Why We Cannot Grow Without Closeness.
My Love Letters to Pearl Diving. Part 2.
Last year I had another life-defining moment through our fellow selection process (we call it venture) that – again – profoundly changed me as a person. In my role as 2nd Opinion interviewer for our venture panels, I interviewed Megan Marcus, who is now a US Ashoka Fellow.
Megan`s work centers on teachers and changing the dynamic in the classroom from one fueled by disruption, fear, pressure and bullying to one driven by consistent, clear, honest and open communication based on caring and respectful relationships between teacher and children.
The basis of her thinking is grounded in attachment theory, a concept grounded in psychotherapy and neurological research.
Megan opened my eyes to the centrality of attachment. I had heard about it: the importance of consistent communication and unconditional love. But it never caught me as something that had anything to do with me and my life. I always had kind of assumed that I had security in my life and my love and that this was for other people – “people with problems.”
Megan very powerfully showed me how wrong I was.
Attachment styles are the basis of every relationship in life, they form very early, and they have a huge impact on wellbeing, social competencies and thus future development and life opportunities.
The key to a happy and “full” life is to have at least one secure attachment figure in your life. Most often this person will be a parent, but if parents are not available to serve this role, it can be grandmothers, siblings or – teachers. Being that secure attachment figure is something we can learn to be – as one of Megan`s inspirators, the neurologist Louis Cozolino outlines in his book, which I devoured after my conversation with her.
Kids in Megan`s schools often suffer from trauma and deeply entrenched, intergenerational poverty. Their parents never had a positive role model to learn from, so they cannot pass it down either. Neuroscience has shown that without a secure setting, without a secure attachment figure, kids cannot learn and develop. Secure relationships are the foundation of all learning and development. Megan supports teachers to become that one secure attachment figure in these children`s lives through cycles of self-reflection, counseling and positive role-modeling.
Overall, sixty percent of all relationships are secure, around fifteen percent are considered either “avoidant” (those “lonely heros”, whose drive to independence makes it really hard to connect with long-term, who rarely open up and whose relationship patterns are driven by their avoidance of intimacy) or “anxious” (your friends and family who are easily upset by anything you say, who may sometimes appear clingy and needy). And then there are those, who experienced deep trauma and display traits of both anxious and avoidant, whose patterns of behavior are often contradictory and not easy to live with.
When Megan started talking to me about this different types of relationships, I asked her: So, people have secure relationship styles, they don’t argue and fight? Megan`s answer was an AHA moment for me: One of the key differences in how these styles play out in daily life is that securely attached people consistently reach out to “repair” the relationship after a potentially hurtful comment or experience. They don’t let the anger linger, they don’t blame themselves for the rejection they experienced, they stop themselves from entering a harmful cycle of “shooting back” and inflicting the pain on others, and they don’t cut the line and simply “run away” from their pain.
I learned from Megan that all of us carry all of those traits in us. Some of our relationships are secure, while others are driven by anxiety or avoidance.
Her work and thinking also taught me, that we could all acquire secure styles through people in our lives that role-model secure attachment to us. Which means: all of us can have happier, healthier relationships.
Understanding the mechanisms of attachment and how they shape every single relationship – from family to friends to colleagues, came as a true revelation to me.
Suddenly, I felt the pieces of a puzzle fall into place. I understood how the quality of some of my relationships had held me back in life. Had held me back from living my life more fully.
I`ve since read a lot about the neuroscience of our relationships, the many shades of gray of attachment styles, the plasticity of our brains and how we can change our styles by modeling others. And in the process of doing all of this, I found a new compass to understand myself and others. I have become a happier person, and my relationships with my family, my friends, and my colleagues have evolved to a new level.
And the more I think about it, the more obvious it is to me that attachment theory is a key to our work at Ashoka in our Empathy work and around changemaking skills – understanding how society ensures secure settings for children to develop and thrive in, at home and in school is the foundation to build these 21st century skills we so strongly believe are necessary.
But there is also a link to our work with Fellows and our role vis-à-vis them. In this process of thinking about attachment theory, I understood that if we are able – as individuals and as an organization – to create secure relationships with our Fellows they will thrive no matter what. It may very well be that the trust and “unconditional love” we give them, is our most powerful tool.
So, if you ever asked yourself whether investing time in Venture was a good idea, whether – if you have the pleasure like myself to work in Ashoka – it should really be part of your role description in Ashoka, I assure you, never say no to this chance to have your life changed too.
Want to learn more about attachment theory?
These are the books I read. I recommend reading “Attached” and “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships” in parallel. “Attached” helps you understand daily mechanisms of relationships better, while Cozolino`s books are more nuanced and in-depth.
Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment
by Amir Levine
I started my own journey of self-reflection by taking this online test that helped me understand the different styles of relationships I have with family and friends.
For an in-depth journey into the power of relationships in education read this book also by Louis Cozolino, The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom.
The Ashoka Fellow working with the principle of supporting teachers to be secure attachment figures is Megan Marcus – find our more about her organization FuelEd here. Megan also regularly hosts Leadership programs that deep-dive into the world of secure attachment and education.