Attachment and Me: How recognising attachment styles from the past can help in looking forward.
One of our Associates and Psychological Therapists, Jenny Kerr, shares her experiences of working with Attachment Styles and gives tips on how to use this knowledge to get the most out of life.
[Read time: 7 mins]
My clients often come to therapy with concerns or confusion about how they respond to stressful situations within the relationships in their lives. They may be experiencing stress related to work, family or romantic relationships. They often report patterns of anxiety, frustration or a need to pull back from people. Often clients worry that these behaviours seem to be automatic and hard to control, even if rationally they know that things in the relationship are ok.
This can lead to lowered self-esteem, increased self-criticism and a lack of self-trust. Whilst clients can initially clock this up to being weak, different or useless, they are in fact being incredibly strong, using everything in their power to keep safe. They are using survival mechanisms which may have served them well in the past.
Confused? Don’t be. Read on, and I’ll explain...
Attachment Theory can help explain why we all might react differently within relationships. In essence, the theory aims to describe the amount of stress that an individual does or does not experience when we depend on others in relationships. This can (but not always) relate back to our first experiences of being cared for as infants and is something we might bring through into our adult lives and relationships.
Attachment Theory explains that people are naturally inclined to seek out care, safety and nurturing from birth by forming attachments with immediate caregivers. These attachment bonds are fundamental for our survival when we are at our most vulnerable.
If the bond is strong and our needs are met, we feel safe. If we feel safe, we are more confident to branch out and try new things, knowing that we are protected and that there is someone there to console us if we don’t succeed.
This experience of safety within Attachment Theory is called Secure Attachment.
Individuals who are predominantly securely attached tend not to experience heightened levels of anxiety in relationships. They value the process of repairing relationship ruptures, whilst being able to manage and express emotions appropriately. They might be able to think more clearly in difficult situations, as their brain isn’t triggered in the same way as people with other attachment styles.
Sometimes, if an individual does not experience the same level of safety and security in relationships, particularly early relationships, the attachment style may be different. If caregiving is disrupted in some way – through illness, familial breakdown, money stress, even trauma or abuse – they may receive too much, not enough or inconsistent levels of care from their immediate caregivers. Examples of too much care might be anxious, or overprotective parenting – meaning that the individual might not have the opportunity to try new things or gain confidence. Too little care may mean the individual has to rely on themselves for comfort from too young an age, and inconsistent care may leave the individual confused about how to get comfort from others, given that it may change frequently.
This can impact the beliefs that develop about the nature of safety within a relationship and how to respond in order to feel more secure.
People can start to believe, for example:
- that people cannot be relied on to give the security they need
- that the only person they can rely on is themselves
- that they need to sacrifice their needs in favour of the other person, in order to keep them close
- that they can’t trust themselves in a caring relationship from one minute to the next
Within Attachment Theory, this is known as Insecure Attachment. There are three main styles of insecure attachment:
1. Anxious Attachment:
Individuals who tend to display insecure anxious traits hold a strong need for closeness in relationships. This is often accompanied by constant worries about the health of a relationship and sensitivity to any type of behaviour which is perceived as abandonment, such as not replying to text messages quickly enough. They are often very open about how they feel within a relationship, can be very generous and attentive to those they care about, but can also be blaming of others for making them feel stressed or upset. They tend to engage in behaviours which intensify caregiving from others to make them feel more secure and less likely to be rejected. An example of this might be regularly checking with a romantic partner or friend that they like them, or over-analysing conversations to see if the person really wants to be around them. Of course, this is exhausting – and can often have the opposite effect, pushing others away as a result of too much pressure placed upon them.
2. Avoidant Attachment:
Individuals who display insecure avoidant traits also experience anxiety. However, they tend to keep this far below the surface, hidden under the veil of apparent self-reliance. They may have a preference for emotional distancing, and may employ strategies to keep people at a safe distance, as sharing how they feel with others might make them feel vulnerable and unsafe. They might struggle to vocalise their emotional needs, instead using (sometimes unhelpful) techniques to relieve anxiety. They often prefer to deal with conflict in the quickest way possible, even if it means sacrificing their own needs in the process. An example of this might be in the workplace, when the person may create a persona of seemingly having everything under control, never asking questions or for help, and being helpful. This may work to keep people at arm's length or at a manageable distance and reduces any feelings of being vulnerable but may be hiding anxiety about performance at work which could be made better by asking for help.
3. Disorganised Attachment:
Individuals who display insecure disorganised traits sit in a push/pull dynamic within relationships, with no clear or consistent way of engaging. They might appear hot one minute and cold the next – wanting to be in a healthy relationship with those around them but often struggling with deep fears of abandonment. They might experience high anxiety and high avoidance simultaneously and may have a tendency to be impulsive. They may struggle to communicate their needs, often self-sabotaging or putting barriers up to avoid being hurt. An example of this might be experiencing very strong feelings at the beginning of a relationship and being open to making big plans for the future with that person, only to begin to feel overwhelmed over time and back off or sabotage the relationship so that the other person is the one to break things off.
The way we develop our attachment style can depend upon a number of factors and experiences.
Individuals are rarely tied at all times into one style – often we respond differently, depending on the relationship and circumstance. However, living within an insecure style can be tiring! It takes a lot of effort to maintain a feeling of safety, and this extra effort can spill over into other areas of our life. It can impact our general well-being, levels of self-esteem and ultimately, our mood and anxiety.
So how might therapy help?
Firstly, knowledge is power. The more we understand about ourselves, the better placed we are to respond to situations which we might find difficult. Therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, aims to unpick the thoughts, worries or fears we might have about ourselves or the relationships we have, and the behaviours which we might use to make ourselves feel safer.
It aims to build a ‘toolkit’ of helpful self-soothing techniques so that if we find ourselves stuck within our previous unhelpful coping strategies, we have other options to try.
A Case Study
An example of this would be Sadie (not her/his real name), who came to therapy with feelings of low self-esteem and anxiety about how she was around others and at work. She was worried about how people thought of her and often found herself changing the way she interacted with different people to gain acceptance. This, ultimately though, was leaving her unhappy. Through therapy, she was able to recognise that her mother’s history of anxiety, along with other experiences, had unwittingly played a large part in her developing an anxious attachment style. Once she understood this, she worked with her therapist to recognise unhelpful thinking styles that she was using, such as predicting that interactions with her partner or work colleagues would go wrong and assuming she would end up being rejected as a result. She began to use techniques such as thought-challenging and assertiveness to begin to modify and challenge these beliefs. In doing so, she became more confident and able to be more consistent in who she was with others, which increased her confidence, and reduced her anxiety.
Remember – there is nothing wrong with having any particular type of attachment style and often the goal is not to get to the golden gates of ‘secure attachment.’ Merely understanding our attachment style is a helpful ‘arrow’ pointing us in the direction of how to build helpful techniques, to feel more secure in our relationships.
Secondly, the therapeutic space aims to be a place of security. It is a space where clients can express their thoughts and feelings. It is an honest, open and healing space where a client should feel able to ‘unfurl’ and explore the worries or experiences they have had.
If this sounds familiar to you and is something you wish to explore, then please do not hesitate to get in touch with us at the Craigie Partnership to arrange an initial assessment appointment.
If you are keen to read more about Attachment Theory, I would recommend The Attachment Theory Workbook by Annie Chen. This is a workbook that can be used alone, or with the help of a therapist.
You can read more about Jenny and her professional background here.
If you would like to arrange an appointment with Jenny or anyone in our team, contact us at: