Working with Avoidant Attachment: The Avoidant Therapist
What blind spots, and benefits, can therapists with avoidant attachment histories bring to the therapeutic relationship? Concluding her series about supporting highly defended clients, Attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist Linda Cundy turns her attention to the ‘orchids’ among us – and wonders how therapist attachment patterns may play out as we start returning to face-to-face work.
Welcome to this final blog in the series exploring the avoidant, or Dismissing pattern of attachment. Previously I’ve described what ‘avoidant attachment’ looks like, the range of early relational experiences that predispose people to become self-sufficient and shun emotional intimacy, the many defensive strategies that can be employed to keep others at arm’s length, and the kind of relationships avoidant people have with themselves. The focus then moved to therapy and the key ingredients needed to help our Dismissing clients become more secure.
But what about the avoidant therapist? Why would someone who is wary of emotional closeness choose such a career?
I have described two broad categories of avoidance:
• Those who are externally-focused, perfectionist, driven to achieve, always looking to the future. They set high standards for themselves and often for others too, are pretty intolerant of introspection and may be contemptuous of emotions and ‘self-indulgent navel-gazing’.
• Those who may have a ‘false self’ they show the world while hiding important parts of themselves from others. They are difficult to get to know deeply and may be critical of their own ‘failings’ but more understanding of other people’s vulnerabilities.
This latter group may have a rich but very private internal world of fantasy, daydreams, memories and longings. They are wary of letting others get near, either because they dread further rejection and humiliation or because they have experienced their precious internal space being invaded and colonised. They fear losing themselves in this situation.
However, we are social animals – it is rare to find anyone whose life experience has led them to completely detach from others. It’s a matter of what kind of relationship is tolerable. It seems to me that a career as a psychotherapist could provide the perfect conditions for many avoidant ‘orchids’.
Therapy is an intimate relationship but does not demand self-disclosure from practitioners. They can feel valued, which benefits self-esteem. And the client leaves after 50 minutes!
We hope that an effective therapy while training can help trainees ‘earn’ security. If it does, they can provide an effective secure base for their own clients – but may revert to their core avoidant defences when severely stressed. And each of us may have blind spots because of our attachment histories.
Blind spots for the ‘avoidant therapist’ can include:
• A tendency to focus on intellectual insight and avoid emotions. This is a particular risk if the client is also on the dismissing end of the attachment spectrum and they collude to avoid painful material. Some useful work may be done but deep change to the client’s core pattern of attachment will not happen.
• Colluding with avoidant clients who complain about Preoccupied partners.
• Underestimating a client’s attachment to the therapist, not fully appreciating the impact of breaks, or suggesting ending the therapy before the client is ready.
• Getting drawn into a dynamic with Preoccupied clients who are emotionally expressive, who can be needy, demanding, angry and sometimes un-boundaried. A therapist who withdraws rather than engaging, or makes intellectual interpretations is likely to be experienced as critical or punitive. This further stokes the client’s anxiety. As the client gets more distressed and insistent, the therapist feels smothered and pushes the client away – replicating a pattern often seen in adult couples.
• Reluctance to use supervision to explore difficulties (owning up to mistakes feels so shaming).
But there are also benefits to a therapist of having an avoidant core pattern of attachment – especially if security has subsequently been ‘earned’.
Benefits can include:
• Familiarity with, and exquisite sensitivity to the client’s defences that comes from recognising one’s own self-protective strategies. This makes it easier to track the client’s window of tolerance for intimacy.
• Where a more Preoccupied therapist may feel frustrated by an avoidant client’s apparent withholding, lack of emotional language, intellectualisation, even contempt, a Dismissing therapist will understand the fear and shame driving them.
• As long as the therapist does not get drawn into re-enactments working with Preoccupied clients, or clients who have Unresolved trauma, he or she is likely to maintain the capacity to observe and to think, even when the countertransference pulls towards a non-mentalising state.
• Also, an avoidant therapist may find it easier to provide the strong, clear, containing boundaries needed by highly anxious and traumatised clients rather than colluding with requests that undermine the therapeutic frame.
I write this as the third lockdown is beginning to ease in the UK and both clients and therapists are perhaps considering a return to working in the room together. It will be fascinating to see if there is any correlation between the clinician’s core attachment style and their eagerness – or reluctance – to leave their screens and resume face-to-face work.
If you would like to know more, you may be interested in Linda Cundy’s books on attachment: Attachment and the Defence Against Intimacy: Understanding and Working with Avoidant Attachment, Self-Hatred, and Shame, its companion book, Anxiously Attached: Understanding and Working with Preoccupied Attachment, and Love in the Age of the Internet: Attachment in the Digital Era. Linda is also the editor of the forthcoming title, Attachment Relationships and Food: From Cradle to Kitchen.