Ep. 60 – Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Attachment, Separation & Belonging
- Working with the 3 primal instincts triggered by separation: pursuit, frustration and alarm.
- The power of tears and why it’s important to cry.
- How to recognize rupture in relationships AND how to repair.
We’re wired for togetherness above all else.
Separation is like the fire alarm that goes off in our brain crying, “Somethings wrong here! Pay attention!”
In this episode of family360, clinical psychologist Dr. Deborah MacNamara describes 5 key things to know about ATTACHMENT and how to repair it when there is rupture.
Deborah writes, “The secret to developing secure adult/child relationships is helping a child see that it’s not their job to strive to hold on to us but to take for granted that we won’t let go of them.”
Hear more about how we “hold on,” as you listen to our engaging conversation with Dr. MacNamara.
Dr. Deborah MacNamaraChild psychologist, Deborah MacNamara is dedicated to helping parents make sense of their kids and themselves from the inside out. She provides counselling and educational services to families and professionals around the world, working from the relational developmental approach of Dr. Gordon Neufeld and the world renowned Neufeld Institute. Deborah is a dynamic teacher and experienced counsellor with over 20 years experience in educational and mental health settings.
In addition to her sought after counsel, Dr. MacNamara is also the author of the best selling book, Rest Play Grow: Making Sense Of Preschoolers Or Anyone Who Acts Like One, and the acclaimed children's book, The Sorry Plane.
Ep. 60 – Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Attachment, Separation & Belonging
Rachel Cram – Deborah, I am so thankful to be back with you for a second interview, and this one we’re doing bright and early, live via Zoom, as part of a professional development day for my Wind and Tide staff team, so good morning.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Hi, good morning.
Rachel Cram – Well, Deborah, I have known of you for decades. I actually heard you speak probably about 30 years ago. Could that be right at a conference in Vancouver? And then I got to know you through the Neufeld Institute. And then it was such an honor for me to meet you personally with an interview a year ago with Family 360. And now, it’s such a pleasure to have you with us as a staff team.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Ah, thank you so much. I feel like I belong here. It’s a warm connection.
Rachel Cram – It is a warm connection, and belonging is a great word to drop in there because that’s where we’re going today. Well, I want to introduce Deborah to all of you. I think a lot of you have heard of Deborah’s work. You’ve perhaps read some of her books. Certainly her children’s book, The Sorry Plane, most of you read because it’s in our Wind and Tide classrooms. She’s also the author of the bestselling book Rest Play Grow, Making Sense of Preschoolers or anyone who Acts Like Them. I love that title. Do you want to even just take a second to tell how you got that title Deb?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, when you’re writing a book and it’s your baby, you want to give it a nice title, right? So I had sent a whole bunch of titles to Gordon Neufeld and some of my faculty members, and I had these nice titles like How to Help Children Flourish, how to help them thrive. And at the end, I said, or we could call it making sense of preschoolers or anyone who acts like one. Ha ha ha. And Gordon emailed me back and said, “That’s the title.”
And I said, “I’m not calling my book that. That’s just ridiculous. It’s just a slap in the face.”
And he said, “What you’re going to be able to do with that title is alert people to the fact that maturity isn’t a foregone conclusion. That just because we grow bigger, we don’t necessarily grow more mature and that what we’re really talking about is human development here and how precarious it can be and how beautiful it is.
So, that’s why the title. You know, he was, of course, right. It’s exactly what it should be because it encapsulates the work that we do.
Rachel Cram – I have had that book beside my office desk for years now and a lot of little sticky notes sticking out of it. And it’s such a great teaching and parenting resource.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Thank you.
Rachel Cram – Well, Deb, before we jump into our conversation about attachment, separation and belonging, I’d love to connect before you direct, as you say at the Neufeld Institute. I’m wondering, can you share an experience of a time when you found yourself thinking about your own belonging?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – I guess the one that speaks the loudest to me these days, is my parents were immigrants which has meant that that walk with belonging and place has been an interesting one. Place and belonging and identity really go together. And I think for me, as I shift into my middle years, there’s been a real rediscovery and trying to capture my place. And so I did go back to Ireland with my kids and my grandfather’s autobiography, and we traced around where he grew up and his story.
And so we all have that, of course, but I do think that we have incredible disconnection from our roots, particularly when immigration is your story. There’s incredible separation from a sense of place, a sense of people, sense of home.
Rachel Cram – Well, I’m glad for you, that you could take that trip back to Ireland. That is important. And interestingly, you talked about your sense of belonging shifting in your middle life. I get that. I think that I thought that in my middle years that I’m in as well, that belonging would be much more settled than it is. And I think that it’s always something that we’re going to be wrestling with, whether we’re immigrants into a new land or immigrants into new stages in life. Belonging is a lifelong process of discovery,
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, that’s true.
Rachel Cram – and it’s a big part of your work, of what you do. Your work really is based on attachment and the understanding of attachment science. So can I start by asking you what is attachment science?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Attachment is basically the word we give to the science of human relationships, so it really came to the forefront with deprivation studies; separation, and hospitals and children being removed in orphanages. It came from these roots to try to understand human connection and what therefore disconnection did to us.
