What is My Attachment Style and How Does It Affect My Growth and Healing?
You probably know your Myers-Briggs Type and you may know your Enneagram number, but do you know your attachment style? The concept of attachment styles comes out of Attachment Theory, which is a psychological model that was proposed by John Bowlby in the late 1950’s. During that era, behaviorism was the prevailing psychological model, and it taught that all human behavior was the product of rewards and punishments. Behaviorism taught that if a certain action results in pleasure, or a reward, such as food, then humans will continue engaging in that behavior. In contrast, if an action resulted in discomfort or pain, a person would discontinue that behavior. Although this is a guiding principle for why people do the things they do, it is a much too simplistic explanation of human behavior.
Bowlby was a psychiatrist a hospital in London children’s hospital, and he observed that the bond with one’s mothers plays a large role in the emotional and cognitive development of a child. This bond is most commonly observed in the child’s reaction when he or she is separated from their mother. Bowlby’s observations inspired an entire psychological model now referred to as Attachment Theory, which provides an understanding of interpersonal relationships, psychological development, and emotion regulation – as well as a lens through which to view a person’s response to stress and trauma.
How Attachment Develops
The human brain is wired for survival. As infants and children, humans are entirely reliant on others for their survival. From birth, babies begin to learn whether or not their needs will be met within a relational context. Will I be fed when I am hungry? Will I be soothed when I am distressed? When these needs are consistently met by a caregiver – most commonly mom – then the child develops a healthy and secure attachment style. Thus an individual’s attachment style can be thought of as the activation of particular behavioral systems that have developed as a result of the child’s interaction with caregiving figures in his or her environment. But our reliance on others does not end when we become self-sufficient adults – we need social support and community to survive and thrive. Our early working models of attachment that we developed as children become internalized and are used to generalize to new relationships later in life as a means of organizing thoughts feelings, behaviors, and interactions.
The two main dimensions on which a person can be insecurely attached are characterized by attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. Attachment anxiety is to the degree to which one is worried that their attachment figure will be unsupportive in times of distress and need. Attachment avoidance is the degree to which one minimizes their dependency needs and distances from potentially supportive interpersonal relationships when faced with stressors.
Secure Attachment: low avoidance, low anxiety
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment: low avoidance, high anxiety
Dismissive Avoidant: high avoidance, low anxiety
Fearful Avoidant: high avoidance, high anxiety
Attachment and Mental Health
Social support is a major factor related to resilience and is a resource as you learn to cope with day-to-day stress. However, if you have an attachment orientation that is prohibiting you from effectively utilizing your support system, this may be one of the primary areas you’ll want to focus on in your healing journey. Additionally, research has demonstrated that your attachment style plays a role in your self-esteem, your ability to regulate emotions, and how you behave in stress. Thus, being aware of your attachment style is one of the most important elements of self-awareness that can contribute to your healing journey. If you have discovered that you have an insecure or disorganized attachment style, there is hope! People can heal and take steps toward more secure attachment. Below are some tips for healing your insecure attachment style.
Identify relationships in which your relationship partner (romantic or platonic) has a secure attachment style. These relationships often feel more stable and can be arenas to practice healing skills that can you move you toward a secure attachment. Working with an individual therapist can be invaluable in learning what a healthy attachment feels like.
Get clarity around your personal values and ask yourself which of your relationships reflect these values. If you don’t have many relationships in which your partner shares similar values, you may need to establish connections with new people. Support groups are a great place to meet other people who are prioritizing healing! We have one you can register for here.
Become aware of where you are using your finite resources such as time, energy, attention, and intimacy. Ask yourself whether the relationships where you are investing your resources are honoring and participating in your healing. If the relationships that are taking up the majority of your time and energy are draining you more than they are filling you up, it may be time to set new boundaries.