Nine Aspects of Circling that Contribute to Experiencing Secure Attachment
Here I elaborate on the theory that Circling contributes to the healing of insecure attachment.
The nine bullet points below propose how the experience of secure attachment and the creating of a secure base in relationship may be occurring through Circling. This essay comprises the source material I wrote in 2015, that formed the basis for the article published on Medium, A New Development in Psychology: Adult Secure Attachment and Circling (11.30.16).
This thesis is based on the observation that the common results from regular immersion in Circling over a period of time are also the same effects and capacities of someone who is securely attached. These results have been verified through the testimonies of many people, including my own experience. A next project could be to collect these stories.
If this hypothesis proves to be right, and there is strong evidence it will, the fields of psychotherapy and authentic relating could join forces intentionally to become powerful allies in the healing of human relationships.
Table of Contents
A brief contrast of psychotherapy and Circling in the healing of insecure attachment.
Nine aspects of Circling that contribute to the experience of secure attachment.
Over the past 20 years it seems the evolution of Circling has inadvertently discovered a portal to experiencing secure attachment. Circling provides the instruction, the encouragement, and the sustained container for the direct experience of some of the primary factors of secure attachment: authentic connection, good enough mirroring, acceptance, and belonging.
I am not suggesting that the people we circle with become our enduring secure base, or that we feel securely attached to our fellow circlers when we are not circling. Rather, I propose the combined intentions, practices and effects of Circling are what occur through a securely attached relationship.
This description of Circling expresses some of the causes and effects of secure attachment:
“We all have big dreams for our lives — we all want to live and love well, to fulfill our unique sense of purpose, and to somehow make the world a better place. At the heart of this is the desire to feel deeply connected — both to other people and to a sense of richness and meaning in everyday life… while at the same time, to go the road less traveled — to take risks, step over the edge of our own comfort zone, and carve our own path in life.” (www.circlinginstitute.com)
One of the effects of being securely attached is increased likelihood to be open to the unfolding of experience, rather than focused on trying to control others’ experiences to avoid discomfort or anxiety. This is one of the reasons I suggest the experience of secure attachment can be felt the first time a person circles; the emphasis on how we are listening changes what we are hearing, which in turn effects the meaning we make of things.
Another effect of both being securely attached and of Circling is the ability to be with more of the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences in ourselves and others, rather than to be perpetually anxious about or to avoid intimacy with aspects of each other’s or our own experience. Circling also repeatedly shows how the risks of revealing authentic experience are rewarded when people speak to relate rather to control. We learn again and again how revealing the truth of our subjective experience with each other opens up unanticipated dimensions of experience, connections, and insight.
Guy Sengstock likens the kind of participation required in Circling to intersubjective yoga. This means particular ways of listening and communicating are practiced as asanas, in real time, in relationship with others. Because the primary aim of Circling is to discover ourselves and each other in relationship and to enjoy the emotional intimacy that is created, Sengstock reminds us: we practice these relational asanas not so that we can become good Circlers, but so we may have more genuine connection, and therefore greater satisfaction and fulfillment in our relationships.
Increased comfort and warmth in relationship is a common response after a few hours of Circling, and typically felt with even greater distinction after one three-day Circling Deep Dive. While the sense of what secure attachment feels like may continue for only a brief period following a few hours of Circling, when Circling is practiced regularly, over time, the effects of increased comfort and warmth with self and others may start to take root in a more enduring way.
A brief contrast of psychotherapy and Circling in the healing of insecure attachment.
I propose the process of healing attachment wounds through relational psychotherapy is different than the process of experiencing secure attachment through Circling. I am not suggesting overlaying some of the process of psychotherapy onto Circling. I am considering that except for explicitly attachment-oriented psychotherapy, psychotherapy can be more of an implicit process, and Circling is more of an explicit practice.
In psychotherapy the task is to provide a stable, consistent, reliable context for secure attachment to develop. Since psychotherapy can also traverse a wide range of many different realms of experience, the causes and effects of insecure attachment may not be explicitly emphasized.
