Secure attachment happens when we receive consistent fulfillment of what I call the five As, our earliest needs: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, allowing. We can look at how they were or were not fulfilled in our childhood. We respond in detail, with at least one example, to each of the following elements of the five As in a journal. We distinguish which parent fulfilled the needs if only one of them did. Remember that no one will give a perfect score to his or her parents.
Here are the elements of an ideal holding environment, the qualities of secure attachment. This is not meant to describe the usual experience of a childhood. Fortunately, as children we can experience safety and security and have our needs satisfied with good enough parenting. We do not need perfection, nor is it possible.
Yet, when there were major deficiencies in early life we find grist for the mill of our personal work of grief and then self-parenting. As part of this work we let go of blame or resentment toward our parents for their inadequacies.
If you are a parent, you may want to use the listings below to look into your own parenting style. Share this practice with your children if they are old enough to understand it. Ask them for an honest take on your parenting of them and open a dialogue about it.
Finally, the five As also describe what we need from our adult partners. You can, therefore, adapt the following points to your relationship needs and longings, you to your partner, your partner to you. Again, we healthy adults are satisfied with good-enough not perfect.
Here are some ways our parents might have fulfilled our needs for the five As in childhood. Each is stated as an ideal and all are to be understood as including healthy limit-setting:
You felt that your parents, or at least one of them, directed an engaged focus on you.
You felt they we paying mindful attention to you with no judgment or reproach of you.
They looked not at you but into you to know your feelings and needs.
They asked you what you felt and needed without trying to convince you otherwise.
They attuned to your feelings and needs in a mirroring way.
They checked in with you about your reactions to their feelings and to family events.
You knew you would be heard, that your story and emotions were of genuine interest to them and would always a welcoming response.
They loved knowing you.
You knew that whatever you were or would turn out to be was acceptable to them.
You knew they were not trying to make you into what they wanted you to be but curious about what you yourself would grow into.
They showed you that your interests were totally acceptable to them.
They accepted your feelings, needs, lifestyle.
They accepted your sexual and gender orientation with no reprimand or suggestion you be otherwise than what you were.
All your feelings were OK with them, rather than some being judged as wrong, e.g., “Boys don’t cry.”
You were not shamed.
You did not have to fit in; you always knew you belonged.
You were valued by your parents for yourself not for your accomplishments.
You did not feel that you were a burden or “another mouth to feed.”
Your parents did not play favorites.
They appreciated your uniquely important place in their lives and in that of the whole family.
They acknowledged your gifts, gave you credit for them, did what they could to boost them.
Your parents backed you up if and when others turned against you.
They understood your joys and tears and held them in an equally warm embrace.
You knew you could always trust them.
Your parents hugged, held, and kissed you.
They showed their love in physical ways without being inappropriate.
You often heard them tell you that they loved you.
No one was embarrassed by eye contact or touch.
You felt that your experience was cradled with benevolent fondness ever-expanding.
You knew without a doubt that your parents’ caring connection to you would never end.
They welcomed affection from you in your way of showing it.
Their ways of showing love evolved in accord with your age but never lessened in tenderness.
You know they had wanted you even before you were born and that they always will.
You felt you were irreplaceable.
Your parents tried their best to know your deepest needs, values, and wishes.
They were not insisting that these needs, values, and wishes had to mirror their own.
They were not trying to control you but they did set reasonable limits to guide you.
You felt free to explore the world around you rather than being held back or obliged to care-take them.
They loved having you find new ways of thinking and imagining even when your ways did not match theirs.
You were approved of whether you were marginal or mainstream in your lifestyle.
You could trust your parents to encourage you in your personal journey and to support you in it.
They provided a safe home to be in or come back to while launching you out of it when you were ready.
You knew they would help you fulfill your life goals by contributing, in whatever way they could, your finding your unique path in the world.
They could let you go.
Can I now love others—and myself—in these same ways?
As a practice, whenever we happen to remember an instance of our parents showing us one or more of the five As, we can say internally: “I appreciate how you loved me. May I show myself, you, and others that same love.” In this statement we show appreciation for our parents and extend it into a loving-kindness practice toward ourselves and others. Whatever love we receive from anyone can encourage us to give it to everyone.
