Chapter 10 – Attachment Styles and the Significant Thing

Expanding awareness of attachment tendencies (how we tend to connect to others) and their antidotes helps us interrupt old and often unhelpful patterns. Out of tune attachment patterns cloud the signal of who we are with the noise of the stress response and the defensive behaviours that result.

As children, we learn how to attach (connect) based on how our parents attach to themselves and to us (Bowlby, 2012). For instance, if we interpret our parents’ inability to connect with us, or provide us with safety, as rejection, we will yearn for it from others, which can come across as clingy and needy. Conversely, if a parent is anxiously attached to us (enmeshed), causing us to feel smothered, we are more likely to avoid attachment to others, which from the outside can look emotionally disconnected and cold.

As adults, we will tend to gravitate to one of the three attachment categories. Rarely does anyone securely attach all the time. How securely grounded we are in ourselves will determine how extreme our tendencies will be with others. The general categories are:

  • avoidant 
  • secure
  • anxious

Figure 13: Attachment tendencies in relation to one’s view of self and others.

Most of us fall along the edges of the attachment spectrum, either avoiding intimacy or anxiously attaching to others, with those who easily form secure attachments in the minority.

The good news is that attachment styles are not fixed traits. Like most of our inner workings when we come to recognize our attachment style and unhelpful reactions that spring from it, we have a new opportunity to heal the distortion at its roots. Many of us have not experienced secure attachments with others, and neither do we feel securely attached to ourselves, which looks like self-compassion. We can learn how secure attachment feels by receiving it from others. Once we receive and feel it, we can mirror it inwardly. We receive it from others, we provide it for ourselves, and then we can give it to others, including our children. In this way, secure attachment spreads outward and can transform generational patterns. This is good news indeed!

Attachment tendencies are not black and white; they are general patterns with plenty of exceptions. You may find yourself avoidant in most relationships, but anxiously attached in an intimate partner relationship. So hold these labels lightly. They are not meant to box you in but rather to spur on the awareness, curiosity, and objectivity necessary to consciously work with defensive ways of being that may not be serving you.

Below is an adapted version of Vogel’s Experience in Close Relationships Scale (Wei et al., 2007). Keep in mind that attachment tendencies are not fixed and that we can find ourselves on both ends of the spectrum, depending on the relationship and our mindset at that moment.

Anxious tendencies:

  • I need people to frequently reassure me.
  • I seem to want to be closer with people than they do.
  • Sometimes my desire to be close to people scares them away.
  • I fear I’ll be abandoned.
  • I seem to care more about other people than they care about me.
  • I feel angry when my partner isn’t available when I need them to be.
  • When it’s time to say goodbye, I draw it out, afraid to let go.Avoidant tendencies:
  • I rarely turn to others, especially to those close to me, in times of need.
  • I long for close relationships, but I instinctually pull back.
  • I don’t rely on others for reassurance.
  • I keep one foot outside the door of relationships most of the time.
  • I avoid getting too close to others, it makes me nervous.
  • I relish the intensity of a new relationship but typically withdraw from it after a little while.
  • I don’t usually bring up my ‘real’ problems with others.
  • I don’t like goodbyes or anything that’s drawn out. I’d rather transitions happen quickly.

Secure tendencies (Brown & Elliott, 2016):

  • I am safe and protected.
  • I am supported to be my best self.
  • I am seen, known, and understood.
  • When hurt, I am soothed / comforted.
  • Just by being myself, I am delightful.

Pause to Reflect: What are your attachment tendencies?

Consider current and past relationships. Which descriptors are you most resonating with? Write them below or mark the ones above that stand out for you.

Typical Attachment Antidotes

Antidotes, or cures, in this context are the significant actions that help us consciously work with old patterns. In doing so, we cultivate choice, rather than continuing to get caught up in habitual reactions that are no longer serving us. By working with attachment antidotes, we can improve our ability to securely attach to ourselves and others, which develops congruence and sense of coherence. Doing so cultivates the self-compassion necessary to be honest and to set boundaries that help us feel secure in relationship to ourselves and others. We are able to better navigate challenges without feeling threatened by them. We will still get distracted, even activated, by situations, but we can easily step back from them, de-escalating stress responses, so we can better manage them.

Lacking self-trust (anxious)? Antidote = REACH IN!

When anxious attachers gain self-compassion, they securely attach to themselves, making them less likely to cling to others for self-assurance.

Those on the anxious attachment end are more likely to focus outwardly than inwardly. In these moments, there is more trust in the outer world than in the inner world. Because self-trust is at the root of anxious attachment, the antidote centers on securely attaching to oneself. When we habitually avoid the inner world, the subtler feelings can go unnoticed, causing them to build to the point of overwhelm. Focus on noticing and expanding your awareness of the subtle sensations that arise in you. Breathe space into and around the sensations, welcome them as honored guests with an important message, so you can consider the concern. See the last chapter for more teaching on how to cultivate this.

Consider also how you can have more relational diversity. Spreading your relational needs among many people will prevent you from putting unrealistic expectations on one or two people.

Lacking trust in others (avoidant)? Antidote = REACH OUT!

When those with avoidant tendencies set boundaries, speaking up for what they want and need, they cultivate more trust with others. This trust is necessary to securely attach to others.

Cultivate more trust with others by testing the relational container. This happens when we are honest about our feelings and needs. Say “no” when you want to say “no,” rather than saying “yes” out of obligation. Self-expression, even when it’s scary, is an essential component of boundary setting, which is necessary for those who don’t feel safe in close relationships.

Pause to Reflect: What are your attachment antidotes?

Thinking of the descriptors you identified earlier, how might you try something new the next time you find yourself in a relationship conflict? It might be helpful to consider an event or situation that has caused you stress and think specifically – the next time this comes, what is one small thing I could do instead?

Finally, take it slow! Moving too fast can push you outside your window of tolerance (see Chapter 8). For new ways of BEing to take hold, self-compassion and patience are required.

The Significant Thing

As we move through the hours and days, no doubt we will each experience moments of feeling stuck. Often, when we are feeling stuck there is a significant thing that we are putting off. It represents the action we feel called to in any given moment that aligns with our signal, despite noisy distractions and social pressures. The significant thing is what shifts us from feeling underneath life, stuck as a victim of it, to being above it and able to manage what is coming our way.

The significant thing is different for every person and dependent on the situation and the unresolved wounds with which it intertwines. Awareness of the significant thing comes from an embodied way of knowing, or intuition, rather than ‘figuring it out’. It is the thing that takes the most self-compassion and courage, which requires the meaning of the significant thing to overshadow the fear of doing it. It may involve writing a letter and then burning it. It may mean making a call to make something right, or saying no to something that you know may upset others.

While we may fear doing the significant thing, often desperately trying to compensate by doing several other things in its place, ultimately we will continue to feel out of tune until we act. Finally, the significant thing is often subtle, and may seem like a small action – trust your gut, if it feels significant, inspired, and you know it’s the right next move, do it. Sometimes the smallest actions we take for ourselves are the most powerfully significant.

One moment at a time, one significant thing at a time, this is how we heal