Factor 5: Attachment
Why Attachment Is So Important
From our mother cooing and our father tickling our belly, we learn how to be in relationships as infants and toddlers. Neuroscience is informing us that these very early interactions or attachment patterns also directly affect the health of our cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral development— and even our physical health.
“Attachment theory” is a very well-researched and well-accepted psychological concept that explains that humans learn relationship patterns starting at birth based on consistent emotional attunement, responsiveness, and empathy of primary caregivers.
Quite simply, how your parents interacted with you in emotional, non-verbal ways when you were very young is the origin of emotional wellbeing.
Attachment is such a powerful influence that it has been shown to change brain structure, which changes brain functioning throughout life. (Read this good article on the importance of attachment in brain development.)
When optimal parenting practices are used, optimal child development occurs, resulting in the child’s secure attachment relationship or bond with her parents.1
A secure attachment pattern teaches a child to accept care and develop a sense of connection with others. This helps the child learn a positive model of how another person feels about him and an abiding belief in self-esteem. It predicts that a person will likely grow into someone who has healthy, loving relationships with others and with himself.
The attachment relationship is an interactive mechanism for generating high levels of positive affect: joy, enjoyment, interest, and excitement. These are the “approach” emotions, the opposite of the “fear” emotions.
Secure attachment gives a person the experience of trusting relationships, which helps them view others as safe and a source of comfort and caring, not just rejection and pain. This view leads to an ability to generate feelings of empathy and to control of aggression.
Importantly for mental health, those who experience secure attachment to caregivers are more able to develop secure self-attachment or self-acceptance. They can hear criticism and can tolerate conflict in relationships without over-reacting with fear and emotionality. Simply, they can tolerate shame in healthy ways.
Insecure Attachment Patterns
In contrast, if a parent is emotionally or physically unavailable and is unable to develop a strong, nurturing bond with an infant, the child learns that if she cries no one will come to comfort.
Being cut off from others is the ultimate danger signal to a helpless child. That child can develop anxiety or even primal terror at abandonment. In addition, when terrified at these times, the child’s stress is not co-regulated by the parent, who is unavailable. This teaches a child to become easily aroused to fear, and yet is not helped to develop the skills to self-soothe or turn to others for soothing.
“Insecure attachment” in childhood leads to fear and emotional reactivity when a person perceives she will be abandoned or rejected, even later in life.
Eventually, a deep-seated fear may arise that he is inadequate and unlovable.
Researchers believe that rejection sensitivity stems from early attachment relationships and parental rejection.2
If the child learns to view relationships as threatening, he will find himself consistently viewing himself as outside the social group and isolated. What is more shaming and fear-provoking than feeling unloved and unwanted by one’s key social group — the family? Sadly, those with insecure attachment fail to develop secure self-attachment, so they lack the emotional skills to truly comfort themselves and regulate their emotions.
Children and adults seem to have two main responses to the distress of insecure attachment:
- avoidance or withdrawal
- anxious clinging or pursuing
Avoidance or withdrawal attachment status is an adaptive response to relationships that are threatening or rejecting or perceived to be so. In avoidant attachment patterns, the child learns to numb emotions or turn inward to find emotional nurturing, rather than turn to others for safety, caring and understanding. Because they are primed to fear vulnerability in relationships, they lose a key source of social and emotional support and soothing that is essential for humans.
In extreme cases, individuals will withdraw from society completely in an attempt to manage the feeling of threat from others.
Clinging, pursuing or anxious attachment patterns are self-described, identifiable largely through behaviors of fearful seeking of connection and closeness or excessive fear of loss of relationship. In adults this can show up as submissive or dominating behaviors, inability to be alone, serial relationships, tolerance for unhealthy relationships, lack of boundaries, jealousy, pursuing for reassurance, and self-doubt regarding relationships.
Research shows that anxiously attached people use appeasement or “pleasing” as an attachment security device.3 Acting defeated or submissive is a tactic many people have learned to use in relationships to forestall conflict and achieve a sense of (false) attachment.
