top of page

Therapeutic Reflections: Attachment in Internationals Part II

In an increasingly interconnected world, the number of individuals whose lives transcend geographical boundaries—expatriates, migrants, Third Culture Kids (TCKs), and globally mobile citizens—continues to rise. This transient way of living can significantly affect one's experience of attachment and connection, themes that are central to both the human psyche and psychotherapeutic practice.



Index The Soul's Journey Versus the Body's Flight Secure Attachment: A Foundation for Successful Transitions

Attachment and Adaptation: Insights from Expat-Informed Psychotherapy Navigating the Geometries of Cultural Identity Therapeutic Implications: Facilitating Integration and Connection Attachment is the emotional bond we form with those closest to us, for deep biological reasons. For what Attachment is and it's influence on culture, see part 1. One's attachment style is dimensional and can develop across time. Moreover, it doesn't only concern one's attachment with one's primary caregiver, but many people close to us. Here's only a small table recapping each attachment style.

Attachment Style

Characteristics

Origin

Impact on Relationships

Secure

Comfort with intimacy and independence, high self-esteem, enjoys close relationships, able to seek support.

Consistent and responsive caregiving.

Healthy, long-lasting relationships.

Anxious-Preoccupied

Craves intimacy and approval, highly emotional, sensitive to partners' actions and moods.

Inconsistent caregiving, often fluctuating between warmth and availability to being intrusive or unavailable

Tumultuous, needy, or clingy relationships.

Dismissive-Avoidant

Emotional distance, self-reliant, uncomfortable with closeness and dependency.

Caregivers who are distant, dismissive, or unresponsive to needs.

Aloof, do not get too close to partners.

Fearful-Avoidant (Disorganized)

Mixture of avoidance and dependence, struggles with trusting others, often results from trauma or abuse.

Caregiving that is frightening or traumatizing.

Unpredictable, often stuck in a love-hate relationship with intimacy.

Though our upbringing plays a crucial role in the development of our attachment styles, also less secure attachment style can change. Healthy, healing relationships, self-awareness and psychotherapy are all ways to foster healthier bonds with ourselves and others. The Soul's Journey Versus the Body's Flight


As the saying goes, "the soul travels on foot while the body by plane," providing a poignant metaphor for the internal journey that accompanies physical relocation. This journey of the soul, marked by introspective experiences, often contrasts sharply with the rapid physical transition across countries and cultures. Internationals, in their unique positions, must navigate the challenge of nurturing their inner attachments while adapting to new external environments. This dichotomy, a recurring theme in the research of Judge and Brown, highlights the nuanced psychological and sociocultural aspects of adaptation among immigrants (Judge & Brown, 2013).

Secure Attachment: A Foundation for Successful Transitions

Secure attachment emerges as a pivotal element in managing the inherent stresses of international relocation. Individuals with a secure attachment style, whether they are internationals or Third Culture Kids (TCKs), are often better equipped to form new connections in unfamiliar environments. This intrinsic security provides a buffer against psychological risk factors like isolation and identity confusion. The importance of fostering secure attachments, especially in the context of parental migration, is further illuminated by the research of Kontos, and Suárez-Orozco & Todorova (Kontos, 2014; Suárez-Orozco & Todorova, 2015). Doug Ota's insights, particularly from his work 'Safe Passage', emphasize the role of schools, teachers, and peers in providing a sense of safety and acting as transitional attachment objects. Each moving phase, whether leaving, arriving or staying, has different needs and requires careful consideration to address the underlying needs. Building Secure Attachments in a New Culture

Creating secure attachments in a new cultural setting involves integrating one's attachment history into the present context. Strategies like engaging in community activities and maintaining open communication are essential. This process is well-captured in Pollock & Van Reken's RAFT model (Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think Destination), which offers a structured approach to managing transitional challenges.

Attachment and Adaptation: Insights from Expat-Informed Psychotherapy

The process of forming secure attachments, a subject briefly explored in my previous blog post, "Expat-Informed Psychotherapy: A Deeper Dive into Cross-Cultural Mental Health Care," is complex for those living a global lifestyle. Drawing from Erikson’s work on identity, we understand how these transitions impact one’s sense of self and relationships (Erikson, 1968). Case studies of expatriates reveal diverse ways in which attachment styles manifest in new cultural settings, emphasizing the need for a tailored therapeutic approach.

