The Preoccupied Attachment Dilemma

No Room for a Mind of One’s Own

The Preoccupied Dilemma

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The Preoccupied Attachment Style

The first of the insecure attachment styles that we are going to discuss in adulthood is Preoccupied attachment.  The result of preoccupied caregiving is the child having an over-involvement and identification with the parents state of mind.  Parental responsiveness is inconsistent.  This could be for several reasons; perhaps the parents have demanding careers which take them away from the necessary attunement needed at a young age.  Perhaps the caregiver struggles with an addiction, or the mother and father are in a stressed relationship with regular arguments and fights.   These are just examples of ways that could create the dynamic of caregivers being only inconsistently available.  The child must learn what to do (or what not to do) in order to get its needs met.  Sometimes they learn to throw a temper tantrum as the only way of getting attention. 

Preoccupied parents have a chronic misattunement to the exploratory system in the child.  Exploration is a perceived threat, as it takes the child away from the needs of the parent.  The child is expected to regulate the parent’s state of mind, and thus becomes chronically hypervigilant to the state of mind of others.  As the anxious/resistant child grows into adulthood, now a preoccupied adult, there remains an inhibition in their exploratory behavior which interferes with healthy self development. On the AAI, Preoccupied parents were deeply absorbed in their own troubles and concerns about attachment.  The interviews were excessive, confused, angry, or passive.  They demonstrated a fear of abandonment, helplessness, and pervasive anxiety.  Their past emotions would overwhelm them in the present.   They would alternate between discussing childhood episodes to a current attachment grievance.  Quoting, imitating, childlike language, vague nonsense words, run-on sentences and fragments pervade the interview.  Intense fear, anger, or passivity in past and in current attachment relationships prevents coherence and collaborative discourse.  Their speech tends to be confused, tangential, lengthy, and discouraging of autonomy. 

If the preoccupied adult presents for treatment, having a consistent focus on the self experience is of utmost importance.  They grew up with an outside-in orientation, taking in what is happening around them as a way of survival and getting their needs met.  In therapy, we work toward developing an inside-out orientation, where one looks inward to find the answers and have them expressed outwardly.  The therapist should keep a consistent calming presence, even in the rise and fall of coherence in the patient.  Selectively attuning to exploratory words and behaviors allows the preoccupied person to begin to think of exploration as a possibility.  This is done within the Three Pillars system.  As an example, below I will type a script of a generic session one might have with a preoccupied adult within the IPF framework.

“You don’t have to worry about their state of mind, and if at any time you start worrying about that, imagine that they’re emotionally responsive to you, and they make a comment about your internal state and bring you back to yourself.  They notice all the subtle changes in your mood moment by moment.  What a relief to not have to worry about their state of mind, take in what that feels like.  They act in a way as to calm and comfort you, physically, you can feel the gentle touch that’s so reassuring, verbally they’re reassuring you that it’s all okay, everything is allright, and you respond to this in a way that dampens your anxiety, and you become more and more calm, take in that calming effect now. Everything is alright, it’s all ok.

And now notice the growing desire to explore in new ways and discover in new ways with the support of the parents. As with trying anything new, you mighty have anxiety, so imagine IPFs that are constantly attuned with touch and verbal reassurance constantly soothing, comforting.”

So the goals are as follows:

  1. Correct for outside in orientation
  2. Regulate child’s anxiety
  3. IPFs who are attuned to a range of emotions
  4. Encourage exploratory behavior with parents support

Preoccupied adults are most easily ruptured. If ruptures happen, step out of attachment language and go to 3rd pillar and collaborate.  Address that they wander off track, teach them turn taking, help them clarify what they’re saying.

In terms of metacognition, they’re deficient in mentalizing. The therapist can use their own experience at times to help the client contact their own experience.  “I imagine that was very scary…”

Memory is limited by what they experienced.  Imagination creates new possibilities.

Meditative Perspective: Preoccupied adults have difficulty CONTAINING their emotion.  In meditation, we practice containment of emotion.  The body learns that it can raise what neuroscientists call the “window of tolerance,” or the amount of stimuli one can endure before going into dissociation or overwhelm.  So, preoccupied individuals should practice primarily equanimity and cultivation of positive emotion. 

Insight Practices: 15 Minutes – Mindfulness of Mind States

– Often, we aren’t aware of the effect our mind states have on our daily lives. Mindfulness shines a line on the process of thinking itself, which reveals the patterns of thinking that can get us in trouble. It also shows us those mind states that are nourishing and helpful. The mind is always in relationship to the present moment. Having the ability to control our mind states transforms the way we move through the world.

Find a way to sit that’s comfortable and at ease. It’s always a good idea to do a quick inventory of the body. Starting at the top of the scalp, relaxing the brow.  Relax the jaw. Soften the shoulders. Make sure your spine is upright but not rigid. Feel your sit bones on the chair or cushion. Feel gravity holding you place. Feel your legs, strong like roots of a tree. And feel your feet on the floor.

Go ahead and make any final adjustments to your posture, and then the encouragement will be to hold the posture for the rest of the meditation without shifting too much.

