Attachment or Authenticity: Which Would You Choose?

I recently went to a talk given by Gabor Maté, a medical doctor, author and speaker, who spent many years working with hard-core addicts and alcoholics , as well as people with HIV/AIDS, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.  His talk, as always, was brilliant and inspirational – but there was one point he made that continues to resonate with me.

Dr. Maté explained that most people, when faced with the choice of either attachment or authenticity in their relationships, will go for attachment first, seeking recognition and validation from others instead of being able to give it to themselves. I personally think he’s right about that.

Simply put, what this means is that most of us, in most situations, will decide that it is far more important for others to like us than for us to do whatever it takes to like ourselves. In other words, for some, respect and acceptance from others trumps self-respect and self-acceptance pretty much all the time. In both my personal life and in my professional experience as a therapist, I have often seen this to be true — perhaps more times than I’d like to admit.

While I’ve come to recognize that my parents did the best they could with the wounds life gave them, I’m aware that I grew up with a self-important mother and an egoistic father who didn’t protect us from the harrowing effects of parental narcissism. In families like these, many healthy qualities are often lacking – and in my case respect, acceptance, validation, and that sense of  attachment were hard to come by. I never really felt like I fit in with my family of origin, try as I might. And because we moved around a lot – over and over, for no apparent reason – I found myself as the new kid on the block often, continually engaging in people-pleasing behaviours to covet even a small slice of the attachment I felt sure that everyone else had. Maybe everyone else was people-pleasing too – that thought never crossed my mind until recently.

I just assumed that everybody had a ‘place’, everyone belonged somewhere, to someone – everyone, it seemed, except for me.

That was indeed a lonely place to be.

It became the breeding ground for the devastating codependency I spent most of my life trying to hide – from myself and from the rest of the world — until the monstrous weight of it came crashing in on me.

Authenticity? What does that really mean and how does it differ from ‘attachment’?

Many years ago, a friend of mine told me that if I could truly like myself and enjoy my own company, I’d have the best friend I could ever want, 24-7. At the time, although I had a bit of an inkling about what she meant, I could see little hope of that ever being my reality.

Now, several years later, I’m happy to say that I’ve proven myself wrong. I’ve been doing my inner work for nearly 25 years — as a recovering drug addict with 24+ years clean and sober today, I’ve seen my share of ups and downs emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually in my life. Somewhere along the way, however, a major shift happened – I began to care more about how I was seeing myself and less about how others saw me. To this day, I believe that was a natural ripple-effect of having the willingness to go deep within myself, regardless of what I might find. I somehow — quite gradually — developed the ability to allow myself to be uncomfortable for stretches of time without having to medicate myself in any negative, addictive way. And I learned how to reach out to others for help when I felt stuck — what a gift that’s been!

Today I truly would rather sit at home and read a book or watch TV than be with people I have to do a dance for in order to be included. Although attachment still matters to me, of course – I’m human, and we are programmed to need that sense of belonging – I no longer have to betray and abandon myself in order to get it. I now have people in my life who love and cherish me just as I am — which is almost as wondrous a gift as being able to love and cherish myself. I like who I am today (most days!) even with my many imperfections, and I enjoy my own company.  Today I intersperse my alone-time with other people who also like themselves and don’t feel they have to be other than who they are in order to feel connected with me.

And in my work, I often see clients who are on the same difficult and amazing journey of finding themselves and learning to like what they see, even when it isn’t easy. I cheer them on when they begin to set boundaries for themselves, after having spent most of their lives acquiescing to other people – a dreary, fear-based way to live – because this means they are starting to like and respect themselves more. They begin to understand how freeing it is to be able to say to someone, “Yes, I care about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions — but right now I care about my own more – and this time I choose to put myself first.”

What a concept!

I believe Dr. Maté was correct when he said that most people choose attachment over authenticity. But I also believe that there comes a time for all of us who want to be holistically healthy to choose authenticity over attachment. Yes, it can be lonely at the beginning – but seriously, what could be lonelier than spending your life wishing and hoping and scrounging for acceptance from others, only to lose your own self? For me, life is a lot more fun today – and a whole lot easier.

