Updated: Jul 8, 2022
Attachment through Distress
Those who are partial towards hiking or mountaineering as a stress-busting exercise know that sometimes when the incline is steep and particularly challenging, it somehow unleashes an even stronger will to conquer it. However, doing so can sometimes come at the cost of serious physical damage. Occasionally, this propels a person towards victory but in several instances it can misdirect us towards competing with a terrain that we are unfamiliar with and we start to battle it instead of negotiating. An old friend and mountaineering coach of mine terms this a rookie mistake. He claims that the adrenalin at this point should be channeled in a more pragmatic manner to avoid any pitfalls and injuries. What particularly resonates with me in what he says is this – know before you go.
As a therapist, I am frequently presented with psychiatric and psychological classifications, terms and labels. Some of it I consider helpful and directional, some of it though seems riddled with unnecessary pathologizing. Within the realm of psychotherapy, a condition/state which is frequently discussed and debated is BPD or borderline personality (disorder). While I am not averse to acknowledging an explosive state within BPD to be disordered, I have my reservations about referring to individuals as disordered or carriers of disorders. BPD gets a bad rap because it is poorly understood and vilified. Popular media has helped perpetuate this myth in some quarters. The jealous, “psychotic” ex, moods-driven friend who has no empathy or is seemingly incapable of managing their emotions are some common tropes that create a negative image of what borderline personality is within the realm of experiential givens.
Psychologist Jonathan Shedler has laid out a very adaptive and nuanced framework for personality syndromes that focuses on the interlocking between so-called personality disorders and mental health conditions/illnesses. Shedler says that “personality is not about what disorders you have but about who you are. It refers to a person’s characteristic patterns of thought, feeling, behaviour, motivation, defense, inter- personal functioning, and ways of experiencing self and others. All people have personalities and personality styles.”
This is a more inclusive and less pathologizing way to understand how and why people’s behaviours and personalities become so incongruent as to cause hurt and pain either towards themselves or others. Shedler moves away from diagnostic criteria built on dogmatic cateorgization and instead speaks of pattern recognition as foundational to understanding what our personality types are and how we function keeping this in mind. He is clear that “recognizing a personality syndrome is pattern recognition.” Instead of conceiving detrimental stereotypes, understanding personality as something that exists on a spectrum is a more realistic, not to mention effective way of working with people who are experiencing disturbances due to a personality syndrome.
Shedler makes interesting observations about how someone might have what is termed a narcissistic personality but it doesn’t immediately allude to a toxic individual or set of traits. What it might indicate is that they experience a dichotomy between excessive grandiosity and inadequacy at the same. It is quite possible that a very extreme version of this might result is what he terms malignant narcissism as seen in those who are willingly harmful towards others, engage in abusive interactions and are so encaged within their narcissism that it controls their life. All of us might have some narcissistic defenses but in someone who has a narcissistic personality, these defenses are possibly more active and thereby employed more regularly. Within the space of discussion, we do see people who experience narcissistic decompensation whereby feelings such as empathy or sorrow which are necessary for relating to the world at large and/or building relationships on equal footing are missing or rarely summoned within a narcissistic personality. When an individual is neck deep in narcissistic defenses, they are unable to develop any realtime capacity to develop an ethical value system where they expand beyond self-serving needs or the “I-ness” of their own existence. Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg who wrote extensively about the intersection between narcissism and borderline assemblages believed that there is something called normal adult narcissism and then there is pathological narcissism, the latter being the problematic/harmful version.
When we see people’s personalities through a lens of dictatorial psychiatric classifications that leave no wriggle room to move even an inch away from a very deterministic idea of who we are as human beings, we severely limit the pathways to recovery. What we also do, perhaps unknowingly at times, is encourage people to hide behind masks and never truly reveal their doubts, fears, shame and guilt – core emotions that might be responsible for some gnarling of personality and behaviours.
Just like narcissism is largely understood in a very linear way, so is borderline personality or for that matter any personality “disorder”. What this does is create entrapments for people who are borderline to stay in certain injurious and self-defeating relationships, attachments and interpersonal engagements because they have been led to believe that the fundamental problem is within them and therefore, largely unchangeable. This is a perverse falsehood.
