Finding a Secure Base and Rewiring Your Personality

Learn to take responsibility for your own emotions and create lasting change

Posted Jul 21, 2015

So now you know what your attachment style is, how it affects your thoughts and emotions, and how it manifests in your adult relationships. If you have been reading my posts across the past months, you should also appreciate that all of the attachment styles, even the insecure attachment ones, are the result of positive attempts to cope with less than ideal parenting in your childhood. The only problem is that most of you have moved on from living with your parents and those styles probably don’t work so well in other relationships. Knowing your attachment style and the vulnerabilities and strengths that come with it should give you the freedom to change…but as some of you may have realized, knowledge is not enough.

Your attachment style, and the relationship patterns that come with it, was developed across many years and across innumerable interactions with your childhood caregivers. In other words, you had a lot of practice... so much practice that just like a star athlete your emotional responses and interpersonal “moves” became automatic. So, don’t expect to change your style and rewire your personality in a day. It will take time, practice, and patience.

The overall goal will be to give yourself the developmental experiences that you needed, but lacked, in childhood. It truly is never too late. The art is to create an environment that mimics the childhood environment that fosters secure attachment. The first ingredient then is to find a secure base.

Bowlby (1969, 1982) and many subsequent attachment theorists believed that finding a secure base, perhaps in the person of a supportive teacher, boss, therapist, or romantic partner can provide the corrective experience to rewrite insecure attachment styles in the direction of having secure ones. Ann Masten, a leading resiliency researcher, supported this proposition in her findings that the key factor that fosters resilience in at-risk children is their abilities to find their own mentors in the community (Masten, 2001).

In looking for a secure base you should first consider looking to people who you think have secure styles or those who have gone before you and already done the healing work of changing their insecure styles in the direction of attachment security (termed “earned” secure attachment). It will be more difficult for those with current insecure styles to provide a well-functioning secure base without first doing this work. Remember, the secure base provider should be consistently available, warm, responsive, and also be able to hold you to account (i.e., have firm boundaries and uphold high standards). Twelve-step and other support groups (and even a work group) also can provide these secure-base functions. My personal belief is that this is one of the primary mechanisms of change in 12-step programs (aside from the 12 steps of course).

Keep in mind that in adulthood, no one should be expected to provide a secure base without being asked. People frequently run into problems when they decide that someone should be their secure base, and operate on that assumption, without first assessing if the other person is willing and able to provide that function. The fact is that even the best among us sometimes experience life stressors and time constraints that would make it difficult to be there in a meaningful and authentic way for others. Sometimes people just aren’t available. I don’t know how many times that friends or clients of mine have expressed their sad dismay and frustration about a friend or romantic partner who keeps disappointing them with a lack of support. Usually, this other person was never available, but our friend kept trying to put the person in the secure-base-provision role anyway. The take-home message here is: Don’t keep trying the same thing and expect different results. It’s best to have a direct conversation about the extent to which you can expect another person to be there for you.

Once you have established the other person’s willingness to be there for you as a consistent source of support, you need to determine if they have warmth…that is, if they can show you unconditional positive regard. Don’t get me wrong. Unconditional positive regard does not mean that this person will put up with your unhealthy behaviors or allow you to violate their boundaries. On the contrary, this person should “call you on your stuff” and disagree with you when they think you are off the mark. What unconditional positive regard means is that the person will actively listen and accurately reflect back to you your world view and emotional experience in a way that makes you feel cared for and understood. This person also should be able to go beyond providing a mirror for your experience to provide you with helpful guidance and suggestions as you experiment with your new behaviors and ways of being in the world.

Having a secure base should enable you to explore your emotional experiences and relationship patterns safe in the knowledge that if you meet with setbacks, this person will help pick you up, dust you off, and get you back in the game. Any good therapist will provide this secure-base function for you, but many don’t openly discuss it. In contrast, I openly discuss these processes and dynamics with my clients. After all, my goal as a therapist is to put myself out of work. This means that, in the end, my clients will no longer need me because they will have internalized their own secure base.

Unlike the childhood expectation that parents will never leave, a sad fact of adulthood is that everyone will eventually leave us. People grow in different directions, people get sick, and people grow old and sometimes die. People also have lives of their own, and cannot be there every time we feel anxious or vulnerable. So, we will also have to learn to stand on our own feet.

