No matter how your life is changing right now, there is something that is happening underneath all of the external trappings of transformation – beneath the complexity of grief and joy, beneath the pragmatics of adjusting to newness – and it is shaping your experience of this time in your life more than you know.
But, my guess is that no matter how many hours you’ve spent with your therapist or how many self-help books are collecting dust on your nightstand, you weren’t prepared for this aspect of the life change you’re navigating right now.
You see, just as much as they may be represented by external changes in our lives, radical transformations and rites of passage are almost always an inside job.
But this inner experience goes well beyond the churnings of questioning and ideation: transformative times in our lives unravel the fabric of our sense of secure attachment.
In doing so, changes in your life, whether they’re deeply desired or entirely unbidden, can make you feel untethered and disoriented.
Let me explain.
Attachment theory was first conceptualized by psychologist John Bowlby, back in the 1950s. It was used to describe the way babies and children related to their caregivers. Basically, babies whose basic needs were mostly adequately met by their parents or caregivers most of the time were shown to develop what is called a “secure attachment style.” They knew that someone had their back, essentially, that they could trust and rely on others, and felt a sense of safeness in the world.
Over the years since Bowlby first formulated his theory, our understanding of human attachment has grown richer and more complex. It has been applied beyond the primary attachment figures of early life and into all our relational dynamics, with researchers and thought leaders exploring how our attachment styles shape the way we navigate friendship, parenthood, intimate partnership, and even our relationships with ourselves.
One of the primary concepts of attachment theory is this one of feeling safeness – a sense of what Bowlby called “safe haven” and “secure base” in the world. It’s knowing that your needs (for everything from food to love) are worthy of being met and can be met, by you or the people around you.
Basically, our sense of attachment informs everything about how we navigate the world, how we relate to others, and our feelings of safety, self-efficacy, and worthiness.
So how is it that times of radical transformation in our lives mess with our sense of safe haven and secure base?
Here are a few of the key ways that I witness this in my work:
- When WE change – as in, when our sense of self and identity shift – we can feel disoriented and disconnected. We may no longer be sure of our needs and how to meet them or how to ask to have them met – or we may have more or more complex needs than we know how to respond to.
- Times of change are often busy. Chaotic, even. And if you’re like most of my clients, you’re likely attending to the needs of one or more other humans as well as your own (or to the exclusion of your own). And that’s exactly it: secure attachment within ourselves and with others usually requires regular maintenance – checking in to see what’s true for you and how you need to be supported in any given moment. And this moment in your life – whether you’re a new mother or starting a new job or spending all your time researching a diagnosis – is likely making it challenging to do that.
- During times of radical transformation, our sense of belonging usually gets disrupted in some way. We ask ourselves not just “who am I now?” but also “where do I belong now?” Primary relationships, friends, family and community are all a part of the ecosystem of your life, and the changes you make or experience often significantly shift those relationships. In short? The safe havens and secure bases that you find in other people may no longer feel safe and secure.
- Often, even with really wonderful life changes, we experience nervous system dysregulation. This happens in part because times of transformation are often stressful. But also this: we come back into regulation through a secure attachment with ourselves or through co-regulation with others. But if we’re not sure how meet our needs or not sure who to ask to support us, the dance of dysregulation continues.
I know, I know: this all sounds really challenging.
And something to be avoided, at all costs.
But you can support yourself.
One of the most important tenets of attachment theory (that often gets ignored in our supremacist culture) is that our attachment styles are not fixed traits, they are mutable expressions, shaped by our circumstances. And there’s also this: when there is a disruption in attachment (with ourselves or with others), we can repair it.
And so it is that the most important work of navigating times of transition in our lives isn’t setting new goals or making broad sweeping changes, but rather doing the constant, iterative work of tending to our disrupted attachment.
Here is how I do this with my clients and the folks I work with:
- In the Four Elements of Radical Transformation, the model I created to describe times of deep change in our lives, the first element is Earth. The work of Earth is to orient yourself to the changes that have happened in your life. To get your feet on the earth, metaphorically and sometimes literally, when it feels like you’ve been uprooted. We do this by simply naming the change. As with so many subconscious experiences that go unnamed, just recognizing that a changing sense of secure attachment is contributing to the way you feel right now and the resilience with which you’re navigating life is key. With a huge amount of compassion, notice how you’ve been meeting your needs lately, how your relationships with others may have changed, and how your sense of self-efficacy, confidence and worthiness may also be shifting.
- The Seven Core Competencies of Radical Transformation are key skills and capacities that we need to cultivate in order to navigate changing times with more ease and a sense of empowerment. Several of these competencies are especially designed to repair ruptured attachment with ourselves and others. They are: self-tending, ritual, embodiment, earth connection and community. And so: identify a way to attune to and tend your needs on a regular basis. Ritual helps with this by helping you carve out and slow down time for yourself every day. Through embodiment and embodied practises, you can notice cycles of regulation and dysregulation in your system, and support yourself through these. All three of these competencies also support you in the act of showing up for yourself on a regular basis, which is the building block of secure attachment with the self. And finally, finding connection and co-regulation with community and the earth is a way to grow your roots again after upheaval; to belong yourself in the family of things, as Mary Oliver says.
Let me reassure you: radical transformations and rites of passage in our lives are supposed to disrupt our sense of secure attachment to ourselves and others.
By definition, we must become uprooted through the process of change. That is, arguably, what change is. And it’s uncomfortable as hell, yes, but having the tools to resource yourself well can transform this time in your life into one that is incredibly empowering, allowing you to become even more deeply connected with who you are.