On Attachment

Have you heard of attachment theory? Maybe you’ve come across attachment parenting, or heard the word “attachment” thrown around in pop psychology ways. Let’s get clear about what attachment theory is, why it can be useful to know your own attachment style, and how to shift from insecure to secure attachment.

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Attachment theory was developed primarily by psychologist John Bowlby in the mid- to late-twentieth century. Bowlby’s work focused on infants and children, while later academics applied attachment theory to adults. Mary Ainsworth is responsible for defining, in the 1960s and 1970s, the four primary attachment styles:

  • Secure Attachment Style: The individual (e.g. child or adult) feels safely connected to a secure base (the attachment figure, e.g. parent or spouse) and can consistently rely on said base for emotional support, physical security, and healthy interdependence.
  • Anxious-avoidant Attachment Style: The individual is withdrawn or shut down toward the attachment figure. Children may ignore their parent or avoid contact while adults may turn a cold shoulder or silent treatment toward their significant other.
  • Anxious-ambivalent Attachment Style: The individual is anxious upon separation or distance from the attachment figure and is not soothed by their return. Anxiety remains when the distance is bridged. Children and adults protest this distance, or feared future distances, by appearing clingy.
  • Disorganized Attachment Style: The individual shows no signs of attachment. This attachment style is often the result of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Children replicate the chaotic, unpredictable behavior of their caregivers through extreme behaviors. Adults similarly recreate the chaos of their childhoods in their relationships.

Knowing your own attachment style is incredibly useful. Being able to put words to the way you feel connection with others can be validating and soothing in and of itself. It almost never hurts to feel understood, even in clinical, diagnosis-y ways. There are a few different attachment assessments out there. Try this one to start: Attachment Style Quiz.

If you find that you have a secure attachment style, great! It’s probably fairly easy for you to create and maintain close relationships (both romantic and non-romantic). This doesn’t mean that life is without challenges, and yet you likely feel an overall sense of security regarding your place in the world and your resilience to trials. You likely have a growth mindset and tend to experience post-traumatic growth more than post-traumatic stress.

If you find that you have an insecure attachment style (anxious-avoidant, anxious-ambivalent, or disorganized), it probably helps explain some of your challenges. You may have very complicated, chaotic, or nonexistent relationships with your parents. You may find it extremely difficult to build strong friendships or partnerships. You may suffer with depression, anxiety, suicidality, or other mental health problems. Being able to make some sense of these experiences by identifying your attachment style, being able to explain them in an overarching way – a fundamental way, may be soothing. My hope is that it is, and I base that hope not only in my observation of others but in my observation of myself. Knowing my own attachment style and identifying some of the roots of my suffering has been incredibly beneficial. (I talk a bit more about my attachment style and how knowing it has helped my relationships in this video).

So what to do next? If you have an insecure attachment style, start with some general education. Read about attachment in Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller and Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson. Learn about the science of attachment and the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways at any age. Then move into more specific education: Get to know how your attachment style plays out in your life. This takes some self-reflection (e.g. journaling) and some honest feedback (e.g. therapy), along with an openness to learn about yourself and try new ways of connecting with others. It’s a fairly simple process, and it’s a fairly difficult one. Moving from insecure attachment to secure attachment is a combination of deep emotional work, family of origin work, and intense vulnerability. Simple. Difficult.

And hopeful. I have never felt more hopeful about your ability (yes, you) to live a more peaceful, healthier life. To build strong, beautiful relationships. To feel safe, to trust yourself and others, to change your family tree. Science is on your side, and so am I. Thank you so much for being here.

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