Article - Exploring Wellbeing

Acomb Counselling and Psychotherapy Practice

Exploring Wellbeing


An introduction to the theory behind your therapy



This article is written for the clients of the Acomb Counselling and Psychotherapy Practice.   Its aim is to provide a simple introduction to the theory which underpins our way of working.

We both use a variety of methods in counselling, but the core of our work is an approach developed by Dr Una McCluskey which she has named “Exploratory Goal-Corrected Psychotherapy” (EGCP™)*.  This approach brings together Una McCluskey’s own research into effective caregiving1,2, and the work of Dorothy Heard and Brian Lake who developed John Bowlby’s theory of mother-infant attachment and extended its application to explore attachment in adults3.

One of the aspects of this new approach, which is different from the psychodynamic tradition in which it has its roots, is the way in which the theory behind the work is shared with clients so that they can use it themselves in their exploration.   This article aims to introduce Heard and Lake’s theory of “The Dynamics of Attachment in Adult Life” in a simple and accessible format.  

Reading this article is not a necessary part of therapy, and is not in any way an alternative to the regular face-to-face meetings that make up the work of counselling.    However, some clients may find it helpful to have the various ideas we share with them in their therapy all brought together in one place.  We also hope that, once the therapy is finished, the article will be a useful reminder of the main elements which contribute to our sense of wellbeing, and will therefore be a useful aid to consolidating the work of counselling.

Michael and Fran Guilding

November 2013


* Exploratory Goal Corrected Psychotherapy (EGCP) is the trade mark and intellectual copyright of Una McCluskey


The experience of wellbeing or its absence is closely bound up with our sense of self.   When we have a strong sense of self (good self-esteem), we can ask others for the help and support we need and we can give care to others without it wearing us out.  We can also make and maintain affectionate intimate relationships, and we have the energy and vitality to pursue our interests and share them with friends.   We are also able to hold our own with others, prepared to negotiate, but ensuring that our views are taken into account.

When our sense of self is fragile, we tend not to seek help from others and we tend to pay more attention to what others want than to what we want.  We are more likely to have difficulties with close relationships, and lose touch with our own interests and hobbies, feeling flat and drained of energy.  We find it more difficult to hold our own with others, and either give in to them, feeling small and resentful, or we attempt to control or manipulate them.

The key difference between these two ways of being depends on self-esteem, and that in turn is dependent on how effective our system for “self-defence” is – how well we are able to protect the self from the blows that life deals us, and how quickly we can recover.

These blows or “threats to the self” can be real, such as an assault or accident, the impact of illness or loss of functioning, bereavement, relationship break-up, or being treated unfairly or disrespectfully.  They can also be imagined - thinking that others are thinking of us in a negative way, or imagining “worst scenario” future situations.

Our self-defence system has two key elements for responding to threats to the self, the “danger-fear system” and the “care-seeking system”.  Both of these are instinctive biological systems but they originate in different structures of the brain separated by millions of years of evolution.


Fig 1    The Three-in-one brain4       (NB. the diagram represents an idea – not anatomy)

The danger fear system is centred in a part of our brain we share in common with the reptiles. As this originates from a time before mechanisms for social living developed in the brain, our experience of the activation of this system is one of isolation.  We are operating out of this system when we are convinced we have to sort things out by ourselves, and that asking for help would be “weak”, or would feel too dangerous.   The fear system helps us to survive, but it leaves us entirely on our own.

From the part of our brain we share in common with the mammals, and even more so from the distinctly human part of the brain, we are equipped with systems that use relatedness – attachment – to help us to respond to and recover from a threat to the self.   The main one of these is the careseeking system, and when this operates alongside the danger-fear system it enables us not only survive the threats to the self that life deals us, but to survive them with well-being – recovering our energy, our interests and our vitality.

Starting individual counselling or joining a therapeutic group usually represents a significant step in the development of a more robust self-defence moving from reliance on the danger-fear system alone to an improved ability to seek support from others.


The Danger-Fear System

We share the danger-fear system, with the reptiles and all the animals.5   It is one of the most primitive and powerful systems in our make-up.   It evolved countless years ago in the context of constant threat of death from predators.   When danger threatens, the fear system is activated and physically transforms the body.  It diverts blood flow to the major organs, releases chemicals such as adrenaline into the bloodstream, and hugely increases our speed and strength so that we can either fight the attacker, or run away. If neither of these is possible, we freeze, to avoid detection and are numbed so that the pain of death is reduced.

Those are the three main reactions of the danger-fear system – fight, flight or freeze.   We have no choice over which is adopted if the fear system kicks in – it all happens in nanoseconds – far faster than we can think.

The way the danger-fear system works is that it remembers every previous threat to the self and constantly scans the environment for clues that correspond to this memory.  As soon as it senses a reminder of anything that was experienced as a danger in the past it fires up, triggering the various manifestations of fight, flight or freeze.

