Attachment Styles 101: You Can Change Yours

attachment styleComing from our codependent, perfectionist and people pleasing thought habits, our go-to in dating, in relationships, in pretty much every aspect of our lives is to live on good ol autopilot—from habit versus intention. One of my life goals is to live my own life from awareness, intention, checked-in-ness and to support you in doing the same. One of the theoretical frameworks that has been so helpful for me in evaluating and understanding my habitual thinking has been attachment theory. 

We’ll get into the basics of what attachment theory is, how it commonly shows up and how we can work with our habitual patterns to shift what is possible in our lives.

When you understand thought work and neuroplasticity you understand that our habitual thoughts are not our destiny.  That whatever survival habits we have learned along the way to get through our childhood and lives intact are changeable, malleable, rewirable, rewritable, which is the gift of learning how to do daily thought work, combined with somatic embodiment practices. So as you learn about the different attachment styles, I want to invite you to pause before you let your brain say: I am doooooomed! I will be this way forever! Because nothing could be farther from the truth. Your current attachment habits are just that—habits.

Attachment theory posits that we all fall under one of four possible attachment styles:  anxious, avoidant, anxious/avoidant (also sometimes called fearful-avoidant or disorganized) and secure attachment and that we all have a predominant type.

Our attachment styles tend to influence our perspectives on intimacy, conflict, sex, communicating our needs and wants, and our expectations of our partners, our relationships and our selves.

Before you go pigeon-holing your perfect tender self, what’s important to know is that our attachment to others can vary in different kinds of relationships, different social demands and at different points in our life. That is: I know that I am deeply and securely attached with Pachamama, mother earth, I am securely attached with my sister Eugenia, and I have friends I feel securely attached to. There have been times when I have been anxiously attached with different friends too; I know that in my own history of relationships and dating I have been attached in secure, anxious, avoidant and disorganized ways in different dating scenarios and at different points in the dating journey.

I’ll invite you to pause and breathe before you declare yourself 110% One Kind… and instead you can choose to stay open to this being a spectrum, and to being your own watcher around your patterns in different relationships. As always, we can be asking ourselves the question, does this pattern serve me? Is this something I want to shift and change or do I like what this thought is creating in my life?

So let’s back up: how did it get this way?

Attachment is a pattern we learn in childhood in responses to our primary caregivers, whomever that was.

British psychologist John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist, describing attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” In his initial research, he put an unknown caregiver in a lab room with a baby and their mother; he would then have the baby’s mom leave and then come back into the room. The securely attached baby would look at the mom but not scream when she left the room. Anxious ones would lose their shit, where’s mom, and couldn’t be soothed by the caregiver. With the avoidant baby, when mom would leave they were like whatever, and wouldn’t re-engage with mom when she came back in.

If a kid grows up in a relatively stable, secure and warm environment they are more likely to have a more secure attachment pattern. To be chill when a parent leaves because in their little body, in their mind, in their gut they just believe and trust that that parent is coming back, nothing to worry about here, no grasping needed, nothing to panic about. Secure.

If a kid grows up feeling dismissed or not given the attunement, care or security their nervous system needs, like they don’t have the connection they need with their caregivers, if their parenting human has unhealed unpainted inner children of their own or unmanaged codependency of their own, or if they grow up in a more hostile, toxic, or dangerous environment they are more likely to have a more insecure (anxious/avoidant) attachment pattern.

These childhood patterns continue on, like all of our habitual lessons, into our adult lives until we learn to pause and rewrite them.

Anxious attachment and codependent habits tend to track together, which makes sense when you think about the primary relational wound of codependent thinking, which is the belief that you don’t matter unless someone else says you do, believes you do, acts in the exact way that you believe will prove to you that you do, in fact matter. It makes sense that this framework would lead to grasping at others for validation, feeling anxious about getting the attagirl’s you want from them to help your brain believe you’re worthy. 

