When you can understand yourself fully- the ways that you react and behave, and even the dysfunctional parts of yourself- the ways you act and look back wondering what you were thinking in a heated moment- you can open the possibility to move on from behaviors that aren’t working in your life in a self forgiveness exercise.
Even more, you open space to integrate and understand the dysfunctional parts of yourself and acknowledge the ways they’ve served you.It sounds counter-intuitive, but, for self-forgiveness to stick, we usually need to have a level of understanding for why we are the way we are, and why we have behaved in the ways we have.
That self-understanding can allow us to look at ourselves in a new way, a new way that does not involve judgment or blame. Without feeling bound by the limits of shame and inward-turned anger, a path is opened for us to act in new, more productive ways, forgive ourselves, and build compassion.
How can you understand the impact of your past?
A life-changing way to understand yourself (including the dysfunctional parts that may be difficult and scary to face) is to look through the lens of attachment science. Attachment science (also known as attachment theory, attachment styles, etc.) is a model of understanding human behavior and evolutionary survival strategies.
Put more simply, it is a framework of looking at yourself not in a vacuum but within the environments you have been to understand where some of the dysfunction may have originated.
At its essence, attachment theory assumes that people are basically good and inherently know how to connect with others to get our needs met. Dysfunctional behaviors are understood as ways that you have learned to respond to your environment so that you could survive. Holding onto those behaviors and tendencies often loses effectiveness when you move through different contexts in your life.
When you explore and understand the parts of yourself that seem dysfunctional, you can reach a place of compassionate understanding in places where you may have previously held shame, fear, and confusion. And compassionate understanding is the foundation for self-forgiveness which will free you to respond in new ways that are more beneficial for your life now.
How can you understand the dysfunctional parts of yourself ?
The core of attachment theory assumes that humans are innately creatures of connection. (We have been able to progress and make societal advancements not because the cognitive capabilities of individuals, but because of the power and resources we open up when in connection with others.) This nonjudgemental perspective lays the foundation for self forgiveness exercises.
As children, and all through life, we require the help and care of others for our own safety and survival. Think about it…humans rely on their adult caregivers for food, shelter, and comfort longer than any other animals do, and babies must learn ways to communicate these needs to their caregivers in order to survive.
So, when babies sense a disconnection from their caregivers, they actually experience a threat to their ability to get their needs met, and therefore, to survive. The ways that babies and children learn to cope with these threats to disconnection ultimately become their attachment strategies.
What are attachment styles?
The way that different individuals learn strategies to deal with disconnection and survival threats tends to be understood in the following categories, also known as attachment styles:
- Secure attachment: Children who received consistent caregiving and experienced repairing interactions following disconnection. Meaning, they have developed an effective strategy to communicate and receive their needs, and are responded to when they reach out with needs in moments of perceived disconnection.
- Anxious attachment: Children who received inconsistent caregiving at a young age, and learned to seek proximity through hyper-activating their nervous system, protesting space by increasing the intensity of their strategy (e.g. turning up the volume on requests for connection). This is often correlated with a fear of being abandoned.
- Avoidant attachment: Children who received fairly consistent neglect or rejection. These children learned to suppress or deactivate their attachment system to protect from the pain of further disconnection. This is often correlated with a fear of being rejected.
How can attachment style knowledge become self forgiveness exercises?
Over time, our early experiences are encoded in our brains and bodies as the strategies that have been effective to reconnect with our caregivers (i.e. to get food, care, comfort- to survive). We continue to use these strategies, which are malleable and may be shifted over time, as we learn how to connect with trusted others.
The attachment system is present as ever in adult relationships, where we are seeking the resource of emotional closeness for safety and comfort.
In these relationships, we unknowingly, unconsciously are employing those same strategies our brains learned worked when we were children. Unfortunately, those same strategies are often completely dysfunctional in our adult relationships.
What might this look like in real life?
Here’s an example. Let’s say you are a child who loves your parent and you try to follow the rules and be good. When you are good, you receive attention, comfort, and care- experience an emotional connection to them that leaves you feeling comforted, connected, and safe in the world.
Now, this same parent employs the “silent treatment” as a way to communicate that you have been “bad.” So maybe you left your toys around the house, or neglected to complete a household chore, and your parent wants to communicate to you that this is not a desired behavior. Your parent is giving you the silent treatment in an effort to change your behavior, giving you the cold shoulder for an unpredictable amount of time.
This parent is ignoring you when you try to connect- not responding to you, not looking at you, and maybe even transferring caregiving duties to another parent or adult to reinforce your punishment (which is the lack of care you get from them).
