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From Insecurity to Security

This is Part Three in my exploration of a crucial question for the Catholic Church:

What does it look like for us who are celibate priests to become truly secure in our relationships?

Being truly secure in our relationships is what many contemporary psychologists describe as “secure attachment.”

How does one define “secure attachment”? We can start where most people tend to start – ask google about it. Here is the AI overview you will find there:

“Secure attachment is an attachment style characterized by trust, love, affection, and respect for boundaries. People with secure attachments are confident that their needs will be met, and are able to form stable relationships. They are also trusting, can communicate effectively, and are comfortable being alone while still forming close connections.”

By contrast, the majority of us exhibit at least some signs of an avoidant attachment style, a preoccupied attachment style, or a disorganized attachment style. You can google each of those if you’d like. But I don’t like putting people in boxes. I’d rather consider each person’s actual experiences of relationships.

In order to appreciate the difference between security and insecurity in relationships, we especially need to explore how it shows up in our bodies: in our brain and in our nervous system. Many of us literally lack the brain circuitry that would allow us to feel secure consistently in relationships – especially when we perceive a threat or a rupture.

Adam Young put it this way in a recent podcast:

If you have secure attachment, you have an anticipation in your nervous system that, anytime there is rupture, repair is inevitable – it will happen soon, and neither you nor the other person will have to compromise your integrity or your point of view to make that happen.

The only nervous system I truly know is my own, so I will illustrate by sharing a personal experience from earlier this week. There I was at my computer, ready for a Zoom meeting with my new bishop and with our Vicar for Clergy. We’ve been discerning and discussing the biggest needs of our diocese and preparing for the fast-approaching annual gathering of our priests.

Still no Zoom link. So I emailed the bishop’s secretary. I texted the Vicar for Clergy. Radio silence. As I waited, I used the time productively to catch up on several practical items. In between each task, I compulsively checked my email and phone to see if there was any response. Nothing.

How did my brain and nervous system process this experience?

I felt wave after wave of insecurity: a tightening in my chest, a dread in my stomach. My mind raced with interpretations of what was happening – some of them rather far-fetched. My primordial fears of rejection and abandonment were showing up in my brain and body. AND… my resiliency from several years of working on these issues also showed up. I was aware of what was happening; I was noticing it; I was curious about it. I gave myself permission to slow down and tend to what was coming up – much like I would tend to a terrified or distressed child. I spent even more time with the experience during my daily prayer. It opened up tears and brought peace.

As it turns out, the confusion was from my own mistake. I had misread the meeting date in an email!

Isn’t it interesting that even a perceived or potential rupture can elicit such a strong reaction? My body was remembering other situations or even long seasons of my life, and anticipating the worst. It was all the more challenging because I really like my new bishop and have been feeling a high level of trust and confidence in him – which would make a rupture that much more painful.

This story is just one out of thousands from the last few years of my life. The insecure warning alarm has blared for as long as I can remember – only I used to be much less aware of it. I tended to act out my reactions rather than noticing and experiencing the feelings, the bodily sensations, the images, and the thoughts – and then deciding in freedom what to do.

Psychologists describe the process I’m going through as “earned secure attachment.” I wish they didn’t use the word “earned” – which (like “attachment”) is a loaded word in our theological and spiritual traditions.

Whatever we call the effort, the good news is that those of us who find ourselves insecurely attached can actually go through the slow and steady process of becoming more secure in our relationships. How? To put it in biblical terms, we must become like little children.

That is because secure attachment is formed by experiencing millions of mini-ruptures followed again and again by meaningful repairs. A baby is separated from mom for a few hours and cries out in the night. Mom or dad shows up, and all is right with the world. A toddler is terrified, and dad or mom patiently connect with him. He feels safe and secure again. Children suddenly feel tension between mom and dad and realize they are mad at each other. Then they witness mom and dad talking about it, both with each other and with the children who felt the rupture. The relationships feel stronger than they did before the conflict happened.

Most of us did not regularly experience repair following rupture. Or we may have had parents who were too preoccupied to notice or care about what we were feeling. Bigger feelings like sadness or anger may have been unwelcome; expressing them would breach the unwritten rules of the family. We may have been encouraged not to have our own feelings or needs, just to take care of ourselves and be independent. Hurtful words or actions may have been followed by pretending like nothing happened, or shifting the blame onto someone else. Even in families where apologies happened, it’s likely that everyone wanted to get away as quickly as possible from the awkwardness of telling the full truth about it. Very few adults grew up in homes in which repair was truthful, kind, meaningful, and consistent – to the point that the default setting of the children’s nervous system in the face of rupture is to expect and trust that repair will happen.

The more I admit and notice my own insecurity, the more I learn to become secure in relationships, the more vividly I notice insecurity when it shows up in others. And wow, it’s ubiquitous!

Most people, I find (just like me) have an array of defenses to avoid looking truthfully at what is going on – because that requires actually feeling the insecurity and (even scarier) feeling our unmet longing for love. Mining the depths of our desire can feel especially dangerous. It’s so much easier to stay on the surface. That is a problem for us priests who have said “yes” to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom! If we avoid the longings of our heart and the felt sensations in our nervous system and body, how can we be truly integrated? How can our self-gift be embodied, wholehearted, free, and fruitful?

“What are we to do, my brothers?” (Acts 2:37).

First of all, we can notice our insecurity. We can name it truthfully, specifically, with kindness. We may also notice self-contempt and “why can’t I just _______??” We can learn to ask “why” with kindness rather than contempt. If becoming secure were that easy, we would have done it a long time ago!

Secondly, we can be curious about our story. It’s tempting to say things like “leave the past in the past” – but it’s not actually in the past! Right here and now, in the present moment, my body remembers and reacts – and with lightning speed (less than half a second). If I’m not willing to notice and be curious, I am dooming myself to continue being unfree in my reactions. But if I am curious, I can begin discovering what is really happening. Engaging story is hard work – but so worth it!

I will not lie by saying that things magically get better once we begin engaging our story. In many ways, it gets worse before it gets better (that’s why we avoid it!). We actually feel the tension and get to the places in which we feel the most stuck. Those are often places of ambivalence, in which you or I both want and don’t want something. One person may want connection and care and soothing, but is terrified of the risk of rejection or disappointment. Another desperately aches for someone to pursue his heart and really see him – but that is precisely what feels threatening or dangerous – far too similar to past experiences of grooming and abuse.

I believe that the majority of adults in the modern West experience insecurity in their relationships and are resisting the hard work of becoming truly secure – which the Catechism describes as a long and exacting labor that must be renewed in every age of life (n. 2342). I believe that the majority of marriages and families are struggling amidst an unfaced insecurity.

I am writing this particular series because I also believe that these attachment wounds are front and center in the struggles of Catholic priests and bishops. The path of healing is open to us, but is more challenging, for several reasons. I will identify some of those obstacles next time, and consider how we can overcome them.

To be Concluded…

Categories: Abandonment Abuse Affective Maturity Apprenticeship / Mentoring Attachment Theory Chastity Developmental Trauma Facing Heartache in Our Story Neglect Neuroscience and Trauma Research Polyvagal Theory

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Fr. Derek Sakowski

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