And when you’re ready, notice where you feel your breath the most in this moment. The rise and fall of the belly, or the chest.  Or the air at the tip of the nostrils. It doesn’t matter where, just notice where it’s most obvious to you, and hold your attention there, like a magnifying glass or a laser pointer. And as you do, the mind will wander. When you notice that you’ve been pulled into thinking, or sound, or sensations in the body, just return to the breath without judgement.

There are a number of strategies to help you. Some people find counting the breath helpful. So breathing in, 1. Breathing out, 2.  And when you lose count, that’s no problem. Just return and start over. Some people find a naming practice to be helpful. So as you breathe in, saying to yourself, “in.” Breathing out, saying to yourself, “out.”  Or “inhale, exhale.”  Or, “rise, fall.”

Where is your mind right now?  Did you get pulled into thinking?  No problem. Just return,  over and over,  without judgement. Thoughts come and go. Sounds come and go. Just let them crash like soft waves around the breath. Don’t create a story about them. Just let them be thoughts.  Just let it be sound. And return to the breath, over and over. Stilling the mind. Concentrating the mind. Just this breath.

And when you’re ready, allow your attention to also include whatever mind states and thoughts might be present at this time. Examine how the mind is relating to the present moment. If you’re wanting things to be different, perhaps the mind is restless.  If you’re feeling pleasant, perhaps there is some craving in the mind to keep it that way. If you’re tired or lazy, perhaps there is confusion in the mind. Don’t create a story about it.  Instead, turn towards it. See what it has to teach you.  Does this mind state come with certain images? Or feelings in the body?  Does it come with certain thoughts? Just notice. And give the mind state a name. This is the craving mind. This is the confused mind. This is the hating mind. No problem. You can hold each one without reacting. As you continue to hold some attention in the breath, get curious about the mind states as they arise and then pass away, making room for the next one. Notice how they come and go, just like the weather.

What mind state is present right now? Are you wanting things to be different? Is the mind calm? How do you know?  Rest in the space of awareness that allows mind states to come and go without reacting.  Holding some attention on your breath, continue to name mind states as they arise.  Get curious about them. Hold them with the kind attention of mindfulness. Give them a name. Wait for the next mind states to arise, and continue the process.

And now shift your attention away from the mind and back entirely to the breath.  Relax into the natural rhythm of your breathing.

Transforming Difficult Emotion: 10 Minutes – Rejection

– Everyone experiences rejection at some point in their life. It can lead to many difficult emotions like sadness, loneliness, isolation, and anger. It is important to grieve when we feel rejected, because it is a loss. But often, we get stuck because those emotions are very powerful. Meditation shines a light on all the emotions that might be present. Dealing directly with those emotions leads to clarity and a quick recovery from the rejection experience.

Find a way to sit that’s comfortable and at ease. It’s always a good idea to do a quick inventory of the body. Starting at the top of the scalp, relaxing the brow. Relax the jaw. Soften the shoulders. Make sure your spine is upright but not rigid. Feel your sit bones on the chair or cushion.  Feel gravity holding you place. Feel your legs, strong like roots of a tree. And feel your feet on the floor.

And now, notice where you feel your breath the most. The rise and fall of the belly. Or your chest. Or the cool air at the tip of the nostrils. It doesn’t matter where, just notice the spot your breath is most obvious to you. And hold your attention there, like a magnifying glass or laser pointer. You’re not trying to create a certain kind of breath, just noticing the natural rhythm of your breath in this moment. If it’s a short breath, just notice it’s a short breath.  If it’s a long breath, just notice it’s a long breath. And as the mind wanders, just gently bring it back to the breath with a kind attention.

And when you’re ready, allow your experience of rejection to come into awareness.  Allow whatever feelings, images, and thoughts that may be present, to come into awareness. They’re natural.  Turn your loving awareness towards them. See how they feel in the body. You can acknowledge them softly with a name. Anger feels like this. Sadness feels like this.  Already by naming them, you become the mindful loving awareness that can hold them without reacting.

Now, deliberately bring a spirit of compassion to all of the feelings, images, and thoughts that come with rejection.  Imagine you can hold them in your heart and mind with compassion.  Holding them rather than being frightened and wanting them to go away. Notice what happens when you hold these feelings in this way. Do they soften? Do they open? Do they transform?

Now, choose one of the feelings that surfaced when you became mindful of the rejection. Notice exactly where it’s centered in your body. And as you feel the center of it in your body, invite it to do what it wants. Make space for it. And feel how you can hold this emotion with compassion. Take your time.  As the feeling opens and changes, notice what happens. Does it intensify? Does it become softer?  Does it open up to another feeling? Be present and gracious, without being swept away. And then let go of that emotion. Really feel that letting go. Let go over and over. And then bring up another emotion that comes with rejection, and repeat the process. Trust the process. It is healing and liberating to the heart.Discover your heart can hold it all.

And now you can return to the breath. Allow the breath to rest into its natural rhythm. Just rest and allow the body to breathe on its own.

Ring the bell.

With love,

Dr. Zack Bein

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