Now, your attachment to your caregiver is threatened, and this leads to a real fear; this parent is temporarily withdrawing themselves from their child, leaving them isolated and alone- which is completely terrifying for a child who needs caregiving.
How does this impact behaviors?
Think about how you as a child may have learned to ease their fear around being disconnected from their parent- the fear of not being safe? Maybe you:
- Became hyper-activated, reaching out to your caregiver trying to protest this disconnection, only to be met with further neglect. Maybe you start to question your own worth, or worse, shame yourself for being “bad” and unworthy of the connection you inherently need (because you are a human).
- Beg, apologize for something you didn’t do- all in an effort to ease the panic experienced in the disconnection, and maybe that is successful in reconnecting with the parent.
- But maybe, when connection resumes, you live in fear for the unpredictable moment the neglect will return.
These types of scenarios are nuanced, of course, but generally speaking, here are some lessons you may learn from this pattern:
- I am bad
- I am not worthy of consistent care (or maybe… inconsistent care is what love looks like)
- If I am bad, my caregiver will leave me
- If I am bad, I will be alone
- Fear of abandonment
How does this experience impact the child as an adult?
And the big question in this scenario, is how these lessons impact what you learn to accept, or understand to be “love”, in your adult relationships.
Perhaps you learn that this ‘touch and go’ is what love is, and you actually have learned that a lack of safety is home, what feels normal. You may constantly seek reassurance and validation, searching for this endlessly in others, and not know how to regulate yourself. And maybe you carry this anxiety, this fear of being abandoned and not being able to predict when or how long, in all of your close relationships as you move through life.
This could be the adult who finds themselves constantly in relationships where the partner gives minimal effort. Maybe they call or text their partner 100 times until they get a response. They are “clingy”, endlessly needy of validation. Maybe they feel suspicious out of nowhere and start questioning their partner, checking social media or other sources for additional validation, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And maybe they try to avoid discontinuing relationships at all costs, even if they know in their bones that the relationship is not healthy or safe.
How is attachment theory a self forgiveness exercise?
Without having attachment science to understand the function of the behaviors above, which look dysfunctional on the outside, it would be very easy to feel confusion, fear, and even shame at our own actions. They are all characteristics that may have prevented someone from finding safe, functional adult love.
However, instead of labeling these behaviors as wrong, attachment science gives us a way to understand how these behaviors became encoded in the brain and the body.
These strategies worked- they kept you alive when you were a child and you needed to reconnect to your caregiver to get your needs met. However, these same strategies could be sabotaging your adult relationships.
When we have compassion for ourselves and understanding for the reasons our body has held onto the protections that are no longer serving us, we open ourselves to a space to honor and release these defenses and see our present for what it is here and now, and not through the lens of our past. Exploring these dynamics and going deeper become self-forgiveness exercises.
How can I use self forgiveness exercises and learn about myself?
Two things are true: parents did the best they could, and did a lot right, and people tend to leave childhood with some scars. Working from a place of empathetic curiosity, rather than judgmental blame, is necessary. (Note- I am not referring to situations of abuse, which fall into a separate category).
Understanding the patterns, and working through self forgiveness exercises, is critical to being able to disrupt them.
As you reflect on your own experiences, it is important to recognize that often times, there is no big traumatic or attachment defining moment that you will recall (thought there could be), but rather, small, repetitive moments and patterns that accumulate over time and develop your tendencies.
Here are some questions you may ask yourself as you explore your own patterns and how they show up in your present relationships. You may find it is helpful to journal for deeper exploration of these concepts- you may be surprised what you uncover.
- Who did you go to for safety as a child?
- What happened when they were not available? How would you get your needs met?
- What messages about connection and safety did you get from your family of origin?
- Did you learn from past relationships that you could trust or depend on others? Have you learned it is best to only depend on yourself?
- If you can’t rely on others, how do you regulate yourself? What do you do when life gets too big to handle? When you feel alone?
- In your current relationships, when you feel disconnection, do you tend to become overly anxious and reactive? Or do you tend to shut down and try to not feel anything?
These questions and exploration of your responses to them become self-forgiveness exercises, allowing you to build more compassion for yourself.
Sometimes uncomfortable feelings come up as part of this process. Here is a guide to processing some of those tough emotions as you work through self forgiveness exercises.
How do I go further in self forgiveness exercises?
The tricky part about attachment needs and fears is that they usually live in the unconscious. Understanding the emotion system can cue us into activation of the attachment system. Until we are in a safe enough place that are defenses or strategies are willing to take a back seat, it can be really hard to uncover these patterns.
Working with a therapist is a great place to start so that you have the support to process anything that arises as you work through attachment and self forgiveness exercises.
We also offer a free attachment style quiz so you can determine your own attachment style, which is the first step to moving forward.