Why do I do what I do?: Attachment Styles Explained

Attachment Styles

 The Beginning

Roughly in the first two years of life the number one job of the brain, in terms of personality development, is to take all the experiences of need ("I'm hungry", "I need to be changed", "I want to be stimulated" "I want to be cuddled and soothed" "I'm in pain", Etc.) and our parents responses to our needs (the ability to understand them accurately and respond in helpful ways) and mash them into a set of assumptions about: "Is the world safe?" and "Will others be there for me?" This is because our brain knows we can't assess every single social interaction for safety and provision, it would take too long and too much energy. So we take our initial experiences and build a set of assumptions out of them that we essentially operate out of for the rest of our life.

 Some Brain Stuff

One other point about this before we move on; the right hemisphere of the brain develops faster than the left. The right hemisphere is pre-verbal, it's more intuitive, body sensation and feeling based. The left hemisphere is language, logic and linear thinking based. This is important because the developmental time that these attachment assumptions are getting laid down in is when our right hemisphere is online but our left is not so much. Meaning, these attachment assumptions that we operate out of live in the right hemisphere and are largely unconscious. They operate out of a part of us that is not thought based as much as it is impulse based.

So moving on! 

 Attachment Styles

These assumptions about "Is the world safe?" and "Will others be there for me?" get together with our "givens". Meaning, our inborn levels of sensitivity and personality propensities mix with our assumptions about what our environment is like. The results of this become our basic style of relating. Styles of relating (or attachment styles as the literature calls them) break down in humans into one of roughly four different observable categories (I say observable because these categories came out of decades of research using a scenario called the strange situation). The four categories are: secure, insecure: anxious/ambivalent, insecure: avoidant/dismissive, insecure: fearful/disorganized.

Secure - "I easily give and take emotionally in relationships. When feelings come up, whether distress or excitement, I naturally and fairly openly move to people to get what I need. I don't get very nervous about being rejected or frustratingly misunderstood and I see people as rewarding experiences."

Anxious/Ambivilant/PreOccupied - the ambivilant part is more talked about with children and the pre-occupied part is more talked about with adults. ambivalent part is, "While people show me love and affection (often in response to my high energy attention to them) I'm retisent to truly trust them with my vulnerable self."The Preoccupied part is as in "preoccupied with how people view me". The Preoccupied part is as in "preoccupied with how people view me".

The Anxious Attachment style would say, "I too think people can be rewarding but also unpredictable with their rewards. In order to best combat the unpredictability I remain on high alert, constantly scanning for any potential threat of someone being unhappy or judgmental. When I believe I pick up on that (which is constantly) I quickly move to attempt to re-secure my sense of safety. Trusting others fully is very hard because of this and I can be misunderstood as clingy, fake, or a perfectionist or stressed out (and yet I seem to always have a full plate). People can feel annoyed with me sometimes because I can unconsciously display my desires for attention, affection, security or support through my actions but I have a hard time owning my needs explicitly or out loud (since unconsciously this seems risky to me for it might not be what the other wants and that might rock the boat I need to stay secure)." 

Avoidant/Dismissive - The avoidant part tends to be talked about more with children and the dismissive part more with adults.

They would say, "I tend to see people as ranging from inconsequential to suspect. I dissconnect from my feelings (unconsciously in order to not be propelled to be with people because people in my brain equal frustration or worse) and usually only have access to secondary sensations like: anxiety or anger or impulsiveness. I don't have access to the more nuanced and rich experience of feelings like: sadness, shame, loneliness, fear, joy. I tend to be self sufficient and not be excited about large group experiences. I really get turned off by anything I percieve to be victimhood or martyrdom. Being busy, being industrious and being self sufficient are my drivers. I have a hard time being present or still. To decompress usually I'm an all or nothing person, I have to totally get away to not be stressed and even then it can be a challenge to not feel the compulsivity to be accomplishing something."

Fearful/Disorganized - "I short circuit when it comes to my needs. I feel both a desire for people and a fear that they will hurt or let me down. I can really whip up a storm of drama with the people around me in my tension filled attempts to get people to love me the way I desire. In these I give simultaneous messages of, "I need you" and "I hate you" or "I don't need you". In short, I feel both anxious and avoidant at the same time. 

 A final word on these is; all of the insecure styles struggle with self worth at their core. Our young minds implicitly ask, "why is the world unsafe?" and "why are others not there for me?" and without more mature minds to help us we fill in the answer with, "because I'm lacking".

The End...Or maybe the Beginning... 

All of these styles are not good or bad, they are amoral and simply the ways that our young minds devised was the best way to get our needs met in our initial environments.  Problem is, these schemas (attachment theory calls them, Inner Working Models), become outdated as we grow up and encounter new environments but because we operate out of them unconsciously we continue to react to our world as if it was the same as the one we grew up in (an act that tends to turn our current environments into our initial ones). Psychotherapy is designed to help us discover these unconscious processes through not only insight but experience. For more on how that happens see this blog post:  http://analogcounseling.com/therapy-blog/what-makes-psychoanalysis-different-from-other-therapies-and-why-its-so-valuable