If you are looking for an understanding of what attachment is and how you can start healing your attachment wounds, then hopefully this article will help.
It gives you an overview of:
- what attachment is
- the main styles of attachment
- attachment wounds
- healing attachment wounds
Attachment: an overview
Attachment is simply the deep, enduring psychological connection and bond that occurs between two people in a close relationship. As humans, we are wired for attachment, or connection, to other human beings.
Our attachment patterns develop through our early childhood experiences, though life experiences also impact them. Our childhood relationships with our caregivers lay down a ‘template’ for how we expect relationships to work. We take this with us into the world and unconsciously are often drawn to recreate these patterns in our relationships, especially romantic ones.
There are 3 main ‘styles’ of attachment templates. These are:
Generally, if we receive warm, secure, safe ‘good enough’ connections and bonds as a child, then we feel psychologically safe, secure in ourselves and relaxed in healthy relationships. We can give and receive love, affection and respect. We are appropriately open and available, can communicate our needs effectively and expect to be treated in the same way. This is called secure attachment and what therapy can help us move towards.
However, if relationships were harmful or neglectful in any way as we were growing up, we learnt that relationships can be the cause of emotional pain, so we are likely to not feel as safe, relaxed and open in relationships. This can show up in different ways as we recreate these patterns in relationships.
Closeness and emotional openness can feel threatening if we did not experience that as a child, and we may become shut off from our own emotional needs. We naturally develop coping strategies to avoid the psychological pain we associate with trying to connect deeply with another person. This is known as avoidant attachment and while we may long to have close relationships, can cause us to behave in ‘avoiding’ ways that stops this happening.
So, we may appear very independent, we may feel anxious when we feel emotional intimacy with someone and pull away from them, we will tend to find fault with potential romantic partners, or close off and pull away from any potential of true closeness with another human being. This can of course lead to us feeling very alone in life as we struggling to make and sustain good, healthy relationships.
If we had confusing messages about whether or not our needs were important, so our caregivers were consistently inconsistent in their responses to our needs, then understandably we can become unsure about what to expect. We can develop a pattern where we have a deep need to get close to people quickly and it can feel overwhelmingly threatening when they naturally pull away – as we are being reminded of, these painful early patterns.
We can feel very activating and lead us to behave in overly-anxious ways, for example, sending many texts if we don’t hear back from them, or calling them more than they are comfortable with. If we continue, these behaviours can sometimes causing harm to a relationship, conversely making it more likely the other person will leave.
The good news is that if you display avoidant or anxious attachment styles, being aware of your patterns is the first step. You can then understand and make sense of what’s going on for you, and learn how to move yourself to a more secure attachment style in relationships, which is perfectly possible. If you would like to read more about attachment styles, particularly in romantic relationships, this book is a good starting point.
There is an additional attachment style called ‘disorganised’ attachment which can often be a consequence of inconsistent and lack of emotional support in childhood and a home where there is neglect and abuse. This leads to a conflict between the biological needs of attachment and protection from threat, resulting in a deep sense of loneliness and longing for connection, alongside a visceral fear about being truly connected with others. Often people with disorganised attachment styles have a very critical view of themselves too, all of which lead to difficulties in relationships.
In addition to our attachment template, attachment ‘wounds’ can occur throughout our lives, through psychological relationship traumas (e.g. neglect, sudden loss of someone you loved, abuse of any kind and bullying). If these happen in childhood or adolescence, they are likely to have a bigger impact on our still-developing brains and adult experiences can amplify these.
For example, someone who has experienced sustained abuse from a young age at the hands of a parent is likely to have a much greater attachment ‘wound’ that is intrinsically linked to their attachment template. However, if someone has had generally ‘good enough parenting’ and developed a secure attachment style, they may have an attachment wound caused by a particular traumatic event. For example:
The death of a loved one
If someone we were close to dies and the grief was not fully processed, then we may fear deeply that someone else we love will leave or abandon us. Our minds try to ‘protect’ us from further deep emotional pain by not allowing us to let anyone get close to us again. However, unfortunately this also means that we also don’t experience true connection, closeness and love with others. Thankfully, recognising and understanding what’s going on, working through the original grief and making more conscious choices can change this pattern.
If we experience narcissistic abuse, this means another person we were in a close relationship with has caused us psychological harm. This is a deep attachment wound and a relational trauma which has threatened our emotional safety. It therefore naturally eaves us feeling psychologically overwhelmed and deeply unsafe – it is the opposite of secure, healthy attachment.
So, even when the trauma (relationship) is over, our sympathetic nervous system remains very activated and we may continue to experience the evolutionary ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response, designed to keep us safe from threats. Without support to help to understand and process the trauma, we can get ‘stuck’ in this highly activated state. This leads us to constantly look out for and react to possible threats in our relationships with others, making it very hard to live our lives and means true connection and closeness with anyone is very difficult. Narcissistic abuse, or abuse of any kind, can also create a ‘trauma bond’ which is a very harmful form of attachment to an abuser.
Healing your attachment wounds
Again, the good news is that even if you have deep attachment wounds, from either early childhood experiences, or traumatic events that have happened, or a combination of both, with support, you can heal your attachment wounds and change your attachment ‘template’. By understanding your natural attachment style, processing and healing any relational trauma and learning practical skills to help you fully connect firstly to yourself and others, you absolutely can have healthy, happy relationships.
You have already taken the first step by reading this article to increase your understanding around attachment and attachment wounds.
A good next step might be for you to take some time to think about and write down anything that you found particularly interesting and would like to know more about. Therapy can of course help you to work through this in more detail and process any attachment wounds you have in a safe way.