Not fitting in: Navigating the Geometries of Cultural Identity

Expatriates and TCKs often do not fit neatly into a single cultural identity. They resonate most profoundly with fellow stars, those who share the complex geometry of their cultural experiences. The continual process of reshaping to fit new molds can lead to a sense of persistent otherness, a topic that requires delicate handling within the therapeutic alliance. Pollock and Van Reken’s studies on TCKs delve into these identity and attachment challenges (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009). Challenges of Cultural Hybridity

Navigating the complexities of multiple cultural identities, TCKs and expatriates often face unique challenges in forming secure attachments. These challenges, while offering opportunities for growth, also necessitate a nuanced understanding within psychotherapy.

Therapeutic Implications: Facilitating Integration and Connection

Psychotherapy with internationals and TCKs should be attuned to their unique attachment and personality dynamics. Effective therapeutic techniques include narrative therapy, cognitive-behavioral strategies, and relational approaches, all aimed at enhancing attachment security and facilitating adaptation. The research on refugees and asylum seekers by Keller and Seeberg provides additional insights into addressing complex attachment issues in these populations (Keller et al., 2003; Seeberg, 2008).

A Journey of Continual Adaptation

The journey of internationals, through its trials and transformations, offers a unique perspective on the resilience of the human spirit in the face of attachment disruptions and cultural shifts. Understanding the interplay between secure attachment, personality traits, and cultural adaptability enables therapists to support their internationally mobile clients in creating a sense of home within themselves, no matter where their journey takes them.


The Soul's Journey Versus the Body's Flight "The soul travels on foot while the body by plane,"as the saying goes. we find a poignant metaphor for the internal journey that accompanies physical relocation. This journey of the soul, marked by a series of slow-paced, introspective experiences, often contrasts with the rapid physical transition across countries and cultures. Internationals must navigate the challenge of nurturing their inner attachments while adapting to new external environments. This dichotomy can create a dissonance that requires careful therapeutic navigation. Secure Attachment: A Foundation for Successful Transitions

Research indicates that secure attachment plays a pivotal role in how individuals manage the inherent stresses of international relocation. The securely attached international or TCK, equipped with a positive internal working model of relationships, often seeks out and cultivates new connections more readily. This intrinsic security acts as a buffer against the psychological risk factors associated with mobility, such as isolation and identity confusion.

Attachment and Adaptation: Insights from Expat-Informed Psychotherapy

The process of forming secure attachments, a subject briefly explored in my previous blog post, "Expat-Informed Psychotherapy: A Deeper Dive into Cross-Cultural Mental Health Care," is complex for those living a global lifestyle. Research has demonstrated that a secure attachment increases the likelihood to explore one's surroundings. Individuals with secure attachment styles and extroverted personalities may find it easier to forge connections in new cultural contexts. Their inherent comfort with engagement and uncertainty assists them in this adaptive process. Yet, this is not a uniform experience, and the diversity in reactions to transitions requires a tailored therapeutic approach.

Personality Traits: The Extraversion Advantage

The personality attributes of extraversion, openness to experience, and agreeableness have been positively correlated with the ability to develop new friendships and integrate into new cultures. Extraverts, by their nature, actively seek out social engagement, which leads to increased opportunities for attachment. Their energy and optimism can be infectious, drawing others to them and facilitating the formation of social networks crucial for adaptation. Of course, not in all cultures value proactive engagement the same, and in some instances it may perceived as threatening, rude or insensitive.

The Tale of Trixie the Triangle in Geometric Lands

Once upon a time, in the orderly realm of Triangle Land, lived Trixie, a cheerful triangle. Everything in Triangle Land was familiar and predictable: the houses were triangular, the language was a series of sharp angles, and even the food - like the much-loved Pythagoras Pie - had three corners. Trixie loved the triangular rituals and holidays, where everyone danced in triple time and celebrated the three sides of life.

