Attachment Theory and the Origins of Shame

The following video was brought to my attention by one of my long-term clients who also happens to be an excellent therapist and works extensively with concepts of shame in her own practice. This week, I’ll be discussing the video in several posts. I recommend that you watch the entire video. It’s fascinating, informative and provides a neurological basis for an understanding of shame. The primary lecturer, Allan Schore, and the other researchers don’t discuss shame, in particular — they approach this topic from the perspective of attachment theory; but as you’ll see, their explanation of neurological development in the infant help us understand how an early and deep-seated shame takes root. I’m very grateful to my client for sending me a link to this valuable resource:

<a href="">LinkedTube</a>

You’re no doubt familiar with the nature vs nurture debate concerning the relative importance of heredity and the environment. Nowadays, the prevailing view seems to be that it’s neither one nor the other but an interaction between the two that defines us. Even so, most people assume that you are born into the world with your complete genetic makeup and that you then interact with your environment. The primary lecturer in this video — Allan Schore, a member of the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCLA — challenges this view: “One of the great fallacies that many scientists have is that everything that is before birth is genetic and that everything that is after birth is learned. This is not the case.” He goes on to explain that there is much more genetic material in the brain at ten months than at birth. Only the brain stem or “primitive brain” is “well advanced” at birth; the rest of brain continues to unfold and develop for the next two years as neurons become myelinated and interconnect. This development does not occur in an automatic and predetermined way in all people; it is powerfully affected by the environment, in particular by interactions and relationships with the primary caretakers.

It’s a more nuanced view of the nature vs nurture debate. Not only is it nature AND nurture, as most of us already believe; an individual’s particular genetic makeup (nature) also continues to evolve during the first two years of life under the influence of the environment (nurture). In other words, what happens to you, emotionally and psychologically, during those first two years, and especially in the first nine months of life, will powerfully influence your neurological development, determining how your brain takes shape in lasting ways. Most important among the brain parts that develop during these early months are those that involve the “emotional and social functioning of the child.” And if those parts of the brain are to develop appropriately, “certain experiences are needed. Those experiences are embedded in the relationship between the caretaker and the infant.”

At about the 5:45 minute mark in the video, Schore makes the following statement: “there’s something necessary … that the human brain needs in terms of other human contact, for it to grow. It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. Cells that fire together, wire together. Cells that do not, die together.” The idea is related to the notion of critical periods, which you’re probably familiar with: organisms have a heightened sensitivity to certain environmental stimuli during specific periods of their development. If the organism does not receive appropriate stimuli during this critical period, it may never develop certain functions, or do so only with great difficulty or in limited ways.

So what is Schore telling us? If an infant doesn’t receive the kind of emotional interactions it needs from its caretakers during the early months of life, its brain won’t develop optimally. Certain neurons that should have interconnected will instead die. “Use or lose it” — if you don’t get what you need during those first two years, that experience will alter you for life. As my own client translates it, this means “brain damage.” You might be able to modify that damage to a degree, with a lot of hard work, but you will never be the person you might have been if you’d gotten what you needed during that critical period of emotional development.

A deeply sobering thought. You can call it what you like — bad parenting, failure of attunement, insecure attachment — but when things go wrong between parent and child in the first two years of life, you are permanently damaged by it in ways that cannot be erased. The awareness that you are damaged, the felt knowledge that you didn’t get what you needed and that as a result, your emotional development has been warped and stunted in profound ways — this is what I refer to as basic shame. It was the subject of one of the first posts I wrote on this website and I’ve been writing about it ever since. The concept lies at the heart of the work I do.

Schore’s view exposes the absurdity of that simplistic view of mental illness as a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s not that you lack sufficient serotonin in your neural synapses; rather, the existence or lack of certain neurons, and the interconnections between them, has been permanently altered by failures of attachment during the first two years of life. You can’t fix that with a drug. Affirmations and other forms of positive psychology will of course have little effect upon brain damage. Cognitive-behavior therapy might teach you some useful techniques for coping with your damage but it won’t make you into a different person. No matter what you do, you’ll never be just like the person who went through the emotional experiences she needed during that critical period.

Two other lecturers in this video connect the experience of secure attachment during this critical period to the development of both a fundamental sense of self-esteem and the ability to feel empathy for others. The links to shame and narcissistic defenses against it are implicit. Either you get what you need from your caretakers during those early months and your brain develops in such a way that you have a fundamental sense of self-confidence and security in the world; or you don’t get what you need and the residue — the neurological damage — is basic shame. Either your caretakers are emotionally attuned to you and you develop (neurologically) the capacity to empathize with other people; or those caretakers
let you down and as a result, your constant struggle for a sense of your own worth and importance powerfully limits your ability to empathize with other people.

