1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Human vulnerability and belonging are innate in each of us. While we often think of vulnerability as a weakness, it is actually a strength, helping bind us together as we relay on one another.  

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Identify a person who is important in your life
  • How vulnerable are you with them? How vulnerable are they with you?
  • What is one vulnerability you would feel comfortable sharing with them that would strengthen your relationship?

1 Question to Ask

  •  How vulnerable am I with those who are closest to me?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The history of secure attachment (3:10)
  • Cracking the code of love (18:02)
  • Needing other people is normal (22:12)
  • Do I matter to you? (25:18)
  • The necessity of human vulnerability and belonging (30:29)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome back, everybody. This is a special episode of the Greg McKeown podcast, focused, as this theme is growing for this whole year, on connection, and so I’m absolutely thrilled to have the extraordinary guest, Dr. Sue Johnson. 

She is a leading innovator in the field of psychology, a clinical psychologist, and a distinguished research professor. She’s a dynamic speaker. She’s a best-selling author. That’s how I first got connected with Dr. Sue. She is the primary developer of emotionally focused therapy EFT if you haven’t heard about it yet, and if you haven’t, you will soon. A groundbreaking therapeutic approach that has transformed people’s understanding of relationships and connections, which is pretty extraordinary because, you know like relationships and connections have been around for a long time, and a lot of people have written about it and researched about it. But still, despite all of that, there is a vitally important breakthrough here. 

Dr. Johnson’s books include Hold Me Tight and Love Sense. These have become essential reading for anyone wanting to deepen connections and understand what love really is. You know, and again, you sort of think, “Well, maybe we already knew?” But there’s a really important missing piece. 

What else do I want to say? Dr. Johnson’s insights are backed by massive, extensive research and tremendous clinical experience too. She’s received many awards for her contributions in the field of psychology and therapy, including the Outstanding Contribution to the Field of Couple and Family Therapy Award. As we delve into this whole year, this theme of connection Dr. Johnson’s expertise will shed light on the importance of building strong emotional connections In a time, for goodness sake, in a time when all of us and surely all of us know that this is the loneliest time in recorded history and even beyond that, just the struggles of building the relationships with the people that matter most. So join us for this part, one of these conversations with Dr. Sue Johnson. 

Welcome, Dr. Sue.


Sue Johnson:

Hey, Greg, that’s quite an intro. I love it. That’s a fantastic intro. All right, let’s see if I can live up to all those incredible things.


Greg McKeown:

Well, let’s start with this. So, reading the summary that you provided regarding the history of secure attachment from Dr. Bowlby and then onwards was an absolute life-changing moment for me. So it wasn’t just like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” It was a life-changing moment, and it has had tremendous ramifications for me, directly and with my wife, Anna, who people on this podcast know she’s been on here many times. So, could you start with that? Could you just be long-winded, even if you maybe feel like that? Just tell us the whole history. How did it begin? How has that research evolved and then moved into what you’ve created with EFT?


Sue Johnson:

Well, it’s kind of ironic, really, if I said to you, “Okay, Greg, who’s finally going to crack the code of love, romantic love, love in general?” Because we’ve always talked about it as a mystery. So, who’s going to finally crack the code of love and turn it into a science? You know, we can look at sciences about understanding patterns, finding patterns, understanding patterns. So, love has a structure. Who’s going to crack the code?

Well, I said to you, “Well, an uptight, reserved, aristocratic Englishman.” 

And you say, “Don’t be silly, it’s got to be from California who has a white Cadillac.” 

And I say, “No, and it was an uptight Englishman who walked around the streets of London in the 1940s and maybe a bit earlier than that. He was brought up by nannies, you know. He was a classic aristocrat. He was sent to boarding school. He absolutely loathed it, and I think he was one of those rare human beings who I learned from what he didn’t have himself. And he walked around the streets of London at a time when the theory was that all these acting-out criminal adolescents should all just be shipped off to jails.”

And what he talked about was that you had to look underneath the aggressiveness or the indifference or the apparent viciousness, and you had to look and you had to see the suffering, the deprivation and, more than anything, and I think this is a huge lesson for us that’s becoming more and more relevant you had to see the isolation, the emotional disconnection from self and other human beings.

And what Bowlby basically said is human beings can’t deal with this. They’re not wired for it. Your nervous system is wired to connect with others. Connection with others is the main survival strategy of the human species. We’re really at the top of the heap, not because we’re so clever with our prefrontal cortex, but because we learned how to communicate and work together. Right, and I think it’s still going to be true that if we’re going to survive as a species, we’ve got to learn how to communicate and work together. Not doing so great right now, I don’t think, but you know, he realized this, and he rebelled against the traditional analytic view of the orthodoxy yes, he, he was a rebel.

