How to develop secure attachment
Attachment theory – quick overview
As someone who has struggled with anxiety, panic, and overwhelm my whole life, personally and in relationships, I have been completely obsessed with attachment theory since the moment I started learning about it in my training to become a therapist, and I talk about it a lot. It is the first theory of understanding human behavior and relationships that clicked for me, and it offers a totally non-judgmental perspective on why we do the things we do (which is, usually, that we are looking for safety – check out a more detailed walk-through here or a perspective on avoidant attachment here).
Attachment theory offers us a way of understanding some of our dysfunction and self-inflicted pain. We learned ways of staying safe in the world when we were young and did not have autonomy or control over our environment. Then, we continue using those strategies when we are adults and we actually do not need them anymore, since we are no longer in those environments.
A quick example- maybe when you were a child you shut down and went into your room when your father started getting angry, because you knew if you stayed out of his way you would be safe. Now, you shut down whenever your partner expresses some kind of disagreement or frustration. You (unconsciously) connect your partner’s expression of anger with your father’s, and your body tells you that you aren’t safe, and you need to do that thing you know how to do, which is, to shut down and get out of the way. Totally logical, but totally not a useful strategy anymore.
What is secure attachment?
Okay, so sometimes we do things that don’t match up to the present moment we’re in, but what is the alternative? This is where developing secure attachment comes into play. The way I think about secure attachment is a felt sense of safety and security, within yourself, in your relationships, and in your environment.
So, instead of your body telling you to shut down, you would have thoughts like, “okay, disagreement with my partner is not enjoyable, but I am safe right now, and I can face this conversation).
(Note- abusive relationships are a different category and not what I’m referring to; we would not want to desensitize ourselves to real threat).
Attributes of secure attachment:
- You have trust to reach out to people when you need them
- You respond to others when they need you
- Ability to hold multiple truths (e.g., impacted by past and able to move forward in a growth mindset)
- Setting boundaries
- Not taking everything personally
- Feel close to others even when there is physical distance
- Derive meaning from relationships
Why is secure attachment the goal?
Peace, calm, equanimity- these are all places I see clients move toward, usually from chaos and pain, when attachment security is strengthened. If you do not have a sense of security anywhere, the impacts will bleed out everywhere (think… your broader family relationships, your work relationships, your ability to function in your society).
Secure attachment is a paradox: the more safety and security we have in our ability to trust and rely on others, the more we can be independent and explore the world. We move from codependence to effective interdependence. Think about it.. if you don’t have the safety of knowing where your next meal is coming from, do you have the resources to develop skills to become a creative, innovative thinker or doer?
How to develop secure attachment
The schemas that our unconscious minds are operating from run deep. I like to think of the schemas as the grooves or the roads within our minds, and the thoughts as the cars that pass by on them.
To alter these schemas, convince your nervous system that you are safe in moments of conflict or disconnection, and act consciously takes repetition of new experiences of security. Without those experiences, your body is going to keep trying to protect you from harm.
So how do we actually do this? The most common and effective way is…you guessed it…therapy! But it’s not the only way. Here are a few places to start on the path to develop a secure attachment:
Practices to develop security
More specifically, emotion-focused therapy. The process to understanding your history and present dynamics can be complex, and therapists trained in this model combine their knowledge of the theory with clinical skills to help facilitate this rewiring.
Ultimately, you will learn to understand yourself, rewire your defensive tendencies, and create new patterns that facilitate a security with yourself.
You can do this therapy individually, with a partner, or with a family member. If you are located in Florida, we offer Marriage Counseling in Naples, FL– virtual services- reach out to inquire about availability.
If you don’t have access to therapy, I like to suggest people start with the practice of placing space between your triggers and your reactions. When you notice yourself feel like you need to shut down, or to aggressively approach your partner, see if you can stop, and ask yourself: What am I feeling like in this moment? What just activated me? Does my intensity match the situation? Little by little, journal on these thoughts and see what comes up. Here is a guide to process tough emotions that arise as part of this process.
An unconventional suggestion, but I could not draw the parallels more strongly. Yoga teaches you to slow down, to be present in your body, and to breathe through temporary discomfort. I think too often people take yogic concepts as metaphor, when really, you are training your nervous system that discomfort ≠ danger, and you are actively practicing regulation, all of which can develop the felt sense of security we are looking for.
Similar to yoga, meditation also teaches us to create pauses, actively observe our thought patterns, and stay present in times of discomfort. This can have a similar rewiring effect- we do not have to run away or fight when we feel uncomfortable, but we can stay present in our bodies and minds to assess our safety from a conscious place.
Resources to develop secure attachment
As a therapist and as a human being, I have seen integration of these attachment concepts change lives and offer real, deep healing. I’m so passionate about sharing this information that I’ve put together a free attachment style assessment to guide you in discovering your own figure out style and take steps to start healing. Grab yours below!
Remember, the patterns that we are up against changing are deeply ingrained, and change takes time. Give yourself grace for the ways you have learned to survive and time to heal your own heart. From there, you can work toward behaviors that will support your ability to develop a secure attachment.
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