Negotiating between Authenticity and Attachment
I attended a presentation once with Dr. Gabor Maté where he said something to the effect of, “we are always negotiating between authenticity and attachment”. It was a casual mention; a random thought in an larger argument: how our history influences not only our mental health, but also the health of our bodies. Although I have a general admiration and interest in Dr. Maté’s body of work, it was the idea of a tension between Authenticity and Attachment that stayed with me.
Today, I understand this concept as the ways in which we sacrifice parts of our authenticity for the benefit of a relationship. That is, how we may choose to deny things we need or want in order to protect the bond with someone that matters to us.
Think of a small child: they don’t care if what they say hurt your feelings: all they want is for their needs and wants to be met immediately and at whatever cost. That is pure, immature authenticity. As the child grows up, their caregivers will teach them what is and isn’t allowed in relationship: it’s not okay to hit, we need to be mindful of other people’s feelings. This, of course, means sacrificing immediate gratification. Children don’t have an alternative; they have to learn and quickly. They depend on maintaining relationships, as they’re vulnerable and require assistance to survive. As a consequence, they learn ways of expressing their needs that will make them likely to be met while maintaining their bonds.
Our strategies to maintain social bonds
Sometimes, the strategies we develop to maintain our social bonds involve a rigid tendency to prioritize other people’s needs. It may be because we imagine that if someone is completely content, they’ll ask us for what we need. Or it may be because we have learned that we experience rejection when we ask for things. We focus so intensely on other people’s needs that we forget to look inwards. This can leave people feeling unhappy, alone among others, scared, limited. When authenticity and attachment are out of balance, we create a narrative that our place in the world always comes second — if not last.
We’re social creatures, willing to do most anything to make sure we’re not shunned from the group. The thing is, we all deserve to have most of our needs met, and many of our wants satisfied. Mature authenticity, I believe, is the ability to determine which of those needs are a priority, which are non-negotiable, and which are secondary and beyond. It’s the ability to communicate this to another person and, together, figure out how to negotiate each other’s authenticity. If this is done successfully, then the relationship can continue and be fulfilling for both people.
Boundaries as the key
This is when boundaries come in. Boundaries are the limits we put to our experience; what we seek, what we welcome. What we accept, as well as what we tolerate, reject, and avoid. They constantly change; we don’t have the same boundaries with everyone (or shouldn’t!), and they’re not the same every day. We also have boundaries with ourselves. They’re everywhere and they’re important, because they help us form, maintain, and repair relationships. Including the relationship with ourselves.
Another good thing about relationships that make room for boundaries is that it gives as a very clear message: what we feel matters. What we need matters. Every time we set a boundary, we’re effectively saying my experience is important. Over time, this feeds a narrative of our self-worth that is positive and healthy. It becomes the evidence that our inner world can occupy space.
In other words, boundaries help us find the safe, fair range of negotiation within relationships. This is a place where we can be authentic, have our needs met and help meet other people’s. In turn, this dynamic teaches us that we can truly feel accepted, and that we believe in our right to do so.
It’s a profound, simple framework. Can you see it playing out in your life?
I grew up speaking Spanish. English is my second language. When I communicate in English, I make mistakes. I've chosen to let the writing on my blog reflect the kind of mistakes I make when speaking, so that you have an idea of what it might feel like to talk to me. I trust the message is still clear but, if it's not, please don't hesitate to ask me for clarification.
The information provided on my blog is a mix of my personal thoughts, professional approach, and articles related to mental health. The purpose of sharing all of this is to communicate the models at the core of my practice, as well as to provide education. I hope this will help to minimize some of the power imbalances related to my profession. The articles on this blog should not be considered as professional advice for any one person or group of people. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this content for you, please contact a qualified mental health professional.