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Attachment Theory: The therapist as a secure base

How can the therapist be a secure base for clients?

Ainsworth (1967) discusses how when a mother provides adequate safety a child’s confidence is increased it raises a “child’s threshold for fear of the unfamiliar,” (Ainsworth, 1972, p. 117). Bowlby (1977) similarly suggested that the therapist should be a reliable and trustworthy figure. The room a therapist works in can also be seen as a secure or safe place for containment for e.g., artwork made by clients can be safely until such times as the client is ready to decide what might happen to the piece.

When a person’s ‘typical’ way of interacting with others based on their own attachment pattern are responded to positively with acceptance and care change is possible. Feelings that may be repressed now have a safe place to be explored and processed.

I joined the first first-year MSc art therapy students at Ulster University in January this year as part of my FHEA training (Fellow of the Higher Education Academy). As part of the experiential learning process, we explored the concepts of nests as a secure base to create discussions about the theory. This opened discussions about personal needs and an exploration about what has and has not felt safe in the past.

This could be a creative way of exploring client needs and attachment styles within the therapeutic environment.

Unique nests


To show that we can create time and space which allows to express ourselves, to feel safe, offer nourishment and enable our self-regulation


Draw or create a nest from things found in your home e.g. cardboard, objects, or outside in your garden. Alternatively, you can draw it. Then place something in it. A nest relates to security, safety and warmth. It often holds something precious or important to the nest’s builder. Consider the various types of nests and who or what may benefit from its comfort.

Examples may include babies, birds, depressed or fearful adults, animals, reptiles, insects etc.

Questions of exploration

What type of nest did you create?

What is in the nest?

Is the nest sturdy? Is it safe?

Can the nest withstand strong weather condition such as thunderstorms?

Would you like to be in the nest?

Who would be with you?

Where would you place it?

What is the purpose of the nest?

How is your home like a nest?

Reflection of artwork

Reflect on the artwork to see what we need and in turn what support we can provide for others


To consider what we need to function as individuals, security, family, food and safe space. And discover how can we ensure we have these things

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