Why Attachment Matters

Attachment reflects how securely rooted we are in our ‘real’ selves (congruence) and how confident we are to navigate life’s challenges (sense of coherence).

I’ve been exploring the concept of attachment for some time now and just recently developed a felt sense of secure attachment, perhaps for the first time.  Neither I nor my parents experienced secure attachment as children, evident in part by how we overcompensate, fixating on DOing instead of BEing, fuelled by a fear of not being good enough. After minding this area for some time now, I’ve begun attaching to my inner child and mirroring this same attachment with my children. This more secure form of attachment emerges from a place of abundance instead of fear and the ripple effects are astounding. 

As it turns out, learning to securely attach to myself and others is breaking a generational cycle of trauma born from the disconnection and insecurity I felt in my developmental years.  Investing in this ability to securely attach deepens my roots, providing the groundedness necessary to move more confidently in the world, which is enabling me to pass this same gift to my offspring.   

Before I get too far, I want to be clear that very few people securely attach all the time.  Most of us struggle with attachment and the process to gain more security is often slow and subtle.  When we get stressed, the vast majority of humans will tend toward anxious or avoidant behaviours – this is normal!

In childhood, our ability to attach to a primary parent or guardian forms the basis of our adult attachment style (Bowlby, 2012). Our ability to connect to a primary caregiver as children impacts our ability to forge healthy connections to others as adults.  If we felt rejected by our caregiver’s inability to emotionally connect, we tend to cling (anxiously) to others.  If we felt smothered because they relied on us to meet their emotional needs, we tend to retreat (avoid) from others.  Our attachment develops in stages ranging from immature dependent security, completely dependent on others for security, to mature dependant security, where we can give and receive in our connection to others from a secure sense of self (Blatz, 1967). For example, those who are closer to the dependant side of the spectrum tend to come from a glass half empty approach, yearning to be filled by others.  Those closer to mature dependant security tend to come from a glass half full perspective, connecting from a more grounded and optimistic place. People able to progress through the stages and come to mature dependent security will form mutually interdependent relationships in their adulthood (Blatz, 1967).  Interdependence is a balance of recognizing our dependence on others and honouring our independence as a unique individual. 

Because of our progression through the attachment stages, in adulthood we will gravitate to one of three broad attachment categories;

  • avoiding attachment,
  • secure attachment (springing from perceived unconditional positive regard as a child),
  • anxious attachment.

The latter two (avoidant and anxious attachment) spring from perceived conditional regard and rejection as a child (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999). Children with repetitive and/or unresolved trauma may also develop avoidant attachment styles even when experiencing unconditional positive regard (Morina, Schnyder, Schick, Nickerson, & Bryant, 2016). Unfortunately, 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 the patterns (either negative or positive) that spring from it, we have a new opportunity to heal the old wounds at the roots.  In time and with mindful practice, we can re-orient ourselves and our relationship.

The solution for the anxious attacher is to satisfy their self-esteem needs.  They do this by developing unconditional positive regard for self.

The solution for the avoidant attacher is to satisfy their agency needs, enabling them to express themselves authentically.  They do this by cultivating relationships where they feel unconditionally positively regarded by others.

When insecurities present, those on the more anxious end of the spectrum tend to feverishly seek others to anchor to, fixating on relationships from a blueprint of scarcity, which often fuels anxiety and co-dependent relations.  When those on the avoidant end feel insecure, they are far more likely to lean back, disconnecting from external relationships, feeling too unsafe to expose their felt sense of vulnerability.  In between these two tendencies, in the middle of the attachment spectrum, is secure attachment.

What does secure attachment look and feel like?  Ideally, as children we can fall into a felt sense of safety, where we feel unconditionally positively regarded (UPR) by someone we trust and look up to.  This felt UPR makes us feel inherently worthy, separate from our ability to perform and achieve.   When we believe we are inherently worthy, we become self-compassionate, mirroring this same UPR inwardly.  By feeling safe enough to securely attach to another trusted human, we also learn attach to our inner world, promoting a greater ability to self-soothe when we experience challenges.   

When securely attached to self and others, the calamities of life are less threatening. They may be noisy and distracting, but they are distinct from the signal of who we are.  From this place, because we know who we are and the wealth of resources within us, we can confidently manage challenges (the noise). When we lack this attachment to self, we are prone to over-identify with the noise that presents, confusing who we are with unpredictable events and opinions that are largely out of our control.  From this insecure place, we often fixate on DOing to compensate for the dis-ease we feel inside.  Our actions emerge from a fear of not adding up, afraid we will not be good enough if we stop DOing.  From this fearful place, we grasp onto substances, events, and busyness to soothe us.  How we relate to others from this place of fear emerges in avoidant (emotionally disconnected) or anxious (emotionally clinging to others) attachment tendencies.

What are your attachment tendencies?

Using the following lists of characteristics, adapted from Wei, Russell, Mallinckrodt and Vogel’s Experiences in Close Relationship Scale (2007), notice which category you most resonate with. Consider your experience of past relationships and currents ones. Remember, our attachment tendencies are not fixed and we can move either direction on the spectrum, based on past adversities, our sense of coherence, and our degree of congruence.

