Being left out- an unhealed wound & how to heal using attachment science
Once you start diving into attachment science, it’s impossible to not see it everywhere you look (more about how the past can help you understand the present icymi). Today, we’re focusing on the avoidant side of the equation, and how to heal using attachment science.
I was recently listening to an episode of my favorite podcast, We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle (I can’t recommend it enough- listen here), where they covered a topic that comes up often in therapy sessions, particularly attachment therapy sessions: being left out, why it hurts so much, and hurts so incessantly.
As they, women in their forties, described in photographic detail specific events from childhood where they felt excluded, unwanted, and less than in response to the behaviors of other children, I could not stop thinking about the fear of rejection through the lens of attachment science. This concept demonstrates the impact of early attachment lessons so clearly. And when this perspective leads to holistic human understanding, the result can be quite therapeutic.
How does the hurt of rejection relate to infancy?
Attachment science teaches us to go way back to early infancy when considering the ways developmentally significant events, (or “core memories” as the kids are saying) relate to adult functioning. So, consider a child or baby, who is fully reliant on their caregiver for food, shelter, water, protection. Feeling rejected by this caregiver, maybe by the caregiver not being engaged or responsive to the baby’s cries for what they need, is inherently traumatizing: it means the inability to secure the necessities to be safe and alive in the world. It means death.
So what does the child do? They likely learned that the following actions were not effective in getting their needs basic met:
- Communication of their needs
- Reaching out to their caregiver
- Expression of emotion (i.e., the system by which humans are alerted to their own needs, and by which they communicate those needs to others)
Not only were those methods ineffective, they were actually potentially actively detrimental to the child, as they left the child exposed vulnerably in their needs, and deeply affected when they could not get those needs met. Therefore a lesson could get coded (unconsciously) something like this:
- expressing emotions and needs left me feeling in pain with my needs unmet
- expressing emotions and needs is not fruitful or safe
- I cannot trust others
Rejection in early childhood
Soon enough, a child will further socialize through school and early peer relationships. If we consider evolution, we know that there was a time when rejection from the in-group corresponded to isolation, lack of resources, and death. Death! The body, in its remarkable attempt to keep us safe, remembers this threat of death. And when rejection is perceived, the similar sensation of doom ensues.
So not only is a child vulnerable to feeling this pain at school, they may have already entered the school system with a wound sensitive to feeling rejected from others, needs unmet, from interactions they experienced in infancy that coded the way they perceive the world.
These early events become so ingrained in our minds and so central to the narratives we hold about ourselves and our lives that we can recall them in vivid detail well into our adulthood. Unfortunately, this can means we are also still impacted by the hurt of those early rejections. And perhaps operating reactively from those wounds.
Who is to blame for these patterns?
I know, if only we could figure out where it started and just extinguish these dynamics simply. The problem is, the threat of rejection is so scary, that even for the best of us, our survival strategy kicks in when we sense it. It is essentially human for attachment strategies to activate.
This might mean pushing others out for the preservation of ourselves. For instance, if someone senses they are getting pushed out of the in-group, they may actively try and push someone else out instead to protect their own chance to survive- and who can blame them? When we are unconsciously letting the attachment system steer the wheel, we live in a place of uninformed reactivity, constantly reigniting one another’s deepest threats to survival and putting our learned strategies to the test.
A colloquial example of this dynamic that comes to mind is the idea of “leaving before you are left.” If you are leaving a relationship not because there is intention in where you are going, but to avoid the pain of future imagined rejection, you are reacting from this attachment wound, and in the process, perhaps triggering the threat of rejection in the partner you are leaving.
