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The Heart of Confidence

How irrelationship feeds on insecurity and undermines self-confidence.

Compassion is the foundation of self-confidence. It’s quite clear: those people who have more compassionate feeling…that brings self-confidence—The Dalai Lama

“I’ve always thought of myself as so damned self-confident. When I’d look back on some of the hard stuff I went through as a kid, I’d think, Yeah, that was rough, but it sure did toughen me up. I bought into that picture of myself. If anybody tried to tell me different, I’d put them down. And it could get pretty ugly, but that didn’t stop me: I wasn’t about to look at how I affected others—especially their feelings. I was too much of a tough guy for that. That was their problem. And I guess that’s a part of how I got where I am—no idea how to connect—really connect—with someone else. Even Jill, who I thought I loved.”

Max was describing what it was like for him to discover that he wasn’t the “all that” he’d always told himself he was. This was just the beginning of finding out that the “all that” protected Max from Max even more than from anybody else.

While high-functioning people may appear emotionally sturdy, people in irrelationship have so battened down the hatches of their emotional lives that all they have succeeded in doing is concealing what researchers and psychoanalysts call an insecure attachment style (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969). This façade they’ve created often proves to be an overcompensation intended to deflect attention—theirs and others’—from anxiety they’ve suffered all their lives as a result of ineffective parental caregiving. As one might expect, such façades are usually easily exposed for what they are.

The perspective of Max’s wife Jill was the perfect complement to his delusions. In fact, he was just what she wanted.

“It was easy for me to just step out of the way and let the way Max saw himself—and me—work its magic. He was constantly reminding me about how insecure I was, and that he was always willing to ‘do anything to help you.’ In fact, it kind of feels now as if my needing him that way was a requirement if he was going to marry me.

“Another funny thing was that he talked a lot—bragged, really—about how self-confident he was, thanks to his awful childhood. But our childhoods really weren’t all that different. Somehow, though, he always found a way to spin things so that his willingness to marry me looked like he was doing me a big fat favor. Funny, Max never seemed to think or talk about what marrying me did for him.

“Well, for me it worked for quite awhile. So I just kept my mouth shut and let him have his ego-trip so he’d leave me alone.”

Max and Jill both grew up in households where their parents weren’t around very much, so the care and looking after they received as kids was, in large part, hired—making them fully fledged members of so-called "Nanny Nation." Such households often fail to meet childhood needs that are crucial to secure personality development. The result: both Max and Jill were left to act out in ways that shocked their parents, neighbors and even some of their peers. They were also so hostile to the school environment that they were in trouble often. As they grew older and their sphere of activity increased, the trouble they got into reached into their communities.

The result was crippling—so much so that neither Jill nor Max’s parents had a clue how to deal with them. So they didn’t. Instead they scapegoated them for everything that went wrong in their families. Max remembers one school principal referring to him as a “sub-optimal” child, while Jill recalled one exasperated teacher telling Jill that she was “just a waste of my time.”

When Max and Jill met and married, of course they took their insecure attachment style into their marriage. They quickly learned to scapegoat one another for things that went wrong with their marriage as well as their individual lives. This stance provided them all the “space” they needed to avoid developing a mutually trusting relationship with each other. That space was vital as growing up, both Jill and Max had learned that relying on others was the set-up for disappointment, betrayal and failure. Yet, on an unconscious level, they already knew “too much” about each other. Without realizing it, each had picked up on cues that allowed them to recognize in the other an ability to be empathetic and a lonely longing to be loved. Those cues served a dual purpose; creating mutual attraction and making alarms go off. They knew that, no matter how fascinated they might each be with the other, the threat of caring, empathy and allowing each to be occupied by the other must be kept in check at all costs. This severe ground rule proved to be the ironical foundation for Jill and Max’s clinging tightly to their irrelationship.

Now let’s look more closely at what we mean by insecure attachment style, i.e., the dynamic behind Jill and Max’s irrelationship. What exactly does the phrase mean?

According to attachment theory, we all learn how to relate to the world based on the contact we had with our closest caregivers—usually our parents—when we were very small. We bring how we related to them with us into future relationships. The greater the intimacy implied by subsequent relationships, the more crucial the operation of our attachment style becomes.

Attachment styles are generally classified as either secure or insecure (avoidant or anxious), depending on both the quality of caregiving, empathic or not, that occurred between child and caregiver, as well as innate factors with which the child is born - and the fit between the child and the caregiver's attachment styles (just to make it even more complex!) (Bowlby, 1958). Those with a secure attachment style develop an inner secure “base” early in life which allows them to remain essentially grounded during emotional disruptions or even during severe life crises. They’re able to allow themselves to feel emotions and upsets without becoming deeply disturbed and resume equilibrium relatively quickly.

In contrast, the person with insecure attachment style will often experience the normal ups and downs of life as so anxiety provoking, they manage them by dismissing or avoiding them.

Since one can’t pick and choose the parts of the emotional spectrum to be kept at a distance, blocking of distressing emotional experiences results in an inability to field spontaneous emotional experience, be it positive or negative. This includes the ability to experience empathy, live with compassion or to fall in love.

Is your experience with early caregivers the last word? Are people in irrelationship doomed to a life of keeping others “at a safe distance” and never sharing an intimate relationship?

That doesn’t seem to be what attachment theorists believe or what clinical practice has taught us. Developing an “earned secure attachment” is entirely in the cards. One must be willing to look at their histories and do the work of clearing away the confusion about others and ourselves.

Below is the formula we’ve developed to “earn” secure attachment:

  1. DISCOVERY of the nature of your attachment style. This usually means that feelings of anxiety that you’re defended against have begun breaking into your consciousness or functioning to the point that you’re no longer able to ignore them.
  2. REPAIR (Interactive)—accepting that an insecure attachment style has been sustained through isolation from oneself and from others allows us to join with others and work together to repair relationship issues/problems—we recognize that repairing all relationship issues will require participation by another person.
  3. EMPOWERMENT that comes from an honest assessment of our own contributions to what has and has not worked in our relationships and becoming determined to put those traits and tactics aside.
  4. ALTERNATIVES—i.e., learning new ways of thinking about and relating to others. This comes about largely by unconditional acceptance of the rationale that drove our behaviors and accepting our own story as well as that of our partners; and then committing to developing honest, open and secure ways or relating.
  5. MUTUALITY—that is, sharing the process of building intimacy through learning to give and to receive with no strings attached.

Jill and Max committed to this process. Over time they became able to drop their guard with one another and to reveal and relate to each other in ways they’d never experienced. This opening allowed them to see that qualities that attracted them to one another were also perceived as intolerable threats. Max became able to articulate that “admitting my own part in our problems was a leap of faith, and it scared the daylights out of me. But doing it let me see how similar we were. That’s what is becoming the heart of the confidence that we are building with each other.”

Jill added, “We turned accepting our similarities into a chance for empathizing with one another rather than something to make us run away. At first it went against everything I—we—had learned in past relationships. But for us it’s become the whole possibility of, well, making love!”


Ainsworth, M. (1973). The Development of Infant-Mother Attachment.” In B. Cardwell & H. Ricciuti (Eds.) Review of Child Development Research (Vol. 3, pp. 1-94) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The Nature of the Child’s Tie to his Mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Bowlby J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. New York: Basic Books.

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