But the reality is, no one really owns this subject. Poets have talked about it for forever and musicians. It has been the muse ever since we’ve been doing art and music. It’s always been about love, but it is the science of attachment that’s really come to the fore where we’re starting to look at, “OK, well, how do we put words to something that is so dynamic, that’s so diverse? How do we even start to understand something so intangible yet so visible sometimes?”
It’s just this incredible mystery. And so this is a subject that’s really close and dear to us, and researchers are fascinated with it now and trying to put it into some format so we can apply it, so that we can heal and understand more about ourselves. So that’s what attachment science is really about is this discovery of human relationships and trying to make sense of these innate instincts and emotions that drive us to be together.
Rachel Cram – Well, in the process of trying to make sense, you have given five key understandings about attachment. And I’m wondering if we can walk through those with you, starting with your first one, which is that attachment is a two-way street. What do you mean by that?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah. So, while you may love your child, what’s also equally important is that your child must love you. If you’re a teacher, if your coach or any kind of role or relationship you have with a child, for a child to want to be near you, to follow you, to attend, to obey, to adopt your values, it’s really about how that child thinks about you, how that child feels about you. It’s about the way that they look at you. It’s about their perception of the relationship and your intentions. And so we can’t forget that because I think sometimes I know I can get stuck in my head thinking, “Well, I’m full of love and I’m full of care and I’ve got all these good intentions.”
But it doesn’t mean the child is receptive to that. It doesn’t mean the child is taking it in. It doesn’t mean the child actually sees that. It doesn’t mean the child actually feels that.
Attachment is a two-way street. And so if we’re going to take care of the relationship, then our focus must be on how the child is in relationship to us, not our relationship to the child, necessarily so much.
Really, if we’re going to do the hard work of attachment, then it’s got to be about how is this child relating to me? As a teacher, who am I to this child and who do I want to be? And what do I need to do so that that child can be more receptive to me?
Rachel Cram – So, acknowledging attachment as a two-way street, what as teachers do we need to keep in mind when we start a year, when we start into new relationships with children?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, I think it’s just great humility in the face of relationship and understanding that we must invite children to rest in our care. But that child will decide and that child’s emotions and instincts will decide when they’re ready. But our job is to really be invitational. And so what does that look like? It means that we focus on collecting. We focus on getting in their face in a friendly way. We have our structure. We have our routines that help them feel safe. If they’re feeling separation anxiety from their parent, that’s a very tricky dance that we need to be very careful with. We don’t want to get on the wrong side of that as being seen as the person who takes them away from their parent.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, that’s a tricky dance for sure. When you say the teacher needs to focus on collecting, what do you mean by ‘collecting’? What are we doing when we ‘collect’ a child?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, collecting is really the birthplace of a lot of our relationships. You know, if we can get that parent to match-make us as the provider. Do we get the nod from the parent? Do we make sure the child sees that we get the nod? Do we do these beautiful introductions where we become part of the child’s village? And the parents are the answer to that. And so that is the critical steps in the very beginning of our getting to know each other with a child, and to proceed with thoughtfulness and receptivity.
Relationships always go much more smoothly when we pay attention to receptivity and work within that and really focus on collecting and matchmaking, those good attachment rituals.
Rachel Cram – You use the phrase matchmaking and that a parent is involved in that process. How does a parent implement that matchmaking process?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Oh, I remember when my kids would go to either school or preschool, I’d be like, “Oh, you know, Ms. Carry, I met her. She is so nice. Oh, I just love her. She’s so kind. And, you know, I just watched her and she just listens to the kids and she just loves kids.
Rachel Cram – You’re saying this to your child?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, yeah. You know, I think she likes kids more than adults even. There’s her eyes. There’s a twinkle in her eyes, when she’s around you guys. I just see her. You’re so lucky to have a teacher like this. I wish I had that when I was younger.”
And this is all true. So I think parents can go a long way with this. And when there are troubles or if there’s things or concerns we have, how do we deal with that in a way that doesn’t communicate to our children that we have concerns about that adult or that preschool? Because what they’re paying attention to is, am I safe? Am I going to be cared for? And if there’s a sense that we don’t feel that, or they be misinterpreted or whatever, they’re going to be more anxious being left in places that we don’t wholeheartedly condone.
Rachel Cram – I appreciate you explaining that. I know from my years of welcoming children into my classrooms, there’s often times that parents, and I can so understand why they’re doing this, they arrive at the door with their child and they’ve got a trust in us as a community of care, so they just kind of want to shuffle their child in and say, “Go.”
But you know, I picture myself at something like a party. When I’m going in and not knowing people, I really appreciate somebody giving me that matchmaking opportunity. Like somebody coming up and saying, “Rachel, I’d like you to meet Deborah. You’ll really enjoy her because she loves gardening, just like you love gardening. And Deborah, you’re going to enjoy Rachel because she’s got six kids and you’re…” you know.
So somebody that sort of does that pairing so that when they step away, I feel like I’m looking at this new person in my life with a little bit of connection already there. And of course, our kids need that same connection. So that matchmaking, it’s so important. And it makes all the difference in the world to a child’s start to a new relationship.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, you know, it’s such a dance, like we have to feel our way into this sometimes. We can’t be formulaic about it. Caring and attachment doesn’t obey linear rules this way. We have to use our own judgment, our own emotional senses to say, “Is this child in relationship yet? And if not, what do we need to do so they feel safe with me?”