There is no denying that personality syndromes which get very warped are hard to iron out. But it is also not impossible.
One of the most repeated references in therapy is how borderline personality equates to unstable emotional connections and turbulent relationships. In all honesty, navigating any kind of relationship is not always smooth sailing. It requires effort and mutual collaboration. Love, respect and authenticity are chief ingredients. However, owing to a variety of factors, a person might have drifted away from being anchored in these beliefs. If someone was subjected to adverse childhood experiences (ACE) at the hands of people they trusted and loved as kids, they may have sub-consciously started correlating love and threat in a way that they can’t perceive logically, nevertheless exerts force on them when they start to experience closeness.
A therapy client of mine often tells me that she is baffled at how quickly her mood shifts from affection to confusion to conflict in most of her intimate partnerships and she is unable to either predict or calm herself down when this happens. She goes through cycles of angry outbursts followed by pleading and persuading to the point of exhaustion. In our therapeutic interactions, we have established that this happens a lot more when the person is negligent or callous towards her. She equates attention with affection and when someone starves her for attention, she explodes and then shrinks.
Several people might attest to similar experiences in their own romantic partnerships. I call this Attachment through Distress (AtD).
Attachment through distress is often disorganised and shows as a level of self-defeating co-dependency in close/interpersonal relationships. We crave connection but the moment we establish it, we start fearing its loss. We live between two fears - emptiness and loss. We operate from a place of lack rather than love. A complex set of reasons could lead us on this path but it is absolutely possible to change directions. Old childhood emotional wounds that need healing, betrayal of trust in close, caregiving relationships, sociocultural stigmas, familial trauma and enmeshment are some reasons we sub-consciously start to see distress as a strong way to remain attached to someone.
AtD displays can look like --
1. Chasing for approval from people who are extremely critical of you
2. Feeling a sense of “boredom” or questioning the veracity of a relationship if there are no ongoing histrionics / aggressive back and forth or “passionate” fights
3. Feeling like you can’t develop any attraction towards people who don’t offer high octane drama
4. Feeling like approaching conflicts from a place of peaceful problem solving is fake or superficial
5. Feeling worthless if someone rejects the possibility of a relationship with you even if the person has so far not been good for your overall wellbeing
6. Experiencing physical and mental unrest when a partner is not available constantly
7. Escalating minor disagreements because the payoff of comfort after a big fight has become addictive
8. Centering a partner’s approval as the most important anchor in your life
It is important to note that the focal challenge isn't inter-dependency but co-dependency that comes at the cost of decimating one's own sense of self. In some situations, a person may not have an extensive support system and romantic partnership(s) might be the singular most important attachment. We don’t want to castigate the importance of close partnerships, nor do we want to underplay how sociocultural underpinnings determine what kind of support and care someone receives. The shift here is towards recognizing when the attachment is rooted in distress. It becomes a catch 22 after a while because people are unable to differentiate between a need for this type of insecurity driven attachment causing changes in their personality or their personality type causing a need for such an attachment.
Either way, it is important to recognize our own patterns which can make our lives incredibly difficult and isolating. Undoing AtD starts by carefully recognizing where this need is rooted – did the seed find its soil during childhood, was there a particularly difficult romantic heartbreak in early years of adulthood, did we see our parents or other caregivers display such an attachment, have we been influenced by certain types of media we consumed for a long period in time. We see a lot of uninformed dialogue, workshops, training programs etc about the echoism of “inner child healing”, yet we don’t see enough of a conversation about how to integrate fragmented parts of our inner child within our adult selves. It becomes critical to not discredit our fears but gently taking them by hand out of the past and into the present. To learn about our agency as adults who don’t need to feel their pasts hang over our necks like Damocles sword. We get so latched onto Attachment through Distress because our brain and bodies get accustomed to the artificial “soothing” that comes after a disaster. A way out to introduce ourselves to other forms of soothing that are not approval-dependent. It is a process but an enriching one. It is possible to learn comfort and calm outside of repetitive cycles involve rage and guilt.
The Personality Syndromes, Jonathan Shedler https://jonathanshedler.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Shedler-2021-The-personality-syndromes-1.pdf
Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism, Otto Kernberg