Attachment Wounds Explained
The Finding Peace model always starts out with a yin and yang. On one side, we have peace. On the other side, we have pain. We live in a world where there’s a lot of pain; there is a lot of suffering. Suffering can be found in so many places. The challenge is figuring out how to find peace, joy, love, connection, and happiness, even though there is so much pain.
One of the things I have discovered in doing the work that I do as a therapist, an educator, and a Social Worker is that the things that cause us the most pain are connected to relationships. We are wired to be connected physiologically, socially, emotionally, spiritually, and neurologically. We are wired to be connected to the people around us, to our family members, to our friends, and to society as a whole. We are wired to be connected to each other. It’s just how we’re made. And when something happens that violates, damages, or breaks those connections those can become attachment wounds.
Attachment wounds are like sunburns. You go to the beach. You forget to put on sunblock. The next day you wake up with a raging sunburn. You have to go to work. But you’re in a lot of pain. So you’re cautious. You don’t want anybody to come anywhere near you because they might accidentally bump up against you or pat you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, how’s it going?”
And if they do bump you, immediately there is so much pain. You pull away or you might even push them away because the pain is so incredibly painful.
That is what Attachment Wounds are like. We can still function. We can do all the things we need to do. But sometimes something may bump up against an Attachment Wound and when it does, it creates a visceral reaction in our body. We may want to pull away or disconnect because we want the pain to stop. We end up building walls to protect ourselves.
What if we could pay attention to these wounds and realize that we’ve been telling ourselves a story about who we are because of these things that have happened to us? What if we could change that story and do some wound care to help heal that wound a little bit? How would that change the way we react the next time that somebody bumps up against one of those wounds? We may handle it in a more loving, compassionate, and inviting way.
There are six attachment wounds — loss, neglect, rejection, abandonment, betrayal, and abuse.
One of my favorite memories, growing up was playing with my grandmother’s flabby arms. She was always skinny, but as she got older, her skin began to hang down and when I would snuggle up to her on the couch as she was either watching her Lawrence Welk Show or she was filling out a crossword puzzle or a word search puzzle or something, I would just snuggle up next to her. I would take my little hand and flap my fingers back and forth against her skin right under her bicep. I thought that that was the most fun thing and I would laugh. I’m pretty sure that my grandmother did not appreciate me flapping her skin. But it’s one of my favorite memories growing up.
As a teenager and young adult, I would visit my grandmother. I knew that something wasn’t quite right. She would tell a story about how she and my grandfather would go get ice cream. They had an ice cream store just down the street from their house. Nearly every night, they would go for a walk and end up at the ice cream shop. She would laugh as she said she needed to hurry and lick the ice cream really quickly before it melted on their way back home.
And then about five minutes later, as we were visiting together, she would tell the exact same story — nearly word for word. And about five minutes after that, she would tell the same story again.
I started to realize, as did my mom, her sisters, and my grandpa that something wasn’t quite right. Later on, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As her Alzheimer’s progressed, she eventually was put into a nursing home because it wasn’t really safe for her anymore.
By that time, I had moved 15 hours away. One summer I went home on vacation and visited my grandma. I’m sitting knee to knee with her. She is skinnier now than she was when I was a little boy playing with her flabby skin. She looks at me, but she doesn’t see me. There’s an emptiness in her eyes. She doesn’t even really know that I’m there. I speak with her gently. Her eyes move in my direction. But I can tell there is really no recognition of who I am or even if I’m even there.
I begin to sing a hymn. My grandmother used to come to hear me sing when I was a little boy. She would hear me sing in church. She’d come home to my choir concerts. She came to my high school musicals and the community theater musicals I was in. As I begin to sing a little light comes into her eyes. She sees me. She smiles briefly before the light fades and her face goes blank. I tell her, “Grandma, I love you.”
She says, “I love you too”. But I’m not sure she really even knows who I am. I sit with her a little longer knowing that this will be the last time I will see her alive. I wrap my arms around her and feel her bones under her cold skin. This will be the last hug I get to give her. She doesn’t hug me back.
She’s staring off at nothing. I want to stay a little longer, but I have to go. But I know that later on that night, my grandpa will be by and he’s going to have ice cream with her.
