Attachment Theory

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Attachment Theory

In many ways it feels like society is growing more and more disconnected – modern lifestyles, working long hours, increased rates of mental health issues. The trend seems to grow even worse with addiction to technology, cell phones, and social media – ironic since all have the capability of connecting people in ways not previously possible, but they’re also leading to more and more disconnection from people in our non-digital lives. The ones right in front of us everyday.


Loneliness, depression, isolation and over-medication are quite common in society. Many people are disconnected from neighbors, their community, and even colleagues / friends. People lack close, meaningful connections. In light of these societal issues, I want to take a moment to discuss Attachment Theory and its implications not only in interpersonal relationships, but also more broadly in how people connect with others.


Attachment Categories


These describe relationship one forms with a caregiver growing up – typically a parent. But also become tendencies that play out throughout one’s life, including all relationships. The field of Attachment Research was started by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It has evolved over many decades, and in more recent years has been furthered by Daniel Siegel. There are 4 categories that represent attachment patterns that an individual can demonstrate.


Secure Attachment – is where a person had loving, supporting caregivers who did their best to meet their needs as a child, physically & emotionally. These people had relationships with caregivers where they felt seen, soothed when distressed, and they had a feeling of safety – all forming the basis for Security. In addition, caregivers of securely attached kids were present – not distracted of mentally elsewhere, they attuned to the inner state and experience of their children, they resonate with and feel into the experience of their child, which all created the foundation for trust. And since no perfect parent exists, if ruptures in the relationship occurred, they were repaired. As these kids go forward in life, they tend to be more confident, resilient and able to form mutually rewarding relationships.


Ambivalent Attachment – sometimes referred to as Anxious Attachment, where caregivers were a combination of intrusive and inconsistent in meeting the child’s needs. There wasn’t a sense of contingent communication – responses were not timely or responsive. The child’s adaption was to increase their drive for connection, almost clinging, with a sense of desperation – but underneath the experience of inconsistency and intrusion is the fear of not getting their needs met. As this child goes forward in life they tend to be very uncertain, filled with doubt, and preoccupied (due to unresolved issues).


Avoidant Attachment – these people were not seen as a child, and not soothed. They had caregivers who were likely not present or attuned. The adaptation they formed was to avoid connection with others out of the repeated experience of not getting their needs met, and resulting belief that they can’t rely on anyone. To a child who consistently does not get their physical or emotional needs met, the pain associated with the ongoing experience that no one will come help me becomes so much that they learn to disconnect from their needs, disconnect even from physical sensations in the body, and form beliefs around not needing anyone. As they go forward in life their experience becomes one of trying to control the external environment and they tend to be dismissive of others.


Disorganized Attachment – these children had terrifying experiences with caregivers. Whereas each of the previous attachment categories are all considered ‘organized’ approaches, meaning the adaptations they made led to some ability to function and maintain equilibrium, those with disorganized attachment were never able to adapt effectively. These children not only experienced abuse or neglect, but often very terrifying experiences with their caregivers that caused them to become split off from their experience just to survive. As they go forward in life, these kids have a hard time regulating emotions or communicating. They often have difficulty in relationships and inability to handle stress.


Why Attachment Matters


Our attachment experiences as a child goes well beyond relationships with parents – it influences all future relationships. It influences our way of relating to other people. It even influences how our brain processes everyday events and our experience of the world. Relationships with caregivers models not only what we expect from other people thru our life, but early life experiences play a role in how we recreate similar experiences later on. For good or bad, we repeat certain patterns, get into certain situations, and can recreate similar relational dynamics as those we learned.


Many people in modern society have a general feeling of disconnection – not just from others, but from themselves – it is an adaption to repeated experiences of not having one’s needs met as a child that causes that child to disconnect from their unmet needs that also leads to them remaining disconnected as they grow up. And when disconnected from ourself, our own emotions, desires, it makes it nearly impossible to connect with others.


What makes this so difficult is the tendency to spend most of life on autopilot. Much of what we learn about relating to other people, forming relationships, and our place in society becomes ingrained from childhood experiences, and the behaviors, habits, beliefs, and expectations around our past experiences reinforce automatic tendencies that set the groundwork for all future experiences, and it can often be hard to change, not to mention simply becoming aware.


Many people have a general feeling of unease in life – it could be a feeling like something is missing, some dissatisfaction with the way life is going, or it could be much more subtle, just below the surface, that they don’t quite have words for – more of a feeling. And our experience of life is filtered thru our habitual tendencies, our learned behavior, our beliefs, and the attributions and stories we tell ourself about why the world is the way it is. This could be around relationships, or work, or hobbies – anything around living a full and meaningful life.


What you can do about it


Despite all of this, change is possible. We can change our brains – but only with conscious awareness and intention. Neuroplasticity tells us that are brains are changeable, but when it comes to things that are so core to our experience and relationships such as the things we learned thru attachment experience and how it has shaped our experience of life – positive change is possible, but won’t just magically happen on it’s own.


Attachment Researchers, clinicians and psychotherapists generally agree – that no matter what your attachment history – if disorganized, you can move toward organized. And if ambivalent or avoidant, you can move toward secure. No matter what your past, or present circumstance – not only is learned security is possible, but taking action to lead a more satisfying experience of life is always available.


This requires deliberate effort and commitment. To change your brain starts with a change in where attention goes. Some things that are helpful to start include:

  • Therapy – talking to someone who is knowledgeable of attachment research, and can provide a safe place for you to discuss and make sense of difficult or unresolved past experiences is crucial. Such a person can model healthy behavior, and help you work thru the confusion or emotion of past events or current circumstances.
  • Journaling – if done properly, it can be a powerful tool to help make sense of life, help see patterns that one repeats in life, develop an awareness of the automatic tendencies driving behavior, and help see different options that are available.
  • Meditation – daily meditation can help change one’s experience with life itself. When you have an automatic thought, or immediate feeling, meditation can help find the space between that thought or feeling and this very next moment. It helps us to not be a prisoner of our own mind – and by realizing you are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings, you can begin to see the world from a broader perspective that can help expand your view of the world in ways you might not have previously known possible.

These are just starting points, but no matter what your situation, change is possible!

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