Discovering the world of Attachment Theory opened up and changed my life. I finally got who I was. Have you ever wondered why you do some of the things you do, or believe some of the things you believe? For example, I never knew why I startled so easily, used to hug with one arm and had a difficult time with eye contact. I just thought they were little peculiarities of my personality. But no, there is an explanation that makes sense!
You see, I have an avoidant attachment style. What is that and how do you get it you ask? Well, let me tell you! First, it is not something wrong or a diagnosis, it’s like eye color, it just is what it is. The way it comes to be is directly related to how our caregivers attended to our needs around the first five years of life. When we are born we (and all mammals) have an innate need to attach to another being to stay alive. Even birds do it. It’s called imprinting, here’s a link to a You Tube video that shows how geese imprinted on a woman who was studying them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxxrDEbtuag
If our caregivers, also called attachment figures (or people we attached to as a baby—usually our mother and father but not always, can be a babysitter, grandparent, etc.) were sensitive to our needs, in other words, came to us when we cried and calmed us down, we felt safe. This feeling of safety planted 3 seeds into our minds. The first seed it planted was the seed of self-esteem: I am loved, I deserve love, I am worthy, I belong in this world. The second seed is about others: I trust people, I trust that they can meet my needs, be there for me and want to be there for me. The third seed is about the world: The world is a safe place. Studies show that if your attachment figures were sensitive to your needs at least 40% of the time, these became your general beliefs about you, others and the world.
If your caregivers were sometimes sensitive to your needs but sometimes not, sometimes there to calm you down but sometimes not, the seeds that were planted in your mind look a little like this: I’m not loveable, deserving or worthy, I can’t trust people to stick around and the world is a scary place. And you developed an ambivalent attachment style, which basically means that you feel a little more anxious overall when you’re not around people because you’re afraid they may never come back and you will be left alone.
If your caregivers ignored you, didn’t interact with you much or often let you cry without coming to calm you down, your seeds look more like this: I am not loveable, deserving or worthy, I can’t trust people to meet my needs and the world is a scary place. And you develop an avoidant attachment style, which basically means that you are a “do it yourself” type of person and asking for help can be difficult. You also don’t really like to be around people that much and prefer to be alone.
These are very broad descriptions and there are other things that come into play that result in who we become, nothing is ever that cut and dry, but in general, the attachment style we develop as a consequence to how sensitive our attachment figure was to our needs, is an important thing to be aware of because it can answer many unanswered questions. It did for me! I finally got me! I understood why being around people made me feel slightly uncomfortable. If my “others’ seed” was that I couldn’t trust people than being around people just didn’t feel that good or safe. This “unconscious” distrust caused me to hug with one arm—don’t get too close! And not feel safe enough to look people in the eyes. Whew! You mean it wasn’t because I was a weirdo?! What a relief!
Someone with an ambivalent attachment style will feel anxious when people leave, even if it’s their partner going to work or to the store and may even feel angry when they come home because their leaving made them feel abandoned. They are in constant fear of being left, and can be hyper vigilant about how and what people say, looking for possible rejection. They need to hear I love you, you’re the best, and anything positive all the time! Sound like you? Don’t worry, it’s your attachment style and that can be worked on!
See, knowing this makes all the difference in the world because you can’t fix what you’re not aware of and understanding the “why” of things makes it that much easier to change because it makes sense. Understanding why being around others was uncomfortable for me, I was able to challenge myself, come out of my comfort zone a little and go to a social gathering, notice my “uncomfortability” and talk myself through it. The more I did this, the more comfortable it became because I was stimulating different parts of my brain that didn’t get stimulated much because I used to avoid social gatherings. And as the brain scientists say: Neurons that fire together wire together! The more I stimulated other parts of my brain, the more these new brain associations became more familiar. Which is exactly what happened!
People on the ambivalent side can notice the anxiety that comes when their partner goes to the store and talk themselves through it until they come back. Or ask that their partner to text them once from the store to restore the connection that feels lost when they are not there. People with ambivalent attachment believe “out of sight, out of mind”, that people will forget about them if they are not right on front of them so connecting with them when you’re away from each other helps calm them down.
The reason why these seeds are planted is because as children we interpret the sensitivity or non-sensitivity of our parents as a problem with us. Children cannot see themselves as good people in an insensitive environment. So, in our little vulnerable brains, we interpret the insensitivity as, “I must not be loveable or deserving of my parent’s love.” Sucks, doesn’t it! I suppose if children could see themselves as worthy and loving and their parents as the ones that need “a little help”, we would all have healthy self-esteems and my profession would not exist! Hummm what else would I have done with my life? Anthropologist! That’s it! I’d be in Egypt excavating, wearing khaki’s and a large brim hat, discovering exciting worlds before me…….opps, sorry I digressed!
If you want to learn more about attachment styles, read my book: Why Can’t I Change? How to Conquer Your Self Destructive Patterns. Chapter One is all about attachment, gives a detailed description of them and a quiz at the end of the chapter will help you discover your attachment style. Keep in mind that we are unique and complex human beings and many things influence our beliefs and behaviors, however knowing and understanding your attachment style can help you discover the ‘why’ of you from a different perspective.
WARNING: This is not meant to put blame on anyone, our parents did the best they could with the information they had, their emotional wherewithal and ability. This information is simply to help us on our journey of evolving to become our best selves!