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Authenticity vs. Attachment: Which One Will You Choose?

Not long ago, I went to a talk given by Dr. Gabor Maté, a well-known psychiatrist, author, and speaker from my hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

In the course of his career, Dr. Maté has spent many years working with hard-core addicts and alcoholics, as well as people with severe physical and mental health conditions, including schizophrenia and HIV/AIDS. I always find his talks brilliant and inspirational, and this one was no different – but there was one point he made that continues to resonate with me.

Authenticity vs. Attachment

Dr. Maté explained that when people are faced with the choice of either attachment or authenticity in their relationships, most will go for attachment first, seeking approval and recognition from others instead of learning how to give it to themselves.

Personally, I 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 it is for us to do whatever it takes to like ourselves. In other words, when attachment is chosen, respect and acceptance from others is held in much higher regard than self-respect and self-acceptance pretty much all the time. In both my personal life and in my work with addicted and people-pleasing clients, I have often seen this to be true.

While I’ve come to recognize and understand that my parents did the best they could with the unhealed wounds life gave them, I’m also aware that I grew up with a self-important mother and an egoistic father – neither of whom protected their children 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. Most importantly, I never really felt like I fit in with my family of origin. And because we moved around a lot as well – for no apparent reason – I found myself as the new kid on the block far too often, continually engaging in people-pleasing behaviors 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 at the time – 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.

This severe loneliness 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. In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with an ‘incurable’ illness (Crohn’s Disease) and found myself in the throes of addiction to alcohol, prescription pills, and pot, with no one to lean on for help. I truly felt like both my body and my life were imploding all around me. The attachment to others I so desperately wanted was nowhere to be found and I felt completely adrift in my own life – not a life raft in sight.

So when I heard Dr. Maté talk about authenticity that day, I couldn’t help but wonder: What does that really mean and how does it differ from ‘attachment’?

Many years ago, shortly after I began my recovery from mind-altering substances, a friend 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 may have had a bit of an inkling about what she meant, I could see little hope of that ever being my reality. I had no idea who I was and authenticity was something very fleeting for me – I was still craving other people’s acceptance and never really expected my life to be any other way.

Now, several years later, I’m happy to say that I’ve proven myself wrong. I’ve been doing my own inner work for nearly 30 years – and as a recovering drug addict with 29 years clean and sober today, I’ve definitely seen my share of ups and downs emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually in my life. Somewhere along the way, however, an amazing shift happened – one that I couldn’t have ever predicted. 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 like-minded others for help when I felt stuck – a practice I still adhere to, as needed. What a healing gift that’s been!

Today, I truly would rather be at home reading a riveting book or watching a favorite TV show 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 believe I 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.

A Journey of Discovering

In my work as an Addictions Therapist, I often see clients who are on the same challenging yet amazing journey of discovering 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 more about my own – and this time I’m choosing 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 truly wish 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 our lives wishing and hoping and scrounging for acceptance from others, only to lose ourselves in the process? For me, life is a lot more fun today – and a whole lot easier.

Fun and ease – two clues that you’ve tuned in to the authentic, whole, amazing You, and tuned out of the fearful, clinging little ‘false self’ seeking to attach itself to someone else for survival.

For this addict in recovery, authenticity trumps attachment any time!


Image Courtesy of iStock

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