By: Dr. Sara Antunes-Alves, C.Psych.
Human beings are hardwired for connection. Unlike other mammals, we rely absolutely on our attachment figures for survival, for an extended period of time, from birth. Without secure connection, our health is at risk.
When we experience trauma, the wiring for connection is disrupted and we develop adaptations in order to feel safe. It is important to note here that trauma needn’t necessarily be a “Big T” trauma, which include disturbing experiences that happened to you, such as sexual abuse, loss of a loved one, and violent crimes, but also “little t” traumas, especially ones that repeat throughout our development. “Little t” traumas are ones that cause us distress and uncertainty and can also include experiences that didn’t happen to you but should have. A lack of emotional availability from an attachment figure – even if they had the best of intentions – can be traumatic.
Our attachment style refers to the behaviours we engage in to feel safe with others. Attachment exists on a spectrum, and we may be a mix of different attachment styles, and with different people. Disruptions in attachment tend to originate from our early developmental years, within our families, but can also be affected by harmful experiences later on, such as with a painful romantic relationship or being bullied in school.
There are four attachment styles, and they are briefly described below:
Secure Attachment:This is the “ideal” attachment leaning, manifesting as a healthy level of interdependence with another and comfort expressing emotions openly; relationships are a place of thriving, but being alone is also not necessarily a distressing place. You feel comfortable relying on another for support and having them rely on you.Avoidance and anxiety are low.
There are three forms of insecure attachment:
Dismissive-Avoidant:This attachment leaning manifests as (emotional) distance from others, valuing a high level of self-sufficiency and independence; closeness feels threatening and efforts to push another away can be prevalent; emotions are generally suppressed and denied. You feel triggered by closeness and intimacy. Avoidance is high and anxiety is low.
Anxious/Preoccupied:This attachment leaning is characterized by high needs for intimacy and a fear of abandonment and rejection. These are managed by high attunement to another’s emotions and pronounced efforts to meet the other’s needs, often at the expense of their own. Eventually, protest behaviours to feel reassured may occur. You feel triggered by distance and uncertainty. Avoidance is low and anxiety is high.
Fearful-Avoidant/Disorganized:This attachment leaning manifests in a push-pull dynamic. The individual desires connection with another and simultaneously fears it, leading to inconsistent and ambiguous behaviours in social bonds. Emotions are not regulated well and a sense of shame is prevalent; both closeness and distance can feel triggering. Here, anxiety and avoidance are both high.
The above insecure attachment styles represent clever adjustments as a result of important developmental needs not being met. They reflect humanity’s impressive propensity for survival through adaptation. However, at some point, you may find that these adaptations are no longer useful to you and may in fact be causing you or your relationships harm.
The good news is, attachment styles are not fixed; they can change.
If you find yourself identifying with an insecure attachment style, there is hope. It is not a life sentence. With greater awareness of your attachment style with another, what makes you feel threatened and how you find safety, you can learn to pause and choose to respond in more adaptive and secure ways. It is an effortful and sometimes lengthy process of re-learning, but it is never too late to choose.
Dr. Sara Antunes-Alves, C.Psych. is a psychologist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR). Sara provides therapy to individuals experiencing a range of psychological difficulties, and especially enjoys helping others understand their relationship to self and others, and how attachment (trauma), especially in formative years of development, affects adults in their current functioning. Her approach to therapy begins with building self-awareness, which she believes is necessary for meaningful change. Sara makes efforts to highlight the importance of having a more integrated perspective of one’s functioning, including one’s intellectual, emotional, and physiological states of being. She incorporates interpersonal and psychodynamic psychotherapies, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) to help clients achieve their therapeutic goals.