For example, more time may be spent in psychotherapy processing perceptions and concerns of the past and future, addressing practical concerns, exploring dreams and myth, and studying and working with options for cognitions, beliefs, feeling, for the purpose of learning new resources, to name but a few of the dynamic realms and methods of exploration that can occur through psychotherapy. And all along, the therapeutic relationship is an implicit holding environment for attachment wounding to be explored and healed.
The process of experiencing secure attachment through Circling, on the other hand, is through all the practices and intentions of Circling combined (including but not limited to the 9 points below) the context is set for knowing what a securely attached state of mind is like.
One. I want people to attempt to heal secure attachment through Circling, but in order for this to work, we have to allow for one essential paradox. The purpose of Circling is not in order to develop secure attachment. The primary aims of Circling are to relate and connect with others, and to discover our selves in relationship.
Therefore, it is vital when participating in Circling (and pending the verification of this hypothesis) that cultivating secure attachment is not the reason for Circling. Holding in mind a purpose or desired outcome other than the willingness to practice the agreements of Circling will very likely backfire, since the way Circling inadvertently creates the conditions of experiencing secure attachment has everything to do with not being attached to outcome.
A second caveat is participation. To experience the benefits of Circling described here requires participation. But just a basic amount. I suggest all that is needed to begin to experience the portal to secure attachment through Circling is a rudimentary understanding of, and a commitment to two of the agreements of Circling: how we’re listening and how we’re communicating. That is to say, a Circling participant can start to feel what secure attachment feels like without formally knowing anything about how secure attachment occurs, and with knowing only very little about how Circling works.
The kind of participation required in Circling can be thought of as intersubjective yoga, which translates to certain capacities and qualities of being practiced as asanas, in real time, in relationship with others. It seems to me all the benefits of Circling, including the possibility of experiencing secure attachment, come from the practice of learning how to be more intimately with unfolding experience in relationship with others. A person who is securely attached occurs to me as more likely to participate in the unfolding of experience, and to continually recover the felt sense of “ground”, “center”, and “alignment”, etc.
Frequently, many people report feeling a deep sense of connection after their first time in only one 3-hour drop-in meeting. In some cases the experience of what secure attachment feels like may take a while. But it is seems to be a likely route. Circling demonstrates an unexpected depth of connection occurs when people reveal the truth of their experience with each other, and attempt to understand and empathize with the others’ experiences, even during conflict.
Circling participants also learn how to recreate the principal conditions of Circling with friends and loved ones, including with those who have never participated in Circling, and these changes can help to reinforce experiences of stability and greater connection in one’s personal relationships outside of Circling. Once the agreements are appreciated, once the method is understood, when we engage more of our important relationships in this way, then we may start to actually experience secure attachment.
Third caveat. The roots of insecure attachment can be deep, and the effects complex. Recovering from the myriad consequences of living without an abiding sense of belonging, of not experiencing ongoing acceptance, requires some form of relational psychotherapy in addition to Circling training. However, I believe further study of the Circling-secure attachment relationship is likely to demonstrate specifically how and why Circling paves the route to experiencing secure attachment, and that in combination with psychotherapy, Circling can potentially serve to expedite the healing of attachment wounds. If this hypothesis proves to be right, and there is strong evidence it will, the fields of psychotherapy and authentic relating could join forces intentionally to become powerful allies in the healing of human relationships.
Nine aspects of Circling that contribute to the experience of secure attachment:
1. Emphasis on sovereignty / subjectivity / direct experience. Secure attachment is not an idea, it is an experience. We can read about the different types of attachment styles to increase our understanding of why we feel in some way disconnected and unloved, but as a primary principle of somatic psychotherapy posits, understanding is not enough. We can’t talk our way into secure attachment without feeling the accompanying experience. Circling encourages continuous return to resting into subjective feelings in the present moment, which is where the states of secure or insecure attachment, and the factors that contribute to them, occur.
