Chicken Little’s Cave

Chicken little 2A few months ago, I shared a talk on how anxiety robs us of our freedom.

Remember Chicken Little?  That’s where this story begins.

Chicken Little is the one who was scampering about one day until an acorn fell on her head.  After being hit, she became hysterical and started yelling, “The sky is falling!” immediately mobilizing to warn her friends of the imminent danger.  The story has a variety of endings, one of which has her retreating into a cave.  In her quest for safety, she is lured there by a wily fox, and in a tragic turn of events the cave of safety is where she meets her end.

Anxiety is universally experienced.  Even when it’s covered in anger, masked by sadness, or cloaked in skepticism: We. Are. All. Anxious.

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What’s the falling sky in your world?

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What’s the cave you’re retreating to for shelter?

Think about that for a moment.  Is it food?  Work?  People?  Exercise?

Or, maybe it’s cloaked in existential terms: Achievement?  Belonging?  Success?  Independence?

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The cave is a great metaphor for three possible ways we try to manage our anxiety: 1. We hunker down in the cave to control it (unsuccessfully).  2. We flee to the cave to avoid it.  3.  We sink into the cave, feeling paralyzed and imprisoned by it.  Initiate surrender.

The problem is, when we retreat into the cave looking for safety, in our own ironic way, we end up becoming consumed by our anxiety.  It swallows us up, like the deep caverns of a cave.

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Anxiety limits our freedom in several ways:

Disrupting connection:  When we retreat to the cave, it keeps us from relationships.  We’re so preoccupied with our fears that we push away genuine connections to focus on managing those fears.  Or, we pull our favorite people into our caves and depend on them to “fix” our fears so that our demands keep us from genuinely loving them.

Flooding:  We allow those shadows to loom so large on the walls of our cave that we become self-absorbed and lose sight of everything else.  They become all-consuming.  Perspective is lost.  Our story gets dialed down to our anxieties and nothing more.

Increasing Guilt/Shame:  When anxiety is viewed as a disorder, we tend to feel guilty and ashamed of it, which only serves to increase our worry.

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Our culture sets us up to be more anxious.

 

As a culture, we pathologize anxiety.  We have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which has 12 anxiety-related disorders, and hundreds of variations within.  There are about 50 types of anxiety medications, not including generic forms.  There’s also a common language that we use in every day conversation about stress, worry, nerves, anxiety, and fear.

Cultural education about anxiety can be helpful, but it can also lead to over-concern about our symptoms, as abnormal and disordered.

Now, add to this cultural landscape the idolization of safety, and you have the perfect storm.

When I gave this talk, it was right after the Super Bowl, and the Hyundai Genesis commercial captured it well.  It’s the one where the dad follows his son around as a portable safety net, there to catch him any time he’s about to fall.  The commercial touts that Dad’s ability to predict and prevent accidents for his son is his “Sixth Sense”.  You can also look at any insurance commercial to find that safety and prevention is priority one.  There’s a problem with this.

Our world isn’t safe.

There are dangers all around us, and we experience pain and suffering all the time.

When culture preaches safety while we are, simultaneously experiencing danger, it increases our anxiety.  Then, when anxiety is also viewed as unsafe by our culture, it creates more anxiety.

It’s the perfect storm to leave us ducking into caves for shelter.

The good news is we don’t need safety the way we think we do.  When we huddle in our caves, we miss out on the freedom of being truly alive.

 

How do we face anxiety with courage?  Stay tuned….

 

In the meantime, consider your own falling skies, and consider the caves you retreat to.  How do they block you from the people and the things that truly matter?

 

 

When Attachment Hurts

I recently wrote an article for an adoption blog on attachment issues.  While this article was meant for those who have children with complex trauma backgrounds, the theory of attachment is applicable to all.

Our underlying view of attachments will shape the way we experience others and relate to them.  I hope you find this article useful on your journey towards greater self-awareness.  

When Attachment Hurts

The buzzword in the adoptive community is, unequivocally, attachment.  For those who have never adopted or fostered, this word may have vague associations with dusty textbooks and archaic research studies.  But for those of you who have chosen the joyous and painful journey, this word has flesh and bones to it, in the form of your child.

The historical, prevailing wisdom dissected attachment into four categories.  These categories had a variety of names, all with similar, delineative meanings: Secure/Balanced; Anxious/Enmeshed; Avoidant/Detached; and Anxious-Avoidant/Ambivalent.

From my perspective, this view of attachment anaesthetizes the true complexity of it, and by doing so, diminishes how adoptive parents experience it in real time.  It also leaves these parents with an incomplete framework for understanding the rapid-fire emotional changes they witness in their traumatized child, and it gives little insight into managing those changes.  An example?

