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What's the Relationship Between Attachment and Authenticity?

Authenticity is not found on a mountaintop in isolation, but in relationships.

Key points

  • Our personal sense of authenticity is impacted by our original relational templates.
  • Unmet needs in childhood can result in an interruption to our sense of identity and self-agency later in life.
  • Authentic connection with others and ourselves in a safe and joyous way is possible.

Why do so many people struggle with authenticity, and how does this experience relate to complex family dynamics or a less-than-ideal childhood?

Many people feel disconnected from their inner life, and they aren’t always sure why. Some of us never had a coherent sense of self, while others feel like we lost ourselves somewhere along the journey of life.

Wherever you are at, know that it is possible to reclaim a sense of authenticity in life, although it might not be the way you were originally anticipating. Authenticity is not found on a mountaintop in isolation. Instead, authenticity is found by cultivating relationships, with others and with ourselves.

Attachment Theory

Our sense of authenticity is directly related to our foundational attachment experiences in life. The loss of authenticity can occur at a young age, although we may have no conscious memories of these experiences.

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, the "parents" of attachment theory, recognized that within each of us there is an attachment system that motivates our survival by supporting us to maintain connection and proximity to our primary caregivers.

We are innately drawn to another’s body—i.e. the attachment figure—as to be taken care of, and it is through this figure we can investigate the world and have new experiences.1 After all, how could babies survive if they did not remain close to their parents? We are not like zebras where we can run after being born; instead, we are born requiring support. We developed as a species to be in relation to others, and adaptations of security have been selected for.

Attachment throughout life allows us to connect with others, acquire protection, or find comfort through our relationships in what can be an overwhelmingly scary and hostile world. The attachment system demonstrates how our lives revolve around other people, and attachment is an ongoing human need that never goes away.

Extensive research has confirmed that our neurobiological development and the organization of our brain depend on having an attuned and loving parental figure.2 Early relational and emotional experiences have a direct impact on our developing brains and nervous systems. Our bodies learn through patterned and repetitive experiences, and as a result, the quality of our early attachment relationships has a momentous impact on our later psychological functioning.

When we have an attachment figure that is consistently emotionally available, responsive to our needs, and who engages in pro-social behaviours for us as infants, we can develop a secure attachment with our primary attachment figure.3 A secure attachment can support us in developing ourselves as individuals, and allow us to fully express ourselves in a way that is aligned with our unique developmental needs.

If our needs remain unmet, however, we may develop attachment wounding and an interruption to our sense of identity and personal authenticity. Our early relationships unconsciously influence our adult relationships later in life, including our relationship to our authentic sense of self.

Loss of Authenticity In Childhood

Millions of people have learned to sacrifice their authenticity as to preserve the parental and/or familial relationships that ensured their survival.4 It is important to highlight how this is an instinctual reaction, as infants and children have no real agency in determining whether their needs will be met. Growing up, we are only ever responding and attempting to adjust to the experiences we are being presented with.

Disconnecting from innate physical sensations like emotions or gut feelings, and/or repressing our capacity to be ourselves can be lifesaving in neglectful or abusive households. This is because disconnection allows us to be tolerated in our family or broader cultural systems, and we can blend into our environment like a chameleon. The ability to disconnect and blend in directly supports our survival.

Alienating ourselves from a core sense of self can be a brilliant adaptive strategy. By only presenting the "acceptable" aspects of our personality, we can put forth a mask that supports us in finding recognition and acquiring the available crumbs of attachment.5 This mask, of course, is a false self that leads to a lot of psychological disruption and suffering in adulthood, but the mask itself was necessary.

Source: lauren lulu taylor/Unsplash
Source: lauren lulu taylor/Unsplash

Lack of Co-Regulation

Developing infants and children are completely helpless without their primary caregivers, and it is through our attachment figures that we learn to regulate ourselves—as well as come to know ourselves. It is through the eyes of our attachment figures in which we develop an awareness of our own internal experiences.

It is tremendously difficult to develop a presence or connection for ourselves if we never meaningfully received this from others in our early development. How do we find a willingness to explore our vast human psyche if our loved ones never played with us, or how can we know the unique value of our life if our parents’ eyes never lit up when we walked into a room as children?

Our attachment system and physiological development are not separate from one another. We need predictable, trusted people who won’t hurt, disrespect, or be indifferent to us as we attempt to develop into whole people. It is difficult to cultivate our own sense of authenticity or discover what we truly need to find expression in our life if we are raised by inconsistent, immature, and unavailable parents with limited capacities.

Cultivating Authenticity

The attachment system demonstrates how we are psycho-biologically and socially hard-wired to feel safe, seen, and heard in the arms of another. Since the attachment system is dynamic and fluid, the good news is we all have an innate capacity to cultivate secure attachments with others. Authentic connection with others and ourselves in a safe and joyous way is possible.

If we had a less-than-ideal childhood or are survivors of developmental trauma, we may have to pursue therapy to learn to relate to past survival patterns differently. By gently tending to repeating attachment patterns, psychodynamic and attachment-oriented psychotherapists help construct new self-concepts that support people in living meaningful lives.6

We can cultivate authenticity by choosing to consciously develop a relationship to our own inner life, and by fostering new connections with others. The adaptive masks we have formed in childhood demand we learn to love our inner traumatized children, even if we cannot love the adult version of us.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1. Wallin, D. J. (2007). Attachment in psychotherapy. Guilford Press.

2. Perry, B. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog: and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: what traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. Basic Books.

3. Poole-Heller, D. (2019). The power of attachment: How to create deep and lasting intimate relationships. Sounds True.

4. Mate, G. (2022). The myth of normal: Trauma, illness, and healing in a toxic culture. Alfred A Knopf Canada.

5. Fisher, J. (2012). Learning to love our “selves”. Psychotherapy Networker.

6. Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. The American Psychologist, 65(2), 98-109.

More from Mark Shelvock RP(Q), CT, MACP, MA
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