Pursue What Matters
Episode 251: Attachment Style and Why it Matters
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
What is attachment style? And why does it matter? Well join me today for a review of the different attachment styles. Learn what fits for you and why it matters in work and love.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:11
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So attachment style is based on attachment theory. This is an incredibly useful theory of human development that psychologists have been utilizing for decades to better understand how humans function in relationships. And I love attachment theory. When I first started graduate school, even as an undergrad, I had some exposure to attachment theory. And boy, it just rang true. So I did a book review on this topic not too long ago. And so if you want to learn more about this fascinating topic, after listening to today’s podcast, definitely check out that book review, I will link to it in the show notes. The book is the power of attachment. And it’s really about attachment styles in relationships. So with specific application to adult relationships. And then of course, consider reading that book.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:30
Now, of course, every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue it matters by strengthening your confidence to lead in one of three areas. So first, leading with clarity, second, leading with curiosity, and third, leading and building a community. So whenever we’re focusing on Attachment styles, we’re really looking first at curiosity, which is all about self awareness and self leadership, we all have unhelpful patterns. And if we don’t have awareness about them, they can really get in the way. And of course, the goal of developing awareness about our unhelpful patterns is so we can change them. And this is very applicable to attachment style, because we can develop less effective patterns early in our childhood, based on our earliest caregiver relationships. And so when we get to adulthood, we just think this is the way we are. And we sometimes make the assumption that others should respond to it as we expect them to. And then we, you know, get a rude awakening and when that doesn’t happen, and some of these patterns are not very effective, they get in the way. And secondly, we’re also really focused on leading and building a community. At work, we work on teams, we work with other people. And so inevitably, our attachment styles will come to bear in our work. And so it’s really useful to understand not only your attachment style, but in a broader perspective, what attachment theory is all about. And so what is it and why does it matter?
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:01
So some of the first researchers in the field of attachment theory included Bowlby, included Mary Ainsworth, maybe you’ve heard about the strange situations. And so they did. Some of the research was on babies and their mothers and really looking at what happened when they were in a strange situation or an anxiety provoking situation. Did they? Did they move to their caregiver for love and comfort? Or did they did they stay onto themselves and Ainsworth and then of course, others who have extended this research, we’re able to learn a lot about the nature of those early attachment, relationships. And so you know, when we think about attachment theory, it really looks at our primary caregiver relationships. So we are talking about your parents, we’re talking about your earliest caregivers, for clues about how we relate to others in the present day, right. And I don’t think anyone would suggest that our earliest caregiver relationships are important, but it’s easy to just assume everything’s fine. And we all develop normally. And so then we’re surprised when we notice we have challenges in relationships. And so when we’re looking at these primary caregiver relationships, right, where are they safe, insecure? Or where was their insecurity and anxiousness associated with these relationships? And why this is important, is because first As humans, we are wired for connection. And so when we have disruptions in our most important caregiver relationships, right, as a child, you are totally dependent on your early caregivers. We can spend the rest of our lives striving to reclaim that secure attachment, or establishing a secure attachment if we didn’t have one. And so it really, really matters and it really shows up in our romantic relationships in some big ways. And so, you know, I hope you will think About this and also think about how it might apply at work do you get your feelings hurt easily, and so you pull away, right? That could be some of the avoidant attachment styles showing up. These behaviors show up all the time at work. And so it’s really helpful to understand them. And so let’s jump in and just do a review of the attachment styles.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:21
Now, I’m going to say a little bit about each of the attachment styles. But then I will, I hope you will join me in upcoming podcasts as I’m going to focus in on a secure attachment style, because that’s the one we’re all striving for. And what’s true as as humans we are, we’re designed for growth, and we are designed for a secure attachment. So even if that wasn’t your experience growing up, you can absolutely move towards secure attachment as an adult, and that is well worth your time. Okay, so first, I want to go over the primary attachment styles. So first is the secure attachment style. This is the one we’re all shooting for. Second is the avoidant attachment style. The third is the ambivalent attachment style. Now, sometimes you will hear people talking about an anxious attachment style. If you are familiar with that, think about that in terms of ambivalent attachment, that’s really what we’re seeing from the research. And then the fourth attachment style is disorganized attachment. And so there are four primary attachment styles. secure attachment is the one we’re aiming for this is considered very healthy, very normative. But the other three represent some attachment adaptations. So adaptations that children have had to make in order to survive, and you know, do okay, in the environments that they found themselves.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:54
And so let’s first start with that secure attachment. So in a word, if you were to think about what is characteristic of a secure attachment style, it is attunement, okay, I love that word. So we’re not talking about perfect parents, we’re not talking about a Pollyanna view of the world that everything was right, and parents never messed up. One truth that we know for sure is that as parents, we all fail our children in because no one’s perfect, right. And we hope that those failures are small, and help our children to develop resilience, and that they’re not huge failures, that really leave huge gaps for our children. But when we think about a secure attachment style, it really reflects a good enough environment that creates and engenders basic trust. So think about secure attachment as providing a good foundation for trust for security. There’s a sense of protection. There’s a sense of presence and support from parents from caregivers, there’s also autonomy and interdependence. So not too long ago, I did a podcast about helicopter parents, bulldozer parents, now these parents can really think they’re very good, they’re so aware, they’re so present, they’re so supportive of their children. But if they’re not careful, they’re failing to encourage the autonomy and the interdependence of their children. And so in that way, they can be failing their children, and it’s not a secure attachment style, it’s actually associated with one of the other attachment styles. And so when we think about secure attachment, we think about calm, we think about trust, we think about relaxation, resilience.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:42
