Attachment: The Greatest Source of Suffering

· March 6, 2016

In truth, humans are one of the most fragile species in the natural world. When a baby is born, the attachment is strong and immediate. It needs its mother absolutely in order to be able to survive. Lion cubs, fish, and even lizards come into the world better prepared for independence.

“Enemies like hate and attachment do not have legs, arms, nor other physical parts, and they do not have courage nor ability. How, then, have they been able to turn me into their slave?”

-Shantideva-

It has been confirmed that this need for other people is not only based on essential, basic needs like nutrition and warmth. Humans also have a deep emotional need for others from the moment they are born. 

The need that we as humans have for other people is undeniable. As a species, we need each other. Without anyone else around us, we would slowly fade away and die.

However, there is a big difference between this instinctual bond that guarantees our survival and neurotic dependency and attachment that can sometimes develop. 

adult and baby holding hands attachment


The maze of attachment 

As paradoxical as it may seem, we are only able to become independent if we can experience total dependence

Attachment to parental figures during childhood is the foundation of our emotional security. The mechanism is simple: during childhood, if there is an adult who can be counted on and who offers protection, the child will develop a feeling of confidence towards the world and towards other human beings. This facilitates a child’s ability to become independent in adulthood.

We all need a mother, or someone who fills that role, during childhood. However, that role is not always filled. Sometimes, a mother must work and has to leave her child with someone else, a babysitter or daycare center, starting at a very early age. In other situations, a mother may be overwhelmed with other, personal problems and lacks the mental disposition to be able to always be there when her baby needs her. Other times, the mother has other children who also need her attention.

It may also be the case that a mother feels so anxious about becoming a mother that she expresses all of the insecurities that torment her through her child. This leads to overprotection and the child learning that the outside world is a constant threat.

In all of these cases, and other similar ones, the child can grow up with a certain feeling of emotional emptiness. They may become overly anxious each time they are confronted with a situation or decision that they must deal with on their own. 

Also, secretly, the child may long to find a substitute parental figure to fill this emotional gap. 

For that reason, many adults try to find a romantic partner or significant other who gives them everything. They demand unconditional commitment from this person and feel profoundly frustrated at any sign of indifference or detachment. They live with the fear of losing that person who they believe will fill the emptiness they feel inside.

feet tied up attachment

From attachment to independence 

Attachment to other people is important and necessary throughout life. From the moment we are born to the moment we die, we will need others to be able to guarantee our physical and emotional health. It doesn’t matter who you are, we all have the need for others.

The problem emerges when that need is transformed into anxietyIt is a problem if we feel that if we were to be left alone, we would become defenseless and paralyzed in the face of a threatening world.

There are various strategies for negotiating this anxiety. One of these strategies is one we have already mentioned: finding someone who will always be there, someone who can fulfill the promise of never leaving. 

Another possibility is to take the opposite route: completely avoiding creating bonds of dependence with other people. By avoiding it altogether, the feeling of abandonment can never be repeated.

In these situations, it is possible to become distrusting, jealous, and excessively demanding. If we find ourselves this way, we have the tendency to ask of others more than they can give. We will eternally deny their faults, their deficiencies, their limitations. It is as if we were a dictator frustrated because we cannot make others bend to our will.

In all of these situations, suffering is the common factor. We will suffer in order to stay with that person who we have “adopted” as a parental replacement, whether it be a significant other, a boss, a friend, or any other kind of relationship.

We will suffer from the loneliness felt from not being able to form intimate bonds with others. We will suffer from not being able to value other people for who they are.

As human beings, we can be 30 years old or 50 years old and still hold on to the same fears we did as a child.

It may be a good idea to reflect upon what was missing from childhood that leads to neurotic attachment as an adult. It is possible that at some point in our adult lives, we will be able to let go of that impossible desire to have, once and for all, someone to depend on and who fills the role of an ideal mother.