When the five As, attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, allowing, were not forthcoming in our childhood we had reason to grieve. But, instead, we might have blamed ourselves, believed that there was something wrong with us. In our adult life we come to see that it was not about that. It was always about the given that some parents don’t or can’t come through as we need them to. It was always about our path of mourning for what was missing and our giving the five As to ourselves as we grew into adulthood. In that self-nurturant style, we were readying ourselves to receive the five As from a partner in a healthy adult relationship.
A practice that helps us grieve our losses, hurts, and misattunements from childhood begins with attention to early memories. We use a memory as a cue to the practice: We summon up the three feelings in grief whenever a memory of how our caregivers did not come through for us comes up, or how they hurt, abandoned, or disappointed us. We can ask ourselves three questions in immediate response to the memory, pausing after each, noticing our sensations and feelings:
- How did that sadden me? How am I still holding the sadness now? Where did I feel it in my body then and now?
- How did that anger me? How am I still holding the anger now? Where did I feel it in my body then and now?
- How did that scare me? How am I still holding the fear now? Where did I feel it in my body then and now?
Using this exercise, we are no longer at the mercy of disturbing memories. We are placing them in the container of grief. In other words, we are processing them not just stacking and storing them in our minds and bodies. We are not hoarding memories. We are making room for them to flow through us like lightning through a lightning rod and to safely to ground, back to the earth. We are relocating our painful memories into a context of healing. We are greeting them with a remedial practice. We are taking advantage of what in neuroscience is called reconditioning, taking an old habit and reworking it. We thereby construct new neural pathways in our brain so that a memory is expanded into a liberation from the hurt it reminds us of. The three feelings, experienced over and over, will gradually give us a sense of completion. The practice helps us foster trust in our bodily timing, another exquisite resource within. If this practice, or any practice in this book, restimulates trauma we do not use it or we find a way to soften it so that it is endurable.
Our grief practice helps us deal with three givens of life that might also have been features of our childhood: loss, injustice, threat. Sadness is our built-in resource for handling what we experienced as deficits and losses. Anger is displeasure at what we felt was unfair to us in how we were treated. Fear signals danger or threat and activates our resource of self-protection and self-safety, what we are doing in this practice.
An avoidance of grief about what was missing from our childhood home might sound like this: “If I can find someone now to give me what was missing in childhood I don’t have to grieve not getting it back then.” We might direct this need/demand to an adult partner or even to our parents, now our fellow adults. Most of us have found out that does not work. The only path through is the journey we take on our own, the journey from encapsulation in childhood to liberation into adulthood.
We might also avoid grief by holding onto grievances against our parents or others. In healthy psychological development, we let go of grievances but experience our grief feelings of sadness, anger, fear.
We eventually come to understand a great irony: how little it would have taken to satisfy our need for love! We could have lived for ten years on one caress from Dad. But he just could not or would not bestow even that. There is grief in this for ourselves and for our parents too. When we grieve the past and let it go, we finally access the central inner resource that makes us adults, the ability to parent ourselves. It was always in us; now we put it to use and there is someone to hold and protect us and no one left to blame.
Finally, we remind ourselves that any grief process involves a profound and thorough acceptance of the givens of loss, change, hard knocks, unwelcome events, and endings in our human story. We grieve, let go, and say yes to what has been and what is. This is an unconditional yes, no-fault, no-blame, no protest. Processing, whether it be of grief or resolution of a conflict in a relationship, finds closure only in a final and abiding yes to bare, bald, bold reality: “This happened. It is the way things go sometimes. My only response now can be surrender to this fact. When I finally allow myself to say yes I notice a deeper than ever letting go happening within me. It comes with aligning myself with reality rather than wishing for what could have been or regretting what has been. I have found serenity by accepting what cannot be changed.” We recall a profoundly spiritual recommendation in “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”: “End in what All begins and ends in: Yes!”
Adapted from Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing by David Richo © 2019 by David Richo. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
DAVID RICHO, PhD, is a psychotherapist, teacher, writer, and workshop leader whose work emphasizes the benefits of mindfulness and loving-kindness in personal growth and emotional well-being. He is the author of numerous books, including How to Be an Adult in Relationships and The Five Things We Cannot Change. Visit his website for his books, CD’s, and events.