I learned a new word at the Chicago Externship I co-led a few months ago with Lisa Palmer-Olsen of San Diego: “attachify”. Lisa first heard it from Dan Kim, an EFT therapist and colleague, but who knows, it may have been invented by others as well. Sometimes we just need a verb to cut straight to the heart of the matter.
If you’ve studied EFT, then you likely know what it means. And if you’ve had EFT supervision, you definitely know. Most of my supervision sessions include at least one suggestion to add more attachment-rich words, phrases or images to all the basic interventions – reflection, validation, tracking cycles, evocative response and heightening we all do.
Why is it so important? Well first, it naturally captures a relational meaning. We’re explicitly talking about one partner’s hurt, loneliness and sadness in a relational context and tracking or highlighting the impact it has on the other. Attachment language also helps orient clients to the key focal points of EFT: the emotions related to vulnerability and the related need to feel securely attached, both of which fuel so many couples’ negative interaction cycles. It also often includes metaphors and images, often a shortcut to heart-felt meaning, and a key way to help clients access and experience emotions in the moment. Finally, clarifying and heightening attachment significance helps build empathy: partners are hearing the impact they have on each other, especially as it relates to the sense of belonging, safety and feeling cared about.
Attachify – verb, intransitive, \ə-ˈtach\ə\fī\: to reflect, heighten, etc. clients’ experience with words or images that evoke or recognize the basic human need for closeness and connection, especially in close, intimate relationships. Here are a couple of examples. As you read them, compare the therapist’s two possible responses and note the difference.
Sally has felt distance in her marriage to Jim for years, but it increased after a recent cancer diagnosis and treatment. She says, “I never know what’s going on with you, how to read you. You went through the cancer treatment last year and I tried to be supportive, but had no idea how you felt until I overheard you talking with your Dad about how worried you were.”
Therapist: I guess you must worry when you see him go through something this significant and don’t know how he’s feeling on the inside, and harder yet to hear of it’s impact in this indirect way. And it makes sense this is important to you; couples tend to do better when they can share these experiences together.
Not a bad reflection, right? It captures the gist of her concern, validates a bit and recognizes the importance of attachment in times of threat and uncertainty. Now have a look at the attachified version.
I guess you must worry when you see him go through such a threatening experience and feel like you’re not part of his inner world; that you’re not the partner he shares his needs, and maybe his fears with. I imagine you might feel like you’re on the outside when you’d most like to be at his side, sharing his fears with him.
Hear the difference? How it evokes and builds on Sally’s words and emphasizes proximity, inclusion and accessibility at a time of vulnerability? For added impact try reading the two responses out loud and track your own emotional response. Or try imagining yourself as Sally and see if the second feels more attuned and evocative. Here’s another example:
Len has been hesitant to commit to his partner, Doug. He rarely initiates physical affection and tends to be emotionally closed as well. The therapist encourages him, via an enactment, to tell Doug directly about the emotions that help maintain the distance, the blocks to engagement. He says, “I do have a hard time opening up and being vulnerable. Sometimes I don’t try because I doubt that I even know how to be close. What if I try and fail? What will that say to you about me – about us together? So I do hang back and wait. And I know you’re disappointed and I feel even worse.”
Therapist: Len, It’s important that you’re telling him this, about your doubts about yourself and your fear of failure. It’s a big part of what has held you back from committing. No wonder you’ve kept this to yourself, not wanting him to be disappointed or to feel disappointed in yourself. So then you get cautious and retreat, not telling him about your doubt and fear and in the end feel even worse about yourself.
Now, an attachified version:
Therapist: You see Doug, longing for more closeness and connection with you, yes? But then the fear sets in; fear that you’ll reach out to him and get it wrong or won’t do enough to tell him how much he means to you and how scary it is to let him in. So you hang back, hoping to spare him the disappointment; wanting not to be a disappointment to him. And this distance between you opens up once again, leaving you both feeling separated and alone. Do I have this right?
Again, the first response has several key well-timed interventions: affirmation, validation, a bit of tracking the cycle, reframing. Do you notice the emphasis on attachment in the second example? Imagine yourself as Doug; does the attachified example draw you in more, evoke more compassion, help you lower your guard?
So I can imagine some folks saying, ok, I get it, but how do I get better at this? First, remember the attachment lens when listening, reflecting, etc. It’s often the disconnection resulting from conflict that’s most distressing for partners. Think about the impact of disengagement as partners express their concerns and complaints. Second, use your own experience in the moment when listening. Our own well-attuned empathic gut can be a powerful amplifier of client emotion. And watch your session videos. When there’s less pressure to respond in the moment, we all find it easier to attune and generate what we wish we’d said. Finally, come up with a few key phrases and images that capture the spirit of attachment for you and write them down. Every model of therapy has its own vocabulary and it will help to have some words and phrases to help you attachify your interventions.
If you’re interested, send me some of your own examples of how you attachify your interventions – there are many ways to do it. I’ll share them in a future post.
Till next time,