When I discovered attachment theory and how it affects thought-processes, a façade I’d come to rely upon crumbled. The façade told me the broken relationships I’d suffered were simply bad luck, but the opposite was true. I’d unintentionally and compulsively sabotaged myself.
For anyone who’s never encountered attachment theory, allow me to explain. It refers to the security you felt as an infant and young child and how it affects relationships, particularly emotional connections. As a result of having our needs met [or not], our brains adapt. And if you’re anything like me, the realization that the brain you walked out of childhood and into adulthood with is still ruling the roost is unsettling.
And it should be.
Psychologists have narrowed down two attachment styles: secure and insecure. If you’re secure, way to go! You’re still human but you have a set of rose-colored glasses to pull from your back pocket on a gloomy day. It isn’t so with insecure attachment.
Psychologists break insecure attachment into three categories: avoidant, anxious and disorganized. I’ll attempt to break down each in understandable form but this is in no way a comprehensive explanation. I encourage the reader to dig a bit deeper if anything resonates.
Avoidant: Avoidant children did not have their needs met in a timely manner. Their cries were met with negligence and they quickly learned to soothe themselves. As an adult, this person is uncomfortable making emotional connections. They may marry, have friends, a career they love — but, intimacy? No. They’d rather take care of themselves, and attempts at connection may be met with the dissolving of the relationship. They are masters of deception, both with themselves and others, and may develop a rehearsed story of their childhood, “It wasn’t that bad. Pretty normal if you ask me.”
Anxious: Anxious children had their needs met some of the time. This created a mixed worldview that panic and/or staged drama drew the attention they craved, while being quiet and withdrawn meant no disappointment. So, these children waffled between neediness and despondence. In adulthood, the anxiously-attached may seem emotionally immature, craving in-depth relationships, but at the hint of conflict or suspicion, become over the top angry or completely shut down.
Disorganized: Disorganized children were scared of their caretakers. Their experience transcended neglect and became abusive, which led to confusion concerning their needs, as it often led to pain. As adults, they are both wary of relationships and desperate for them. They often find themselves in abusive situations, and congruent to their childhood, this push-pull effect can feel like the connection they crave.
Studies estimate that 50% of the population suffers from an insecure attachment. For anyone struggling to create and sustain healthy relationships, discovering attachment theory is wonderfully freeing . . . after the revelation demolishes any previous belief that it was the other guy’s fault.
Maybe it was, or maybe, like me, you panic when conflict is introduced into a relationship, or find yourself lying to protect the peace. The good news is, it’s not really you, but the lasting effects of trauma, and it must be addressed.
This brings me to the next point: Can it be healed?
There is some discrepancy here. Adam Young, host of the podcast The Place We Find Ourselves, believes there is hope as we experience the opposite of what our trauma taught us. Still, the first step to solving any personal dilemma is admittance. Next, devour the science: download podcasts, read a book, search the internet. Begin examining patterns of your thinking, guttural responses to simple things, like how you feel when someone offers to buy you a coffee. Do you trust them less because they were kind? Once you’ve nailed down patterns, it’s a good time to begin bravely telling your story. Licensed counselor, Aundi Kolber, writes in Try Softer, “It’s only when I acknowledge that my experience was valid that I have the ability to do something with the discomfort.”
The last step is the most important: Find someone to trust, even if it’s the tiniest, most insignificant seed of trust you can muster. When conflict or closeness comes [which is inevitable], stay in that uncomfortable place. Choose to be present and see it through until resolution.
None of this is simple. In fact, in word-form it’s known as neuroplasticity. We’re teaching our brains a new way to think and respond.
If this article has resonated, there are several resources I recommend:
Podcast: The Place we Find Ourselves with Adam Young
Books: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help you Find – and Keep – Love, Amir Levine M.D.
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk M.D
Try Softer, Aundi Kolber, MA, LPC (faith-based)
Literally any Brene Brown book.
Coming to terms with an insecure attachment isn’t a death sentence, no matter how uncomfortable the initial realization may be. If anything, it’s an invitation to healthy, long-lasting relationships. Be honest. . . it’s what you’ve always wanted, and with a little self-awareness and intentional effort, it’s possible.
Kolber, Aundi MA, LPC. Try Softer. Tyndale, 2020
Young, Adam. “The Place we Find Ourselves.”