The good news is that if you have access to a secure base for long enough, you will learn to trust in it and will have memories and experiences of being supported. After a time, you will be able to draw on these memories and experiences to comfort yourself in mild to moderately distressing situations without having to actually contact your real-life secure base. This is known as "symbolic proximity seeking." Another way to look at it is that you have internalized your own secure base.

You also can internalize a secure base through visualization exercises. In pop psychology terms, one way this is accomplished is through “inner child work.” In inner child work, you learn to imagine yourself as a child, including seeing and feeling the situations and emotional experiences you encountered at that time. You then learn to establish a dialogue between your adult self and the “inner child.” The net effect of this should be some partial “re-parenting” of yourself and internalization of a secure base (the child within you using your adult self as the secure base).

Long before I started studying to become a psychologist, I used inner child work substantially to heal from my own childhood experiences and shape my adult outlook on the world.  Many therapists and codependency treatment programs today continue to use this technique and it is common language in12-step programs such Adult Children of Alcoholics and Codependents Anonymous. That having been said, I feel obligated to point out that there is little if any direct research to support the effectiveness of this intervention. I do, however, find indirect support for aspects of the approach coming from Schema Therapy, Narrative Therapy and even Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

The common themes of these empirically supported interventions are:

  • Emotions follow from your thoughts. If you think scary thoughts you will feel distressed and anxious; if you think positive thoughts you will feel more energized and be in a happier mood.
  • Your emotions will be validated in terms of seeing that they are normal and logical…given what you were perceiving and thinking at the time you experienced them. This does not, however, mean that those perceptions, thoughts, emotions and resulting behaviors will work in your adult relationships.
  • With practice, you can learn to change the spontaneous flow of words going through your brain (i.e., your thoughts and internal dialogue). You can do this by:
  1. challenging the logic underlying your negative ideas
  2. coming up with alternative explanations for situations and other people’s behaviors
  3. changing the stories that you tell yourself about the past, the world, and your relationships
  4. continually practicing giving yourself positive and affirming messages and encouragement

This latter point brings positive affirmations into the picture. Many people have the wrong idea about positive affirmations, based in part to their having watched Stuart Smalley (a character played by Al Frankin) on Saturday night live (see clip below).

People seem to think that saying positive affirmations amounts to deluding themselves with overly optimistic and untrue statements. But why is it then that people go around with negative and invalidating words going through their heads all day and they accept this as the gospel truth? Why don’t people view this critical internal voice as an attempt to delude oneself with overly negative and untrue statements? The fact is (as is a primary premise of CBT) that people prone to depression often make negative attributions about themselves, the world, and the future. By extension, writing short, positive self-statements on index cards and reading them (aloud when possible) multiple times each day, should lead to spontaneous positive statements going through your mind (due to over rehearsal that leads to automatic initiation of practiced behaviors).

To summarize, inner child work and revisiting the pain of your childhood is not about blaming your parents, and positive affirmations are no more delusional than the regular critical words that run through your mind. It is important to get clear on what happened in the past so that you can understand how you developed your style of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and behaving (your attachment style) in adulthood. Once you understand where it came from, you can see that your style is normal and you can stop blaming yourself for having it. This, in turn, will give you the freedom to change those aspects of your personality that no longer serve you.  The tools to do this work can be accessed on your own through inner child work and positive affirmations (see John Bradshaw’s book, The Homecoming). Trained therapists can also help you do this work through Schema, Narrative, Cognitive Behavioral (core beliefs), Interpersonal, and various psychodynamic psychotherapies.

Finally, I would like to close with a note about the experience of love. When people feel loved by someone, they often experience feelings of joy and happiness. But stop and ask yourself…where are these feelings of love, joy, and happiness coming from? Do they float across the room or over the telephone line from the other person to enter our bodies? The answer is “no.” These feelings of love come from you. This is strictly my opinion, but I believe that what happens when we think someone else loves us is that we give ourselves permission to love ourselves. So, fear not, you do not have to wait for the love of another to feel joy and happiness. You can do it any time you choose to love you. Try this challenge…go into the bathroom, look at yourself in the eyes with all sincerity, and say “I love you.” If you crack up laughing, think this is totally stupid, or just plain cannot bring yourself to do it, then you may have some work to do.

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