What's My Attachment Style?

What’s My Attachment Style?

Dr. James Horne, our guest today, has been a licensed counselor for over 20 years. He describes his passion as helping others be their true authentic selves by assisting them in identifying the barriers that keep them from realizing who they're created to be. He specializes in working with developmental trauma. 

On this episode of the Solo Parent podcast, we’re talking about attachment theory, a significant buzzword in our culture. Dr. Horne answers our questions about what each attachment style is, and how it plays out in our day-to-day life, both with our peers and our kids. And ultimately, how we heal. 

Can you define attachment theory and what attachment styles are? And give us some examples.

Attachment theory is focusing on the early developmental stages of a child and understanding the primary caregiver's ability to be present and responsive to the child's needs. During the developmental stages, how a child gets his needs met is going to impact their attachment. If his needs are met to a healthy degree then there's going to be a secure sense of self because their needs are responded to in a way that allows them to know that they're okay. Each child comes out of the womb looking for someone to let them know they're okay. 

There are three main developmental stages of having a secure sense of self. The first one is, the child gets the message that it is okay for him to exist and to take up space. An example of the opposite of this is kids that grow up with an alcoholic parent. Sometimes the child was forgotten about and so the idea of being valued and that it is okay for the child to take up space is an unspoken message that it wasn't okay. 

The second stage is, it's okay for the child to have needs. So not only can the child exist but it is ok that the child has needs. And the way the child knows this is true is through the responsiveness the child experiences from his caregivers. When the child has a need and then it's responded to. 

The third stage is it's okay to individuate. Individuation means the child can say no and disagree and his caregivers still love him. If these developmental stages are responded to in a healthy way, the child will have a secure sense of self.

Do those stack on top of each other or are they linear? Does one require the other?

That is correct. You have to have a good sense of being before you can get into your needs or into individuating.

What are the attachment styles?

Secure Attachment
When there is some sort of environmental failure, and there will be because we live in an imperfect world with imperfect humans raising imperfect humans, there's going to be an imperfect receiving of these needs. In those imperfections, we can develop different attachment styles based on our needs getting met or not getting met. If they get met to a healthy degree, we’re going to have a secure sense of self and we’re going to have a secure attachment style. We’ll have a healthy relationship with our needs, with our existence, and it's okay for us to say yes and no. We have healthy relationships with what we need and what we don't need.

Anxious Attachment
Anxious attachment style is, we don't have healthy relationships with our needs. Often people with an anxious attachment style will become overly focused on other people's needs. And that is often because of the experience that the child has growing up, it's more important for me to focus on your needs. That's going to make me okay. It’s what I need to do to survive. 

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment style is when we are resistant to intimacy and we pull away to protect ourselves. Instead of denying our needs and focusing on others’ needs to try to get a sense of okayness like the anxious attachment style, the avoidant style will pull away from the relationship and say, the other person is not okay. The person with the avoidant style is feeling, “To be okay on my own I have to get away from you.” It looks like avoidance, and isolation going up in my head and rationalizing so that I don't have to experience the failure of getting my needs met.

Disorganized Attachment 
To explain disorganized attachment, let’s look at the other attachment styles. Secure attachment is “I'm okay and you're okay.” Anxious attachment is “I'm anxious inside, I don't feel okay, but you're okay. And I need you to make me feel okay.” Avoidant attachment is “I'm Okay. Get away from me, you're not okay.” Disorganized attachment is, “I'm not Okay. You're not okay either. Nothing is okay.”   

Disorganized attachment is extreme. A lot of times what's indicated when we get disorganized is checking out and dissociating. And that can be because we’re very overwhelmed internally. And so a possible way of learning to be okay is through dissociation.

How does someone develop the avoidant attachment style?