Fun and ease – two clues that you’ve tuned-into the authentic, whole you and tuned-out the fearful, clinging little ‘false self’ seeking to attach itself for survival.

For me, authenticity trumps attachment any time!

Whitney Houston: Thank You for Your Help

Just like much of the world, I am shocked and saddened as I hear the news about Whitney Houston – dead at the age of 48.

I’ve always loved Whitney’s music – her voice was so amazing and until recent years, her onstage presence could make us forget all about the demons she battled privately. Not only did she fight an ongoing battle with mind-altering substance addiction, she also was in the spotlight several times as a result of domestic violence with her husband Bobby Brown. Despite her many gifts — such as her stunning beauty and enormous talent — her private life often seemed to be nothing to envy.

At the time of this writing, it has not yet been confirmed whether alcohol and/or drugs played a part in Whitney’s premature death. But those of us who followed her career are having trouble believing otherwise. We all know that she had several very public relapses, and that there were times when her performances suffered as a result.

Even with these struggles, Whitney’s repertoire includes many memorable award-winning hits such as “How Will I Know?” and “I Will Always Love You.” But my favorite Whitney Houston song has always been “The Greatest Love of All” – what a totally astonishing piece, both because of the richness of her voice and the lyrics she chose to sing.

In my opinion, the best part of that brilliant song goes like this:

Everybody searching for a hero

People need someone to look up to

I never found anyone to fulfill my needs

A lonely place to be

So I learned to depend on me

 

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows

If I fail, if I succeed

At least I live as I believe.

No matter what they take from me

They can’t take away my dignity

Because the greatest love of all

Is happening to me

I found the greatest love of all

Inside of me.

 

The greatest love of all

Is easy to achieve

Learning to love yourself

It is the greatest love of all.

When I first heard Whitney sing this song in 1986, I was still in the throes of active addiction — drinking, using prescribed medications such as Valium, Demerol, and codeine (for Crohn’s Disease), and smoking pot daily for many years. Although I was still a fairly high-functioning addict holding down a good job with a nice place to live and a car to drive, I was miserable. My life was going nowhere – all I wanted to do at that point was smoke dope in my apartment with the phone turned off and the curtains closed. I didn’t realize until the following year that I was an ‘addict’ – the whole idea of addiction was not on the radar then the way it is now. But I was very depressed, with little knowledge about how to change that or any hope that I actually could.

As I look back nearly 25 years later, I remember the bleakness of it all as if it was yesterday.

And then I heard that song – that powerful, beautiful, amazing song — and something shifted for me. Even though I still continued to use and drink for a while longer, I felt some spiritual stirrings returning – I was just beginning to re-awaken. I somehow knew that the only hope for me was to learn how to love myself, just like Whitney was singing.

Could I possibly love myself? Did I even deserve to love myself? How would that ever happen? There I was in my apartment with the drapes closed, nobody else in sight, stoned out of my mind – but somehow I knew this was what had to change in order for me to want to continue to live.

Thank you, Whitney.

The following year, in 1987, I became so depressed that I felt suicidal. I was scared that I might actually take my own life, and I reached out for help. One of the places I found that help was in the 12-Step program of Narcotics Anonymous. In my early recovery I attended those meetings every day for many months, sharing my thoughts and, more importantly, my feelings. I learned how to socialize with like-minded people by going for coffee with them before and after meetings. When things were really difficult for me, I would sit in those rooms and just cry – and people would hug me and tell me to keep coming back. It was an extraordinary experience.

If anyone had told me at that time that I’d ever have a quarter of a century clean and sober, I would have laughed in their faces. But here I am. And if anyone had told me that I would indeed find the greatest love of all inside of me – and that I would now be able to help others do the same – I would not have believed that either. My life is rich and full today, and I honor myself by taking the best care of myself that I can. I give back to the world in ways that are important to me. Most days, I am very happy to be me.

And I know, deep within me, that it all began with Whitney Houston’s incredible rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” – and I am forever grateful.

Rest in peace, Whitney – I will miss you.