It’s useful to know at this point that there are two entirely different memory systems located in different structures of the brain.  One we are aware of – it’s what we all just call “memory”, though psychologists call it “explicit memory” to distinguish it from the other. The other memory system, called implicit, or “body” memory,6 is constantly in operation but entirely outside of our awareness.   This means that there are many times that the danger-fear system is activated without us having the slightest idea what triggered it, or even that it has been triggered.


How do we notice the activation of the Danger-Fear System?

When we feel the symptoms of acute stress, anxiety, or panic, it is the physical effects of the fear system we are experiencing (tension, raised heart rate, hyper-vigilance, dizziness, scrambled thinking etc.)     However, we do not have to be obviously in a panic to be in the fear system – the activation of the danger-fear system is all-pervasive and can be seen at many different manifestations and levels of arousal.

We identify it through its three main forms – fight, flight and freeze.  Fight can be seen in physical violence, outbursts of anger, criticism of others and dominant and controlling ways of relating to others.

Flight can be seen in walking or running away, withdrawal into the self or submissive ways of relating to others.  Combinations of fight and flight can be seen in passive aggressive behaviours such as sulking or manipulative behaviours such as emotional blackmail (attempting to control, but from a “victim” position).

Freeze can be noticed as a sudden loss of our ability to think clearly, going into a state where we feel “unreal” or detached from our surroundings, going rigid, or “blanking out”.  It may present simply as a tensing of our bodies that may go unnoticed.    However, in whatever way the fear system is triggered, it tends to draw us away from real human contact and into a self-reliant coping, which often does not help us to resolve problems.

As we work with our clients, we encourage them to become more aware of the activation of their own danger-fear system.   When they share stressful or emotionally charged experiences in the therapy, we might intervene with comments such as “let the tension go”, or “just keep breathing”, to get them used to noticing and regulating their danger-fear system.


The Attachment System

Unlike the reptilian brain, which is fully developed at birth (or hatching), the human brain is so complex that it requires years of input and development after birth to reach maturity.   During this time the baby, and then the child, is completely dependent on its caregivers not only for the provision of food, shelter and protection, but also for the regulation of emotions and the stimulation and validation of its interests and exploration.

The responsive engagement of the caregiver with the infant stimulates the growth of new brain cells, and creates connections between these cells.   The brain is structured and developed through relationships, or restricted in its growth and functioning by failures in relationships. 7

One of the key aspects of good parental care in the early years is that it builds the structures in the brain for inhibiting and regulating the powerful emotions and reactions of the danger-fear system, which, unlike most of the rest of the infant’s brain, is fully developed at birth.   The continual experience of having fears and distress heard, understood and calmed, by a responsive parent, is internalised over time by the child who can then in later years self-support and self-regulate in situations where there is no one to turn to.  (We call the results of this process the “supportive internal environment” – see below).

Where this responsive, empathic care has been absent or inconsistent in childhood, the process of integrating all the complex systems of the brain, as it develops, is left incomplete.   Where this happens, we are left with the mental distress of being unable to manage or regulate our emotions, particularly those triggered by the danger-fear system.  When our emotions can’t be regulated, they overwhelm the systems of our brain that govern our social functioning.  We lose our ability to relate to others in a straightforward manner, we feel isolated, and, since we are essentially social beings, we lose our sense of self, our self-esteem, and we become anxious and depressed.

The vital role of the responsive engagement of the caregiver with the infant was first highlighted by John Bowlby, who, from the 1960’s, studied the interactions between mothers and infants and noted that when the infants’ careseeking behaviour was responded to quickly and empathically by the mother, they developed what he referred to as a pattern of “secure attachment.”    He described the pattern of relating that resulted when the infant’s careseeking behaviour did not meet with a timely and empathic response, as “insecure attachment”.  We now understand that secure attachment is important to a sense of wellbeing.

Bowlby introduced the concept of an “attachment system” consisting of caregiving and careseeking, which he saw as mutually interacting instinctive biological systems.   The baby’s careseeking system, activated by need or fear, is expressed as a cry.   This then activates the mother’s caregiving system and she responds to the need.  If the response is sufficiently timely and accurate, the baby’s careseeking system de-activates – it becomes contented.   This then triggers the de-activation of the mother’s caregiving system, which is experienced as a satisfaction.

Bowlby’s colleague Mary Ainsworth developed his work, devising ways of assessing whether infants were securely or insecurely attached.  Ainsworth observed the relationship between the caregiving and careseeking systems and the exploratory system, noting that children related to in a responsive and empathic way recovered quickly from distress related to separation and were able to resume exploratory play after an upset.


The Dynamics of Attachment in Adult Life

Following Ainsworth’s observations, Dorothy Heard became interested in the relationship between the attachment system (careseeking and caregiving) and the exploratory system, describing the way the three systems worked together as the “attachment dynamic”.  She then collaborated with Brian Lake to apply the understanding of this attachment dynamic to working therapeutically with adults.

In considering the application of these ideas to adults, Heard and Lake saw the exploratory system as being chiefly focused on the sharing of interests (rather than on play as with children), and they found they needed to extend their theory to include other systems in order to more fully describe the dynamics of attachment in adults.

