Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Change Your Attachment Style to Have a Better Life

Our earliest attachments significantly contribute to how we relate in our lives

What if we could identify the filter that shapes our perception of the world and change it so as to have a better life?  We are born into the social context of our families and quickly need to /develop strategies to get our needs met by our caretakers. Depending on our early emotional environment, we make the best adaptation to get our needs met by the potential caretakers we have available to us, usually our parents or other relatives. We are incredibly adaptive creatures, which is quite possibly our most unique feature as humans. Our early interactions create internal working models of how our future relationships will transpire and of how we will go about getting our needs met. Research has demonstrated that these childhood relationships shape our perceptions of others and our understanding of their minds and motives.  These internal working models also influence the ways others are likely to treat us and perceive us. They impact our ability to self-regulate and tolerate our emotions and the level of distress we experience.  They contribute to the development of personality disorders and, to a lesser extent, to mental illness in general.

How does this veil through which we experience the world and the world experiences us impact our thoughts, feelings, and behavior?  What is the language of this filter?  I believe it is the “critical inner voice.”  “What’s wrong with me?” is perhaps the most common question I hear patients and friends utter when pondering the mystery of their own behavior patterns. “What scares me away from getting close to someone who really loves me?” “What draws me to desperately long for that person who continually rejects me?” The answers to these questions can frequently be found in a complex combination of unique human experiences, but one factor is a universally accurate determinant of the make up of our adult struggles. Our earliest attachments significantly contribute to the puzzle of how we relate to others in our lives.

The adaptations we make to the interactive relationship between ourselves and our early caretakers impact every area of our lives as adults, from how we parent to how we treat our partner. The particular attachment style we develop strongly colors the lens through which we view the world. It often operates as a subconscious force that can leave us reliving rather than living our lives, recreating in one form or another feelings from our earliest social relationships in our current lives.However, we are not trapped by or locked into our attachment style. Research has demonstrated that these patterns are malleable and can be altered in the context of reparative relationships. We can alter patterns that were at one time the best possible adaptions to our social world, and instead, live our lives based on pursuing our adult goals and desires in a flexible manner. When we stop reliving our past, we adapt to our current life circumstances and create satisfying loving relationships with our partners, our children and our friends.

We can start by exploring: what is our attachment style? How was it formed and in what ways is it impacting our lives? We can get to know our “critical inner voice,” an internal coach that monitors this filter through which we see the world. Our critical inner voice is the language of these internal working models of relationships and our social world. It encourages us to recreate our early lives through our behavior, both by evoking responses from others and projecting our past on to people in our present lives. Once we have identified this enemy within, we can know what to challenge. It will then be possible to change behaviors and shift the patterns that have kept us stuck in the past, and free ourselves to live fully in the present.

Securely attached individuals grow up feeling safe, seen, secure and soothed. They see their caretakers as a secure base from which they can venture out to explore independently but whom they can always return to for safety or nurturance. Think about a baby crawling around on his own, enjoying the adventure of new discoveries. When something startles him, he can return to his parent for comfort. However, once soothed, he feels comfortable to again go out on his own. People with this type of attachment orientation are adaptive and flexible. They tend to have an easy time in social relationships. In school, they receive more positive reactions from both teachers and peers alike.

A secure attachment is the ideal type of attachment that we would like to form, as adults, with our children, our close friends or our romantic partner. When we have a secure attachment style, we have faith that we can get our needs met by others and we are able to be giving toward others.  We can appropriately depend on others and rely on ourselves. We are capable of and drawn to feeling trust and closeness, but we can also feel secure within ourselves separate from others.

Insecurely attached individuals did not feel security in their early relationships and developed different adaptations to attempt to get their needs met. In one style, called anxious attachment in children and ambivalent or preoccupied attachment in adults, the individual learned that to get his or her needs met by staying focused on the caregiver and remaining in their proximity; eventually they will meet the child's needs.

Preoccupied individuals have a more frantic, less confident approach to getting their needs met by others. They tend to act clingy or needy, because their needs were inconsistently met as children. They may have had a parent who sometimes met their needs, but at other times acted out of their own needs or was intrusive with the child. These unresolved issues from childhood play out in their present day relationships, making them feel anxious and insecure, even when there is no need to feel this way. Think about the person who is constantly jealous or overly worried about his partner’s whereabouts, or the person who never believes her spouse really loves her and constantly seeks reassurance. Another way a person might recreate this pattern in their adult relationships is to unconsciously be drawn to partners who are inconsistently available, thus recreating the feeling of their early environment. In essence, they can maintain their defended posture; they may feel miserable but in an old familiar way.

An individual with a dismissing attachment style has the opposite way of relating. They have learned early on that the best way to get their needs met is to act like they don’t have any. As adults, they often act pseudo-independent, taking care of themselves and acting like they don’t need anything from others.  They rarely have many memories of their childhood, or they will write off whatever took place in their childhood as not mattering. These people often resist seeking out connection or closeness and avoid feeling dependent on others.

So, once we identify our attachment style, what can we do about it? There are two primary ways to alter your attachment style. One is by getting into a long-term relationship with someone with a healthier attachment style than your own. The second is entering into psychotherapy. Therapy helps, because good therapy itself offers a secure attachment. In the therapeutic relationship, you ideally feel both safe and seen. In addition, therapy can help a person identify the filter they see the world through, challenge their critical inner voices and the defenses they formed to deal with emotional pain in their earliest relationships.  

For example, if you have a preoccupied attachment style, you can learn to identify and get a hold of your insecurities and moments of anxiety. You can become aware of the critical inner voices that are fueling these feelings and come to recognize the internal working models that are informing your perception of the situation. You can learn techniques to calm down within yourself rather than acting out toward your partner and potentially hurting the relationship. You can start to develop a new image of yourself and trust in others.

Furthermore, psychotherapy helps you to do the most valuable thing you can do when it comes to living life free of the more negative impositions of your history; it enables you to create a coherent narrative, so that you can both understand your past and evolve in the present. This process involves both making sense of your story and feeling the full pain of your childhood. Only then, can you truly start to change the lens through which you see the world or the model for how you relate. Instead of unconsciously replicating your childhood, reformulating similar attachments to those you had as a kid, you can reshape your relationships to be what you want them to be. A healthy, secure relationship will further reshape your attachment model, as you have the lived experience of relating to a trusting, caring, attuned partner. You can begin to see the world in a more realistic light, rather than taking on the point of view of your critical inner voice. You can form healthier relationships and live the life you imagined, not the one prescribed to you from your past.

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the May 6 CE Webinar: Changing Attachment Style Through Psychotherapy

 

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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