And he said, you know, he was told to treat a little boy, and his mentors told him the relationship with the mother is irrelevant. It’s irrelevant; it’s all inside the little boy’s head. And he said, “You’re wrong. That’s crazy.” 

You know, you have to pay attention to people’s context and the most important context is other people and that we walk around, and I invite people to think this is true. Even when we’re by ourselves, we walk around having conversations with the people that mass to us in our head.

We walk around. I was walking, doing my usual walk the other day, and I had a sore back, and I was muttering to myself all through the walk about my sore back and this and that and something else. Then, the next day I was mad at someone, and I realized I was striding down the path, talking to them in my head, and I thought, oh, I didn’t have a sore back.

I thought I had a sore back; it’s like we have been we carry these external relationship worlds with us inside us, and we are always involved in these dramas. And Bowlby said this is basic to who we are as human beings. And he started with a woman called Mary Ainsworth. He started to look at the best kind of tiny little piece of interaction that he could find, which was between a mother and an infant. And he, he did what I think all good scientists do. He picked a phenomena and he said we don’t understand this and he put it under the microscope. 

He looked at it again and again, and again, and again, which is kind of what I did when I realized that I had to work with couples and I had no idea what I was doing, and now that it did anyone else and I was ineffective. I started taping my couple sessions and watching them again and again and again and again, and you start to see patterns. And he started to see that emotion was the music, the emotional music. This emotional music defined this dance between the mother and child, and these emotional signals were amazingly powerful and had a physiological impact. 

What I just said is, you know, attachment science links your physiology, your actual physical body, with the nature of human interactions with the dramas, and if you think about that, that’s quite profound. It links inner and outer and this is why it’s very profound, why it talks about how relationships have the most enormous impact on us.

You know, we did a, we did a, I think we’re the only couple therapy that we’ve ever done a brain scan study, and we showed that after bonding conversations that we can create in our therapy and that you can learn to do it from my book called Hold Me Tight after these conversations that it changed people’s brains. 

It changed the way women in an MRI machine responded to the threat of being shocked. You know, if their partner was holding their hand after these bonding conversations, they got the message they were going to be shocked, and their brain just stayed calm. And if you ask them if it hurt, they said it was a bit uncomfortable. But before they knew how to do bonding conversations when they got the message, they were going to be shocked; their brain went into high alarm, just as it did when they were alone or when a stranger held their hand.

This is physiological. This science is about who we are emotionally, our bodies, and how our bodies respond. It’s about your nervous system, my nervous system, and Bowlby watched these kids and these mothers interact and started talking about how certain interactional patterns seem to create calm, resilient, playful, curious, open kids and other things that seem to create you know, shut down, shut off kids who stared into space, who were just interested in toys and tasks, not in people. They didn’t look at people’s faces much or completely freaked out. Or Kids who would scream and yell and demand their mother’s attention and usually ended up pushing the mother away because they were so demanding.

Well, what I just described to you is the marital distress in North America, but Bowlby first saw it between mothers and infants, and he said this is basic to who we are as human beings. 

The most iatrogenic thing for human beings is disconnection and emotional isolation. You can live with people and be emotionally isolated. You can live alone and have a rich inner relational world. Okay, it’s not about having a body beside you; it’s about this sense of emotional connection. And he said isolation is iatrogenic for human beings, and indeed, it is. If you look at any client who comes into your sessions, whether they say they’re depressed, anxious, or they have traumatic stress, if you ask them, they’ll tell you they’re alone. Sometimes, they’re alone because they just won’t let other people in. They have no trust, right?

But, basically, they’re alone, and we’re not wired to deal with threat and trauma alone. We’re just not wired. It’s not about how brave we are or how together we are. So Bowlby started writing all this out, and of course, he was hated, as only the English can hate a rebel. Being a bit of a rebel myself and being English, I feel entitled to say that.


Greg McKeown:

I understand.


Sue Johnson:

Right. So he was just castigated and laughed at. They tried to throw him out of all kinds of organizations, and he kept going and his research started to be accepted. But the bottom line is that until the beginning of this century, this science and all his insights about what we need, our most basic need, is connection. Our most basic instincts aren’t sex or aggression. They’re this longing for connection with another human being, to know that we’re seen, to know that we matter to another human being, to know that they will come when we call. This is the key. And he said this is what matters. And it was sort of getting accepted for little children. But to start to apply this to adults was oh, my goodness me, not okay.

