4 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About Attachment Styles
You've probably heard of attachment styles before.
In attachment theory, there are four categories of attachment for adults: secure, avoidant, anxious, and anxious-avoidant. If our needs aren't met in a relationship, we find ways of either not needing someone to fulfill them (avoidant) or the need for love becomes all-consuming (anxious). Some of us are a mix of the two (anxious-avoidants, also called disorganized), who fluctuate between building walls and being fiercely independent, and being overly concerned with our partners' needs and doing anything to keep them close. These attachment styles develop depending upon the caretaking we experienced in early childhood, as well as our intrinsic personalities and life experiences.
The attachment framework is a popular one for good reason: It can be very helpful for adults trying to make sense of how they show up in their relationships and why they show up that way. However, much of the information typically shared around attachment style can be incredibly binary and even shame-inducing. You're either secure or have a "messed up" attachment, it suggests. Most explanations of the theory also seem to attribute all of our feelings and actions in our relationships solely to our caregivers.
The truth is, attachment is way, way more complex than how we've been understanding it. Here are a few important clarifications about attachment styles that can help us understand attachment to be more of a spectrum we fluctuate across, which makes a lot more space for our natural variability as humans and can help us foster more compassion about who we are in our relationships:
1. You can have more than one attachment style.
The No. 1 biggest misconception is that attachment styles are this rigid thing, that you are all one attachment style, and that style is how you show up in all of your relationships.
The truth is, as with many other parts of us, we are very rarely all one thing. If our caregivers were inconsistent or the context of our childhood was unpredictable, we can develop multiple attachment styles. If we had some caregivers who we could safely attach to and others who we had to be anxious or avoidant with, we develop many attachment styles. If we find safety and love later in life, boom! A new attachment style also emerges.
And the context is so important! The particular relationship we are in affects the attachment style that comes to the surface. When we feel safe, maybe a more vulnerable, secure part of us shows up. When we feel rejected or scared, our anxious part might take over, needing assurance and affirmations. Or when a partner isn't letting us grow and needs us to the point of codependency, we may become more avoidant. There certainly may be a way you tend to show up in relationships, and it can be helpful to know what that is. But just keep in mind, that may not be the only way you are all the time.
2. Having an anxious or avoidant attachment style doesn't always come from an insecure attachment with a caregiver.
There is such an emphasis on our caregivers in attachment theory. While our childhoods and those that took care of us are super impactful, they aren't the only thing that shapes our attachment. You could have had "good" or "good enough" caregivers and still be anxious or avoidant in a relationship! I often hear in my sessions with clients, "What's wrong with me? My parents loved me!" Or, "I feel bad blaming my parents for the way I am!"
Having one of your attachment styles (because, as noted above, you can and probably do have more than one!) be more insecure doesn't automatically mean your parents were unreliable or abusive. Maybe they were; maybe they weren't. But either way, there are many other things that contribute to your attachment style. It might include abuse from other people outside your caregivers, bullying, childhood experiences with immigration, growing up as a person of color in a white-centric world, losing a parent to death or incarceration…and the list goes on.
For example, maybe your parent was incredibly loving and consistent, then they had to be in the hospital for medical treatments, and you didn't get to have them in the home for an extended period of time. Because of this multifaceted experience, you might develop a more anxious or avoidant attachment on top of the secure one you already had.
3. No one has a 100% secure attachment style.
I have worked with so many clients and have never met anyone with a secure attachment system all of the time. Boiling attachment theory down to a handful of attachment styles just doesn't hold the complexity of us, our experiences, how difficult parenting can be, and the ways kids are affected by that.
Attachment disruptions occur when we don't feel heard or understood. When we are hurt. When we are separated from our families. When we feel like we can't be our true selves. When our caregivers don't fully accept us. Our attachment styles are also deeply influenced by our first relationships, friendship, and romantic. And we are young, so we very rarely know what we want or need from those relationships and can often end up crossing our own boundaries and getting hurt in a way that leaves an imprint. Too much happens in our lives to be secure all the time 24/7, and saying it's attainable just sets us up to feel ashamed about what "style" shows up in our relationships.
4. You can heal your attachment style.
Having what we call in therapy a "corrective emotional experience" can lead to us healing our attachment style, especially if we lean on one style in ways that feel detrimental to connection. When we experience safety with someone, when our needs are met at no great cost to our sense of self, and when we are loved and accepted for exactly who we are, we can heal these attachment ruptures and develop more "secure" relationship habits. We have a different experience than the times we were rejected or our needs weren't meant, and so it shows the youngest parts of ourselves it's safe.
Healing your attachment styles takes time. It can take years for us to unlearn old patterns of love that were literally programmed into our brains when we were so little. Be patient with and kind to yourself. The first step to changing and healing is knowing more and then being gentle with yourself.
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