The Anatomy of Attachment, Part 2

By Lotus Josiah Seng

The security of a commitment along with healthy attachment create positive inner work models of self and others based on both clients’ own internal functioning and the outside world—models without significant distortions. Unsafe attachment leads to dysfunctional coping strategies, limited ability to mentalize and problematic relational functioning. Neurobiological research shows the importance of early attachment experiences for the development of the brain structure, and in the coaching relationship these early relationship patterns are reactivated and influential.

The extent to which the coach and the client create a relationship with attachment can impact how positive the outcome of the coaching objectives will be. This is significant because the bonding in the relationship forms the basis for the transformation. For people with complex trauma or challenges, the process of attachment serves as actual therapy, and this process works the same way when coaching relationships are created. Therefore, the pressure in recent years for coaches to work short-term and problem-oriented—which has increased sharply since 2010—is not a constructive development.

For this three-part series, we will look at relationships and attachment styles of children and adults in parts one and two and then translate them to the coach-client relationship in part three. My goal is to explore the aspects of the client-coach relationship in connection with healthy boundaries, and also to look at how codependency issues form in a relationship and how to avoid having complaints filed against you as coach when a coach-client relationship is perceived as unsafe.

Attachment strategies are the visible behaviors that were developed from the need to handle stressful situations, and 70 to 80 percent of children’s attachment categories can be predicted knowing the caregiver’s attachment style.

In 1985 an interview was conducted (Main, Kaplan and Cassidy), which furthered the body of research on attachment. Adults in a semi-structured interview (Adult Attachment Interview, AAI) were asked to recall and discuss attachment experiences. When assessing their answers, the content of the stories was not central, but, rather, the current mental representations of those previous experiences. Through this methodology, the researchers gained access to the unconscious layers of mental functioning.

Basic charts of self and others based on early attachments experiences are stored in the so-called “procedural or implicit memory.” This memory contains implicit relational knowledge that is shaped in the first years of life, before the development of language. It’s where daily life automations, the reactions we show without consciously thinking about them—our “bodily reactions”—are stored.

The AAI shows how adults store information about their attachment figures. The quality, quantity, relevance and style of adult responses all were evaluated. Quality reflects the story based on truth and what can be substantiated. Quantity says something about the completeness of the story. Relevance refers to the ability to stay with the topic, and style refers to the ability to use clear and comprehensible language.

It has been found that people who can not coherently think about their own attachment experiences have insecure attached children. Seventy to 80 percent of children’s attachment categories can be predicted with the caregiver’s attachment styles as measured by the AAI. The AAI also charted four attachment styles.

Attachment Styles in Adults: Four Patterns

1. Autonomously attached adults (corresponding to the safe-attached child from the “strange situation test” in Part 1, which appears in the February issue) can reflect on their experiences with adherents, having access to emotional information about the attachment. They can keep enough distance to evaluate their situations—even when it comes to painful experiences—without sacrificing, denying or stabbing the details of their effects.

2. Avoiding attached people (corresponding to the anxiously avoiding child in Part 1) devalue the importance of bonding experiences or idealize the family of origin. They deny the impact of past traumas and emphasize their own possibilities and self-reliance. They often seem to recall little of their early experiences and the associated emotions.

3. Occupied people (corresponding to the anxious ambivalent child in Part 1) overestimate their former attachment experiences. They are hardly loose from negative emotions about their parents’ shortcomings. They use an excess of details and the story often becomes chaotic. Their confidence in their own possibilities is small. They are hyper-alert to signs of support, acceptance and approval or rejection, and tend to give meaning to others’ behavior against this background.

4. Dedicated attached adults do not process their trauma. Their ability to reason logically seems to be disturbed. In their role as a parent, their traumas become visible in the form of sudden, sometimes incomprehensible and bizarre, emotional expressions that make their behavior whimsical and unpredictable for their children. The unpredictability of the reactions is probably the basis of disorganized attachment reactions (from Part 1) in their children.

From Linear to Circular Parent/Child Relationships

At first, the process of attachment seems to be characterized by linear development; if the parents are caring and sensitive, the child is securely attached. Traditionally, psychoanalytic theories mean that the child internalizes an image of a caregiver capable of confining conflicts and fears. In this way, the child develops a structure that allows for the confinement of conflicts and fears. Schematically proposed:

emotion of the child caring / unsupervised parent safe / unsafe child

But the theory of the underlying processes of adhesion has developed further. With the development of the AAI, the actual events of childhood were released and became the indicator of safe or non-secure attachment, indicating the extent to which and the way someone is able to reflect on past events and relationships and think about the impact on current functioning. This introduces the concept of “meta-cognitive ability.”

