Going back for a university reunion: stirring up memories, avoidant attachment, "puffing up" and kindness (1st post)
Last updated on 6th March 2013
"The spirit of a man is constructed out of his choices." Irvin Yalom
"I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being,
let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again." William Penn
In about a month's time I'm scheduled to go back to my old university for a reunion. I've never been back for any kind of reunion before ... not to school, not to university, not to medical college. Why not ... and why am I going back now?
I'm a medical doctor, but primarily I work as a psychotherapist ... as a specialist in stress, health & wellbeing. I'm also a fan of Irvin Yalom, Stanford university psychiatry professor and author of a series of wonderful books. I blame Irvin for my change of heart about reunions. He has commented that he routinely encourages his clients to accept invitations to go back to school or university. He says it tends to stir up so many memories & feelings ... rich sources of potential insights for the psychotherapy process. And this is the primary conscious reason I'm going back. To see what it brings up. I have described this kind of "site visit" as relevant in treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder and I highlighted how this overlaps with current developments in narrative therapy. And it's working! Already, a month before the actual reunion, I feel silt stirring up from the bottom of the stream of my life. Memories, feelings, images, body senses, choices. Mm ... what have I let myself in for!?
I was sent away to boarding school at the age of 8. I still remember the dormitory of little boys weeping ourselves to sleep. My memory is of us like a flock of birds, seagulls crying, each alone. Nobody spoke or reached out to each other. No matron or member of staff ever came in. The staff must have known. At some level there must have been a decision that we would just be left to cry ourselves out, to get over it, to toughen up. Each morning, nobody mentioned the crying of the night before. Typically, when we were small, this would go on for the first few nights of each term. We learned. Nobody who loved us was near. Nobody would come. We learned to cope on our own.
In an earlier blog post "Behavioural systems (attachment, care giving, exploration, sex & power): hyperactivated, hypoactivated or just about right?", I wrote: Overall (along with 50 to 60% of the population) I qualify as "securely attached". I was fortunate in being brought up by loving parents who left me with an internalised "secure attachment script" that runs something like "If I feel a bit insecure or threatened, there will be others who I can turn to for comfort & support. I'll then feel better & successfully be able to tackle the challenges I face." Our attachment style spreads out to affect many aspects of our lives - especially how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others. I've written quite a lot in the past about attachment. See, for example, "Attachment, compassion & relationships" and "Assessing attachment in adults". In the latter post, I said " ... most people would probably benefit from being more aware of their attachment styles in close relationships with the crucial knock on effects this has on our partners, friends, work relationships and children. It's part of healthy maturing to keep what we value from our upbringing and work to change what we feel is no longer helpful." I went on to comment "Be cautious though about over-glibly classifying oneself or others on these scales. Yes, we do tend to fall into particular styles in our close relationships. However it is clear that our styles are "dimensional" and nuanced not just blunt, general "categories". So, for example, I might typically have a secure attachment style with my partner, but I could at times slide into a temporary dismissive style (and noting this tendency might be very helpful). Our close relationship style can also evolve over time ... to become more secure or less secure ... depending on the relationship experiences we encounter (and co-create) in our lives. Attachment style also varies between our different close relationships (Klohnen, Weller et al. 2005). Assessing attachment can be very helpful, but be aware that styles are mixed, variable and individualised."
Mostly, when I'm in situations where I feel a bit threatened, I'm pretty good at getting help and support if I need it. Sometimes though I suspect I become a bit dismissive/avoidant and can unnecessarily just "go it on my own". I may find myself "puffing up". It's what I sometimes call the "Aren't I a fine fellow" syndrome. Don't get me wrong, this isn't as overt as "Would you like to admire my expensive car and trophy wife" syndrome, but is has a similar ... if more subtle ... smell to it. I don't like it. I cringe a bit when I find myself doing it. With me it typically emerges as "boasting" about interesting things I've done or experiences I've had. A helpful lens to view this pattern through is "avoidant attachment". In their chapter in the recent book "Handbook of self-enhancement & self-protection", Shaver & Mikulincer write "Attachment theory ... tries to make sense of human beings' self-enhancement and self-protection at both the physical and the psychological levels. In the present chapter ... we begin with a brief summary of the theory and an account of the two major individual-difference dimensions it highlights, attachment anxiety and avoidance. We then explain how the theory and some of the research it has inspired illuminates self-protective and self-enhancing processes, including potentially destructive defensive processes. We show how avoidant individuals' attempts at self-enhancement are motivated by a wish to view themselves as self-reliant and as not needing to rely on others to help them cope with life's demands. Finally, we consider attachment security and secure attachment relationships as alternative, more authentic, less defensive routes to self-protection and self-worth." (Free full text copies of many of Professor Phil Shaver's publications are downloadable from his University of California website).
I got good at "going it on my own". Advantages & disadvantages. I hitchhiked around Morocco alone at the age of 17. I was good at coping, but there was a cost too. At the "public school" I went to, boys slept & ate in twelve different "houses" at various distances away from the main school buildings. Our house was the furthest out, maybe 15 minutes walk from the school proper. Each morning we'd go in wearing our black jackets & grey flannel trousers. There was a regular "shuffling of the cards" each day. Who would be with who? Who was in with the "in-crowd"? Who didn't have friends? Boys would hang around in the downstairs hall waiting to link up with others. I was pretty tough (played in the scrum for the school rugby team) and pretty bright. I would wait just a little to see if anyone I was "friends" with would show up in the hall. If not, I was too proud to hang around. I would just walk up on my own. "I don't need anybody ... I'm fine alone". Looking down my nose. Sometimes aching a bit. Sometimes lonely. Not really aware of what was going on. Not having a language to describe how I felt. Numbed out. Now, as a psychotherapist, my sense of myself back then is of a rawness in my heart, a "wound" hidden by the black jacket. And what I find so sad now is, that like the still younger boys crying themselves to sleep at the age of 8, I didn't realise that these other teenagers at public school were often lonely too, often aching too. I didn't reach out. Kindness dried up.
And that was a strand, one of the themes, that I took to university. Lone wolf. Friends yes, like anyone else. Girlfriends. Guys I hung out with. Many precious good times. But also an aloneness. A wound under my jacket. Now as an adult, I realise that pretty much all of us carry "wounds" of one kind or another. I was a hippie at university. Shoulder length hair. Looking down my nose at the "straights". That going against the establishment was for a whole load of reasons (the "Development of distressed states" diagram applies well to the development of non-distressed states too). One of them was avoidant attachment and puffing up. "I can cope without anyone else". Sad. And one challenge I take back to the university reunion next month is knowing how easy it would be for me to slip back into comparisons and self-protection. In Shaver & Mikulincer's words, wouldn't it be great to get in touch with "alternative, more authentic, less defensive routes to self-protection and self-worth"? Wouldn't it be great to be kind? Probably all of us, in one way or another, coming back and self-questioning ... "How has my life gone?" "How do I compare?" "Have I been as successful as these other guys?". I don't know anyone else at all well who's on the list of those going back next month. It's very likely I'll have dinner with these men and then never see them again before we die. It would be good to be kind. The wounds under our jackets can allow us to connect. And let's see how it goes ... "Fine words butter no parsnips" ... let's see how I can make it go.
For the next post in this series see "Going back for a university reunion: reconstructing our personal stories (2nd post)".