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

Mary Sykes Wylie and Lynn Turner

"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."

Topic: Attachment Theory

Tags: adult attachment disorder | adults with attachment disorder | attachment disorder | attachment disorders | left brain | neuroscience | parent help | science | therapist | therapists

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Friday, July 17, 2015 8:08:05 PM | posted by Betty
I appreciate Siegel's straightforwardness, it really made me sit up and take notice. I recognized immediately that what he described is how I have presented myself in my (very brief) attempts at attending therapy. I've been asked what's 'going on' in my body and I'm like, what in the world does that even mean. More than that, why does it matter? The most recent therapist had me concentrate on enjoying a single Twizzler stick, which felt absolutely 'weird and useless.' Later on, one day after eating lunch I realized that I couldn't remember much about the experience, that I was just eating to keep from being hungry, and I had to start wondering about the other aspects of my life that I have been treating that way.

I wish there were more articles online about adult attachment; so much of what comes up in search is about children, and while I know that's clearly important, millions of disordered children have already grown up and need just as much guidance.

Friday, March 28, 2014 3:09:13 PM | posted by sandym
I love Dan Siegels work - I've been a fan ever since I saw him in dialogue with the Dalai Lama at an event in Seattle back in 2007...

But I'm a bit confused about what seems to be a huge generalization in this brief article - the title reads: "Adult Attachment Disorder: 3 Detours to the Right Hemisphere..."

And then proceeds to name ONE form attachment disorder can take, i.e. 'avoidant attachment.'

All of the strategies suggested seem to be aimed at working with that particular form of attachment disorder - but not with either ambivalent or disorganized forms.

Or am I missing something here?

Thursday, January 30, 2014 11:28:20 PM | posted by Liz Sheean
I still don't understand why we have to call these 'styles' or patterns of attachment 'disorders'. In a time when we are all complaining about the the lack of validity of the DSM-5 isn't it time we thought more about our use of pathologising labels in general? Of course attachment theory provides invaluable ways to think about people in relationships, but what Sue Johnson has made clear in her new book 'Love Sense' is that we can operate from different styles at different times with different people in different circumstances. As with all our theories, the constant danger here is that therapists happily go about sorting their clients into little boxes and lose the person. This case vignette is an example of a man who has a strong style or pattern that does indeed appear 'extreme' or 'severe' so it is a good demonstration of the value in drawing from attachment theory in clinical practice, but he is an example from the far end of 'the spectrum'. It is easy to present information like this for extreme cases and it looks so impressive but please let's remember people are rarely this straight forward.

Thursday, January 30, 2014 6:12:42 PM | posted by Rebecca Jorgensen
Oops - better without the hyper links -

This is a wonderful article on reaching more avoidant style individuals.

I have found in working with these clients, (thanks to wonderful modeling and teaching from this author, Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. Phil Shaver to name a few) that the process of being with clients “left brain first” helps establish a feeling of safety and being joined – a we-ness. And since they/we are wired to need this connection – there is a sub, if not conscious, newness that enters the space.

While it may feel dead to the therapist when the client is in left brain (such low level emotional responding), when I – as the therapist – really “get” (through my attunement) where the client is coming from, along with the biological imperative, need for safe, accepting reflection and joining, I can feel their struggle and the internal conflict they feel just in being in the office trying to work on something that’s so illusive to them.

I like what Dr. Jim Coan (Univ of Virginia) says about loaning out our pre-frontal cortex to co-regulate. When we do that our clients have more energy (neurological) to free up for emotion. (Check out his TEDx:

Long comment. I am excited about seeing Dr. Siegel’s remarks on this topic as my work doing and teaching Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy really aligns here.

Thanks for an inspiring article.

Rebecca Jorgensen, PhD

Thursday, January 30, 2014 4:49:05 PM | posted by Barbara Adamich
This is beautifully articulated and illustrated. Very helpful. Thank you!