The step of looking at what has happened to watching how it is reflected and spoken is of great importance. It means that someone with a traumatic history can be scored as “safe” and it implicitly means that change in the perception of experiences is possible. What has happened can not change; how it is felt and thought can change and, thus, also the impact of the event(s) on later life.

“Old pain can be so severe that we believe that those feelings can still harm us. We are afraid we can not stand strong or will go crazy. We know all this but it’s a well-kept secret: Old pain can be a part of us and will not harm us.” This is what psychologist Tanya Bonner, developer of Past Reality Integration Therapy, discovered in her research.

Knowing what we feel makes it possible to regulate and influence triggers and impulses, which enables us to experience our own actions effectively.

The British Clinical Psychologist Peter Fonagy (1997) introduced the concept of “mentalization,” a mental function that enables children (and later adults) to portray the inner world of others in terms of mental states such as emotions, intentions or attitudes. In part, the behavior of other people is felt to be meaningful and predictable.

Exploring the inner world of others is inextricably linked to the meaning of their own experiences and may also be of great importance in developing the sense of self-esteem. This is about the ability to grant a “mental state” to others, apart from their own psychic reality. Fonagy also speaks of a “theory of the psyche,” a “theory of mind” that enables us to understand the intentions and moods of others.

He sees this as a circular process—not as a linear process. It is not the behavior of the mother in response to the child’s emotions that is decisive, but her interpretation of the meaning of the child’s emotion. It is her image of the child and of what it represents and her perception of the child’s emotions as threatening or not; this is what she returns to her child by her own response.

Schematically proposed:

emotion of the child ⟶ experience and correct or incorrect interpretation by the parent ⟶ caring / non-responsive response to the child ⟶ safe / unsafe child ⟶ etc.

In this case, the meaning given to the child’s behavior is decisive. The emotions of the child are a threat to the mother when they act as “trigger” for her own unprocessed traumatic experiences of fear, abandonment, anger, etc. The mother loses the ability to see the child as her own personality, apart from her own emotions. Therefore, the meaning the mother gives to the child’s behavior will form the basis for the child’s perception of self, that is, for the child’s developing feelings.

The ability of the mother to interpret the child’s mental and physical condition correctly and to return the child meaningful feedback, and also containment, determines the mental representations of the child. The mother teaches the child to ultimately take control of his emotions by the (nonverbal) communication of her understanding of his mental state.

A missing mother who finds her child whining without seeing that it is hungry or hurt or afraid, does not acknowledge his emotional condition, even if the child gets to eat or an ointment is applied on his buttocks. This child learns: I am a whiner, and he will minimize his emotional reactions.

A preoccupied mother recognizes the child’s emotions, but if this causes strong emotions within herself, she will not be able to teach the child to regulate his affections. This child learns: what I feel is horrible, and it will be difficult to contain his feelings.

The reactions of these mothers arise from their own inner work models based on the unconscious experiences (stored in procedural memory) of their own attachment experiences.

In Summary

Attachment strategies are the visible behaviors that were developed from the need to handle stressful situations. Alone, they do not indicate psychological health or emotional dysfunction. The attachment system is only activated in situations that are stressful or threatening. Under stress, old “coping” strategies, either the non-reflective internal work models or inadequate metacognitive capabilities, become visible. They produce psychical dysfunction whereas the client can no longer direct his or her own emotions and behavior, which can result in disturbed interpersonal relationships, as well as conflicts with others at work or in intimate relationships.

We will dealve into the client relationship in Part 3 of this series. Stay tuned.

Lotus Josiah Seng, MA., Ph.D., is a Certified Change Management Professional; Certified and Associated IWCAMaster Coach; Master Expert NLP; Certified Expert Lean Management Practitioner; CSSB. She is the owner of ETSbyLotus, LLC, a coaching, mediation and consulting firm with offices in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and New York. Currently, nine coaches are affiliated with the firm. Lotus has developed two 15-step methodologies 1) “The Mecca of Your Mind©”; and 2) “Mapping. Your. Future.©” for personal growth, career development and improving relationships. Both are infused with the concepts of utilizing the strengths of the left and right side of the brain. Lotus and her team work as a coaches and mediators with couples, siblings, families and executives to foster personal growth, improving relationships, and all aspects of communication. For more information email: or follow Lotus on Twitter at EtsbyLotus or Instagram at Sheswalkingwithwings.

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