attachment theory explained

Attachment Theory 101- The Key to Self-Understanding

Most people agree that behavior cannot effectively change without an understanding of why it is occurring in the first place. What purpose is it serving? Where did it come from? How has it been beneficial in some context?

Understanding this behavior does not mean that we excuse it. On the contrary- we actually have to understand it in order to sustainably change it. A lack of openness to understanding will only keep us stuck.

Once the behaviors do make sense, we open up space to let them go. We have pulled reactive ways of being up into our conscious minds, where we can now grab on and take control of them.

Without the limits of shame or self-hate and shame, we can intentionally let go of ineffective behavior if we can convince our bodies we don’t need them to keep us safe anymore.

If all of this sounds a little out there, stick with me as I break down Attachment Theory and how you can apply it to your own life (and how an EFT attachment therapist can help).

Attachment Theory 101: What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is a model of understanding human behavior and evolutionary survival strategies put together by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.

At its essence, attachment theory assumes that connection to others is key to survival. Starting in infancy, humans learn how to connect to key caregivers and figures in their life.

Attachment strategies or styles are the behaviors you use to connect with others and get your needs met.

Attachment beliefs are the resulting ways your brain forms generalizations about others and yourself as a result of early experiences.

As children, and all through life, we require the help and care of others for our own safety and survival (e.g. food, shelter, and comfort). We must learn ways to communicate these needs to their caregivers in order to survive.

When children sense a disconnection from their caregivers, they sense an (evolutionary) threat to their ability to survive in their world.

Continuing to use those strategies we used with our early caregivers often doesn’t work as well in different contexts in your life (e.g. becoming an adult and romantic relationships).

Attachment Styles

The way that different individuals learn strategies to deal with disconnection and survival threats tends to be understood in the following categories, also known as attachment styles. These tendencies begin in infancy but can carry through, unconsciously, into adulthood.

Children who received consistent caregiving and experienced repairing interactions following disconnection. Meaning, they have developed an effective strategy to communicate and receive their needs, and are responded to when they reach out with needs in moments of perceived disconnection.

In a moment when they can’t reach someone they love, they may experience…

  • Beliefs: Discomfort is temporary
  • Emotions: Concerned, uncomfortable
  • Strategies: Express feelings openly and clearly

Associated with inconsistent caregiving at a young age, and learned to seek proximity through hyper-activating their nervous system, protesting space by increasing the intensity of their strategy (e.g. turning up the volume on requests for connection).

This is often correlated with a fear of being abandoned. The inconsistency of caregiving, and not knowing what to expect, can leave the nervous system anxious.

In a moment when they can’t reach someone they love, they may experience…

  • Beliefs: I’m unlovable, everyone leaves me
  • Emotions: Anger, overwhelm, panic
  • Strategies: Activate, pursue, reach, cry, demand

Children who received fairly consistent neglect or rejection. These children learned to suppress or deactivate their attachment system to protect from the pain of further disconnection. This is often correlated with a fear of being rejected.  

In a moment when they can’t reach someone they love, they may experience…

  • Beliefs: I’m a failure, I can’t trust anyone
  • Emotions: Shame, frustration
  • Strategies: Deactivate, hide, avoid, defend

These individuals had a challenging time figuring out how to get their attachment needs met through one strategy or another, and a hard time figuring out their own needs in response to threat .

In a moment when they can’t reach someone they love, they may experience…

  • Beliefs: I’m unsafe with others and alone
  • Emotions: Numb or rage
  • Strategies: Vary between extremes- fight and then shut down

What is Your Attachment Style?

Without having attachment theory to understand the function of the behaviors above (e.g. incessant texting, reaching for validation, feeling suspicious) which look dysfunctional on the outside, it would be very easy to feel confusion, fear, and even shame at our own actions. They are all characteristics that may have prevented someone from finding safe, functional adult love.

However, instead of labeling these behaviors as wrong, attachment theory gives us a way to understand how these behaviors became encoded in the brain and the body, as the strategies you learned in childhood that helped you feel safe.

These strategies worked- they kept you alive when you were a child and you needed to reconnect to your caregiver to get your needs met. They had a good reason to be used. However, these same strategies could be sabotaging your adult relationships.

When we have compassion for ourselves and understanding for the reasons our body has held onto the protections that are no longer serving us, we open ourselves to a space to honor and release these defenses and see our present for what it is here and now, and not through the lens of our past, freeing us from unnecessary pain and stress in relationships.

Two things are true: parents did the best they could, and did a lot right, and people tend to leave childhood with some scars. Working from a place of empathetic curiosity, rather than judgmental blame, is necessary. (Note- I am not referring to situations of abuse, which fall into a separate category).

Understanding the patterns is critical to being able to disrupt them.

As you reflect on your own experiences, it is important to recognize that often times, there is no big traumatic or attachment defining moment that you will recall (thought there could be), but rather, small, repetitive moments and patterns that accumulate over time and develop your tendencies.

Here are some questions you may ask yourself as you explore your own patterns and how they show up in your present relationships (find a full attachment assessment here).

You may find it is helpful to journal for deeper exploration of these concepts.

As you reflect, see if your experiences tend to correlate to the attachment styles listed above.

How to Find your Attachment Style
  • Who did you go to for safety as a child?
  • What happened when they were not available? How would you get your needs met?
  • What messages about connection and safety did you get from your family of origin?
  • Did you learn from past relationships that you could trust or depend on others?
  • If you can’t rely on others, how do you regulate yourself?
  • What do you do when life gets too big to handle? When you feel alone?
  • In your current relationships, when you feel disconnection, do you tend to become overly anxious and reactive?
  • Or do you tend to shut down and try to not feel anything?

The tricky part about attachment needs and fears is that they usually live in the unconscious. Understanding the emotion system can cue us into activation of the attachment system. Until we are in a safe enough place that are defenses or strategies are willing to take a back seat, it can be really hard to uncover these patterns.

Working with a therapist is a great place to start so that you have the support to process anything that arises.

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