A child devalued: the deconstruction of the universal trauma


If the environment in which a child is raised is excessively harsh or if the child experiences violations of their inner self through abuse, neglect, humiliation, exploitation, or other forms of relational stress or violence, a protective barrier begins to develop to safeguard the child's spirit and inner world. When the harsh conditions or threats persist over time, the defense mechanism becomes overly vigilant, leading to the inner life being tightly sealed off, transforming what was initially a means of protection into a state of confinement.


On the surface, this well-defended (confined) adult appears to live a good life, a vibrant one even, but they feel separate or removed from the aliveness or the vibrancy. It's as if the life is happening outside of them. It's as if they're not even participating in the making or the experiencing of the life. Instead, there is a sense of emptiness, dread, or chronic exhaustion. One goes through the motions, unable to partake in the nourishment that is available to them.


When life is systematically threatened or killed off inside the child, the child loses the ability to connect to what gives their life meaning, to what drives them, to what makes their life worth living. Their life does not belong to them. Their life is life disavowed. One does not feel the pleasure in living nor do they know how to be truly self-responsible.


 

The adaptive child and the pseudo adult


Because by definition the child is at the mercy of their environment, when that environment poses a threat to their life/aliveness, the child has no other way but to learn the ways of survival. The unrelenting pursuit of survival, albeit a crucial task, reshapes the child in ways that ensure his apparent preservation, but trap his inner light.


-The adaptive child is programmed for survival and will focus on accomplishing the task of survival no matter the costs. The orientation towards survival as a primary task has trained the child to accept that their life is something to survive. Adults with this kind of early programming can have great difficulty paying attention to what it is they are surviving in the fist place. There is no time to assess, no time to question, no time to devise an action plan that does not keep one in perpetual survival.


-The adaptive child has learned ways and coping skills to keep them alive, but he hasn't necessarily learned the skills to be and feel alive.


- The adaptive child has avoided death, but she has not necessarily learned how to truly welcome life.


-The adaptive child has mastered the art of avoiding or minimizing pain, but she hasn't necessarily learned to embrace or savor pleasure. Unable to access what truly pleases her, the adaptive child is left with only hollow sustenance. The adaptive child doesn't dare ask for what is actually good and satisfying to them, for what is true and what is of substance. Adults influenced by such early conditioning struggle to differentiate between genuine nourishment and mere illusions. Consequently, they may opt for something that appears nourishing, yet fails to provide true sustenance.


-The adaptive child is deeply exhausted. Whatever empty nourishment they may come across keeps them in a state of starvation. The adaptive child is vulnerable to predators who exploit the child's deep hunger for love, care and connection in order to possess the child's light/innocence.


 

The terrified/petrified child and the shut down adult


The child spirit is open, sensitive and easily permeable. The natural state of any child is that the child is vulnerable and needs protection by the adults around her. A child who grows up terrified becomes an adult who may appear functional, but who is frozen/shut down inside. The terror is enough to send the child's spirit deep into his shell.


It's crucial to note that the determination of what constitutes terror cannot be made by an external party. It can only be recognized and defined by the child. Although my views on Freud and his work vary, I very much agree with his "definition" of trauma as a tear of one's protective seal/barrier by an overwhelming external stimuli. Freud's definition includes the idea of a protective barrier, which in children is easily penetrable. Children need adults to protect them from overwhelming experiences.


Adults who grew up without adequate protection from their parents or caregivers have great difficulty being in touch with their self-protective capacities. The terrified inner child continues to live out the experience of the lack of protection, flooding the adult with intense terror states (fear, anxiety, panic, fragmentation). The adults who grew up without knowing or experiencing adequate protection as children must learn and recover their protective capacities.



 

The burdened child and the lonely needless adult


Going through developmental milestones and important transitions alone is a deeply painful injury. We need guides and mentors to grow properly. We need psychologically and emotionally mature adults to assist us in finding our way. For those who didn't have trustworthy guides or wise elders growing up, life is a deeply lonely and exhausting experience.


The burdened child takes on the task of preserving her vitality without guidance on what that entails or how to achieve it. Growing up, she is easily distracted and struggles to concentrate, resorting to keeping busy to mask overwhelming feelings. She may opt for the "path of least resistance" as a coping mechanism to prevent feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated. Engaging in work excessively, she may harbor self-hatred for perceived weaknesses or the need to disconnect. She may habitually shy away from challenges or avoid new responsibilities out of fear of becoming overwhelmed or losing control. Unbeknownst to her, these behaviors are not flaws of her own making but rather a result of a deep-rooted and often unrecognized childhood trauma.


 

The real being


For the adult wanting to escape the pain of their childhood, the child they once were may feel like a nuisance or a burden. When something hurts, we want to make it better and, when that's not possible, we want it gone. Take heart, the work of connecting with the pain of the injured life is not something you need to do alone.


For the adults who experienced their childhood as painful or terrifying, it might be tempting to leave the childhood behind altogether. Unfortunately, what often happens in these cases is that the child- the child they once were- gets banished there as well.


I've come to think that for the adults who are tempted to throw their proverbial baby out with the bathwater (not consciously mind you), the ability to claim the inner child, the willingness to look for him in the rubbles of the childhood they worked so hard to leave behind, is nothing short of life-changing.


Upcoming articles will introduce a framework to guide you in learning how to become the parent you as a child needed but didn't have. By evolving into a capable and attentive parent, one who is nurturing and protective, you will begin to feel the freedom of being truly safe and secure in the present moment.


In protecting the sweetness and learning to delight, you will embark on a profound journey of choosing yourself fully. As you cultivate this connection, reconnecting and fallign in love with your innate creative spirit, you will find yourself more attuned to the beauty and wonder of existence. Living will cease to be a dull repetition of tasks and obligations and instead will become a colorful tapestry of moments and experiences, infusing your life with energy and meaning. Embracing your true self and respecting your sovereign essence will lead you to the profound understanding that you are complete and enough just as you are.



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