Working with Avoidant Attachment: Early Stages
How might we begin to work with clients with avoidant attachment patterns? In her third blog about working with highly defended clients, Attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist Linda Cundy shares how she has engaged clients who have learned to hide their needs and avoid commitment.
Patterns of attachment describe how we typically:
- relate to other people, especially when we are frightened, ill, stressed or distressed – how we ‘seek attachment’
- relate to ourselves – based on the kind of early relationship with caregivers that we have internalised
- the core anxiety that drives us (fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, fear of intrusion…)
- the kind of defences we adopt to deal with these anxieties
The Avoidant (or ‘Dismissing’) pattern is characterised by not turning to others or seeking help in any obvious ways. In the Strange Situation Test, one of the major attachment research projects, a toddler of 12-15 months is described as having an Avoidant pattern of attachment with his parent if he does not appear to need reassurance in an unfamiliar environment or when a strange person tries to engage him. He does not object when the parent leaves him alone with the stranger, and does not seek comfort when the parent returns.
But when small sensor pads are attached to the skin of children taking part in the SST, those who show no obvious distress are actually found to be highly anxious. By the age of 15 months, they have learned to contain their distress and hide their need for, and from others.
Repressed needs and self-sufficiency
It is important that therapists understand how much practice our avoidant clients have had at repressing and denying their need for others. They have usually developed impressive skills as a result of being self-sufficient (for instance they may be very high achievers) and this needs to be acknowledged and valued – especially as these clients are so prone to shame.
In an early session with an older woman, the client was talking about her career. I didn’t feel we were connecting and was concerned she would leave therapy. I raised my hand to catch her attention then said; “You know, you really were a pioneer in your field. You achieved remarkable things by any standards but I imagine it was particularly tough for a woman at that time”. I immediately felt the atmosphere change. She was so used to being criticised, of having to fight her corner. In that moment we connected as two professional women, and a real warmth developed between us. I had met her deeply buried longing to be seen and appreciated.
Many avoidant clients have arrived saying: “I’m not interested in the past, I just want to address a current issue”. On my website I now make it very clear how I work, giving information in advance about what to expect. During assessment I suggest that the past provides a context to better understand present situations in order to find more effective solutions to current difficulties. I may well say; “If there were easy answers you would have found them…”
It is common for these clients to ask how many sessions will be needed and I usually recommend six then review – avoidant people don’t like to feel trapped. Perhaps because they have chosen to see me ‘despite’ information about how I work, it is rare for them to leave after these first six. However, I have to prove myself useful.
So, during that initial stage I aim to:
- show interest in their present situation while also building a picture of the past
- stimulate their curiosity about themselves – help them develop an ‘observing ego’
- give them ways to think about and make sense of their lives
- explore their resources
- draw attention to their self-critical, demanding, perfectionist tendencies
Next time I will focus on some curious features that I have noticed among many ‘Avoidant’ individuals.