Let’s Meet The Attachment Styles
When looking at Attachment Theory there are four separate attachment styles that can predict how a person will connect with others and regulate their emotions. These styles speak to the kind of connection someone had with their primary caregiver as an infant/child, and how this has formed our views of ourselves, others, and our emotional stability. Our early years of development are critical in shaping how we will function socially and emotionally in the future, and the relationship we have with our parents is a major part of that.
We will explore more of these concepts later, in the section on Affect Regulation. For now, here is some information on the four attachment styles:
Which Attachment Style Are You?
The secure attachment style is the most common, with around 56% of people on average holding this title. This style is formed when the parent is attuned to the needs of their child from infancy and the child feels both seen and heard. This includes physical presence, emotional availability, sensitivity, and responsiveness. As the child develops they begin to feel comfortable exploring the world around them, knowing that they have the support of their caregiver when needed. They feel loved, and secure, and this allows them to understand their emotional needs and regulate their emotions, which then leads to a sense of autonomy/independence.
As the securely attached grow up, they will hold an internal working model that states that they are loved and that people are available, dependable, and cooperative. They trust that people are there for them when they need them, and they trust that their needs will be met. This allows them to have the safety to explore the world around them.
As someone with a secure attachment enters the world, they can easily seek and form close and stable connections with others, and these can be easier to maintain due to the more flexible and objective nature of the person with a secure attachment.
When the parents are unable to remain attuned to the needs of their child, it does not allow the secure base to form, which can affect the potential secure attachment. The effect of this is labeled as ‘Insecure Attachment’ and can present itself in three different ways.
The Insecure-Avoidant attachment style is the second most common, with 23% of people identifying with this type. This style is formed when the parent is distant towards the child during infancy and is therefore not attuned to their needs, leaving the child to build an internal working model with the belief that they are unloved. The child needs to teach themselves to be self-reliant, as it believes that its needs likely won’t be met by their caretaker and sees others as rejecting and intrusive.
As the avoidantly attached grow up, they continue to hold the belief that others won’t be there for them. This presents itself as a high level of perceived independence, and less of a willingness to build close attachments. However, internally they crave intimacy but are afraid/avoidant of them. They prefer their time alone, and usually cut ties with people when the level of intimacy seems too intense, as it can feel smothering. This intensity in a relationship can feel overwhelming and so it is easier to push it away.
Those with avoidant attachment are also the kind to hide their feelings, with less willingness to experience their emotions and a preference to push them away. They can appear distant and are unlikely to open up about how they are feeling.
The Insecure-Ambivalent attachment style is less common than its avoidant sibling, with around 20% of people identifying with this concept. This style is formed by parents who were either unpredictable within their care for the child or overly intrusive. This is not to say that those with the ambivalent attachment style are victims of abuse or neglect, but rather their parents weren’t as emotionally attuned to the needs of their child as desired. This can also stem from parents prioritizing other factors over the care of their child at any moment. When this happens the child learns that people won’t always be there for them, and so they can’t rely on their needs always being met. This discourages the autonomy of the child, which can cause clinginess as well as a mirroring of any anxiety that may be present.
As the ambivalently attached grow up, they believe that they are of low value or ineffective, and they see others as unreliable, insensitive, unpredictable, or even neglectful. The clinginess from their childhood can attach itself to their connection with others, as they search for support and crave intimacy from others. Someone with an ambivalent attachment will usually question the connections they have with others, as they can fear that the person will not meet their needs or see themselves as ‘unlovable’, which can often feel smothering to others who may push them away.
This final attachment style is by far the least common, with approximately 1% of people identifying with this concept. The term ‘disorganized’ comes from the idea that those who have formed this attachment style are unsure of how to attach to others, usually because of previous trauma. 80% of abused children have a disorganized attachment, and so they are holding a genuine fear around their caretaker. Those with disorganized attachment are usually confused about how to view their caretaker because of the natural desire to connect with their parents, partnered with the fear of actually connecting with them. This barrier creates a rupture in their attachment, which leaves the child disjointed (or disorganized). Because of this, the child never learns how to deal with their own emotions. When they grow up, they are very likely to struggle to form supportive and authentic relationships to meet their own needs.
Those with a disorganized attachment usually have a confused view of themselves, with the overall view that they are ‘bad’. They also view others as frightening or unavailable. There is a lack of consistency in their lives, but they often avoid connecting with others because of their previous experiences. The fearfulness they feel around their parents continues through to their view of others.
Affect Regulation: Speaking to the Emotional Manager
Biology is a huge part of the forming of an attachment style. When our emotions develop internally as a child, we look to the main people in our life to learn what to do with them. This speaks to the process of Affect Regulation (Wikipedia), which is how humans react and process through their emotions, both internally and externally. This includes when the emotions come up, how they are managed/maintained, the duration of time that the emotion is around for, and how it is processed.
Someone with a secure attachment style will have a clear grasp of their affect regulation.
