“Addictions from an Attachment Perspective”—(an interlude)

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Welcome back. As you know, I’m in the middle of a multi-part blog series wherein I’m reviewing the 2014 edited volume entitled Addictions from an Attachment Perspective—Do Broken Bonds and Early Trauma Lead to Addictive Behaviours? I’ve already posted parts I & II. I’ll post part III next week. In this very short post, I’d like to briefly step away from Addictions from an Attachment Perspective and present you with some information on addiction from another source: the 2015 book by former freshman dean at Stanford University Julie Lythcott-Haims entitled How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success (which I’m still in the process of reading). Lythcott-Haims’ small section on addiction caught my eye because it tends to support the information presented thus far from Addictions from an Attachment Perspective.

Here’s how Lythcott-Haims starts out this small section on addiction:

Beit T’Shuvah is an addiction treatment center that has been serving the Greater Los Angeles area for decades. Historically their clientele were people in their thirties and forties. Recently the staff has seen a sharp increase in young adult clients, many of whom appear to suffer from … “learned helplessness” and lack of “self-efficacy.”

“Self-efficacy,” I thought to myself, “That’s like Bowlby’s focus on autonomy.” Lythcott-Haims tells us that the idea of learned helplessness comes from the work of psychology professors Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. Learned helplessness describes “how humans shut down when they feel they have no control over situations” (quoting Lythcott-Haims). In the Strange Situation Assessment (which I have blogged about before), it is very hard to watch insecurely attached toddlers give up and shut down because they cannot handle being separated from mother. Learned helplessness originally described what happens when someone feels that bad experiences are beyond their control. Interestingly Lythcott-Haims points out that recent work by Seligman reveals a different side to learned helplessness: “[L]earned helplessness can also occur when good [emphasis in original] events are uncontrollable, as when a parent rewards a child with praise regardless of what she does.” Lythcott-Haims continues, “According to Seligman [who she quotes], it’s crucial that humans experience ‘contingency’—which means ‘learning that your actions matter, that they control outcomes that are important.’ ” Continuing to quote Seligman, Lythcott-Haims gives us this “bottom line”: “Young children who experience ‘noncontingency’ between actions and outcomes will experience ‘passivity, depression, and poor physical health.’ ”

I  talk a bit about contingency in my next post, part III. Suffice it to say that Seligman’s take on learned helplessness squares nicely with what attachment researchers (like Peter Fonagy and his colleagues) are finding: insecure attachment is characterized by misattuned and noncontingent interactions between child and caregiver. So, when a parent does everything for a child and rewards that child for everything without consequence or consideration (i.e., what the self-esteem movement seems to prescribe), it can lead a child “down a path toward alcohol and drug addiction” (quoting Lythcott-Haims). To illustrate her point, Lythcott-Haims gives us the story of Rachel (not her real name): a straight A student “from an affluent and Conservative Jewish family in Los Angeles” (quoting Lythcott-Haims). In essence, Rachel became a one-trick-pony: get straight As and that’s it. Her parents did everything else for her. Rachel’s efforts to get straight As were cut off from any and all activities happening around her. It’s a lot like the object-oriented mid-brian cut off from the context-oriented upper brain (which I have blogged about before). Starting at age ten Rachel “began to experience a ‘meaninglessness’ that became pervasive, and she turned to disordered eating, drugs, and alcohol to get through each day,” writes Lythcott-Haims. Consider this quote by Rachel herself: “The thing I could do best was drink and use; it took me out of feeling life was completely pointless.” As talked about in part II, using accomplishes two things:

  • Using is about making predictable what you are going to feel
  • Using is about making predictable when you are going to feel

Using, then, makes your world contingent: I decide to engage in a behavior, the behavior happens, and I can tangibly see (or feel) the result. But it’s a contingency that is all about the self, the user, and not about others. It’s a contingency that locks the self within the self. Fortunately Rachel did get help (after a suicide attempt at age 19) at Beit T’Shuvah and is doing well. She even received a B or two in school and, as she discovered, her world did not fall apart.

Lythcott-Haims’ book does a good job talking about how overparenting (which fits with Bowlby’s focus on role reversal) and various standardization processes (i.e., standardized tests, standardized education curriculums like Common Core, and standardized physical activities like organized sports) have the net effect of condemning children to a largely meaningless life. We may be facing an existential crisis the likes of which we have not seen in recent times. It’s a chilling prospect. This is why groups like Children & Nature Network (which our Foundation supports and mentioned by Lythcott-Haims) advocate getting kids into the outdoors for a healthy dose of unstructured play.

I’ll see you again in part III next week.