I recently did a secure attachment exercise by Diane Poole Heller, who is a pioneer in attachment and trauma recovery. Diane’s book, The Power of Attachment has been helpful to me in my relational healing process. In this exercise, readers are asked to visualize someone in their life who allowed them feel safe and secure and to pay attention to what they experience in their mind, body and emotions. The exercise is intended to help the reader learn how to connect again with how it feels to be safe.
This exercise takes a lot of work for me, because the first person who comes to mind as having made me feel safe and secure actually brought me harm. Part of my healing process has been understanding that what can feel secure and safe for me has been skewed by a lifetime of complex trauma. Over the past few years, one of the things that I have learned about myself is that I have an insecure/avoidant attachment style. What this means is that I really struggle to let my guard down and connect with other people. My default mode is to rely on myself, because as a child it was the only way I could experience any kind of safety. Heller teaches that this type of attachment style begins to develop in the womb. As an adopted child, who was adopted by parents who themselves were emotionally detached and a father who was sexually abusive, it is easy to understand why I learned how to rely mostly on myself. However, relying on ourselves can make us desperate. We are wired for connection, and we need relationships in our lives to give us security, especially when things are chaotic. Up until I was in my late twenties, I was able to manage things in my life by mostly relying on myself. I didn’t even know anything was missing. I believed that I was relying on others as much as I needed to to make my life work the way it should. But when things in our family and church began to fall apart, I realized I didn’t have what I needed to get through it. I looked for support where I was taught we should look for help; my pastor.
I have learned that when a child grows up with parents who are abusive and emotionally absent, it is difficult to know what a secure attachment actually is. And sometimes what we think is a secure attachment actually isn’t. Especially a child like me, who was sexually abused by a parent, can determine that a sexual connection is the kind of attachment that they are supposed to have. In my own story, I was told that everyone does this, but no one tells. I believed deception and sexual abuse was attachment. So it’s no surprise that a relationship with a deceptive and sexually abusive pastor felt so familiar and like a secure attachment to me.
It has taken a lot of work and time to sort through the emotional and psychological trauma and abuse that I have experienced over a lifetime. Work that I was only able to accomplish with the support of people in my life who loved me in healthy ways. Their consistent presence over time has helped me to define what a healthy attachment really is, and I am so very thankful to the family, friends, and mental health professionals who walked with me and guided me to a much healthier place.
Even though I have come a long way in my healing, as someone who learned how to survive by detaching and toxic connections, I believe I will always have work to do around relationships and learning how to trust and connect in healthy ways. Just as eating a healthy diet and exercising takes work, so do healthy relationships. It is crucial to learn what is good for us and what isn’t. Sometimes our desires can cause us to eat a half a dozen donuts when our body really needed a salad! It takes ongoing practice to maintain our overall health. Sometimes we do it well. Sometimes we don’t. But I have learned when we are kind and patient with ourselves and lean on others who are the same way towards us that we do it best!
An ongoing difficulty I have had after experiencing spiritual abuse and trauma is knowing how to be in a relationship with God again. So many of my beliefs about God have been tangled up with a toxic leader who needed for me to put him at the center of my life. Not only was he a father figure, but he also taught me what the Bible meant and prayed with and for me. Untangling what he taught me from what is really true about God is my deconstruction process.
One of the most important things I have come to understand about God is that He isn’t anything like the toxic people who abused me. God is most like the people who love us well. Which means I have to open up space in my heart to let others in which is especially difficult when we have been harmed by those who were supposed to care. If I let my guard down, it means others can hurt me. The only way to let others in is to do it slowly.
If you are a survivor of spiritual abuse, I encourage you to give yourself all the time that you need to observe what other people do with your vulnerabilities. No matter who that person is, if they are good for you, they will listen, they will validate, and they will allow you to make healthy choices for yourself. They will not use your vulnerability to take advantage of you, and they especially won’t ask you to do things that will bring you more harm.
God is most like the people who love us well.
Who is the first person who comes to your mind when you think about feeling safe?
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails… I Corinthians 13:4-8