Fix Your Attachment Style, Fix Your Relationships
Photo Courtesy of Nicki Sebastian
Freud knew what he was talking about (in this case): For better or worse, many psychologists believe that our adult personalities are unconsciously planted in our childhood experiences. And the way we relate to others, too, seems to be established in our very first relationships—typically with our parents. From the way our caregivers meet our emotional needs in early life, we develop social coping habits that collect into something called an “attachment style”—a pattern in the way we relate to others. A healthy attachment style might serve us well, fostering solid self-esteem and positive relationships, but an unstable one might hold us back from forming functional relationships.
Hypothesized by psychoanalyst John Bowlby in 1958 as an update to Freud’s theories on child development and the unconscious mind, attachment theory brought maternal-child relationships to the forefront of psychotherapy research…for a while. In the twenty-first century, however, attachment theory isn’t talked about as often, despite continuing research efforts. Depth psychologist Carder Stout says that we all have something to learn from knowing our attachment style: The first step is knowing if you have an insecure attachment style, and, if so, what kind. The second—and this is the tough part—is changing it. Stepping into the unconscious mind isn’t intuitive or easy, but, according to Stout, it’s not impossible—and it can reform the way you approach relationships going forward.
Breaking Attachment Styles
You may have been single for some time and wonder why. Or you may be a serial dater who enters relationships falling hard in the first few months—only to cool down and lose interest. You may yearn for love but find yourself staying home binge-watching Game of Thrones. You may have found the perfect partner but get so in your head that it’s impossible to enjoy dinner with them. Perhaps you have been in a long-term relationship but feel unfulfilled, and no matter what they do, you can’t seem to trust your partner. If any of these scenarios apply to you, you may be mimicking feelings that were established when you were in diapers.
Many of the fears, beliefs, and behavioral patterns you emulate as an adult are derived from how you felt in the first few years of life. Our thoughts and actions are shaped by the way you were attached to your primary caregivers.
How can we know how well we were attached to our parents as a child? We probably will never know entirely. What our parents perceived to be healthy and attentive parenting may not have felt like it to us, and what one child perceived as the perfect amount of love may have felt dismissive to another. And unfortunately, most of us don’t have a memory bank that reaches back that far—so, the information we have to work with is dodgy at best. We can, however, look at our adult behavior and deduce whether it fits into one of three specific attachment categories.
Many of the fears, beliefs, and behavioral patterns you emulate as an adult are derived from how you felt in the first few years of life.
There are three basic types of attachment, according to John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst who studied infants and their relationships to their parents. Bowlby was interested in the dynamics that ensued when there were significant periods of separation—as well as when there was hardly any separation at all—between the child and caregivers. He guessed that these primary relationships would leave a permanent imprint that would impact the child’s ability to relate to others throughout development and into adulthood. According to this theory, much of our psychological and emotional distress is lodged deeply in our psyche, deriving from a time and place that we do not remember. So don’t be too angry at yourself if you’re on a hamster wheel of dysfunctional relationships—it’s not entirely your fault. (Not that you should sit around and blame your parents; instead, it’s more helpful to use this information to better understand yourself and help heal any old wounds you carry from infancy.)
Attachment theory is useful and relevant especially in identifying insecurities and detachments that affect our general well-being. There are three main types: anxious, avoidant, and secure. Of course, there’s a lot of individual variability, but most people tend to identify with one of these types.
Anxiously attached people require a lot of attention. They never seem to be satisfied with the amount they are receiving and consistently want more, a need driven by the devastating fear that they are not good enough. They often compare themselves with others and strive for perfection, believing that somehow this unattainable state will relieve them of ordinariness—and expendability.
It is almost impossible for an anxiously attached person to fully trust anyone, and so they make a mess of romance and friendships. They are often suspicious, scared of being betrayed, and predisposed to meddling in the affairs of others. If you don’t text them back within an hour or two, they tend to take it personally; they believe that something is wrong, feel annoyed, or worry they have offended you in some way.
Anxiously attached people live in their heads and not their hearts.
Anxiously attached people live in their heads and not their hearts, which creates an unusual amount of suffering and discomfort. They just can’t seem to get out of their own way. They want more than anyone can give and are offended if you cannot read their minds. They can be pessimistic about the possibility of long-term success and prone to temper tantrums. They are often argumentative and unwilling to concede their point.
People that are anxiously attached are waiting for the other shoe to drop. They may constantly be on the verge of breaking up with their partner or friends, but they don’t through with it because they don’t want to be left alone. Almost a quarter of all people are like this—does it remind you of anyone?
Another quarter of the world’s population falls into the category of avoidant attachment. These people often seem indifferent and unaffected by even the most turbulent of relationships. They keep their emotions closed off and don’t engage too deeply in love.
It feels unsafe for avoidants to show who they are; they’re often dealing with self-doubt and uncertainty. They busy themselves with a wide array of useless tasks in order to place distance between themselves and others. They are often workaholics who have little time to socialize with friends, and they even have a tendency to neglect their spouses and children. Avoidants are masters of self-soothing, which often leads to reliance on unhealthy obsessive patterns around substances, exercise, and food.