The differences between infants and adults, which Heard and Lake had to take into consideration, were that adults have a fully developed sexual system, they have to look after themselves in the world, they shape their own environment, and they carry a huge mental baggage that the infant does not have.

Heard and Lake therefore examined the role of the sexual system within the dynamics of attachment.   Their interest was in the more complex system created by the integration of the sexual system with the other attachment systems, and they described this as the “affectionate” sexual system.   They also felt the need to consider the system for self-defence, which they came to understand as the danger-fear system operating in an integrated way with the careseeking system.

Heard and Lake also examined the way adults have to shape their own surroundings, creating an environment for themselves that can either be supportive or unsupportive to their sense of self and wellbeing.   Finally, in the area I have very crudely described as “mental baggage”, they considered the role of what they called the “internal environment”.  This is the product of the way our experiences over our lifetime have shaped our mind, brain and body, creating habitual reactions to events, and ways of thinking about ourselves that can either be supportive to the self and help us cope with the blows life deals us, or self-critical and unsupportive.

In taking Bowlby and Ainsworth’s three systems of careseeking, caregiving, and exploration, and applying them to adults, which required the inclusion of four further systems, Heard and Lake introduced the concept of “The Dynamics of Attachment in Adult Life”.  This consisted of seven systems, which they saw as operating together to create a “restorative process” to support the self and ensure the recovery of self-esteem following life events which were experienced as a threat to the self. 3 


The seven systems are now described in more detail as follows:

1.  Care seeking

The careseeking system is not purely a childhood phenomenon but is important throughout the whole of our life.   It is activated by any perceived threat to the self, and prompts us to seek help and support from others.  Like all except one of the other systems we will be looking at, it is “goal-corrected”, which means that it activates when there is a threat to the self, then de-activates and goes quiet when we get the help and support that was needed.  In adults, careseeking is most often seen in the way we turn to a close friend or partner after something has happened that has worried or shaken us.   Often all we need is to be listened to sympathetically, and we calm down and start to put things in perspective.

When faced by a threat, the careseeking system does not activate on its own, but in tandem with the fear system.   Where the care we have been given as children has been inadequate, and the brain’s ability to regulate the fear system has been compromised, the careseeking system is infiltrated by the fear system – changing it in ways that make it less effective.  For example, a child with a parent focused on their own needs rather than the child’s will find it unbearable to continue seeking care when their needs are not responded to.   They will start looking out for what they can do to meet the parent’s needs, because at least that way they will get some sense of affirmation and value.   They may well end up as “compulsive caregivers” and gravitate in adult life to the caregiving professions.   But this is not actually caregiving – it is a roundabout way of seeking care, which often ends in feelings of burnout and resentment because so much energy is expended, without our real needs being met.

Another way in which the careseeking system can be infiltrated by fear is when the fear system is so highly aroused that it swamps the attempt at seeking care.   When this happens, we might want care, but we end up getting angry with the person we want to care for us, or trying to control them so that we make them give us what we need.  We might feel so unsettled to be relying on someone else that we end up rubbishing the help we get.     This very often means that our careseeking goal is not met, as our fearful behaviour triggers our caregiver’s fear system and seriously reduces their ability to give care.

What we are aiming for, as adult careseekers, is to get clear about what we really want or need, and ask for it in as straightforward a way as possible.  This can be really difficult to do, because we have to override fearful reactions based on our experiences in the past of not getting our needs met.  We might also have got into a pattern, based on what we were used to in the past, of asking the wrong people for help.   Some people are incapable of giving care, and we need to see this as their problem, not ours, and turn to others who are more capable of helping us.  The awful thing that happens to us as children, when our needs are not met, is that we start to think there is something wrong with having needs and seeking care.  As adults, the more we can have the experience of seeking care from those who can give it, the more we will come to understand that there is nothing wrong with our needs and our desire to seek care.

When we explore careseeking,  we encourage our clients to look at how good they are in the present at turning to others for help, what prevents them from doing this, whether they have effective caregivers available to them, and whether they seek care from those who can’t give it.  We look at their history of how they were responded to in the past when they sought care, in order to understand their present reactions.   The aim of working on this system in therapy is to help people to develop a well-functioning careseeking system, so that they can turn to others for support in the face of a threat whenever a caregiver is available, asking in a clear and straightforward way for what they need, and carefully discriminating between those who can give them effective care and those who can’t.

2.  Care giving

The caregiving system is an instinctive system, which is activated in response to a careseeking signal from another, whether this is the mother’s response to the baby’s cry, or the adult’s response to a friend coming to talk when going through a bad time.   When the careseeking need is met, the careseeker experiences relief, and the de-activation of their careseeking system.  This then triggers the deactivation of the caregiving system in the caregiver, and both parties experience a sense of satisfaction, which can leave them both energised.  In this way both systems are mutually goal-corrected, and effective caregiving is easily recognised.