Near the end of the video, Score stresses the importance of joy in the attachment experience — that is, the infant’s attunement with its mother in the experience of her joy and interest in the baby is crucial for optimal development. If you don’t have that experience, if you don’t feel that your mother experiences joy in your presence and finds you beautiful — it will permanently damage your brain as it develops. In an earlier post, I said that the baby whose mother doesn’t adore it (feel profound joy and interest in it) “never gets over it, not really.” Now I can say why: it’s because the neurological development of its brain was permanently altered — that is, damaged — by the failure to get what was needed during the first year of life.

In the next post, I’ll show how Schore’s view of psycho-biological development sheds light on the tenacity of psychological defense mechanisms; in the third, I’ll return to my earlier post on the healing of shame and discuss how another attachment in the form of a long-term psychotherapy relationship can ameliorate (but not entirely erase erase) this early damage.

(Thanks, S.)

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. This is really informative stuff, thanks for providing it, I am sure this is going to change mental health in a lot of ways. It is sad to realize that permanent damage is done to a human when it does not receive good care. This could also help in future to prevent people being damaged by bringing awareness of the effects of poor parenting can have.

    1. I hope so. There will be a lot of resistance to these ideas. Nobody wants to believe in early and (to some degree) irreparable damage.

  2. Thanks, this is fascinating.

    I guess I want to remain optimistic and say that we just haven’t found the way to heal the early damage yet. There may not be a way but we won’t find it if we don’t look for it.

    I don’t mean undoing the damage necessarily but the effects of it (not sure about what on earth this would mean in neurological terms).

    1. I believe in growth and change — I’ve seen it over the years of my practice.. I believe you can “heal” early damage, but it takes a long long time and it doesn’t make you into an entirely different person. I always return to the analogy of having a physical handicap. You adapt to the limitations it imposes but you can still have a rich and fulfilling life.

      1. Glad you made that final point. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to “fix” my sense of having something just wrong at my core – it never worked! Now I see it as just me, and I try to bring all of myself to my interactions with the world. Maybe it’s getting older, but I now find that any experience – joyful or painful – is to be preferred to no experience. 🙂

        What about SSRIs, though? After much resistance, I agreed to try them and found that my sense of someone about to hit me in the back of the head (which I think of as PTS rather than depression) is diminished so that I’m not so brittle. I understand that I’m not really repairing anything, but would you say this use of SSRIs is a bad thing, a hindrance to something better?

        1. I think that SSRIs have their place; I’m more concerned about the neurological damage associated with their long-term use. If they’re helping you now, fine, but don’t make them a permanent part of your life. They should be used as transitional aids to help us through difficult times until we can find a better way to cope.

  3. Relate to this article and still feel shame and ashamed that my mother left me at 6 months old and hope I haven’t passed this on to my 3 year old daughter
    My solar plexus is in a jam and my mind is feeling guilty at this present moment, not all the time but shame is what I feel please help I need some gyuidance

    1. The fact that you are so concerned about your 3-year-old daughter proves how different you are from your own mother. Your concern for your child will have made her experience difference form your own. The only guidance I have to give is to rejoice in your child, enjoy being a mother. While I believe that many things are laid down early on as we develop, as I’ll discuss in my third post about this video, we can still grow and change — only in different ways. Don’t worry about how you might have damaged your child; keep trying to do your best for her now. That’s all any of us can do.

      1. In my awareness at an early age of how much my mother did not really want childen she made sure i would not make the same mistake by telling me to never have children because they will ruin your life. I unlike her never had children because i did not want to ruin THEIR life as she did mine. I never wanted to do to someone else what she had done to my self esteem. I now at 44 feel sad that ruined the possibilites for me to have a family life. After reading these posts i wonder what my true potential might have been if she had
        not damage my brain. If she had loved me and wanted to be a mother.

  4. dont agree with some of your very definite presumptions that something will alter you for life,

    there may be something that science of neuropsychology hasnt identified yet that means that in some this can be reversed or healed,

    i think its very disempowering and negative to post such definite assumptions about a humans capacity to heal as well as narrow minded.

    Science does change its mind and make new discoveries but they dont seem to be acknowledge until someone with an academic standing acknowledges things, and this can sometimes be years behind other more alternative thinking,

    im not saying that these early experiences dont have huge effects but i would like to hear a little more open mindedness about the possbility of healing, the above posts sounds like a closed door in that respect.

      1. I hope you are one of those people as well.

        I hope you can see how it can be incredibly disempowering for some yet fundamentally empowering for others …..