The first article. I started to see it in my session, so I started to write about it and I realized that the reason our therapy was so powerful was because we were creating these incredible bonding conversations. That’s what we were doing. We weren’t teaching people skills or giving them insights that just lasts for about 10 minutes. We were taking them into these deep bonding conversations.

And these bonding conversations not only changed the relationship, it changed the people in them. If you change the most significant dance that people do. You change the dancers. So we started to realize that our couples that came in became less depressed, they became less anxious, they became more confident, they became more sure of who they were. Their partners supported them in being who they wanted to be. The whole relationship changed, and what blew our minds, which still blows my mind to tell you the truth, we started to realize that this was so powerful and so basic to who we are, so going to the heart of the matter, of who we are, that the results would last over years. Which for a short-term therapy with a very distressed couple where one person is depressed, to say that I can check three years later. Not only are they happy and less depressed, but they’re more securely attached, and they feel better about each other.


Greg McKeown:

It’s unimaginable. It’s unthinkable.


Sue Johnson:

It’s unimaginable. Every time I say this, I feel like nobody’s going to believe me. I feel like this stuff is so significant it should be all over the front of the New York Times. But it isn’t. We have cracked the code of love. We know what love really looks like. Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. It’s a story of adolescent infatuation. Gone with the Wind is not a love story. It’s about a power struggle between a man and a woman.

None of these things are love stories. What do you think love is? Well, attachment tells you what it is. It tells you why it’s so important. It tells you about our longing and our need and what we do when we can’t get it met, which is pretty limited, really. We either freak out and get angry and pushy and usually push our partner away, or we go numb and cut it off, and we cut ourselves off and other people off.

As my client said to me the other day, “I don’t want to feel. Feeling is too difficult.” And she especially doesn’t want to feel all the longing she felt as a child that she never got met. Okay, that’s too painful. I don’t want to feel. I don’t know what to do with my feelings, and I can’t live numb anymore. I can’t live numb about it. 

So she’s in a pickle, as we would say in England, right, but that’s a pickle that I love from my point of view, and that’s a pickle that you can go through the conversations and the Hold Me Tight program and learn how to walk through together.

So attachment tells you what love looks like, what you, how it goes wrong, how to put it right, and I think we’re the only couples therapists who can say to you I can show you on a piece of tape the kind of conversation that heals relationships. I can show it to you, I can code it, I can research it. We’ve researched it, and it will predict a good relationship by the end of therapy and better mental health for the people three years later. It will predict all these things. I can show it to you. I can tell therapists how to get there. I can show you what dysfunction looks like and the results of that. This is incredible. This is incredible stuff, and I feel like I’m the little kid out in the street in a thunderstorm, yelling at everybody and saying, “There’s an enormous umbrella over there.” 

And people are all saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no. Romantic love’s about fascinating sex. Romantic love’s about the best orgasm. Romantic love’s about infatuation.” 

And I’m standing there in the rain going, “Hey, hey, we’re bonding social human beings.” 

Bowlby put this all together. He was an amazing, amazing man. But the fact that he was rather formal, he was an English aristocrat, he was the son of a baronet, okay, the fact that he I mean, I don’t think he’d have done well in North America, in today’s world especially, he wouldn’t have been hip enough or marketing enough or all the things. I think I’m not okay. He wouldn’t have been. What do you call it? Groovy enough or something? I don’t know.


Greg McKeown:

Whatever the kids are calling it today.


Sue Johnson:

Yes, if you tell me to be groovy, I’ll just get ticked off. Okay, so it doesn’t work. It’s like, oh, yeah, you want groovy, you know.

But he was an amazing man, and he did this basic research. And he believed that attachment went from the cradle to the grave, and he knew that to be securely connected with others leads to you feeling confident and loved and securing yourself and trusting your emotions, and being able to be open to the world. He knew that, you know, this was the main pathway to health and competence and confidence for human beings, and he knew that attachment went from the cradle to the grave and knowing how to connect with other people makes us stronger. My whole field for years, and I would say until about 2010, my whole field and I used to get it attacked left, right, and center with this belief that needing other people was a weakness, and this is, for me, the most enormous piece of misinformation that has distorted our world. 

Needing other people is human. Needing other people is normal. Having secure connections with others. You only really need a very small number actually. There is research that says you basically need one. One person who you know will come when you call. That needing other people is a source of strength. It makes you stronger. You know all the clichés about love helps you grow happen to be true.

And having discovered all this, I you know, I just couldn’t do anything but keep researching it and keep showing that we can if you understand something, you can create it that we could create these love relations, we love relations, we could create these conversations. And, you know, it still blows my mind; it still amazes me that we get the results we’re doing. I think we’ve changed the couple therapy field. 