In order to be effective, the caregiver needs to pay attention to addressing the presented need, to attune to the state of mind of the careseeker and help regulate their emotions, and, most importantly, be able to regulate their own fear system.  If they are to get their needs met, careseekers require (relatively) fear-free caregivers8. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the same function (within an adult-to- adult context) as is fulfilled by the loving parent of a securely attached child.

Where there have been failures in the caregiving we received as children, our own caregiving system may be prone to being infiltrated by the fear system.  This might happen because the fear system of the person seeking care from us may be so highly aroused that it triggers our own fear system in response.   Or it may be that our own fear system is already aroused because of issues that have nothing to do with the care seeker.   In either case, we might notice that we lose attention, avoid particular subjects and divert the careseeker onto other subjects.  We may also notice that we overwork as we become anxious about our effectiveness and try to fix problems, even though that was not the help that was requested.    Additionally, if what we think of as caregiving is actually a defensive form of careseeking (a way of getting ourselves valued), we will be very prone to feeing deflated and resentful whenever anyone seeking care from us does not meet their goals and obtain relief. In such cases we are likely to feel drained rather than energised.

When we give care to another and it meets their needs, we feel satisfaction and a real sense of competence which contributes directly to a strengthening of our sense of self, and therefore to our experience of wellbeing.  It is important for our wellbeing that we have people to care for, but some people are not able to receive care in a straightforward way and leave us feeling frustrated and drained.   We need to consider our own resources and may need to withdraw our care from those who can’t be helped by us.

When we explore caregiving, we encourage our clients to look at who they give care to in the present and how they experience this – whether the activity energises or drains them.   We would look at who demands their care, and whether those who seek care from them can make straightforward requests for care that trigger instinctive caregiving, or whether some people seek care from them in a controlling or manipulative way. The aim of working on this system in therapy is to help people to become more effective caregivers, by becoming more aware of the activation of their own fear system and becoming better able to regulate it.   We would also aim to help my clients to consider what changes they might wish to make in relationships where their caregiving is sought in a controlling or manipulative way, and perhaps to consider making changes to the balance between caregiving and careseeking in their lives.


3.  Interest Sharing

When a small child has had its basic needs for food, shelter and comfort met, and is secure in the presence of an effective caregiver, the child automatically becomes exploratory.   She wants to find out more about the world in which she lives, to discover the qualities of all the things that surround her and to develop skills and abilities in relating with her surroundings.

That exploratory instinct is similarly important and active in us as adults.  We notice it in two different forms, 1) exploring and developing new ideas and skills on our own and 2) sharing our exploration, achievements and discoveries with others.  It is this second form that I help my clients’ to explore in therapy as it has a direct bearing on our sense of wellbeing.    The sort of things we might look at would be hobbies, crafts, pastimes, games, sports, academic interests, musical activities etc.

The exploratory interest sharing system is activated when we discover something, have a new idea, or develop a new interest, skill or competence, and we have the impulse to share this with others.  It may also be activated when we are with others who have new ideas, interests or skills to share and this awakens our own interests.

The goal of this system is for us to gain validation and affirmation for our ideas, interests or competence.  We gain a sense that our ideas are valid and of interest to others, and that our competence and skill is noticed and celebrated.  This feeds straight into a strengthened sense of self, with the main sensations experienced in reaching the goal being increased vitality, a sense of wellbeing, and a stimulus to further creativity and development of skills.

Exploratory interest sharing is an instinctive “inbuilt” system, but its development in us from childhood will have been greatly influenced by the way our parents responded to our interests, discoveries and achievements from our earliest years.  If parents were preoccupied, depressed, over-anxious or hostile when we presented ourselves brimming with delight at our new accomplishments, we will not have achieved our interest sharing goals.    We will have experienced this as an absence of wellbeing.   We will have thought we got it wrong; that our ideas and achievements were no good, and that will have fed straight into a diminished sense of self.    This diminished sense of self will then have a limiting effect on the extent to which we are able to remain exploratory and creative as adults.

In our childhood it was parents, and sometimes teachers, who stimulated and supported our interests, or failed to do so.   However, as adults we mainly share our interests with our equals, or peers.  It is important that we find people, with whom to share interests and activities, who are at roughly the same level as ourselves.  This gives us the optimal level of affirmation and validation (e.g. a football player will find it unsatisfying playing with teammates or opponents who have much less skill, while a singer might find it demoralising to join a choir where all the other members are far better sight-readers).

What a child needs from parents or teachers is to be treated as a “potential peer”.   If parents and teachers did not grant us that respect, and were not sufficiently affirming of our early attempts at interest sharing, we may find ourselves as adults with a sense of not having achieved our potential, and with fewer pastimes and interests than we would like.

It is important to note, as well, that the exploratory system shuts down as soon as the fear system is activated (for sound evolutionary reasons).  This means that any blows to the self, for example bereavement, unfair treatment, or the impact of too much stress, may cause us to stop pursuing and sharing our interests, and we may all have a list of interests that were “frozen” at particular periods in time and have not been revived.