Anxious and avoidant adult attachment patterns can be described in this way: Those who are too desperate for love cannot truly love, and those who are afraid to love cannot truly love.
This definition clearly indicates that the solution is to find earned secure self-attachment or self-acceptance. Without self-acceptance, a truly emotionally connected relationship is impossible.
Insecure Attachment and Emotional Intelligence
With lack of attachment, a person fails, in some measure, to learn to speak the language of emotions — the unspoken, heart-felt way that humans seek and achieve a deep sense of belonging and acceptance.
“Insecurely attached people may be less inclined to feel empathy and compassion toward a distressed partner. Whereas an anxious person’s egoistic focus on personal threats and unsatisfied attachment needs may draw important resources away from altruistically attending to a partner’s needs, an avoidant person’s lack of comfort with closeness and negative models of others may interfere with altruistic inclinations and inhibit compassionate responses to a partner’s plight.4”
In severe cases of avoidant attachment, a person may be extremely fearful of emotional connection. A sort of “freeze” response occurs. Social reciprocity skills suffer and a person may present with flat affect, awkward physical presence, poor eye contact, poor social skills, lack of spontaneity, and lack of emotionality — behaviors some would label as “autism spectrum disorder” or “schizoaffective disorder.”
Emotional awareness, emotional regulation, self-acceptance and self-compassion are key to self-attachment and good emotional health. If you fail to learn this language, you may struggle to connect not only to others, but also to your own emotions. The result? Difficulty listening to your inner self. Many people express a lack of self-understanding and self-trust — a lack of ability to know their own heart and desires.
Sadly, this is a Catch-22 cycle. If you lack emotional intelligence and secure attachment to yourself, you may struggle to connect with others. By not relating with others you thereby lose the potential healing power of attachment and emotional connection which could help you overcome your insecure attachments.
While experiences such as war, natural disasters and crime can certainly be traumatic, many experts now consider “attachment trauma” to be a more significant precursor of psychological distress.
Some of the most distressing types of trauma are those based on feeling rejected or abandoned by a caregiver or significant other. However, it is important to recognize that this does not have to be a physical abandonment. Narcissistic parents (what I call Other-Blamers) can, on a daily basis, signal to a child that she is not important, because the Other-Blamer’s emotional needs come first. This teaches a child to be submissive and over-focus on the needs of the parent, or to also be narcissistic and self-absorbed. The child adapts to try to figure out how to feel loved and connected to another, yet narcissistic parents are unable to care about anyone but themselves.
The power of interpersonal trauma is likely due to the fact that it carries several very hurtful survival and attachment-related messages:
- “My loved one was not dependable in a time of emotional threat.”
- “I am invisible to others and psychologically alone.”
- “I have no way to manage strong emotions of fear and loneliness without the aid of a comforting other.”
- “Others do not care for me, and I am unlovable.”
- “Others are a source of threat and not protection.”
- “I am helpless.”
Many types of chronic developmental trauma, such as substance abusing parents and chaotic homes, lead to lack of attachment.
A common situation in families is the frequent use of yelling, anger, or excessive criticism or shaming. A parent who uses harsh, judgmental, shame-based parenting is under-focused on the child’s emotional state and needs, leading to lack of emotional connection and, possibly, to a child who feels like a failure.
Being exposed to these emotionally threatening situations certainly predisposes a child to become hyper-vigilant and hyper-reactive. From an attachment perspective, this type of situation teaches a child that relationships are mostly about anger, distance, and rejection, not reassurance, comfort, closeness, or safety. It teaches a child not to turn toward others for comfort, but to respond self-protectively with anger and fear. He then loses the ability to also provide comfort to others.
Parents may reject aspects of a child’s experience in ways that are dismissive of the child’s sense of self or emotional judgments. (“There is nothing to be afraid of.” “Stop crying. Don’t be a baby.”) A parent being critical, rejecting, or unavailable when the child is experiencing something stressful is also harmful.5
A depressed or anxious parent, who is likely preoccupied with getting his or her own emotional needs met, may not have the emotional capacity to pay attention and fully attune to a child’s emotional, social, or physical needs. Attachment is about feeling that you exist in the mind of another.