        I hope a mind and a voice like yours wouldnt sell themselves out, and the human experience that you claim Responsibility for the sake of a career concerned decision. A problem with professional scientists is they are among the elite of humanity in terms of power and influence (and once upon a time, access to knowledge) yet they don’t enjoy the social and economic benefits that we all are raised to know are the fruits of those who have. In your case it is degrees and a proffesional training that had as much to do with patient billing as it did with patient health. Ok not as much.

        I hope you know that as much as you are right, now, you will always be wrong then, or eventually.

        Breakthroughs do not simply transplant one new theory in place of another.

        Real breakthroughs force all other assumptions to either conform to the new conversation or be relegated to the laughing stocks, where antiquated ideas are mocked as if THEY were somehow “wrong” by new ideas who are usually doing the same but with a pass.

        And most of all I hope you believe you are wrong.

        So what if you are? If you were your duty to science and man would be to point it out .

        So what of a career, of a reputation?

        You want to feed your family? Not my concern, you need to be able to separate your Scientific integrity with the concerns of your family.

        You made that choice when you decided to seek a career that would possibly see you rise to a level of authority that you are at now.

        Your family is not my concern, my concern is that those we are trusting to innovate a clearer path towards helpful, healthful understanding of the human experience and the best ways to give posterity an improved manual on growing the next generation of humans on earth.

        I hope you believe that you, as a man of science, understand that along with countless other “scientific” paradigms, such as the the “imbalnced brain” paradigm, that your own views and understanding are going to have at this still early(it seems) time, a tenuous connection to truth at best. That new understandings arise, leaving us to notice that the thing we had thought was a stable “because of this, so this” causality we now see only appeared to be so due to a coicidentally concordance.

        I agree with you in general and I find your presentation without qualifiers and disclaimers and with sense of absolute concretedness (inelegant phrase I know)

        Just was disturbed to see science, especially a science that has some trouble with falsifiability and coherent agreement of its most basic theories, speak such rigid words in response to a very sincere and informed visitor.

        Your currency completly deflated when I noticed that you couldn’t deal with that comment in a way that would leave you both in integrity and not appearing so desperate to look so certain. .

        I intended to comment about something else but this will be it .

  5. I wanted to comment on what Sarah said. She voiced what I was thinking. If it is permanent damage, doesn’t that take away hope from a person that they can get better. I know that there is proof now that the brain is affected and maybe more research will take place to see if anything can be done to reverse that.

    1. From my experience, it does NOT mean the person can’t grow and change. But it takes a long time and you’ll have to take into account what’s actually possible and not expect to be an entirely different person who never had those early experiences. I wouldn’t be doing the work I do if I didn’t believe in growth and see it in my clients.

    2. Sarah and Sonjia may have been responding to a bit of idealization on your part – “coulda, shoulda, woulda, might-have-been”. I agree with your responses, while noting that the original post could be a bit more focused on pragmatism and present-tense. You seem to idealize the female here as well, using ‘she’ for the hypothetical child who had every emotional resource she needed at the appropriate time. Maybe Borderline Joe is peeking through a bit?

  6. As usual, I agree, with your views. Now, based on this article, I have a question.
    Do you think that the increase in children with ADHD problems, will have anything to do with the fact, that babies are more exposed from the beginning to more than one caretaker (nannies, babysitters, etc) and the link with mother is not continued, during the whole day? For example: working mothers, that have to leave their babies with a baby sitter o in a nursery during the day, while they are at work? or do you think that the connection with mother in the few hours they spend together will counterbalance this?
    I myself have this situation and many of my clients? do you think there is a link with attention deficit disorder and the interrupted attention with mother?
    Love and respect your articles. Thank you for sharing them

    1. That’s a really interesting idea and I don’t feel qualified to give an opinion. It could be, but I think it would depend more on the quality of the care given. If the secondary caretaker does a reasonably good job of empathizing and being in tune with the baby, that shouldn’t cause lasting damage. I also think the ADHD diagnosis is way overdone, and a lot of kids are getting that label (and put on meds) who don’t merit it.

  7. Hi

    I have a friend who is, like me, a survivor of very severe childhood abuse. She always says that healing from that abuse is comparable to healing cancer; it is as strenuous, takes as much time, energy, support, rethinking of your life etc. I agree. Whilst I have a strong reaction to being told anything is impossible – as you are saying here, it’s impossible to be the person you would have been had you not had the bad experiences in very early life – part of me has to acknowledge it’s true and also this might provide a more realistic basis for healing and grieving work. I was raped from age 2-ish until I left home, becoming abused by a very sophisticated paedophile ring besides my own father. Yet I often find that some of my worst feelings inside stem from the first months of my life when I was untouched in an incubator tank and then cared for by my suicidal mother who had psychotic depression. I blame my father more because he was more evil than ill. I do find joy in parenting and, like your poster above, worry alot about providing adequately emotionally for my child, but I know there are major differences between my parenting and what I received, in terms of love, warmth, acceptance and joy.

