Adult Attachment Disorder: 3 Detours to the Right Hemisphere

For Clients with Adult Attachment Disorder, Use the Left Hemisphere to Guide You to the Right

Adult Attachment Disorder: 3 Detours to the Right Hemisphere

“People with avoidant attachment histories are too closed down to have access to experience their right-hemisphere processes,” says Daniel Siegel, who’s probably done as much as anybody in the field to induce therapists to clasp both attachment theory and neuroscience to their collective bosom.

“With such a client, I usually feel distant and bored. There’s a dull quality to the connection, as if there were no ‘we’ in the room, just a separate person,” he says.

“My own immediate experience reflects the client’s own impaired access to his right hemisphere, which has direct access to the body and to emotional states. He’s just bringing me his dominant left hemisphere–thoughts without feelings, ideas without access to any sense of his own body.”

If Siegel were to try too hard to connect with the client right-brain to right-brain at this stage—to overdo emotional empathy or try to directly elicit his feelings—therapy would be doomed right out of the gate.

Getting Through to Adults With Attachment Disorders
Typically as an adult, attachment disorder has made sufferers isolated, unaware of the emotional poverty of their life, and disdainful of the idea that they might even want or need more personal connection. In fact, they’d probably never show up in therapy unless their partner—wanting a warmer, less distant relationship—insisted.

Adult attachment disorder doesn’t plague the patient, because they’ve never felt any other way.

“If someone asks them how they feel or what’s going on in their bodies, they will say ‘I don’t really know what you mean,’ or ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ They live in the ‘Land of the Left,’ and if you try to go right-hemisphere to right-hemisphere with them too soon, they become emotionally flooded.”

Therapy with dismissing people can sound like a slow, tedious trek through (and often detouring around) a seemingly endless, neatly clipped formal garden of Left Brain Land toward the far-off land of Right Hemisphere’s lush, untamed forests. Here are some ways Siegel detours to the land of Right Hemisphere:


  1. Left-brain first. Siegel often begins with a left-brain approach, explaining attachment and the brain to these clients. “I explain to them how their relationship with a primary parent helped shape their brains in a way that was highly adaptive to the circumstances they found themselves in. ‘You survived, you adapted, you did the best you could, but now, do you want to go on living with half a brain when you can have a whole one?'”
  2. Be present. Siegel invites the client “to experience a new way of being present inside himself with me, reflect on the process of attachment itself. I talk about how synaptic shadows create constraints on how a person has been, teach him how his own brain regulates itself partly inside himself, partly between the two of us.”
  3. Guided imagery. To help the client get a richer right-hemispheric representation of himself—the beginnings of an integrated right-brain/left-brain autobiographical self—Siegel might ask him to consciously become aware of and remember what it was like to walk to his office from the
    parking lot.

Although such cut-off clients don’t initially welcome this flood of new experiences—according to Siegel, they consider the unaccustomed onset of feeling “weird and useless”—eventually, the payoff can be very rich.

One client with adult attachment disorder, Siegel reports, exclaimed, “Oh my God, so this is what it feels like to have warmth in my heart!” Recently, a client told him, “I’m really changing—there is something truly different about me, now.”

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.