Harry Harlow’s famous surrogate mother experiment with Rhesus monkeys in the 1960s showed us just how important attachment is. When these infant monkeys were given two inanimate “mothers,” one made of wood and wire that had a milk bottle and another made of rubber and terry cloth (but without food), the babies chose the snuggly one.
Harlow wrote, “If monkeys have taught us anything, it’s that you’ve got to learn how to love before you learn how to live.”
Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a compelling theory of psychological health based on the fulfillment of fundamental human needs in a particular sequence (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). He placed physiological needs first and foremost, which sounds self-evident. Of course you need food, water, and warmth to live! However, in reality, we crave attachment more so than anything else.
Ask anyone to choose between love and a sandwich, friendship and a glass of water, a hug and a sweater.
You won’t need to torture any baby monkeys or get your doctorate in psychology to figure out that human connection is truly the most important thing there is.
Attachment — The Womb of Maturation
Inside our mother’s womb, we naturally grow and mature. It doesn’t take much skill on the part of the mother or fetus to make that happen. After birth, according to developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, parental attachment then becomes the womb that continues to nurture us. It’s where we develop our sense of self, including self-worth, self-compassion, self-protection, and healthy self-interest.
And the backbone of that whole experience is being invited to exist in the presence of our caregivers exactly as we are. In his book Hold Onto Your Kids, Neufeld writes, “We liberate children, not by making them work for our love, but by letting them rest in it.”
When children find out that they are not good enough, they are wrong, that they are a disappointment, a burden, or a disgrace to their parents, they amputate the FUCK out of their true selves as soon as humanly possible. Their feelings, wants, needs, thoughts, opinions, preferences, personal boundaries, hopes, dreams — all that shit goes directly in the trashcan the moment it threatens their primary need for attachment.
As small, helpless children, authenticity is an optional luxury compared to the life-and-death necessity of attachment. So, when basic attachment needs go unfulfilled, kids learn the fine art of self-abandonment. And how ironic that this coping mechanism used to salvage a parental relationship will inevitably undermine every other relationship thereafter.
Ignoring Red Flags and Tolerating Bullshit
If a lack of healthy attachment in your formative years convinced you that love is something you must earn, you’ll be at a significant disadvantage in the realm of dating. You will be absolutely wired for self-neglect and self-deception as a means to establish and maintain connection with a partner. For the anxiously attached, this is a full-time gig, unassuaged by even a lifelong commitment in marriage.
Not knowing if someone likes you produces a feeling that cruises down the same neural pathways as the uncertainty of parental abandonment or misattunement. And like muscle memory or a pavlovian response, we can easily jettison all of our scruples on a first date the moment we suspect human attachment is on the line. This is often the reason people paint red flags green and stay in terrible relationships for way too long — because their nervous systems have learned to prioritize attachment over even their own best interests.
Secure parental attachment gives rise to secure inner attachment with oneself, which is what makes authenticity possible in the first place. Absent these conditions, you will find what Ernest Becker once wrote, “One has so little personal ballast that he has to suck in an entire other human being to keep from disappearing or flying away.” Thus, the untended wounds of childhood turn dating into a hostage crisis and each relationship into a Faustian bargain where you must choose between attachment and authenticity.
But as we well know, when you trade authenticity for connection, you end up with neither.
Reclaiming Your Authenticity
So you’re saying I need to experience secure attachment in order to reclaim my authentic self, but I also need to be authentic in order to cultivate secure attachment? What am I supposed to do with this chicken-or-the-egg ass existential dilemma?
Well, if your whole family is dysfunctional as shit, all your so-called friends are more or less acquaintances and work associates, and you have no one you can bare your soul to, that certainly puts you in a difficult position. It would also explain an insatiable desire for enmeshment-level intimacy with a romantic partner. If that be the case, I would start with a coach, therapist, or mentor of some sort who can model secure attachment for you. You need a low-stakes relationship where you can slowly experiment with expressing your deepest thoughts, fears, and desires.
Parallel to this task is the work of reparenting yourself, which means cultivating self-care, self-love, self-compassion, self-protection, and everything you needed but perhaps didn’t get as a child. You are teaching your nervous system that you are here for you. That a responsible adult is looking after you. That you are safe, seen, soothed, and secure.
Next, I recommend taking your authenticity for a spin in a safe group. Whether this is a therapeutic community, a book club, a drum circle, or whatever is completely up to you. As Stephanie Foo articulated in her brilliant memoir What My Bones Know:
“The only way you could heal from relational trauma… was by practicing that relational dance with other people — not just reading self-help books or meditating alone. We had to go out and practice maintaining relationships in order to reinforce our shattered belief that the world could be a safe place.”
Finally Growing Up
The way I see it, inauthenticity (disconnection from the self) is a developmental arrest that requires secure, nonromantic relationships to dislodge. And in time, your authenticity can translate over into romantic partnerships. But so long as your strategy for human connection is based on the unexamined emotional losses of your childhood, you may continue to exclude the most important part of any relationship: yourself.
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