I propose a primary factor towards establishing a secure base and experiencing or “earning” secure attachment has to do with consistently acknowledging subjective reality in relationship with another person, which can be challenging, yet is what Circling helps any two people to do extraordinarily well, especially during moments of conflict and discomfort. The process of growing our sovereign sense of ourselves occurs by persistently honoring subjective reality, while in relationship, and having our experience reflected back in such a way that we feel known and accepted. Sometimes it is the other people in the circle who encourage us to be known, to reveal more of ourselves. Feeling the respect and interest of others can help to cultivate a sense of sovereignty, for example, in someone who has an avoidant style of attachment.
Subjective reality is understood here to mean each person’s unique intelligence. Our personal experience is not the objective truth of who we are. The wisdom of subjective experience is to put us into direct relationship with others. Circling models the valuing of the unfolding of subjective experience, and addresses tolerating anxiety of the unknown. These two abilities are also capacities of being securely attached.
In Circling, by including awareness of the ever-unfolding landscape of the energy fluctuations of the body, we are invited to reference more of ourselves in relationship than in typical everyday interactions (and even more than in traditional psychotherapy). As we’re revealing experience, we are with people who are practicing acceptance and respect, and we are often appreciated and validated — and, this is key — even in cases of conflict, stress and strong emotion. The opportunity to test out a wider range of expression is an essential part of healing attachment wounds, because we are recovering parts of ourselves that have been disavowed, or underutilized.
2. Present moment. Commitment to continually meet what is present in the moment, rather than to veer off “talking about things” makes Circling unique from other types of therapies or coaching processes. As Jon Cotton describes it,
“This is done, not to exclude the past or future, or the person’s stories, but just to understand and connect to how the person’s stories are alive in the present, and how the meaning they are making is effecting their experience and life.”
Traditional psychotherapy may not always return consistently to the present moment, or to the sensations in the body, or even to include the ways the therapist is directly impacted by the client. And yet each of these three aspects are precisely where and how secure or insecure attachment is accessed and ultimately stabilized.
Circling consistently encourages each person to be aware of their ever-unfolding somatic experience, as well as the continual ebb and flow of how connected or disconnected we feel with each other in the circle at any given moment. Rather than attempting to change or control anyone’s experience in any way, we are asking, how much can I get to know and appreciate this experience of being you in this very moment?
3. Acceptance. The power of acceptance is probably one of the greatest healing powers there is. Circling cultivates this power in participants in a number of ways. Through Circling the felt sense of belonging and acceptance is felt in doses, and we get direct doses of these primal, fundamental experiences. When we do not accept something, we practice accepting that we do not accept the something that is happening.
If a Circling participant (whether circlee or circler) has either an anxious or avoidant style of attachment, and is feeling concerned or skeptical about what others are thinking about them, they will be met right where they are, with what’s most important to them in how they see the world, without any attempt to alter their experience. Whether circlee or circler, participants are not talked out of their experience or required to change in any way in order to be in relationship with others. To be accepted whether one is anxious about how one is being seen, or whether one is experiencing tension and mistrust of connection with others, can be a powerful experience; for many it is a rare experience to be anxious or mistrustful and still be accepted and in connection without having to change anything at all.
4. To withhold or not to withhold. Circling teaches how the effects of chronically withholding the truth of one’s experience is detrimental to intimacy, and shows that in any relationship in which emotional intimacy is a component to any degree, the benefits of revealing the truth of our experience typically outweigh the risks. Circling invites us to reveal withholds to the extent we are willing to risk being known in any given moment.
Whether one has an anxious, avoidant, or secure style of attachment, there is a great loss to the integrity of the self-in-relationship when two people don’t speak to the space between them, which means one or both may begin to feel like something’s wrong (with me) that you can’t focus directly on how you feel about me. Circling cuts through self-judgment or rumination by continually revealing the truth of each other’s experience at a pace the other can orient to.
With an anxious attachment style, there is a tendency to feel unsettled if what the other person is feeling is unknown. Or as is usually the case, there are questions that may not be fully formed in consciousness, but occur more like a worried feeling of, what’s happening for the other person? Are we still connected? And so in Circling, we check it out. And we not only ask these questions, but these questions are what we are doing. Very often, before someone would even have to ask, we are already letting the other know what we’re feeling. And we pause long enough for thought patterns to land in the body.
