Attachment and Trauma

Defining Attachment and Authenticity

In his book, The Myth of Normal, Gabor Maté writes: “We’re born with a need for attachment and a need for authenticity…Most people abandon their true selves (authenticity) to please others and keep the relationships (attachments), even if they are ones that are toxic and destructive.” Simply put, attachment and authenticity come into conflict when we ignore what we want and who we are to maintain and form relationships with the people in our lives. 

The Struggle

Have you ever had a gut feeling and ignored it, maybe for the sake of a potential partner, friend, or job opportunity? If you’re an adult, the answer is almost certainly yes. There’s actually emerging research that emotional suppression actually changes the bacterial components in our bodies, specifically in bacteria that are linked to happiness. The so-called “gut-brain axis” is as much something we feel as something that exists on a cellular level. Our gut feelings are trying to tell us something, and may even be telling us to follow our authentic impulses to be our true selves. If a date says something that raises a red flag, or if a job interviewer seems off, maybe we should be less worried about attaching to those particular people and more focused on embracing what feels right

Parenting and Attachment 

Like so many aspects of psychology, attachment patterns (both constructive and traumatic) are formed in our childhoods. Even if parents have the best of intentions, sometimes they can send messages that reinforce the idea that attachment is only possible if authenticity is cut back (or cut away entirely). Perhaps a parent scolds a teenager for wearing all black on school picture day, or perhaps a parent puts a child in ballet even when she has an interest in soccer. What children learn from these interactions is that they must sacrifice part of who they are and what they want in order to belong. 

Of course, parents cannot and should not bend to their child’s every wish. You wouldn’t, as Gabor Maté says, give a child a cookie right before dinner even though they ask for one. But if your child’s basic needs are met, consider how to ensure the activities they choose to do and how they express themselves are authentic. Encouraging authenticity in your children can help them learn to trust themselves and their decisions, not only as a child living under your roof, but as an independent adult tasked with taking care of themselves. 

Siblings and Attachment 

We often think of attachment in childhood development as a parent-child relationship. But for people with siblings, those relationships can be just as important for healthy patterns of attachment and authenticity. Clear boundaries between siblings (set by parents and the children themselves) can help avoid enmeshment, when siblings are unable or unwilling to fully differentiate from one another. It’s helpful for every member of a family to realize that siblings differ from one another; just because one child was accepted into an Ivy League school doesn’t mean the other should ignore their talent for cooking and forego culinary school. 

Siblings can help encourage authenticity in one another by supporting each other’s hobbies, interests, and unique goals. Parents can make an effort to see their children as individuals with their own personalities and needs, and formulate a unique relationship with every child based on who they are. What works for one child will not always work for another. For the adult with other adult siblings, take some time to think about what sets you apart from your family. What are your inherent traits and talents? 

Moving Forward in Authenticity 

Sacrificing authenticity for attachment is painful and unfortunately all too common. However, once we take the time to check in with our gut feelings, untangle what we like/don’t like, and find what feels good, we can begin moving forward in authenticity. Once we live as ourselves, we can find new relationships that validate who we really are and who we may become.  

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