The Attachment v Authenticity War
There is an ongoing war being waged that is seldom talked about . It is the struggle between attachment and authenticity that confronts every child growing up in a stress-filled environment. In this war, the biological compulsion for self-expression and authenticity directly threatens survival.
It begins before we are born. In the womb, we share our mothers’ experiences. We don’t have much of a choice. Our mothers’ blood is our blood. Her feelings are our feelings, her reactions are our reactions. Her fears are our fears. Her stress becomes our stress. Everything mom eats, thinks, drinks, and feels affects us, the baby. Subjectively, we experience our mother as the self during our earliest life experiences.
The first separation from the mother happens at birth. We leave the womb and that life sustaining umbilical cord we’ve always known is cut. Now our biochemistry is technically our own but still we have no real faculties of our own. Sure, we can open our eyes and see a little, but we can only see about 16-18 inches from our eyes (the approximate distance from face to the face of a person carrying a baby.)
Without an umbilical cord to meet our physiological regulatory needs, we experience hunger for the first time. It’s up to mom to provide us with the food we need. We are so tiny and helpless we can’t even ask for it. We just scream, cry or make faces and hope mom figures it out. We experience cold and need warmth and again and, hopefully, our mother is there to save us.
We have no sense of object permanence until right months of age. From our perspective, we have no option but be unaware that there even is a “mom” or an entity at all when they aren’t in our view. That’s the magic of childhood. Good things just happen. As children the things we need are just there for us and we can’t fathom how. All we know is what we experience. If we experience discomfort, we express that discomfort and are hopefully comforted. This first 12 months especially instills our fundamental layer of security. The one that tells us “No matter what happens I’ll be ok.” The experiential reality a securely attached child has that an insecurely attached one desires is “when I am helpless, help will come.” This is the subconscious mantra of the securely attached person. The level of security we feel is directly related to the level of care we receive from our care givers in the first year of life. [EW4]
This subjective experience is the mechanism behind the famous "attachment styles." The first attachment style is the preferred one and is known as secure attachment. Then there are three categories of insecure attachment. Really its two primary varieties are called avoidant and anxious attachment. The final style is called disorganized attachment. Disorganized attachment is basically just the 1, 2 punch combo of the two types of insecure attachment. If you’re unfamiliar, give it a quick google. The details have been covered in detail and to death all over the internet.
For now, you need to know is that every person develops an attachment style. Infants of our species are extremely vulnerable and will die without an attentive caregiver. The relationship to the care givers determines attachment. Each of us develop whatever style of attachment helps us cope best with whatever type of care we receive.
This is ground zero for the Attachment Vs Authenticity war. Attachment to a care giver for an infant is literally life sustaining. Any perceived threat to that attachment is then obviously perceived as a literal threat to life as well. The reason secure attachment is so important to psychological development is because secure attachment is not easily threatened. Attachment. You could say attachment is a fundamental contributor to what we may call the constitution of the child. Both psychological and physiological constitutions are determined in large part by early life experiences. See ACE Study correlations
Attachment is a huge part of our constitution because human brains are designed to maintain function under stress. They’re also designed to adapt and build itself to function normally “as evolution intended.” The problem is that it can’t do both at the same time. If the brain is stressed its coping not growing. Further complicating its developmental plans is the fact the brain as well as the body also has a time limit to compete with. We are designed to develop certain abilities or skills at certain ages. Determined by our ancestors’ experiences which shaped our DNA (a process called epigenetics). This is what “developmental miles stones” are based on. Those things the pediatrician harps on; walking, talking, babbling, and weight percentiles at certain months of development. If a child is exceptionally stressed their body & brains will indeed cope with the stress they’re experiencing. But what it won’t be doing is building the connections it’s designed to be me making at that time. Permanently changing the shape and function of the brain.
So, if a brain can cope or it can grow but not both at the same time… How does this play out in the real world? And how does this lead to an Attachment Vs Authenticity war?
Though I grew up in a “spare the rod spoil the child family” much of my generation was the “time out” generation. “Time out” punishments are behavioral approach to child rearing. You address problematic behaviors by placing the child in a “time out.” This usually meant sending them to a corner or to another room away from you the parent and usually everyone else. At the time this was the better if not best approach to child rearing. It was practiced largely by the children of the “spare the rod spoil the child” generation. The data was clear at the time (early 2000’s) that spanking kids seems to have long lasting negative effects. The response was reasonable. Do something other than spanking. Address problematic behavior by means other than physical violence.
Great idea! This is almost certainly a better way to raise kids. Especially if you don’t want your kids to occasionally be violent at least. But done the way it was overwhelmingly done causes issues of its own. Each generation is just trying to do better than their parents. In this case I think they/we did, and our job now is to do better than they them. I’m not here to talk about which childrearing strategy is best. Truthfully, I think that’s context determinant anyway. I’m here to talk about what I’m sure is an age-old problem that I’m seeing magnified in the “time out generation”
It all starts attachment style and that is determined by your relationship with your primary care giver, but your primary care giver has an infinite many things they are juggling that all affect their ability to care-give, that have nothing to do with the love they have for their children. So, first let’s lay down a few of the social and cultural realities parents infant relationships navigate. Because context is everything.