When we explore interest sharing, we invite our clients to look at what interests they currently have and whether they have “peers” with whom to share them.  What were their interests in the past?  How did parents respond – were their interests supported?  We look at any past interests that might have been frozen or neglected and consider why that happened. The aim of working on this system in therapy is to help clients to look at what interests they would like to develop now, whether they be new ones, or ones from the past, and what they might need to do in order to develop these.


4.  Affectionate sexuality

The sexual-reproductive system, just like the danger-fear system, is a-social, and has its origins in the part of the brain we share with the reptiles.    However when we talk about “affectionate sexuality” we are referring to the socially developed system we see in affectionate supportive-companionable intimate relationships.  This consists of the sexual system working in an integrated way with systems of the attachment dynamic, chiefly careseeking, caregiving and interest sharing, but in many cases also a joint enterprise in shaping the external environment.

We have already mentioned that for infants and small children the relationship with the primary caregiver can provide the experience of having basic survival needs met, careseeking needs responded to, and achievements and discoveries responded to with delight.

Underlying this, however, is the core experience of being in a close relationship with another human being to whom the infant feels passionately attached.   This is experienced as physical closeness, with the mother’s heartbeat and rhythm of breathing regulating and soothing the infant, the experience of warmth and skin contact, the safe feeing of being securely held in another’s arms.  There is also the experience of being held in another’s gaze and connected by the constant backwards and forwards exchange of sounds and words between mother and infant.

Our intensely social brains are wired up to expect this experience of intimacy and the infant feels contentment and wellbeing when the expectation is met, and high levels of distress when it is not.   In adult life, the nearest we come to this sense of closeness and belonging to another is in our intimate affectionate sexual relationships. When we are in such a relationship and it is functioning well we gain an enormous sense of wellbeing.   Conversely, if a sexual relationship is not functioning well, it can trigger “body memories” from the past of failures in parental care, which evoke a great deal of distress and a collapse of self-confidence.

The goal of the sexual-reproductive system is orgasm and the reproduction of the species.  While these may also exist as goals of the more complex affectionate sexual system, and enhance pleasure and wellbeing, this system has a further goal of bonding – an increase in the sense of closeness and intimacy - which can be sufficient in itself and supportive of the self, even when the other goals are not met.    Another difference between the sexual-reproductive system and the affectionate sexual system, is that the affectionate sexual system is activated interpersonally (by loving actions of caregiving or affirmative interest sharing, or successful negotiation of needs and wants) and shut down by the activation of  the fear system, while the sexual-reproductive system is activated by the chemistry of sexual attraction, or by an internally driven need to regulate difficult emotions by dominating another.   Furthermore, the sexual-reproductive system is not always shut down by the operation of the fear system, and indeed sometimes needs the activation of the fear system to trigger and sustain arousal, as in the case of sado-masochistic sex.

In intimate relationships we perhaps see most clearly the way in which the continual over-arousal of the fear system in both partners leads to dominant-submissive (one up, one down) unequal relationships, characterised by controlling, manipulative and sometimes violent behaviours.    In contrast, where the fear system is not too frequently activated, we notice that the sexual relationship operates in a way that is integrated with mutual caregiving and careseeking, and a sharing and validation of interests.  What we term affectionate sexuality is the sexual system in the context of supportive-companionable, equal relationships, in other words, in the context of friendship.

When we explore affectionate sexuality, we invite our clients to look at their own development as sexual beings and whether that was facilitated or impeded by their upbringing. We would look at current or previous intimate relationships and consider the extent to which these are / were supportive and companionable, or dominant – submissive, whether these relationships helped them to develop and pursue their interests, or restricted and confined them.    The aim of working on this system in therapy is to help clients consider changes they might wish to make within existing relationships to make them more supportive and affectionate, or, in the absence of a sexual relationship we might explore the possibility of improving the functioning of the other systems, encouraging the development of friendships and interest sharing, in order to sustain a strong sense of self.


5. Shaping the external environment

Our external environment, and particularly the place we live, has a huge impact on our state of mind, so having an environment, which we experience as supportive, is crucial to our sense of wellbeing.    For example, after a tiring and stressful day at work, a person returning home to a warm, nicely decorated sitting room, and sitting in a comfortable chair with a cat purring on his or her lap, will probably recover quite quickly from the stresses of the day.   Another person returning to a cluttered bed-sit with the paper peeling off the walls may be more liable to have their mood lowered by their surroundings.

In this area we are looking at two different, but connected concepts.   On the one hand we have the instinctive biologically based system for choosing or shaping our external environment, and on the other we have the external reality, which is the product of this system.   In this theory, when we refer to the external environment we do not mean the “outside world”, but just that part of the outside world which we have chosen or shaped to become our own particular environment.

The system for shaping the external environment governs the choices we make of friends, intimate partners, work, recreational activities, what sort of house we live in, our pets, and the personal possessions we surround ourselves with.   In these areas we carry mental templates (internal working models) from the past of people, places, animals and things, which meant something to us and gave us a sense of security and belonging, and we are (mostly unconsciously) drawn to replicate similar environments within which we can experience a similar sense of belonging.   The impulse to shape our external environment overlaps with the previous four systems we have covered (insofar as they relate to the choices we make of the people we live with, seek care from and share interests with), so when we examine it on its own, we tend to focus on the areas not covered in the other systems such as the house, flat or rooms we live in, and the resources available to us there, such as furniture, decorations, possessions, gardens and pets.

