The way we learn to communicate, rely on others, engage in trust, etc., all comes from crucial interactions in our childhood. This can be extremely scary, especially when we have had a particular traumatic experience or significant adjustment growing up. As a therapist, I often get the question, “will this affect me for the rest of my life?” The reality is that it can, but with some education and awareness we know now that it doesn’t have to. How you interact with yourself and with others in relationships is what we call your Attachment Style in the counseling world. Since our attachments are so incredibly important to us in our social and emotional development, let’s explore how this impacts us and each style of Attachment.
4 Attachment Styles & Where They Came From
Attachment is the emotional bond that two people share. John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst in the 1950’s, worked to make Attachment concepts digestible for everyday living within our social settings. Bowlby’s original theory on Attachment explored the impact of human relationships on growth and development. He noticed that what particularly influenced people was their interactions with their primary caregivers. Later came the developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who researched and wrote the Attachment styles that we know today. Ainsworth conducted an experiment that observed children at play while recording their responses to preset conditions. While childhood attachment and adult attachment models vary in terminology, they share similar concept descriptions. We still use her original language and call these Secure Attachment, Anxious Attachment, Avoidant Attachment, and Disorganized Attachment. Let’s describe each of these 4 styles. As you read, be sure to note if a particular style resonates with you.
If you fall into the anxious category, you may find that you cherish being close to others and are truly able to hold affection for relationships. However, you may find yourself fearfully questioning that the other party may not want the same level of intimacy as you do, with no true evidence. In some ways, maybe you find yourself preconditioned to nit-pick and question another person’s investment in your relationship with them or a heightened sensitivity to normal shifts in day-to-day relationship functioning. This can materialize in focusing an extreme amount of your emotional potential on the relationship and its happenings over time. You may be close to obsessing over what could or could not happen at any given time. This can be exhausting emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physiologically.
If you fall into the avoidant category, you may find yourself placing a good amount of energy and preference in maintaining your independence. While you may want closeness, for you, it is not of paramount importance, unlike keeping your independence. Closeness may even make you feel “confined” or “restricted,” causing you to keep the relationship at a “safe” distance. You may tend to avoid wasting time mulling over your relationship or spending time thinking about being rejected. Maybe you find it challenging to open-up about things that really matter to you; these emotionally vulnerable thoughts and feelings from your perspective might cause a rift in the relationship. You may have a sixth sense for feeling “controlled” in relational situations, and this can lead to annoyance and discontentedness over time.
Secure attachment, if you can imagine, is simply the absence of avoidant and anxious tendencies. While we can’t completely eradicate all the potential feelings of anxious and avoidant attachment, people who are securely attached are able to effectively regulate the potential of experiencing these phenomena. If you are securely attached, you may find that being loving will come naturally, and intimacy will feel easy. You will not focus too heavily on the negative potential of a relationship, and won’t often worry about the pieces you cannot control. More often than not, you’ll effectively communicate what you need in a relationship, as well as how you feel. You may also have the capacity to identify and understand the relationship’s emotional signals while being able to attend to these needs when necessary. You can show up in the relationship without additional expectations, and be comfortable with how it is going.
The final style of attachment is identified as disorganized. While it is the most uncommon style, if you are disorganized in your attachment, you may feel erratic, variable, or conflicting in your understanding of what you may want from a relationship. If you have ever heard of cognitive dissonance – the inconsistency between what you feel, think and experience – you may experience this regularly when it comes to relationships. You may find yourself inconsistent or unpredictable when it comes to your relational emotions, engaging with relationships, and relational confidence. You may desire intimacy, but struggle to feel satisfied when it is offered to you, or on the contrary, it may evoke feelings of discomfort.
The Brain & Attachment
The brain is incredibly resilient! Our brains are capable of changing pre-conditioned thought patterns and responses, which allows us to grow over the course of our life. This “neuroplasticity,” is literally an ability you have that can, “change the brain,” both structurally and functionally. If you are in a place of anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment in your relationships then your neuroplasticity, or your brains’ active ability to adapt in response to experiences, allows you to work on that. For instance, before developing the piano playing skill, nothing about it may make sense. However, after training your brain to recognize measures and memorize notes on a page, you have actively rewired the brain and developed the ability to play music. We can apply this same attention to our Attachment to attune to healthier ways of being in relationship to ourselves and others.
Neuroplasticity brings us a lot of hope. Why? Because if we are stuck in a cycle that isn’t healthy, hurting ourselves and those around us, hope is available to rewire that cycle and move us toward the person we want to be.
Ultimately, Why is this Helpful?
You may or may not have the same attachment style as someone you are in a relationship with. Having a greater understanding of these styles can help you identify why some relationships are going well, while others are not. Being able to identify how you relate to others and what you may be looking for will assist you in pursuing the most authentic version of you in relational spaces. As you continue to explore relationships and gain a better understanding of your attachment style, you will be able to recognize those tendencies that create distance as opposed to the relationship you want. Establishing who we want to be is difficult, but you have the power to change, even your brain. Which style do you closely relate to?
Relational change and redemption are possible, even if it feels hopeless. Ultimately, you have the final say in who you add to and keep in your life. Understanding how attachment affects people differently may be helpful in maintaining the relationships you want. I welcome the opportunity to speak with you and see how I can be supportive in your journey! Don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Optimum Joy today.
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