The story about emotional attachment dates back to the early 20th century and names like psychoanalyst John Bowlby, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, biologist Konrad Lorenz, or psychologist Harry Harlow.
Very often we hear the word attachment in a negative context:
“He is too attached to his mother.”
“You get too attached to objects and things.”
“Don’t get too attached, you’ll get hurt.”
And yet, attachment is like the air we breathe: everyone is emotionally attached.
We think we’re not taking it too far if we say that there’s no life without attachment. In humans, it begins to form before birth. When making a conscious choice, future parents get attached to the idea and vision of their family and fantasy about their child. As the child grows within the mother, she and the baby form an attachment, as the mother becomes more and more aware of the baby’s existence in her.
John Bowlby described it as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. It happens with animals, too. Within 5-7 minutes after birth, baby birds “imprint on” or identify as the parent of the first object they see and will keep following that object wherever it goes.
We first form it with our primary caretakers, but then, as we grow, we tend to internalize the pattern. We also try to apply it elsewhere: we get attached to our favorite blanket, or toy, as they provide us with a sense of security and warmth. We attach to family members, teachers, and other kids that become our friends.
Emotional attachment is the foundation of our self-esteem, it plays a role in the formation of our character, and it defines the way we perceive other people and the world around us.
However, on the road to creating emotional attachment, things don’t always go smoothly. If we were all securely attached individuals, would this world look different? Parents are not perfect human beings, their characters and mindsets can be different from their child’s, and occasional frustration and misunderstanding is a normal part of development.
Depending on our early experiences, we form a picture of the world and other people, and that can be trusting or distrustful, warm or scary, or we become easily dependent or anxious when intimate.
In the following paragraphs, we’ll briefly explain how attachment styles are classified, although keep in mind that the classification is only theoretical. No one is “fully secure” or “fully avoidant”—these classifications are only meant to help you conceptualize your behavior better, recognize patterns, and reflect on how you can improve and strengthen your relationships.
Attachment Styles: What’s Your Type?
This type of attachment in childhood is characterized by a healthy feeling of sadness when the object of love (parent) is absent and happiness when we’re reunited with them. A secure child seeks comfort from their parents and clearly prefers them to strangers (they don’t seek just any adult’s attention).
Parents with secure attachment, who are happy in their romantic partnerships, tend to be more consistent with their children, as well as more likely to respond calmly and positively to their needs.
As adults, secure attachment is seen in the tendency to have trustful, long-term relationships, solid self-esteem, or in our ability to seek support when needed, but also to provide support to those in need.
Secure individuals are able to share their emotions with other people and enjoy intimacy without fear.
Unlike secure attachment, the ambivalent style is characterized by high levels of anxiety in children, suspiciousness in strangers, and distress during separation.
These children can’t easily be reassured that everything is okay, and might even reject or display aggression towards their caretakers at times. As they grow older, these kids might become overly dependent on friendships.
This form of attachment might develop due to an inconsistent emotional exchange and availability of the parent. Later in life, ambivalent adults are reluctant to become intimate with others, but when they do, they worry about whether the partner really loves them. They get over breakups very dramatically and might become overly dependent in close relationships.
As children, those with the avoidant attachment style often might seem uninterested in their parents. They don’t reject close contact, but they don’t seek it either. They don’t have a clear preference between their parents and any other adults and can seem self-sufficient at times.
In adulthood, people with this attachment style can be avoidant and have a hard time becoming intimate with others. They might not invest themselves in intimate partnerships or friendships and don’t often share their feelings or seek support from others.
Can I Change My Attachment Style?
Many people become frightened when they discover that they’re not securely attached. They start going through all the episodes from their past when they exhibited one of the less healthy attachment styles in their relationships with parents, friends, or romantic partners.
Attachment styles do operate as worldviews. Those who are rather ambivalent tend to see the world as insecure and unconsciously confirm this worldview by either constantly getting themselves into situations that will prove them right or exhibiting selective attention and simply ignoring all the situations that prove that they are loved and appreciated.
It’s similar to those with the avoidant style, whose worldview might be that everyone is too demanding when all they want is to be left alone.
First, let’s demystify the attachment styles: no one is 100% emotionally stable. We all deal with insecurities, obstacles, and challenges on a daily basis. The secret is to have a growth mindset, master the art of letting go, and accept yourself truly and unconditionally.
Therapy can be a process of deep wound and trauma healing, but it can also be a process of personal discovery, growth, and development.
Both group and individual psychotherapy can be excellent resources for learning, gaining new experiences, cultivating self-love and forgiveness, discovering new tools for emotional regulation, and learning to identify who you are.
In therapy, you can “fail” any number of times, and you’re always welcome to try again.
Talking to another person about the way you feel and the patterns you observe in your behavior and emotions can be of immense help. You’ll realize that you’re not alone in your feelings, and the strong connection you have with your interlocutor can help you overcome your insecurities.
This person can also be your partner. A deep and honest talk can sometimes result in finding how to deal with emotionally overwhelming situations or anxiety triggers.
We strongly recommend keeping a journal about your reflections, feelings, or experiences. It will help you reflect on your progress and can be handy for recognizing both productive and unproductive behavioral patterns.
When you feel like life gets too hard, the practice of gratitude can help you overcome any kind of negative self-talk or outlook on life. There is always something good going on, something worth noticing and appreciating, and the sooner you learn how to acknowledge small things and feel gratitude for them, the more joyful, balanced, and confident you’ll become.
Research has revealed many times that the practice of gratitude is the way towards secure attachment and that securely attached people tend to experience and express their gratitude more often.
Just like secure emotional attachment isn’t something you’re born with (also often not something you’ve chosen), but something that’s been built for years, you can work your way towards change and achieve greater security and confidence in life.
Here’s a beginners’ guide on how to cope with mental illness, overcome the stigma that surrounds it, provide support to those coping in your environment, and shed some positive light on this difficult topic.