How Your Attachment Style Might Affect Your Stress Levels At Work

Written by Jenni Gritters

Image by ALTO IMAGES / Stocksy

If you've ever looked at your parents and thought, "Oh my gosh, I am the way I am because of that thing you do," you're not alone. In fact, research shows your early childhood experiences dictate many of your adult behaviors. According to a study recently published in the Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, our early socialization experiences can specifically shape the way we behave at work. Our early experiences can lead to specific attachment styles, some of which cause higher rates of burnout and stress and even lower performance.

The basics of attachment theory.

Every person has a specific attachment style, which is the way you relate to the world, set during your earliest years of life based on the way your first caretakers gave you (or failed to give) affection. A person can have a secure attachment or insecure attachment, the latter of which is further broken down into either anxious insecurity or avoidant insecurity.

Securely attached people have low levels of anxiety and avoidance; they generally like themselves and others, are resilient, and are able to offer support to the people around them when needed. People with attachment-related anxiety usually experience a lot of anxiety about their relationships and crave closeness, whereas people with attachment-related avoidance tend to have an adverse reaction to people who open up to them emotionally and push people away.

How your attachment style affects the way you perform at work.

The researchers used data from two different groups: 201 Dutch employees and 178 working students from Romania. All of the participants filled out an online questionnaire about their attachment styles, burnout symptoms, and job performance.

When the results came in, researchers found that in both populations, people with an anxious attachment style were more likely to be burned out, which often affected their job performance negatively. According to the authors, these people "use non-effective energy management strategies" and focus mostly on using their work to "attract others' attention and obtain their approval or support." This attention-seeking behavior can cause lower levels of well-being if people are not as approving or supportive as you'd like them to be. And this negative well-being shows at work, often leading to burnout and poor job performance.

People with secure or avoidant attachment styles didn't show any of these outcomes. This makes sense for securely attached people, but what about the avoidant ones? The authors speculate that this could be happening because of the way avoidant people relate to stress; often, they bury any negative emotions and thus do not lose any valuable resources and don't feel burned out. It's also possible that avoidant types don't expect any emotional support from their colleagues, so they may be less affected overall by any kind of office politics.

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Changing your attachment style.

We've known our early experiences play a significant role in shaping our personalities and relationships, but this study demonstrates how those childhood experiences can also affect our well-being and performance at work. People with anxious attachment styles come up with the short end of the stick here: If you're someone who tends to crave attention, affection, and validation, you might be more likely to respond poorly to stress at work.

So the big question: Can you change your attachment style?

Psychologists do say you can heal your childhood wounds in some ways, which means you can essentially rewire your brain to develop more attachment security and feel less insecure in your relationships. Debra Campbell, Ph.D., suggests doing this by spending time pursuing the things you feel passionate about to help you feel more self-confident while taking measured risks to push you out of your comfort zone and doing the inner work needed to face the little kid in your head.

"If you're hard on yourself, ask yourself whether you'd speak to someone else that way," she says. "Would it help a child to grow in self-esteem if you spoke to them the way you speak to yourself in your head? If not, think about giving yourself the same level of kindness and compassion you'd give another because feeling ashamed and criticized, for whatever reason, is hell."

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