Humans, as primates, are deeply social animals. The need to form attachments with others, and, most crucially, with the primary caregiver, has evolved as a survival mechanism, as attachments help to protect us from the danger others may pose and thus reduce our fear of being harmed, or, especially in the case of our more distant ancestors, killed.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the infant responds to separation from, or an inability to rely upon, the primary caregiver with intense fear.
A healthy attachment between the infant and the primary caregiver is also of fundamental importance as it allows the infant to develop the ability to regulate (control) his/her emotional state.
SECURE AND INSECURE ATTACHMENT :
Bowlby explained that attachment between the infant and the primary caregiver may be secure or insecure. Let’s look at each of these in turn :
SECURE: This refers to a healthy relationship between the primary caregiver and the infant in which the former is appropriately responsive towards the latter and protects him/her from trauma.
INSECURE: This refers to an unhealthy relationship between the primary caregiver and the infant in which the former does not protect the latter from trauma and responds to the infant in ways that are highly unpredictable and unreliable when he/she (ie the infant) is in a state of distress. This can lead the infant to ‘freeze‘ (ie enter a trance-like state), in the same way, that adults suffering from borderline personality disorder may ‘dissociate‘ at times of stress. #
Commonly, insecure attachment involves the primary caregiver either abusing or neglecting the infant, or otherwise frightening or distressing the infant.
Often, too, the primary caregiver has a double harmful and damaging effect upon the infant: not only does the caregiver actively induce feelings of distress and trauma in the infant, but, on top of this, lacks the ability to calm and soothe the infant due to a lack of empathy. Such dysfunctional interaction results in the infant being unable to develop the requisite skills to control and regulate his/her own emotions later on in life (this is sometimes referred to as an inability to self-soothe (meaning, once stressed, the individual finds it extremely difficult to calm down again).
The infant’s psychobiological response to feeling threatened by their primary caregiver can include 3 stages (Perry) :
1) FIGHT OR FLIGHT: the fight/flight response in humans evolved to improve the chances of survival when such survival is threatened. However, such a response is clearly not available under normal circumstances to the infant. Therefore, whilst at a basic level the response is triggered, the infant is unable to act on it. Also, this initial stage of response to feeling threatened by the infant is sometimes accompanied by the infant ceasing to make vocalizations; in effect, Broca’s area (the region of the brain responsible for vocalizations) shuts down.
2) If the threat continues, the next stage that the infant experiences has been termed “FEAR WITHOUT SOLUTION’.
This stage presents the infant with a dilemma :
a) On the one hand, it is vital that the infant maintains an attachment with the caregiver, as this is necessary to his/her continued survival.
b) On the other hand, the infant fears the caregiver.
IT IS THOUGHT THAT THE ABOVE DILEMMA IS SOLVED BY THE INFANT EMPLOYING A DEFENSE STRATEGY KNOWN AS DISSOCIATION; THIS INVOLVES :
One part of the infant’s psyche IDEALIZING the primary caregiver (enabling the interaction between the infant and caregiver to continue (as is necessary for the infant’s survival, AND :
Another part of the infant’s psyche (which is sometimes called the ‘self-other’ in the relevant literature) DOES EXPERIENCE THE TERROR INDUCED BY THE PRIMARY CAREGIVER BUT DISSOCIATES FROM THIS TERROR (meaning that the infant cuts the off from consciousness).
The above process does, however, carry a heavy cost. It leads to a FRAGMENTED SENSE OF SELF which is a major feature of adult BPD (see my article on the kinds of identity problems suffered by adults with BPD).
Research also suggests that the above process leads to the infant growing up into an adult who experiences a sense of deep guilt about their behavioral problems connected to their early traumatic experiences, erroneously blame themselves for these problems and develop a profound misperception of themselves as being a bad person.
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
By the individual believing him/herself to be to blame for the dysfunctional relationship he/she is able to MAINTAIN THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL (ie they form the illusory belief that only they could improve their behavior they will be able to attain the love, support, affection, and care from their primary caregiver which they so tragically missed out on during their childhood.
The above is, therefore, essentially a defense mechanism protecting the individual from having to face up to the painful realization that the idealized caregiver that they needed to invent as a helpless and terrified infant does not, in reality, exist.
Frequently, too, the above process leads to the adult who experienced the early life trauma becoming highly SELF-SABOTAGING. Why is this?
Essentially, it is believed such self-sabotaging behavior (involving sabotaging one’s own achievements and progress in life) in order that the self-sabotaging individual does not become independent and self-reliant allowing him/her to continue the elusive search for the ideal parent/caregiver he/she never had (although this operates on an unconscious level).
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Bowlby, J. (1979). The Bowlby-Ainsworth attachment theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2(4), 637-638. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00064955