So here is the thing with the anxious attachers—they really wanna attach to you. Like, lamprey eel style. So, in true codependent people-pleasing style, the anxious attacher will shapeshift, manipulate, chameleon themselves, cook you dinner and do your laundry, they will actually believe within themself that they like what you like…. all in an attempt to make you like them. 

Other hallmarks include:

  • Worrying that your date or partner will abandon you.
  • Requiring—not desiring—constant validation from others.
  • Oversharing in an unconscious attempt to convince others to bond with you or to understand you.
  • People-pleasing as your norm, and thus feeling really challenged by setting limits and boundaries because you don’t want to create a  situation where anyone is less than 110% adoring of you.
  • Really not being okay with or liking being alone because you don’t feel safe if there isn’t someone else there to project onto as the root of your safety 

Your attachment styles show up in so many areas of our life, not just romantically, where we’d expect them, but also in our relationship with ourselves, even with friends or at work, with our family of origin, on and on.

In anxious attachment, you are often giving up your own autonomy by handing over your sense of safety and okay-ness to someone else, trying to get their validation, getting them to tell you that you are ok.  So in anxious attachment it’s scary to name our wants, feels and desires because we want to be liked more than we want to be seen in our authenticity or understood. 

Meanwhile, a person with secure attachment doesn’t believe that they are about to be abandoned at any moment, which is part of anxious and sometimes avoidant attachment. Secure attachers trust that they will be liked, that they will be taken care of, that they will be, well… secure. 

So secure attachers can communicate their feelings and needs with greater ease, they can problem-solve in conflict versus collapsing, they don’t attack their partners and fall into what the Gottman Institute calls the Four Horseman of relational apocalypse, which anxious and avoidant attachers love to go to: criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling. 

Securely attached folks are able to feel comfortable with intimacy and feel ease with being warm and loving. 

It is not that secure attachment excludes us from conflict or difficulty, it is just that secure attachment allows people more ease and resilience than other attachment styles when dealing with the challenges of intimacy.

Secure attachment is accepting that someone else can possibly help us. Being seen and getting help is possible for you as a human, from a place of mutuality.

Meanwhile, the avoidant attacher swipes right and then ghosts you. They deeply fear intimacy so they make it really hard to actually break through and connect with them, without even realizing it they are fighting to keep others at a distance even if they are dating or are in a serious relationship which is a smart little self-defeating defense strategy from their inner children.

Our avoidant attachers believe that being independent is key to their wellness, so in relationships and while dating they frequently feel that their independence and self-sufficiency is being threatened. They feel safest in this independence, not in a movement towards interdependence, mutuality. What’s challenging internally for them is that they want to be close to others and at the same time push them away by not opening up. To be able to do that they need to suppress their emotions, which makes them feel even less like they’re living in their authenticity. This habit also gives them a false sense of maintaining control and often a false kind of superiority because they’re so independent and don’t need a relationship like all those other foolish humans, ethmmm. 

They are also notorious for having go-to emotional escapes like over-working, spending more time with friends than they spend with their partner, playing video games or otherwise buffering instead of connecting with their date, or, an avoidant standby—fantasizing about either the perfect relationship (which no human can measure up to) or their perfect ex, ya know, the one that got away, that of course, no human can measure up to or both. They are so busy fronting that they don’t care what you think that they may not pause to check in about what you think. They emphasize strong boundaries that actually feel more like brick walls, and they find compromise challenging because sticking to their proverbial guns is central to how they seek to defend themselves.

The avoidant attacher wants security, we all do, but doesn’t trust their connection with others.

The anxious attacher wants security so they put a stranglehold on it as soon as they smell a whiff of availability for attachment in a potential partner.

The Secure attacher wants security, and is like, but actually: I’m cool. I’m good over here. I don’t need you to prove my lovability to me because I know I am lovable and don’t need outside approval. I want security, so I look inside myself, it’s already here for me because I’m living it.

