• attachment relationships and emotional life

    Attachment theory asserts that it is in the context of relationship that we find ourselves. Through relationship with another, we come to shape our own basic understandings about the world, the way it works, and our place in it. If our primary attachment figure is able to be available, to be sensitive to our needs, and to be empathic, then we begin to create and to internalize the belief that other people are dependable, and that we ourselves are worthy of attention. If, on the other hand, our primary attachment is unavailable, inconsistently available, insensitive, uncurious, or unempathic, then we begin to create and to internalize the belief that others are not dependable--that we can't rely on them to help us when we need help--and that that is true because we are not worthy of their attention, that there is something deeply wrong with us. 

    And in infancy, attachment behaviors--crying, calling, crawling towards--are triggered by fear. Attachment and emotion are bound together from the very beginning. When we feel frightened, or tired, or ill, we look to those to whom we are most attached. So this is the place where attachment theory opens into theories of emotion: are emotions universally experienced and expressed? Are there cultural differences around the experience and/or expression of emotion? What are emotions for? 

    In the coming months, I want to explore specific emotions, familiar and unfamiliar, and perhaps to explore these larger questions about emotions. 

  • a poem for the winter solstice

    Another poet and poem beloved in the Pacific Northwest: David Wagoner's Lost, from Collected Poems 1956-1976

    Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
    Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
    And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
    Must ask permission to know it and be known.
    The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
    I have made this place around you.
    If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
    No two trees are the same to Raven.
    No two branches are the same to Wren.
    If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
    You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
    Where you are. You must let it find you.

  • mindfulness resources for winter

    Winter can be a hard time for people. The combination of high expectations around the winter holidays, and the shorter darker days of winter can be hard, can leave us feeling depleted, lacking the resources we need to address the extra challenges of the season. What to do?

    Noticing your own experience with awareness and without judgement can be a support. The New York Times has been running a series on meditation for daily life. This piece, on walking in the rain, is a beautiful example of how we can give ourselves resources without a lot of time or money or effort. It reads in part: 

    Take a deep breath in, savoring the smell of petrichor — the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. As you release the breath, notice any corresponding release of tension you may have been unconsciously holding. 

    There is plenty of rain for us here in the winter of Western Oregon to step into this practice and explore whether or not it can be of use.

  • the museum of broken relationships

    Afer my reflections on attachment, I was moved to discover this musem: The Museum of Broken Relationships. This is what the website has to say about the project:

    Museum of Broken Relationships is a physical and virtual public space created with the sole purpose of treasuring and sharing your heartbreak stories and symbolic possessions. It is a museum about you, about us, about the ways we love and lose.

    The Museum has two permanent physical locations--one in Zagreb, and one in Los Angeles--and has displays of some of the contributions online as well, stories and symbolic objects alike. It hosts exhibitions internationally as well, for a day, a week, a few months...

    Take a look.

  • rupture and repair

    Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking and writing a lot about attachment--about the ways in which we learn to be individuals only in the context of relationship. And I've been thinking, too, about what happens when relationship changes dramatically, goes away, or just stumbles--as in the Still Face experiment. What happens to the developing person when their primary attachment figure--the person who cares for them most consistently--fails to mirror them? Is damage done? It can seem that way. Just a few seconds of the nonresponsive mother, and the baby begins to experience distress. The mother's emotional absence is experienced by the baby as a rupture in the relationship.

    And yet, how can this damage ever be avoided? If, as Winnicott suggests, the ordinary devoted mother sometimes feels tired or anxious or irritated, and fails to be perfectly attuned to her baby--if she doesn't mirror her baby's experience--isn't this bad for babies?

    Research suggests that misattuned parents miss their baby's cues about 30% of the time. So as babies try to communicate their needs, their desires, their wish for engagement, one out of every three times, their parents just don't get it. Over and over and over again, these babies are shut out or shut down. And research finds that well-attuned parents miss their baby's cues... about 30% of the time.

    Missing cues is normal. It's part of being in relationship: sometimes we notice bids for attention, sometimes we don't. The significant difference between misattuned and well-attuned parents isn't about the missed cues--it's about what happens next, about what they do next. And that's part of what you can see in the Still Face experiment. The return of warmth, the genuineness of apology, the willingness to hear how it felt to not be seen, the pleasure of being together again are all part of what allows babies--and children, and adults--to get reconnected, and to trust that those they most care for are willing to come back over and over and over, to keep trying even when they've made a mistake. And that trust reinforces the bond.

    Attachment theory is encouraging because it's not about urging us to become more perfect parents or partners--it's much more about making room for us to acknowledge the moments when we've failed and missed seeing the other person, because in that acknowledgement, the relationship grows stronger. 

  • this halloween, dress in costume, but don't mask mental illness

    I read about Kathleen “Katie” Marie Shoener's struggle with bipolar disorder and her death by suicide just after Halloween last year--her favorite holiday, and the holiday close to which her family chose to host the first 5Kate Mental Illness Awareness Walk/Run run in her honor. This year marks the second such event. Funds raised will go to support the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) among others. I was moved by her story, by her devout family's deep love for her, and by the tagline created for the run: "dress in costume, but don't mask mental illness".

