So, you have been reading articles on attachment and realize that you have an insecure attachment style. Now what? People readily see the parts of their styles that are maladaptive and lead to problems in relationships. In order to help people adapt, compensate, and cope with their styles (and those of their friends and family), I have previously (in past posts) described how to:
- Cope with emotions and use them as data
- Tolerate other people’s behaviors
- Choose more supportive environments
- Keep yourself from getting emotionally hijacked
Now I am going to present some ways for you to begin rewiring your emotional system and changing your schema, or roadmaps, for what you expect to happen in relation to other people (i.e., your attachment style).
In order to make the most use of this discussion, we first need to cover some material on how the brain works. Have you ever heard that we use only 10 percent of our brains? Well, that is patently false. We use all of our brains most of the time. What the statement really means is that relatively little of our brains is directly involved in what we would consider conscious processing. Most of our brain processes are automatic and are carried out below the level of our conscious awareness. For example, if someone throws a ball at your head, your hand will automatically rise in an effort to catch or block the ball without you having to consciously plan the movement.
The physiological components of the emotional systems similarly operate below the level of conscious awareness. Human emotions are, for the most part, governed by an area of the brain called the limbic system. One of the primary structures implicated in emotional responses, attachment processes, and emotion-laden memories is the amygdala.
We can use our knowledge of how the amygdala works to shape our own personalities.
The amygdala is an automatic processor and storehouse of emotional memories. When information comes into your brain from your senses, it goes to a relay station called the thalamus. The thalamus sends this information to two places: to your cortex for conscious processing (i.e., you can think about what just happened) and directly to the amygdala for a quick determination of whether the incoming information represents a threat. The amygdala is a “dirty” processor. Its primary job is to make a yes/no decision: threat or no threat. And depending on your attachment style and the sensitivity of your emotional system coming out of childhood, a threat could be the possible loss of a job, real physical threats, raised voices, a potentially rejecting facial expression, or even things that are so subtle you don’t consciously recognize them.
Irrespective of the sources, if a threat is determined, the amygdala triggers an adrenaline release. The amygdala can trigger an adrenaline release before the cortex even has a chance to consciously process what happened. The cortex then makes its own determination about the nature of the threat, and if it agrees that action is warranted, it sends a second message to the amygdala that a threat is present.
Even without an external trigger, your cortex can send threat signals to your amygdala.
Most of us can bring to mind unpleasant or disturbing memories, or we can imagine scary situations that will trigger an emotional reaction. In this case, we are having an emotional reaction to a memory or imagined event that is not actually occurring in the present. Some of us also have daydreamed of achievement and success, or love, or other experiences that can bring positive emotions. The point here is that what our emotional systems respond to is incoming data, but these systems do not care where that data is coming from (real situation or imagination). Because of this, emotional experiences can be modified intentionally by using your imagination and your own voice and words.
Imagined events can result in the creation of new positive memories.
Take a moment to imagine a dream that you had some time in the past. What you have is a memory of an event that never happened. You literally dreamed it. Taken along with our discussion of emotions, this means that you can intentionally lay down new memories along with associated emotions.
New memories and emotions literally rewire your brain. The brain is very adaptable. Those connections that you use a lot get strengthened. Those that you don’t use get pruned away and weakened. So, if you have been stuck in a cycle of recalling painful memories or imagining anxiety-provoking interactions or heartbreak, these circuits will be well established and readily triggered.
It is time to reverse this trend by solidifying the positive pathways and weakening the negative, anxiety-provoking ones. Repeated positive imaginal experience paired with positive emotions will lay down new memories and activate the pleasure centers in your brain.
Change is not easy. It involves sustained regular practice. Here are some ideas:
1. Write positive affirmation cards on 3x5 index cards. Read them to yourself (preferably out loud) as often as possible.
A positive affirmation is a short, positive statement, like “I am lovable,” or “I am a worthwhile person.” In the beginning, it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not.
If you are like many people, you have had a steady stream of negative thoughts running through your head for years. These negative “tapes” play in the background like nagging chatter. By reading your affirmation cards often, you will simply be recording a new tape.
If you don’t think that repetition results in new tapes being recorded, consider this: I can sing the Pepsi commercial song from 1976 word for word. I recite the Life Cereal commercial word for word (“Hey Mikey!”). Why are these ads permanently emblazoned in my mind, even though I never tried or wanted to remember them? One reason: sheer repetition. It’s time to record a new jingle!
2. Learn to talk to yourself and be your own positive motivational coach.
Many of us have been criticizing ourselves for years without restraint. When you do this, you are strengthening negative, anxiety-provoking pathways. You must simply refuse to criticize yourself. Don’t worry; it is doubtful that you will overcorrect and become a deluded narcissist. And the world is harsh enough without your help.
Practice saying things like: “I can do this; I’m as skilled as anyone else in this room”; “No one knows I’m anxious”; “I’m going to do great.” Researchers have found that people who are hopeful and optimistic about the future use positive self-talk while engaging in challenging tasks.
Learn to talk to yourself. Believe it or not, many people report that they do not think in words. If you are going to learn to control your thoughts and think on purpose, you will need to know how to talk to yourself. Here is a tool:
Do a narrated walk. Start while you are still in your house. Say everything (out loud if you can) that you see and experience: “I’m getting up and walking over to the door. One, two, three, four steps. I’m putting my hand on the doorknob. It’s cold. I’m walking outside. It's bright out, but still a bit chilly…”
3. Do mirror work.
Go into a room where you will have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Look at yourself in the mirror. Look right into your eyes, and as genuinely as you can, say, “I love you.”
The first time I did this, I couldn’t hold a straight face or keep from laughing. Now, I can look into my own eyes, say this with the utmost sincerity, and have it feel perfectly warm and natural.
Try it. Remember, your emotional system only knows incoming data. It doesn’t know where the data is coming from. Your emotional system will recognize that someone is looking at you and saying, “I love you.” You will be creating a new memory.
People have a wide range of reactions to this task, and I have some clients who can never bring themselves to do it. But look at it this way: If it is meaningless and silly, then why would it be so hard for you to do it?
4. Do imaginal inner child work using creative visualization.
People who have secure styles have a warehouse of memories of people being there to hold and support them through challenges. All told, these memories combine into what can be viewed as an “internalized secure base.” In mild to moderately distressing times, securely attached individuals do not have to reach out for a real person. They can validate and comfort themselves, up-regulate their own emotions, and get themselves going again.
If you are one of the 45 percent who did not get enough secure base memories ingrained in childhood, you can create some new memories now. Obviously, you can use a real secure person as a base if that person happens to be in your life. But if not, then all you have is yourself . . . and that’s good enough.
Get comfortable, relaxed, and ready to do a short meditation. Close your eyes. Imagine seeing yourself as a young child. Often it helps to see your child sitting outside in a meadow. Introduce yourself as the future you. Tell the child that you made it. You grew up. Then tell the child that you have come to love them. That you will always be there for them. That you will never leave them. Listen to see how the child responds. If the child will let you (and they might not at first), hug them. And if it doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up! Keep coming back. After all, you promised that you will always be there.
This is just a sample of the kind of imaginal exercises you can do. For those interested in taking this further, I recommend John Bradshaw’s book, The Homecoming. For more resources on understanding the neurology of your emotional system (in understandable English), I recommend Joseph LeDoux’s books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self.