A loss wound can happen when somebody close to you passes away. It can be more than that, though. The loss wound can be created when somebody who’s in your life leaves — not because they did anything on purpose, but because life’s circumstances made it so. Other loss wounds include growing up in a military family, where every three years the family has to move, which means having to goodbye to old friends. It can happen because of a life-changing medical diagnosis or being laid off from a job.
The Loss wound is different than the other five wounds because it’s not being inflicted on you the way that others are being inflicted. Yet, depending on the type of loss or how it happened, it can have a profound impact on somebody’s life.
There’s the Child Protective Services version of neglect, where mom and dad are gone strung out on drugs for three days. There’s no food in the house. The children living there have no clean clothes and are fending for themselves. Their basic needs are not being met. A tragic situation for sure. On the other side of the neglect spectrum, there are kids who have food, clean clothes, and a roof over their heads. But when they need emotional attention, mom and dad are just too busy. They’re working too much.
When the child attempts to get their emotional needs met; when they need a hug; when they need some a shoulder to cry on; when they need someone to listen to them when they’re frustrated and angry and yet the adults in their lives are too busy to tend to those needs; that is when the neglect wound is created. The child comes to believe that no one really is going to be there. They begin to believe that they can’t really depend on other people to get their needs met and they will have to figure out how to do that on their own. The neglect wound can have tremendously negative effects on the way we show up as adults — particularly in not being willing to ask for help — because we believe that no one will show up anyway.
I’m standing on the soccer field of my middle school. I’m in gym class, and we are playing soccer. I am the goalie for my team and I am so grateful that the boys on my team are really good at soccer because that means they are on the other end of the soccer field. I am hoping my team can keep the ball down on the other side of the field because honestly, I am horrible at sports, I have never played sports very well. I don’t know how to kick a ball; I don’t know how to catch a ball; I don’t know how to throw a ball.
I’m standing there looking up at the sun, at the blue sky, and noticing the kind of clouds in the sky. I can smell the grass the newly mowed grass. I am enjoying being outside. All of a sudden I feel a tug at my gym shorts and I look down at my feet. My shorts and my underwear are all the way down to the ground. I look behind me and there are two boys who have just de-pantsed me running off and laughing.
I quickly pull my pants back up. I want to laugh. I want to think that this is just a joke, just a one-time thing. But I know that it’s not. I know what’s going to happen when I get to the locker room. I know because it happens every day. We’re supposed to go back to the locker room to change out of our gym clothes and get back into our regular clothes. And then we will line up on the staircase waiting for the bell to ring so that we can go to our next class.
Every day, as we line up on the staircase where there’s nowhere else to go, I will be surrounded by these boys. Several of them will begin to call me names like faggot, femme, fudgepacker — names I don’t really even understand the meaning of. These boys don’t like me and the message that I’m receiving is there’s something wrong with me.
And I don’t quite know what it is about me that is so bad, but it’s quite obvious that they don’t want me around. Sometimes one of them will try to punch me. And sometimes they succeed. They stand around me calling me names that hurt until the bell rings. I can’t get out of there fast enough.
It’s the end of school. I’m going to get home as fast as I can. I begin to run home. But these boys will chase me and possibly beat me up if I can’t find a place to hide.
That is a rejection wound. A rejection wound is created when you are told by others that there’s something wrong with you, that you’re not enough, that you’re not wanted, and that you don’t belong. You are excluded. They push you away. You’re told that you don’t belong. Depending on how often that happens, or the severity of the event the rejection wound can be very deep.
With it comes the core beliefs that we’re not enough and that there’s something seriously wrong with us. It echoes the message that we’re being told by the people who are rejecting us.
Ray (name has been changed) has gone into labor. She is being rushed down the hospital hallway. She’s laying on the gurney watching the fluorescent lights as they pass over her head. Nurses and others surround her as they rush her to the delivery room. Ray is about ready to have a baby.
She knew that this day was coming from the moment that she found out she was pregnant. She doesn’t even know what kind of child she’s going to have is she going to have. She hasn’t really given herself permission to even think about it let alone consider what name the baby will go by.
When she told the father of the baby she was pregnant, he told her that if they got married, he was going to beat her every night. She knew there was no way in the world she was going to bring this baby into the world in an abusive home. And so she has made the courageous decision to put this baby up for adoption.
For the last nine months, she’s been carrying this baby. The baby inside her has heard her heartbeat, has listened to her voice has listened to her talk. If she sang, the baby heard her sing. When she breathed the baby heard her lungs expand and contract. The baby listened to her tummy grumbling. This baby has literally been connected to her for the last nine months. Ray has felt the baby kicking. She felt the baby moving around. And now it is time for the baby to be born.