    1. It’s a hard concept, and we all want to believe we can push the reset button and go back to zero. But accepting that we can’t do that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless or no change is possible. Why do we have to believe in ideal solutions? Can’t we accept the limitations of change, finding joy and meaning in the possible?

  8. For those of us with a belief in an all loving universal power , divine intervention is always possible . Jung says ” look within ” . He felt that we are all divine spirits and that the goal of individuation is to get in touch with that spark , as all great spiritual leaders have taught. We do the very best we can do to heal ourselves and then take that Leap of Faith that the answer can be found : within . God is not ” out there” somewhere but already we ARE the spirit . Even the most troubled soul can find peace.

    1. I’d want to hear more about what you mean, whether you’re talking about being humiliated by other people, feeling humiliated in front of others, or humiliating oneself internally. One distinction I make is between authentic shame, which involves the acceptance of one’s damage, and internal humiliation, which reflects a kind of perfectionistic refusal to accept the ways in which one is limited. The voice that humiliates you is also a part of you; it reflects your own longing to be ideal and superior and your refusal to accept reality; anything less than ideal is contemptible.

        1. I think I haven’t been clear about the distinction between shame and humiliation up until now, but I’ve looked into it a little and have come to the following conclusion. Humiliation means that some event has occurred. If you look at the examples used to illustrate the dictionary definition, they’re about a public presentation, someone lying about somebody else, an attempt by one person to humiliate another in public. That’s the way I’m going to use the word from now on. I think it’s possible to humiliate yourself but more common for one person to do it to another. I also think that the experience of humiliation often puts one in touch with underlying feelings of shame. You might have a pervasive sense of shame, but you tend to feel humiliated about some particular thing that happened. Make sense?

          1. How about when you see yourself as unworthy and defective, and you are sure others see you the same as well, even if not from the very beginning of getting to know you, for sure after getting to know you better. The underlying belief you have is “What’s true for me is true for others. Others see me the same as I see myself.” And then, each time you think of expressing them your interst or even need that you feel for their company, the accompanying belief is “But they aren’t interested. I am a burden.” You dismiss that disturbing and false belief for a while and still make a move, but for me, the whole situation feels somewhat humiliating: “I need/want someone who doesn’t need/want me. I ask for their interest/attention.” Especially if you are in the situation where you are trying to establish relationship with someone and they seem not to reciprocate as much as you’d like them to, and so you are the one who contacts them repeatedly. Even if I am consciously aware that my beliefs are probably false, that they don’t despise me, that I am not a burden, I might still very well feel humiliated. This is how it works for me, at least. It seems to be something I do totally by myself. Can you please share your insight on that one?

            1. Your description rings true and I do understand what you’re talking about. As you suggest, the real issue is the way you dismiss yourself and hold yourself in contempt, which can easily be confused with how others view you. Rather than thinking about false beliefs, it might help to get in touch with the very superior, contemptuous you who despises you. He’s alive and active in there, not just a set of misconceptions. This is often a difficult step in therapy, for someone to realize that part of them actually agrees with the contemptuous self-assessment and doesn’t want to accept the reality of who one really is. Contempt and self-loathing can be a defense against the shame/grief involved in accepting your true self, with all the pain, damage and limitations that go with it, and knowing you can never be that beautiful, perfect person you’re supposed to be.

              1. Thanks for the reply, Joseph. Yes, I am definitely aware of that powerful and superior self (I call it the Judge) that actually sees the whole me as totally unworthy and defective, and I see the other part (I call it the Victim) who agrees. The acceptance part is what I am struggling with. But as it gets clearer, I think it also gets easier. I hope I’ll be able to learn to live with it and still act in proactive and productive ways.

          2. In addition to the previously submitted comment, I’d like to add that the feeling of humiliation in the aformentioned example provided by me is also intensified by the concurrent attitude of arrogance and superiority: I might perceive myself as less than others, but I am also more than them and special in some way (arrogance and narcissism). And so, showing interest to others while being also in that superior position is also kind of humiliating in and of itself.

            Hope it all makes sense. Thanks.

