Your ability to develop and maintain romantic relationships, business dealings, friendships, and even investments are predicted within the first 6 months of your life. In fact, there is now evidence to suggest your in-utero experiences feed into these prophetic patterns.
Based in the observations of psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, attachment styles are believed to predict how you interact with your environment as well as yourself, and are primarily influenced by the early interactions with caregivers. Understanding attachment styles is critical in developing healthy romance, friendships, business, hobbies, etc. Failing to understand them means risking repetitive failures and stagnation throughout life.
Once an attachment style is formed, it becomes your autopilot; a fallback form of self-preservation and interaction when under stress.
Each attachment style is paired with an underlying belief around safety of self and others. These beliefs are deeply embedded, so they DO NOT like to be proven false. When they are confronted, aggression, repulsion, or anxiety commonly occur.
There are ultimately thought to be four types of attachment styles: secure, avoidant, anxious, and anxious avoidant.
“I’m okay, you’re okay”
Your caregivers were consistent, sensitive, and responsive when you were young. You learned how to self-soothe, and when you couldn’t, you knew you could always rely on your parents and seek help and safety in them.
As an adult, you are comfortable in displaying your affection and interest. Others may describe you as confident and caring. You are alright with being alone and allowing others to have time to themselves as well and you tend to be more adept at drawing boundaries and prioritizing relationships.
“I’m okay, you’re not okay”
You are proud in your ability to stubbornly solve problems on your own. You may even have a tendency to go solve others’ problems as well; regardless of whether they asked you to or not. Especially in relationships, emotional expression and authentic intimacy is difficult, and you complain about people getting “too close,” or “clingy.” Because of your relationship history, you always have an exit strategy; both with work and romance. Your ego is fragile so you either become dismissive or angry when challenged.
Your parents discouraged crying and neglected you as they encouraged early independence. You may now describe your childhood as “forced to grow up too quickly.” As a child you learned to suppress your desire to seek out a parent for comfort when frightened, distressed, or in pain because you knew you couldn’t rely on your caregivers. You learned to avoid or fear relationships and rely on self for safety.
“You’re okay, I’m not okay
Your friends may say “you have a hard time letting go.” When it comes to relationships, profession, school, friendships, and life in general, you tend to hang on far too long; giving far too much of yourself to “make things work.”
Having relationships and serving others helps you forget your inner chaos and lack of trust toward yourself. Keeping an overly positive outward focus is crucial for anxious types as positivity makes people like you, and people liking you is safe.
As a child, your parents were probably not neglectful, but were more likely smothering and over-protective; helicopter parents. This prevented you from learning how to self-soothe and forced you to rely on them for stability. It’s also possible you had to earn affection by being the perfect child; a conditional sort of love.
Anxious Avoidant Attachment
“No one is okay”
You can build relationships quickly, but they tend to be brief. Within work, if you can maintain a job for long enough, it seems like others are conspiring against you, are jealous of you, or are just trying to get rid of you. Your life seems to be characterized by extremes of love and hate, and when others break ties with you, your gut reaction is to burn bridges and assassinate character.
You long for relationships, and you are terrified of them at the same time. It seems like you have an infinite list of evidence supporting your reason to fear and be ever vigilant of others.
In your childhood, you were more likely to be neglected or abused compared to the other attachment styles. This doesn’t necessarily mean your parents were cruel. They may have not been physically able to care or tend to your needs, or their attempts toward care may have been inconsistent, ineffective, or harmful.
Attachment Styles in Relationships
As mentioned previously, the underlying belief systems with attachment styles don’t like to be countered. This pattern tends to create predictable relationship dynamics.
Secure types can thrive when pairing up with secure, anxious, and avoidant types. They can offer reassurance with anxious types, and give avoidant types the space they need. When paired with a secure type, avoidant and anxious types can take on more characteristics of secure attachment. However, the opposite is also true; the secure type can become more anxious or avoidant when paired with one.
Avoidant types often will find themselves attracted to those with anxious attachment. The reasoning for this is that both subconsciously agree that one member of the relationship is okay and the other is not. Though this may be functional for a period, the chasing game of the clinging anxious type and fleeing avoidant type can result in a decay of intimacy and communication. Two avoidant or anxious types tend to not pair up as their underlying beliefs contradict one another.
Anxious avoidant types are more likely to be alone than the other attachment styles. However, anxious avoidants are prone to enter into relationships with other anxious avoidants. Though the relationship may be enduring, it is not likely to be healthy or functional. Simply put, insecurity attracts insecurity.
From what you’ve read thus far, it may seem like you’ve been doomed from the start. However, there are a few key concepts that can move anyone (regardless of how doomed they seem) toward a secure attachment style. These are: boundaries, mindfulness, and being wisely wrong.
It is through successful use of boundaries in your relationships that you learn safety and security. When avoidant attachment is present, it’s crucial to open up, practice vulnerability in safe relationships, and develop friendships while allowing some of those hard boundaries to flex. Those with anxious attachment must focus on developing and discovering self while creating more firm and healthy boundaries. As for anxious avoidant types, both flexible and hard boundaries are needed. Connecting with self and connecting with others is also necessary.
You may think that boundaries are all you need. The problem is that without mindfulness, you’ll never know where to draw boundaries, where to reinforce them, and where to lower them. Mindfulness is simply awareness and acceptance of the present. It allows you to recognize successes and failures within your relationships, and make changes for the future.
Socrates, the creator of Western philosophy, said that wisdom comes first through acceptance of truly knowing nothing followed by acquisition of reasoning and knowledge, and experience of inspiration. To counter faulty, outdated beliefs wreaking havoc on your life, you have to allow the possibility that your beliefs may be wrong. The avoidant needs to ask themselves “is this other person safe?” Where the anxious type needs to ask the same question about themselves “am I safe?” The anxious avoidant needs to ask “can I be safe, and can this other person be safe?”
These concepts can be practiced alone; however, they are far more likely to be effective when guided by the hand of a trained specialist. A licensed psychotherapist has training to assist you in noting where boundaries are more likely to be effectively placed or removed, they are able to train you in practicing mindfulness, and they can call you out on your unhealthy and ineffective beliefs.
- Joe Dennis, MA, CMHC