And there is a similar but different respect for the avoidant attachment style; Circling may invite the avoidantly attached to come forward ever so slightly, in the amount that’s comfortable. This might occur not through a direct intervention in their experience, but simply by hearing, for example, that another person in the Circle has a desire to feel closer to them. And then both can be in relationship with that. Even if they are feeling distant, they are still intentionally in relationship with the others in the Circle. So, the avoidant attachment style will have the experience of what it’s like to be with someone, reciprocating shared experience.
A more securely attached person may be more inclined to express what might seem vulnerable or negative, because there is a felt sense of internal self-structure that can withstand periods of not knowing what will happen next. The paradox is that this self structure grows in relation to authentic and positive responsiveness from others. Through Circling we gradually increase ability and willingness to express anxiety as it occurs.
The expedited pace with which people who have never met before become comfortable with each other is in part the result of continually realizing the permission and the courage to say what is true for each of us in relation to the other without retribution. An essential distinction that re-establishes the sense of good-enough safety is, instead of unfiltered judgment or disagreement, we hear the impact we have on the other, as we each practice owning our experience.
The immediate experience of what is often a surprising degree of acceptance of that which had been previously withheld for fear of judgment or rejection, dispels some of the nervousness of the anxiously-attached, and warms the heart of the avoidantly-attached.
5. Sharing impact/owning experience. I think one of the brilliant messages Circling brings to human relationships is the importance of finding out the effect we have on others. Unlike with traditional talk therapy, rather than only talking about one’s life, there is an emphasis on how connected or disconnected we each feel with each of the other people in the circle at any given moment. This occurs through sharing impact and owning experience.
This is one of the ways Circling leads us through the doorway into secure attachment, because when we are securely attached we are better able to tolerate hearing the effects we have on others, because, on a fundamental level, we are more interested in being in relationship than in controlling the other’s experience or controlling the way we are viewed.
“Until we are deeply seen by others, we can never completely see ourselves… When we don’t have authentic connections and don’t feel truly seen, it can be very isolating and painful… And when we don’t get authentic reflections from the people around us, we have no idea how we’re showing up, or the effect we’re having on others.” (www.circlinginstitute.com)
The desire to learn about the impact we have on others can serve to wake us up to deeper dimensions of our attitudes and behaviors.
6. Assuming Positive Intent. Negative interpretation of intentions is a big part of the experience of anxious and avoidant styles of attachment. In Circling we are practicing assuming positive intent, a priori. We are also learning to practice separating out facts from interpretation of each other’s expression and behavior. As we practice trusting that there is validity to anything the others in the circle say and do, and as we are learning to listen more deeply to imagine into the way the other’s inner world makes sense, because of how life and relationships occur to them, we become increasingly able to experience the others in the circle with positive intent.
7. A group experience. The group experience in Circling, as a whole, can also create a powerful holding environment. Here Matt Licata describes The Mystery of Holding:
“The late Donald Winnicott, a brilliant psychoanalyst from Britain, used the term ‘holding environment’ to describe the ideal mandala in which growth and development could occur, weaved of the qualities of contact and space. Through making attuned, present-time, somatically-engaged contact with another as they are — and by providing an open, warm sanctuary in which their experience can unfold and illuminate — we become vehicles of love in action.”
Because Circling typically takes place with a small group of people, there is always opportunity for further perspectives on what *is* happening in any given moment. The group experience is one of the factors of Circling that provides such a unique experience, different from a one-on-one therapeutic relationship. During a circle a person experiences mirroring by more than one person at a time, and this increases opportunities for the reflection of nuance in the different facets of the circlee’s experience. In this way we can feel even more accurately seen and connected with others in any given moment.