Rachel Cram – This might be too big a question to tackle at this point, and it might come up later. But just as you’re describing this, I wonder if it is more of a challenge to use our ‘own judgment and emotional senses,’ if our own attachment roots are not solid.
Would a parent’s ability to do this dance of attachment be impeded if they themselves didn’t have someone who was their connector or their answer to creating connecting moments like this? Have you seen evidence of this in your work with families?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yes. I mean, I hear this a lot, but it doesn’t feel like how I see the world. It isn’t my perspective. And I guess I’ll just go into it this way: whether or not you’ve had someone who’s been your answer, when you shift into the instincts and emotions that are innate in us to take care of another human being there is a sense that you are the answer.
Like, we are very much wired to take care of each other. We have instincts and emotions that help us. And so if you can feel those instincts and emotions, that’s the key thing. If you can feel them, then you can move from them. And it doesn’t matter what your attachment roots are, you can still show up to be the provider. But the key is you must be able to feel them and move from them.
So I guess that’s what I would say, is that sometimes our own histories leave us with emotional blindness, which then prevents us from taking a lead with a child. But it’s not our histories that are the issue is our own emotional blindness and lack of vulnerability that is the issue.
Rachel Cram – I love that as an answer because it gives hope to everybody, but how do we get rid of the emotional blindness and how do we become vulnerable so that we can feel those instincts and emotions?
Dr. Deborah MacNamaram – It’s been my experience that if you find your tears or you can find some release and those emotions come back, that these things just spring to life.
Rachel Cram – Find your tears. How do we get to the tears part? Can you say more about that?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – How do we get to tears? Well, the brain moves us to tears, first of all. When the emotion system figures it’s ready and it’s building up like a damn it will come. They release this incredible cocktail mixture through our neurotransmitters, even through tears. It’s just phenomenal.
How do we get to tears? Well, I think if we had rituals that protected rest and play in our life, we wouldn’t probably have to ask this question. So therein lies some of your answer. We’re not meant to go 100 miles an hour. We’re not meant to go twenty four seven, no off buttons. We need islands of rest. And so islands of rest can look like relationships and rituals that bring us into relationships, like eating together, going for a walk.
Rachel Cram – Oh, getting outside.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yes, Go and connect with something that’s bigger, larger, where you’re moving, where you’re playing, where everything inside of you is not in a work mode. And you’re going to make a pathway for tears and feelings to come.
Tears come up out of the blue, but we have to try to find a pathway back to them. And that pathway is usually through rest, its usually through relationship, it’s usually through music, it’s through story, it’s through art, it’s through play.
As I was traveling around in Ireland, retracing my family roots and looking for belonging, I went to the Cliffs of More exhibit, which is a huge, beautiful exhibit on the cliffs, on the eastside of Ireland. And in there they had the stories from the famine, from the wars, the famine, the wars and the wars, back and forth. And there was this one elder who was talking, and he said, “On those darkest days, there wasn’t a lot to eat or war or whatever. We didn’t know how we’d survive. We would gather in each other’s homes and we’d play our music and we would dance and we would tell stories.”
And I thought, “That’s why the Irish survived. That’s why they all survived. They gathered, they told their stories. They held onto each other through music, through dance. They never lost their play, their play saved them.”
So if you want to find your tears, don’t go directly for them. Try to open up a channel that starts to move emotion. Seek rest and they will come.
Rachel Cram – Humm. We have what we need.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, yeah, exactly. Nature never made us not enough. It’s just incredibly alarming to feel that you have to be enough.
Rachel Cram – It’s very alarming.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – That’s the scary part.
Rachel Cram – It is the scary part, thinking we have to be enough. Very scary.
Musical Interlude #1
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Rachel Cram – OK, so I’m just going to act as your PowerPoint as we go along here. So talking about five things to understand about attachment, the first one is attachment is a two-way street. The second one you’ve already alluded to a little bit in talking about separation. Your second point was that separation is the most impactful of all experiences. And you say this, “Attachment and separation are two sides of the same coin. We only miss the people we desire to be close to.”
So can you talk more about separation? Why is that the most impactful of all experiences?
Dr. Deborah Macnamara – Because attachment’s our greatest need. What we are wired for is to pay attention to togetherness above all else. Separation is so provocative because our brain is paying attention to attachment, and separation is like the fire alarm that just goes off. Something’s wrong here. Pay attention.
At night time, a child will be very alarmed going to bed often, especially young kids. You can see the drop-off time between parent and child to preschool or elementary school can be very difficult. The transition from high school into university. There’s all these different transitions. We say, “Well, change can be hard.”
Actually, it’s the separation that is the cause of this. We talk about stress, but what are the things that are stressful? Divorce, illness, there’s so many different ways that we could look at stress, but all of them have separation at the root. And so this stirs up our emotional system because we’re supposed to preserve contact and closeness with the things that we’re attached to.
So, if we understood this, we’d make a lot better headway on a lot of problems that we just don’t connect at the roots about attachment and separation.
