The Baggage Breakdown (Part 5): Isolation
I can do bad all by myself.
Isolation, one more of those widely held socially acceptable forms of baggage. This is perhaps the baggage that I most relate to, it is after all so easy to feel justified and comfortable with. It's all over the memes and it is actually everywhere; jokes about how we don't trust people, want to stick to ourselves, and can't really stand to let people into our lives. So we have learned that we are somehow inadequate in carrying out healthy and fulfilling relationships while be open and vulnerable.
For many, the dilemma we find ourselves dealing with is that we have tried to engage in relationships with the best of intentions to be trusting, however, as luck would have we somehow end up doing this we the most underserving persons, and in the end got burned. Or, maybe you've been in an intimate relationship with someone where it seemed like the more you cared for them, the more distant they grew? Or maybe you are that person trying to figure out why you notice yourself self-sabotaging relationships by distancing yourself from people you love. Self-imposed isolation can be a serious issue in our lives, or in the lives of our loved ones, and unsurprisingly, it is often tied to the ways we carry and deal with past hurts. There are two key patterns of that promote this form of baggage, one being poor boundaries, which we have covered in our article Why Your Relationship is Toxic (Or Not) and the second being poor attachment which is discussed below.
For a lot of us, this propensity towards self-isolation has developed since childhood. This is known in the mental health field as poor attachment. Attachment theory states that we develop certain styles of connections with people, even as adults, based on how those connections were formed and maintained in early childhood. If your emotions were reasonably heard and responded to, and if you were able to have stable relationships (i.e. no major traumatic separations), then you were likely to develop secure attachment. This is considered to be a healthy mental and relational state. In this place, you deem the world to be a relatively safe place, and you may be wiling to connect with others and respond favorably to those who express care and affection toward you, because your perceived caregiver was physically and emotionally attentive and present. Therefore, strangers or seemingly hostile people are seen with an appropriate amount of suspicion, and the individual with secure attachment is able to usually correctly distinguish between strangers who are potentially dangerous, and intimate loved ones who are safe to trust and open up to.
However, if your caregiver was physically absent, or inattentive to your needs or calls for attention, then you were likely experiencing high levels of anxiety and distress, and constantly searching for your caregiver, maybe mom or dad, your source of life. According to R. Chris Faley of the University of Illinois, this biological response is wired in you to encourage you to stay close to older protectors and nurturers to increase your likelihood of surviving until you reach a self-sufficient age. Picture a baby experiencing separation anxiety, crying and then crawling or running to her mother, trying to repair the separation between them. In this picture, the mother's response is crucial, as seen in the famous "Still Face Experiment" by Dr. Edward Tronick. If you aren't familiar with this video, a baby seeks to get her mother's attention. The mother keeps a still face that is neutral and unresponsive to the baby. The longer she keeps this still face, the more anxious and distressed the baby grows, until the mother begins to respond again, at which point the baby is exceedingly joyful and relieved.
For many of us, the still face experiment was real life. A caregiver may have been absent or unavailable due to lengthy work schedules, the stress of making ends meet, depression, substance abuse, cultural norms, etc. Unfortunately, many of us know what it feels like to be that baby in the still face experiment, and as a result, we see the world as a dangerous place. We function from a place of survival, and we can't begin understand the idea of someone being attentive, present, and caring without wanting something out of us. We look at boyfriends and girlfriends with suspicion when they want intimacy and vulnerability. We wince and roll our eyes at the idea of opening up to a therapist, even if it's court appointed or legally mandated. Poor attachment is a serious struggle because our brains become wired opposite of how much of western society works. Instead of embracing those who are warm and nurturing, we look upon them with suspicion and perhaps contempt.
The "Touchstone moment" of trauma
In EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, the therapist seeks what is called a "touchstone moment," the foundational moment of trauma where a new negative belief is acutely formed that has now strung its way through one's life in the present moment. This "touchstone moment" is usually formed at a young age, because this is when attachments are formed. When facing uncertainty, we have so many questions; "Does he love me?" "Am I a good person?" "Will I ever be happy?" These are very "high-brain" thoughts, stemming from relatively advanced areas of thinking in our brains. However, as young children, we had much more basic thoughts, like "Am I going to die?" This question might arise due to hunger, abandonment, a harsh response, or something else. You see, when a baby is crying for food, her concern is that she'll starve to death. If she is left alone and grows anxious, the fear is still the same; she's worried about abandonment, knowing that she will not survive without her caregiver. Therefore, if this fear is treated frivolously, the anxiety will eventually be too much and she will "wear down" and give up, abandoning the expectation that her caregivers are present and available to respond to her cries. And thus, poor attachment is developed.
Poor attachment in adulthood exposes itself in many forms. It results in a lack of trust, where an individual will respond to love and nurturing with discomfort and suspicion. It feels weird, because in poor attachment, love feels like distance or indifference, and closeness is extremely unfamiliar. The person with poor attachment is likely to be the one saying, "I can do this on my own," or "I don't need anybody else." This is also a defense mechanism, likely also wired within us to support our survival in the case of losing a protective nurturer. The question is then, what can we do about poor attachment for ourselves, or friends or loved ones? Start asking questions. What pain are you seeking to avoid by closing yourself off? Is this an actual pain that you have experienced in the past? Is it a perceived pain, your worst nightmare that you are seeking to prevent?
The difficulties of childhood have hard-wired the brain into a survival mode that simply does not work in a healthy adult environment or relationship. The brain suits up with a helmet and large pads for a football game to protect itself, but then in adulthood, the game has changed to basketball. The individual suffering from poor attachment is not set up ideally to engage in trusting relationships necessary for healthy friendships, working relationships, or especially intimate relationships. If you are reading this out of concern for a loved one, he or she may not be willing to get help at first. However, a great step you may be able to take is to get help yourself. By setting this example, you are getting support through the struggles you may be having with someone you love, and you just might inspire him or her to eventually do the same for themselves.
HOW TO MOVE FORWARD
We've created resources designed to help you assess and begin to deal with this specific issue. We have a free community area that gives you access to guide sheets relating to the topics discussed in this blog. Check out our free community resource area to access downloadable PDF guide sheets for this blog and much more: