“A secure attachment is the ability to bond; to develop a secure and safe base...”
― Asa Don Brown, The Effects of Childhood Trauma on Adult Perception and Worldview
Nine years ago, I was really looking forward to celebrating our Ruby (40th) anniversary. We were married in Germany, so dinner and a night in the Washington state version of a Bavarian Village in Leavenworth seemed like a proper and fitting idea.
All started well with a hike in Leavenworth around Ski Hill Loop, a beer or two at Icicle Brewing Company, a decent meal of rolladen and schwartzwalderkirschtorte for dessert. We left dinner early with eager anticipation.
We wanted to get back to the hotel so we could enjoy the upscale suite with a fancy bed that my penurious husband, John, had taken a month to perfectly plan and loosen his purse strings to splurge on. After our full day, John would watch football and I would take a Jacuzzi.
Then the bad thing started to…well, then I did a bad thing. Not a mean thing, just a bad, erroneous, unthinking thing.
I pushed the Jacuzzi jets before the tub was full of water (though I may have claimed I didn't see the warning "do not start jacuzzi jets until tub fills with water," I did actually see it and chose to disregard it). Then I slowly made several efforts to stop the jets, but was unsuccessful. The rest is a bit blurry, just let me say that the beautiful bed was soaked, really soaked, totally and thoroughly soaked.
And my husband was frosted, really frosted, totally and thoroughly frosted. It didn't help that I did not appear remorseful - did not take responsibility for what I had done.
John didn’t say much after that. We picked up our bags, went to the front desk, confessed my sins, and left. Twenty-four hours later, after coming to grips with my wrong-doing, and delivering a sincere apology, however, he was beginning to make eye contact with me once again. It appeared that we might be able to remain married, perhaps even beyond our Ruby year.
Why do I bring you into our little trauma? Because it might be good for you. (Not to mention that confession is good for my soul.)
It might be good for you to know that even strong marriages are not always perfect, and that even though life is full of beautiful and wonderful times, some do not feel so good.
It might be good for you to know that you can mess up (my husband has a stronger word), feel remorse, apologize, and grow from all your experiences. Most importantly, we must realize that we all make mistakes. It is part of being human and we can learn to work with that.
Self-compassion is the key. It comes in very handy for long, happy marriages. How so?
Researchers believe that those who can give themselves (and others) compassion probably had what professionals refer to as “secure attachment.” These compassion-able people most likely had a mother, father, or other important person in their life who was responsive and loving and provided a “secure base.”
People with secure attachment styles are strong in empathic attunement, self-awareness, and emotion regulation—all essential skills needed for relationship repair and reconciliation. Securely attached people can deliver more effective apologies (that express remorse, accept responsibility, acknowledge harm, admit wrong-doing, promise to behave better in the future...and more secure partners can accept them).
Sadly, not all of us may feel that we had a secure-base, a place where we felt totally safe and loved. Some even had truly tragic upbringings like a boy named Damien.
Damien’s story is told by Mary Gordon who was then a sixth-grade teacher in a rough section of Ontario, Canada. As I recall from her book Roots of Empathy which I read some years ago, she said that the main thing she tried to do each school day was simply to keep kids from hurting each other.
Kids like Damien, who was aggressive and disliked by other kids, were especially challenging. Gordon had to ask a few of the parents to come in each day to help her. One of them brought a sixth-month old baby.
At one point Damien asked to hold the baby. Though Gordon was quite concerned about allowing that, the mother agreed. She had a snuggly-front baby carrier which she took off and strapped on to Damien. Then she put in the baby.
Damien somehow knew what to do. He bent his knees and slightly bounced up and down. The baby laid her head on his chest and went to sleep. Damien was delighted. He took her around to all the kids showing them that he had put her to sleep.
Then Damien went to the teacher and asked her a stop-in-your-tracks sort of question, “Mrs. Gordon, do you think someone who has never been loved could be a good parent?”
Gordon reflected on the fact that Damien, at four years old, had seen his father kill his mother. Afterwards Damien had been in a string of foster homes. Damien's question is pertinent to all who have been abused or neglected.
Can a person like Damien who had never had a secure, loving base become a good parent? A good husband? A good friend? A good citizen? And what about us? Maybe we didn’t have the trauma Damien had, but we may have experienced a lack of love.
The issue rolls back again to self-compassion, secure attachment and what we can do if we never had a secure base.
There is hope. We can build our own secure base and become more self-compassionate (and ultimately compassionate toward others).
We might use affirmations. Some researchers suggest repeating or reading statements along this line: “I accept myself with all my faults and mistakes. I’ve also done much good in my life. Each mistake is a chance for me to grow.”
You might think of affirmations as self-blessings. Compassion experts like Dr. Shauna Shapiro suggests that we say three kind, acknowledging statements each day to ourselves like “I was really present for my son this morning.”
Certainly, we can learn to simply say "thank you" when others affirm or acknowledge us. Even better, we can think of kind words as a blessing. Savor them, let them seep into every cell of our body....rather than do what I usually do - slough off good words by minimizing or dismissing them (if they only knew all the mistakes I have made).
Some of us may build a more secure base through religion, connecting with - believing in, a loving God or patron saint. We might simply allow ourselves to receive the blessing offered by the Sacred.
Christians may recall the story of Jesus after his baptism... of hearing these affirming words from God, “You are my son in whom I am well-pleased.” (This seems to have been the beginning of his mission to spread the idea that people are beloved, children of God).
I know many people who had difficult upbringings who found unconditional love in their dogs. Their hearts warm as they see those wagging tails and gentle eyes.
Other ways of building our secure base include remembering anyone who has shown kindness or who mentored us throughout our lives. It is just as useful to think of those people whom we have loved, mentored, and helped.
When I first started thinking of people who have loved me, mentored me, or been supportive, nothing much came immediately to mind; but as I settled down, I was amazed at how many people I thought of who had been kind to me. I even began to think of people beyond my everyday circle like the farmers who grow my food, the fire fighters, and police who protect me.
After thinking of people who had loved me or been kind to me, amazingly, I began to think of all the people I had helped, mentored, and deeply loved.
This process seems to build what some call the “deep attachment system circuitry” in our brains. It primes us for compassion toward the self (please notice that I am not proposing self-indulgence, self-pity, egocentrism, or any sort of narcissism here) and others.
We all need a secure base and self-compassion because we have all made mistakes and many of us have also experienced hurt. Many of us did not receive the unconditional love we sought. Nevertheless, we all seek to be happy, loving people.
This is my wish for us. May we grow more loving toward ourselves through creating a secure base.
We can use that exercise of thinking of our mentors and those who have loved us, we can associate with affirming people, pet animals, rock babies, and learn to affirm ourselves; and, if it feels right, we can lean into a relationship with the Sacred Source of unconditional Love.
We can provide a secure base for others. Offer a smile, a hug, a word of acknowledgment or affirmation. Show our care and concern.
People can heal. We can heal. We can hold each other when we hurt. We can walk beside each other on the journey.
May we become good parents, good friends, good citizens, good spouses. May our hard-won marriages last far beyond our Ruby Anniversary (if we so choose). And, finally, may we learn to wait until the tub is full of water before we turn on the Jacuzzi jets.
How might you Journey to The Good Life by learning how to build a secure base for ourselves?
Find Christian sermons related to self-compassion by Reverend Juli Reinholz under resources
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