Counseling, Attachment Therapy, and Healing: A Therapist’s Perspective
“I believe, in the fall, we shed like the trees.” This thought floated into my awareness of the moving pavement, the brilliant fall colors brought into shining glory by the sunlight. Suddenly my run was more than just exercise.
I immediately thought about my clients and why they come to counseling.
I also have been very aware of the effect of the change of seasons on my body and mood. “Seasonal Affective Disorder” is the name for this condition, especially when the results are depressed mood, low energy, wanting to sleep, not really caring about what once was called important. People come to counseling to shed leaves like the trees in autumn, like the sunflower that grows, tall and bright, then spills its seeds onto the ground. What falls away and dies makes way for new growth.
When these thoughts occurred on my run this morning, I felt all kinds of emotions breaking forth and coming up to the surface. The world is heartbreakingly beautiful, if we let it be.
Through surfacing, feeling, and letting go of painful memories, thoughts and associations, we too die, in a sense, spilling our seeds to the ground. And we, too, make way for new growth.There is a scene in John, Chapter 3. Nicodemus, a teacher of the Jewish law, visits Jesus by torchlight. Jesus tells him in this scene “Unless you be born again, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” This raises an important and relevant question: what must die in us in order to make way for the full expression of this new birth? How does what we know actually change us?
I believe counseling is a way of entering into this process. First of all, we enter willingly. I know there are situations where people are forced into care for their own safety or the safety of others. I am not talking about that here. Instead, I am talking about the way I run my practice, into which people come, voluntarily, for…something.
What are people who are coming to counseling looking for? I believe healing, change, new life breathed into old situations. Those arguments we keep having. The thoughts that won’t go away. The prolonged and painful distance between my partner and me. My fear of going “too deep” with another person.
Although our stories vary, we all long for connection, healing and growth.
This weekend I will enter a training sequence for Lifespan Integration Therapy. I am just starting to learn, not having yet really plumbed the depths of the theory. And yet, depths are being plunged. For example, who was I when I was 5? What happened early on that changed me? How did it change me?
LI proposes that the places we go when “triggered” or provoked are old versions of ourselves. If something bad enough happens when we are 5, there is a part of us that gets stuck as a 5 year old. This also means that we can become a younger version of ourselves during stressful times, like arguments and traffic.
I remember taking my first training with my wife to become foster parents. It was there that we learned that a person can be a physical age of 19, but might be a 15-year-old when it comes to intelligence, and an emotional age of 5. This is especially true for those who have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect.
Some of my clients have resonated in session with my description of what it is like to get angry in an argument, then speak out of that anger. It’s like there is this other person getting ready to say something hurtful, and I am in there, too. But I’m not the one speaking. I am saying “no” to the one about to speak, but they don’t listen. And I watch, as the words pour out of my mouth. Destroying my partner with words. Deeply judging, and not caring lest I be judged.
Who is the person who watches, and who is the person who speaks? Do we know ourselves well enough to know this? What identity am I choosing when I lash out at my partner?
Perhaps more importantly, especially from the standpoint of someone considering counseling, is the question of what makes counseling “work.” What is it that happens in a session that one cannot get from a book, a podcast, or Youtube?
The answer is interpersonal interaction – real time relating in the therapeutic setting.
Let me get something out of the way up front, here. Real-time relating in the therapeutic setting, in my experience, can happen online or in-person. Sure, there are qualitative differences, but the overlap is large enough to support the claim that therapy “works” in both contexts, all else being stable.
One of my professors in graduate school was fond of telling us that it really doesn’t matter how many techniques we know, or what they are. Perhaps, he said, the most important thing about any particular therapist is how it feels to be alone in a room with them for an hour.
This speaks to the point: it is the relationship between the therapist and the client that is the single-greatest driver of therapeutic progress, or the lack of it.
Attachment theory has grown a lot in the past few decades. We now know that what happens in the formative years of our lives shapes the way we relate to any other human being moving forward. When a person who has experienced trauma (of any kind or severity) enters therapy, a relationship between the client and the therapist immediately begins to form.
Therapy is not just about information, but processing. And it’s not just about processing, but transformation. Transformation of relationships, present and future (and even past!) happens in the room through the interpersonal interactions that are happening in that space.
I’ve seen people learn how to have conversations for the first time after being married for thirty years. I’ve seen the lights come on around long-held beliefs about self and other, redefining what the relationship means moving forward. Through the therapeutic process and dialogical exchanges that occur in that space, we heal and change.
When a couple comes into my office for the first time, I ask them how old they are. Let’s say the report comes back: 35 and 33 years old. Then I ask them how old they were when they met. They tell me, for example, 24 and 23 years old.
I then tell them: that is 24 and 23 years, respectively, of past relationships, traumas, significant events and life experiences. I then tell them “if you think what you are experiencing in this relationship is coming just from the person across from you, you are probably working with an incomplete picture of reality.”
Let me note here, because this is very important: I believe a therapist should definitely not simply make such an assumption that both people in the relationship are contributing to a problem when there is active addiction, abuse, or infidelity occurring in the relationship. These circumstances must be stabilized before any relationship coaching or counseling occurs, or therapy cannot be expected to be successful.
At the same time, I think it safe to say that attachment is eventually at the root of all types of relational dysfunction, regardless of what is happening, and regardless of severity.
There are different schools of thought with regard to what attachment therapy is. For me, it is the real-time healing of trauma of all sorts.
As healing occurs, the old versions of self begin to fall away, like leaves from the trees in fall. Sometimes the colors are amazing. Sometimes they are brown and dead. Attachment therapy can be and should be the space in which healing and integration occur.
If you or someone you know could possibly benefit from spending time with a qualified therapist, please pray, think, and then reach out. The journey of healing is waiting for you to begin.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Antolick, Copyright 2021; All rights reserved.