So it’s not that your children have a perfect childhood, but they have the room to grow and develop, they have a baseline level of security, and comfort and attention. And that really, is the water that helps them to grow. Right. So if we think about flowers, or plants, you know, we’re we want to think about good ground, we want to think about a good nourishing environment that helps them to grow to their potential. And that is not to grow according to the parents dictates. We don’t want the controlling parent parent thing happening. But it’s allowing children to grow and develop autonomy, and increasingly as they get older independence. So now let’s take a look at the avoidant attachment style. So this is an attachment adaptation. So I don’t want you to think about oh, this is these are good or bad. But when we think about the three attachment styles that aside from secure attachment, they’re all adaptations. So, you know, as humans, we all must adapt to the environments we find ourselves in. And these adaptations can often be very functional for a period of time. Of course, over time, they’re less functional, they’re less effective. And so sometimes we carry these adaptations with us from childhood into adulthood. And they’re not very functional in an adult relationship. And so I do think it’s important to be, you know, respectful of the role that the adaptations have played to help you to be okay in the environment, you were in as a child. And so absolutely, these adaptations help us to cope with the environments we find ourselves in. And we all must adapt, adapt to a greater or lesser degree. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we need to in fact, we can develop some of these invisible skills around, you know, reading a room or being aware of what’s what’s happening in a family, we can develop really strong negotiation skills and communication skills. And so these aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s just a recognition that with these insecure attachment styles, there is an adaptation that often needs to be made. And so what are some of the characteristics of the avoidant attachment style, a sense of isolation.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:13
So being in relationship with others can be very anxiety provoking, there is a lack of presence by caregivers, so maybe they’re distracted, or they’re stressed, or they’re working all the time. If there is presence is often more of a task based presence. So get your homework done. You know, practice, practice, piano, practice, volleyball, whatever it is. So it’s really focused less on who the person is, as a child, and more about getting things done, there can often be an absence of touch, especially loving touch, so hugs kisses, that sort of thing. There can also be emotional neglect. Now, sometimes we talk about this as a benign neglect, it’s not benign at all. But we’re not talking about children, you know, being left in, you know, an apartment with empty cupboards for days at a time or not seeing their parents for days at a time. Sometimes the emotional neglect is busy parents are stressed parents that they’re working long hours, they, they don’t have much bandwidth in terms of being able to check in with their kiddos. And so it, you know, they don’t see the needs of their children. And that can be, of course, very upsetting for children. There can also be expressive dissonance. And so what does that mean? There can be a disconnect between what a parent is saying, and how they’re expressing their emotions. And that is so confusing for young children, it really sends mixed messages. And so children can often feel very confused about what is mom or what is dad communicating, because they’re saying words, that make sense, but they’ve got a really angry fat face on, or they have their yelling, you know, and so it can, it can create a disconnect and confusion. There can often be disrupted engagement. And so maybe there is good engagement happening. But that’s disrupted by life stressors, or, you know, other disruptions.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:16
Sometimes you can see this when there’s maybe a sibling with special needs, because that child just requires so much time and energy. Or if you have a family situation where there was a major illness that can really lead to disrupted engagement as well. And then there can be a sense of rejection from caregivers. And so let’s take a look at what avoidant attachment looks like. So if you were thinking about this, in terms of, you know, a child or an adult, right, what what are some of the characteristics. So first, there can be relational discomfort and an isolated sense of self. So kind of this idea that it feels safer just to be on your own. So friendships can be challenging, it might be difficult to engage in social situations, there can be a sense of dissociation, which is kind of removal from yourself in the present moment. So sometimes we talk about this as spacing out, sometimes it’s, you know, a fantasizing that sort of thing, but it’s kind of loss of presence in the present moment. There can also be difficulty with eye contact, because eye contact was often confusing or even threatening, and so sometimes it just feels easier to avoid eye contact.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:37
There’s also difficulty with self regulation, transitions coming and going places can be very, very difficult. And also trouble recognizing personal needs. These folks tend to have a bias toward action, and there can be gesture inhibition. So it’s kind of like just don’t, don’t draw too much attention to yours. Oh, so the third attachment style is the ambivalent attachment style. So this often results from inconsistent or unreliable caregiving. And again, this can happen for many reasons. And there can be a disruption in the sense of object permanence and object constancy. So anyone who’s studied human development is familiar with those terms. And that is a developmental process that children often develop around 18 months, where they know that an object exists, even if they can’t see it in this moment, before 18 months. If if a toy that is in front of them has a blanket covered over it, the child assumes that that toy has disappeared from existence. But around 18 months, we know that okay, that toy still exists. I just can’t see it right now. And this has implications for the ambivalent attachment style, because of the unreliable caregiving. It’s difficult for these children to establish permanence and constancy with their caregivers.
