Working with Avoidant Attachment
Could we be doing more for highly defended clients? Attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist Linda Cundy believes so. Embarking on a monthly blog series on working with avoidant attachment, she introduces some common characteristics among avoidant clients, and suggests four key ways in which therapists can help to engage them in therapy.
When I run training days on working with avoidant clients, I ask participants to brainstorm words they associate with this group of individuals. The kind of words and phrases they come up with include: “cold”, “aloof”, “unfeeling”, “critical”, “arrogant”, “narcissistic”, “unempathic”. I also hear: “hard-working”, “driven”, “perfectionist”, “independent” or “‘on the spectrum’”.” It seems difficult to empathise with them.
‘Avoidant’ – or ‘dismissing’ – are terms from attachment research to describe a way of being that emphasises self-reliance and downplays emotions. They (or maybe we – there are plenty of people in the helping professions who would fit the description) are expert in defending themselves from painful thoughts, emotions and memories, perhaps by focusing on the outside world, targets and deadlines, facts rather than feelings. Or they may have a private inner world but defend it from any intrusion. (For an example of this latter version of avoidance, listen to the Simon and Garfunkel song, I am a Rock.)
Such people may become workaholics or bullies (if they have been on the receiving end of that kind of aggression themselves). Some may be ‘geeks’ who prefer computers to people. Some appear haughty and tend to ridicule others or pull rank, or are stiff and formal. Others seem almost invisible, demanding very little attention from the world. Despite the myriad creative defences used to protect the self from unwanted emotional distress, what they have in common is a core anxiety of being rejected.
Attachment research suggests that, in early life, these individuals suffered a consistent lack of response to their ordinary needs for comfort, reassurance and affection. Rejection can take many forms, from the subtle to the gross, but as small children they gave up hope of being intimately cared for and learned to be precociously self-reliant.
In my experience, most avoidant people then develop a very demanding and difficult relationship with themselves characterised by a highly critical superego, or punitive internal object. Alice Miller wrote, ‘The way we were treated as small children is the way we treat ourselves the rest of our life. And we often impose our most agonizing suffering upon ourselves’. Feeling that they failed to be what their parents wanted, they torment themselves with unrealistic demands and torture themselves over perceived failures.
They believe themselves to be fundamentally flawed and punish themselves for this mercilessly. So their defences also keep other people at arm’s length, not allowing anyone close enough to see what they feel to be their deficiency. Although they may be high achievers, even occupying positions of power, they suffer a great deal of shame.
Because of the imperative to manage alone, and often the contempt for emotions or relationship, fewer avoidant individuals present for therapy than those with more anxious attachment patterns. However, they do come, perhaps ‘sent’ by partners who are frustrated by the lack of intimate communication or sensitive care. But when they come, they often resist engaging and leave quickly. We need to do better for them.
We need to…
- Build a relationship slowly (it takes a long time for them to trust), but prove ourselves useful fairly quickly
- Be highly sensitive to the shame they feel (but hide so effectively from us and themselves)
- Notice and point out how tough they can be on themselves, and be interested in knowing more about that. In time, when they are settled into therapy, we can challenge them on their self-hatred
- Enjoy them (as children, they probably felt that their parents did NOT enjoy them) – humour can be a way of connecting playfully