People who are avoidant may yearn for a loving connection but find themselves running from scenarios where they are asked to commit—they cannot throw caution to the wind, and they struggle with spontaneity even when they see the value in it.
You may have tried to date someone with this type of personality only to be consistently frustrated by their inability to show up emotionally. People who are avoidant may yearn for a loving connection but find themselves running from scenarios where they are asked to commit—they cannot throw caution to the wind, and they struggle with spontaneity even when they see the value in it. In the face of real intimacy, they become uncomfortable and tend to slip away when things get serious.
Avoidants are encased by an unconscious fear that they will be abandoned and rejected and therefore they do not allow themselves to get too close. Unfortunately, this can lead to loneliness, a sense of disconnection, and pessimism.
And then there are the secure types, where most of us fall. Those who are securely attached find the joy in friendships and intimate partners and are not afraid to let it all hang out. They have a balanced and healthy ego—for the most part—and believe in themselves and the vitality of companionship. They seek partners who are also healthy and have a low, well-balanced center of gravity, which allows them to take risks without the fear of failure.
Secures are willing to brush themselves off after a spill and are not discouraged in the face of hardships. They enjoy rolling up their sleeves and seeking viable solutions for the complex problems that challenge their everyday life. They have the ability to speak up for themselves instead of internalizing resentments or discomfort. They are usually willing to listen to reason and are not threatened by points of view that juxtapose their own.
Those who are securely attached find the joy in friendships and intimate partners and are not afraid to let it all hang out.
When a securely attached person is paired with an anxious or avoidantly attached person, he/she can tell right away that something is amiss. This does not mean that relationships do not exist between these groups, but if they do, they are often short-lived and unfulfilled. Securely attached people sometimes have a blind spot that prevents them from understanding what people with insecure attachments are coping with. It can be hard for them to fathom the cognitive intensity that dominates the minds of the other groups simply because it does not make sense to them. They are the fortunate ones who had parents who showed the correct amount of love for them. This is the primary difference: Avoidants and anxious types did not receive what they needed to feel fully safe.
Healing Old Wounds
The details of these first years of life are spotty, and we cannot go back to change them, but there are a few things that may help to heal these old wounds if you are willing to think outside the box.
In depth psychology, we often refer to the power of the image. The pathway between our unconscious state and our conscious mind is lined with beautiful imagery. Images arise purposefully from our psyche to give us clues about why we are feeling a certain way. These are communications from our soul to help us better understand what issues need attention and how to proceed in the most effective manner. Just as images drift up from the soul, they also may drift down from our conscious minds into psyche. This is called stimulating the active imagination, and it’s the process that is used during guided meditations.
One of the purposes of these meditations is to interact with images that may bring us joy, calm our senses, and give us insight. There is the potential for tremendous healing while working with images, for there are no bounds of past, present, and future, and we can essentially create whatever reality we desire. This new perception created in a meditative state is able to soften the context of our memory and give us relief. The negative self-beliefs, traumas, and fears that we experienced as children may now be dispelled by our older, more seasoned selves. We simply have to go back and visit that younger self. We must reacquaint ourselves with the wounded child within.
A Guided Meditation
Here is a guided meditation to help you:
Find a comfortable spot in your home or office. Somewhere that has no loud traffic noise. Turn off your cell phone. Take off your shoes and socks. Sit down on the floor. Reach down and grab your feet; give them a gentle rub. Sit up with your spine straight and head level.
Now close your eyes. Begin to breathe deeply. Inhale though your nose. Imagine that all of the air you pull in is full of love and compassion. As you exhale through your mouth, imagine that all of the stress and worry are leaving your body. In with kindness. Out with judgment. In with joy. Out with concern.
Imagine that you’re sitting outside. The grass feels soft against your skin. You’re looking at the beautiful purples, oranges, and blues that surround you and sway in the breeze. The air is warm and full of light, and you watch as birds move above your head.
You notice that a small child is walking toward you across the open field. You recognize the way the child walks. You get up to meet the child. Looking down into their eyes, you realize that you are looking into the eyes of your younger self. You reach out and take the hand of your younger self and guide her to sit down next to you. This is the kid who was not able to express herself when she felt neglected and alone. This is the part of you that felt scared and unwanted. You bring this young girl onto your lap and hug her tight. You tell her that everything is going to be okay. You hold her tight for several minutes consoling and reassuring her. You tell her that you will always be there to take care of her.
Do this exercise each morning. As you soothe the wounded child inside of you, the grown-up that you have become will begin to feel different—more secure, less anxious, and more confident about your relationships.
I also encourage you to seek out the help of a therapist. Therapy can be immensely helpful in healing old wounds, shifting your perception of yourself and the people around you, and allowing you to feel safe.
Carder Stout, Ph.D., is a Los Angeles–based depth psychologist and therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, where he treats clients for anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma. As a specialist in relationships, he is adept at helping clients become more truthful with themselves and their partners.