You may be aware that attachment problems affect how you interact with others and the depth and scope of the relationships that you form with others. What you may not be aware of is that attachment problems can also affect how you plan and carry out your life in general, interfering with your career and even financial success. Dysfunctional homes and environments can create a myriad of difficulties related to relationships and life planning skills. This is one of the most common forms of emotional baggage that I see.
Attachment styles are developed in childhood through the child/caregiver relationship and also through early experiences with others. The ability to trust and develop meaningful relationships with others is deeply rooted in your own attachment style.
In an ideal world we all would have been raised with loving, intuitive parents who validated our every thought and emotion. Of course that is not the reality and we may be the mixture of one validating parent and one emotionally aloof or even absent parent. We may be the product of two emotionally unavailable parents. We may believe people are there for us, people are sometimes there for us, or people are never there for us. We may believe that if we goof up we will be abandoned as acceptance is based on performance, black and white, no gray area. You may believe nothing ever lasts so why get too comfortable?
Do you push others away as you believe the inevitable parting is now under your control? Do you sabotage healthy relationships as you feel they cant last? Do you cling too tightly? Do you vacillate between each of these? Do you believe others are capable of loving you or meeting your needs and do you chose a person who is capable? Or do you hook up with others and not really give a rat’s behind when the relationship ends?
On another note, are you the person who has no pictures on the walls or still lives in boxes months or even years after a move? No personal effects at work on your desk? No personal effects in your home? Is your thinking and planning short term and focused on just getting by for now?
Do you prefer to be alone or with a couple of friends and not get involved with groups or events? Do you go from one partner to the next and not think long term about children, friendship, empty nest with this person and so on? Your main thought may be “if it doesn’t work out I can always get a divorce.”
If you have been abandoned, or threatened with abandonment, emotionally or physically, you may not believe that anything lasts so why bother? You may just live by the seat of your pants, ready to run or move to protect yourself from further pain.
If you have been physically or emotionally abused, you may still be reeling from confusion, anxiety and/or depression and not be sure where to focus your mental energies for your well-being.
These scenarios can create attachment disorders or difficulties that can last a lifetime. Besides the problems with relationships and trusting others, it seeps out into many life scenarios that you may have thought were unrelated. As mentioned above, there is the ongoing belief that nothing lasts. This can become a deep seated belief in your brain that affects how you go through life in areas such as work, community and bonding with others. You may always feel like an outsider, even within the walls of your own home.
Here is an Overview of the 4 Main Attachment Styles That Begin in Childhood:
Secure Attachment– Children who are securely attached do not experience significant distress when separated from parents, and when frightened will seek comfort from them. Contact with the parent is seen as positive and readily accepted by securely attached children. Children are not overly distressed by a parent’s brief absence, but clearly prefer their parents to strangers.
Characteristics of parents with securely attached children include reacting quickly to child’s needs, playing frequently with their children, and generally being more responsive. These children tend to be more empathic later in life, exhibit better behavior overall and are less aggressive.
The adult behavior of securely attached children includes the tendency to develop trusting, long-term relationships. They also appear to possess higher self-esteem, tend to seek out social interactions and support, are capable of and comfortable with intimate relationships and are able to share their feelings with others.
Studies show individuals with a secure attachment style feel better about their marriages and relationships as adults than individuals with insecure attachment.
Ambivalent or Anxious Attachment– These children tend to be extremely suspicious of strangers. They exhibit considerable distress when separated from parents but are not necessarily comforted by the return of the parent. The child may exhibit rejection of parent or direct aggression toward them. Research links this style of attachment to low maternal availability. Others describe these children as clingy and over dependent.
As adults these folks have a harder time with relationships and exhibit great insecurity.
These adults as parents may cling to their young children as a source of security.
Anxiously attached adults are often preoccupied with their partners to the exclusion of their own interests and have difficulty focusing on anything else. They experience anxiety when separated from their partners and may act out.
Avoidant Attachment– These children tend to avoid parents in general, with the avoidance becoming more pronounced after a period of absence. They do not seek out comfort or contact with the caregiver nor do they show a preference between a parent and a stranger.
As adults these folks have significant difficulty with relationships. They do not invest much emotion and they experience little distress when the relationships end. They may have a series of shallow relationships over time and simply engage in casual sex. They are not likely to support partners during stressful times and possess an inability to share feelings, thoughts and emotions with partners.
Disorganized Attachment– These children exhibit a lack of any clear attachment behavior. Appears to be mix of avoidant and ambivalent styles and these children often appear confused. Inconsistent care behavior may contribute to this as well as outright abuse. The parent is sometimes available, sometimes terrifying, which creates this confusion in the child.
As adults these individuals typically have poor quality relationships, they may be manipulative and see others only in terms of what they can provide for them. They do not trust nor expect that relationships will last.
What’s Your Style?
So what style are you, and what style is your partner (present or most recent significant relationship)? There is no right or wrong answer. It just helps to know which style you are, as it will helps you to determine if attachment problems are affecting you today.
Secure: Relationships are characterized by warmth. Openness comes naturally to you. You do not ruminate excessively over your relationships, and you assume that they are going well unless told differently by your partner. Your general feeling is that whatever conflict comes along within reason can be dealt with by communicating in a direct fashion. You are quite adept at reading your partner and genuine about attempting to meet their needs. You are not threatened by sharing your thoughts and feelings, and you enjoy discussing life issues with your partner.