She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to this baby or what kind of future this baby is going to have. She just knows she cannot bring this baby into the world as a single mom with a father who’s an alcoholic, who quite possibly would be abusive. And so, as the nurses are pushing her down the hall, her mind races almost as fast as the lights going over her head. She is pulled into the delivery room and gives birth.
As soon as the baby comes out, the nurses grab the little bundle and move it over to the table to clean it up, wash away the blood and guck the baby is covered in, and cut the umbilical cord. Ray hears the cry as a baby takes its first breath.
The nurses will not tell her if she had a boy or a girl because this is a closed adoption. And she’s not supposed to know anything about the baby. But it just so happens that there’s a mirror placed in the room and it is just at the exact so that Ray can see the nurses working. And she is able to see she has given birth to a baby boy.
As soon as the baby boy is cleaned up and washed, the nurses wrap him up in a bundle and whisk him out of the room. She never has a chance to say goodbye. She doesn’t know what will happen to him. She doesn’t know where he will be placed or anything about his future family.
She just knows that she made the decision that she felt was best for him.
The baby will stay in the nursery for five days until his adoptive parents will come to pick him up. Ray will have left the hospital well before then to go home and look out her window every Valentine’s Day and wonder what happened to her little boy.
Now, I recognize that the decision my birth mother made to give me up for adoption was one of the most courageous decisions of her life. And I recognize that she did not truly abandon me. And yet the moment my umbilical cord was severed from her and we were separated, me taken away from her created wounds of loss and abandonment for both of us.
Abandonment is when somebody was in your life and then all of a sudden isn’t. And there is no explanation. They are just gone without any answers, without any clarification as to why these things happened or why the person is no longer in your life. No closure.
It’s just emptiness. Because of the lack of understanding, the person will tend to make up reasons for why they were abandoned. And oftentimes, the reasons are not grounded in any sense of truth or reality. But they come up with these conclusions because they don’t really have any evidence to come up with a different conclusion.
When I was a senior in high school, I had a very good friend. He had been my best friend since the 10th grade. I was at his house every day of the week. His family became like a second family to me. We were attached by the hip and went everywhere together. We even worked at the same pizza place together. He was like a brother to me.
In 12th grade, he fell in love with a girl. Often what usually happens when somebody falls in love is their other relationships become less of a priority for them — or the partner becomes more of a priority. And that’s exactly what happened with him. He became very much involved with his girlfriend. All of his time was spent with her going on dates and hanging out. That left little time for time with me.
My abandonment wound was triggered pretty badly. Having a lack of emotionally intelligent due to my pre-frontal cortex still developing, I wrote a satire about a king and how all the women in the land loved him. They were always fawning over him and thought he was amazing and so handsome. The king chose a beautiful woman to become queen. His best friend, the Sultan, with whom he had been friends since they were children, was tossed to the side.
I honestly don’t even remember the rest of the story. But as far as satires go, it was not very vague.
I handed the 10-page story to my friend and asked him to read it. It was a cruel story and it caused a lot of harm. It hurt him really badly and our relationship changed and eventually, we no longer stayed in contact.
Twenty years later, we made contact again on social media. He happened to be near the area where I lived and reached out. We met and went to dinner. I told him how much I was sorry for writing that letter. I don’t know if he actually didn’t remember or if he was just being gracious, but he said he didn’t remember that happening.
But I remember feeling so much shame for how my behavior. My hurt led me to behave in such a way that I betrayed my friend’s trust.
Betrayal happens when someone behaves in a way that violates trust. Perhaps they cheat or lie or take credit for something they didn’t do. They behave dishonestly. Depending on the severity of the betrayal the effects can be traumatic. When trust has shattered the chances of it ever being put back together are really small, especially without effort.
The last wound is abuse. If you’ve ever read the Finding Peace workbook, you’ll notice that for every one of the other wounds one of the characters tells a story about that particular wound and how it happened and how it got started. Nobody shares their story about abuse. The character who would have shared her story in the book is Maria. Maria has devastating wounds from abuse. She was locked in a closet several times when she was growing up by her siblings. She was sexually abused by her pastor and her father. She was physically abused by others in her neighborhood, her brothers, and her father. She was kidnapped and sexually assaulted.
