Look to the Future: How Attachment Affects Our Ability to Plan Ahead

Double exposure of cityscape with person framing view in distanceEveryone has some sense of their future, and the way that sense is experienced may have an impact on whether a person is successful or not. Does your future feel threatening or promising? Do you feel able to make plans and carry them out, or do you feel powerless to make a difference? Do things invariably get better, worse, or go back and forth? Is everything always the same?

Psychotherapy is concerned with the past, the present, and the future: how individuals experience their abilities and picture their lives unfolding. Do they feel organized, goal-oriented, powerful? Positive about themselves? Are they scared to think about the future?

One determinant of how people feel about the future is a process called “attachment.” Attachment describes the ways people connect to themselves and others. Though attachment styles develop in childhood and persist through the adult years, they are amenable to therapeutic intervention. Understanding your attachment styles and how they can affect the future is a powerful psychotherapeutic tool. Your feelings about yourself determine how you see your life path.

Styles of Attachment

  1. Secure
  2. Anxious–preoccupied
  3. Dismissive–avoidant
  4. Fearful–avoidant

Secure attachment hardly needs any explanation. People who are securely attached are easily able to form close relationships with others, and they can generally be said to have good self-knowledge. A person who experiences secure attachment is likely to know what they want and how to reach their goals.

People who are anxious and preoccupied may want to be close to others, but they generally find this difficult. While they might know what they want in the future, and take steps to arrive at the desired goal, these steps might be tentative and feel painful.

Dismissive-avoidant people are typically comfortable when they are not in relationships and need to feel independent and self-sufficient. They may have few fantasies about their futures. If they have goals, they expect to reach them without help from anyone. If they are helped, they may not recognize it.

People who are fearful and avoidant typically find it difficult to trust others or themselves. The future may simply feel like doom to them, and so they prefer to avoid thinking about it.

Addressing Attachment Styles in Therapy

Therapy can directly affect attachment styles. The relationship between the therapist and the person in treatment can help highlight behaviors displayed with others as well as one’s feelings about the self. We can use this process to understand the past and its effects in the present and also to understand how people see their future, develop worthy goals, and learn how to work towards achieving them.

I find in my work with people it is important to be specific about how current behaviors lead to future outcomes. I encourage people to fantasize about what kind of life they want in the future, how they see themselves in a year, or two, or five. Our expectations influence what we see.

Here’s an example:

The relationship between the therapist and the person in treatment can help highlight behaviors displayed with others as well as one’s feelings about the self. We can use this process to understand the past and its effects in the present and also to understand how people see their future, develop worthy goals, and learn how to work towards achieving them.

A woman, let’s call her Francine, experienced multiple anxiety attacks and came to me for help. Our immediate goal was to help Francine learn ways to reduce those attacks, so we talked together about her difficulties and, most importantly, I taught her a breathing routine that reduced her anxiety. Our work concerned her life in the present, and it became clear that she was anxious and preoccupied and somewhat avoidant.

After her anxiety attacks were under control, she began talking about the severe sexual trauma she had experienced. Clearly this trauma was a precipitating factor to her anxiety attacks, and as we spoke about her painful past experiences they gradually came to feel less threatening. I served as a trusted witness, which helped Francine metabolize and digest the trauma. Much of our work together was about trust, more specifically, her learning to trust herself and others.

Once Francine felt stable and clear about her past and secure in the present she could deal with her anxieties for her future and talk about her fears and her wishes. Francine had wanted to go to graduate school for a long time, but she was always scared that she would fail. She had a long list of things she thought she couldn’t do—which came down to her belief that she wasn’t smart enough and she did not know how to study.

These thoughts led us back to her past. Her father was a school principal, and he always told her she wasn’t smart and didn’t know how to study. Now she knew where and how these self-defeating thoughts originated, and she gradually became more realistic. She felt stronger and more in control, until she was eventually able to picture herself in graduate school.

She applied to an MA program and was accepted. Graduate school is demanding, but it was what she wanted, and she says this is the happiest time in her life.

Our work together began in the present, accessed the past, and progressed towards envisioning the future. Although weekly therapy is no longer necessary, Francine checks in when she needs.

References:

  1. Murphy, B., & Bates, G. (1997). Personality and individual differences: Adult attachment style and vulnerability to depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 22(6). 835-844.
  2. Nieves, W. (2014). The future. Psychiatria, 11(3). 155-159.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 2 comments
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  • Tonia

    Tonia

    October 31st, 2017 at 11:29 AM

    It is so amazing to me that even when we think that we have done a stand up job burying the past, our body and our minds always still hold onto that truth, and eventually it will all catch up with us like it or not.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    November 1st, 2017 at 8:33 AM

    HI Tonia,
    Yes, it is amazing–the mind and especially the body always know the score–but with work the game can be changed.
    Take care,
    Lynn

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