The Importance Of Understanding Your Attachment Style
Infants are born into this world hardwired for attachment – it’s what keeps us going as a species. In an ideal scenario, caregivers “fall in love” with their infant and the infant responds accordingly. They feel valued, cared for and are generally trusting.
Feeling securely attached allows children to take risks and explore the world with curiosity, rather than holding back out of fearfulness or anxiety. Secure infants tend to develop into secure adults who generally feel self-reliant and self-sufficient, yet also comfortable enough to let other people in and show vulnerability.
Insecure Attachment: Three Styles
Extensive research done with infants and mothers together shows our attachment style is in place between the first and second year of life and does not change significantly throughout adulthood. Situations that can cause insecure attachment can occur when caretakers are unable to sense their baby’s needs and end up responding in ways that are frustrating to the infant. Insecure attachment styles can also result when caretakers are depressed or are using substances such as drugs, alcohol or pills, making them unavailable to meet their child’s emotional needs.
When caregivers are neglectful or dismissive, their children can become falsely independent as adults (“I don’t need anyone, I can manage on my own – because I have to”), a style called Dismissing or Avoidant. The person with this style might struggle to forge intimate connections with people later in life and can appear to be aloof, withdrawn and uninvested in their relationships.
The second style is called Anxious/Preoccupied. People with this attachment style can appear to be overly anxious and needy in all their relationships, even to the point of driving others away. Emotions may seem overwhelming and perhaps they worry too much about what other people think of them. Their sense of self-esteem is often derived from others, causing them to lose track of themselves. This style is like the opposite of the Dismissing/Avoidant style.
Because both of these attachment styles exist on a continuum, starting a new relationship can trigger different responses. The person who was once emotionally distant might have a period of opening up and later be unable to sustain that level of openness, going back to their previous need to keep a sense of distance. Afterward, the partner will inevitably complain their new-found love interest is not who he or she started out to be! Similarly, the Anxious/Preoccupied person might look very resilient and strong in the beginning, but become overwhelmed by insecurity as time goes on.
The third category is called Disorganized Attachment. This style might be caused by more extreme situations in which one or both of the parents suffered from mental illness. There may have been violence and chaos in the house, causing disturbances to young children’s nervous systems and even to optimal brain development. All the energy that is supposed to go into one’s emotional development is instead devoted to surviving. In situations like this, a dysregulated parent is unable to help his or her child learn how to regulate emotions. Children are naturally unable to organize themselves and need help making sense of and managing emotions – thus the term “disorganized.” Adults with this kind of attachment style can be very challenging for themselves and those around them. If you know someone like this, there might be a sense of walking on eggshells around him or her.
Regardless of their differences, all three attachment styles are different ways of adapting and reacting to the same problem: having an unavailable caretaker or a caretaker who was unskilled, immature, addicted, depressed or overwhelmed. Children who were anxiously preoccupied with an unreliable caretaker might respond in an angry, demanding way or feel inconsolable even when they finally get the attention they want. (Think about your own responses to feeling unseen or unimportant to help you get a sense of this).
Other Attachment Issues
Parents may have had their own untreated trauma and loss to deal with, thus making them vulnerable to their own attachment issues. A narcissistic parent, for example, is truly unable to see their child as separate from him or herself. This can sometimes be confusing because these parents might be more concerned with how things look rather than how things are; they may want their family to “look good” and will go through superficial gestures to achieve an image of familial bliss. Often clients who had narcissistic parents will come in and say, “I don’t understand why I feel so bad. I was fed, clothed, housed and given every opportunity.” However, in reality their emotional needs were not being met. A common belief that accompanies this situation might be “I don’t matter,” accompanied by a deep sense of shame.
Attachment styles also get handed down generationally so that families can be disdainful of “weakness” or strong affection (i.e., “we don’t need to show our feelings”). A child who was brought up by a dismissive parent who was uncomfortable with their child’s normal dependency needs can grow up to have similar characteristics. After experiencing a childhood in which emotions and needs were dismissed or invalidated, this person can have trouble feeling his or her own emotions in adulthood. He or she may not only have difficulty understanding them, but may say things like “what’s the point of feeling emotions anyway?” This is another example of how we don’t even need our family to dismiss us – we can do it ourselves! An Anxious-Preoccupied family style might be the opposite: overly dependent, needy, enmeshed or manipulative to get needs met.
Some symptoms of all of the insecure styles are a lack of self-esteem, low self- confidence and sometimes a predisposition to addictions. Someone could be a chronic underachiever, feel unable to be motivated and cut off from a healthy sense of ambition. Or they could be the opposite: someone who feels driven and spends most of his or her time in a relentless pursuit to achieve perfection. The obvious place it shows up is in relationships of all kinds with all of the problems listed above.
How Therapy Can Help
If you were unable to form secure attachments when you were young, it’s never too late. Often just having a caring adult in the form of a relative, neighbor or teacher can be helpful growing up. Research shows that psychotherapy has the potential to actually create new neural network pathways and calm the nervous system simply from the act of sitting together over time. Being with a therapist who is attuned can help regulate emotions and make sense of inner confusion. Psychotherapy can actually help people begin to feel safe and secure enough to take risks in other areas of their lives. This notion is at the heart of my work with people.
The therapist, like any of us, may not always be perfectly attuned. Problems that come up in the therapeutic relationship can be experienced as an attachment wound or rupture, which is just as painful as in any relationship. The healing potential during these ruptures is enormous, so long as there is a willingness to work through any problems that come up, and the patient feels that an attempt is being made to repair and understand. The goal of this kind of therapy is not to create a needy, dependent attachment on the therapist, but rather a healthy sense of resilience within one’s self.
An attachment-oriented therapist can help you to regulate yourself emotionally and to explore your attachment style with others. How attachment plays out in therapy is often a reflection of how it’s playing out in the world, and the therapist will be be attuned to this and able to help.
Please contact me if you have any questions and I will be happy to chat with you or answer any questions you might have.