As a survivor of profound early emotional neglect having been raised in a dysfunctional family system, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time delving into the intricacies of attachment styles, particularly those pioneered by British Psychologist John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Understanding these styles has been a crucial aspect of my journey towards healing and forming healthier connections and more secure, nurturing relationships. This rigorously honest, deep work, to me, is the Dharma. I feel that many of us have bypassed properly relating to and healing emotional patterns that come from early childhood wounding and unprocessed grief, fear, and trauma. By doing so, it’s veritably impossible to make any real progress in our lives or on any spiritual path. I’m grateful to have the time and resources to really learn these powerful, transformational theories, that again “bring light” to deep shadow aspects of ourselves.
What is Attachment?
When a secure attachment is developed, adults and infants are attuned to one another. The central theme of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant’s needs allow the child to develop a sense of warmth and security. The infant learns that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world, experience joy, play and has support for needs. For example, a baby cries and is hungry, and someone comes soon to tend to them, lovingly. These early imprints suggest that the world is safe and one’s caregivers are helpful and supportive. One’s caregiver can provide love, comfort, safety, and needs can be met.
This quality of secure attachment provides the foundation for healthy and trusting relationships in the future. Attachment defines the child’s sense of stability, quality of social interactions, and emotional and cognitive development as they grow into adulthood, and is a huge determining factor in one’s adjustment and quality of life.
So what determines successful attachment? Behaviorists propose that it was basic food and physical security that led to forming this attachment behavior, but Bowlby and others demonstrated that love and emotional nurturance and responsiveness were the primary determinants of attachment.
If secure, our attachment pattern can help bolster our healthy, secure relationships, but if insecure, may also undermine our ability to establish and maintain healthy intimate relationships and friendships. We can develop a pattern of fear and mistrust, especially when we open and are vulnerable. Adult attachment addresses our ability to connect, feel satisfied in our relationships with ourselves and others, and how we develop and maintain intimacy.
Can Attachment Styles Change?
TIPS TO CHANGE ATTACHMENT STYLES:
Yes, we are not fixed and the theory of neuroplasticity says that, with effort,we can change! It’s important to seek help from a professional if you deem appropriate, to help us understand about attachment styles. It’s also very important, if you’re currently in an emotional relationship, to get to know your partner’s patterns. This is, because it’s essential for us to increase our sense of attachment security and, for this to happen, we need to learn more about our partner by sharing details to improve closeness and strengthen bonds.
To do this, you can do things like asking questions about their interests, speak about what you two share in common, places you’d love to visit together, etc. It can also be helpful to find activities you can share, and this way you two can bond. When it comes to any relationship, it is also very important to understand the values you want in any type of relationship. When we seek to enter a relationship, we can build stronger relationships when we understand personal values. Having shared values, not attaction, has proven to be the greatest determinate of the longest lasting marriages.
The Effects on Relationships
As we’ve discussed previously, children who are securely attached as infants tend to develop stronger self-esteem and self-reliance as they grow older. As such, they tend to be more independent and perform better later in school, college, work, and have successful social relationships and marriages and experience less depression and anxiety. They are also more resilent in times of loss, illness or stress. Although it’s important to mention that attachment styles displayed in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships. Adults who were securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships, and the ability to self-disclose and develop safety and trust with others.
What are Attachment Styles?
Find Out What Type of Attachment Style You Have
Bowlby identified four main attachment styles that emerge in early childhood and continue to influence our relationships throughout life: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Each style shapes the way we approach intimacy, trust, and emotional vulnerability.
The four attachment styles are:
1. Anxious (also referred to as Preoccupied)
2. Avoidant (also referred to as Dismissive)
3. Disorganized (also referred to as Fearful-Avoidant)
First and foremost, let’s explore the secure attachment style. If you’re fortunate enough to have developed this style, you likely experienced consistent love, care, and responsiveness from your caregivers. This foundation instilled in you a sense of trust in relationships, allowing you to feel comfortable both giving and receiving affection.
For example, my husband grew up with a relatively functional family in Sweden with a nurturing mother, father and siblings. There was no overt abuse and he was loved, fed, educated and had close friends and siblings. He has never as far as I know, exhibited fear, jealousy or mistrust in our 20 years of marriage. His attachment style is… secure.
