Attachment Theory is about knowing yourself and others better. More specifically, it is about understanding how we relate to one another as a product of our unique upbringings.
Science shows that how you were raised has profound effects on your relationships and your sense of self. No matter how you were raised or by whom, Attachment Theory will offer you a uniquely insightful lens on understanding yourself and others. It will open new horizons on empathizing with your friends and family, give you a deeper understanding of what motivates people, and help you see through the confusion of adult life.
Do any of these sound like things you might say to yourself?
“I’m too clingy”
“Nobody likes me”
“They won’t care anyway”
“I wish we got more time together”
“They are just going to leave”
“Don’t tell them how you really feel”
“I need to toughen up!”
“It’s my fault”
Do some of your intimate conversations hide resentment and tension?
How easy is it for the following feelings to be triggered in you?
Do you get butterflies in your stomach around sensitive issues being brought up?
Do you see yourself as secure or insecure when you think of relationships with your family and friends?
Your relationship is pretty great, and are there some “places”/conversations that are hard to go to together?
When things get icky, is it awkward to bridge the gap and get back to how we usually are?
It is important to acknowledge that most people can identify with at least some of the above questions. While these concepts may leave a bitter taste in our mouths, they have become fairly universal concepts over time. So what if the reason you have these thoughts or feelings relate to your relationship with your parents?
That’s right. While it is easy to trace our belief systems back to our parents (i.e.: Jewish parents raising a Jewish child, Woke parents raising woke children, etc.) we can also trace the way we process our emotions back to them, too. As well as this, we can also look to our parents to learn how we:
- View our esteem
- Regulate our emotions
- Relate to other people
- Soothe ourselves when triggered
- Fit into society.
Welcome to Attachment Theory
When people think philosophically about attachment, the mind usually goes to Buddha and minimalism. While this is an interesting perspective and has some great advice for life…this has nothing to do with Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory speaks to the relationship we have with our parents (or primary caregiver) and how that helps shape who we are as a person. The way we think, process emotions, judge ourselves, and define our values is all based on the way we were supported by our parents from infancy!
It is obvious to suggest that when we are born, we enter a world that is very new to us. While parts of our brain function are built from genetics and effects from pregnancy, our identity is yet to form. As we grow in our earliest days, we learn how to manage our basic needs around how our parents (or primary caregiver) responds to our calls for attention. This all happens very quickly, and can contribute to a baby understanding that people will be there for them (both through supporting their needs, and empathy) or not. Believe it or not, these early interactions play an instrumental role in how we emotionally connect with others.
It is important to remember that while we have spoken about how attachment works at a young age, this concept runs ‘from the cradle to the grave’. There is evidence that suggests that whenever we are planned under anxious or stressful conditions as adolescents or adults we will act according to what we learnt as an infant or toddler.
Take this assessment to see which Attachment Style you most identify with.
And you can learn even more about this factor (along with 50 others) by using the Assessment Center.
Think of it this way…
Generally, 30% of any given personality trait is genetic, with the other 70% being environmental. Even with these statistics, our genetic traits interact with our environment. We take in everything we see and hear to understand our world.
To use the metaphor of painting, the experiences we take in are like adding colors and images to our canvas. Every painter, at first, can barely even pick up a brush. In this same sense, we as babies have no idea how to relate to the world. While our desire is to paint, we need someone to teach us how to pick up the brush, choose our colors, and stroke our brushes on the canvas. For this reason, it is up to our primary caregivers to teach us to be the best artists we can, otherwise, we may find painting our canvases challenging.
If painting interdependently is modeled to us then we will build our own confidence and continue painting through life, building upon our image with confidence in our art. However, if our primary caregiver avoids painting, teaches us that painting should be avoided, or teaching us to fear the concept of painting then it makes it much harder for us to comfortably use our canvas in the future. We may be born with basic tendencies, these are then significantly shaped through the environment we are raised in.
That’s enough of this convoluted metaphor, let’s look deeper at the attachment styles.
So…who and what?