  9. To be honest, I am not really clear what I am trying to say as this is the first time I have reflected on this specific matter. It seems to me that humiliation is intertwined with shame. And, for me, I think this intertwining is different then how you described it above. And, this is not to suggest you are wrong. I have the sense that shame can trigger humiliation, which can then trigger shame. Thus, causing a difficult circle of intertwined feelings. I am not sure humiliation is just connected to a perfectionist refusal as you described it. It seems to me that to be shamed is to also be humiliated.
    In summary, I think I am suggesting, that shame is how one feels about the self (when alone) and when that shame is brought into the context of relationship humiliation arises. Does this make any sense?

    1. Yes, I understand what you’re saying, but the distinction you’re making about shame isn’t the way it’s discussed in the literature. For the most part, shame is discussed as being part of a relationship, because it’s usually about being seen by others.

  10. A very thought-provoking article, Joseph, and one with which I concur completely. Problem is that people go into denial about such truly horrible truths, that there can be such a thing as bad parenting, where the infant is not given voice, attention and plain loving care. I suppose in all these cases, most, those parents also suffered poor parenting, and so on back along the line. Another problem is the idea that the “family is sacred”. Dear me, no., we mustn’t even go there. Criticize the family?! Never! It can make me so upset to think that there are parents like this.

    The unfortunate fact is that probably only a small proportion of the offspring will have access to healing therapy, eother because of financial constraints, or because, having a personality disorder they may not even know what exactly is wrong with them. It is so sad.


  11. Interesting, I wonder how my twin dying effected me? I can see how people might get depressed reading this. But ask yourself were does the beauty come from in this world? From having a perfect childhood, perfect parents, and a perfect life? Well men like Beethoven, Van Gogh, and Schopenhauer don’t really fall into any of those categories but that didn’t stop them from creating some of the most beautiful things. Are we really here to live ideal lives or are we here to learn the true meaning of life? And unfortunately with out suffering man never learns. So when you have all these problems in your life maybe its the world trying to teach you something great. “Be careful about casting out your demon, you might be casting out the best part.” – Nietzsche

    1. I really love your attitude. It’s one I share. The point of life is not to live “happily ever after” but to try to find the meaning and beauty in our experience. Some of the most beautiful works of art evoke sadness and pain. The greatness of the artist, I think you’d agree, is in transforming that pain, grief, sadness, even depression into a work of beauty.

  12. “You can call it what you like — bad parenting, failure of attunement, insecure attachment — but when things go wrong between parent and child in the first two years of life, you are permanently damaged by it in ways that cannot be erased.”
    “those caretakers
    let you down and as a result, your constant struggle for a sense of your own worth and importance powerfully limits your ability to empathize with other people.”

    And Joseph goes on to say:
    “There will be a lot of resistance to these ideas. Nobody wants to believe in early and (to some degree) irreparable damage.”

    That is the problem. A lot of people will only believe what they want to believe, despite the proof before their very eyes.

    Now moving on to what Dylan says:

    I honestly do not think anyone has absolutely perfect parents or a totally ideal or perfect life. Everyone, but everyone, is liable to get the “universal thump”, some to a much lesser degree than others, perhaps.
    Besides, what is the true meaning of life? I haven’t found out yet LOL.
    IMO suffering does not make someone great, in the same way that a life with minimum suffering does not necessarily make one great either.
    For example, just before Christmas I wrenched my back when pulling something out of a box. (much better now thankfully). I generally like going out in my garden even in Winter weather to do a bit of tidying up, tend to shrubs and so on, so that come Spring they will be beautiful. Well, you know, with the back misery, I couldn’t have cared less if every solid plant out there disappeared forever in the storm. In my view suffering does NOT ennoble.

  13. I’m fascinated by this series of posts, but do have one quibble, which is that it isn’t that our brains get ‘damaged’, as this implies that they were structurally one way and then something was done to them to change their structure. What you’re saying is that our genes get expressed in certain ways based on the interaction between nature and nurture. Technically, there is no way that our brains are ‘supposed’ to be, and no ‘damage’ that gets done to them in this process. Our brains are what they are based on what’s happened in our environment. To say someone is ‘brain damaged’ because they have attachment issues or they didn’t have perfect caretakers is both dangerous and technically inaccurate. It might be comforting to think this about ourselves and our struggles, but I, for one, don’t think of myself this way. Yes, my early caretaking could have been more perfect, but so might everyone’s. I work with what my brain has in its deck of cards, as does everyone. Hopefully I will do my best with what I’ve got. But I’m not ‘brain damaged.’

    1. I disagree. There is (more or less) a way that our brains are supposed to develop. If a child develops rickets and its bones become deformed due to lack of Vitamin D, you wouldn’t call it an alternative “normal”. Brain development is the same thing — you need certain environment experiences for it to develop optimally.