Rachel Cram – When separation occurs, what are the primal instincts that kick up in us? What does it alert?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, there’s three emotions in particular that get very busy when we face separation and these are hardwired in. There’s no getting rid of these emotions. There’s no cognitive reshaping of these emotions. These are hardwired in, not just to us but all mammal species because mammal species need togetherness to survive. So those three emotions are what we call ‘pursuit,’ which is a yearning to get back into contact and closeness, this drive, ‘frustration’ as well as ‘alarm.’
And so those three emotions, you’ll feel them, they rotate inside of you and you can actually sometimes even feel them one by one. I always tell the example of when my daughter had, my young daughter, I didn’t know she could open the door and it didn’t have the car lock on it, and we were at the store to get cupcake mix for cupcakes or whatever. And I was getting my other daughter out of the car. But she had opened up the car door and ran across the parking lot, and she ran right between cars right out into the road.
And I’m just like, “Oh my God. There’s a car. She’s dead.”
And it felt like I was in one of those Matrix movies where everything slowed down, because that’s what happens, in those heightened emotional situations, you’re actually picking up every little last detail. And I was trying to get to her as fast as I could. There was just this sense inside of me. You know, the bargaining starts. “If you just make her OK, I’ll do anything you want. Please just let me have my daughter. Then everything will be fine.”
And there was just this hunger to just grab her and squeeze her and never let her go. And so I ran to get her. Thank goodness nothing happened. And I hugged her. So pursuit was gone. I had her. We were safe. But the other two emotions that rise up in separation came to the surface. Frustration and alarm. And so what came next was frustration, and I had this sense inside of me, it was all internal, “I just want to kill her.”
Now, the irony of that struck me, thank goodness. I just feel like telling her, “Why did you do that? That was so stupid. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand?”
I’m like, “Don’t you find this a little odd? One minute you wanted to get to her, and now you’re so frustrated.” And I’m sitting here holding her. And then I just thought, “Oh, you’re in the separation. Deb, you’re in the separation of complex emotions and you’re circling from pursuit, from alarm and frustration and you’re just circling.”
And I’m like, “Where’s the doorway? Tears. You need tears.”
I’m just like, “Bhaaa,” I just started to cry and cry and cry.
And then, of course, my daughter gets alarmed. She’s like, “Mommy.”
And I’m like, “They’re happy, tears. I’m just so happy we’re getting cupcakes and I love you.”
I was just losing it. But that was one time where I could feel each of those separation-based emotions just ignite and push me. Like, you think we’re so logical. You think we’re so put together and organized? And oh my goodness, if you have never met the full force of your emotions like that, then you’ve got to pay attention to it. They can push us around when separation is at the door because they’ve got very important work to do that serves our survival.
Togetherness is about survival. So these emotions are always in play with separation. You’ve got a young child that’s dropping off in your center, separation based emotions. Pursuit, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, daddy, daddy, come back.” Alarm. Frustration. You know, they start to play. Boom, out comes the train that just wants to get hurled across the room or something. Where did that frustration come from? Separation.
As soon as you know you’ve got some of these circling, you know you’ve got to get back to relationship, back into connection, back to safety, back to contact and closeness, back to play, where you can release some of these emotions safely.
Rachel Cram – This is so key and your analogy with your daughter is very fitting because we can extrapolate it to other experiences. I think what I’m hearing you saying is that the root of almost every problem we experience, whether it’s frustration with our partner for coming home late from work, or frustration with a coworker because we don’t think that they’re showing up in the way we want them to show up. Whatever it is, are you saying, Deborah, separation is probably the root of that problem? Is that what you’re saying? That’s huge. That is so huge.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, it is huge. But we haven’t caught on to this. We haven’t made this a central construct through which we work through human problems. We’re still working at symptom level instead of working at the root of emotions. We’ve got the concept of attachment now. And many people are talking about attachment, see the necessity of belonging. But this isn’t actually the biggest problem. Attachment, and feeling connected and belonging is the fruit of healthy relationships. The challenges come when you don’t feel included, when you do feel rejected, where you don’t feel you belong, when you don’t feel at rest in someone’s care. That’s actually where our biggest problems come from.
Rachel Cram – And we’re going to get to that.
OK, I’m going to keep going as your PowerPoint. So things to understand about attachment. The first one, attachment is a two-way street. The second one’s separation is the most impactful of all experiences. The third one is relationship is a shield to protect against emotional wounding.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Oh, this is so beautiful. When you get how relationship protects the emotional system, protects the heart. The reality is, if you at all engage with your world, there will be places where you feel you don’t fit in, where you don’t belong or where someone you do care about doesn’t give you a sense that you matter. They’re not listening. They don’t have enough time for you. They didn’t serve you your favorite meal or they made your eggs wrong. “You don’t remember how I like it.”
There’s all these little things. We’re such incredible sensory creatures when it comes to emotions, far more than we understand. Body language. Oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We pick up nuances in our relationships. Even young children do. They absolutely, with integrity will say, “They don’t like me?”
“Oh, no, they’re fine.”
“Oh no, they don’t like me.”
They’re very sure. They can see that there’s a lack of invitation there, and we just try to talk over those instincts and emotions that they’re picking up. “This person doesn’t actually want me near.”