If a parent is regularly indifferent or preoccupied emotionally or physically, then the child learns she is peripheral and perhaps even unwanted. This directly impacts the view of self — likely leading to a self-image as unworthy of love and connection. The child may also develop a view of others as untrustworthy and unsafe.
A parent who was not nurtured with warmth and acceptance as a child may have difficulty generating those behaviors and bonding to her own child. A parent preoccupied with addictions, financial stress, relationship problems, lack of housing, or other issues may also not have the emotional presence to notice a child’s distress and respond promptly, calmly, and lovingly.
Clearly, outright neglect and abuse signal a parent who lacks empathy or emotional attunement to a child — a parent would not be inflicting this kind of pain if they noticed or cared about a child’s distress.
Kids who learn, in these types of experiences, they are not good enough tend to develop unhealthy ways of responding to shaming experiences. Because they have a self-image of being unlovable, they learn to work hard to try to find ways to manage this intrinsic shameful experience. They may try to fix themselves or they find ways to blame others for their problems to protect against the shame.
Those who lack secure attachment patterns in childhood may later attempt to find what is called substitute attachments through other means, usually in the form of unhealthy coping mechanisms, including addictions or affairs. Those with insecure attachment patterns tend to prefer depersonalized attachments with objects (hoarding), work, substance abuse, pornography or casual sex, shopping, or gambling.
Infidelity in a relationship can also be seen as an attempt to find emotional connection or attachment when the primary relationship has grown distant or is fear-provoking.
Addiction has been labeled a “disease” of the brain and is alleged to be genetically based. However, trauma research shows that trans-generational trauma and lack of attachment are very common in those who develop addictions. It is much more likely that substance abuse and other addictions are merely a sign of insecure attachment in multiple generations of families. Each generation fails to get the soothing they need in childhood, so they grow up to look for soothing and emotional regulation through chemicals, rather than the “oxytocin fix” of a deeply loving relationship.
Attachment and Relationships
Unfortunately, individual self-protection strategies that worked in childhood do not bode well for adult relationships. While it may be natural to put up your guard when you feel threatened emotionally in a relationship, the resulting withdrawing or attacking behavior merely earns you more threats, in the form of your partner also attacking or withdrawing.
My saying is: “When you show only toughness, you invite toughness from others.” The end result is a loss of attachment or emotional connection, comfort, and soothing.
The attachment process and its effect on relationships might be summarized as follows:
If your parents did not experience a safe, loving, accepting environment when they were children…
- you may not be parented in a safe, loving, and accepting way…
- you may not experience safe, loving, and accepting relationships as a child…
- you may grow up to believe that relationships are not safe, loving, and accepting…
- you may behave in ways that are not safe, loving, and accepting to your partners…
- you may get exactly what you expect to get, which is relationships with others that are not safe, loving, and accepting…
- and, most significantly, you may not have a safe, loving, accepting relationship with yourself.
For those who have rejecting or traumatic experiences in childhood and subsequent adult patterns of insecure attachment, there is hope. It is possible to develop “earned secure attachment,” also known as self-acceptance, to generate internal emotional safety.
- 1 Hughes, D. (2009) Attachment-Focused Parenting. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 5↩
- 2 Butler, J. C.; Doherty, M. S.; Potter, R. M. (2007). “Social antecedents and consequences of interpersonal rejection sensitivity” (PDF). Personality and Individual differences 43: 1376–1385. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.04.006.↩
- 3 Sloman, L. (2000). How involuntary defeat is related to depression. In L. Sloman & P. Gilbert (eds) Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach to Mood Disorders and Their Therapy, pp. 47-66. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.↩
- 4 Gilbert, P., ed. (2008) Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy. London: Routledge, p. 127↩
- 5 Hughes, D. (2009) Attachment-Focused Parenting. New York: W.W. Norton. p. 57.↩