Okay, so we know that our primary caregivers can help change the way we see the world, but in what way? There are four characters at play here, let’s take a quick look:
Like Lionel Messi, someone with a secure attachment is in tune with their emotions and processes them with comfort and ease. They feel comfortable exploring the world and build connections with others easily. While Lionel Messi may not win every game he plays, he is able to process his negative emotions around a loss and keep striving for future wins.
With secure attachment comes greater ease in trusting others and forming strong intrapersonal relationships.
Like 30 Rock character Liz Lemon, Someone with an insecure-ambivalent attachment is best described as ‘clingy’. They have trouble processing their emotions and usually need support from others when feeling negative emotions. As well as this they often get validation from their connection with others, and so they are easily challenged by rejection due to their own self-worth.
Like Samantha from Sex and the City, someone with an insecure-avoidant attachment is unlikely to be in touch with their emotions. This isn’t to say that they don’t exist, but the unconscious choice is often to push thoughts away. With this comes a lack of vulnerability and trust with others, and so they will rarely open up or show emotions.
Like The Joker, Someone with a disorganised attachment craves love and connection but is also scared of it. Commonly those with a disorganised attachment have some kind of past trauma that causes them to have trouble being alone, but also not trustful of others. They can be easily overwhelmed and flighty in times of stress.
PLEASE NOTE: The villainous aspects of The Jokers personality do not speak to those with a disorganised attachment. Not all people with a disorganised attachment hold sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies.
Each of these characters has their own ways of being that are discussed more in-depth throughout this section. These characteristics can be seen as universal, but do not speak holistically to a single person. Someone that identifies with a specific attachment will likely have a similar internal working model to what is discussed, but may not identify with every aspect. There are almost 8 billion people in the world, and so fitting humanity into four boxes is certainly not possible. You are unique, and these four styles allow a more general identification of potential habits and thought processes.
Here are a few other terms to get your head around before we dive deeper into Attachment Theory:
- Secure Base – The relationship formed between an infant and primary caregiver. This relationship forms the basis of the infant’s development and can allow them to gain their own autonomy as they grow and build their own identity.
- Internal Working Model – Short answer: How our brain works. Longer answer: How our brain perceives everything around. What it tells us about ourselves, and about others.
- Affect Regulation – How we naturally react to triggers and emotions that present within us, as well as how we process and let go of these triggers.
So what do I get out of this?
While reading this article may not help you change how you relate to others there is some excellent information to:
- Help you build an awareness of your thought processes and understand how you may think.
- Gain in-depth information around each attachment style and what stereotypically makes them tick.
- Understand how secure bonds are formed by parents and caregivers.
- Help reveal some of your habits or thought processes that can be unhelpful.
- Understand how those close to you may process their thoughts.
- Build stronger connections with others around you based on how they relate to their attachment style.
- Learn how to support your friends and family who may have trouble with affect regulation.
- Understand what it takes to build a secure attachment.
Your attachment style does not define who you are but can bring to light unhelpful thought patterns. If this happens you can follow the advice given to be more gentle with yourself and shift these emotional patterns.
Quotes on Attachment Theory
“Everyone you meet, you say to them, ‘Love me!’ Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops. Still, though, think about it … this great pull in us to connect”. – Hafiz
“A securely attached child will store an internal working model of a responsive, loving, reliable care-giver, and of a self that is worthy of love and attention and will bring these assumptions to bear on all other relationships. Conversely, an insecurely attached child may view the world as a dangerous place in which other people are to be treated with great caution, and see himself as ineffective and unworthy of love. These assumptions are relatively stable and enduring: those built up in the early years of life are particularly persistent and unlikely to be modified by subsequent experience.” – Jeremy Holmes, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory
“All hurt is founded on attachment to anything regardless of its nature. When we detach we vibrationally send ourselves back into the flow of life.” – Dr. Jacinta Mpalyenkana, Ph.D, MBA
“We are all born the same, we are completely cute, innocent, sweet, and we need that reflection of ourselves as little human beings to live, and I was not receiving that from my mother but there was a caretaker who did give me that.” – Anneke Lucas
“The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature.” – John Bowlby
Throughout these next pages, you will learn about the four styles of attachment that can form, and what they look like in the veins of friendship, family, and intimate relationships.