My mentee, who I’ll call Mindy, is suffering through a recent relationship breakup. This is not the first time she’s separated from her boyfriend; their break up has been a repeating pattern for the last four years. Logically she knows it’s time to move on. Yet emotionally she is in a trap that loops powerful and pervasive feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, insecurity and fear. In this loop, she believes that the way out of pain is to control her circumstances and avoid discomfort, so she seeks soothing by returning to her partner.
Breakups are extraordinarily painful under the best of circumstances. But Mindy’s pain and psychological discomfort is heightened because of her attachment model. Attachment theory explains how we behave in our close relationships and how this behavior can prolong our suffering. Bottom line, we need strong bonds to thrive, and these bonds are weakened or strengthened by our attachment model. If you’re hurting too, there is hope. Your attachment model is not fixed; you can earn security at any age.
Attachment is an adaptation
Attachment theory is a study of how interactions with your early relationships (often primary caregivers) shaped the way you behave in relationships today. In short, the very structure of your brain is shaped by your early relationships. Your attachment model represents how you adapted to real life events with caregivers, and how this adaptation influences your relationships. Attachment is not an indication that you are incapable of having secure and meaningful relationships. Attachment is not you, it’s an adaptation that helped you form a bond with your early caregivers.
Four types of attachment models
When you form relationships with your caregivers you form attachment models. Therefore, attachment models are how secure or insecure you are in your relationships with others as shaped by early experiences. There are four types: (1) secure, (2) insecure avoidant, (3) insecure anxious and (4) insecure disorganized. Most people have different attachment models with different people in their life. For example, Mindy feels secure with her friends but insecure anxious with her boyfriend.
Dan Siegel, attachment expert, has identified a 4S model needed to create a secure attachment model in childhood. When you consistently feel: (1) Seen (2) Safe (3) and Soothed, you will form a (4) Secure attachment. When these four elements are consistently present in childhood by an adult caregiver, you will form a secure attachment. When these four elements are not consistently present in childhood, insecure attachment models form.
Attachment models are activated — turned on and turned off
Your attachment model is activated in specific situations that resemble relationships you had in the past. Said differently, your attachment model is formed in childhood then turned on or off today based on how you interact with your relationships in the present. For example, Mindy had a father who was inconsistent, assertive, moody, and absent. This shaped her brain and she formed an insecure anxious attachment model with her father. Today, her boyfriend, who, too, is an inconsistent yet assertive personality, activates her insecure anxious attachment model.
In contrast, if you adapted to a neglectful or emotionally barren mother by withdrawing, you might find yourself avoiding relationships when you fear the possibility of rejection. This is a form of insecure attachment, known as avoidant, manifests as a preservation behavior — I will leave them before they can leave me.
If on the other hand, you experienced a relationship with a parent who behaved in ways that scared you, your brain becomes disorganized in a biological paradox — I am scared and I want to seek comfort from my parent, but my parent is also the cause of my fear. This is known as disorganized attachment. If this happened in childhood, your attachment system will be activated today when you fear that those you love will hurt you. You will feel like an emotional yo-yo — you desperately want their love and simultaneously believe that you are unlovable and will therefore be betrayed.
Attachment shapes your nervous system
Insecure attachment shapes your brain in ways that impair integration of your nervous system. For example, when Mindy’s insecure attachment system is activated by her avoidant and dismissive boyfriend, the right side of her brain is flooded in confusion, anxiety, worry, and preoccupation about the past and future. The right hemisphere of her brain also floods her body with uncomfortable sensations. It is this powerful, automatic, union of mental, emotional and physical discomfort that loops in Mindy’s body and mind. When she feels the pain and suffering, she wants relief. Her anxious attachment model has now turned on and her nervous system needs soothing and comfort, so she returns to the very relationship she left. If her boyfriend is not responsive to her need for soothing, she will deploy protest behaviors.
While you can’t change your past, you can change your future.Research has definitively shown you can change your insecure attachment model (behavioral psychologists call this ‘earned-secure’) thus, directly affecting how you interact in close relationships today.
Remember, attachment models are not a representation of you, they are a representation of how you interact in relationships. If your attachment model is non-secure, this does not mean you are insecure, it means you are not secure in that relationship. Change your attachment model and your relationships will change.
Relationships matter greatly. You need strong bonds with whom you feel secure, seen, soothed and safe. When you understand your attachment model, and take steps to repair your nervous system, you become psychologically free to navigate your relationships with honesty, compassion, forgiveness, and flexibility. In effect, you learn how to love and be loved.
Originally published at lesliesantos.com.