Most of us do the best we can in our close interpersonal relationships. Relationships can fill us with happiness and bring us a sense of belonging, companionship, and love. Yet relationships leave many people feeling confused, frustrated, misunderstood, and downright bad. Even the best among us have times when the people we are close to leave us scratching our heads and wondering how things got to this point. The intensity of our emotional experience in these situations might depend on whether we are dealing with a friend, sibling, parent, lover, or even boss. But the same basic processes underlie most interpersonal interactions where loss of the relationship could signal pain and hardship.
The good news is that you can learn to understand these processes and patterns and take steps to change your own experience in relationships. You can decide on how you want to think, feel, and behave in most mildly to moderately distressing situations. You can also learn to avoid acting out and behaving in ways that cause damage to relationships when the intensity of a situation overwhelms your ability to cope.
My aim with this series is to help you become an expert on your own personality. Each month across the next year, I will sequentially lay out what you need to know to harness your personality to obtain the types of experiences you deserve. I will also suggest ways for you to make the changes you want. You will become aware of how you are wired to characteristically think, feel, and behave. You will also learn to understand the people you are in relationships with. It’s probably not reasonable to expect to change someone else’s personality. But, you can learn to shape situations in a way that allows them to be at their best. Once you understand how people with different personality styles perceive the world, experience emotions, and cope with those emotions, even their most bewildering behavior can be seen to make sense. This doesn’t mean that we should tolerate behaviors that hurt us or violate our boundaries. On the contrary, understanding one’s own emotional make up will help most people gain a clearer idea of when their boundaries are, or are not, being overstepped.
For adults, it all starts with understanding how personality forms under positive conditions in childhood—that is when parents were consistently warm, available, and responsive while also maintaining high standards for their children’s behaviors. This pattern applies to about 55 percent of the adult population who have gone on to form what are called “secure” attachment styles. The other 45 percent of people had to adapt in some way to cope with less than optimal parenting in childhood. These folks have gone on to develop what are known as “insecure” attachment styles. The word “insecure” here refers to the quality of the parent/child relationship, not to how people feel about themselves. As you will see, many people with insecure styles are very confident and competent people. There are three such styles and each one brings with it a specific set of positive and negative characteristics. Understanding the optimal “secure” pattern will help those with insecure styles to maximize their positive traits and change, override, or compensate for their negative ones.
In presenting this material, I am going to draw primarily on a model of personality development called “Attachment Theory.” Attachment theory was pioneered by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s and early 1970s. Across the past decades, however, it has been elaborated by many researchers from the fields of social, cognitive, and clinical psychology, and now even neurobiology. For the most part, I am not going to cite my sources, but rest assured that the information I present to you comes out of the published research and is based on sound science.
Attachment theory is based on the idea that every person has an innate need to feel cared for and protected by others. This is particularly true for young children who rely on the care and protection of their parents for survival. It wasn’t that long ago in human history when a lack of protection and care would result in nearly certain death. So, children become attached to their parents so they can stay close enough to get needed protection against environmental threats (think about predators, weather, and hostile tribes of people). Anxiety is nature’s way of telling the child when he or she is venturing too far from this parental “secure base.” Anxiety builds as the child ventures away until it becomes so uncomfortable that it impels the child to return to the secure base to re-establish the connection. Think of it this way: If, during our ancient history, children’s anxiety did not become high enough to get them to re-establish proximity, they would not have survived. By extension, all of us alive today are the descendents of anxious people, and anxiety and the attachment system can be seen as necessary for survival.
If the parent is readily availability, caring and responsive to the child when he or she returns, the child needs to do little else to lower anxiety and feel secure again. As this cycle repeats over and over across the childhood years, the child explores in ever widening circles until, eventually, just knowing that the parent is out there somewhere and can be called on when needed is enough to lower anxiety in most situations. But, the story doesn’t end in childhood. Bowlby and most attachment theorists view the attachment system as operating continuously, from the “cradle to the grave.” When we are young, we rely on our parents or parental substitutes to provide our secure base. As we venture into adolescence and then adulthood, we transfer these attachment bonds from parents to peers, groups, romantic partners, and even bosses.
Look at another example from ancient times. If you lived among a tribe of hunter-gatherers and you got the group or group leader mad at you, you just might find yourself kicked out of the cave or not allowed to sleep near the fire at night. Just as with the prior child example, not being able to stay close to the group could result in death. So, none of us should be surprised if we experience strong abandonment feelings, are anxious, or feel a pit in our stomach when we pick up on signs that our lover might leave us or we are at risk of being marginalized in our social groups.
The key to understanding your personality (how quickly you pick up on threats, how strong your emotional responses are, and how you deal with those emotions) is based on what you have had to do in the past to feel safe again during events of separation (real, threatened, or imagined). In my next post, I will lay out the coping patterns and characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that underlie the secure and then the three insecure styles of “preoccupied,” “dismissing,” and “fearful.” Understanding your style and those of the people you are close to will help you anticipate what types of events will elicit strong emotions and what types of thoughts and behaviors are likely to result. By extension, you can learn to override and gradually change your automatic reactions and behave with intent in ways that will yield the best results in your relationships with others.