The secure attacher knows what they want and speaks it. They know what they feel and they embody it. The secure attacher is what so many of us aspire to our lives, I know I do.

So this is a high level overview of attachment styles, and I deeply believe that we learn to function from these habits as a way to seek safety in the world. 

What’s so beautiful is that it’s possible to use thought work and somatic practices to begin to move yourself closer to feeling secure in yourself and from there, more and more secure in your attachments with those you love and those you date, too.

It starts with awareness—with recognizing when you’re in your anxious or avoidant habits, when you really like someone so you smother them with affection and gifts (anxious) or you turn away from them and make them come to you (avoidant).

The important thing is to become aware of what is going on. Then it is important to acknowledge that you can shift whatever cognitive and somatic patterns you choose to. You get to source safety within yourself. You can ask yourself what you are looking for from someone else and then you get to ask yourself how you can give that to you first, honoring the co-regulation is important, and that you don’t have to give yourself away to get it.

While you learn how to show up in romantic relationships in a healthier way, you can also look for other connections and community and co-regulation, like the beautiful intimacy that friendship can bring.

As always, nervous system regulation is such a key part of shifting our nervous system patterning, our neural grooves around safety, love, security and thus, attachment. 

When our nervous system tends towards dysregulation, towards sympathetic activation or dorsal. The more you’re able to recognize: I’m dating someone. When they say X, I interpret that through my mind and body in a way that leads me to feel Y and my nervous system responds in this specific way from my attachment habits and that doesn’t serve me. SO. I will pause. I will breathe. I will center myself in ME first, and will respond to their text or will reach out and text first, will make contact emotionally or otherwise from a grounded, ventral vagal place.

From there, for my anxious attachers, you can begin to take risks and show up as your most authentic self. You can also work to change a scarcity mentality, which often fuels anxious habits. If the person you are with doesn’t appreciate and ultimately cherish your full self, then you can lean toward an abundance mindset which tells us that there are many wondrous, and unique people out there for us who will relish who we are.

Also, take your time when dating. From unchecked anxious habits you can swing from having one great afternoon to craving the person and future tripping about your wedding and your honeymoon and you get to pause, to stop those fantasies and mental obsessions and to ground yourself. Here is where conscious distraction is a great tool, the great interrupters: a walk, a book, a friend, a craft, writing, being of service to others, taking care of yourself, growing our self-love and acceptance. These are all ways to drop yourself back in your body and to give your monkey mind a break.

The move from avoidant attachment to secure is also grounded nervous system resourcing, thought work and lots of self-love and acceptance.  It is also really important to explore your ideas about why you value independence above all else and how you can be open to accepting support. 

You can start by taking small steps, dipping your toes in the joys of trusting and creating some interdependence with those you trust. Like the anxious attachment style, avoidants can get very negative, picking out a small detail and exploding it as a way to create distance. Making gratitude or a celebratory list about your date or partner is a way to counter this negativity that ends up creating isolation. It is also very important to learn to take the risks of communicating in a clear and honest way about what you understand is going on. Checking in about the needs, thoughts and feelings of the other person while finding loving ways to take care of yourself by kindly negotiating taking space is important. Also, drop the fantasy, my darling!. There is no perfect relationship and there is no perfect ex cause ahhh they are your ex for a reason, my darling.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways to get more into secure attachment thinking and doing is to ask ourselves in every potential intimate encounter “what would a secure attacher do in this situation? 

If I sourced my safety within myself, what would I do here? Even if that behaviour is uncomfortable, cause you know it’s gonna be, do it anyway. The more we train our brains and feel into that secure attached place the more likely we can inhabit it. We can then create the relationships we desire, ones of mutuality, reciprocity, interdependence, where we avoid resentment, take deep care of ourselves, and learn how to build the true freedoms of being securely attached and deeply connected to others which is what we all need and is our hearts’ truest desire. 

Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!

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