The system for shaping our external environment is activated by the experience of being uncomfortable with our surroundings, and deactivated when the goal of creating a supportive environment is achieved and we enjoy the experience of living in a context where we feel “at home”.   Within a partnership or marriage, the task of shaping the external environment becomes a shared one.   This creates difficulties, as the mental templates each carries of an environment conducive to their preferred lifestyle may be very different, and the task can require a lot of negotiation.   The negotiation, however, is vital if one partner is not to dominate choices and decisions, forcing the other to submit to living in surroundings that diminish their sense of wellbeing.   There is a similar undermining of sense of self, and loss of wellbeing when we are unable to choose, create or maintain congenial surroundings because we lack the necessary resources, financial or otherwise.

When we explore the system for shaping the external environment, we invite our clients to look at the extent to which they find their external environment supportive or unsupportive of their sense of self.   We would look at the particular aspects of their environment which affect them the most, and see what impulses they might have to make improvements in this area. The aim of working on this system in therapy is to help clients to become more aware of the impact of the external environment on their sense of wellbeing, and to consider the changes they might wish to make to this environment, which could render it more supportive.


6. The internal environment

What we mean by the “internal environment”, could perhaps be crudely summarised as “what goes on inside us”.   Our experiences of life and of interactions with others have an emotional impact on us.  How powerful an impact, and how bearable or unbearable each experience is, often owes less to the experience itself, and more to “what goes on inside us” as we have that experience.  To give an example – someone tells a friend about something that happened to him earlier that day – he notices the friend is not really paying attention.   What goes on inside in response to this could be, “my story is interesting, but my friend seems preoccupied – I wonder what is bothering him”, or it could be, “my friend isn’t interested in me – he must find me boring, I’m a boring person”.  The first response illustrates a supportive internal environment, resulting in concerned curiosity for the friend; the second response illustrates an unsupportive internal environment, resulting in self-attack and loss of wellbeing.

Whether our internal environment is supportive or unsupportive depends upon the quality of caregiving we have received in the past.   Our minds are shaped by all our previous relationships, particularly those with our parents or primary caregivers.  If our careseeking and interest sharing needs were met in a timely and empathic manner, we will have internalised a supportive and compassionate way of thinking about and treating ourselves, and we will assume that our feelings and interests are acceptable.  If we were neglected, criticised or humiliated when we presented our careseeking or interest sharing needs, we will have internalised an attacking and critical way of treating ourselves, and we will assume that there is something wrong with our feelings and our interests.    We notice the way our minds have been shaped by past relationships when we become aware of the “conversations” that run through our head throughout the waking day.   These are made up of a whole series of “voices” which replay the sorts of things which people said to us in the past.  Their voices have become our voices, so if they praised and encouraged us, we now do that to ourselves, and if they ignored or undermined us, we do the same to ourselves.

But “what goes on inside us” is not just thoughts – when we speak of the internal environment, we are also referring to our feelings, the way our bodies react to what happens around us.  If our careseeking needs were met with a loving response when we were small, our bodies will calm down and relax in the company of those we are closest to in the present.   If our careseeking needs were met in the past with, inattention, anxiety or attack, our bodies will tense and flinch, expecting emotional or physical pain in the company of those we are closest to.

So what we are basically talking about here is the way our brains have been programmed by our past experiences, and by the ways in which we were helped, or not helped, to process those past experiences.

In a similar way to the external environment we can envisage the internal environment as a buffer zone, or battery – where care has been input in the past, we are able to care for ourselves and regulate our emotions when we are on our own.  We can take in positive comments, and we can shield ourselves from negative comments from others.     Where we have not received good care in the past, we are less able to care for ourselves when we are on our own.   We take in negative comments, and resist accepting positive comments from others.

Fortunately, the human brain throughout our lifespan remains capable of significant change, given the right conditions.   Supportive and caring friendships and intimate relationships in the present, along with the experience of one-to-one therapy or a therapeutic group, create changes within the internal environment. Over time, the internal environment can shift from one which can be undermining and self-attacking to one which is more supportive and compassionate towards the self.   However, to understand how this process of change happens, we need to be clear that what we refer to as the “internal environment”, is the embodied human brain – a complex organism made up of around 100 billion neurons (brain cells).  All of our perceptions, feelings, thoughts and actions have their biological reality in electro-chemical impulses firing between particular complex patterns of brain cells. The way the brain works is that patterns of cells which fire repeatedly become more likely to fire again in that particular pattern – so repetition strengthens connections in the brain.9

This means that frequent experiences of distress and disappointment, when our careseeking needs were not met in childhood, have created very strong connections between particular patterns of brain cells.   So the likelihood that we will respond to life’s events in the same way as we have done in the past is as strong as the likelihood of water flowing in the same direction as a river that has dug out a deep bed for itself over hundreds of years.   When we make changes in the ways we think about ourselves or the ways we react to others, we are creating new connections between brain cells, and, having only fired once or twice, these connections are much weaker – much less likely to fire – than the much-repeated established connections from the past.  So when we make a change, it’s as if we have started to dig out a new bed for the river to flow in – but the channel is much shallower than the old one.