Cheerio Confusion:

One moment your child is clinging to you at breakfast, with loving arms encircling your neck.  The next moment she screams and smashes the cereal bowl following a simple request to wipe Cheerios off the table.  That same child, who was just doting on you, is now reminding you that you’re the worst parent ever, there’s never been anyone more horrible than you, and she wants to hurt you.  You’re bewildered.  You ask yourself why this is happening when the same request the day before yielded swift compliance—a completely different response.

Does reading this bring validation, intense emotions, or your own physical reaction?  If you said yes to any of these, then chances are you’ve experienced this, first-hand.  This attachment pattern is the most confusing and troublesome for adoptive and foster families.

Now bear with me while I get theoretical.  It’s important to have a framework that demystifies this experience.

While a traditional attachment view would say that the girl in our story has an ambivalent attachment, confining her to that box misses the fact that this style is a combination of two other attachment patterns.

Rather than compartmentalizing attachment styles as  secure, insecure, enmeshed, and ambivalent, I prefer to view attachment along a spectrum.  Take a look at the picture.  Think of it as a fulcrum, where the closer you are to a secure attachment, the more balanced the scale.  When you move along the fulcrum to one side or the other, it tips.  So the middle represents an emotionally balanced connection.

AttachmentSpectrum

On one side of the spectrum is enmeshed (clingy), the opposite of this is detached (avoidant or hostile), both are equally insecure attachments.  The fourth style, ambivalent, is demonstrated at the bottom of the diagram as a patterened response of moving between one end of the fulcrum and the other—between detachment and enmeshment.  The more extreme the attachment disorder, the more likely we are to live between the two ends of the scale, rapidly pinging back and forth.  For those exhibiting an ambivalent attachment, the imbalance is dramatic and polarizing.  The point, here, is that this type of imbalance quickly creates chaos.   

Unlike a compartmentalized view of attachment, this spectrum view presumes that all of us have dynamic attachment patterns.  We all move along the spectrum and the frequency and severity of that movement depends on the amount of stress we’re under.  This means that I’m not defined by being anxious, or avoidant, or insecure in my relationships, I will move between those descriptors, along the fulcrum, depending on my level of stress.

So why does this matter to you?

The more ambivalent your child’s attachment pattern, the more easily they kick up your own stress.  How many of you feel like, during crisis moments, your internal, emotional state reflects that of your child?  How many of you feel guilty when the same angry insults they are hurling at you are rising up in your mind regarding them?  Don’t.  You’re being triggered.  Rather than judging yourself, know that you’re under tremendous stress, and the chaotic emotions you feel mirror what they’re feeling too.

The good news?  They can move from the edges of the spectrum closer to the middle.   The other good news?  So can you.

Rather than trying to move your child from one attachment “category” to another, you can think in terms of lessening the frequency and duration of their polar responses between enmeshed and detached.

If we’re aware of how these traumatized children are moving across the spectrum of attachment, we can better understand how to tailor our responses.  De-mystifying this experience is the conquered first step.

Once you understand this, the next step is to consider how to calm yourself down when their shocking responses are programmed to suck you in to their emotional vortex.  If you’re drawn in to the chaos, the likelihood of the two of you overreacting is high.

Now, let me make this very clear:  This. Is. Not. Easy.

I have tremendous respect for those who have made the decision to foster or adopt.  And working with a child who exhibits this ambivalence on a regular basis is very difficult.  So any suggestions I make or insight I offer I do with the understanding that this is painful and exhausting.

It’s for this very reason that it is essential to find a supportive community that understands adoption, to provide support and resources during crisis.

There are two traps I see parents fall into.  And the first trap initiates the second.  First, they view the attachment as overly fragile.  Because many parents have been indoctrinated with the importance of healthy attachment for their child’s healing, they often believe they have to tiptoe around the child with the utmost sensitivity, which ends up being burdensome, exhausting, and can lead to increased triggered responses on the parent’s part, as well as tension and anxiety for the child, who is attuned to your responses.

The second trap is that because of this fragile view of attachment, parents are so concerned with maintaining the connection in order to generate healing that they end up living in enmeshment while believing they’re creating a healthy attachment.

What does this look like in real time? 

Long, drawn out conversations about emotions and copious amounts of time spent trying to engage your child to facilitate the connection (the belief being that time spent correlates with attachment security).  In reality, spending too much time in emotional conversations with your child increases the likelihood that you both become stressed and you both overreact.

Parents’ hypersensitivity to their child’s emotional cues will likely increase their child’s hyper-vigilance.  And if the parents view the attachment as fragile, this will increase their sensitivity to the child’s cues.  It’s a vicious cycle.

The number one way to combat this is through awareness.  You need a clear understanding of the landscape to know how to respond.  Picture the attachment spectrum in your head; consider where you fall on that spectrum during moments when you’re most upset.  Do you tend towards anxiety? Avoidance? Or toggle between both?