Modern science has been able to evaluate many ideas about exactly what affects mother infant bonding. Ill only cover a few confirmed influences here. One huge influence is the fact our parents had way more C sections that previous generations. By bypassing the natural birth process, you avoid the Neurochemical storm that goes along with passing a football sized organism thru a birth canal and almost dying. That Neurotransmitter dump seems to be directly tied with preventing postpartum depression. Karimi, Fatemeh Zahra et al,2020
Depressed parents are not very attentive and are almost impossible for an infant to securely attach to. Depression can be explained in one-word anhedonia. Which is the medical way of saying joy no longer comes from where joy once came; or from where it "should" come including infants. If you don’t enjoy feeding bathing clothing wiping drying and devoting basically 100% of your attention to your baby. Do you think the baby notices? Of course, the answer is a resounding YES.
Add to this another cultural practice that’s damaging to health and attachment. Skin-to-skin contact is nearly nonexistent now compared to our evolutionary past. As soon as a child is born in America they are taken away from their mothers for cleaning and tests. This is another area science has investigated recently. Science has shown this immediate separation to be terrible for things like attachment as well as breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has been investigated most thoroughly and not doing it is associated with many detrimental effects. Almost half of children that are separated from their mothers very early, which is still considered a “best practice” in America, struggle to latch to be breastfed. As a result, babies are breast feed less often and mothers stop breastfeeding earlier in development.
In our modern world secure attachment is a very high bar. With all this already stacked against us, we still make less money for the same jobs as our parents. Working multiple jobs simultaneously has become standard which didn’t use to be the case. Changing jobs very regularly, get divorces, and starting businesses are much more common occurrences today also detract from our ability to care-give. It’s almost impossible to have a parent being a full-time caregiver. The odds are stack against secure attachment. It unfortunately seems to be the price we pay for the comforts of modern society. Secure attachment is still the goal though. And here’s why.
If 6-month-old little Johnny cries or expresses discomfort, mommy feeds him swaddles him or otherwise addresses the discomfort expressed by the crying. Baby Johnny’s experience then is something like “somethings uncomfortable inside me ~ expression of discomfort ~ effortless rectification.” When 1 year old little Johnny cries hopefully again he is soothed and caressed and his needs are met. His 1-year-old experience remains about the same his 6-month experience. If that discomfort~expression~solution is common sequence in Johnny first year of life, then he’ll probably be more securely attached. If that simple interaction gets interrupted occasionally, and in our modern world it most likely will, Johnny’s brain will adapt to the minor stress and his attachment security will likely remain intact. This is the difference! Securely attached little Johnny never second guesses his “right” to his life or his needs. His experiences stacking up like evidence that loudly proclaims he deserves love affection and tender care no matter what. The thought of “earning” those things never even enters his head. He has always experienced these things readily. So, when the time out comes, thinking about the behavior that landed him in time out is a reasonable response.
An influential phenomenon is present here. When humans receive something consistently, we come to expect it. If we get what we expect for a while we begin to believe that we deserve it. This is true in attachment psychology and is the root of other phenomenon like white privilege. Securely attached little Johnny believes that he will have his needs met because they have always been met. Therefore, he clearly deserves to have his needs met continually without him even needing to think about it. This self-assured world view fundamental world view is what is meant by secure attachment. Conversely if we are denied something even something basic, over and over, we begin to think that we don’t deserve it. Using the same logic, it makes sense. Since we didn’t consistently have our needs met, we assume that the way things are. And the way things are is the way they must be so we must not deserve that security. That we must somehow earn our needs being met it in some way. This drives the “performances” some of us feel we are living in.
If that discomfort~expression~solution feedback cycle is inconsistent or unreliable for any reason at all, including that long list we covered earlier, little Johnny will likely be insecurely attached. When little Johnny gets 3- or 5-year-old and gets upset and express that he is upset how do mom and dad react?
If mom and dad grew up in a “spare the rod spoil the child home” it’s likely one of their goals to “not beat my kids” so they might employ the “time out” approach. When securely attached little Johnny’s internal reality becomes uncomfortable whether that be from hunger, frustration, boredom or whatever, the expression might get him placed in time out rather than getting his needs met. If little Johnny is securely attached the message that he receives is something like, expression of frustration excitement or whatever his internal reality was, got him removed from his support system. but the attachment to the caregivers is still secure. Meaning he still believes that he will receive the care he will need. This is because there is an underlying belief, built upon personal experience, that remembers even when he can’t see mom or fend for himself he will still have his needs met.
