Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Healing attachment wounds by being cared for and caring for others

By Adele Baruch and Ashley Higgins October 29, 2020

Those who work with individuals who have been traumatized have noted the need for these clients to reestablish connection to their own internal worlds. In these cases, clients often become frozen or, depending on the depth of trauma and the immediate response to that trauma, have an outwardly focused, hypervigilant, fight-or-flight approach to their experiences.

Cases of troubled attachment are based in this kind of fight-or-flight response, whether it is rooted in large T trauma (i.e., catastrophic accident or abuse) or small t trauma (i.e., multiple experiences with neglect or mistreatment). This leads to an inability for these clients to securely attach to others.

Building safety via action-based attunement

In cases of troubled attachment, the first task in counseling is to build safety through a focus on empathic, attuned responses associated with the client’s primary pathway of learning (for more, see David Mars and the Center for Transformative Therapy Training Center).

In a chapter titled “The creative connection: A Holistic expressive arts process” in the book Foundations of Expressive Arts Therapy (1999), Natalie Rogers defined empathy as “perceiving the world through the other person’s eyes, ears, and heart.” She noted that this understanding is conveyed through both our words and body language: “The body language, although usually unconsciously given and received … offers a sense of safety and comfort.” As we offer this opportunity for empathic co-regulation, we concurrently engage grounding approaches to enable a return to safety if anxiety is too high.

Along with grounding approaches, it is often useful to initiate action-based responses that are shared by the counselor to promote collaboration and attunement. These can range from the very simple to the more complex.

The following are offered as examples:

  • Expressive arts: Both the client and counselor respond to a piece of music with line and color. Then each person can respond to the other person’s artwork through line and color. Notice that there is no interpreting of the art experience, only the sharing of a visual response to music, and then sharing one’s experience of that response.
  • Breathwork: The counselor may model and practice basic and simple breathwork alongside the client to help the client access more internal quiet and space.
  • Role-plays: Engaging in simple role-plays can offer alternative action-based responses to challenging interpersonal situations

The choice of action-based approaches will depend on the needs and inclinations of the client, but these approaches are all in the service of conveying empathy and expanding interpersonal resonance. As Allan Schore (2013), a neuroscientist who has looked at brain activity during attachment experiences, would describe it, these approaches create opportunities for right brain to right brain communication (the foundation of attachment experiences).

As the client and counselor create together with these practices, the client builds a repertoire of action-based responses. The client may then begin to engage some of these action-based responses when triggered by a reminder of a traumatic event. This increases the client’s sense of internal safety.

Building resilience via attachment rupture and repair

Once safety is developed along with basic attunement and the capacity to choose constructive action, there is an opportunity to build a more robust and mature attachment via the counseling relationship. This can be achieved through a process of both intentional and unintentional rupture and repair of that attachment bond developed in counseling.

In her book chapter “Dyadic Regulation and Experiential Work With Emotion and Relatedness in Trauma and Disorganized Attachment” (originally published in Healing Trauma: Attachment, Trauma, the Brain, and the Mind, 2003), Diana Fosha articulated the way that counselors may, with great care, begin to interpret and confront with the expectation that this may create temporary ruptures in empathy. This empathy can be carefully repaired and restored in session through the articulation of feeling and the expression of understanding. A hypothetical example:

Counselor: “I wonder if you returned to your medical books with such great fervor last week because your partner has been asking for increased intimacy, and that is scary for you.”

This confrontation may be experienced as a temporary break in empathy, but if the counselor and client can sense and articulate the client’s immediate experience during that break, it can lead to a deeper understanding of that experience. That deeper understanding may lead to a more mature connection and, potentially, to the experience of a return to empathic attunement. These experiences, over and over again, may become internalized, leading to a more empathic connection to the client’s internal self.

Client: “When you say that, I feel like you are trying to push me to experience things I am not ready to experience after my last horrible relationship. You don’t really care about me. … You just want to see me move on.”

