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What is Your Attachment Style?

Attachment refers to the way we connect and relate to other individuals. These attachment styles develop during our formative years, between us as infants and our caregivers, and grow with us into adulthood. Your unique attachment style can influence how you engage in relationships, such as dating, friendships and even coworkers, and how we engage as parents ourselves. Knowing the attachment style we drift to can provide insight into our emotional and physical needs, both as children and adults. This allows us opportunity to improve both our external relationships, as well our relationship with ourselves. Below I will briefly discuss the four different attachment styles one my experience:

Secure Attachment

This attachment style reflects a relationship dynamic between a caregiver and child that is consistent and attuned to their emotional and physical needs. When the baby cries, they know they will be met with comfort and support, such as a calming voice, gentle rocking in a chair, or a soothing song the mother sings. This attachment styles promotes a sense of curiosity about the world, exploration, and allows the child to feel safe when independent of the caregiver.

As an adult, secure attachment allows individuals to have a stable sense of self, knowing who they are in the world, and ability to emotionally regulate themselves when distressed. These individuals desire connection with others as relationships are seen as positive, and generally safe. This attachment style tends to promote a sense of balance between independence and desired relationships as there is low anxiety and low relational avoidance

Anxious Attachment

This attachment style reflects relationships that are inconsistently consistent. While parents sometimes may be emotionally supportive, validating, and nurturing, other times they may be viewed as insensitive (“maybe you should try harder next time”) or intrusive (ex: helicopter parent). This makes it confusing for children as they don’t know what version of their caregiver they will get due to the inconsistency displayed. This creates a level of distrust in, not knowing

what will happen next, while also holding tightly to these relationships because they don’t want

to lose them.

As adults, one is described to have preoccupied attachment patterns. Characteristics of these individuals include self-critical, insecure, people pleasing, and perfectionist. Approval is sought from friendships, coworkers, family, etc. to help them feel accepted, seen, heard, and facilitate the belief, “I am enough”; however, none of this effort fully eliminates their self-doubt and fear around rejection and abandonment. This further perpetuates feelings

of mistrust, worry, and dependency (co-dependent)

on others. While there is low relational avoidance,

there is high relational anxiety that can create

imbalance in one’s life.

Avoidant Attachment

This style reflects caregivers who are consistently inconsistent and can be described as insensitive and unaware of the child’s emotional and physical needs. For example, a parent who is drunk and passed out on the couch after work. There is little to no support for a distressed child and caregivers may be even discourage crying (“suck it up buttercup”). Independence is often encouraged and causes individuals to feel as though they lost aspects of their childhood because they had to grow up quickly to take care of themselves and/or siblings. Due to this independence, they have trouble asking for help and are emotionally reserved.

Avoidant attachment becomes dismissive attachment in adulthood. Characteristics of these individuals include being self-sufficient, independent, emotionally reserved, and cerebral. While they have low anxiety, they have high relational avoidance and do their best to avoid conflict. This lends itself to imbalance due to the isolation from avoiding relationships and being emotionally distant.

Disorganized Attachment

This style reflects caregivers that are emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abusive that teaches the child that the world and people are unsafe. It's comprised of not knowing what to expect and when their underlying needs will be met. Due to the caregiver often causing the distress, there is no safe place to run to. The child will often lack curiosity and exploration of their world as it is unsafe to do so and the priority has shifted to survival. In a survival mindset, the mind/body often responds in one of four ways, flock, fight, flight, or freeze. As children, since they don’t have the resources to leave and aren’t capable of fighting back, they typically dissociate from themselves as a protective response. When dissociating, one is no longer connected to their body to feel the overwhelm of emotion and the brain releases its own calming endorphins to regulate the nervous system. This is similar to a daydream or fantasizing. It’s not uncommon to have memory gaps during this time of disconnection as the memory network operates differently in times of survival. Much like you might not remember what your boss said in a meeting, because you were daydreaming about your upcoming vacation.

Disorganized attachment develops into fearful-avoidant attachment in adulthood. Think of it as being both a combination of preoccupied and dismissive attachment. Adults can be described as emotionally detached as it was reinforced as a survival mechanism during times of trauma. This can also lead to a poor sense of self and identity. They behave in ways that don't logically make sense, such as operating in extremes or impulsiveness, as they don't know how to self-soothe in times of distress. One may desire to be in a relationship and establish connection with others until they become emotionally close.

This closeness may feel too vulnerable and risky, as it serves as a reminder of previous hurt from childhood relationships, even if unconsciously. This leaves individuals trying to sort out their desire for relationships with their fear of getting hurt, creating a push-pull feel.

Unprocessed childhood emotions may begin to surface in relationships that can lead to irritability, panic, self-sabotage, etc. Life overall is described as imbalanced due to high anxiety and high relational avoidance.

What Next?

While this can be a lot to process, the good news is, you can always work towards achieving and maintaining secure attachment. This can be done through the incorporation of evidenced based modalities in therapy to address unprocessed memories, trauma, childhood pain, and attachment concerns. These examples include EMDR, Ego State Work, Cognitive Processing Therapy, and general exploration of how your individual attachment style is showing up in your own life.

Since attachment is all relational, it’s important to find a therapist you feel you can be yourself with, who understands you, and can reflect secure attachment/relationships in session. As the residue of emotional pain heals, we can work towards achieving a secure relationship with yourself and others that embodies compassion, grace, connectedness, comfort and emotional/physical safety.

Here is a quiz to further determine your attachment style

Written by: Chelsea McDonald, MA, LPC


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