When I wrote Hold Me Tight, I wanted to reach people who would never go for therapy but who wanted to know what love relationships are all about, and that book has had the most incredible impact. You know, I’m very proud of the fact that in the capital city of Canada there’s an enormous Heart Institute and we made a version of the Hold Me Tight program for them called Healing Hearts Together. And I’m very proud of the fact that we have a huge research project showing that when we help these couples where one person’s had a heart attack create a more secure bond, we don’t just help them be happier and more balanced in their lives and less depressed, and all that. We change their health behaviors. 

You know a couple that I work with. She would say to him, you know they’d been married for like 40 years, and they’d fought every day at that time. And then she said to him, “You know, sweetie, don’t you think that you have a little bit too much wine in that glass?” 

And he exploded and said, “This is what you’re going to do for the rest of my life. Tell me, I’m not the man I used to be. I’ll do what I want.”

And he marched out the house without his nitroglycerin, without his cell phone, without taking his meds. He went out and drove around in the dark in the country for a whole night, came back in, and said, “I’m not going to my doctor’s appointment, I’m not going to the gym, you can go to hell. You know the doctors can go to hell.” 

You can see how he’s much more likely to have another heart attack, and the reason we were allowed to do that study was that some of the docs had actually read the research. That said, the next predictor, the best predictor of whether you have another heart attack, isn’t the strength of the first heart attack; it’s whether you have a close, intimate relationship. If we know that someone will come when we call if we know that someone is accessible and responsive to us, that we matter to someone, the world’s a different place than if we feel that we could call and no one would come. We don’t matter to anyone. You know we can’t count on anyone. And then, often, we decide there must be something wrong with us. We can’t count on anyone because we’re not special enough or important enough. This is the essence of emotional pain in most people’s lives. So I’m so glad you’re doing a whole year on connection and disconnection. You know, people think conflict is the issue in relationships, but not it’s connection and disconnection.

The reason I’m screaming at you is not really because I’m so angry that you didn’t cut the lawn. It’s because I’m saying to you do I matter to you? Do you care about what I want? Are you listening? Are you there? Are you there for me? Are we connected? And when you say I’m not talking to you. You’re impossible. And you walk out of the room. The message I get is we’re disconnected, and that’s the demand withdrawal cycle that eats relationships in North America.

So then I get angry, and I follow you into the garden. I start screaming at you. You shut down. The more you shut down, the more angry and desperate I get. I don’t talk about being desperate; I talk about how you’re a disappointment, and that’s what you hear. I’m a disappointment, and you’d be amazed at the big, tough guys. We work with everyone. 

We work with Navy SEALs; we work with the military. You’d be amazed at the big tough guys who suddenly dissolve into tears when somebody says and what you hear your partner saying is that you’re a disappointment to her and that you’re not who she wants. You’re not, and that’s so hard, isn’t it? And these big tough dudes dissolve into tears because that pain, that sense of abandonment and rejection equates in your mammalian brain with absolute terror. You know you don’t have what you need to survive.


Greg McKeown:

Primal panic.


Sue Johnson:

Thank you. I think that came out of a book some crazy English woman wrote, I thought, and it wasn’t mine. I think it was John Bowlby’s primal panic. You know I am alone in the world. Our young beings are vulnerable. Human children are vulnerable for longer than any other species in the world, and I don’t think we forget that vulnerability. And we know on some level deep in our nervous system that the only answer to that vulnerability is for another person to come to answer our call. And when that doesn’t happen, you know, the world becomes a dangerous place. 

I sit and watch mums and infants in airports, and sometimes, what I see, I think it would have disturbed John Bowlby. I think it disturbs me where an infant will cry, and the mother will be on her cell phone, and the mother will say oh, what do you want? I give you a bottle, I’ll give you a toy. The infant wants the mother. That’s what the infant wants, right?

But the mother gives everything. But she looks on her cell phone, and the infant screams and cries. And then the mother says you’re being naughty. You’re a naughty boy, don’t do that. And she sort of punishes him with her voice. Her voice is harsh, and he gets more upset, and she turns away from him again, and then he goes into a numb state. I’m watching him, so that’s my words.

He goes numb and quiet, and she says, “Good boy, that’s better, that’s a good boy.” 

And what she’s just done is help her son shut down. Now, if she does that 10 times a day for years, that shapes the emotional regulation strategies and the personality of that child. So then, when that child’s in an intimate relationship with his partner, he doesn’t know what to do when he gets upset and when he can’t get his partner to respond. So he does what he knows, which is to shut down. 

