It started with a group of infants in a small, white playroom. The experiment taking place, later known as “The Strange Situation,” was designed to observe the behavior of children with their caregivers.
For 21 minutes, researcher Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues watched the infants respond to various scenarios. In one, the parent and child are alone, and the child plays freely while the parent stands by. In another, a stranger enters and the parent conspicuously leaves. Other scenarios include the stranger interacting with the child alone, the parent re-entering and comforting the child while the stranger leaves, and the parent exiting and leaving the child completely alone.
By observing the child’s responses to the caregivers, Ainsworth discovered a few common patterns. In particular, certain children responded to the presence of a stranger and the absence of a parent with confusion or intense distress, while others handled it with ease. These patterns, known as attachment styles, are imprinted on us at an early age, and end up impacting our behavior for a lifetime. What Ainsworth and other psychologists discovered is that our attachments, or how others respond to our needs, can leave a lasting mark.
Bowlby described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” that has evolutionary roots. Children come into the world programmed to bond with caregivers because it aids survival. A positive caregiver-child relationship, Bowlby found, provides critical nourishment in the form of food and shelter, as well as more intangible things like social and emotional support.
These early childhood experiences lay the groundwork for how we experience the entire world. The bond (or lack thereof) we have with our primary caregivers shapes all of our relationships, from youth into adulthood. Our attachment style can help or hinder our willingness to take risks, develop trust, and form strong, healthy connections with others.
If you agree with the statements, “It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or others not accepting me,” then it’s likely you have a secure attachment style. About 55 to 60 percent of people fall into this category.
They’re empathetic, concerned, and appreciate other people.
Adults with secure attachment generally have a history of warm, rewarding relationships. Their life isn’t without hurt or heartbreak, but they respond in healthy ways, by recognizing that their emotions are valid. They’re empathetic, concerned, and appreciate other people. They’ve internalized a strong sense of self-esteem, thanks to having responsive, available caregivers who attended to their needs. As a result, they tend to be independent, self-reliant, easy-going, and curious adults.
The other three types of attachment styles fall under the umbrella of “insecure” attachment styles. Insecure attachment styles are categorized by an underlying belief that others are unreliable.
1. Anxious-preoccupied Attachment: People with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style deeply fear rejection and worry they’re not valued. They struggle with self-doubt and are self-critical. They also depend on others for reassurance and approval, which can lead to unhealthy dependence. This style develops because of inconsistent relationships — where a caregiver or partner may be unpredictable or sometimes withholds love — that can lead a person to become clingy or possessive.
People with an anxious attachment style tend to be highly vigilant and attuned to others’ reactions. One fMRI study found that women with this style showed more brain activity when viewing negative situations versus women with other attachment styles. The same women showed less activity in neural areas related to emotion regulation, suggesting that people with anxious-preoccupied attachment may often feel like they can’t keep their feelings in check.
2. Avoidant Attachment: These people push intimacy away. They have trouble getting close to romantic partners and may struggle to build strong bonds with co-workers and friends. They may come off as cold, distant, or uncaring. It’s not that they don’t need connection (all humans do), but rather that they have developed deep defenses to hide their own needs because they fear being seen as weak or vulnerable, or getting taken advantage of. Also called “dismissive” attachment, these people discount the importance of feelings and try to tune emotion out of interactions. They distance themselves from people as a way to avoid rejection.
3. Fearful Attachment: People with a fearful or disorganized style tend to see the world as a dangerous place. In the Strange Situation, parents who feared the presence of a stranger failed to comfort the child. The child learns that approaching others may actually increase anxiety, rather than provide a sense of safety.
This attachment style is linked to children who experienced fighting, yelling, and even abuse. People with this attachment style often agree with the statements, “I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to other people.” Attachment theory expert Dr. Hal Shorey characterizes fearful attachment as a “come-here-go-away” response.
Can You Change Your Attachment Style?
The short answer: not really. Like many personality traits, research finds that attachment style stays relatively stable over time.
While you can’t completely change your attachment style, you can alter it for the better.
But you don’t need to be a victim of your upbringing. While you can’t completely change your attachment style, you can alter it for the better. There’s hope for people with an insecure attachment style to develop what’s called “earned security.” You can develop earned security over time, in a few key ways:
Identify the source of your critical inner voice
Negative self-talk often stems from internalizing the words of harsh caregivers or other important figures in your life (a bullying boss, an ex, or judgmental friends, for instance). When you find yourself saying things like “no one at work can be trusted” or “I’m not good enough to date her,” ask yourself where that belief originates.
Start to question whether your automatic assumptions are factually true. Find counter-evidence to refute them. For example, is it factually accurate that no one at work can be trusted? Try to recall at least one instance in which you relied on a colleague for a favor or help. Practicing self-compassion, assertive communication, and healthy boundaries can also help shore up your confidence and leave you feeling more secure.
Rewire your brain through better relationships
Finding a partner who has a secure attachment style is the fastest way to transform your own. Outside of being in a dream relationship, you can shift towards a greater sense of self-esteem by disconnecting yourself from toxic friends and workplaces, and instead surrounding yourself with people who fully accept you and bring out your best sides.
Learn to identify your emotions and express your needs
Skills like mindfulness and emotional labeling can help you process your emotional reactions instead of feeling ordered around by them. It’s also crucial to reframe conflict as a necessary part of any relationship, not a sign of danger or rejection. Exercise empathy and learn how to communicate tactfully when disagreements arise.
No matter what your attachment style, self-awareness is key. It’s only once you recognize and understand how your experiences in youth impact you in adulthood that you can start to change old, unhelpful habits and tendencies. Instead of unconsciously replicating your early programming, you can consciously reformulate your bonds and self-beliefs for the better, reshaping yourself into who you really want to be.