With the existence of Affect Regulation, there is also Affect Dysregulation, which is when someone is unable to regulate their emotions effectively, which usually leaves the person feeling numb or overwhelmed. This can also mean that the person is unable to orient the information associated with their emotions, which makes these emotions much harder to process. This is called affect dysregulation.
Those with an avoidant attachment style are usually defined as over-regulated, which creates difficulty verbalizing and analyzing emotions and leaves the avoidant person feeling numb. Alternatively, those with an ambivalent attachment style are more likely to under-regulate, which leaves them overwhelmed by their emotions, and can cause over-arousal, or difficulty handling self-destructive impulses and preoccupations.
Remember, if you identify with one of these attachment styles, it doesn’t mean that these characteristics define you.
So, how do we learn how to affect regulate, you ask? Well, it all starts in our infancy because this is when our brains are most malleable. We learn from our parents through mirroring, and so when the mother is attuned to the emotions of the infant, they are able to teach the child how to manage their emotions as they come up. This includes any bodily-based internal states that may create arousal in the infant (eg: being hungry or having a dirty diaper). At a young age children still need their parents to support them in processing their emotions. For example: when the primary caregiver creates this Secure Base, it allows the infant to learn how to experience their emotions. As the infant grows and becomes a child, it begins to explore its autonomy, and with that learns to process emotions by themselves. With their parent(s) offering them support when needed, the child can explore their internal working model and their identity begins to form.
When the parent is not attuned to the needs of their child, affect dysregulation likely forms. This can come from the extreme signs of neglect, but on a smaller scale can be created from parents prioritizing other things over the immediate needs of the child (eg: children of divorce moving between households, a child with siblings who has ‘higher needs’ than them, etc.). This is rarely an intentional endeavor, yet can still offer strong consequences. When an infant is not offered a secure base from their parents they can have difficulty processing their emotions when they come up, as there is no one to teach them how to do this consistently. This likely creates affect dysregulation, which can include either over or under regulate the child depending on the behavior of the parent. A parent who prefers to push emotions away and ‘man up’ is more likely to teach their child to over-regulate, while an anxious parent is more likely to teach their child how to under regulate.
The world around us is full of situations and experiences that can trigger our emotions, and so affect regulation is an essential tool in our emotional toolbox. As we grow up we learn from those closest to us how to handle our emotions and eventually learn to process them on our own. How we regulate our emotions (eg: over or under regulating) comes from what we learn as an infant and how we put it in place as an adult. Ideally, we learn to regulate our emotions to avoid becoming over or under-regulated (ie: affect dysregulation), and if this isn’t the case it is never too late to change such a habit (see life or death section for more on that).
Defining Our Styles
Which attachment style do you align with the most? Check out the quotes below and see which ones you identify with the most.
|I easily develop emotional ties to others||Having to depend on other people makes me feel uneasy||People are reluctant to get as close to me as I would like them to, including romantic partners.||I am fearful of others.|
|My parents were always there when I needed them.||I spent a lot of time by myself as a child.||My self worth is based on how satisfied people are with me.||I don’t feel safe at home with my family.|
|I don’t have trouble expressing my own feelings or needs.||It’s hard for me to let my walls down.||I disregard my own core values when in conflict with others.||I don’t know how to relate to other people.|
|I trust people quite easily.||I have trouble trusting others and prefer to keep other people at a distance.||I stress about the ending of my relationship, even when times are good.||I am unsure at how others will react at any time.|
|I see the good side of most people.||It’s easier to avoid getting close to people so I don’t get hurt.||I disregard my own preferences to please others and have trouble making decisions without the approval of others.||I have trouble trying to solve my own problems. This can cause me to shut down.|
|I am autonomous but know others will be there for me when I need them.||I am fiercely independent and a hard worker.||If I am not in a relationship, I am a nobody.||I become overwhelmed quite easily.|
|I can resolve emotional issues with ease.||I freak out if my partner pushes me to establish a commitment, and feel the urge to bail when the relationship becomes intense.||I want my partner to rely entirely/exclusively on me.||I am already doomed to fail.|
Attachment styles aren’t perfectly defined, and you may align with quotes in every category. There may also be one category that speaks to you the most, with one or two quotes that are quite far from your reality. An attachment style isn’t categorized in an all-or-nothing way, and is more like shifting shades of color with some overlap. Not everyone has been raised the same, and so no category will perfectly speak to one person. The point of understanding our attachment style is to learn why we think the way we do, and learning how to shift out of any unhealthy (by our own definition) habits that may come from it.
If you are looking for a clearer examination of your attachment style. There are many quizzes online that can help define your attachment style. Try our attachment style quiz here. There is also a range of external quizzes you can take. They are all structured the same, so you may pick and choose as you wish:
When completing the quizzes it is important to remember that any results do not define you. These quizzes will address certain personality traits or characteristics that relate to specific attachment styles, and what the results show is a snapshot of your answers and not an awareness of a new form of identity. While the results may shed light on some aspects of yourself that you agree with, or are suddenly realizing, it is important to know that it may not speak to you in every way. Take from it what you choose.