So we’re very perceptive this way. So what do we do with everything that we see? What do we do with everything that we feel? This is a huge challenge for us as emotional creatures that we are and relational creatures. So what we know is that the reason why togetherness is so important is that we need a place home, that we can be assured of, that the invitation is unwavering. That essentially, there is a place we are always invited, where we’re not facing separation, that shields us and provides a space and a place and the safety in which we can start to talk about, cry about, play out whatever it is, or just have time to rest, whatever it is that hurts us or bothers us or confuses us or frustrates us.
It’s kind of like being in a big ocean, we can travel great distances, encounter lots of things, but we need islands to rest. Our closest relationships are meant to be that place of rest where the feelings can return home, where if there is caretaking that we need that that other person cares enough about us to say, “Hey, we need to go for a walk. We need to go for a drive. We need to go play. You need some food. You’re tired,” Where someone is taking our emotional pulse and checks in with us.
That’s the greatest gift my husband can give me, or a friend. And it’s the greatest gift we could give a child is to be that consistent place to come home to so that we can return out into the world with our hearts still soft and be able to tackle and face what must come this way.
Rachel Cram – But sadly, not everybody has that.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Exactly. The kids that are in most. I would say are the most vulnerable to developmental challenges, and behavioral challenges and emotional problems are those who do not have at least one strong caring attachment with an adult who can serve as a shield, an emotional shield, a place of rest to preserve that child’s soft heart. We know it comes down to this. At the end of the day, this is the most critical thing we must do when taking care of others.
Rachel Cram – What is it going to look like when that is the truth for a child? Because there will be children and there will be us as adults as well, that in times of our life, there’s no one. There is not that person.
I know over our years I can think of far too many kids that at slices of time, for months, maybe their parents were going through a difficult divorce, other situations are happening where they didn’t have that caring person. As teachers or as caring adults, what might we notice when a child is missing that relational shield?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, I think you’ve described it well. They’re full of emotion, but they’re not at rest. They might be full of frustration. You might see behaviors stemming out of it and you don’t know what stirring them up. We can just see a child is spinning and not easy to engage or doesn’t seem to want to follow us. So what is absorbing that child’s attention? Where is the brain going in that child that says other things are more important in terms of what they’re facing?
You can also see kids completely retreat and withdraw and not be able to be engaged with, their eyes disappear. You don’t see joy. You don’t see happiness.
And when a child gives you their heart it is true that you can be a shield around it, but you can also serve as a sword, meaning that your harsh words, your separation-based approach to them when they blow it.
Rachel Cram – What would that mean? What would that look like?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, go away. I don’t want you around. What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you be like this person? You should try harder. There’s a million different ways we could communicate that. Ignore. The silent treatment. Disregard. Not pay attention to.
Rachel Cram – Which is so easy to do
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – It’s so easy to do.
Rachel Cram – Because our days are already busy and we’ve got so much else to do. And if we were living at the 40 foot level all the time, of course we wouldn’t respond like that. But when you’re up close and personal, you miss those things. And that’s so sad.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yes, but I think it’s about losing your caring. I think it’s about putting other things first. I know if I do stuff like that with my kids, I can feel the burn inside of me. “What did you just do? You just stung your child. Why did you do that? Get back in there and figure that out. “I’m sorry I’m frustrated. I want to pay attention to you here, let’s just figure this out,” you know?
And so if we do keep our caring about us, I think we can find a way through. I think the problem is, is that often we’re left caring about the things that get in the way of our caring.
We have to make sure that the urgent doesn’t get more important than what is essential. And what is essential is keeping our care, keeping our relationships. If the house is on fire, yeah, I get it, the urgent has to take precedence. But how do we keep what is essential, essential?
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I’m just trying to quickly think of what it is that gets in the way of caring for children. Like less busyness perhaps? How does that work as an example of a non-essential?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, I don’t think that it’s true that being busy means that we can’t care for children. As a teacher, I’ve got a million things going on in the classroom. I’ve got, you know, lesson plans, to remembering people’s names, remembering my own name, trying to figure out timing. But what I always try to, my sort of image in my head was that as a teacher, I was at the head of a banquet and I just wanted to invite all of my students to, to dine, to feast. And that sense of warmth, that sense of invitation, I tried to make sure was part of everything I did, everything I conveyed from how I came into the classroom, how I circulated, how I listened to students. Everything was infused with this underlying belief that it must be about invitation, And that’s the place, that children feed off, everybody feeds off, everybody wants to be around those caretakers. You feel it, you know it.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. The analogy that comes to my mind when you’re talking about inviting to a banquet and stuff getting in the way. I picture myself going to a banquet where the lighting is gorgeous and the decorations are incredible, and I’ve had this beautiful, embossed invitation that’s come to my house. And you walk up the driveway and it’s all lit and they open the door and the person just kind of greets you with like, “Hi. Come on in.”
As opposed to, you go to somewhere where there was no fancy invitation. They just said, “Hey, come on over for a cup of tea.”
The house is a mess. They opened the door, but they’re like, “Rachel, it’s so good to see you,” like that is that essential, right? The rest is just, it’s beautiful but it’s not the essential.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, it’s performance too. I’ve been writing about this lately is how much of caring is about performance and how much caring has been detached from attachment. Caring is what moves you. It’s what moves you from the inside out. There’s this generosity. There’s this warmth. There’s this invitation.
