Understanding Attachment

I didn’t have a name for it until I took an Abnormal Psychology class in graduate school: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Suddenly all the fear and anxiety that permeated my childhood home made sense in a way it never had before.  My parents were both in concentration camps as adolescents during World War II: my father, who was born and raised in the Netherlands, was sent to a German labor camp in Austria, and my mother, who was born and raised in Indonesia, (a Dutch colony at that time in history) was imprisoned in a Japanese camp when Japan invaded her country.  I learned that I had developed an insecure attachment to my traumatized parents, whose coping skills were further challenged when they emigrated to the United States after my sister and I were born.

I became determined to understand how to heal my style of relating to people, to develop what attachment theorists call an “earned secure attachment.”  Although I made friends easily, I struggled to maintain long-term relationships.  When conflicts arose, I tended to withdraw or even terminate the relationship rather than try to work through the issues.  I had no conflict resolution skills, nor was I especially attached to any particular friend.  Leaving was easier.  I didn’t miss people when they moved away.  Once I confessed to my therapist that I was afraid I would not have a normal grief response when my aging father passed away. “You can’t miss someone you are not attached to,” he pointed out.  I read every book and attended every conference I could find on healing attachment wounds but continued to struggle with creating an internalized sense of connection to people when they were not in my presence.

At my first Natural LIfemanship Fundamentals Training, I watched the demonstration of connection with the horse through attachment.  I strove to learn the tasks involved in asking for connection:  looking at the horse’s rear to give him a choice, increasing the pressure by raising my body energy, releasing the pressure by stepping back if the horse turned to look at me or better yet, stepped towards me and began to follow.  I had no idea what calm body energy was.  The only time I was aware of my body energy was when I was angry or anxious.  I did become anxious when the horse continued to ignore me throughout the training weekend.  I clapped, clucked, waved my arms, swung a halter rope and even did jumping jacks while my horse resolutely stared away through the rungs of the round pen at the pasture beyond.  I felt dismissed, invisible and rejected.

After the training, I began working with a relatively untrained horse named Nevada in the round pen whenever I had a chance.  I stood in the round pen with her, taking deep breaths, trying to empty my mind of distracting thoughts and identifying and releasing any emotions that might interfere with making a calm, confident request for her to connect with me.  At first, Nevada twitching her ear in my direction felt like a victory.  As I learned to attune to the ways she was communicating with me:  the position of her head, whether her posture was tense or relaxed, whether she ignored or resisted my requests; I noticed that her interest in engagement seemed to correspond to the mood and energy I was bringing into the round pen.  When I was relaxed and calm, connection was much easier than when I arrived with stress or worries from the day.  Still, even when Nevada began to attach quickly and predictably on my first request, while I enjoyed the experience of walking together, and the way she would rest her head in the small of my back, blowing her warm breath on my neck, I didn’t actually “feel” something change in my body the way other people described when they were connected with their horse.  I wondered if my attachment wounds were too deeply etched to ever completely heal. I wondered if having mastered “how” to achieve attachment with my horse was as good as it was going to get for me.

Then one day I was out in the pasture catching horses to bring to the round pens for another training.  I was buckling the halter on one of the mares when I sensed a presence behind me and felt a warmth permeate through my body.  I stood still, marveling at the experience of a peaceful calm radiating from my heart.  I knew without turning around who was waiting behind me:  Nevada.  I truly felt the connection with her for the first time.  I hadn’t even asked her for it.  It was her gift to me.  I realized that I had become so focused on the “task” of building connection, so concerned with getting the steps right in order to achieve the “right result,” that I had completely missed the relational component of connection with Nevada.  When I wasn’t trying so hard to do it right, with all the performance pressure that entails, I was able to experience an attachment connection to my four-legged friend by simply being present in the moment, open to her offer of friendship.

Looking back, I realize how I let my fear of being too damaged, and my fear of failing at being able to create attachment with my horse interfere with just letting the process flow from my inner core, where my desire for relationship and a recognition that I was worthy and valuable enough to ask for connection could come from my heart, instead of a compartmentalized set of rules and tasks in the neocortex of my brain, completely separate from those helpful cross brain connections between the brain stem, diencephalon, and limbic system.  Only when I was connected to myself could I truly connect to Nevada.

Photo of Nevada courtesy of Spirit Reins.