How is it that some people seem to breeze through life effortlessly?

What secret do they have that enables them to ride pressures and demands?

Sometimes from the outside it seems that other people's lives are simple and easy. We know that this is far from reality, but it sometimes does not seem so.

Working with war orphans in London in the 1940s and 1950s, the psychiatrist John Bowlby developed his theories of human attachment. Controversial with the psychoanalytic community at the time, Bowlby created a new frame of reference for thinking about the origins and motivations for relating with others.

Broadly speaking, up to this point psychoanalysis had adapted Freud’s concept of the drive theory. In simple terms, Freud proposed that human beings are driven by instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain; for him, this was the central motivating force of sexuality and aggression.

From his work with children, Bowlby and others proposed that another more basic motivating force was the drive for connection. We seek contact with, love and support from, engagement with, and encouragement from other people.  Many war orphans, robbed of the nurture, example and direction of parents demonstrated alarming ways of dealing with this lack.

Bowlby noted that some became socially isolated and withdrawn. Their instinctive way of dealing with human relationships when they went wrong or when they experienced conflict, was to internalise the anxiety and deal with it on their own, essentially shunning help that was on offer.

Conversely, others reacted by becoming excessively clingy to their caregivers. The terms ‘avoidant’ and ‘ambivalent’ were used to describe these two contrasting ways of coping.


"Something is not working for the 25 per cent ... but something IS working for the 75 per cent"

More recently another category of insecure attachment was recognised, namely ‘disorganised’ attachment. In a relatively small minority of cases, individuals’ upbringings were noted to have been so disruptive and chaotic that the children grew up demonstrating characteristics of personality disorder.

Attachment theory recognises four broad categories of attachment: secure, ambivalent, avoidant and disorganised. The three latter categories of ‘insecure’ attachment have been given different names over the years, but we will stay with these to avoid confusion.

We have seen that around one in four people in the UK will experience some form of clinically recognisable mental illness within the course of a year.[i] On the face of it, the statistic is alarming and almost incredible. 

Something is not working for the 25 per cent; but conversely the maths indicates that something is working for the 75 per cent. By and large, it may be that a large proportion of people who do not generally experience mental illness could be termed as having a ‘secure’ attachment. These were able to cope with the difficulties of childhood, had the support from caregivers, were recognised as individuals in their own right and encouraged throughout their childhood.

If they showed particular talents or skills, these abilities were nurtured and encouraged, even if they may have been contrary to parental expectations. They were able to get on reasonably well socially and by and large received recognition and approval from teachers.  

Heinz Kohut, father of the school of self-psychology, in the last lecture of his life, when considering the most significant factor leading to mental illness, said, "The absence of the mother".

Whilst his words could be taken literally, he was talking symbolically about the lack of a supportive nurturing caregiver, the lack of a supportive environment and consistent parental figures. In short, the lack of a secure base.


[i] McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. et al (2009) Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: Results of a household survey. Leeds: The NHS Information Centre.