The Self-Attachment Model (SAM)

By Stevie Mae Douglas - 08/18/2023


“Return back to yourself, you have been away far too long.”

– Author Unknown

Humans rely on their primary caretakers longer than any other mammal. This is due to the time it takes for the human brain to fully develop, including emotionally and socially. In those earlier years, we relied on our caregiver continuously. We were most vulnerable. Without caregivers, we would have died. Instinctively, we knew this. They carried us from here to there, changed our diapers, fed us, etc. Good, bad or ugly, we needed them. Most of us learned early on that to share our inner world was too dangerous because it displeased our caregiver, our lifeline. We kept a close watch for clues about what their likes and dislikes were, what they responded to, and how they communicated. We learned what was safe to share and what was too threatening to our survival. With that, we learned to become who we had to become to get our needs met. In doing so, we abandoned ourselves.

Now that we are adults and we do not need a caregiver, most of us have just kept walking away from those unresolved childhood experiences (i.e., big feelings, negative beliefs, and unmet needs). We want nothing to do with our childhood if it means rehashing all that happened back then and actively recalling in our bodies the subsequent emotions that feel impossible to hold in real time. However, when we, as adults, push our feelings and needs aside, we push our inner child aside. We demand from our inner child that they carry the pain alone. Consequently, we as adults, we become the ones who neglect that inner child. We become the ones who continue to abandon ourselves and leave this wounded part behind while we escape with various methods. We move farther and farther from ourselves until we wake up with this incredible divide between our adult Self and inner child Self. This great void cannot be filled by any number of accomplishments or external adoration, and our addictions tend to do us more harm than good.

Within ourselves is our creativity and our spirituality. It is a way we connect to the world around us. Unfortunately, many of us do not know ourselves. We often do not know what we really want or need. We are disconnected from ourselves all because of the primal need for survival in an environment that did not support emotional intelligence. Moreover, we grew up in a larger environment that likely reinforced our most negative beliefs about ourselves. Our nervous systems developed to become sensitive to the biggest threat in the room (i.e., traumatic events or attachment wounds). Many of us have spent much of our adult lives hypervigilant toward the potential of these events or wounds reoccurring in our present lives and most of us do whatever is necessary to keep this part of ourselves away from our consciousness. Still, we find ourselves continually facing the same challenges and feeling chronically disconnected. It is possible that there is something to learn here.

If we are to thrive as adults in both our present relationships and endeavors, we may need to return to ourselves and create internal awareness and connection. If we are to have a strong, positive self-esteem (a valuing of ourselves) and peace within ourselves (trust), we must learn to take responsibility for our own healing journey and nurture a relationship with ourselves. This nurturing from our adult Self to our inner child Self can create the internal environment of feeling grounded, centered, Balanced, and empowered.

When we have a secure attachment to Self, we look less and less into our external environment for validation. Suddenly, we go internally for our worth, our answers, and our deepest connection. This sort of relationship with Self can improve all the other relationships in our lives. When we know ourselves, we can use that knowledge to become more effective lovers, partners, parents, employees, colleagues, friends, whatever. When we prioritize the relationship with Self, we are prioritizing our creativity, spirituality, and our connection with others. We practice with ourselves how to empathize rather than fix, how to stay curious rather than placing judgment, and how to choose connection rather than fear. We have practiced with ourselves how to express our needs and how to set and hold healthy boundaries. We feel our worth. We have created self-attachment. We no longer desperately need accolades or the attention and validation from others. We can still enjoy those experiences; however, our self-worth does not depend on it. Self-attachment takes a significant amount of pressure off the other relationships in our lives, particularly those closest to us. We cannot expect others to fill our cup. It is our responsibility as adults to fulfill those unmet needs we experienced as children, to process those subsequent emotions, and to challenge those negative beliefs that were forced upon us as a child that say, “I’m not good enough. I am inadequate. I have to do more if I want to be valued and Loved.”

The self-attachment model (SAM) is based in humanistic psychology and the theory of attachment. It is a way of conceptualizing the therapeutic journey and a way of developing an intimate relationship with yourself that can increase your overall quality of life by increasing your feeling of self-worth and self-trust. The model invites one to invest in this journey of self-awareness, self-healing, and self-connection, creating an inner environment that promotes the ability to thrive and self-actualize. More than a way of conceptualizing, SAM also offers a workbook for individual use that contains practical exercises to enhance self-attachment.* These practical exercises are not meant to be a replacement for therapy, but rather, to be used as a tool alongside of therapy with a mental health professional if needed.
Self-attachment starts with slowing down and feeling emotions. It asks you to lean into the difficulty. Recognize your emotions. Take time to experience them. Emotions can be a direct line to your inner child concerning communication. Through emotion, we gain information, direction, understanding, healing, movement, and experience. Most of us fear big emotions, as we were not taught how to hold and process them. Our cellular memories say that emotions can overwhelm us. When they come, it can feel intolerable. Some of us would rather die than feel our emotions, even if we die slowly through various forms of addiction and insidious ways of being that help us avoid discomfort. When we cut ourselves off from various feelings, however, we cut ourselves off from valuable information and connection that can lead us through life more fully and effectively.

Self-attachment invites you to get curious about yourself. Take the time to remember who your inner child was, what they felt growing up, what stories they told themselves, what they needed, how they coped with difficulty, what they dreamed about being, and what they called play. Take the time to find out who you are as an adult. Define what you value and what your vision is for your life. Identify your strengths. Conversely, get clear about negative patterns or tendencies that keep you misaligned from your values and goals. Take action to interrupt those cycles and ways of being that no longer serve you. Get creative about more effective ways you can get your needs met, ways that support your well-being, ways that are less harmful to your system, and ways that support the relationships in your life. Treat yourself like that lover you are so interested in and want to get to know

Finally, self-attachment is more than just self-care, although self-care is a part of the journey. SAM turns what one does for self-care into investments to the relationship between your adult Self and your inner child. Anything on your self-care list becomes things you do either with or for your inner child. When you work out, do it for your inner child because it makes their body feel good and so they are set for the day. When you go for a walk, take your inner child with you and take in nature together. These are investments into the relationship. Figuratively, sometimes you are able to invest $100s into the relationship and sometimes you are able to invest $1000s into the relationship, and when you are only able to invest two quarters because life is coming at you harder at that moment, then invest two quarters. I call that a “50 cent deposit” and it turns out that our inner children Love quarters (I would like to think it has something to do with Pac-man back in the day) because two quarters still means showing up. It is the showing up to the relationship that matters most. This is building trust from your inner child. This is your adult Self saying to your inner child, “Even when it gets tough, I am going to show up for you. I may not always know what to do next; however, I know I am not going to abandon you again.” This is value. This is trust. This is self-attachment.

Carl Jung called it “shadow work.” Muriel James calls it “self-reparenting.” Richard Schwartz calls it “parts work.” Thema Bryant calls it a “homecoming.” The concept of returning to yourself is not a new one. Whether you use SAM or another tool, I hope you will find the language that works for you and create attachment with yourself, the magic kind of attachment the secure kind.

“Life is about returning to yourself.”

– Sophia Winter

*Contact Dr. Stevie Mae Douglas at Psychological Counseling Services for more details about the self-attachment model workbook.

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