It’s clear from this that changing the internal environment from unsupportive to supportive takes time and needs a lot of consolidation – its not sufficient for someone to respond to us in a caring and interested way once – we need to have the experience of several people responding to us in a caring and interested way many, many times.   A real advantage of longer-term therapy is that it can allow this sort of change to be consolidated over time.

It’s also clear from the way the brain works that the process of change is far from smooth.   Old patterns of thinking and reacting have been repeated so many times, it is as if they were “hardwired” in the brain.  They may weaken over a long stretch of time, but will never go away.  What tends to happen is that we make changes, and these strengthen over time, but if we become tired, ill or overstressed, or if life deals us too great a blow, we revert to the “default” hardwiring of the past and find ourselves thinking and reacting in the same old ways.   This feels like being “back to square one” and it can be easy to lose hope, but it is normal, and as we recover from life’s blows or illness, catch up on sleep, or reduce stress factors in our life, we bounce back and carry on making and consolidating change.

When we explore the internal environment, we invite our clients to look at the way they think about themselves and the way they treat themselves in response to their life experiences.  We look at the voices in their heads that are affirming and supportive or negative and self-attacking.  We think about who said these things to them in the past, or who reacted to them in the past in such a way that they formed these opinions of themselves.  We look at the ways they react to certain experiences in the present and try to understand the past circumstances that make sense of these reactions.   The aim of working on this system in therapy is to help clients to lessen self-attack and treat themselves more compassionately and we would expect to see a shift in the internal environment from unsupportive to more supportive.


7. Self Defence

Defensiveness is often treated as a negative concept in popular psychology, but a well-functioning self-defence system is essential for both survival and wellbeing.   The goal of personal growth and therapy is not to get rid of defences, but to make changes to ensure that our defences are appropriate to our current circumstances, and we are not still fighting battles that belong to the past, or failing to protect our interests because of past fears.

When we encounter any threat to the self, two instinctive systems are activated, the danger-fear system and the careseeking system.   The fear system triggers fight, flight and freeze responses in us, the careseeking system prompts us to seek care from someone we trust who can help us to deal with the threat or calm our response to it.  The way we actually react to each threat is determined by a third system, the internal environment.  

The more our careseeking needs have been met in the past, the more likely it is that we will turn to others for help, or, if there is no caregiver available at the time, we can access, in the internal environment, the supportive voices of those who have given us help in the past and we manage to deal with the threat on our own.   The more our careseeking needs were ignored, attacked or shamed in the past, the less likely we are to turn to a caregiver, so we only have the fear system to fall back on as a self defence.   In these circumstances, our internal environment is more likely to provide us with voices from the past, which criticise and undermine us, further intensifying our fear-system reactions.

There is also a fourth system which can play an important part in our self-defence.   If the external environment has been attended to, we may have a place to retreat to when we encounter a blow to the self where we can calm down and recover.   A client of mine who had problems with a critical boss, described coming back home, sitting down in his study overlooking his garden with his dog laid at his feet, reading a newspaper, and very quickly calming down and getting the events of the day in perspective.

Where we are over-reliant on ourselves, and therefore over-reliant on the fear-system, we develop habitual fear-based defences.  In fight mode we may easily become aggressive, critical and belittling of others.  In flight mode we submit to others more dominant, withdraw into ourselves, overwork, lose ourselves in reading, in watching TV or in trawling the internet, we drink or take drugs or engage in other addictive or soothing behaviours in an attempt to alleviate, manage, or avoid our feelings.

Here is an example of self-defence using the careseeking system; a young woman was left feeling angry, small and shamed by her mother in law, a forceful lady who would frequently comment on what she was wearing and tell her that her dresses were too short.   She confided in a friend how much this upset her and her frustration at not being able to do anything about it.  Her friend said she wasn’t surprised she was feeling bad about this, understood how difficult her mother-in-law was to deal with, made it very clear that she thought the mother-in-law had no right to make such comments, and was very affirming of what she chose to wear and how good she looked in it.   

A short while later, the mother-in-law, commented again on a dress she was wearing.  The young woman surprised herself by saying very calmly but firmly “What I wear is my business, not yours”.  The mother-in-law’s mouth dropped open – but she never made another critical comment about her appearance.

When thinking about self-defence, however, it is important not to get into the mindset of “careseeking good, fear system bad”.  What matters is whether the various systems are integrated and function well together.  If they do, we recover from blows to the self more quickly and maintain a sense of wellbeing.  If they are not integrated, we are overwhelmed by our fear-system responses, recovery takes a long time, and we feel isolated and prone to anxiety and depression.

