Healing Attachment from Within
Welcome to Part 3 of this series on Internal Family Systems (IFS). In my first blog, I introduced the concept of the IFS model of therapy and explained the map of the soul. My second blog post discussed the goals of IFS and what to expect in a session. This final post will explore the internal system’s ability to heal insecure attachment and attachment wounds. Observing God’s intelligent design from the atom to the universe, it comes as no surprise that the human body and mind possess an incredible capacity for healing given optimal circumstances. Before exploring healing attachment through the lens of Internal Family Systems, let’s review the definition of human attachment.
The Inside Story of Attachment
In a nutshell, attachment is the emotional bond that one human being has with another. John Bowlby, founder of attachment theory, concluded as the result of his research in the 1930’s that the early critical emotional connection experienced between a child and their caregiver is determinant of the child’s development (2). When primary caregivers are warm, responsive, and available to their child’s needs, the child learns that the caregiver is dependable. This creates a secure base for the child to explore the world and connect in future relationships, known as secure attachment. Alternately, a caregiver who is harsh, inconsistent, unresponsive, and unavailable results in insecure attachment, then limiting the child’s resilience and ability to experience healthy attachment in future relationships. The attachment spectrum consists of secure, avoidant, anxious and disorganized attachment styles (3).
Attachment trauma can happen if children were bullied or shamed by someone who should have been a protector for them (i.e., caregivers, older siblings, mentors, teachers, etc.). Other causes of attachment wounds might be the absence of a parent/caregiver either physically or emotionally as the result of death, divorce, mental or physical illness, or a shift in caregivers due to foster care and adoption. It is likely at some point throughout critical stages of growth and development that, as humans, we will experience some sort of traumatic event, emotional neglect, or a gap that will impact our perceived sense of security in our attachment with others (1). Attachment wounds are not only the result of what did happen, but also what didn’t happen. In the Life Model’s book, Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You, authors identify two differing types of trauma that impact a person’s development and ability to connect and attach (6). The absence of the necessary good things that we should receive, things that provide us with emotional stability, are referred to as Type A Traumas. Examples of this are: not being celebrated and cherished by a parent or caregiver simply for being oneself, not being understood or encouraged by a parent, not receiving appropriate parental physical affection, and not being taught how to problem solve and overcome difficulties. Type B Traumas are the adverse child experiences that never should have happened. This might include abuse (verbal, emotional, physical or sexual), substance use/abuse in the home, either physical or emotional abandonment by a parent, and any situation in which a child experiences a real or perceived threat to their safety or the safety of a loved one.
Attachment Repair from the Inside Out
There is hope in understanding that most people hold multiple attachment styles, and that we possess the capacity to learn new attachment patterns and heal attachment wounds. The Internal Family Systems model of therapy provides a revolutionary hope in an internal therapeutic approach to heal and transform our parts which defend, struggle with, or are burdened by insecure, external attachment experiences (4). Looking at IFS parts through an attachment lens, we observe a vulnerable, wounded “inner child” (the exile), the proactive, reactive “inner protector” (manager and firefighter), and the compassionate, nurturing “inner parent” (Self) (5). Within the multiplicity of our ego states, the Self can be a consistent and compassionate caregiver (a secure base) engaging with wounded “inner child” parts that have resulted from attachment injuries. Protectors arrive on the scene attempting to minimize suffering and distract from pain, but when burdened, they can propagate more pain. However, through IFS therapy, the Self can function as the inner “parent” stepping in with Self energy to offer reassurance and comfort, witnessing the inner child’s experience with love and compassion (4). Working with our different parts to create a supportive, inner environment can begin to heal our wounded inner children and move us toward a more harmonious and fulfilling inner life (5). Our core Self, the unblemished essence of our identity, has an amazing capacity to lovingly reparent and heal attachment wounds.
The Healing Power of Validation
The definition of validation is to be seen, heard, and understood by another. In the book Joyful Journey, Dr. Wilder and colleagues explain that, without validation, we will not be comforted. Comfort naturally follows validation and gives us peace. When we feel validated about how big or hard our past experiences were, our brain can calm (7). This becomes the fertile soil of growth and restoration. Understanding that God unconditionally sees, hears, and understands us cultivates hope and healing. Offering validation to others has the amazing power to calm fears, bring resolution to conflict, boost joy, instill hope, and nurture attachment. This same transformational effect happens when we intentionally offer the beautiful act of validation to ourselves and all of our parts.
Thank you for joining me on this journey through Internal Family Systems. It is my hope that you have not only grown your understanding about this model of therapy, but that you have come away from this series with a sense of hopefulness and self-compassion. The journey of life is hard for all of us, but when insight and love are leading, we will surely find our way to peace and fulfillment!
- Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Retrospect and prospect. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 52(4), 664–678. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1982.tb01456.x
- Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss. Separation: Anxiety and anger (Vol. 2). New York: Basic Books
- Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759–775.
- Eckel, D. (2021). The inside story of attachment: What can Internal Family Systems Therapy offer? Retrieved from: https://www.pacfa.org.au/common/Uploaded%20files/PCFA/PCT/PACFA_ PCT_Eckel.pdf
- Healing from childhood trauma with Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy. (2022). Compassion Counseling. Retrieved January 29, 2023 from https://coc.care/blog/healing-from-childhood-trauma-with-internal-family- systems-therapy
- Friesen, J.G., Wilder, E. J., Bierling, A. M., Koepcke, R.. Poole, M. (2013). Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House Inc
- Wilder, E. J., Kang, A., Loppnow, J., Loppnow, S. (2020). Joyful journey: listening to Immanuel. Presence and Practice.