Dr. Robin L. Kay

Attachment Trauma: Origins and Repair

As children, we are born with a specific set of instincts, needs and wishes that are inherent to us as unique individuals. Our emerging interests and needs, though, are shaped by the interactions we have with our caregivers (i.e., parents and other important people in our lives). Our caregivers may impose demands or expectations on us that differ from our wired-in needs and wishes. This difference between what we need and what we get creates conflict in our minds and stirs up strong feelings. As we grow up and get exposed to alternative models of life and relationships, questions surface:

  • Do we follow our own instincts or the beliefs and rules of our caregivers? 
  • Even more important, but rarely thought about, should we actually have been treated the way we were treated in childhood? 
  • Should we have received more love, attention, care and acceptance than we actually did?
  • And, how does the way others treated us when we were small affect us - and our interactions with loved ones ?

Dr. Alan Sroufe is an expert on attachment theory, early relationships, and the development of children.

"If you think of development as a series of pathways, the longer you follow a pathway that's leading off, the more difficult it is to come back." 

- Alan Sroufe, Ph.D.

How your past shapes your present relationships:

We encode how we were treated as children and how we expect to be treated by others in the "attachment system" in our minds. It operates outside of our conscious awareness yet it contains all of our expectations that pertain to relationships, and it unconsciously shapes our behavior in each relationship we enter into. In other words, our attachment system becomes the  internal model that we automatically use as a system to determine how we treat ourselves and others. It also determines how we expect to be treated.  It is the basis for how we automatically treat others even if we prefer to act differently.

Certain life events shake up these internal psychological attachment systems. These mobilizing events include dating or joining a group or a company, marriage, relationship conflict or divorce. Attachment systems also get activated when:

  • children enter your life,
  • you recognize that you (or your spouse) are providing your children a quality of care you never received
  • current situations or people trigger memories related to emotional experiences from your past.

All of these events have the capacity to be powerful triggers for unresolved attachment trauma (i.e., unresolved stored-up feelings about not receiving what you needed and wanted as a child, such as affection, understanding, encouragement, and acceptance). These unresolved feelings from the past often create disruptive, unpleasant and unwanted psychological symptoms in the present that prevent us from keeping past emotion separate from present circumstances. As a result, our reaction to current disappointments or problems becomes stronger than expected.

For example, many people become symptomatic upon entering into an emotionally intimate relationship or upon having or raising children because these experiences wake up buried feeling about broken attachments . For both men and women, the resulting mounting distress is often ignored until it is consuming. Usually, in fact, the cause of the new distress is misdiagnosed or mislabeled which creates and perpetuates ongoing unnecessary suffering.

When an intimate relationship begins, deepens, or when a current trauma or emotionally provocative change occurs (like childbirth or divorce), the buried emotions associated with past disappointments are unearthed and begin to leak into or flood our brains. At that point, any of a number of symptoms can develop in response to those rising feelings, e.g., anxiety, depression, “resentment of responsibility” and acting out, emotional or physical distancing, “commitmentphobia”, workaholism, addictive behaviors such as eating disorders, alcoholism, gambling, compulsive sex, extramarital affairs, angry or tearful outbursts, psycho-physiological disorders, etc… These symptoms usually lead to even more anxiety and distress and can create or worsen work and personal relationship problems.

We are destined to repeat what we do not understand, have not healed, or really have not changed.

Attachment research has taught us that relationships in the present have the potential to activate buried feelings from the past, raise anxiety, and cause us to act in ways that are nonproductive, stifling, uncontrollable or destructive.

Effective structured psychotherapy provides a unique opportunity for you to resolve (in the present) hidden or buried feelings related to problems of the past. 

It provides you an opportunity to stop: perpetuating your own distress, sabotaging or destroying relationships you value, or (perhaps worst of it all) creating an intergenerational transmission of trauma (i.e., trauma passed down from one generation to the next – from parents to their children).

Through effective psychotherapy, change can occur inside of us (see: brain change) so we can respond more flexibly to people in different situations. It provides an opportunity to change how we treat ourselves and others and to learn how to productively deal with feelings. Effective psychotherapy results in remodeled "attachment systems" creating positive changes in mood and behavior as well as vastly improved relationships.

