Behavioural systems (attachment, care giving, exploration, sex & power): using imagery & compassion to fine tune them
Last updated on 17th March 2012
A week ago I wrote a post "Behavioural systems (attachment, care giving, exploration, sex & power): hyperactivated, hypoactivated or just about right?" where I talked about Shaver & Mikulincer's model of five behavioural systems - care seeking, care giving, exploration, sex & power - which ideally fire up appropriately when the external or internal environment throws up a challenge. The selected system then leads to a successful response and can shut down again. Unfortunately many of us have learning histories that mean, when we bring some of these behavioural systems on line, we tend to either hyper- or hypo-activate them. For care giving, hyperactivation can produce a "smothering" style and hypoactivation may be involved in burnout, lack of empathy & cold-heartedness. With exploration, hyperactivation can be associated with excessive restlessness & dissatisfaction, while hypoactivation may involve dullness & lack of curiosity. Sexually, hyperactivation is linked to sex addiction in its various forms and hypoactivation to lack of libido & sexual dysfunctions. Power hyperactivation is oppressive of others and hypoactivation is oppressive of oneself with lack of assertiveness & inability to take a stand. Far and away the most researched areas of hyper- and hypo-activation are with the care seeking, attachment system, with hyperactivation involving an anxious (hyperalert, distress amplifying) style, and hypoactivation involving an avoidant/dismissive (excessively self-reliant, emotionally distancing) style.
From age 8 to 17, I went to single-sex boys' boarding schools. Back then, these were often not particularly kind environments. It made good sense to develop a partly "avoidant" attachment style that helped me be more self-reliant and less dependent on others when the going got tough. At medical school and as a young doctor, a similar pattern served me pretty well. I still slip into it in certain situations. I can catch myself "bragging" a bit, self-enhancing to help me get through. Maybe I shouldn't squirm hearing myself do this. Maybe it would be more useful to have self-compassion towards that quite isolated part of me that needed to survive without a lot of help. Possibly because I see this tendency to occasionally move into protective self-enhancement in myself, I find that I seem to notice it in others too. I then tend to "judge" their boasting, while it might be more helpful to "boost" their sense of security with appreciation and kindness - although boasting can, at times, be more about power or sexual systems rather than about insecure attachment. Probably what I find most upsetting about my tendency to occasionally puff up & protectively self-enhance is that it can get in the way of how I want to be in the world - it can sabotage empathy, authenticity & open-heartedess.
Happily there are creative responses we can use when we find attachment insecurity pushing us off course. For example, because I've taken a rather unusual professional path for a doctor, I can at times feel a bit of an odd one out at medical meetings. Then, as at school, it's quite easy for me to play a tune or two from the "aren't I a fine fellow" syndrome. Especially if I'm the lecturer, this really isn't likely to be helpful. I've got several lovely medical friends - dear people with good hearts and good minds. What I've done in the past is imagine that - in a large audience of doctors - some are my friends (or at least there are people in the audience who are very similar to the medical friends who I care about and respect). It's a useful imagery "trick" that promotes "secure attachment" with all the subsequent spin-off benefits of increased authenticity, empathy & warmth. I can get on with speaking about what's important and what I want to share with the audience in ways that make it much more likely that I'll be heard and that what I say will actually make a difference.
There's plenty of research demonstrating the value of imagery and other methods to increase a sense of attachment security. In their 2007 paper "Boosting attachment security to promote mental health, prosocial values, and inter-group tolerance", Mario Mikulincer & Phil Shaver write "We conceptualize the sense of attachment security as an inner resource and present theory and research on the broaden and build cycle of attachment security generated by the actual or symbolic encounter with external or internalized loving and caring relationship partners. We also propose that the body of research stimulated by attachment theory offers productive hints about interventions that might increase positive experiences and prosocial behavior by bolstering a person's sense of security. On this basis, we review recent experimental studies showing how interventions designed to increase attachment security have beneficial effects on mental health, prosocial behavior, and intergroup relations, and discuss unaddressed issues concerning the mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of these interventions, the temporal course of these effects, and their interaction with countervailing forces."
And in a 2008 publication - "Moving Toward a Secure Attachment Style: Can Repeated Security Priming Help?" - the authors wrote "Several methods have been used to create short-term changes in people's sense of security in the laboratory. These methods involve: (a) exposing people (subliminally or supraliminally) to security-related words (e.g., love, hug, affection, and support) or the names of an individual's security-providing attachment figures; (b) exposing people (subliminally or supraliminally) to pictures representing attachment security; and (c) asking participants to recall memories of being loved and supported by attachment figures, or asking people to imagine such scenarios. These priming procedures have been shown to influence such diverse variables as mood, attitudes toward novel stimuli, reactions to out-group members, death anxiety, aggression, and compassion and altruism ... The idea behind both subliminal and supraliminal priming manipulations is that stimuli associated with a sense of security enter a semantic network and create a process of ‘spreading activation' that touches upon affective as well as semantic ‘nodes', thereby creating a sense of security similar to that which might be evoked by supportive attachment figures." And in commenting on how long such effects might last, they pointed out "In addition to the nature of a prime, repeating its presentation seems to affect the duration of its effects. Brown, Jones, and Mitchell (1996), for example, found that as the number of exposures to the prime (repetitions) increased, the effects of the prime were stronger and longer lasting. Similarly, Salasoo, Shiffrin, and Feustel (1985) found that accuracy of identification a year after priming was affected by number of repetitions of the prime stimuli. In line with the above mentioned findings, we suggest that security primes are likely to result in long-term effects, especially when people are repeatedly exposed to such primes. Based on Bowlby's (1973) conceptualization that repeated interactions with an attachment figure not only alter attachment-system functioning in the short term but also affect consolidation of working models in the long term, we would expect repeated security priming to have long-lasting effects on people's attitudes and behaviors."
These observations can lead to a cascade of fascinating therapeutic interventions aimed at building attachment security through regular exposure to "primes" that might involve words (like compassion, care, love, warmth, understanding, supporting), prayers & meditations (loving kindness practices, intercessory prayers, Bible verses, Buddhist phrases) images (religious/spiritual figures, personal loved ones) memories (of love & support for self or others), symbols that one wears or arranges to see regularly (reminders of compassion - cultural like crosses, Buddhas, etc - and personal), music & song, internal feeling, and so on. So many possibilities. See for example many of the blog posts on this website - "4 studies on prayer and their implications for compassion, loving-kindness & goodwill meditation practices", "Embodied cognition: posture & feelings" & "Embodied cognition: what to do", "Life skills for stress, health & wellbeing: goodwill practice", "Barbara Fredrickson's recent research on loving-kindness meditation", and "Therapeutic use of film, music & poetry".
For more on these ideas, see the post "Boosting self-compassion & self-encouragement by strengthening attachment security: twelve practical suggestions".