Attachment vs Attunement Wounds

Attachment vs Attunement Wounds

by: Sam Bearer, LPC

Attachment versus attunement wounding is a topic I have done a lot of thinking about recently. I have noticed the intersection of these two kinds of psychological wounds in my own work and in the context of client sessions. When we talked about these in school, I tended to lump them into the same category, but they are quite different. Even though they often come together, they do not always. Taking time to distinguish between the two can be extremely helpful.

               An attachment wound occurs in early childhood development.

It is an experienced lack of consistent, appropriate care from a caregiver to a child. This gives rise in the child to several different styles of relating. I am very briefly summarizing my understanding here, but there is much more reading and self-educating you can do on this. If care is inconsistent, a child will display anxious attachment. The child is unsure if care is coming when he/she needs it. If negligent care is given consistently when child’s need is clear, a child displays avoidant attachment. The child attempts to learn to do without a caregiver’s attentions. If care is consistently inappropriate to the child’s needs and level of development, the child will display a disorganized style of attachment. He/she will sometimes display anxious attachment and other times avoidant attachment, depending on the needs expressed and/or the approach the caregiver takes toward the child. These wounds and the subsequent style of relating solidify through early childhood if the caregiving remains unaffected by the child’s initial non-verbal and later verbal signals.

               An attunement wound by contrast usually takes place in later life (late childhood, adolescence, and adulthood).

These are characterized by a lack of appropriate response to an individual’s internal experience. A few examples might be

  • An 11-year-old who does not receive praise for her full effort and achievement on a report card from a parent who is consistently too distracted by work to follow up with the child on how she applied herself in schoolwork
  • A despairing 25-year-old who, having only received reassurance that his job was safe due to his  high performance, is told “downsizing is a real pain” by colleagues and friends, and “you’ll land on your feet…somewhere” two months after being let go
  • A 60-year-old who feels both grief and disappointment when, a year after her partner’s death, a good friend fails to call or follow up to offer space to talk and validation for these feelings.

When left unrepaired, attunement wounds can lead to serious interpersonal issues and often the dissolution of the relationship in which the wound took place. Over-simplified, the other person’s mis-attuned care for an individual’s emotions was the problem. Some individuals may be totally comfortable leaving it there. They just need to find someone who can read them better. However, it may also be a lack of expressed needs that contributes to the problem. Both may be at fault. Attachment wounds when left unrepaired can lead to profoundly serious psychological issues and brain under-development. This often results in a pattern of broken relationships and additional symptoms of various kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors categorized as disorders by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These experiences often leave an individual believing that he/she is the problem. However, attunement wounds in relationships are likely to reinforce and deepen the attachment wounds already in an individual’s story. If you find yourself falling into one of these categories, a therapist can help you unpack your own story and begin the healing process.

In summary, understanding and working through the nuances of attachment and attunement wounds in your own story is necessary for better relationships, both with the self and others. It can help you more appropriately respond to the level of need that others display as well as clarify your own level of need for care. This growth in self-awareness, whether you are new to these ideas or an old hand, can lead to greater levels of personal healing and life satisfaction.

Why Group Therapy Works, Part 4

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

We’ve already looked at how group therapy is a great way to help individuals make changes in their lives by choose to be radically vulnerable with the other group member, fostering in himself or herself an outlook of unconditional positive regard, and allowing the very personal, negative feelings about himself/herself or others to be shared and eventually challenged by the other group members.

This final piece focuses more on how the group can invest and intervene in the individual member’s life. Following the individual work of being open, the group now has the opportunity to disrupt radically the emotional foundations underlying each member’s coping behaviors that got him or her into therapy.

As the group gently and slowly does this work of disrupting the members’ coping behaviors, the internal dynamics of personal guilt and shame frequently rise to a conscious level.  At this point, every man I have seen who comes through our groups retreats back into his comfortable style of relating. It is nearly impossible in the early stages of work for the man himself to see this happening and do anything to stop it.  Often, he can no longer differentiate his personality, style of relating, and identity without an outside perspective or help.  It is no longer a conscious choice.  He may not have even noticed it happening.  But, I am willing to bet 99 times out of 100 that some other member in the group noticed.

The group is meant to be that outside reference point.

Once again, vulnerability comes into play here, because the group member who noticed should be willing to appropriately, with unconditional positive regard, call out his group mate.  This reintroduces all the dynamics of the personal work from part one: vulnerability, maintaining unconditional positive regard, and personal investment.  It also adds to it the gut check of interpersonal conflict. The group members are doing exactly as they should when they can reflect back both the positive and negative they experience in relating to each member.  This work engages members both internally and externally at once.  This may seem obvious, but it is so important, not to mention difficult.  We do this kind of thing in our lives all the time.  However, we are rarely fully engaging our awareness of both pieces simultaneously.  It takes hard work to build up this new skill.  Like learning a new language, we have to take many fumbling attempts to communicate this new way, and we usually struggle at it for a while.  The safety created in the group should promote and celebrate these attempts as well as normalize the experience as something everyone in the group is fighting to do better.  It takes time as well as higher levels of concentration, self-awareness, and intentionality than we generally are used to.

It needs to be said here that this process, in therapy as well as practicing these skills in life, will take some time to sink in.

This is especially true when you consider there are years if not decades of reinforced acting out behaviors that a client wants to change.  It is likely to require a proportionate amount of time and effort for this new way of relating or sense of self to take shape.  Other factors that might increase the length of time and work to be done might be connected to and complicated by experiences of abuse or trauma.  Though the progress may be slower than an individual may like and expect, small changes over time add up to big changes.  These small steps along the way should be highlighted and celebrated as part of the greater changes each client wants to see in his or her life.