Healing Attachment Wounds – Telling the Story

Stories can heal. Stories can hurt. We get to make our own meaning out of our stories.

Last June, a Netflix Comedy special went viral. “Nanette” by Hannah Gadsby started out as a classic stand up special with lots of jokes, and lots of self deprecation. Then the tone started to shift. It began to be difficult to tell if she was still joking, as the comments became more raw, more pointed, until it was clear that this was no longer funny. It was heart wrenching. Hannah spoke about the way the jokes she had just told had kept her from healing from her own wounds and traumas. How the nature of comedy meant that she needed to craft her experience in such a way that was laughable and how the repetition of these stories, in the same way each time, meant that any healing or growth that had happened since those events, was not told.  Hannah had to relive those situations over and over again. Hannah states, “I’m quitting comedy.” It was for her own healing. In this special, Hannah deconstructed the power of stories in such a visceral way that it was impossible to be unmoved. She needed to re-craft her stories to incorporate more of her experience, growth, healing and reality so that she did not continue to be damaged by them. 

We all live with our stories. Our stories make meaning from our experiences. Sometimes we get stuck in them. Sometimes we cannot make sense of them and other times we can hardly bare to look at them even while they lurk in our very bodies. As a ‘talk therapist,’ I may be biased, but I believe that our stories are the key to healing as human beings.

When humans have experiences which they are unable to resolve or make sense of, it resides in the sensory side of the brain (the right side). Sensations are what we take in constantly throughout each of our days. The vast majority of those sensations are then automatically transferred to the left side of the brain where we make meaning out of them and can, potentially, put them into words. When this happens, we are no longer “in the moment.” We have examined the moment and made sense of it. Once we do this, we can carry on with our day. It doesn’t always happen instantly though, some experiences take longer to make sense of, sometimes hours, days, weeks, months and sometimes even years. When we are stuck on something that we can’t make sense of, or overwhelmed by the sensations the event or interaction brings, our ability to talk about the issues in ways that might help us to process it is often congruent with our attachment style. (Check out The 4 Adult Attachment Styles for more on this).

Here are examples of how each person might struggle with their experience, depending on their attachment style and how to push through in order to be able to process it better:

Anxious, preoccupied

For those whose attachment style is anxiety/preoccupied, you may be able to talk about your experiences and may do so a lot, however the telling remains unchanged because you think about that experience and feel it very similarly to how you did when it happened. Sometimes when people with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style speak about a traumatic event, listeners will notice that the tense of the story tends to shift between past and present as if the teller forgets where in history they are.

Shifting the story

In order to shift the story, you will need to use a skill referred to in attachment theory as “mentalizing,” where you are able to step outside of the story far enough to consider a new vantage point. Here are some tips to increasing perspective:

  • Imagine that someone else was telling you this story and what you might say to them about it.
  • Ask others who were involved, or knew about the situation (or at least part of it) for their perspective on it. Be conscious of who you involve, are they emotionally safe for you? Are they people who have shown you that they have your best interests in mind?
  • Consider the context of events; the age of those involved; and any outside influences. When thinking of your own age, think of people you know now who are that age. If it was childhood, you might also want to consult a child development textbook for psychological norms at each age.
  • Challenge any labels you’ve given yourself as a result of this experience. (See “Liar, Cheat, Racist…” – 7 Ways Labelling People, not Behaviour, does more Harm than Good for more on labelling).
  • Look for any signs of what you gained despite, or may be even, because of this experience and how you might use it to further your own goals, or, how you already are using it.
  • If your mind goes to blaming, guilt or shame, consider who is responsible for what by looking at age, positions of power, commitments and responsibilities, as a starting place.
  • If you find yourself overwhelmed by emotions and even feeling panicky, look around you, name the objects int eh room, name the colours you see, describe the textures you feel (soft chair, solid floor, etc.); note any smells and any sounds you hear, and any taste lingering in your mouth from the last thing you ate or drank. Remind yourself where you are and that you are safe. (Also check out A Good Time to Panic).

NOTE: Mentalizing is not about justifying abuse or harm done, or about minimizing your own experience. The purpose is to broaden your perspective, to add information that might help you make some sense out of what happened in a way that does not leave you distraught or unable to put energy into other things you want to grow or build in your life.