    1. It’s bound to have had some effect, but maybe not as dire as if it had been in that crucial phase when the brain was developing early on. I’m no expert on neurology but that would be my guess.

  14. Fascinating and thought provoking!

    In truth, it stroke me a couple of months ago, even before I discovered your site, that the core of my psychological difficulties might have been formed in the very beginning of my life after having been temporarily left by my mother and passed to my grandparents at the age of 1 year and several months for as long as six months to a year. Before that realization, I would believe that my difficulties were stemming from occurrences and experiences in much later periods of my life: having a cold and distant father, overprotective and critical mother, being mocked and teased in multiple places and occasions throughout late childhood and adolescence, having developed certain severe physical imperfections later in life, and so on. Now I think that it has all contributed to the way I am now, of course, but I actually start thinking that at least some of my social related difficulties with peers were actually caused by my own behavior toward them. And I start thinking that maybe my behavior toward them was actually the expression of defense mechanisms of narcissism, arrogance, blame, contempt, etc., which I’d adopted to defend the deep feelings of shame and unworthiness caused by that early life abandonment by my mother. I don’t remember at all the way I felt when I was a child. But I do remember that even back then I was seeing myself as better than others, not like others, was differentiating myself from others, was arrogant, and so on.

    I am not sure whether I am on track about this, but this kind of makes sense to me. It’s just an idea and it probably doesn’t matter that much whether it’s true or not. Anyway, I was brought to this realization by Judith Viorst’s thought provoking book “The Necessary Losses.” In the chapter “The High Cost of Separation,” she talks about the very issue we are talking about here: the importance of the early life child–mother proper relationship and the high costs of improper and premature separation:

    For by six months or so a child can form a mental image of his absent mother. He remembers and wants her specifically and the fact that she isn’t present give him pain. And swept with insistent needs that only his mother, his missing mother, can fulfill, he feels profoundly helpless and deprived. The younger the child the less time it takes—once he tunes in to his mother—before her absence is felt as a permanent loss. And while familiar substitute care will help him to tolerate everyday separations, it is not until age three that he gradually comes to understand that the mother who is not there is alive and intact in another place—and will return to him…

    Severe separations in early life leave emotional scars on the brain because they assault the essential human connection: The mother–child bond which teaches us that we are lovable. The mother–child bond which teaches us how to love. We cannot be whole human beings—indeed, we may find it hard to be human—without the sustenance of this first attachment.

      1. I often think I am in a situation similar to what mark is describing. How should one proceed to gain a healthy self esteem and image without the danger of building it on narcisism or arrogance etc?

        1. I think that staying in touch with your shame, a sense of your own damage and limitations, helps keep narcissism and arrogance in check. Those are defenses against shame.

  15. This is exactly the info I needed. Would you PLEASE direct me to the approprate books or websites that will help me to help our adopted son? He came to us at 2 yrs of age, never having had any attachment to anyone and very little contact with people. He is now 7 and suffers from RAD (although we are improving) and a very sad lack of sympathy or empathy or just basic consideration for others, a desire to hurt things and people who seem defenseless, a bit of self mutilation, and very little understanding of cause and effect. We’ve had him tested and the schools claim he falls within “normal” parameters. The local therapists (within a few hours drive) have no idea how to help us help him, and have stated so while giving us the bill for the time we spent apparently getting nthing accomplished in their offices. Any information would be welcome, in addition to the wonderful information I am studying on your blog. Thank you!

    1. I’m not sure whether books would help, but maybe I can help you find professionals who WILL have something to offer. Why don’t you send me an email ( and let me know where you’re located.

  16. My mother had a rather traumatic childhood. She also had an older sister who she was always arguing with.
    I am wondering whether she subconciously wanted to repeat these patterns of her childhood with her own children. Her first baby was female; however, her second one (me) was not. Could this lead her to subconciously reject the male baby for not fitting into her repetition compulsions? Would the baby notice this kind of subtle rejection?
    My mother has always said that when I was younger she found that I did not smile as much as my sister. I wonder wether my lack of smiling caused her to reject me or her rejection caused me to smile less. Maybe I’m autistic, but maybe her subtle rejection could of caused autism-like symptoms.
    Do you think such rejection would be noticeable to the baby? Can repetition compulsion be so strong in a mother that it can make her subconciously reject her own baby?

    1. Gordon, without knowing more details, it’s hard for me to say whether your mother unconsciously repeated her own past, but an infant would definitely notice the rejection by its mother. Allan Shore has written a lot about how the newborn comes with inbuilt expectations for a loving, joyful relationship with its mother, and the distress felt when those expectations are disappointed. Start here and watch the video.

