Enter Attachment Theory: Of Men and Sea Turtles

Ok, so I’m sure some of you are wondering about why there are baby sea turtles on the book cover. Of course one answer is that I have had a life long fascination with turtles of all types and perhaps this served as an excuse to portray some. But in actuality, that is only a small part of the story Here is the real reason: Female sea turtles, driven by primordial instinctual drives, swim thousands of miles and navigate their way back to the beach wherever they were born. With great effort they drag their large bodies which were designed for marine  existance, up upon the sandy beach where they dig a nest and deposit a clutch of eggs. The mothers return to the sea without so much as a thought or parting glance. Some weeks later, the hatchlings emerge and by the thousands, engage in a mad scramble  in the frantic effort to mjake it to the waters edge and begin their marine life. The fact is, the baby turtles have no use for their mothers since since they are fully equipped to make it, though the odds of reaching adulthood are stacked against them. But nonetheless, there is no inter-generational dependence since they have what it takes to survive on their own.

Contrast this with the human situation. We are born helpless and hairless and remain in a highly dependent state for an extremely long time. We are not even born with complete nervous system since neuronal and synaptic connections will continue to form over the next 20 or so years. While this incompleteness allows for continued development of much more complex and capable nervous systems, it also poses great vulnerabilities and risks. Because of our prolonged dependence, we are vulnerable to anything which might threaten the stability of attachment to our primary caregivers. Any perception of threat to this biological dependence can be create significant emotional impacts upon the developing child. These threats to attachment can be seemingly mild and innocent. Most people tend to think about instances of harsh treatment including abuse, or neglect as the primary source of emotional wounds. While those are certainly harmful, we now know that much more subtle forms of parental behavior can create lasting impact. Inattention, lack of “attunement”, non validation of feelings, witheld love, conditional provisions of love, and much more can threaten the security of attachment and create tears in one’s emotional fabric. The so called attachment theories which arose from convergence of knowledge from a range of disciplines including developmental psychology, psychoanalysis, evolutionary biology and ethology help those of us from a behavioral/learning perspective to better understand the formation of many adult issues, symptoms, interpersonal difficulties etc. that learning theories alone had to stretch itself to understand and explain.

In my model of Integrative Mindful Exposure, I incorporate attachment theory into a learning framework to form a conceptual understanding to guide treatment endeavors. From this perspective, the cues and emotional triggers that will be important for individuals to face will most likely directly stem from this early vulnerability. Much of our fears, anxiety, and shame which we work so hard to control and avoid and which in turn drives much of our pain and symptoms stems from the primordial pain arising from our earliest and most vulnerable years.

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