Imagine the 50-yard line on a football field. And so a relationship is I'm responsible for my side of the field. And if I can show up in the relationship and I can take care of my needs, I will be at the 50-yard line and the other person's responsibility is to show up at the 50. And so if a parent is healthy they can show up at the 50 and the child can then be themselves and show up as well. If the parent pulls back and they're not present and they're at the 30-yard line, then the child says, “I've got to come across and come to you. I've got to deny me and go to you.” And so the avoidant might be the opposite. It might be that it feels like someone is coming across to them, then they may learn to pull back. This is one scenario. It could be, for instance, an abusive father, someone who is very domineering and controlling that could cause someone to pull away.

Why is it important to understand attachment styles? There are so many personality tests out there, Enneagram, all kinds of them. What sets this apart? What's different about this than some of those others?

It’s similar to things like the Enneagram in understanding how we show up in relationships.  I love how you started out by saying we really look at loving and being loved and what gets in the way of that. And if we can understand how we learn to relate to ourselves and learn from others, and if there's an issue with that, then we can learn to heal and therefore increase our abilities to connect in relationships. If we’re ignorant of it, or if we don't understand it, we’re not going to have compassion for ourselves as we go through it. We’re going to react to those experiences internally as opposed to responding.

This is about the foundation of our development. Our inner circle, our primary caregivers, and possibly our parents but not always.  And so in our inner circle is where we develop our sense of self and sense of relating. And so later on in life, when we have inner circle relationships, which are more than likely romantic relationships or really good friends, that's when issues are going to come up. They're not going to come up necessarily with superficial relationships. It's going to come up with the primary relationships.

What are ways our attachment styles show up in our primary relationships? 

Let’s go back to using the 50-yard line example. A person with an anxious attachment style will often cross over the 50-yard line. They will sacrifice themselves and their needs and focus on the needs of others. And so they will have boundary failure. Sometimes they have the fear of abandonment. And so sitting in a relationship and not knowing where the other person stands, not knowing whether the person will actually be honest, they will feel they are going to have to do something in that relationship to close that gap to make themselves feel okay.

What are some ways that you can heal if you're not in a relationship? 

We can be curious about our past relationships because we’re not in a primary relationship or romantic relationship, which is where it's more intensely showing up. It is going to show up in our other relationships. So be aware of how we react or respond in situations where it gets stressful or in conflict. And then just invite curiosity for ourselves about how we show up and what's happening with ourselves. 

Are there things that we can do in non-primary relationships like with a parent or a friend to help heal some of these unhealthy attachment styles? 

Awareness is the beginning. A lot of the time we're just reacting. For example, if I am on a date and I get a phone call and it's my mom and I'm recognizing I don't want to answer the phone. I don't want to rehash everything. Be curious. What's happening within me? What am I telling myself will happen? If I have this conversation and maybe I tell myself, “I don't think I can tell her no.” That if I pick up the phone, it's going to keep going and keep going and keep going. What I'm recognizing is that's a childlike consciousness. That if I haven't dealt with my early developmental work, I have reverted back into a place of my child's brain. Adults can say no to mom, halfway through the conversation. 

And so being curious about, what happens to me internally when that phone call happens, and do I feel like I'm capable of being in my adult mind, or do I feel like I'm going back to my child's self? When we were children, we really didn't have a choice. We just had to react to the situation that we were in. As an adult, we have choices most of the time in relationships, like saying no on a telephone call. But if we do go back to our early development, our childlike reaction is because trauma is a reaction that takes us back into something that's unresolved. I'm not in the present anymore. I'm now in the past. And so if I'm in that childlike consciousness, I'm going to think that I don't have the ability to say no. If I'm able to be curious, maybe take a couple of deep breaths and wait for a second, what's getting in the way of me being able to say no to her right now?
And then the next step would be learning to say no and, and being able to tolerate the discomfort internally.

Also, take into consideration, and recognize the other person may not respond well to my no. And so how open I am about what I'm feeling may not be the person that I really want to share that level of vulnerability with and that’s ok. I discerned this is not a relationship that was safe enough for me to be vulnerable. And it doesn't mean they're a bad person or you're a bad person. 