Dismissive, avoidant

Those whose attachment style is dismissive and avoidant, often respond to questions about past trauma with comments such as, “I don’t remember,” “It was no big deal,” “It was a long time ago,” or “I’m over it.” Sometimes questions about trauma are met with laughter, or a quick topic change, with anger, or by the person actually getting up and leaving the room. Of course, no one is entitled to hear another person’s story, but if you think you might have an avoidant attachment style, and have an inkling that your life has not always been great, you might have some work to do. This might be true particularly, if you believe that the adults around you, as a child, were difficult to predict, often angry, or, in your estimation, might also have had an avoidant attachment style. Another clue that there may be some unresolved issues are if those you are close to, particularly intimate partners, have described you as “cold,” “distant,” or “difficult to read.” The nature of the dismissive avoidant attachment style is to avoid looking at anything that might contain emotions of any kind. It can be difficult to be motivated to do this.

Discovering the Story

If you do feel some motivation to look at your own story, here are some things that might help you to look at it more directly, and to determine how it might be affecting you today.

  • Check other people’s responses to situations similar to the ones you have minimized or ignored in your life. Watch their face and their body language. Ask for their thoughts and feelings.
  • Pay attention your physical body (see next week’s post Healing Attachment Wounds part II- The Body) in order to better sort out what emotions you might actually be feeling that you have not paid attention to.
  • Look up feeling words and practice using them in conversations as they apply to how you actually feel. (See Emotions wheel for some of these words).
  • Imagine someone you love going through what you went through. What are your thoughts, fears, emotions?
  • Write out your experience and then tell it to someone you trust.
  • Also check out 7 Ways to Avoid Avoiding.

NOTE: Sometimes feelings that have not been expressed for a long time can be very overwhelming. If you need to back away, you can do this, but stay with people who care about you. Do not drink alcohol or use substances as this can intensify feelings and reduce good judgement causing you to do things you might not otherwise choose to do. Call a crisis line, and/or consider talking to a mental health professional and/or therapist about your experience. (Click Manitoba Crisis Services for contact information).

Dismissive anxious/disorganized

When someone utilizes a dismissive/anxious attachment style it can be difficult for the person to make sense of their own history. There might be times when they are very focused on one aspect, or detail of the story, only to jump to an unrelated item, or drift off all together in the telling of it.

For those of you would identify with this it can feel like you’re stuck on some detail, then feel overwhelmed by it and want to avoid it all together. It might be difficult to stay focused. This difficulty can be compounded by a lack of trust of other who might show concern or care for you and your story.

Making Sense of the Story

For the person who tends to utilize the dismissive anxious attachment style, it can be a scary thing to focus on one’s own journey and, at the same time can feel like you cannot get away from it. It will take courage to look more closely at it. Some of the tools needed to do this in a way that can help make sense of your story are:

  • Focus on naming behaviours, and describing the things that have happened, not labelling people. “He was just an asshole” will be less effective at helping you make sense of things than “he had been drinking and then we got into a fight and then he pushed me down the stairs.”
  • Considering other perspectives. Get information, as needed from others involved, another perspective. You don’t have to take it at face value, but take it into consideration.
  •  Acknowledging who is responsible for what. This is not about blaming, it is about figuring out who needs to fix things or who should be the one to fix things, even if they cannot or will not. This is crucial in order to let go of things that don’t belong to you which tend to feed shame.
  • Decide who needs to be accountable and how, and who needs to hold them accountable. consider your own physical, emotional, and psychological safety in this process.
  • Determine if forgiveness is appropriate or not (‘Forgiveness,’ A Dirty Word? ) and if apologies are needed, (see “I’m Sorry” 8 Steps to a Good Apology). You may also need to think about what you need from anyone else involved, if anything. (See The Parents You Wish You’d Had for more on this).
  • There will likely be grief when you come to terms with the story of what happened to you. Grief means acknowledging what has been lost, noticing what is not lost and keeping an eye out for any sense of gratefulness in the midst of all the other feelings that often come with grief.

Secure Attachment Style

When people utilize a secure attachment style, they are able to make sense of their story in a way that leaves them understanding their own strengths which they can then use to move forward towards their own goals. They are also able to consider more than one possible explanation for what has happened in their life and to be at peace with the fact that there are some things can cannot be fully understood.

 All Styles

NOTE: If you find that you are experiencing intense panic attacks when telling or thinking about your story, or, if your drug, alcohol use or other non-healthy behaviours increase, or if you are having thoughts to harm yourself or others, seek professional support. Connect with a counsellor, contact your local crisis line (in Canada click Crisis Services Canada) and/or speak to your doctor.

Don’t isolate yourself.

Also:

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