And the point is we’re amazing creatures. We can learn, especially when what’s on the table is the answer to the deepest longing we have, which is to belong. And when we belong, we can grow and we can find new ways to be in the world, and we can solve problems.

It’s fascinating. This is a theory, and it’s science, and it’s research, and we turn it. There’s nothing as practical as a good theory. So we turn it into helping people with their lives. 

But even in my own family, it’s fascinating to me that this plays out. For about a year, when my son was an adolescent, we were definitely caught in demand withdrawal, and I knew we were, and it didn’t change anything, and my brain would say, “Don’t say that to him. Don’t. And I’d say it.” 

I’m sure you’ve experienced that, of course.

Yes, your brain says no, don’t, that’s not going to work. And you say it anyway. Right, because you want to win the fight, and you want to. So, you know I would say, “You’re failing grade 12. You’re not working, you’re not…” 

Listen to my voice, and he would roll his eyes and walk out of the room, and then I’d go nutty. Right, because he’s telling me I’m, I can Rage, yes, I can shut you out, there’s nothing you can do. 

So we had this huge fight in Starbucks. I talk about it when I teach. Bad idea, if you’re a well-known therapist, to go to your local Starbucks and have a big fight with your kid on a Saturday. Bad idea.


Greg McKeown:

Bad idea.


Sue Johnson:

So we had this huge fight and, bless his heart, he said, “Hey, Mum, that conversation didn’t go too well, did it?”

And I thought back to all my work, and to attachment, and rather than get angry, I started at the place of vulnerability, which is really, in the end, Hold Me Tight. In all our research is showing people how to deal with their vulnerability in a way that pulls others close. And I said, “Tim, I have to admit I’m angry and I’m difficult and I’m demanding, and it’s because I’m so scared. I’m so scared that you’re, I know you’re hurting somewhere, and I don’t know where, and I know you’re failing at school, and I don’t know how to help, and I feel like a terrible parent.”


And he said, “Oh.” 

It’s like I’m realizing that Attila the Hun, who’s coming to kill you, isn’t Attila the Hun; it’s your granny, and she’s, you know, she’s trying to bring you tea, and you’re hurling rocks at her right. 

So he says, “Oh,” and he said, “Well, actually, Mum, I’m terrified too, because I’m not failing. I’ve completely and totally failed. I haven’t given him one assignment in one subject. So it’s the beginning of the year.”

And then I said, “Oh.” And then we talked about how scared we were, and within five blocks, which was back to my house, we’d solved the problem of what to do with his school. We’d solved it because we felt safe together, and we explored and we held each other as we talked about what was going wrong and we came up with a solution. We solved something that we’ve been fighting about for 18 months. In the most, knock them down, drag them out way. So you know you can see this stuff working in your family. You know, the last thing we want to do when we’re in a we’re fighting for our lives with someone we love is that we will stop them from rejecting us or we will make them respond to us. The last thing we want to do is turn and be vulnerable. But actually, that’s the essence of everything. It’s the essence of, you know, I watch couples turn and say, “I do, I do go for you, I do, I do say those things to you. You’re right, I do, because I’m so lonely I can’t find you anywhere. I can’t find you anywhere, and so I say to myself, you will respond to me, you will make you respond to me, and I’m so lonely I can’t bear it. I feel like I’ve lost you already.” 

And this person weeps, and the other partner turns and reaches across and holds their hand, you know? And says, “I didn’t know you felt that way. I didn’t know that you were scared.” 

And so this is. We’re really talking about a science of human connection and it’s a fantastically deep, fascinating science that tells us who we are. And I don’t know why it’s all over the front of the New York Times, and people aren’t learning how to have these bonding conversations in every family and every relationship in North America. For goodness sake.


Greg McKeown:

That’s a perfect little segue. This is part one of a conversation with Dr. Sue Johnson, an absolute miracle worker as far as I’m concerned and somebody who’s made a big difference to me and blessed me, but of course, I’m just one of many, many people. I hope that as you’re listening to this, you are thinking about your own relationships. You can’t not be thinking about your own relationships. You can’t not be thinking about those relationships that matter so much to you, that are important to you, that are essential to you, the most vitally important people in your life. You can’t help but be thinking about them in this conversation and a yearning, if you’re honest, that it would go from, whatever the level of relationship it is now, even if it’s good, let’s say it’s eight out of ten, you know, you say there’s lots there and lots of commitment and lots of effort being made, but you know that there’s another gear, but you don’t know how to get it. That’s what Dr. Sue has been sharing with us, and we will see you next time for part two.