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Do you have a secure base?

If you grew up in a family in which emotions and relationships were chaotic, it is likely that you will go on to struggle with emotions and relationships.  One way of thinking and developing understanding of your situation is to think in terms of whether you have a secure base?


Secure base is a term that comes from John Bowlby’s attachment theory

In essence, the idea is that a secure base is the cornerstone of a healthy and successful caring environment. A secure base is something we get through a relationship with caregivers who are reliable, and from this experience of reliability we learn to safely explore the world.

With a secure base we can leave and return home knowing we will be welcomed, looked after. Without this secure base the world is a much harder and stranger place to live well in.

With a secure base we develop security, confidence, spontaneity, autonomy and resilience.

Children born into families which were going through complicated and unconsidered emotional experiences and challenges, find themselves in homes that were not ideally set up to welcome them.

When a secure base was unavailable

It may be that our parents were themselves too young to be parents.  That our parents’ relationship was vulnerable, and issues of commitment existed.

There may have been little sense of family planning, of considering whether this was the right time to have children.

If you were born into a situation like this, then it is possible that you won’t have received the kind of care that you needed to settle into living very well.  You don’t have the best kind of attachments or a secure base.  This has consequences.

A lack of good attachment figures

People who lacked the experience of good attachment figures, or a secure base, may find that they struggle with issues around relationships, that there are feelings of insecurity, perhaps jealousy that flare up very quickly.

When these kinds of feelings become strong then relationships are under a good deal of pressure.

People who have lacked the kind of care that provides an internal sense of a secure base are vulnerable.

  • They may be more prone to catastrophize; to detect and project anxiety where none may exist.
  • They may have a sense of loneliness and tend to quickly withdraw from people.

Lacking a secure base makes it very hard to express creativity, to be spontaneous, to develop opportunities in a consistent enduring and satisfying way.

What can be done?

Psychotherapy can provide you with the chance to internalise a secure therapeutic relationship which can provide ongoing stability.  Winnicott’s paper: The Use of an Object from his book ‘Playing and Reality’ (1971) provides a seminal example of the careful work that may need to be done to help develop security and safe attachment where none has existed.

This kind of work takes time, but it can be done.

If we can work with a psychotherapist and develop the trust that was lacking in our early families and emotional experience, then we can provide ourselves with a touchstone, a secure base, a kind of internal balance point that helps us to bring stability to ourselves, our relationships and careers.

It is hard work, but essential.  We have to develop trust and the sense of security where very little has existed.

We need to look after ourselves

We need to find a way to come to terms with our insecure attachment.  If we can do this we start to find ways to adapt and to live more constructively.  We find a way to develop a secure base ourselves.

If you lack a secure base, you will need to learn to look after yourself.  For example to pay attention to what you do and don’t like.  If you don’t like the way things work with certain people or relatives, then you have to learn to look after yourself when you are near them.

We cannot expect the people who were unpredictable and poorly attached to us in our early years, like our mothers, fathers, and siblings to change.  We have to learn to look after ourselves, to develop greater self-reliance.

When it comes to our own emotional relationships we should try to have relationships with people who are predictable, people we can trust.  Relationships which involve anything that feels threatening or betraying will be very hard to sustain.  They will provoke emotional upsets and our behaviour will likely become erratic.  It may encourage us to drink more, to lose ourselves in drugs and other addictive behaviour, to do things that aren’t good for us.

We want to avoid handing our own insecure attachments and lack of secure base to our children.  We don’t want to develop unhealthy co-dependent relationships with them.  We want to recognise the wounds that we have suffered because of our lack of a secure base and the lack of good attachments and find a way of repairing this ourselves.

This is our task

Do you have a secure base?

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Do you have a secure base?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 May 2018
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