If little Johnny is insecurely attached and we apply the same “time out” situation to him. The prediction made by little Johnny’s brain is something like ~ when I express my discomfort am removed from my support system and I don’t know when the next time I’ll have my needs met again is.” This is anxiety inspiring. Insecurely attached Johnny’s predictions are based off his past in which his needs were not consistently met. Therefore, the message received by insecurely attached Johnny in “time out” is something like ~ expression of my inner reality i.e. frustration, excitement etc. gets me removed from my support system and I have no idea when or how I will get my needs met. ~
During most of childhood there remains a clear understanding of your helpless. Not knowing when or where help will come from the next time, we need it. Causes more stress and further prevents development. Not knowing where help will come from directly threatens his security
From here it is easy to see how expression of one’s internal state throughout life can directly threaten their attachment. As a preteen or adolescent frustration is often at caregivers. Those care givers are most often doing the best they can. When their now adolescent child expresses their frustration, and that expression is treated negatively in anyway if they are insecurely attached will result in the subjective experience of being honest with my mom about what happening inside me will threaten our relationship. One’s authenticity is inextricably tied with one’s inner truth. If fear prevents the expression of that reality. The person MUST begin to lie. Either to themselves or to their caregivers about how they feel. If minor versions of this situation happen often enough the internal dialog it’s a problem. We are basing our expectations on year and years of experience and no prefrontal cortex to override those experiences logically. So, the experiences become engrained. The message engrained is something like “expression of my inner world is a threat to my acceptance, the love I’m shown and my survival.”
This is the Attachment vs Authenticity War.
This is how children with pretty “normal” childhoods; Normal being the word most people use if they didn’t experience physical or sexual abuse. And if they didn’t have a drug addicted or imprisoned parent; give rise to this new common phenomenon of the Gifted Child turned Burnout.
The child essentially learns that if they express things that the parents don’t like they’re shunned. This shunning in an insecurely attached child feels like it threatens their survival. So rather than be honest about what is happening on the inside they learn to ignore it partly or all together, and often cope by being really REALLY good at something. Their life experience has taught them they have to earn security safety and belonging.
It doesn’t matter what the something is. If we are insecurely attached, we will continue seek secure attachment until we have it or we die. Naturally, if being ourselves, open and honest about our internal state was not enough for security and we still want it. We must go above and beyond to achieve that security.
The path to that security comes from our family values. Think about your own family. What do they value? Independence? Hard work? Success? Achievement? Happiness? Sarcasm? Winning? Whatever route got you the most consistent approval by mom and dad or your primary care giver, will probably be the route that you take for the rest of your life to get security you need. That route could lead you to a doctorate degree, being a virtuoso or some sort or land you in a jail cell depending on the family value and your luck.
If you’re insecurely attached to mom and you maintain your status by means other than merely existing. You’re going to use that same strategy when it comes time in development to step away from family and develop friendships. Peer relationships become extremely important in adolescence, but kids can be cruel. If Mom doesn’t accept you unless you are fill in the blank certainly no other kid is going to want to be friends with you unless you are that thing as well. So, we double down on the family value of choice. We focus on music or sports or math or whatever we are good at that gets us the approval we need. If we are good enough at it, we receive amazing praise and all the attention that, had we gotten sooner could have made us securely attached. Now it often rolls off us as empty words because it is still praise our work and not for us. And we still just want to be loved for us.
During adolescence we go from being primarily attached to mom to attaching to other people. We are a very social species. We have taken over the world without ability to cooperate which stems from this social our social nature. Unfortunately, the only blueprint we have is the one that was given. If mom didn’t accept us for who we are than how in the world could we expect the other kids too?
So, we continue to perform. Searching for our security through our peer relationships. Finding attachment where we can, always repeat the same attachment pattern. We double down of our fav hobbies and pass times to accumulate more and more and more praise. But it’s never enough. We try harder and become impressive in our niche expecting that to provide our security and safety forever. Until one day we reach the pinnacle of our niche and still feel empty. This is when the Gifted child burs out. Unless of course they burned out along the way which happens plenty too. It takes a very insecurely attached person to achieve the highest of statuses. So, if you burned our sooner than pinnacle count yourself lucky.
The Attachment Vs Authenticity War isn’t the war to end all wars. In fact, it’s probably closer to the war that started all wars. Feeling that one must be a certain way or do things a certain way is at the heart of so much of the world’s problems today. If we continue down the path laid for us by our insecure attachments, we’ll ride that horse till the wheels fall off. If your horse still has wheels when you start raising kids of your own. Your kids will probably eventually join you on that journey too.
This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or parent. No one gets out of life alive, and no one gets out of childhood without damage. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn, and it doesn’t mean we can’t do better. Time Outs came with their own cost as does every strategy. But at least they did better than the physical violence they grew up with.
Recently this phenomenon of the Gifted Child turned burn out has become a thing in my generation. If we want to know how to stop something it can often help to know what caused it. This is what I believe to be the cause. This is how a whole generation of individuals can experience the phenomenon having dramatically different life stories. But each story has similarities. When you look at them close enough you might learn something. This is what I’ve learned. I hope it helps.
Karimi, Fatemeh Zahra et al. “The effect of mother-infant skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth on exclusive breastfeeding: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of the Turkish German Gynecological Association vol. 21,1 (2020): 46-56. doi:10.4274/jtgga.galenos.2019.2018.0138
ACE study source: National Estimates based on 2017 BRFSS; Vital Signs, MMWR November 2019