One day, Trixie decided to embark on an adventure and moved to Square Land. Everything here was different - the houses had four corners, the language was a series of straight lines and right angles, and the food, like the popular Cartesian Cake, was perfectly square. The square rituals and holidays were a celebration of stability and order, but Trixie felt out of place with her three sides.

At first, Trixie tried to fit in by acting more square-like, learning their language and even trying to eat square meals. But no matter how hard she tried, her three edges could not fully become four. Despite this, Trixie began to appreciate the beauty in Square Land’s symmetrical ways and even picked up some square traits.

After some time, Trixie moved again, this time to Circle Land. Here, everything flowed in curves and loops, the language was soft and rolling, and the food, like the famous Orbital Omelet, was round. The circle rituals and holidays were celebrations of continuity and inclusiveness. Adapting here was even trickier for Trixie, with her sharp angles amidst all the curves.

In Circle Land, Trixie learned to round out her edges a bit. She enjoyed the fluidity and freedom but always felt a bit angular compared to her circle friends. Yet, she grew to love the circular ways and even found joy in the looping dances.

Eventually, Trixie decided to visit Triangle Land again. To her surprise, she felt different now. Her experiences in Square and Circle Lands had changed her. She had developed new edges and curves, making her more than just a triangle. In Triangle Land, she felt a bit out of place, not entirely fitting in with the pure triangles anymore.

Trixie realized that she was becoming something new - not just a triangle, square, or circle, but a combination of all. She was becoming a star, with shapes and edges from all geometrical forms. She found comfort in this new identity, embracing her unique blend of angles and curves.

In her journey, Trixie met other geometric stars, each with their own unique blend of shapes and experiences. With them, she felt understood, seen, and comfortable. They shared stories of their travels, their adaptations, and how they too didn’t quite fit into one shape anymore.

Trixie learned that it was okay not to fit perfectly into one land. Her experiences had enriched her, giving her a perspective that was broad and inclusive. She embraced her star-like nature, realizing that her true home was not in a land of specific shapes but in the diverse and colorful mosaic of experiences she carried within her.

And so, Trixie the Triangle lived happily, as a star, shining brightly with the many facets of her journey, a beautiful blend of all the lands she had known and loved.

Expatriates and TCKs often do not fit neatly into the "square land" of their home country or the "circle land" or "triangle land" of their host nations. They are the stars—complex, multifaceted, and adaptable. These stars have integrated a bit of square, circle, and triangle into their being. They often resonate most profoundly with fellow stars, those who share the complex geometry of their cultural experiences. Their adaptability, however, is not without its challenges. The continual process of reshaping to fit new molds can lead to a sense of persistent otherness, a topic that requires delicate handling within the therapeutic alliance.

Therapeutic Implications: Facilitating Integration and Connection

Psychotherapy with internationals and TCKs needs to be cognizant of these unique attachment and personality dynamics. A supportive therapeutic relationship itself can become a secure base from which clients explore the complexities of their identities and relationships. Therapy may focus on enhancing clients' adaptive skills, validating their unique cultural experiences, and supporting them in their journey to find a community of stars where they feel a sense of belonging.

In closing, the therapeutic reflections on attachment in internationals must acknowledge the soulful journey of these global citizens. As they traverse the globe, their attachments, personalities, and identities evolve, requiring a psychotherapeutic approach that is as adaptable and nuanced as the clients themselves. Understanding the interplay between secure attachment, personality traits, and cultural adaptability can enable therapists to better support their internationally mobile clients in creating a sense of home within themselves, no matter where their journey takes them. References


Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. Norton & Company.

Judge, A. M., & Brown, R. S. (2013). The impact of psychosocial adaptation on immigrants. Journal of Immigrant Adaptation.

Keller, A. S., et al. (2003). The mental health of refugees: Ecological approaches to healing and adaptation. Refugee Mental Health.

Kontos, L. M. (2014). The impact of parental migration on the development of children left behind. Journal of Child Development.

Pollock, D. C., & Van Reken, R. E. (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Nicholas Brealey.

Seeberg, M. L. (2008). Attachment and identity in the lives of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. Journal of Refugee Studies.

Suárez-Orozco, C., & Todorova, I. (2015). The impact of migration on family left behind. International Migration Review.

Kommentare


bottom of page