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Authenticity vs. Attachment

Posted by Ken Gilbert on October 14, 2020

64008A77 14B3 4F26 ADF1 B021F9641940A few months ago, I came across a video interview with Dr. Gabor Maté that discussed attachment, authenticity, and the interplay between the two for children specifically. The content struck me in its simplicity. Maté explained two often complex topics in a way that seemed digestible. The idea is that as children we have two core needs (in addition to several others), one for attachment and one for authenticity.

I think of attachment in this case as a sense of connection, safety, and nourishment with a caretaker or parenting figure. The attachment bond is critical to our survival as infants, and the quality of the attachment bond can be indicative of how we see ourselves and participate in relationships as we get older. Maté goes on to make a fascinating connection in the video that I had not thought about up to this point. He astutely points out that as human beings, we have the most demanding attachment needs of any species given our significant period of development. What he seems to be suggesting is that due to our long developmental period, our focus on attachment cannot be understated or taken lightly.

Now, let’s talk a little bit about authenticity. There are several definitions, and not all therapists may conceptualize it the same way. I think of authenticity as our ability to understand, own, and move through life as closely to our “true Selves” as possible. Sure, many aspects of Self may remain unconscious, and part of therapy aims to awaken that unconscious part of ourselves. The idea, however, remains true: our ability to show up as ourselves, identify and own our feelings, and be in boundaried and contained relationships often exemplify authenticity.

So, what are the implications here? As I often do in therapy with young men in recovery, I’ll use me as an example to illustrate a point. I have wonderful parents, and was raised in a supportive environment. It was not perfect, no family context ever is. I think back to a moment as a wilderness client when I let one of my parents know that I felt resentment as a result of them working a lot when I was a kid. At the time, I was met with significant defensiveness. I remember how I immediately felt regret. I could even feel it in my body as I started to tighten up. The more personal work I have done, the more I understand the dynamic that was at play. I started to understand that when I take vulnerable risks that are in line with my “truth,” I may risk the attachment relationship.

Children may internalize this as a “one or the other” dilemma and end up abandoning one of their needs to salvage the other. I think that even the best of parents with solid intentions end up communicating to children, “I cannot tolerate your authenticity, I can’t handle it.” In some cases, the sensitive child perceives this subtext and adapts. They want to preserve the attachment relationship! The issue is that the adaptation may come with other costs. Maté likens it to an adult at 25 or 30 that struggles to identify what they feel, or someone that struggles with a need to numb or “go away.”

I want to be clear about something that I try to emphasize with parents I work with: Most of the time we are not doing this on purpose. For parents, I think it’s important that we continually examine our own childhood needs to empathize with our children and normalize this uncovering process. It helps to defuse some of the defensiveness and shame we may come across throughout the process of doing our own work. The more we can do as parents to provide a safe place for our children to go to authentically communicate their experience, the more likely we are to not contribute to their existing wounds (and provide a place for healing). This is something I know parents can get behind!

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