Fear of rejection and attachment styles- functional strategies
How to heal using attachment science
Attachment therapists often associate those who tend to fear rejection as those who display an avoidant attachment style. In the words of Glennon,
“…sometimes the horror of the leftoutedness feeling which can feel like death, can lead us to things that become survival skills in our lives…for me…dissociation.”Glennon Doyle, We Can Do Hard Things podcast episode 241
An avoidant attachment style is often associated with minimizing emotions, needs, and dependence on others. More specific strategies in adulthood may include:
- a tendency to dissociate,
- over-intellectualizing (obsessively focusing on facts and logic to deflect from experiencing),
- using humor to relieve tension,
- protective anger,
- eating disorders,
- substance use,
- any mechanism by which a person numbs emotionally and neglects acknowledging their own needs, and therefore, bypasses the pain of having unmet needs
As stated previously, if a child perceived that their caregiver was not accessible, engaged with, or responsive to them, the child may have learned that they are safer if they do not have needs. So, if they can deactivate their threat-detection system altogether, they will feel like they are more safe in the world than if they are to face the reality that the care they need might not be reachable. This teaches children to protect themselves through containing their emotions and their needs, which is the way they have learned to care for themselves when they move into adulthood.
Avoidant attachment- the long-term costs
The strategies above can work really well to allow avoidant attached individuals a sense of security… in the short-term. And it is completely sensible that avoidant attached individuals have relied on these strategies for a time- it is how they learned to survive in the world. Over time, though, people experience serious costs associated with these strategies:
- lack of experiencing the true self
- over self-reliance does not leave room for healthy dependence
- numbing from needs and pain will ultimately diminish the capacity to experience anything at all, including more pleasant emotions
- lack of depth and true connection in relationships
- physical manifestation of unexpressed emotions and symptoms
Again, the implementation and function of these behaviors is usually unconscious. There is a deeper meaning for why people may be implementing these behaviors, but they often have not yet done the work to bring into consciousness what historic attachment wound to which they are reacting. This is how we can find ourselves in ongoing, perpetuating cycles of ineffective coping.
Reminder: what we see is not the whole story
It’s important to remember that even though we see a strong facade on the outside that we might associate with a lack of caring, the fact that the strategy is online actually indicates a deep level of being affected. If you love a person who expresses an avoidant attachment style, it may be natural to assume they do not care and feel discouraged when you see them withdraw. But this could not be further from the case, the fact that they are using the strategy (I.e. the attachment system is activated) is evidence that they do care deeply. They just have learned to minimize that care, just like they learned to suppress every other emotion.
Will rejection always hurt this much?
How to heal using attachment science
Being a full-experiencing human means touching parts of ourselves and our experiences that can be unpleasant. We all have sensitivities to different stimuli that impact us due to experiences in our early development.
Through relationship with trusted others, we have the capacity to heal some of these wounds. These trusted others could be therapists, partners, or other important figures in our lives who we feel deeply connected to (or David Rose… if you are so lucky).
In therapy, we call these “corrective experiences,” which are conversations we have that assure us that others are accessible to us and engaged with us, and that it is safe to express our deep unmet needs since they are there to actively respond and hold us in the most vulnerable expression. These experiences can rewire our brains from the historical detection of threat to an experience of felt safety.
Learn to Pause
I am a big believer that the first step in any healing journey is to pause. Catch yourself when you notice your emotional reaction does not match the intensity of the situation in front of you. Breathe, feel into your body, and trust that you are safe enough to sit with any temporary discomfort. See if you can label what you are feeling and identify what you may be responding to.
Acknowledge all your body is trying to do to keep you safe, and also know that you do not have to move forward in reactivity. Choose to respond from an informed, intentional place. In this way, we can learn to reparent ourselves, or teach ourselves how to find calm and safety in the face of attachment distress.
Therapy can be an incredibly beneficial space to be guided by a professional clinician to engage in new conversations with trusted others in a clinically-sound, attachment-informed way. I also expand on how process difficult emotions here that may arise as you lean into this deep exploration.
Self-reflection and therapy are great places to start.
We also offer a free guide for you to dive further into all things attachment, figure out your attachment style, and take steps to start healing. We even include a recorded meditation to promote secure attachment that you can listen to over and over. A great tool if any of these themes resonated with you.
How to heal using attachment science- therapy
As always, if you are ready to dive into this exploration with our practice, book your free consultation here.