If you have struggled in relationships or keep repeating the same unhealthy patterns, knowing your attachment style can give you an understanding of why this happens and how we can move towards change!
Our attachment style is laid down early in life and is a combination of our genetics and our response to our perception and experience of our environment. We are hardwired to be in a relationship with others and to develop, grow, and change in relation to others.
As babies, we are dependent on our environment and caregivers to be available and responsive to our needs. When they are (much of the time, not all the time) we develop a sense of safety and security, we believe the world is a safe place for us to go out and explore - knowing that there is always a home base for us to return to.
When our needs are not met, when our caregivers are not available or responsive to our needs, we experience attachment ruptures that threaten our survival. So even as babies and small children, we create strategies to manage; this is where attachment styles come into play, and we bring them into our adult life.
Because a lot of the work I do brings in the mind/body connection, I will be talking about these ideas through the lens of nervous system regulation - our ability to be calm and relaxed. How do these adaptive attachment strategies impact our nervous system and how does that feel in our body?
When we are babies, we do not have the ability to regulate our nervous system and calm down on our own. We rely on our caregivers to help us with this. This is called co-regulation. When we cry, or are distressed, and our caregivers are there to soothe us, our nervous system calms, and we are able to regulate our emotions.
We learn regulation skills in relationships with other people.
When things go well, and we grow up with this sense of safety and security in the world, we are able to both self-regulate and co-regulate our nervous system. To feel safe on our own and to feel safe in relationships is called secure attachment.
When things don’t go so well, when there is inconsistency or neglect from caregivers, we either collapse fully into a relationship with others to feel a sense of safety, losing our own sense of self. This is called anxious attachment. Or, we armour ourselves up from relationships to meet our needs on our own, believing that relationships are unsafe. This is called avoidant attachment.
And here is the interesting thing…
Most of us who have an anxious attachment style learn from an early age that we have to earn love and connection and so we are drawn to partners with avoidant attachment styles as it is most familiar to us. If our partner has an avoidant attachment style, their own fears of closeness and connection kick into high gear, and they put their energy into creating distance so they can feel safe. This push-pull relationship between two people with different attachment styles can bring out the worst parts of us, and the relationships are often not very healthy.
When we have an anxious attachment style, we experience our partners pulling away from us as life-threatening, whether we know it or not. Our nervous system goes into overdrive, feeling a sense of urgency (often painful physical emotions) to reconnect. Our nervous system can only be soothed when we are physically or emotionally close to them again.
So, what now? Is it possible to create healthy attachment?
If we were never given the opportunity to learn regulation skills as a child, it’s not too late. We can learn as adults how to regulate our nervous system and build up our sense of safety with ourselves and in our relationships.
It all starts with learning more about you and your nervous system. How do we experience our relationships with others? How do we experience being alone? What tools do we have to regulate our emotions when we feel activated? How can we strengthen these tools or create new healthier tools? How can we increase our capacity to feel these intense emotions and possibly even learn from them?
When we are able to do this work, we are able to show up more fully for our relationships and for ourselves. We can move into relationships with more choice and autonomy, knowing what our needs are and knowing that with or without this relationship, they can be met. Yes, we can learn to move past the attachment styles we used for protection and move into real, deep connection!
But first, let's learn about secure attachment in part 2!