When I tell people that the approach I use in my private counselling practice is based in Attachment Theory I will occasionally get some eye rolls. In pop psychology Attachment Theory is plagued by misconceptions. From the association to the “Attachment Parenting” model which got a bad rap for the belief you need to hold your baby until they are 19, to the idea that Attachment Theory is all about understanding and therefore doesn’t include boundaries or solutions. Even the name is misleading, it somehow suggests that by using Attachment Theory as a counsellor I am going to cling to my clients and help them do things they can’t or don’t want to do themselves. It sounds silly when I put it that way but, when we are trying to help someone we care about often we end up trying to do exactly that. Ironic.
For me, using Attachment Theory in my private practice hinges on the important difference between understanding and acceptance. Understanding can only be gained through genuine curiosity and empathy. First, with curiosity as a guide to ask informative questions and second, empathy to build a trusting relationship where the questions can be answered honestly. Acceptance, by contrast, reflects a combination of our own morals and those of the society in which we live. We often choose relationships with people or organizations with whom we share similar values. As a society, we have developed rules for behaviours that we deem acceptable. In some cases we have even developed punishments for behaviours that we have deemed unacceptable. Ideally, what is acceptable in a society reflects a balance of what is acceptable in the relationships between the individuals in it.
Understanding can only be gained through genuine curiosity, and empathy.
Attachment Theory doesn’t seek to change the fact that some things are simply unacceptable. I’m certainly not a cheerleader for behaviours that cause mental or physical pain to others. However, I do believe that understanding can help. It can help because without understanding and the empathy required to get to a place of understanding, it is nearly impossible to know why people are acting outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour the rest of us reside within. In some cases this understanding may lead us to change our approach within our relationships, in other cases we might even expand what we determine to be acceptable. In all cases, our understanding does not amount, in and of itself, to acceptance.
Working with clients in my private practice from a place of Attachment means I can still say ‘no’. I can take the time to create understanding and empathy, learn from it and continue to reject the thoughts or behaviours I sought to comprehend. These boundaries are necessarily within the counselling setting, just as they are in ‘real life’. Over time, my counselling approach and the use of Attachment Theory ultimately creates a reciprocal process. Not only do I gain understanding, but the clients I’m working with do too. Of themselves, their own behaviours, and where it all fits within the context of their relationships. And it is this understanding which creates the conditions necessary for change.