  17. Hi. I posted a comment a few months back after I ended a relationship with someone I strongly believe is narcissistic. At this point, I am pretty much in acceptance of the fact and I have gained a new insight about what was really going on in our relationship. But there is something I haven’t been able to understand, and I wonder whether it is related to the question of attachment you are discussing here. My ex and I first dated in college, and I left him. I had developed an eating disorder, and he later admitted he made me feel worse on purpose, since he wanted to weaken me so I wouldn’t leave. I met him again 10 yrs later, and he seemed changed. I know ( from friends) that he never forgot me. He seemed a better person and I fell for him. I was single, with a child, and he was in the process of getting divorced, which went on for a couple of months. He claimed he had always loved me and never wanted to lose me. When he finally got divorced, he fell apart. I thought he wanted to go back to his wife, and he kept pushing and pulling me for a few months, until I started to distance myself from him. I finally confronted him about his hurtful actions and he said he thought I was his ideal woman, he could find no flaw in me (an idealization, obviously), but that I had a child and he could not have me “completely to himself,” so he left me. I am wondering whether this can be related to the attachment issues you are addressing here. It was all very puzzling to me, not to mention heartbreaking, since he left me precisely at the moment when we could actually be together.

  18. My apologies for a long post. I hope you will be able to allow it.
    I am glad that this site is called “AFTER PSYCHOTHERAPY”. Because there is, inevitably, life after therapy.

    I am 43 yrs old, and have benefitted from individual and group psychotherapy over the last seven years.

    I regret that shame was a dominating part of my emotional life through my teenage years and into my late thirties. The process of a bond with someone through therapy was the most profound experience of my life. That bond gave me a platform (the hardest work of my life) to try out new ways of being and being with others not driven by shame and envy. Yet, after all that, I still never recreated that bond with someone in the “real world” that was my greatest desire. Being invited to do group therapy, at a time when my individual therapy had ended and I was really struggling, I was being shown that “you can’t have mum”. There is a need to tolerate having to share “mum” with others. It was useless to hope or imagine that a person in the real world is going to fulfil that role in my life. Yet I became obsessed by love for years, so the story of Madame Bovary could become horribly real.

    Life AFTER THERAPY has become about coping with the voids and fragmentation in my mind that were once covered by a very rigid and defensive and suffering person [;-(]. I learned to be able to say “I am disorder” – and knew what it meant to say that I don’t have much or any “self” and that lack of self esteem is the same thing as lacking self. I learned how incredibly hard is is to do anything about it.

    I am a father now, and seem to know (in fact I think I always knew) what it is my child needs from me – being there, attending to her, holding, playing, allowing her to idealise me… all the Dad stuff. AFTER THERAPY, I know just how little I have been able to practise taking risks with relationships, getting close to others, trusting my feelings, trusting that I am desirable, ok as I am, knowing “I” will survive if someone gets close to me.

    But like the VIDEO above says, “neurons that don’t fire together die together”. The bond I had in therapy was a platform for becoming “me” in all these ways. It was that radical and that true. I was growing. However, this was abruptly and very painfully ended by my becoming a father. You can’t be a child and a parent at the same time. One must give up one’s self. It’s just I dodn;t have much to start with. (Ok, surface functioning all right, but lacking the joining up bits, the really important bits). I have found it VERY HARD to continue to build that Alastair-as-supported-child identity (learning to act on my feelings, even feel my own feelings!) which was given to me in therapy – the thing that mums do, when they are not themselves damaged people!

    AFTER THERAPY I find many situations which I struggle to manage. Yes, it’s true, at least I don’t manage them as I used to – with all that desperate defensive stuff. But I am frightened by those voids now, really terrified sometimes! I have become increasingly withdrawn, feeling that nothing I do is really “me”, I don’t know how to let go. I am in many ways more insecure, but more aware of just how insecure.

    Psychotherapy offers damaged persons a second chance with a parental bond (just think of those selves developed around desperately trying to turn the world – everyperson – into one’s parent!) But in that way, it promises too much. One simply CANNOT have one’s mummy or daddy again, in one’s adulthood. One is left broken, only knowing one is broken.

    I am very grateful for this website, with its tone of compassion, so far from the (understandable) demonisation of disordered people by their “victims”.

    I say: Don’t put up with “narcissistic” abuse! It is hard to convey, and harder to believe, that the person who exhibits those defensive traits we call “narcissistic” has no other “self” operating things from behind the scenes. The person is the disorder, and it is only emotional abuse in their own lives that has left them coping that way. After justified anger, retribution and despair, after therapy, compassion is called for.