Dr. Melissa Smith 16:04
So there’s often a feeling or a question of who’s going to show up will I get my needs met, there’s a lack of reliability from parents. And again, this isn’t necessarily ill intended, it can often happen because parents are just so busy, or they’re working long hours, or they’re stressed out, and they really just don’t have much in terms of emotional energy to give to their children. And we often see that in these situation. Parents with unresolved attachment issues often become unreliable caregivers, and so they kind of pass that on to their their children, but it’s not a lack of love. Often. The features include insufficient co regulation with one another so soothing, loving hugging being held by a parent, there can be interrupted regulation and sometimes overstimulation. So sometimes a parent is trying to repair and they just overstimulate a child and that becomes overwhelming.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:01
So what does an ambivalent attachment style look like? So there can be departure stress. So when people are coming and going back can be really stressful for these folks. There is proximity, sinky seeking and relational hyperfocus. So a lot of anxiety related to the relationship and the security of their relationship. There can be hypersensitivity, there can be self perpetuating cycles, and a constant need for reassurance. And so the next attachment style that we’re going to talk about is disorganized attachment. Now, this attachment adaptation is much more complex, and it is often more associated with significant abuse and neglect situations. So the these attachment adaptations all carry some costs. But when we think about a disorganized attachment, it’s pretty complex. So the key here is that the caregiver who is supposed to bring love and security is also dangerous to the child. So there can be sudden shifts in mood and temperament. This, of course, is very difficult to understand for kids, especially young kids and babies. So often with disorganized attachment, we see parents with significant mental health issues. And of course, these issues get in the way of effective parenting. So whether that’s distress tolerance, whether that is significant depression or PTSD, these really get in the way. And so, as a result, there’s a natural dysregulation rather than regulation but a dysregulation that develops in the child in response to parents behavior, but often and this is the part that makes me so sad is that the child is identified as the problem. So these dysregulation responses are seen as problematic, whether that’s acting out in school, whether that’s in attention, and so you know, it just buries the concern a little bit more and makes it more challenging for these kiddos to get help. This pattern over time can contribute to addictive behaviors and mental health concerns for that child as they get older.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:16
So some of the contributors to a disorganized style include family turmoil, emotional irregularity, confusing communication. So again, mixed messages can be really difficult to hear, and what does disorganized attachment look like? So these individuals tend to have a threat orientation, they see life and people as a threat. There can also be a lot of self absorption and controlling behaviors. Because controlling becomes a way of managing threat. There can be a lack of impulse control, and this is often tied to difficulty with with emotional regulation, there can be an ongoing sense of failure. So often these individuals have major self esteem and self efficacy. issues. And then there can also be internal conflict and confusion, especially when they’re trying to interpret the next messages of loved ones. You can also see an overwhelm and a freeze response. If we think about the flight fight or freeze response. This is often what happens for disorganized attachment styles, there can be a freeze response of I just don’t know how to respond. And so when we think about countering this disorganized pattern, we really want to work on boundary repair, we want to help others, we want to communicate simply and clearly, it’s important to be mindful of your tone of voice, and look at others and use facial expressions with kindness. And then when we think about ambivalent attachment, and this is also helpful for avoidant attachment, when we’re thinking about moving towards a more secure attachment, we want to notice the caring behaviors of others. We want to develop our self soothing skills and develop relational space. So if you smother your partner, obviously that’s a problem. And so it’s building space and self regulation. And then distinguishing yourself and restoring connection and finally having loving kindness and gentleness with yourself and with others. And so today we talked about the four attachment styles, secure attachment, avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment, and disorganized attachment.
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:36
And I hope you’ll join me in a couple weeks as I dive deep into ways that you can move towards a secure attachment style. Now if you are already in a place of secure attachment, that’s great. These will be really useful skills for you, maybe some of them, you do already. So I hope that you will tune in then so head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/251-attachmentstyle. And of course, you can join me on Instagram @dr.melissasmith where I always have more resources related to each podcast. And if you’re so inclined, I’d love it if you went to Apple or Spotify and give the podcast a five-star review. In the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care
Transcribed by https://otter.ai