(Photo Credit: Ami Vitale)
Blog Post by Koelle Simpson
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I invite you to join me in envisioning a gathering of friends for a moment to see which of these four individuals you resonate with the most.
Let’s start with John. John is hosting the gathering of friends. He enjoys spending time with everyone. He is laid back and has a peaceful content personality. He ebbs and flows between conversations. He feels open-hearted and emotionally connected with everyone in the room. He steps outside to rest and settle into a more quiet rhythm whenever he needs to and then happily reengages. He feels equally energized by his time with others as well as his time alone.
Now meet Sally. Sally really struggles in groups. She’s at the gathering to be kind and polite to her friends but she’d really prefer to be at home watching her favorite Netflix series or reading her book. Sally engages in conversation with others but she’s mindful to keep the conversation centered on others and she tends to share very little about herself. Whenever she thinks it won’t be too obvious or disruptive she steps away to get some air.
Next let’s meet Carrie. Carrie feels nervous when preparing for this gathering. She worries about what to wear, who might be there, and what others will think about her new career change. When she arrives at the gathering she is excited to connect with others. She quickly leans into conversation seeking out someone in the room who feels safe. She struggles with those quiet pesky inner voices of doubt that say people won’t like her and that she needs to find a way to prove herself or they will leave her and/or exit the conversation at the first opportunity. Carrie stays close to the person she’s chatting with and hopes they can sit together when the food is served.
Lastly, let’s meet Paul. Paul finds connecting with others rather stressful. He can never quite figure out what other people want from him. He feels lonely. He has a strong longing to connect with others at the gathering, but he is afraid that people will become angry at him for some unknown thing he’s done or said. So he spends the evening walking around and never settling anywhere. When he moves in to connect with someone, he feels unsettled and retreats to another place in the house.
Do you find yourself resonating with anyone of these characters?
We are highly social beings and our entire bodies and nervous systems are wired to seek out connection with one another. Yet our capacity to engage in safe, meaningful connection with others in our adult lives can be highly impacted by the care we receive in early childhood. This early childhood relationship patterning lays the foundation for our attachment style.
Attachment styles are the blueprints etched into our brains, bodies, and nervous systems during early childhood, shaping how we perceive and engage with relationships. One of my favorite teachers and authors on Attachment Theory is Dr. Diane Poole Heller. Dr. Poole Heller categorizes attachment styles into four main types: secure, avoidant, anxious-ambivalent, and disorganized. Each style reflects our early experiences with caregivers and influences how we navigate adult relationships.
- Secure Attachment: Individuals with secure attachment styles experienced consistent and responsive caregiving during their formative years. This foundation of trust and support enables them to establish lasting, fulfilling relationships, express their needs openly, and handle conflicts resiliently. Someone who develops the secure attachment style feels that relationships are typically trustworthy and that others have your best interest at heart. (John is an example of secure attachment)
- Avoidant Attachment: Arising from emotionally unavailable or neglectful caregiving, avoidant attachment leads individuals to withdraw emotionally, fearing intimacy and leaning heavily on self-reliance. The avoidant can become so skilled at self soothing, being alone, while focusing on a project for long periods of time that it can become hard for them to transition into engaging with others. The challenge for avoidant individuals is building trust and engaging in healthy vulnerability. Discovering that others have the capacity to care about and attune to their needs can be both healing and equally challenging to take in. For those with the avoidant adaptation they can gradually foster secure attachment through allowing others to offer consistent support and presence. (Sally is an example of the avoidant attachment adaptation)
- Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment: Inconsistent caregiving gives rise to anxious-ambivalent attachment, characterized by a constant emotional tug-of-war. Individuals with this style often seek connection but simultaneously fear its loss. Those with this attachment adaptation may feel rather anxious when they are alone and yet when they have the presence of another person they keep a watchful eye for signs of being rejected or abandoned. To help move towards a more secure attachment system, someone who struggles with the anxious-ambivalent adaptation needs constant reassurance that the relationship is intact and as their friend or partner you’re not leaving. It is also important for someone who’s working to heal the anxious-ambivalent attachment style to learn to develop a sense of safety during their solo time. Thus learning to balance self-regulation skills in addition to co-regulation skills with others can restore a healthy sense of self. (Carrie is an example of the anxious-ambivalent attachment adaptation)
- Disorganized Attachment: Stemming from chaotic or abusive caregiving environments, disorganized attachment results in unpredictable behavior patterns and a struggle to navigate relationships. People with disorganized attachment may experience panic when faced with intimacy. Someone who has developed the disorganized attachment system can swing between the avoidant strategies and the anxious-ambivalent strategies within a short period of time. Healing often requires professional support to address trauma and relational wounding. (Paul is an example of the disorganized attachment adaptation)
The good news is our attachment styles are not permanent. When we gain conscious awareness of our attachment styles we can begin to take steps towards healing and thus intentionally cultivate our capacity for engaging in secure relationships with others. Additionally, when we understand these basic attachment styles in others, we can show up for our friends, partners, colleagues with more empathy and become mindful of the ways we can support safe, secure connections with one another.
Here are a few ways to help move towards securely functioning relationships with one another.
For the securely attached: Keep in mind that there are many people who don’t feel safe in relationships with others. They don’t trust that people care about them and or will have their back when the going gets tough. Thus offering your steady consistent engagement will help others to feel safe and offer them a new reference point that relationships can be kind, caring, predictable, and reliable.
For the avoidant adaptation: Keep in mind that we really do need to form safe healthy relationships with others. Even though it may feel less stressful to do things on your own and tend to yourself, try to become more intentional about reaching out to spend time engaging with others. See if you can form friendships with others who can express equal care for your needs and allow yourself to take that in a little bit at time.
For the anxious-ambivalent adaptation: While it can feel uncomfortable, see if you can develop practices that help you to settle and feel safe or content when you are alone. This can be meditation, singing, drawing, working with your 5 senses, walking or yoga. Learning to settle and regulate your own nervous system when you’re by yourself is an important skill and will help you to feel less heavily impacted by the actions of others. Secondly, when you are in the presence of others, practice allowing the felt sense of being recognized or acknowledged by others to land fully in your body. See if you can notice when others make an effort to express their interest or care.
For the disorganized adaptation: You’ll want to try practicing both of the aspects mentioned above for the avoidant and the anxious-ambivalent adaptations. The disorganized attachment adaptation often develops as a result of significant early childhood trauma. Given this, it can be very beneficial to seek out a therapeutic provider who has training in attachment theory.
In closing, it’s helpful to remember that we come by our various attachment styles as natural adaptations to help us navigate the stress and challenges that can arise in our early primary relationships. Our attachment styles are not permanent. They can change and evolve over time. When we become more conscious of our attachment styles and the attachment adaptations of others, as well as the specific behaviors that can trigger our lack of safety, we have an opportunity to become more intentional about supporting each other to develop secure relationships.