Counselor: “I hear you saying that my view about using your studies to keep a distance feels as if I am pushing you, and that feels as if I don’t understand how scary that is. Do I have that right?”

Client: “Yes, that’s right. You don’t really understand how scary it is.”

Counselor: “Can you tell me more about how scary it is?”

The repair may not occur immediately, but with careful listening, engagement and articulation, the feelings of fear and vulnerability may become more accessible. That experience makes a repair of empathic breaks caused (both intentionally and unintentionally) in a mature relationship inevitable. As Fosha explained, the experience of repair, in the context of confrontation and deeper understanding, provides evidence that differences or misunderstandings may eventually result in deeper connection.

This experience can lay the groundwork for both a greater capacity and patience for real-world attachments, as well as greater internalized empathy. Through this, the client experiences more ruptures and the relational commitment necessary for repair. 

Building self-regulation via emotional flexibility

In addition to internalized empathy, resilience in attachment ruptures and repair also creates a sense of safety — safety to dwell near emotions and to work to translate vague sensations to words. This requires the development of a sense of “unconditional friendliness,” as John Welwood has described it (Toward a Psychology of Awakening), toward the emotions that come up during rupture and repair. As counselors, we model this friendliness to emotions when they come, both during periods of attunement and during experiences of rupture.

As clients become more experienced with the naming of feelings in both easy and difficult interpersonal situations, this encourages greater self-reflection. With practice, this leads to a “self” system capable of modulating a range of affects, with emotions that may be integrated into adaptive responses.

Schore noted in Affect Regulation and the Repair of Self (2003) that through this process of self-regulation, the client “develops the ability to flexibly regulate emotional states through interactions with other people.” It is through this increased flexibility in the expression of emotion that the client can productively practice emotional regulation in the real world.

Building agency via helping others

It is very useful for clients to see themselves not only as the one who is helped but also as one who helps others. George Vaillant reminds us that it is not so helpful to give into the understandable wish to “mother” or “father” our clients, as it is important for them to develop and internalize their own “parenting” capacities with others.

Often, clients who have been traumatized multiple times become frozen in the role of “helpee,” but by helping, they are developing an active response to others, often in the face of anxiety. Action in the face of triggered anxiety creates new neural pathways for responses to triggering events (as detailed in “A call to action” Overcoming anxiety through active coping” by Joseph LeDoux and Jack Gorman).

Additionally, as clients listen to and fashion adaptive responses to others, they further practice emotional flexibility and regulation. It is wonderful to exercise a developing sense of self with an empathic counselor; it can be even more rewarding to exercise these abilities with someone who may not have as much to give and who might challenge and stretch our adaptive responses — within reason. Early entry into the community as helpers and participants is often best done in a supportive environment, such as a peer support group or a well-structured community initiative or a learning environment.

Helping and prosocial behaviors foster more confidence in helping. Ervin Staub cites multiple studies that show that children and adults become more helpful once they start helping. This increased comfort with helping is generally positively received in peer milieus, and the person helping experiences a sense of being valued — and, if all goes well, a sense of community.

We suggest that the ability to practice responding, in a helpful, emotionally regulated way in the real world, is as important as counseling is on the path toward mature attachment.

Four examples of helping opportunities

The following are four brief examples of milieu settings that provide opportunities to help and observe others, as well as to articulate feelings that develop while participating. 

Example 1: Roots of Empathy

Schools in Canada and New Zealand have developed a program for young children called the Roots of Empathy. In this program, a group of children is selected to host a parent-baby dyad in their room each month. Before each visit, the class prepares for the new developmental stage of the baby and the dyad. During each visit, children are encouraged to closely observe the way that the baby communicates, almost always with an open-hearted curiosity to their surroundings, and how the parent reads their baby’s needs.

After the visit, the children participate in discussions, artwork, drama and journal writing about what was learned. The natural generosity of children is expressed when they use art, music and drama to present gifts to the baby and parent. The visits continue one time per month throughout the year.