An example of a well-integrated self-defence system, where past successful careseeking has created a supportive internal environment might be as follows;  – a manager makes a derogatory remark about a member of his team – the team member is furious and, making direct eye contact, says to the manager, “I thought that remark was disrespectful, it made me very angry and I think you owe me an apology”.  The manager has the shock of clearly experiencing the team member’s anger, but the anger is controlled, so the manager’s own fear system is not too highly activated, and he can still hear what is said and think about it. This makes it more likely that he will apologise and think carefully before treating the team member disrespectfully again.   The team member comes out of the encounter with a sense of wellbeing.

Now the anger here is the danger-fear system activating in fight mode, in response to a blow to the self.  The anger is key to the effectiveness of the response – it provides the energy which fuels the team member’s confrontation, and stops the manager in his tracks.   But just as important is the fact that the anger is controlled.

This control is provided by the internal environment.   As a result of a history of good enough responses to careseeking requests in the past, feelings have been validated and a sense of competence and self-worth has been strengthened, so the derogatory comment causes neither collapse, nor uncontrolled outburst, and an effective self-defence is possible.

Here is an example of what can be achieved over time in therapy.  Early on in his work, a client had a dream, which, after discussing in counselling, he came to understand as representing his self-defence system.   He was trapped inside a space suit, and then sealed inside a small space capsule.  The dream came with a terrible sense of isolation.   Three years later another dream gave him an image of his self-defence system as a lightweight Lycra suit with a hood that could be pulled up if necessary.  Critical comments bounced off the suit, but it was flexible and easy to wear, and he no longer felt cut off from others.  He now had a sense that he could deal with what life threw at him.

When we explore the system for self defence, we invite our clients to look at their own habitual defences – how they protect themselves from difficult situations or disturbing emotions, and the extent to which these defences are fear-system based (fight, flight, freeze), or whether they are able to access care and support, either internally, or from others.  We would look at the circumstances in the past which may have made it necessary for them to develop these defences and consider whether they are helpful to them in the present, or  restrict them from living as fully as they would wish.  The aim of working on this system in therapy is to help clients to develop more flexible ways of self defence, well adapted to their current circumstances so that they neither react over-aggressively to the blows others deal them (with the fear system closing their minds to information that could be helpful to them contained within the blow) nor do they collapse and respond submissively to dominant or manipulative approaches that override their interests.


The Restorative Process and beyond

Looking at the self-defence system leads on neatly to a consideration of the idea, which Dorothy Heard and Brian Lake proposed, of the systems working together as a restorative process, which enables us to recover and maintain wellbeing.    The self-defence system is the most obvious example of this, but all the systems when they are working well and achieving their goals, are helping to shift the internal environment from unsupportive to supportive, and are therefore strengthening our sense of self.

Una McCluskey, in one of her papers,10 gave an example of a catholic priest who was able to deal with the loneliness of a celibate lifestyle and preserve vitality and well being, through a whole range of interests.  This demonstrates the way in which one system achieving its goals can sustain the self even where this is not possible in other systems.

However, the way the systems work is not purely protective; they also enhance and enrich our experience of life.  When another person listens to us and supports us when we are upset, or allows us to give them care when they need it, or responds with lively interest to our ideas skills and achievements, or allows us comforting and pleasurable physical closeness, this hugely enhances our self-esteem and our enjoyment of life.

So, we are not just talking about a restorative process - but also about growth, development and enhancement of the self.  The integrated working of these systems are part of a life-time process contributing to the emergence of the self in childhood, its strengthening and development, and the achievement of the self’s full genetic potential in our adult lives.




1  McCluskey, U. (2001) A theory of caregiving in adult life; developing and measuring the concept of goal-corrected empathic attunement, Unpublished DPhil Thesis, University of York Library

2   McCluskey, U. (2005) To be Met as a Person: The dynamics of attachment in professional encounters. London: Karnac

3 Heard, D. Lake, B. and McCluskey, U. (2009) Attachment Therapy with Adolescents and Adults: theory and practice post Bowlby. London: Karnac

4 Lewis, T. Amini, F. and Lannon, R. (2001) A General Theory of Love.  New York: Vintage pp. 20-24   (on the level of anatomy, Paul MacLean’s theory of the three-in-one brain has been discredited, but it is still a useful idea when looking at the way that different systems of the brain prompt very different patterns of behaviour)

5 LeDoux, J (1996) The Emotional Brain, New York, Simon & Schuster pp.169-174

6  Siegel, D.J. (2012) The Developing Mind. How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are.  2nd. Ed. New York and London: The Guildford Press. Chapter 2

7   Siegel, D.J.  (2012). Chapter 1

8 McCluskey, U. (2013) Fear-Free Exploratory Caregiving; A challenge for therapists in the present social, political and cultural environment.  Attachment Journal, July 2013

9  Lewis, T. Amini, F. and Lannon, R. (2001) pp. 121-132

10  McCluskey, U. (2010) Understanding the self and understanding therapy: an attachment perspective,  Context, February 2010 pp 29-32

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