On the flip side, the anxious-preoccupied attachment style the I experienced for years, stemmed from inconsistent or nonexistent caregiving. People like me with this style tend to crave closeness but may also fear abandonment, leading to heightened sensitivity and a constant need for reassurance. The parent’s love was not reciprocated, and this can cause a lifetime of emotional scars, insecurity, low self esteem, fears and fear of our basic survival.
For example, I grew up with an alcoholic father, and there was violence in the first three years of my life as a baby in the crib. I would hear my parents fighting and cry, but they could not hear me, or ignored me, over their arguing. No one ever came to sooth me, and I recall, many nights being so scared and crying myself to sleep, wearing a pink zippered onesie. These imprints run deep, and amazingly, through intense therapeutic work and a longing to really heal in this life, I have access to these memories that created this anxious attachment style. It is only in the past three years that this process has been brought to light, routed out and healed to a greater degree, and for that, I am grateful.
Next, there’s the dismissive-avoidant attachment style, which often results from caregivers who were emotionally distant or unavailable. People with this style may find it challenging to open up and may prioritize independence and withdrawal over emotional connection. These are the quintessential escapists, renunciates, and indeed, misanthropes. There are often overtones here with Narcissism or Antisocial Personality Disorder.
One of the rarest and most challenging style is the fearful-avoidant attachment style, a blend of anxious-preoccupied and dismissive-avoidant. This arises generally from abuse with profound trauma and/or inconsistent care-giving environment. Those with this style desire intimacy but fear getting too close, creating a perpetual loop of internal struggle. There are often overtones here with Borderline Personality Disorder. Without treatment, the fearful avoidant may never be able to be in sustained, healthy, authentic, genuine friendships and partnerships. The learned fear and mistrust, which were once an accurate coping response to an abusive or neglectful parent or milieu, precedes them.
How to Develop a Secure Attachment Style (It’s NEVER Too Late!)
Now, let’s delve into the steps to develop a secure attachment style, a journey I embarked on myself. It’s important to remember that you cannot change your past, but you can always change the present. We are not forever cursed and defined by what happened to us. Self-knowledge is self-love is… power.
- Self-awareness: Reflect on your attachment style and its origins. Understanding your patterns is the first step towards change.
- Therapeutic intervention: Seek professional help if needed. Therapy provides a safe space to explore past experiences, challenge negative beliefs, and develop healthier coping mechanisms.
- Mindfulness and self-regulation: Practice being present in the moment. Learn to identify and regulate your emotions, allowing for more conscious and intentional responses in relationships.
- Communication: Express your needs and feelings openly with your loved ones. Effective communication builds trust and fosters a secure connection.
- Boundaries and reciprocity: Establish healthy boundaries and ensure that relationships are based on mutual respect and reciprocity. A secure attachment style thrives on balanced give-and-take.
My personal journey has taught me that healing and developing a secure attachment style is an ongoing process, and according to recent assessments, mine went from anxious attachment to… secure! 🌟 I have an interesting personal insight as a trauma survivor that I’d like to share. The basic building blocks of who we are never really seem to change and that makes sense to me. I’m never going to forget, bury memories or dissociate from what happened, these experiences make me, me. However, through self awareness and being in sync with myself, I can change how I react to situations.
For example, I might be at home with my husband and he’s been in his big leather lounge chair reading most of the night and not speaking. He’s a quiet, bookish, science-y type. Subconsciously, I might think, oh, he’s upset/ignoring me- [insert whatever fear-based thought may arise]. In the past, I may have believed my own hurt-infused projection and may have confronted him or needed confirmation and attention. Now, if this happens, and it does because the “karmic seeds” will seemingly always be there, I notice it as it is happening. I ask myself quietly, is he really ignoring you or upset? No, he’s not a punitive, passive-aggressive, silent type like I experienced with my family of origin; I could never stand for that in a marriage. Then, I “reality test” take a deep breath, reassure myself and let it go. I might now, give him a quick kiss, and go up and read or meditate myself, sans any drama recurring from my past attachment style.
It can be done. Healing involves this self-reflection, self-and-other compassion, and a commitment to fostering and maintaining meaningful connections. While the past may shape us, it doesn’t define us, our present or future relationships. We have the power to rewrite our attachment narratives. I’m living proof that with effort, healing is possible, we are simply not our past nor defined by how others raised or treated us, thankfully.
May you all flourish, have the deepest and healthiest relationships, starting with yourself, and live your very best life possible!
Citations: Introduction to Attachment Disorder Udemy
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