When we talk about the experience of growing up without sufficient love and attention, we usually focus on the effects this kind of childhood has on the adult’s ability to form and sustain close relationships. This is understandable since it’s in the area of relationships that the impact of an insecure attachment style is more readily seen. But insecure attachment isn’t really just about relationships, whether we display an anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, or fearful-avoidant style; many experts understand the difficulties the adult faces as stemming from deficits in the ability to manage emotions.
An attuned and loving mother teaches her infant not just that the world is a safe place and that her needs will be tended to by supportive and caring others but helps her manage her emotions. The infant and later toddler learns that when she’s in pain, she’ll be soothed and comforted; that when she’s upset or overstimulated, there are ways of calming down; that when she’s frightened, there’s safety in her mother’s arms. Through the dyadic dance of mother and baby, the child learns to manage her painful and uncomfortable emotions; as an adult, in times of stress, she’ll be able to bring up mental images to calm herself down and reassure herself that things will be alright.
The insecurely attached child doesn’t learn these things. If she has an anxious-preoccupied style, she’s easily flooded by emotion, quick to trigger, and highly reactive; she doesn’t have a reset button and doesn’t have images to bring up in times of stress. The fearful-avoidant is very much in the same position, though it looks different on surface; fear of being hurt and rejected is what causes her to avoid close connection. Her response to emotion is to withdraw and push off which is why this is called an “avoidant” style; she too can’t process emotion. Finally, the dismissive-avoidant is walled off against feeling, staying above the fray. She thinks of herself as an island and self-reliant; this too is a protective stance and is a function of not learning how to manage and regulate emotions. (This is the narcissist’s attachment style.)
5 steps you can take to tamp your reactivity
Keep in mind that positive emotions don’t need regulating; as the song goes, clapping your hands is the only response you need if you’re happy. It’s at moments of stress that you need to find your emotional equilibrium. Here are some possible techniques, all drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
- Identify the trigger
The first question you must ask yourself is whether you’re reacting in the present—something someone said or did—or whether you are responding to an echo of behavior that was familiar in childhood. Did the person seem to disparage you the way your mother or other family members did? Did you feel as though someone was making a joke at your expense? Did you feel you were excluded?
Recognizing your own reactivity and your tendency to read into situations is the first step in beginning to manage your emotions.
- Work on naming your emotions
The ability to name what you are feeling is a key component of emotional intelligence, the ability to use your emotions to inform your thoughts. One typical deficit in emotional intelligence unloved daughters experience is not being able to identify feelings with precision. Is it anger you’re feeling or fear? Are you anxious or bewildered?
Paying attention to what your feeling along with understanding the likely situations that will trigger emotions will move you forward. For example, let’s say that you always have trouble meeting new people and you’re going to a gathering where you know practically no one. What do you usually feel when you’re in that situation? Anticipating stress points can be another way of managing your feelings in the moment and bringing them into conscious awareness.
- Listen to your body
Do you characteristically react to certain situations with physical responses such as sweaty palms (a sign of nervousness or anxiety), a tightening of the throat (which could signal fear, anxiety, or any number of emotions), tension in your back or shoulders, or anything else? Learning to stay in touch with those bodily responses will help you both pinpoint triggers and help you name and manage your emotions in the moment. For example, someone stonewalling me is always sure to rouse a response because it was a staple of my childhood. When someone cuts me off or refuses to talk, I know the physical and emotional responses are coming and I consciously detach those old feelings from the present moment.
- Use visualization to self-calm
Research studies show that insecurely attached people can consciously learn how to do what securely attached people do unconsciously—bring to mind situations and people who make them feel calm in moments of stress. The following visualization is taken from The Daughter Detox Guided Journal and Workbook; try doing this when you are calm and have time to focus. You can use photographs if you wish as prompts. Practice and then try taking it out for a spin at a moment when you feel challenged.
Visualize the child you were and imagine the mother you needed and wanted.
Draw on the qualities you’ve seen in other women and men—
their ability to listen, to nurture, to be kind—
especially the mothers of friends or caring people you’ve run into.
Create an image you can draw on in times of stress;
use your imagination to fill in the details.
5. Give yourself a mental time-out at moments of stress
Many years ago, my own therapist at the time taught me a technique I’ve come to call STOP. LOOK. LISTEN. I can testify to the fact that if you do it long and often enough, as I have, it eventually becomes automatic; readers have written me to say it’s worked for them too. When you find yourself in a stressful situation—an argument or disagreement, in a place that makes you feel uncomfortable like a crowded room, or anything else that is triggering you—simply STOP reacting. Disengage emotionally; if you need to, simply exit the situation for a moment. Then take a close LOOK and ask yourself whether you are responding to cues in the present. Are you reading into the situation? Then LISTEN. Ask yourself whether you are really hearing the intention behind the person’s words or you are reacting to old echoes? The point here is to make sure that the car that’s you isn’t getting hijacked by automatic and unconscious processes you learned in childhood.
It takes time for the unloved daughter to gain her emotional equilibrium but it can be done. It’s all a matter of steps.
Photograph by Free Photos. Copyright free. Pixabay.com.