Now, what do you notice about your child?  Can you pinpoint where they are on that spectrum during times when they’re upset?  What would it look like to view them as more resilient?  What would it look like to stay calm while they are in crisis?  What do you need to remember from what you’ve learned, here, to be able to do that?

For traumatized children, we can respect the nature of their attachment to us without being overwhelmed by its fragility.  Putting language to the interaction patterns with them will allow us to better understand their actions and our reactions, moment by moment.  As we begin to understand those and get perspective on the obstacles we’ll face, we open the doorway to incorporating interventions and experiencing them, and ourselves, with greater resiliency.

Buried beneath their stressed responses are the personalities of some really awesome kids, full of vibrancy, curiosity, and creativity.  And buried beneath your stressed responses, you’ll find the reflection of your former self, the pre-adoption part of you that was also more vibrant and more curious.  I bet you’re longing to see that.

Dynamic Balance

In order to work at Wellspring Counseling, each of us therapists has to endure many, many conversations on the value of redefining balance, contentment, and fulfillment in life.  I have come to enjoy these conversations, even though I complain about them.  They’re useful on multiple levels.  And they help me to evaluate the language I’m using with clients and how well it reflects my operational definitions of these themes.

In that spirit, here is my take on balance, redefined.  Most of us look at balance, in theory and practice, as this ideal place of self-actualization where everything is aligned in symmetry and operates in perfect harmony.  We view those people who have “arrived” as the ones who have it all together because they look perfect, act perfect, have the perfect job, and are involved in multiple activities without being overly stressed.  In this definition, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to an unattainable image.

In contrast, when we work towards balance, in our own lives, it often feels clumsy and awkward like an elephant trying to stay on a bouncy ball, while it rolls around.  The balance is tenuous, shifting, risky, and it feels like if anyone adds one more task to our list, the brief moment of stabilization will end abruptly and we’ll fall, bringing everything down with us.

I’d like to come up with a working definition of balance that describes it as dynamic, intentional, and value-driven.  These core concepts get at the heart of balance, and help to illumine an, otherwise, nebulous journey.  Balance is dynamic because it is a constantly shifting process.  We will never arrive at a point of perfect balance and stay there.  That view is a static perspective that eliminates our ability to change and grow.  Without that growth potential, we aren’t in balance.  With a dynamic  view, we are on a pendulum that is moving from side to side, but staying within a median range.  Practically, this means we may have to make our job a priority over exercise for a week or two, but we intentionally re-calibrate when we get the chance and focus back in on what’s been set aside, and what we need to do to make up for lost time.  We know what our top priorities are so we can be evaluating how well those priorities are being addressed on a regular basis.  The way we understand and appropriate balance changes as we enter different life stages, jobs, parenting stages, and even as we move through crises.  We’ll want to assess a dynamic view in regards to relationships, habits, and boundary setting.  A dynamic view of relationships means we may spend focused, intentional time with our spouses for a week, but then have to devote more time to the kids the following week.  We’re evaluative about this and careful to decide where we place our priorities.

In order to have a dynamic view of balance and still maintain our equilibrium, we have to be intentional.  Creating our own working definition of balance means that we have to be very thoughtful about when we’re in and out of balance, and what needs to be done to assess getting back into a dynamic pattern.  We’ll want to ask questions, like, “Who am I?” Because how we define ourselves will dictate how we act.  “What do I think and feel?” Because these thought processes and feelings end up driving us if we’re unaware of them.  “How do I relate to the world?” Because the way we relate to the world around us is foundational to how we act and prioritize.  This type of intentionality means creating a picture of what drives us and how we want to connect with and interact with our worlds.

Finally, balance is value-driven.  The way we prioritize our lives indicates what our true values are.  We may say we value having a vibrant spiritual life, but if that doesn’t occupy our time and thoughts, that’s not a true value of ours.  If you’re trying to understand what you value, ask yourself, honestly, “What do I want?”  This will be a great indicator of what’s most important to you and where you will spend your time.  Our motivations define what we value.  We may say we value setting boundaries, but if we can’t say “no” to others and we let their agendas override our own, we value people-pleasing more than boundary setting.

Consider these three areas as you craft a vision for what you want your balanced world to look like.  I find it helpful, in discussing this, to come up with your own personal metaphor for balance.  What’s a word, concept, or image that describes what you want balance to look like?  For me, that image is the pendulum that swings from side to side, slowing down in a middle range.  It doesn’t stop moving from one side to another, but it shifts more slowly, and stays within a determined area, not moving to the extreme ends of either spectrum.  I want my own life balance to include a dynamic approach that allows for flexibility without moving too far to either end of the spectrum.  What about you?