Can You Fix Psychological Damage Sustained at Infancy?
How early attachment to primary caregivers impacts adult relationships
Posted Jul 08, 2014
Winch: Why do so many people repeat the same, problematic patterns in their relationships?
Becker-Phelps: This unfortunate habit is explained by attachment theory, which was originally proposed by John Bowlby. Basically, although people are born with certain characteristics, such as a reactive or mild temperament, their earliest interactions with caregivers create a foundation for how they perceive themselves and think about others. In certain situations, those early relationships can leave someone feeling flawed or that others are not to be trusted. Those negative beliefs and patterns then continue into adulthood and adversely impact their relationships unless the person makes a conscious effort to change them.
Winch: Can you explain more about how early attachment affects the way people relate?
Becker-Phelps: According to attachment theory, people are “wired” with an attachment system from birth. Clearly, an infant needs a primary caregiver to help it survive. In addition to providing for the child’s physical safety and basic needs, the caregiver–or attachment figure–gives the child a sense of being safe by being warm and nurturing. Through this relationship, people develop different ways of relating, or styles of attachment.
When all goes well (about 60 percent of the time), children develop a secure attachment style. They feel warmly accepted and comforted when distressed. This leads them to feel they are worthy of love and that significant others can be relied upon to be emotionally available in times of need. As a result, they tend to feel positively toward themselves and to have caring friends and romantic partners.
Winch: What happens when a caretaker does not provide a sense of safety and acceptance?
Becker-Phelps: In these situations, children develop an insecure style of attachment. They have a sense that they might not be worthy of love (that they are somehow inadequate) and/or that they cannot rely on others to be emotionally available for them when distressed.
Those who question their own worthiness of love tend to be anxious; or anxiously attached. They tend to feel that they need to perform in certain way to earn the love of others–that they cannot be loved for just being themselves. In romantic relationships they often fear being abandoned, feel needy or clingy, and/or struggle with jealousy. They might even allow others to treat them poorly because they question whether they deserve better.
Those who believe that others can’t be relied upon to be emotionally supportive solve this problem by being overly self-reliant. They tend to be emotionally dismissing of others and of their own emotions; or to have a dismissing attachment style. They might feel like something is missing or like they are on the outside. Their partners often complain that they are not affectionate, caring or there for them in times of need.
Winch: Can you really change your attachment style? And if you can, how?
Becker-Phelps: You most definitely can change. However, keep in mind that you are changing something fundamental in yourself, so doing so will take time and patience.
You need to begin by paying attention to your insecure patterns. As you observe them, you will gain more clarity about them. For instance, you might notice that you tend to feel inadequate and often harshly criticize yourself. Once you see such patterns, you can begin to question them. One good way to do this with self-criticism is to ask yourself how you would respond to a friend in the same situation. Frequently, the answer is that you would be much more compassionate.
Finally, you can practice this compassionate response with yourself. Because changing your attachment style is so difficult, it is very beneficial to be compassionate toward your struggles. It can help motivate you toward happier relationships with yourself and others, and to support yourself when things don’t go well. Although self-compassion can be difficult to learn, it also has the power to help you heal and change.
For more about self-compassion and how to strengthen your ‘relationship muscles’ check out Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
Teaser image by freedigitalphotos.net