There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
From a young age, I wanted to know what made people tick, in part because I wondered what made me tick. Like most children, I craved a sense of belonging and inclusiveness among my family and friend groups. At times I felt excluded, unwanted, and unworthy. Humans yearn for connection, and separateness from others can bring on feelings of pain, fear, and rejection.
As I think about my own need to feel attached, I think about British-born psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who developed attachment theory. Bowlby’s childhood was marked by separation and loss, his upper class parents leaving him and his five siblings in the care of nannies. At age four, his dearest nanny, to whom he felt most attached, left the household. Unlike this loving mother figure, his next nanny was cold and sharp. He later described this separation as akin to the tragic loss of a mother, one of many early caregiving experiences that left on Bowlby an indelible mark.
After studying psychology at Cambridge University, Bowlby worked at a school for emotionally disturbed children. This experience piqued his interest in developmental psychology and heavily influenced his professional trajectory. Here, he saw first-hand the effects of parental behavior on personality development, and decided to become a child psychiatrist. While still in medical school, he entered psychoanalytic training, vowing to consider the nature and impact of the child’s early relationships on subsequent development. He eventually proposed that a child develops a secure attachment to the caregiver (in his day, almost invariably the mother) who is attuned to her child’s needs and provides a dependable and safe environment.
Among the first clinicians to recognize that an infant enters the world predisposed to participate in social interaction, Bowlby asserted that disruption of the early caregiver-child relationship should be seen as a key precursor to mental disorder. His critical contribution—an unwavering focus on the infant’s need for a secure early attachment apart from other primary needs such as feeding—continues to be a central tenet of contemporary attachment theory.
As for me, I knew very early in my studies at NYU School of Social Work that I wanted to join a psychoanalytic institute, to continue my training and find a community where I could belong. After receiving my MSW, I worked at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS) for more than 11 years, treating all kinds of people with a vast array of problems, and forming lasting friendships and a deep connection to the clinic. I began psychoanalytic training at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis (MIP) in my final years at JBFCS, and at MIP found the community I was looking for. Class with my peers, my personal analysis, supervision with seasoned psychoanalysts, and my work with patients all solidified my connection to a new and vital community.
Through these relationships I came to understand much more about the nature of relating, and the ways in which I, like my patients, perpetuated long-standing patterns that left me vulnerable in various ways. Fortunately, I found MIP to be a particularly warm and welcoming community, and a safe space in which to explore myself in relation to others, for which I am immensely grateful.
MIP continues to be a big part of my life, both professionally and personally. My psychoanalytic training at MIP has contributed immeasurably to my ability to inquire and make sense of my patients’ experiences, as well as my own. A psychoanalytic community such as MIP can be a psychological and emotional home, a place for exploration, openness, and curiosity about human nature in all its aspects. I cannot imagine doing this work without this deep level of training, and the ongoing opportunities to talk with colleagues about the challenges and dilemmas we encounter frequently in clinical work. I cherish the friendships I have formed over the years.
As a current faculty member, supervisor, and incoming co-director, I feel fortunate to be able to give back to the institute in new and meaningful ways. I hope to use my attachment to the people of MIP, and my curiosity and skills of inquiry, to understand the wants and needs of the community, its strengths, and its future direction while upholding its valued traditions. I want to ensure a sense of belonging in a safe environment where people can realize some of their dreams.
Naomi Cutner, LCSW, faculty, supervisor, and incoming co-director at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, has a private practice in New York. She teaches attachment theory at MIP.