Today, it is a well-proven and fully accepted fact that our adult personalities, behaviors and choices are largely determined by our relationships with our parents throughout childhood. Mental health professionals know this concept as ďAttachment Theory,Ē and often use it to help their patients overcome unhealthy life patterns. Despite its incredible validity and helpfulness, I have seen in my own work as a psychologist that most people resist the idea that their current struggles are rooted in their childhoods.
Here are eight steps for using Attachment Theory to solve a problem:
1. You realize that you keep following an unhealthy pattern in your life.
2. You are curious or baffled about why you have this particular pattern.
3. Look back to your childhood. Ask yourself if there were situations like this in your childhood. Did one of your parents do this in some way? Did your parents feel like this? Did this pattern exist in some form in your family of origin?
4. Identify the feelings involved in this pattern. What did you feel as a child in relation to this? What do you feel now?
5. When you determine the roots of the issue, acknowledge to yourself that you are not at fault for having it. You were raised this way. You are not to blame.
6. Recognize that your parents may not be at fault either. They may have been struggling themselves, or taught this by their own parents. Blame is not always helpful, but understanding is.
7. Now that you understand the roots and recognize that itís not your fault, think about how you can change this pattern. What will it take? How hard will it be?
8. Now get to work to change the pattern.
To see an example of using Attachment Theory to work through a real life problem, letís talk about Linda.
Linda is a 42-year-old woman who is becoming very frustrated with herself. She is upset because she looks back over her career, and sees that she is unable to keep a job for longer than two years. Linda is intelligent, educated and skilled. She is able to get good jobs. She starts each job with energy and enthusiasm, but quickly sees that the job is not what she originally thought. She becomes disillusioned with her boss and co-workers. She starts to question her bossís decisions. She starts to feel impatient and frustrated. In each job, Lindaís negative attitude is eventually noticed by those around her. She starts to pull down morale, and her boss finally suggests that she look for a new job.
Even though Linda can see her own unhealthy pattern, she feels powerless to stop it. She knows that itís a self-defeating repetition. She feels stupid, unlikable, and flawed. She feels helpless and stuck. She blames herself.
Linda has already accomplished Steps 1 and 2 above. She sees the pattern, and she is baffled by it. On top of that, she blames herself. Now letís walk her through the remaining steps.
Step 3: Linda looks back to her childhood. She asks herself, ďWhat in my childhood was like this?Ē Linda sees that her father was an irritable man. He was critical and particular, and generally difficult to get along with. Linda recalls that her father treated her in a way that is similar to the way she now treats her bosses. Lindaís fatherís feelings toward her varied greatly. He would spend months admiring her after she received an award or excellent report card; then, as soon as she let him down in some small way, by making a B-, by being passed over for an award, or by simply being a normal kid, he became impatient and disillusioned with her.
Step 4: Linda realizes that she spent her entire childhood this way, in cycles of feeling treasured and hopeful, followed by feeling like she was not up to par. She sees that the feelings she has in her relationship with her boss are the same: hopeful admiration, followed by disillusioned disappointment.
Steps 5 and 6: Linda sees that she comes by this issue honestly. She is simply following a pattern that was programmed into her brain, inadvertently, by her father. She realizes that her father was treated this way by his own parents. She vows to change this pattern.
Step 7: Linda decides that in her next job, she will work hard to be more tolerant. She will recognize that the feelings of disillusionment are coming from her past, not from the present. She will try her hardest to manage her own feelings and not share them with others.
Step 8: Lindaís efforts will not be seamless or simple. She may go through another job or two in the process of changing. But if she keeps at it, she will most likely be able to work through this problem, move beyond the unhealthy pattern, and establish a more solid career for herself.
Of course not all life problems can be solved like this, but I have found that most can. We are all driven by feelings and experiences from our childhoods. Fortunately, we can take control over them, manage and change them.
All we have to do is harness the power of Attachment Theory.