    On the walk/run website, her family has these words to share: 

    So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness. People say that “she is bipolar” or “he is schizophrenic.” Over the coming days as you talk about this, please do not use that phrase. People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar – she had an illness called bipolar disorder – Katie herself was a beautiful child of God. The way we talk about people and their illnesses affects the people themselves and how we treat the illness. In the case of mental illness there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further. Our society does not provide the resources that are needed to adequately understand and treat mental illness. In Katie’s case, she had the best medical care available, she always took the cocktail of medicines that she was prescribed and she did her best to be healthy and manage this illness – and yet – that was not enough. Someday a cure will be found, but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from cancer, heart disease or any other illness. Please know that Katie was a sweet, wonderful person that loved life, the people around her – and Jesus Christ.

    The walk/run takes place in Scranton, Pennsylvania--but NAMI is a national organization that offers support groups here in Portland. If you'e so inspired, consider making a donation to them to further their important work.

  • self care

    Someone recently suggested this podcast to me, an episode of The New York Times' Still Processing podcast entitled "We Care for Ourselves and Others in Trump's America". If you follow the link, (I'm hoping) you'll find both the audio and the transcript. It's a moving conversation about the ways in which caring for ourselves is at once a personal and a political act, an individual and a collective act. 

  • the ordinary devoted mother and the good enough mother

    Several weeks ago, I wrote about D.W. Winnicott and his idea that "there is no such thing as a baby." Winnicott began his working life as a pediatrician in England in the 1920s, went on to train as a psychoanalyst, and made a great number of important contributions to our understanding of parent-child relationships.

    Some of his contributions though, like "the ordinary devoted mother" who offers the holding environment that babies need to develop, can seem oppressive at first glance: sexist, demeaning, unobtainable, and more. And to be honest, I'm not yet sure what his own intention was--I'm not a Winnicott scholar. But I do think that the phrase can be used to support us as parents in the present moment.

    "The ordinary devoted mother" is in fact closely linked to Winnicott's lovely idea of "the good enough mother," the mother who in her individuality and in her imperfection does enough of what her baby needs to support its development in all arenas, but not so much that the baby has no room to develop its own capacities at each developmental stage. He is suggesting that in fact our children need ordinary rather than extraordinary parenting--that in the face of extraordinary parenting, there is not enough room for individuation and autonomy-in-relationship.

    Ordinary devoted mothers forget things, drop things, lose things; they feel tired, they feel irritated, they feel sad; they wish they could sleep through the night (when their children are babies, and again when their children are teenagers), they wish they could take a bath (when their children are babies and it's hard to find the time, and again when their children are teenagers and gaining access to the bathroom for that long has become a different kind of challenge), they wish they could walk at their own pace, and more. 

    Ordinary devoted mothers have their own imperfections, their own feelings, their own desires--and still they are present with and to their babies. And that is enough. That is what good-enough mothering looks like: an adult who is at once present to themselves and their own inner world, and to their child and their child's developing personhood. 

  • a poem for the fall equinox

    Living in the Pacific Northwest, it seems as if there are certain poets who are especially cherished, certain poems that are handed on among readers. Mary Oliver is one of those poets, and this poem one of those poems.

    The Journey

    You do not have to be good.

    You do not have to walk on your knees

    for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body

    love what it loves.

    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

    Meanwhile the world goes on.

    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

    are moving across the landscapes,

    over the prairies and the deep trees,

    the mountains and the rivers.

    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

    are heading home again.

    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

    the world offers itself to your imagination,

    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

    over and over announcing your place

    in the family of things.

  • the presence of the caregiver and the still face

    Part of what Winnicott argues--along with others interested in what has come to be called attachment theory--is that babies come into an awareness of themselves only in the presence of another. But that other must be available to them with consistency and with presence. What happens when the other goes away--either physically or psychically--for extended periods of time?

    This is exactly what Ed Tronick set out to discover when he devised what is now known as "The Still Face Experiment" more than 40 years ago. In the initial experiment, he asked mothers to engage their babies in social interaction for three minutes, to turn away for a moment, and then to turn back with an expressionless, nonresponsive face.

    The effect on the babies was profound. Within seconds of encountering the non-responsive mother, babies first registered a kind of wary surprise, glancing uncomfortably at their mothers, then working hard to re-engage them with behaviors that they had developed in concert with their mothers over these first months of life: smiling, cooing, coughing artificially, reaching towards, and more. Then, when their mothers failed to warm to these bids, babies descended rapidly into distress, registering discomfort vocally, expressively on the face, gesturally, and posturally. These visible changes were accompaied by invisible ones, as blood pressures rose, respiration and heartrate altered, and hormone levels shifted.

    The experiment has been used by researchers to explore a wide variety of hypotheses about babies, learning, and relationships, but here, as we're thinking about attachment, relationship, and the development of the person, we can say that a consistent and responsive mirroring presence is so essential to a baby's wellbeing that without it--in the face of absence--the baby begins to come apart physically and psychologically. (If you like to see the experiment, please go here to view a clip that is narrated by Ed Tronick.)

    And the good news? That this effect can be repaired. Check in in a few weeks to see how.