  19. You mentioned only the mother, if a father were to take the role of the mother, meaning, make the child feel beautiful and appreciated during those first years, would it make a difference? Is this a mother only thing?

    1. Yes, I think the father could make a big difference. It’s usually the mother but someone else can fill the role of “mother” for the infant.

  20. I would have loved to have watched this video, but unfortunately, “it no longer exists”. Has the link been taken down or does it not function properly?

    1. I’m not sure but there are a number of other videos featuring Allan Schore on YouTube. Just search his name.

  21. Love your blogs. I’m perceiving a theme that I would like to question: A dash of Misandry

    1. Many of your posts carry the implication that mothers matter and fathers don’t. I would concede that this is probably mostly true under ‘typical’ circumstances. However, you note that not every mother can in reality be relied upon to show up for her critical nurturing duties. In such cases, is it not possible for Dad to step up? Would it not be beneficial to encourage fathers to do so?
    2. In several of your other posts, notably with regard to the ‘Vindictive Narcissist’, you seem to reserve the most vicious behaviors for men. I can attest to a disastrous personal encounter with a female ‘vindictive narcissist’. I reached this realization with the help of a psychologist with similar level of experience to your own. The masculine personal pronoun is all too often used to represent the abuser, contrary to a wealth of conclusions from clinical research, and leads to a pervasive societal prejudice. This prejudice has immensely damaging results in the area of family law.

    1. Alan, when I use the word “mother” I often mean it in the sense of “mothering,” which can come from either parent. But I do think that mothers matter more than fathers during the first two years of life. I think it’s biological. Fathers become more important later on.

      I see your point about the vindictive narcissist. I guess I’ve been influenced by my limited experience, which includes many more men than women. I’m sure you’re right.

  22. I have no doubt this happened to me,. Even though I don’t remember my first years at all, it all makes sense with my borderline raging mother.

    I’m told I’m gorgeous funny and smart sometimes, but no amount of assurance has ever sunken in. Thank you, at least I know now where my basic shame is really coming from.

    I feel like borderlines should be sterilized from having children. Being fearfully of attachment, and wanting attachment as a social animal, and being alone ashamed and full of self-hatred has been not so great. Essentially let’s just say this attachment issue is life destroying. I’ve finally formed an attachment with a therapist, but even so there is the terror of termination, abandonment, fakeness on their part… And I am so selfish as the article suggests, so busy trying to prove myself.

    One borderline, unsterilized, has the power to destroy lives in addition to just being unbearable people to be around for grown people. They should be bearded up and kept in an asylum.

    1. Sterilization seems too drastic, not to mention it brings up the horrors of earlier government sterilization programs. I like to remain hopeful that even borderlines can grow enough to become better mothers.

  23. Fearful of attachment, yet desiring the very thing that seems to threaten my own existence. It’s a painful inner confliction.

  24. Hi Joe, I’m a fan of the site/ your writing. Unfortunately I think I might have this kind of early lack of attachment brain damage. I’ve always felt a kind of deep core shame, and never felt emotionally connected to either parent as a child or now for that matter (My mother is severely borderline and my father drinks alcoholically.) For the past 2.5 years I’ve been in therapy and developed a deep love for my therapist. The therapy relationship while great has also been incredibly painful, like an unrequited love, or the heartbreak of losing your first love re-experienced week after week. I feel the most extreme loneliness even though I’m a married woman with a child, a husband, a therapist, several friends, and hundreds of acquaintances. I thought I read that you had a less than ideal childhood, yet you’ve managed to develop enough empathy to become a therapist. You must have the capacity to form deep bonds with people, which seems to be a good deal of healing? I’m wondering, do you think I will ever not feel so fundamentally alone? Is it possible I will ever be able to be truly intimate with someone other than my therapist, i.e. in a “real” and reciprocal relationship? Sometimes I worry I actually just sit there mute in therapy, just thinking all these things and it’s not really an intimate relationship at all from his perspective. I have seen some progress I suppose…

    1. I hope that isn’t true — that your therapist doesn’t view the relationship as an intimate one. Given how you feel, I doubt it. And yes, I think you will be able have the kind of reciprocal relationship you want. It takes time and courage, to make yourself vulnerable, and you also have to find a person who’s able to reciprocate. In my experience, there aren’t a lot of them.

  25. Neuroplasticity of the brain is great, you underestimate it. Saying that the damage CANNOT be erased (which Allan Schore doesn’t say) is too categorical, you simply don’t know that. Unless some longitudinal research has proven it on a large sample and been replicated. What’s more, you deepen such people’s sense of shame, saying “you really are irrevocably damaged and always will be lacking in something basic”. That’s reatraumatising.

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