In this context, difficult questions arise, such as, “What if you were once a bully?” and “If no one ever really loved you, can you still be a good father?” As the children discuss observations of the parent-child dyad, they gain insight into their own emotions and those of others, leading to greater empathy.

David was 9 years old and had a form of autism. His parents shared with the program leader that David had never been invited to a birthday party by any of his classmates until the year that Roots of Empathy came to his classroom. That year, he was invited to three birthday parties. (For more, read Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child by Mary Gordon.) 

Example 2: The Courage and Moral Choice Project

A program focused on the cultivation of empathy for older adolescents is the Courage and Moral Choice Project, developed in our Maine schools. With this project, students listened to stories of helping under catastrophic conditions, such as during Hurricane Katrina. They participated in group discussion after hearing these stories, where they were able to share their own stories of times when they, or someone in their neighborhood or family, took a risk to help someone.

Students were encouraged to express their own stories, and the stories of others, through art, song, essays and poetry. Those works were shared with the larger community at a school board meeting and a university conference. After presenting at a conference, one student approached a second student involved in the presentation and apologized for harassing and bullying her during her earlier years of school. The second student forgave the first student and expressed understanding that those years were rough ones for both of them.

Example 3: Active bystander training

Many student life programs have established active bystander training to support university students in preparing to step up when they see a peer harassed or bullied. Ervin Staub originally developed active bystander training for schools and government agencies to prevent a sense of isolation should an individual experience a violation.

The training promotes a sense of awareness on the part of community members, but more powerfully, it suggests a pathway to a sense of agency should a person experience the pain of knowing a friend or community member is being targeted.

Example 4: Transformative Couples Therapy

One final example of integrating attachment cultivated in counseling work and connection in natural support systems is David Mars’ transformative couples therapy (TCT). TCT is an approach to couples work in which partners may deepen their attachment to each other by providing empathic support as they work through the unexpressed feelings from experiences that may have left them in fight-or-flight mode. TCT offers examples of how prior individual counseling work may be augmented in a collaborative environment.

These opportunities are mentioned to provide examples of the kinds of programs that encourage empathic connections, self-expression, listening and a sense of agency. These integrated experiences support the work done in counseling toward the development of the capacity for mature attachment.

Conclusion

When working with individuals who have experienced either “small t” or “large T” trauma, it is essential to engage them in action-based responses that provide a healing alternative to the fight, flight or freeze reaction. Building agency in the form of fostering connections to their inner world (via safety developed through grounding and attunement) and outer world (via repaired ruptures in therapeutic alliance, and engaging as the “helper”) is critical.

For the client to establish connection to their inner world, safety is built in a therapeutic alliance focused on empathic, attuned responses and action-based grounding techniques. This allows for the clinician to challenge the client, creating mild ruptures in empathy that can be repaired to build a more mature attachment through the return to empathic attunement. These breaks and repairs provide practice for a greater capacity and patience in real-world situations. Greater patience increases clients’ empathy and connection to their internal world and an internalized safety to sit with uncomfortable sensations and experiences, thus increasing both internal and external resilience and agency.

In tandem to building internal resolve, balance provides the client the ability to further increase their agency. This is best accomplished by encouraging the client (the person originally helped) to help others in the context of a well-structured environment. With the balance of being “the one helped” and “the helper,” the client develops and internalizes their “parenting” ability, allowing individuation from being the “parented.”

Greater internal and external connection and competence heals attachment wounds both inside and outside of the clinician’s office.

 

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Adele Baruch chairs and is an associate professor in the University of Southern Maine’s counselor education department. She practiced couples and individual counseling for 15 years before starting to teach. She has focused her scholarship on healthy adaptation and has developed an action research project on courage and moral choice in Maine. Contact her at adele.baruchrunyon@maine.edu.

Ashley Higgins is a clinical counselor at the Glickman Family Center for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Spring Harbor Hospital in southern Maine. As a licensed professional counselor, her primary areas of clinical interest include integrative and strengths-based modalities for treating attachment trauma; family systems; and wilderness therapies. Contact her at amhiggins@mainebehavioralhealthcare.org

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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