Attachment is a complicated matter of the heart. The second you were born, you cried for Mommy. She nurtured you and kept you safe for nine months in utero. Then, you entered the world through separating from her. After the umbilical cord was cut, you flailed your arms and legs, let out a howl, and finally found comfort in her arms, right where you belonged.
That relational experience became the model that shaped your expectations for later relationships. If your mother gazed into your eyes, cooed sweet nothings to you and responded to your needs, then you formed a secure attachment to her. Attachment is the emotional bond you have to someone else. This bond is the bedrock of emotional health and creates a lifelong belief in the value and reliability of relationships.
What if your mother didn’t give you the feeling that you were adored? If you grew up with a mother whose response to you was inconsistent, neglectful or abusive, you learned that your relationship with her was undependable, unimportant, and unsafe. Consequently, your attachment to her was insecure. Depending on which experience you had, you developed a certain attachment style - an automatic pattern of relating to others. Attachment styles are described as being secure or insecure. A secure attachment style paves the road for you to form meaningful and satisfying relationships while an insecure attachment style places obstacles in your way.
Secure Attachment Style
Common traits of people with a secure attachment style are:
- Healthy self-esteem
- Comfortable sharing feelings
- Able to compromise
- Respect boundaries
- Tolerate disappointment
- Trust others
- Demonstrate empathy
- Form committed relationships
Insecure Attachment Styles
There are three patterns or types of insecure attachment and they develop in response to the distinct way your mother took care of you. These insecure attachment styles are ambivalent attachment, avoidant attachment and disorganized attachment.
This attachment style develops when your parent was inconsistent and unpredictable in their responses to you. You are unsure when or if your needs will be met. You find the unpredictability terrifying. You develop into an adult who needs constant reassurance that you are loved. You tune in to the needs of others but are uncomfortable voicing your own needs. You have poor personal boundaries, are clingy, prone to worry, take things personally, and don’t see how you contribute to conflicts in your relationships.
Common traits among people with Ambivalent Attachment styles:
- Attention seeking
- Believe you not good enough
- Demanding and possessive
- Difficulty being alone
- Look for proof of love
This attachment style develops when your parent is aloof, rejecting, emotionally distant, and not attuned to you. You grew up feeling starved of emotional nourishment or warmth. As an adult you believe that you will never get your emotional needs met by anyone and that you can only rely on yourself. You conflate having needs with being needy. You learned to avoid getting close to others, don’t like talking about your feelings, and have a hard time with commitment.
Common traits among people with Avoidant Attachment style:
- Feel emotionally removed from others
- Do not seek comfort when distressed
- Have the urge to pull away when you begin to feel close
- Feel shame about having needs
- Uncomfortable talking about feelings
- Lack empathy
This attachment style develops when a parent is abusive, behaves erratically, or is excessively punitive in their parenting style. Children raised this way develop into adults who believe that being in a relationship will hurt them. They have difficulty soothing themselves and trusting others. They feel inferior, suffer from depression or anxiety, and have difficulty concentrating. Common traits among people with Disorganized Attachment Styles
- Terrified of rejection
- Don’t display affection
- Difficulty trusting others
- Unable to share feelings
- Demonstrate hostility or aggression
Moving from Insecure Attachment to Secure Attachment
While looking back at your personal history, there is no value in placing blame on your parents. They may have been the recipients of unattuned parenting themselves, and opportunities for understanding and growth that are available today were not available years ago. The benefit of looking at your attachment style is to understand how your early life impacted you and to allow that wisdom to empower you to move forward.
If you are asking yourself, “Can I change my attachment style?”, the answer is yes. Attachment styles are malleable. Under the right circumstances, adults with an insecure attachment style can become securely attached. Unresolved early attachment wounds can heal through reparative experiences such as being in a healthy relationship. Yes, you can look forward to creating relationships that contain the essential framework of reliability, consistency, predictability, availability and responsiveness. As is true of all changes one tries to make, it is a process that requires practice. Practice makes perfect is a faulty ambition. Practice makes progress is a healthier mission.
Six Tips on How to Change Your Attachment Style
- Identify your attachment style by reflecting on your life experiences. Consider your personal history and create a narrative about how your childhood experiences influenced your attachment style. Once you’ve identified and understand your style of relating, actively create new patterns of relating to others. For example, if you have an ambivalent attachment style, learn to acknowledge your own needs and voice them. If you have an avoidant attachment style, start asking for help instead of eschewing it. If you have a disorganized attachment style, build a support system of friends you can trust.
- Find people who have secure attachment styles and build relationships with them. It may take time to trust that the other will not reject you or to assimilate the view that others are reliable, but with enough positive interpersonal experiences, you can cultivate secure attachment and your working inner model will be transformed.
- If you’re married, make it a habit to check in with your spouse. Take turns talking about your relationship and your needs. Don’t assume your spouse can read your mind or that they purposely ignore your needs. While you practice expressing your feelings, ask your spouse to repeat what you’ve told them. Check to make sure they’ve understood you correctly. If not, try again. The goal is to confirm that you have been heard and understood.
- Challenge your beliefs. Keep track of when your anxieties were unfounded and of how your spouse (or other) did give you the emotional support you needed. Create a mental storage room for these memories. Whenever you feel insecure browse through the storage room and look at those memories to reduce your anxiety...
- Don’t make the mistake of believing there is something wrong with you. Your attachment style is linked to your early life experiences and it’s likely that anyone in your situation would have responded in the same way as you. It’s not your fault. You are not broken and do not need to be fixed. Instead, think of yourself as a growth-oriented person.
- We are hurt by people and we need to be healed by people. Work with a therapist and develop a secure attachment to them. You might balk at this suggestion because the idea of being attached to or dependent on someone makes you feel uneasy. However, if you permit yourself to trust your therapist enough to build a relationship with them, you will extinguish your old way of relating. You can feel safe while feeling close to another. Once you’ve accomplished this in the therapeutic relationship you will be able to replicate it with others.
Getting Past Your Past
Those fortunate enough to have had good enough parenting and a secure attachment style are not without troubles, self-doubt, or conflict. There is no such thing as a perfect childhood and immunity to painful experiences does not exist. Reflecting upon your early life is rewarding when such reflection is done in the service ofpersonal growth and development. Some people can work through their struggles in the context of a good relationship or marriage. If the past grips you too tightly, you may need a therapist to loosen its hold. Either way, working through your difficulties is valuable because it rewards you with the gift of more satisfying relationships in all areas of your life. Most importantly, it changes the way you view yourself, and that is the cornerstone for all relationships in your life.