We’ve got work to do on this, and you’re absolutely right. If you just walked to someone’s door, you just dropped in and they didn’t even know you were coming, and they just welcomed with open arms and they say, “Come on in, sit down, let me take care of you.”
You would say, “This has been wonderful. Thank you.”
You don’t need, all of that stuff can detract from it, rather than get to the essence of what really caring is about. It’s to look at that person, say, “What do they need for me? How do I provide?” And without asking them, it’s the element of surprise. It’s about getting there first.
I did this with my friends. If you want a homework assignment, this would be your homework assignment is, when your friends come to the door don’t ask them what they want, just give them what you think they need. I used to do it with my friends, I say, “Here’s your drink. I had it ready for you.”
Like, “How did you know?”
“Because I know you.”
And they never had to ask for anything that whole visit. I’m just like, “Here, this is what you’re getting. This is what you need. You’re going to love it.”
Oh, and you know, and there was just this just generosity and this warmth. I remember my friend said to me, “You can use me for your research any time you like Deb. I love this.”
Rachel Cram – That’s a great homework assignment. I’m going to take that on.
Musical Interlude #2
If you’d like to connect further with Dr. MacNamara’s writing and work, or a transcript of this interview, find links on her episode page at family360podcast.com. It’s all there waiting for you.
Rachel Cram – OK, so we got five things to understand about attachment. 1/ Attachment is a two-way street. 2/Separation is the most impactful of all experiences. 3/ Relationship is a shield to protect against emotional wounding. And then number 4, you say “The instinct to detach instead of attach. Detachment is an instinct when the threat of separation or wounding is present.”
What do you mean by detachment?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – This is easiest if you can find it inside of you. If you’ve ever felt this urge inside of you that you desire connection. Right? But maybe in that relationship you got hurt. Maybe you can see in their eyes there’s no invitation or you’re feeling threatened in some way to reveal your vulnerability. And all of a sudden, you don’t even know why, but you can feel that energy inside of you, those emotions and those instincts. Instead of to push forward to be with that person you just want to run, or you want to hide and you detach. You don’t seek attachment anymore. In fact, you’re seeking one hundred and eighty-degree reverse turn in the opposite direction.
And those are just preservation instincts. When we anticipate separation our brain can actually hijack us out of that relationship and do a 180. So it’s just being able to sniff out the separation. You see this with kids who have multiple homes, as soon as they know they’re leaving to go to the other home, they might disappear from that parent who is taking care of them. You’re less able to take care of them because they’re already transitioning to the shift that’s going to happen to move into the other home.
We can do this at night when we start thinking about transitioning to go to work on Monday and your brain starts to move into work and you detach from that.
I remember when my husband, when we were first newlyweds and he was working in the music industry and he’d gone on some tour, Tragically Hip or something. He was in the buses with them and touring around. Exactly what a newlywed wants, right? So I remember putting little notes in his socks, like “Missing you” and like all over his things so he would not forget about me. But then when I picked him up from the airport, I remember feeling like, “Oh, I just want to see him. I missed him so much.”
And as soon as I got close to the airport and as soon as I saw him come out, all of that energy that was going into wanting to connect with him, once I saw him I had this huge whiplash like, “Yeah, whatever.”
And when he came, I was just like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m cool. Good you back? Yeah,”
I was just kind of nonchalant and I’m like, “What has happened to me?”
And it was just this reversal of attachment instincts. In the face of potential separation my brain absolutely went haywire one hundred and eighty degrees. He’s the trustworthy man of the world. But it was my anticipation of separation that just spun my head around.
Oh, this happens all the time, all the time. I could give you hundreds of examples, but if you can feel that instinct inside of yourself, you understand, and in the face of separation, our brain tries to protect itself and goes, “Nope, out of here. Sorry. Bye. Runaway Bride. See you later.”
Rachel Cram – And so is there work to be done in stopping ourselves from doing that? Or is it necessary in some cases? What’s the dance with that?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, the brain deems it necessary. So I’m not going to argue with the brain. Is the brain accurate in terms of the separation? No, not necessarily. It certainly wasn’t in my situation with my husband. The best we can hope for is to have a relationship with the things that create separation. With our feelings and to have words for them to understand, ‘OK. This will be difficult. I miss my husband. Yeah, I worry about lots of stuff and he’ll be back.’ And if I could have my words for it, I was a newlywed. I was completely unprepared for the emotions that came. A whole different set of emotions ignited being married and so I was still trying to find my way through this.
So the best that we can hope for is to be aware of our feelings, to find words for them, and to come back at them and say to him, “Hey, I was cold because I really missed you. And, you know, I was just worried you didn’t miss me too.”
Someone understands that, ”Of course I missed you. Come here. How could I not?” And then you’re through.
And so that’s why it’s important that we’re able to communicate with others our vulnerable feelings so that we can get past these things that get in the way of our relationship, which they always do. But the more that you’re aware, the more you have words, the more you can share them. That’s the way through.