Those closer to the anxious attachment end of the spectrum are more likely to resonate with these characteristics:

  • I need a lot of reassurance that I am loved by my partner.
  • I find that my partner/friends don’t want to get as close as I would like.
  • My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away.
  • I often worry about being abandoned.
  • I worry that romantic partners won’t care about me as much as I care about them.
  • I get frustrated if romantic partners are not available when I need them.
  • When it comes to goodbyes, and many other transitions, I draw it out, afraid to let go.

Tips to soften anxious tendencies:

You are more likely to focus on external stimuli than internal stimuli. As a result, subtle feelings often go unnoticed until they build and compound, until they feel intense and overwhelming. Stress/anxiety emerges from a fear of not getting our basic need for love and acceptance met. Taking a step back from the intensity of the emotion enables you to keep the feeling in perspective, investigate it with a sense of curiosity, and with mindfulness practice and time, to re-orient yourself. If you cannot gain perspective (objectivity through non-attachment), talking to an objective other, such as a friend or counsellor, can be helpful.  As Fred Rogers once said, “anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”

Practice attending to what is happening internally simultaneously with what is happening with the other person. Holding both experiences (the inner and the outer) connects you to your inner world, enabling it to ground you as you navigate the external.  Notice any tendencies to take the blame for conflict in relationships. When you take responsibility for something, take a step back, get curious, and see if you can come at the situation from a self-compassionate and impartial perspective.

Besides strengthening your connection to the inner world, take stock of your external resources and relationships. Try relationally diversifying yourself, which prevents you from putting all of your relational eggs/needs in one basket/person.

Those who tend to avoid attachment are more likely to resonate with these characteristics:

  • I rarely turn to my romantic partner in times of need.
  • I want to get close to my partner, but I keep pulling back.
  • I don’t often turn to my partner for things, including comfort and reassurance.
  • I try to avoid getting too close to my partner.
  • I don’t often discuss my problems and concerns with my partner.
  • I often feel nervous when partners get too close to me.
  • I dislike saying goodbye, and many other lingering transitions, I’d much rather avoid the emotions associated.

Tips to soften avoidant tendencies:

You are more likely to retreat inwardly, keeping emotions to yourself, and to ruminate on fears (worry) when uncertainty presents. Practice interrupting this pattern by talking about your emotions to another person or if more comfortable, talk to the emotion.  Talking about or to the emotion creates a space between the emotion and the essence of who you are, enabling you to notice when ruminating, to question the veracity of the thoughts behind the emotion and to stop over identifying with it.  If you cannot gain objectivity (unable to step back) from strong emotions and negative thoughts, try interrupting the stress response by reaching out to connect with someone, or shake it off with a bout of intense exercise, or bathe in nature, or any activity that sparks desire and promotes relaxation.  Working with your biology and exploring tools that mitigate stress improves your sense of coherence (confidence to manage external events) and practicing vulnerability and self-expression promotes congruence (confidence to tap into inner resources). 

Starting out slow is important, ensuring that you don’t suffer from a vulnerability hangover, which can make matters more challenging by activating the stress response.  Small steps keep you moving forward, practicing in ways that feel safe and that enable you to remain objective, or at least to maintain windows of objectivity.  If you take too large of a step, you may find your felt need to retreat (stress response) overrides your efforts. If you retreat, that’s okay, it’s part of the learning process; this is how we learn to titrate the process, moving only as fast as we feel safe to do so.

Trust takes time and part of gaining trust is learning to trust yourself and the pace in which you feel safe moving. Experiment with different techniques, with getting close to others. Try leaning on people in small ways, investigate how it feels. If feelings get intense, practice self-compassion and self-kindness by allowing yourself to take a step back. Taking a break, even stepping back, is not necessarily retreating (although without awareness it can be), rather it can be an opportunity to create space between the event and the emotions activated by the event. The desire to retreat/emotionally dissociate comes from fear. We can catch ourselves before we retreat by noticing when it is happening (catch the felt anxiety or sense of panic emerging) and acting (stepping back) before we react.

To process, digest, and heal the wounds beneath our avoidant tendencies, it helps to identify a ritual such as a stress mitigation tool, hobby you enjoy, time in nature, or a person (or animal) that provides a sense of emotional safety for you. To clarify, we use rituals in these moments to connect and empower, not to distract us from acknowledging and tending to emotional wounds. Rituals cue us, enabling us to find order in moments that feel chaotic. We all need a certain degree of order, grounding us in times of chaos (a component of sense of coherence). These safe spaces, cued and created by ritual, provide an environment where we feel safe to be vulnerable. It takes vulnerability to feel our emotions. We must feel our emotions to walk through grievance and suffering. On the other side of many of the uncomfortable feelings that arise in us is healing is from the suffering associated with old wounds.

Finally, when the intense feelings emerge, take notice. Once you notice, create space by engaging in a comforting ritual or talking to a trusted friend/loved one. When we create safe spaces and cultivate a sense of curiosity, we are more likely to observe and even welcome the experience as it is (rather than resisting it as it is or avoiding it altogether).

Whatever your tendencies, remember to tune in and take your time.  Moving too fast will slow you down.  Moving slow and steady promotes a sense of safety, keeping us connected to our bodies and to our inner resources.  If you find yourself activated, take a step back, reground, reconnect, and celebrate how far you’ve come.  From this optimistic and gracious place, you’ll be ready to step back into the flow.