8. Community. The experience of community has everything to do with feeling a profound sense of belonging on this planet on the deepest levels. And yet being part of a community doesn’t automatically mean we always feel accepted. Across the individual Circling communities we are people who share essential values (represented in these bullet points). Speaking from personal experience, Circling provides a somatic sense of a holding environment with others which I had never before experienced with more than one person at a time.
Evidence of experiencing an ongoing sense of belonging and acceptance –- a function of being accurately seen, consistently –- as a result of consistent participation in the Circling community overtime, can be found in the evolution of how one’s life is occurring: the way one responds to challenges and stress, the risks one is willing to take, one’s capacity for intimacy and joy, to name just a few examples of the incredibl outcomes of both the experience of Circling, and of being securely attached.
9. The getting of worlds / feeling securely attached. The feeling of secure attachment through Circling doesn’t come from someone telling you “everything’s fine, there’s nothing to worry about, there’s no reason to withdraw or feel anxious.” It comes from the experience of your world being understood and accepted in relationship, as it is occurring in real time, so you viscerally feel not only that what is important to you accepted, it is also understood. That what matters to you, matters to others. The process of getting each other’s worlds in order to know each other better is a primary objective of Circling and is what makes Circling distinct, and promotes active connection between self and other.
Jon Cotton describes the effects of “being gotten”:
“What we call “being gotten” is not just acceptance, but being experienced with, made sense of, and normalized. It is the actual desire to be right there with you, with what you’re going through. And you’re not just accepted, you’re appreciated. For me, this is the difference between compassion and empathy.
“How I see it, there’s an almost magical power in being with. Something relaxes, releases, and perhaps heals in the other that might not have if you were just talking about their experience. The difference is if we are seeing with a diagnostic eye — about how to fix them — we miss crucial information, versus being right in it, experiencing it with them.”
An essential aspect of getting people’s worlds is owning our projections or impressions and lightly checking it out. (to elaborate — tone of voice)
Sometimes it can take a while to really get what’s most important to the Circlee, what his or her true concerns are, and there is not a guarantee this will happen fully and completely in each circle. A good deal of the unfolding of the circle has to do with each participant’s willingness to reveal themselves, to be vulnerable to some degree. Yet, even when a participant is reticent to reveal experience, by hanging out with them there, in the reticence, something unknown unfolds.
A secure base not only a childhood necessity, it is a lifelong human need. Circling seeks to understand how we see the world through our unique nervous system, and by doing so, helps us to accept ourselves even more. Acceptance of ourselves can begin either with ourselves and radiate outwards, or with others, and be fostered inward.
This is the positive feedback loop (a feedback loop that produces more of a thing as it occurs): the more we are accepted by others in all our perfections and imperfections, the more the way is paved to accept ourselves, and vice versa. The more acceptance, the more belonging. The more we believe implicitly in the truest sense of our own belonging, the more others tend to accept us.
In order for the feelings of acceptance and belonging to stabilize into enduring experiences and an “internalized secure base”, we have to know how to participate. Ultimately, secure attachment in adults, from a somatic-psychotherapy perspective, is one’s capacity to actively recover — to recover center, to recover ground, to feel an internal structure, especially under stress, regardless of what the other is doing or saying in any given moment. The dynamic capacity of secure attachment requires ego strength, but even without a well-developed ego, through the unique Circling-holding-environment we get direct doses of these primal, fundamentally positive experiences.
As we start to identify and develop the unfolding-of-experience muscle, we gradually feel increasingly comfortable to reveal ourselves more and more fully. Circling sets the stage for these vital experiences of being human:
“When you understand the impact you’re really having on people, you start to see yourself more clearly. And when you feel deeply seen for both your unique gifts and beauty — AND the shadow parts you usually keep hidden — you start to let go of appearances and effortlessly become comfortable in your own skin…You become more authentic. And you start to wake up to who you really are.”
The mindstate that arises from being securely attached, has direct bearing on our baseline feeling of being alive. The more comfortable we are in our own skin, the more capable we are of taking risks, pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone to expand our sense of self, and therefore incrementally increase engagement in life. Through Circling, as through earning secure attachment, we wake up to who we really are.