Dr. Robin Kay

(424) 262 - 6461


Dealing with Feelings

Our upbringing has a powerful impact on how we think about and handle feelings. We may or may not have been taught to treat our feelings with curiosity, love and care. In adulthood, the way we treat our feelings and the feelings of the people we care about  is largely determined by how we learned to treat ourselves and our important feelings. In general, people tend to minimize how their important feelings were treated as children. Many of us have been trained to rationalize self-neglecting behavior and devalue the importance of paying close attention to our feelings (our complex feelings -- ALL of which are vitally important to recognize for optimal mental health). 

Very often I see people who habitually dismiss or bury their own feelings. In other words, they do not allow themselves to feel anger or sadness, and in some cases, all of their feelings are ignored or forbidden (including love and joy). This disconnect can lead to massive and/or chronic anxiety. Along with the anxiety comes the development of self-destructive habits and patterns (defense mechanisms - click here) that ultimately lead to psychological suffering. Once the defenses are in operation, people who ignore their feelings tend to make their own lives and the lives of others unpleasant despite their best intentions to behave well.


What I help my patients understand is this...             
Without taking your feelings and anxiety seriously, you cannot process your feelings in a healthy way to achieve:

1) freedom from bad habits
2) more satisfying relationships
3) immediate and long-term relief

Comfort comes from feeling your feelings--even the painful ones. 
Especially the painful ones.


Even if you are a highly intelligent and well-informed person, you still may routinely ignore, neglect, minimize or deny the important (feeling) information inside of you that would help you feel better and understand yourself, your reality, your options and your dreams.

Why is this ability to access, regulate and process feelings so important? Your ability to adequately process your feelings helps you to avoid crippling states of anxiety and depression. Your feelings provide information so you can make conscious choices about what you like and want to continue. You can then effectively plan and make the sound choices that will allow you to realize your goals and dreams.

Effective psychotherapy provided by an expert can help you begin to resolve your unprocessed feelings and break the maladaptive cycles that are keeping you symptomatic, disappointed or living beneath your potential. In turn, you'll be able to change your way of treating yourself and the important others in your life. Where children are involved, you can maximize the likelihood that you will not traumatize your children. In other words, by dealing with your feelings properly, you can avoid creating or repeating an inter-generational transmission of trauma (trauma handed down from parent to child which gets repeated in each successive generation). The outcome of effective psychotherapy will positively impact your life and the lives of future generations.


Recognizing Defenses

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There are many feelings you may be accustomed to automatically burying (without your conscious awareness). It is especially common to avoid feelings associated with pain or conflict. The unconscious strategies we use to resist or avoid feelings are known as defense mechanisms (aka "defenses").  Recognizing and interfering with defenses are essential to help you achieve the successful outcome you desire.

Commonly used defenses include angry outbursts, intellectualizing, rationalizing, yelling, giving up, acting out, bullying, drinking, eating, shopping and cheating, but there are many more automatic strategies people use to estrange themselves from their feelings.  When people habitually ignore their true feelings, they become stuck in anxiety or dependent upon their defenses in order to handle the feelings of life.  This reliance on anxiety or defense as a "feeling management strategy" leads to unhealthy and often destructive habits. Being partially or fully detached from your feelings is likely to lead you to make bad choices that won't allow you to reach your full potential.

Strong or painful feelings can trigger anxiety in any of us, especially if we were raised to keep our feelings under wraps. Ignoring your anxiety, or replacing it with defense mechanisms guarantees you will be limited in your ability to adaptively deal with routine and major problems of living. I use this model in my work to help you understand how intense unprocessed feelings trigger anxiety, and how the unhealthy behaviors that follow are automatic responses (defense mechanisms) designed to quiet down both the intense feelings and the anxiety they trigger. 

By addressing the feelings underneath your anxiety (instead of burying them), relief of your anxiety symptoms is possible. Most importantly, dealing with your true feelings leads you to free yourself by breaking the dysfunctional patterns of behavior that have kept you stuck in your life (e.g., feeling bad, living beneath your potential, repeating self-destructive patterns, and generally feeling trapped or in a rut). With those maladaptive patterns discarded, you can be immersed in satisfaction and celebration of yourself, your loved ones, and your life.