Anxious: You may be spending a great deal of energy worrying about your relationship. You have the capacity and desire for relationships, but are very insecure once one is attained. You may be “on guard” constantly looking for signs that the relationship has ended, is weakening, or that your partner is somehow changing direction away from you. You may interpret every little nuance in your partner’s moods as being directed at you and a sure sign that things are over. These fears tend to make your relationships a roller coaster ride for you emotionally, as well as for your partner (especially if you act out when you experience the fears). Yelling, nagging and clinging when you feel threatened may tend to push your partner away, bringing about the very result you feared – that of them leaving the relationship and rejecting you.
Avoidant: You may perceive or fear relationships as being smothering or that they will interfere with your independence. Autonomy is very important to you and not to be given up. You may enjoy relationships to some degree but not let anyone “too close.” Not much time is spent worrying about your relationships one way or the other, and you are not preoccupied with rejection. Open communication does not come easily to you, and you may see no real need to share your thoughts or feelings with your partner. You may keep personal information to yourself and feel that sharing too much is giving over control to someone else. You may not like to share future plans or even current ones with your partner, causing strife in the relationship. Although you are not preoccupied with rejection, you may be always on guard about any signs of attempted control by your partner, and perceive their actions as being attempts at control when they are not.
Whichever of these styles you identify with, your attachment system or schema is activated when you are faced with conflict, anxiety, discomfort or uncertainty. You then kick in your coping strategies to seek protection or support with your difficulty. If your attachment style or your coping strategies are not clearly understood by you, they may be doing you more harm than good.
Once you are cognizant of the cause of something it becomes easier to correct. You will learn to do away with dysfunctional thinking patterns and the cognitive distortions that came about due to no fault of your own. Your brain developed these as a defense mechanism to protect you from further pain. You can thank it for that and then teach it some new ways to think now that you are on your own, hopefully away from the toxicity that created the problems in the first place.
Emotional success depends on feeling in control of yourself and your destiny to the degree any of us can. The feelings of hope and belonging can carry you through tough times and insulate you when bad things happen. Facing the world feeling alone and like you don’t fit anywhere breeds despair.
These Ten Skills will Help you Overcome Attachment Difficulties and Find Your Place in the World:
- Practice and get comfortable with clear communication –Securely attached people are able to communicate openly without fear of ridicule or disagreement. If they come upon opposition they are able to discuss and handle it, whether in personal relationships or in work. Their overall belief is that anything can be handled if discussed openly.
- Practice trusting others-We all need someone at some point that we can trust. Being securely attached doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get burned at some point by someone, it just means you don’t waste time thinking about it before it happens. You don’t run your life as if betrayal is imminent.
- Practice Commitment-Your attachment thinking style affects this most of all. How much of you do you make available to others or your workplace? If you are of an insecure attachment style you may be unconsciously using defensive strategies designed to protect you from actually becoming more engaged. Engagement can equal rejection or hurt and this is exactly what an insecurely attached person seeks to avoid. You can see the vicious cycle.
- Dig in, belong. Join things. When you do this and start to experience that sense of belonging you may find you are in just the right place anyway. Or it may take a few attempts to find the right place. You’ll find it, keep looking.
- Describe your ideal life- One that includes how many friends you would like, your finances, activities, family life, all of it. Look way out into old age and what you would like to be fondly reflecting on when that time comes. Think long term not short term.
- Make a roadmap of how to accomplish the things you listed above. Don’t worry if you don’t really believe it can happen right now, it will become easier to believe as you start to gain success. Now that you know what may have been holding you back you can give yourself some space to relearn and create new beliefs and they best develop from your own successes.
- Dig in and claim your space. No matter where you are in your career, even if its not where you want to be ultimately, you will feel better knowing you are a part of things than feeling like you have a foot out the door. It doesn’t mean you are stuck there. Doing your best in your current position is a win-win. You will feel good, your employer will feel good and you will get a good reference when you leave. You are building networks and that is an important life skill.
- Get your self esteem in order. This is usually the first step in correcting attachment difficulties as it is the part of you that was harmed. Here is a link to my last article on that topic. Low self esteem often underlies depression and anxiety as well as loneliness and the willingness to try to connect. What could ruin your self esteem as a child more than being abandoned or made to feel like you weren’t good enough?
- Evaluate your current relationships– If you are unhappy in your current love relationship or relationships with friends, take a minute and look at them objectively. Do they mirror past dysfunctional relationships? Are you doing the same dance with a new set of people that you have done previously? Or to be more blunt, did you theoretically marry your mother or your father? For whatever reason our brains are drawn to things that are familiar even if they are unpleasant. You may find that you are in a series of unrewarding relationships with very anxious undertones. Developing your self esteem and new beliefs will help you draw healthier individuals into your life.
- Eliminate the dysfunctional thoughts and cognitive distortions that prevent you from moving forward-These thoughts and patterns develop as we are presented with painful stimuli, either from caregivers or early interactions with others. They are not something that is wrong with your brain, they are learned and can be unlearned and relearned to allow you a peaceful and satisfying life unencumbered by emotional baggage. Definitely worth doing.
Attachment difficulties are not always the first thing you think of when you are feeling lonely, depressed or like you just don’t fit in. Even anger and anxiety can stem from these very deep seated schema. I encourage you to examine your attachment style in order to develop a well rounded and comprehensive view of what might be limiting you in life and causing unhappiness.
If you think that dysfunctional patterns are interfering with your life and relationships please go to my website through the link below in my bio, take the Dysfunctional Patterns Quiz and download the Dysfunctional Thinking Patterns (Cognitve Distortions) free resource and checklist.
Feel Good For Life!