We're practicing our attachment styles with everybody we meet, we're talking about primary relationships that we're interested in maintaining. There are some relationships that are superficial like checking out a grocery store or a car salesman. We don't need to practice attachment style with everyone. 

Can your attachment style be different for different relationships?  

One of the downsides of talking attachment styles is people put themselves in a category and it can be very limiting, as opposed, this is just information to be curious about how you show up. And that's a great way to talk about it. It’s possible to show up more anxious in one particular relationship and maybe a little bit more standoffish or avoidant in another relationship. If you had two parents you might have one relationship with one and one relationship with another. We learn different styles of relating based on how to communicate with different people. 

How do our unhealthy attachment styles affect our parenting?

Just like in any relationship, if we’re not aware internally of what's happening within us, it's going to impact our relationship with our child. If our child needs space and they close the door, and we’re not aware of our anxiousness, we’re going to want to be very close to them because we want to feel okay. It's not necessarily about them. If we’re aware of that, we can step away, give them space, and then we can take care of ourselves. We can make a phone call or talk to someone. We can recognize our child is needing some space right now, and we need to do something else to take care of ourselves.

If we recognize we are avoidant and our child might be responding to that we can step in and be more honest and open about what's going on internally. If we’re not, then it's going to impact the child negatively. They will wonder “Where are you?” “What's going on with you?” 

How do we make repairs? 

The first part is awareness. We can go to counseling. One free resource is a 12-step group called Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families. Everyone has a dysfunctional family to some extent. And the adult child piece is recognizing that we as grown adults still may have a part of us that is stuck in our childhood consciousness. And it's a great place to be with other people who are wanting to be more adult and aware of what's happening with them internally as opposed to letting their internal part run their lives.

Once we have done some counseling to become more aware, we can invite honesty and openness into our relationships with our kids. If we can own our failure it can at least open the door for our children to not internalize the failure.  We can say to them we have the tendency to shut down and we know that impacts them and let them know that we’re aware and we’re working on it. Not only are we aware of it, but we’re going to change it and show up differently. That's going to be the best repair. 

As parents remember, no one is going to do this perfectly. The honesty and the openness are really where the healing comes from. Because if we’re honest and open in an age-appropriate way, the child's not necessarily going to internalize it. When it's not spoken, the child is going to make up a story about why it's happening. 

What are the risks of not addressing this? 

We don’t want to promote fear but attachment styles are foundational and a lot of times something that happened in our childhoods will show up today. So if we address the foundational issues that are getting in the way of dealing with these things then we’re going to have the freedom that we never had to be ourselves in relationships. If we just focus on our current troubles and not deal with the foundational issue, we’re really going to miss out on the connection and intimacy that we’re looking for.

How can we help our children develop secure attachments?

By being healthy ourselves. When the primary giver is attentive and responsive to the child's needs a secure attachment forms. When we’re responsive to their needs and we’re providing an environment where they can be honest and open, then that's going to open the door to more secure attachment. Parents really put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect. It's actually one of the biggest gifts we could ever give that creates secure attachment is—to be honest, and open about our imperfections. 

Attachment styles are foundational and a helpful tool to start uncovering what our style is.

We must understand the primary caregiver's ability to be present and responsive to the child's needs to understand attachment styles.

Attachment styles affect all relationships.

Being healthy ourselves is the best way to ensure our kids develop secure attachments.

Being aware of our attachment styles and noticing our deficits will help us to have more freedom to have connectedness and intimacy in our relationships.



What can I do if my kids need to go to counseling but the other parent doesn't agree? 

Be genuinely curious about their reluctance or resistance to counseling. Be curious without an agenda and allow them to have their feelings. Then ask if they're open to having a conversation and if they're able to talk about it, for instance maybe they really don't understand what happens in a counseling session with a child. If they found out that it's a safe place for the child to process the divorce, what they're going through in school, and that it's not about blame, the other parent might be willing to look at it differently. If it's a financial reason and you find out that's what it is, then you can take that off the table by choosing to pay for it on your own.

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