Rachel Cram – But if you’re not aware, and I think that probably most of us know people like this, or are like this ourselves sometimes, you can feel so disconnected from people because the problem with detachment is in those moments, togetherness feels unattainable. It seems so safer, so much easier to do it on our own.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yes, it does. And we can’t forget, no, we can’t do this on our own. And this is the other problem. The problem with detachment is everybody leaves you. They all take you at face value when it’s the last thing that you actually want. You want someone to be bigger, to hold on to you and say, “Hey, you’re having a hard time. It’s OK. But I just want you to know this relationship isn’t up for grabs. I’m here. I’ll give you your space. I’ll check in on you later.”
You bring them a cup of tea. Whatever it is that you need to do. If there are people in your life, that means something to you. Relationships should be for life till they take you to the grave and beyond.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. That’s beautiful and difficult and important. So many things.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Oh, it is the most difficult thing to do. My goodness. And it is the center of every religion, is it not?
Rachel Cram – It is. It is
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – It is. Every single religion you probably look at, that is the core message. Don’t forsake someone, even though they may forsake you.
What is that? Is it T.S. Eliot or William Auden? The poem about the stars. If all else fails, let me be the one. Let me be the one that that loves. There’s a beautiful poem about this. Can we let ourselves be the loving one?
Rachel Cram – We will find that poem.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – I will get it to you.
Rachel Cram – We might end this episode with that poem. Yes, I’m remembering it, but I can’t place it either. Yeah, and like you said, it is the center of all world religions, but unfortunately other parts of religiosity distract us from what actually was at the core.
All right. Ok Deb, we are at your 5th key to understanding attachment, and you’ve titled this key ‘depersonalization of attachment,’ and you’ve written, “Depersonalized attachments are an attempt by the brain to move someone towards connecting with others, but in ways that are less vulnerable and provide a buffer against the potential of wounding from separation.”
What do you say about that?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, so this is huge, gosh, we just don’t see this. We are so insatiable, looking for love in all the wrong places. When we can’t anchor into those vulnerable relationships in a way that we feel that sense of togetherness, there is still a hunger for connection. The question is, where does that hunger go? Oh my goodness. It goes into a million different places that are more superficial, that serves as fixes or fixations for relationship that stand in for it, that become a substitute for it. But they don’t nurture us, they don’t fulfill us, so we seek and we look for love in all the wrong places. This is the root of addiction, of course, because it can take on a life of its own. But at the core of it is this sense of, ‘OK, well, we’re not connecting in a vulnerable way. And so we seek substitutes.’
So depersonalized pursuits. I mean, you just name it, collecting, hoarding, food can be a substitute. Sex could be a substitute. Depersonalize sex having sex, but there’s no vulnerability. Your money, your house, you know, as a showpiece rather than as a house, as a performance. Anything that turns into a performance, is usually some sort of depersonalized pursuit or attachment fix.
And of course, we have social media, which is just the best example of this seek for connection and pursuit. Not the saying that there isn’t some wonderful things that we do through social media that can provide real connection. I don’t believe that isn’t true as well, but this hunger to be esteemed to people you don’t know,
Rachel Cram – There’s something wrong with that. It hurts us.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, there’s something off with that.
Musical interlude #3……
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with child psychologist and author, Dr. Deborah MacNamara.
Our next episode is with educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba, the recent recipient of a national life-time achievement award for ‘the teaching of character.’ Her most recent book, Thrivers, is all about character, and in this lively and story-filled conversion, Michele shares from her 4 decades of research around the world working with kids in crises. Join us as Michele shares the surprising reasons why some kids struggle and others shine.
And now back to the conclusion of our conversation with Dr. MacNamara as she describes 3 considerations to keep in mind when working to repair the rupture in our relationships.
Rachel Cram – So to keep us organized Deb, you’ve described these 5 keys of attachment, which I’m going to review again really quickly. It’s a two-way street. Separation is the most impactful of all experiences. Relationship is a shield to protect against emotional wounding. The instinct to detach instead of attach. And this last one you’ve just talked about, the depersonalization of attachment.
So when separation is too much and perhaps we’ve detached or depersonalized, how do we start to heal that so that we’re not looking for love in all the wrong places? You say it’s never too late to heal an attachment. That is so encouraging!
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, this is such a beautiful gift is to understand because we are wired for human relationships that it’s never too late. It’s never too late to forgive, it’s never too late to have mercy. It’s never too late to seek connection. You’re never too old to fall in love. There’s this incredible power inside of us.
Really, when it comes to the level of emotions between us, you know, we don’t have to agree with each other all the time. We don’t have to see it the same way. But the care and consideration to listen and to have a dialog that is respectful of our differences of the divides that come between us, because wow, we can be divided on lots of different things but how do you hold on to the thread that is most important?
There’s lots of stuff that comes up between us. Physical separation, emotional separations, opinions, whatever it is. Oh, just it’s endless.
Rachel Cram – Which is kind of the sad state in our communities at the moment, with medical and political opinions and divides.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Oh yeah.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. OK, so when those things have happened, the physical separation, the emotional outbursts that we wish we never did. The insensitivities of the moment. When those things have happened, what are considerations for repairing what’s been broken?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah. Well, there’s three things. Number one, don’t work inside the incident. If something has been heated, there has been a rupture, unless you have to try to do very little work in that incident.
