Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
George was missing. The Disneyland hotel bed was crisply made but my sister’s security bear, loved and nuzzled into a sheepskin sphere with one weird glass eye, had vanished. A frantic call later, the smiling concierge appeared and placed a freshly laundered koala blob back into the waiting arms, and heart, of a tiny blonde girl. She slept, content, wrapped around her fuzzy friend.
It’s endearing, isn’t it, when a child needs a stuffed toy to feel safe. Until the tantrums start and the kid can’t calm themselves without it. We adults are no different. Hey, we all want to feel safe and secure. That’s why we fall in love. Except sometimes falling in love makes us feel scared, not safe, and we act like a nutcase—wracked with insecurity and fears. Why? Well, our first real safe place was not with our bear, it was with our parent, and that early relationship exerts a giant influence on how we connect as grown-ups.
Research says the kind of attention we receive from our caretaking adult(s) in our first two years determines whether we feel predominantly safe with closeness—in psychology speak, securely attached—or not. Secure attachment, which about half of people have, has been shown to increase the ability to feel comfortable with vulnerability and to regulate emotional reactions when there are bumps on the romantic road. Successful adult relationships take more than kissing George until leather shows through his wool. They require the ability to manage stress, be aware of feelings, calm down, and engage meaningfully.
But just like when George got thrown out with the sheets, even great parents can be absent in ways that make the world seem unpredictable. This can create an insecure attachment style. The problem is that the 45% of people with insecure attachment—I’m one of them—may seek to create a sense of safety in their relationships in dysfunctional ways. Perhaps you know someone (and odds are pretty high that someone is you) who tends to smother their spouse with jealous demands and desperate needs for reassurance. Instead of feeling safe in love, they feel a gut-clench of fear when their sweetie mentions how much they admire the nattily dressed colleague they lunched with today.
By bringing non-judgmental, present moment awareness to the old fears that attack when we’re triggered, we can learn to self-soothe and respond skillfully. We can build an inner George to calm us when we fall into the emotional abyss.
If half the world is insecurely attached, how can love possibly flourish? Well, when it comes to attachment wounds in adult relationships, mindfulness may be able to fix what’s broken. According to neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas, we can rewire our brain for love using mindfulness practices to break out of early attachment patterns. By bringing non-judgmental, present moment awareness to the old fears that attack when we’re triggered, we can learn to self-soothe and respond skillfully. We can build an inner George to calm us when we fall into the emotional abyss.
What might this look like? Let’s say I’m freaking out inside because my partner hasn’t responded to my calls. Once I see what my mind is doing I can tell myself that my anxious feelings are based on knee-jerk memories but that my current fears are not real. I can then apply self-compassion, being kind to myself and holding my vulnerabilities gently. I can soothe my adrenaline-flooded body by relaxing my jaw and tongue, giving feedback through the vagus nerve to the parasympathetic nervous system that everything is okay and fight/ flight isn’t needed. I can recall security-priming memories of how safe and loved I feel when my man wraps himself around me, engulfing me in his good intentions. And then I can prevent myself from screaming the equivalent of “where’s my bear I need my bear waaaahhh!!” at my mate.
We are vulnerable creatures, we humans. In the act of exposing our heart and hopes, we also expose our fears and fragility. But we need not be slaves to the past, or to the external love object, be it bear or spouse. We can deliberately develop a more secure sense of attachment, training our mind to become a place of security, safety, and warm fuzzy reassurance simply by paying attention to now, not then.
This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Mindful magazine.