People are important. On our better days, I think we all know that. But we all probably have those days where we lose sight of that. Those days when everyone is getting on our nerves or when people close to us disappoint us in one way or another. Those days when we seriously consider moving to a far-off cabin in the woods. Another version of that mindset, I think, also rears its head when we’re struggling. There’s some part of us, often, that thinks we can do something on our own that we simply can’t or, at best, shouldn’t. We might even look at someone else going through the same thing and say something wise about needing to lean on other people or that it’s simply impractical for them to try this or that on their own when they can get help (Ironically, counselors can be especially susceptible to this pattern).
One of the most predominant areas of research in the world of counseling, psychology, and social sciences is the topic of attachment. The most well-known and cited research on the topic comes from John Bowlby. Bowlby’s main contributions to the field came in the 1950’s and since then countless studies have been conducted and books have been written following his initial theoretical framework of attachment. Essentially, Bowlby explained that the early bond between caregiver and child creates a template for all future relationships. The idea is that when a parent responds to and interacts with a child in a healthy way the child internalizes this safe and secure presence. So, in a sense, this “secure base” is with the child, and later the adult, wherever they go, even when the parent is not present. What all constitutes responding to and interacting with a child in a “healthy way” is a question beyond the scope of this article. However, I have always appreciated the simplicity of the idea that a caregiver’s main job is to teach a child in their early years about the world, specifically whether the world is a relatively safe place and whether people can be trusted.
As a therapist who primarily works with individuals struggling with the effects of traumatic stress and/or PTSD, I’ve come to appreciate the impact of attachment from multiple angles. Even since I started my career almost a decade ago, I have seen a significant increase in the attention given to early attachment and developmental trauma (simply defined by some as trauma that occurs in the first three to five years of life). Research continues to illustrate how our early relationships affect us for a lifetime. The world of trauma and PTSD research takes this step further, as well, by spotlighting the impact of others on an adult’s ability to cope with trauma and traumatic stressors. Peter Levine, the originator of Somatic Experiencing, even includes the clause “in the absence of an empathetic witness” in his definition of what constitutes calling an experience “trauma.” Also, while I’m not sure there has been much research on this yet, it is a somewhat universally known phenomenon among those that work directly with trauma that kindness, even from strangers, can have a significant positive impact on an individual working through a traumatic experience. I continue to be amazed that while hearing details about terrifying and incredibly difficult circumstances how I will often witness a client light up when they talk about that one relatively kind stranger that showed up somewhere in the story. To be clear, I’m not talking about cape-worthy heroics here. Some of the most common kindnesses I’ve heard about are things like stopping and asking if they’re okay or if they need anything or just sitting with them and perhaps holding their hand until the ambulance or police get there.
This one actually popped up for me recently in a very real way. A few months ago, I was in a car accident. Thanks to my background in trauma, I knew that PTSD and the effects of traumatic experiences are primarily physiological/body-based, so very physically disruptive/high impact, violent experiences (just check out one of those crash test dummy videos if you balk at the idea of calling a car accident violent) are not something to take lightly in regards to traumatic impact. So, even though I was shaken up at the time, I was paying extra close attention to how my mind and body were responding to all that was going on around me. As I mentioned above, I also knew that the people I would interact with right after the accident would play a significant role. Then came Jo, the traffic cop. She may have been the kindest stranger I have ever met and the impact and relief of that fact was palpable for me. There is no doubt in my mind that her kindness and the role she played in this event had a huge positive impact on my response in the moment and later.
This isn’t only true during traumatic experiences, though. The power of the positive impact people can have in our healing journey also often occurs after the fact. This is where a lot of counselors will bring up attachment theory, especially as it pertains to the therapist-client relationship. The reality is that we bring our attachment patterns and style into all of our relationships. Due to the extra vulnerability present in the psychotherapy relationship, these patterns and habits play an even more distinct role. The majority of our hurt happens in relationship. A human being, whether a main attachment figure or not, almost always plays some type of role in our trauma narrative. As I alluded to above, these interactions teach us something about how safe people are in general and more broadly how safe the world is. It follows then that healing must happen in relationship. We can’t restore our faith in humanity without, well, humanity. And that’s a key element to the counseling process. If the hurt happens in relationship so does the healing. This is why it never works to go at it on our own. This is where the good stuff happens in counseling- in the container of connection, empathy, seeing, and knowing that happens between therapist and client. And it’s a truly beautiful process to be a part of.
If you’re interested in reading more about attachment and developmental trauma, I recommend the new book by Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell “Nurturing Resilience” and “Healing Developmental Trauma” by Laurence Heller. You can also learn more on Diane Poole Heller’s website which includes a free attachment style quiz.