Life and love are hard. We have patterns and bad habits that seem unexplainable. Or, we get into relationships and can’t seem to stay connected to our partner or ourselves. Why?
These patterns of attention-seeking and disconnection are adopted out of the need to survive. Our lives literally depend on it. Let’s take a look at why.
Attachment — Connection to Others
Newborns have no way of regulating their nervous systems or taking care of themselves. Without being held, loved, nurtured, and protected, a baby would die within twenty-four hours. Attachment, i.e. connection to a caregiver, is therefore our first fundamental human need. Our survival urgently depends on it.
Parents who are physically present and emotionally attuned will respond to the child’s needs in a healthy way. They provide the necessary protection, skin-to-skin contact, and also support developmentally appropriate autonomy. When they drop the parenting ball, they recognize it and quickly repair the misattunement.
Under such circumstances, children learn two vital lessons about life: First, that they can get their needs met in relationships, and second, that relationships are safe.
This is called secure attachment.
Authenticity — Connection to Self
Healthy connection with our caregivers naturally fosters a healthy connection with ourselves. We call this self-connection authenticity.
In Latin, the word auto means self, and the word tenere means to have. Hence, the word authentic describes having oneself. Being authentic isn’t just dressing weird or being extroverted; it’s being honest with ourselves and others about what we want, need, think, and feel. These are basic requirements for life itself.
Imagine a distressed infant denying its hunger or pretending it wasn’t afraid or tired. Ridiculous, no?
If you are not attuned to the wisdom of your own body — instincts, feelings, wants, needs, etc. — how in the fuck are you going to pull off a century of being human?
So yes, in a very real sense, your survival and wellbeing also depend on authenticity, although in a less urgent way than your need for attachment.
Trauma — Disconnection from Self
Because attachment needs take precedence over authenticity, it’s easy to understand what happens when a connection to a caregiver is broken. That breach is perceived as life-threatening, the child experiences powerlessness for the first time and instinctively sacrifices their true self to preserve that connection. Kids will do or not do virtually anything for love and attention.
In other words, self-abandonment is biologically preferable to being abandoned by others during your formative years.
However, disconnection from the self subsequently becomes a hell of a problem for the duration of your life on earth — physically, mentally, emotionally, sexually, spiritually. This disconnection is what we refer to as trauma, literally the Greek word for wound, and it is a systemic, physiological process (see The Body Keeps The Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.).
Insecure attachment styles — anxious, avoidant, or disorganized — are nothing more than unique responses to trauma. They are all relationship patterns characterized in different ways by feelings of disconnection. This should be the least surprising thing you read all day.
Physician Gabor Maté explains, “Trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.” So trauma isn’t your shitty childhood experiences — it’s how you adapted to survive them. Trauma is the natural, human response to overwhelming experiences of powerlessness in the absence of an empathetic caregiver.
Addiction — Coping with Disconnection
The Latin verb addicere meant, among other things, to abandon, surrender, or enslave. It, therefore, makes a whole lot of sense that the abandonment or surrender of oneself in trauma invariably leads to the enslavement of addiction.
Those who were traumatized live with painfully chronic disconnection from themselves and others. They never learned to regulate their nervous systems and have no choice but to seek outside themselves for a solution.
Is it any wonder that the first step in any twelve-step recovery program is “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction — that our lives had become unmanageable”? What is this but an admission of trauma (the consequence of powerlessness) and a chronically dysregulated nervous system (unmanageability at its finest)?
And just because you’re not ripping lines of cocaine off the bar doesn’t mean you aren’t addicted to anything.
What do you seem to do compulsively to deal with your emotions? Work too much? Have sex? Go to the gym every day? Scroll through your phone for hours? Overeat? Shop? Clean? Masturbate? Watch TV? People please? Micromanage? Achieve? Throw yourself obsessively into relationships? Overextend yourself and use busyness as a sedative?
There is no shortage of self-medication whatsoever. It’s just that some forms of numbing and escape are more socially acceptable than others.
What is the thing that you’re inclined to say “I can stop any time I want to” about? But of course, you don’t want to. Why would any organism stop soothing its pain the only way it knows how?
Recovery — Restoring Connection
They say the opposite of addiction is connection. Anyone in recovery knows this to be true. That’s why the twelve steps are all written in “we” form. People come together and connect over their common lack of healthy connections. It’s the darnedest thing.
Talk about wounds that heal.
Any habit in your life that you feel powerless to change is probably compulsive, external-solution-seeking behavior rooted in a fundamental disconnect with your authentic self and subsequent inability to regulate your nervous system or forge secure attachments with others.
Therefore, if you’d like to unfuck any portion of your life, you’ll have to heal your trauma (whether or not you think you have any) through intensive work on reconnecting with yourself and others in healthy ways.
Now, even the best surgeon can’t do open heart surgery on herself. So my number one recommendation to anyone embarking on a journey of healing is to ask for help. Coach, therapist, doctor, twelve-step group — it doesn’t matter. Just get help.
Trauma and addiction are wounds of disconnection. Please trust when I tell you the only way to recover is through connection — first and foremost with the precious child you abandoned when you had to choose between attachment and authenticity.
Don’t waste another moment scouring the earth in search of something you will only find deep inside yourself.
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