I made the literary decision not to have Maria share her details because by the time the readers have made it through betrayal, they are already triggered. At the beginning of the workbook, there’s a big notification that says, “Hey, you might be triggered when you’re reading this book. So please take your time. Please slow down and pace yourself.” So I was cautious about going into a lot of detail about Maria’s abuse wound.
The abuse wound is created when somebody is physically abused, beaten, or hurt through the behaviors of someone else. It also is created when a person is sexually violated, spiritually shamed, or hurt in some other intentional way. There’s intent with this wound. The abuse wound can be profoundly deep and overwhelmingly shameful.
A reader gave me feedback though. This reader also had extensive abuse wounds. Unfortunately, because I did not give Maria a voice for her trauma, the reader felt that it wasn’t okay for their abuse wounds to be shared either. That is definitely not the message I intended to send, but I can see how that conclusion was drawn.
Maria didn’t feel safe. Talking about her wounds in a group of people she never met did not feel safe. She needed a lot more safety pumped into that group first.
If anybody received the message that it’s not okay to talk about abuse, because Maria did not want to talk about her abuse in the group, then please, forgive me. By no means did I want to minimize her Abuse wound. I want to honor that the Abuse wound can be profoundly traumatic while also trying not to trigger a trauma response in the reader.
Maria and the other group members are fictional characters, but the wounds they experienced are based on the stories of many of my clients. Attachment wounds exist. In therapy, with a qualified, licensed therapist, or in other safe places, those with Attachment Wounds can tell their stories. They can be heard, witnessed, and believed. There can be validation that what happened shouldn’t have happened, that it wasn’t your fault, and that you are worthy of love and belonging.
If you have someone who’s willing to listen, hold space, and let you know that they believe you, there is so much healing that can happen.
There are ways to begin wound care for these attachment wounds. The first thing that you can do is identify the attachment wound. I used to work in a hospital. When somebody had a wound that wasn’t healing, specialized wound care nurses would come in, take pictures, measure it, and identify what kind of wound it was. That enabled them to develop a plan of how they are going to help the wound heal, and what environment would be most conducive to supporting healing to its best ability. The same principles apply to identifying attachment wounds.
Another way of caring for our wounds is identifying the opposite of Attachment Wounds. This helps us identify what we might need to feel better. For example, the opposite of Loss may be comfort or assurance. So as I watched my grandma slowly pass away, what I really needed was just someone to put their arm around me and say, “I know, I see that she’s going away, and I’m sad with you. It’s going to be okay. I’m with you. And I love you.” A sense of comfort or reassurance can go a long way when we’re dealing with a loss wound.
The opposite of neglect is attention — having somebody pay attention to me can be incredibly helpful. If you notice your neglect wound is being stirred up, that’s an indication that you have needs that are not being met. You now have a choice of turning to people in your life whom you love. Can you be vulnerable enough to say, “I’m feeling lonely. I need someone to listen, can you help? Can you listen to me? Can you spend some time with me? Can we go play a game? Can we go for a walk?”
The opposite of rejection is acceptance. Because of shame, it can be hard to accept ourselves. So we might need a little bit of help. It may look like reaching out to a friend or loved one and saying, “Hey, I am not doing well, right now. I’m really struggling with shame and a feeling like I’m not enough. Can you remind me of what you see that’s good in me? Can you remind me why you love me?” That may sound incredibly needy. But seriously, that is one of the ways we take care of the rejection wound.
The next wound is abandonment. The antidote for abandonment is presence. We need someone to be there, present, and provide reassurance that they are going to stick around.
The opposite of betrayal is trust. We need people who are going to show up in our life who is trustworthy, who is going to tell us the truth and are honest. We need that as a way of being able to help heal the betrayal that we’ve experienced in our life.
The opposite of abuse is compassion, kindness, and boundaries. We need to be able to have people respect our boundaries and they will understand that when we say no, we mean no. And they will be able to understand that and not get angry, but they can have that compassion and say I get it and I am willing to support you and I love you and you are worth being treated with dignity and respect.
The way to heal attachment wounds is through connection. That really is the only way we can heal them. Reaching out, connecting with other people in healthy ways, connecting with the truth within ourselves — learning to reassure ourselves, love ourselves, show up for ourselves, be present with ourselves, and also ask the people in our lives to do the same.