Learning About My Own Style
While it is all well and good to learn what Attachment Theory is, it’s important to make this topic more than an interesting conversation at a cocktail party. When we are aware of what our own Attachment Style is, we are able to offer ourselves certain strategies to support our wellbeing. Before we dive into the style in their respective categories, let’s recap what it means to be each style.
The main traits that define each of these styles are anxiety and avoidance. Look at the axis to the side; you can see the four corners that encapsulate each Attachment Style. When someone holds a secure Attachment Style they have a low level of both anxiety and avoidance, however, if someone holds low avoidance with high anxiety it creates the Insecure-Ambivalent Attachment style. Likewise, someone with Low anxiety, but high avoidance will have an Insecure-Avoidant Attachment style (surprise surprise). When someone is both highly anxious and highly avoidant they hold a Disorganized attachment, which as we know can create quite a fearful nature. Now that we’re all caught up, let’s get specific.
For now, let’s focus on the Insecure and Disorganized Attachment Styles. Someone with a Secure Attachment likely knows themselves quite well.
If you identify with this style you likely get anxious quite easily and your connection with others is something that can trigger this anxiety. You crave connection from others, and when that does not occur you take it quite personally. When you perceive a threat to your relationship such as your girlfriend appearing too busy to speak with you or your dad not returning your phone call, your brain may respond to this as a “relationship threat” which can create a highly anxious feeling. Suddenly the relatively minor threat of an unanswered phone call snowballs into waves of worry, questioning, and self-doubt. This is common for those with an ambivalent attachment style, so know you are not alone in this.
An important consideration when reflecting on your own attachment style is what it means to you. Educating yourself on your attachment style can be helpful in this endeavor (which you are currently doing!). Within this, reflecting on your past experiences concerning the themes of your attachment style can help you understand your anxieties, as well as their triggers. Not everyone relates solely to every facet of their attachment style, so understanding which areas you align with can support the management of these anxieties.
Being open and accepting of your attachment style is also helpful. Some people focus on the perceived negative language around their attachment style, with words like ‘anxious’ and ‘clingy’ causing a disheartenment in their identity. Someone with an ambivalent attachment style can offer others a strong level of care and commitment. They hold their friends close and are usually very supportive, the kind of person that would show up at your house with movies and popcorn on a Friday night after you’ve had a bad day at work. While there can be a high level of insecurity in those who are ambivalently attached, there is also a strong consideration and care for others.
If you identify with this style it is likely that you don’t often show your emotions. When in a triggering situation it will likely look like you don’t really ‘sweat the small stuff’. People believe that you are quite a chill person, and that is likely something that you see as a part of your identity. While this can be the case, you may also choose not to share your emotions out of a belief that no one will care, or that they shouldn’t be shared. You likely have a ‘toughen up’ or ‘don’t let anyone see you cry’ attitude that causes you to shove your emotions down rather than bringing them to the surface. While this is stereotypically the experience of men, it is not uncommon for women to have the same experience.
An important consideration when reflecting on your own attachment style is how you view these beliefs. Understanding your attachment style and where these beliefs come from can be helpful. As you know, we are taught by our primary caregivers to understand and react to our emotions, so invalidation of our emotions may have come from them at an early age. Understanding where and why these learned beliefs came up can allow us to accept and move through them with more ease. (However, this can be a scary thing to do!).
That being said, someone with an avoidant attachment style may come across as if they don’t ‘sweat the small stuff’ but they can feel lonely or anxious just like anyone else. Someone with an avoidant attachment style has learned to build up their walls to avoid showing emotion, and so their emotion is heavily hidden rather than non-existent. You can still crave connection, but you are unlikely to show this to others.
Being willing to be vulnerable despite our attachment style is also helpful. It can be easy to focus on your attachment style and not make a change, because emotions are scary after all. “The vulnerability of showing these emotions could lead to being rejected by those close to me.” is an easy thought process to have during this reflection. It is important to consider how your attachment style is affecting you internally, as well as your relationships with others. It can be easy for someone with an avoidant attachment to avoid any kind of emotional change, and so reflecting on what this change will offer you, in the long run, can be helpful.
If you identify with this attachment style your upbringing likely came with a lot of fear around those who raised you. A high number of people holding a disorganized attachment style have experienced trauma in their childhood households. You likely grew up both craving and fearing the love and attention of others, and so it was difficult to understand what a caring emotional bond can look like. Safety is important to you, and this is not something that you can find easily around others. Trusting people is difficult to do, and so you can become overwhelmed in social situations quite easily.
When understanding your disorganized attachment style the most important piece is an awareness that it is not your fault for having the fears that you do. The complexities of this attachment style stem deep in our unconscious brain, and they can be difficult to understand and control. If you identify with the disorganized attachment style and are looking to grow, you will likely need professional support to make this happen. Finding a therapist that is right for you and your attachment style can help heal the wounds that have formed over time. Overall, be gentle with yourself and take your time.
We’ll learn more about the ins and outs of living with our own attachment style on the next page.