Attachment Science and Animism

Attachment theory is a central component of the dominant western understanding of human psychology; it helps shape our understanding of developmental stages and developmental trauma. Some modalities such as Emotion Focussed Therapy (EFT) and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) place attachment at the centre of healing. If we can understand what happened and didn’t happen in childhood with primary caregivers, we can address the ruptures, deprivation, losses, and defenses that continue to impair our relationships with others and our ability to function today. 

My understanding and experiences of attachment have played a very significant role in my own healing from complex trauma and in the way I work with those who seek me out.

Recently I have been challenged, in particular by BIPOC writers and thinkers, to see more clearly the limits of attachment theory. To begin with, our understanding of attachment comes out of a western, white, individualist lens, in which the main focus is on the dyad (caregiver-infant; therapist-patient) with some attention on the family of origin and possibly grandparents in the case of intergenerational trauma. Working through an attachment lens, we situate the most significant problems to be addressed in the past. For example, an individual’s marital difficulties are shaped in part by childhood dynamics in which emotion was overwhelming or blocked. There is profound understanding and change to be had in facing these dynamics. However, there is a way in which this focus can obscure or downplay crucial problems in the present – particularly the oppression and violence experienced by BIPOC and others in our unjust society, as well as the effects of privilege. Attachment is not an accurate or sufficient frame to address these. Healing childhood trauma is not applicable to state-sanctioned trauma being inflicted in the present, and focussing on my individual trauma as a white person does not equip me to face my part in perpetuating injustice. 

Attachment theory comes out of a colonial culture in which the nuclear family is the most significant unit. In keeping our focus there, we maintain a white frame of reference primarily suited to white patients, and we reproduce the culture of individualism. If we are to challenge the ways in which psychotherapy perpetuates and maintains white supremacy, we need to widen the framework from the dyad to the wider web of relations that predate colonization and that still define the experiences and healing practices of other cultures. If we are to challenge the ways in which psychotherapy remains mute about or complicit with climate change and ecological destruction, we must widen the framework beyond the web of human relations to our connections to land, flora and fauna. This is not to say that early relational history is irrelevant. I am suggesting that we need to zoom out to seek the sources of, and remedies for, suffering within a broader framework of relationships.

Animism is the attribution of soul or spirit to plants, commonly-seen-as-inanimate objects, and natural phenomena. Psychotherapy made a decisive split from these connections when Freud designated the ancient cultures that honour them as “primitive,” and set the healing of white people on a certain course in keeping with a colonial relationship to the natural world. (Although this manifests differently in Jung’s honouring of the collective unconscious, his too was a white male perspective.) Indigenous and African voices are conspicuously absent from the lineage and canon of psychotherapy as it is taught now, and even the recent upsurge in mindfulness practices is an individualist reframing of ancient Asian practices that are embedded in deep connection to other beings. It is my increasingly strong conviction that the limits I have come up against in my own healing and in the healing of others reflect the existential void and vast destruction wrought by colonization and alienation from the world, and other beings around us. This void cannot be addressed adequately by an individualist framework or by attachment as it is commonly understood, and in fact that frame continues to obscure what is most needed for our health and for the earth’s.

The following passage is from the chapter “The Council of Pecans,” in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I am sharing it here as an invitation to address the similar limits to the scientific principles that structure and define psychology:

“The pecan trees and their kin show a capacity for concerted action, for unity of purpose that transcends the individual trees. They ensure somehow that all stand together and thus survive. How they do so is still elusive….

In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other. They’d stand on their own and council and craft a plan. But scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication. The possibility of communication was summarily dismissed. Science pretends to be purely rational, completely neutral, a system of knowledge-making in which the observation is independent of the observer. And yet the conclusion was drawn that plants cannot communicate because they lack the mechanisms that animals use to speak….

There is now compelling evidence that our elders were right—the trees are talking to one another. They communicate via pheromones, hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning. Scientists have identified specific compounds that one tree will release when it is under stress of insect attack….

The trees warn each other and invaders are repelled. The individual benefits, and so does the entire grove…. 

The Potawatomi Gathering of Nations reunites the people, an antidote to the divide-and-conquer strategy that was used to separate our people from each other and from our homelands….

As a nation, we are beginning to follow the guidance of our elders the pecans by standing together for the benefit of all. We are remembering what they said, that all flourishing is mutual.”