Recently our was about the guest lecture I gave at a school in a course where the students themselves are experts in the field of insecure attachment. A lot was exchanged in a great collaboration and the time went faster than expected. The remaining material also deserved attention and we didn’t want to rush it. The solution was quickly devised: a second guest lecture! I gladly accepted that invitation, because a group like this is exactly what we do our work for from ACE Aware NL.*
The second lesson was last Wednesday, June 8. The group was a little different in composition; a few people from last time were missing and there were some new faces.
We started with a short inventory of what everyone remembered from last time. One of the first to speak was the mentor (who, just like the first time, participated intensively and concentrated in all exercises and conversations – wonderful!). The mentor referred to the ACE-score forms completed last time. That there were two people with a score of 8 and two with a score of 10… that those students had gone through (almost) all the sad experiences on that form… that had really hit and touched the mentor. I agreed and explained that I therefore found it very impressive to see that these people have once again taken up the courage to start an education trajectory, to work on their personal development and to invest in their future. That’s no mean feat; that means they probably have a few ‘cheerleaders’ somewhere in their social circle who have encouraged this challenge. That is beautiful; that gives hope. I emphasised that the mentor themselves also plays a valuable role in this by creating a safe climate in the group, so that the courage taken up finds solid ground and strongly supports the learning process.
After the check-in, a body-oriented exercise followed, in which the students could experience what it is like to be close to someone else while walking through the room. How does it feel when you’re standing right next to someone? Is that other person in your personal space? Can you bear that or does it feel threatening? And if the latter is the case… what does that do to your bodily functions? Is your heart beating faster? Do you feel warm and sweaty? Your body often speaks loudly and clearly!
They stood side by side in pairs and reported back what they had experienced. For some it felt fine, someone else felt agitated by so much closeness. One person said that the person next to them made them feel giggly – positive, because feeling giggly and laughing together is wonderful and gives a feeling of relaxation and security, while security is at the same time a precondition for achieving that relaxation together.
It seems so simple: standing next to someone. And yet those simple things can feel very complicated and scary if you’re constantly on the lookout for survival strategies. With someone so close to you, you can’t keep the overview well. You (literally) can’t wait from a distance and see which way the cat jumps and the wind blows. It seems as if the other is pushing against the wall you have built to protect yourself against outside threats. Will your wall stay standing or will it fall over a bit…? And if so… then what?
And if you are subsequently asked to turn towards each other and look each other in the eye, to hold each other’s gaze and not to avert your eyes… then it all comes (again literally) very close. On the one hand, as humans we want to be seen, but can we handle someone really looking into our soul? How long can we keep that up? When does it get uncomfortable? When do we want to break free from that connection? When has it been enough?
The experiment didn’t last very long, but long enough to feel how intense it is to get so close. This, too, was an exercise associated with secure and insecure attachment. The more times you’ve been faced with situations of insecurity and the more you’ve been (literally or figuratively) ‘overlooked’, the harder it often is to make deep and open eye contact. You may feel the urge to hide so that it all doesn’t feel so vulnerable.
As a result of this exercise, a beautiful conversation ensued, in which the students indicated in which situations they found this difficult and how it can be experienced as a test to see ‘who can last the longest’ – who is in charge, who has the force majeure, who is pulling the strings. That is a very different association than: ‘I keep holding your eyes, because I want to hold YOU. I want to know you and see you. I want to be known and seen by you. I won’t let go of you.’ Here too, experiences from the past play a role in the perception of the present.
After everyone had returned to their own chair, I indicated that we would go through some ‘hardcore’ theory. For example, I explained what is meant by attachment, that early attachment styles often stay with someone for a lifetime, and what the difference is between secure and insecure attachment (anxious, avoidant, disorganized). We talked about how important it is that a child can rely on the parent(s) and that signals are picked up and properly interpreted and answered. The video with Edward Tronick’s ‘still face experiment’ shows this in a penetrating way and one of the students broke down as a result – tears flowed. A fellow student put a comforting arm around the classmate and a third handed out handkerchiefs. We were all silent for a moment – we paused to reflect on the grief of this human among us, without fixing, without talking, without judgment, but with a lot of compassion. There were more people who could barely bear these two minutes and I myself choked up, even though I’ve seen this video so many times. I can’t get used to it; it grabs me by the throat every time I watch it. I’m glad about that, actually. When you think about how many children have to endure this not just for two minutes, but day after day, year after year, the video is actually a horror movie. How can we be surprised about social dysfunction if we are not seen, heard, understood, if our questions and needs for attention and connection are not answered? It’s heartbreaking; that this student was so touched by the video means that their heart is open, that this person dares to let themselves be touched, that there is recognition (because otherwise it will not be so deeply touching). That also means that there is awareness and that efforts will be made to avoid the ongoing repetition of this pattern of emotional neglect.
After a discussion of stress, stress hormones, brain development and the short-circuiting that can occur in your mental network if the wiring is not done properly, we discussed how important the environment is. You are not merely individually responsible for your life and the development of your brain: you are part of a much larger system, such as your family, your neighbourhood, your city, your country, your continent. You can also rarely change everything on your own, because it is the interpersonal dynamics that partly determine how well or how badly you are capable of developing and persevering healthy behaviour.
That is why it is important to realise that behaviour is an expression of an emotion, which is an expression of an unmet need. Without insight into and satisfaction of that need, the emotion will not disappear and therefore probably the behaviour probably will neither.
And a very basic need remains: security. If this is missing, because there is no (parental) care or there is a lot of anxiety and aggression in a family, then toxic stress arises: chronic stress that affects all kinds of systems in the human body, including social functioning. We watched a video that impressively illustrates this in relation to a prison population. However, it also applies closer to home: as long as you don’t feel safe and secure, you will be hesitant to tell what touches you and why. Your silence can be difficult for someone else, but it can be part of your self-protection.
We ended by choosing a photo card that reflected something of how people envisioned their own future. Beautiful dreams and intentions emerged there, which is always great to hear.
The on-site evaluation? Inspiring, educational, interesting, informative, gained insight into how their own children function and what they need, became aware of the love for their children, and (for me the most moving): ‘realised that it is okay for me to have more compassion for myself’. That is amazing; that is where it starts, and then compassion for others will follow. Then you no longer have to say: “I have failed; I should have done better”, but you can conclude: “I did my very best with what I could and had, and I wish I could have offered more.” Then self-reproach turns to sorrow; then anger and frustration can turn into grief and a sense of loneliness. Then you can look for support, ‘holding space’ in which you are safe without judgment, so that the sharp edges can soften.
And if after so many beautiful things the question is posed whether I would like to come and teach more often, then of course there is only one possible answer: “Yes, I would love to!”
* For privacy reasons, I use gender neutral terms in this blog.