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Working with Avoidant Attachment: Self-Narrative and Defences

How can we support highly defended clients to explore the past and their internal worlds? In her seventh blog about working with avoidant attachment, Attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist Linda Cundy looks at constructing meaningful self-narratives and encountering defences – including the common defence of over-identifying with caregivers

In my last blog I wrote about the importance of helping avoidant clients access their emotions and mourn what has been missing in their lives. In the Adult Attachment Interview, these ‘dismissing’ individuals downplay their distress. Their narratives lack not only emotional content but also detail. They are mostly unused to introspection or reflecting on the past – these are dangerous territories and their defences kick in to protect them from what they may find.

Therapy needs to help them with exploring the past and their internal worlds through:

  1. Developing a meaningful self-narrative
  • From initial history-taking and throughout therapy, we encourage clients to be curious about their own histories and pre-history: the events, experiences, characters and relationships, the ups and downs. The use of timelines and genograms can be helpful, often revealing significant information and repeating patterns and raising important questions (“Why do you think there is such a big gap between your birth and the arrival of your sister?”; “I can see that there were quite a few deaths in the family just before you were born and when you were little. How do you imagine that affected your parents and influenced the atmosphere you grew up in?”)
  • Each of us is a unique individual but our stories are always embedded in a wider context. So questions of ethnicity, culture, gender, religion, political, economic and social factors, and the sweep of history, are relevant (“I wonder what it was like for your parents to arrive in this country, leaving their families behind, and make a life for themselves…?”; “I can imagine it was tough trying to work and raise their children without extended family to help… How might that have affected their parenting…? And what was that like for you when you were little?”; “What expectations might your family have had of you as the first child, and the only boy? How has that been for you?”)
  • As clients begin to construct their personal narratives we ensure these are rich in detail and feeling, and that the client’s imagination is engaged in wondering about the impact of experiences on each character in the story – including themselves at each stage of life. This helps build empathy for others, compassion for themselves, and a way of making sense of minds (mentalising).
  • I want to make clear here that an intergenerational self-narrative is to some extent a work of fiction, based often on conjecture rather than definitive fact. We therapists need to be careful not to impose our own interpretations. Instead, we can encourage clients to create a story that is meaningful to them and conforms to the known facts but that can also be modified in the light of new information. This process can be especially challenging and difficult for adoptees, where so much that is important may be swathed in secrecy.
  1. Identify defences
  • Inevitably, exploring the past also confronts clients with painful memories – no one becomes avoidant unless they are protecting themselves from pain, rejection, shame. When this happens in the context of a containing, respectful therapeutic relationship we can not only help the client grieve but also become familiar with their defences that have kept these feelings out of consciousness. These very defences kick in during sessions when certain thoughts or memories are triggered (“What just happened? You were talking about your parents divorcing and suddenly you’re looking at your watch… .”)
  • One common defence is to over-identify with caregivers, see things from their point of view and thus feel unentitled to anger, longing or hatred. Therapy is not about blaming parents. But blaming oneself instead (for being a ‘nuisance’ or ‘needy’) is not the answer. One woman I work with initially understood that trauma experienced by her parents before she was born had affected their capacity to be sensitive, loving and protective. After some years in therapy she was able to say, “I can’t blame them for the horrible things they did to us, but I do hold them responsible for not getting help”. This was an important step in valuing herself, to becoming more secure.

In my next blog I will focus on working with avoidant clients’ resistance. In the meantime, I wish you a Happy New Year and hope you can all be reunited in an embodied way with your loved ones before too long.

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Linda Cundy

Linda Cundy is an attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, and an independent trainer and writer. She has written / edited three books to date, Love in the Age of the Internet: Attachment in the Digital Era; Anxiously Attached: Understanding and Working with Preoccupied Attachment; and Attachment and the Defence Against Intimacy: Understanding and Working With Avoidant Attachment, Self-Hatred and Shame. She is Attachment Theory Consultant to the Bowlby Centre.

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