Colonial Mentality and Attachment Schemas


What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory explains how we achieve closeness, security and intimacy with others in order to meet our needs. It also addresses the stories we tell ourselves about how other people think and feel, and also, how they think and feel about us, based on our early childhood experiences.

Closely tied to attachment theory is the work of Peter Fonagy on “mentalization” and Howard and Miriam Steele on “reflective functioning.” These terms refer to our ability to think about what other people are thinking, feeling and what their intentions are.

When we’re able to reflect accurately, we are more likely to perceive and empathize with what others are thinking and feeling, and we are more likely to be trusting of others and develop a positive sense of self. When we are less able to reflect on what other people are thinking, we are more likely to misinterpret others’ intentions, mistrust them, and internalize a more negative view of ourselves.

What is Colonial Mentality?

Following the psychoanalytic postcolonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, Cristalis Capielo-Rosario and her colleagues (2019) describe colonial mentality as “a form of internalized oppression in which the colonized culture and society are considered inferior to the culture and society of the colonizer.”

It explains how a historically marginalized, oppressed, or colonized community can come to see itself negatively while at the same time see the historically dominant culture more positively.

When marginalized groups—such as Puerto Ricans on the island and the Diaspora—internalize a more negative view of their community, this makes them more vulnerable to higher levels of anxiety and depression, as well as reduced social support. Interpersonal relationships can also be impacted as a more negative view of self and others makes it more difficult to get the support and care we need to cope with everyday problems.

Puerto Ricans on the Island and the Diaspora: Inequality and Trust

Puerto Rico is a “free associated state” and unincorporated territory of the United States granted to it after the Spanish-American War. Its colonial status makes it not quite an independent, autonomous nation, and not quite a state. As a result, Puerto Rico continues as a colony of the United States.

The history of economic crises, political disenfranchisement, and recent ecological disasters such as Hurricane Maria have over time led to egregious levels of inequality and mass migrations from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland.

Research on wealth inequality tells us that as inequality rises, so do negative outcomes such as anxiety, self-harm, substance misuse, child maltreatment, and poverty (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009; 2019).

The ability to trust and understand others has been found to be a mediator of the relationship between inequality and adverse outcomes, which opens the door to examining how core psychological processes of attachment and identity are impacted by social, political and economic forces.

We know from existing research that greater attachment security protects historically marginalized communities from internalized oppression. This makes sense as healthy and secure attachments lead to a healthier sense of self and identity. Poorer attachment relationships can make people more vulnerable to internalized oppression and negative outcomes.

What We Are Doing in Our Study

Our team at the New School, in collaboration with researchers across Arizona, Florida, and Puerto Rico, is working on a study examining the relationship between attachment security and the reflective functioning of Puerto Rican adults, and how this influences the internalization of colonial mentality.

We are inviting people of Puerto Rican descent in Puerto Rico and in the Diaspora to participate in a series of interviews to help us understand how early relationships inform how they think about their identity. After an eligibility screening, participants will engage in two interviews.

One interview will explore experiences with early relationships and caregivers, while the other will ask questions about Puerto Rican identity. Participants will be provided with a gift card in the amount of $25 at the completion of each interview, for a total of $50.

If we can better understand how individual psychology, ethnic and cultural identity, and socio-economic forces interact, we will be better able to identify recommendations for prevention, therapeutic intervention, and public policy.