In the middle of the incident, like why would we try to solve anything where we’re heated, when we can’t think clearly, when emotion is driving the bus. Oftentimes, in heated situations, we’re just better to just say, “OK, we’ll get back to this. We’re going to steer out of this right now.”
In heated moments, we shouldn’t try to work with heat. Bring it down. Bring it down. Cool it down. And sidestep battles that we can return to later.
The second thing is to always work inside the relationship. If I have an issue, say with my husband or with a friend, if I can’t collect them, if I can’t get their attention, if I don’t feel some warmth or invitation, does it then make sense to say, “OK, by the way, we really need to talk about something serious. I know you’re not listening to me and you don’t want to be with me right now, or you’re still really mad at me. But let’s talk about that really difficult issue now.”
And I know I’ve done it. If there’s been a disagreement between my kids and I, give it some time and come back and I’m like, “Hey, how are you?”
And I get like a cold shoulder. “OK, things are still kind of chilly here.”
It’s not the time then to launch into something. I’m trying to collect across the divide that may have come up in our relationship.
Rachel Cram – When you say start to collect, I know this is a big part of your work. How do you know when you’re collected? How do you know when you’re there? What are the cues you’re looking for? You talked about earlier, we’re very sensory. We pick up people’s body languages, we pick up their eyes. What is the list of what you’re looking for before you know that you are collected and that this is the moment to step in?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – I wish I could just be so clear with a list. You know, so many times it’s just trial and error, too. I’m feeling my way through. I’m looking at her eyes, I’m listening to the tone. I’m like, “Well, let’s just try to go for it,” and then porcupine pickles will come out like, “Okay, slow down, go back, retreat, get a cup of tea. Too soon.”
You know, like, it’s just such a dance. You’re trying to say, Is there receptivity here?” and you’re hoping that that person will meet you halfway.
They might not. And if you’re really digging in and they’re like, “I told you, just leave me alone.” And you really feel the push of frustration come at you like to kind of wall up and say, “No, I’m not yours right now.”
Then pay attention. But I think we should hopefully pick up some of those signs.
Rachel Cram – When you’re saying it’s a dance, the other night I was watching with our kids an old rerun of So You Think You Can Dance, and there was this incredible pair. I think it was a salsa? I don’t really know my dances, but it was one of those dances when they were just totally up close to one another and they were moving like one person all across the floor, like their legs are together. Their arms are together. They’re swirling, they’re twisting. It was absolutely incredible to watch.
And afterwards they were saying, “It’s all just little movements that they feel in each other to know, are they going to turn left or are they going to turn right? Are they going to dip or are they going to sway?”
And that’s what comes to my mind when you’re talking about building the capacity for really strong connection. And I think it is a learned ability and I’m sure it changes with who we’re with, but to be able to read one another like that. To go, “Is this a moment to step in, to step back, to dip, to sway? It is an art. It is an art.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – And it’s so beautiful. That’s exactly the metaphor. That’s a beautiful, beautiful image. Because we’re creating a very personalized and exclusive relationship where you know somebody, you’ve spent the time and attention and yearning to take care of them, to make sense of them and so you can have that fluidity.
We don’t have that necessarily with everybody, obviously, that we have a relationship with. But there will be some people in our life where we really do seek that level of connection. And of course, that’s where our separation wounds would be the greatest.
Rachel Cram – Deborah, we are going to need to start to wrap up our conversation and, I wonder if we can end with what I think, from your writing, is your third consideration for repairing our attachments. Your first point was, don’t work inside the incident. The second was, to always work inside the relationship. And then, moving from the reality that our closest relationships will hurt us the most, you say, “While loving someone may not change that person, it will surely change you.”
And I’m wondering, can you just talk to that incredible truth for our last few moments?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, I’ve heard Gordon often say this. “In the face of such heartache in our relationships, conflicts that divide us, behaviors we can’t make sense out of, what would be the thing that we must anchor into so we don’t lose our way?”
And that would be that caring is the answer – love is the answer. And in the face of wounded or hurtful behavior, can we let ourselves be the more loving one? Not that we necessarily are going to be able to take care of that person, or can even be close to that person? But can we fill our hearts with caring and not let our hearts be hardened. Because if your heart gets hardened because of an experience with somebody or a relationship that doesn’t work, don’t kid yourself that that heart has gone into retreat, because as soon as our heart goes hard we’re going to be in trouble for all our relationships. And so the goal is to let us be the more loving one, even if they cannot return it, let us still stay steadfast in keeping our hearts soft and generous and warm.
And that, you will just feel the growth inside of you and the expansion and the maturity hoof. Just such a beautiful message, right?
Rachel Cram – Let the more loving one be me. That’s a fabulous closing to our time together. I love it. So much to ponder. Well, Deborah, thank you so much for your beautiful message today. I thank you so much for talking to us as a Wind and Tide team. This has been very meaningful, and I’m excited to share this session as an episode for our family360 podcast as well.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, thank you for your time and your attention and your invitation and your heartfelt questions and digging into the material in a meaningful way. Thanks for having me.
Rachel Cram – Thank you Deb so much.
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.