As I worked to change my abusive and sometimes violent behavior, I wondered: why do I struggle with emotional control when other people don’t? Why am I so sensitive to certain situations, while others think nothing of them? If you’re asking the same questions, the clue – and the cure – may lie in understanding the “attachment style” you had with your primary caregiver.
What is attachment style?
As human beings, we’ve evolved to form a strong bond with at least one primary caregiver – usually our mom, dad, or whoever raised us. We likely developed this instinct for attachment because it made us far more likely to survive infancy. How that attachment looked for each of us varied, however.
About half of the population had what’s called a “secure” attachment style with their caregiver. This means the caregiver was responsive, consistent, engaging, and in tune with the child’s needs without being overbearing or suffocating. As a result, the child feels loved, safe, and secure, but also free to explore, learn, and test themselves. Think of it like an astronaut on a spacewalk—free to move around, yet safely attached and securely supported by the mothership.
Children with a secure attachment style tend to grow up to be empathetic, emotionally balanced, and resilient adults. They are able to bounce back from challenges and maintain a strong sense of self-esteem and identity. As you may have guessed, these adults are more likely to have successful and healthy relationships with their significant others.
Unfortunately, around half of the population had some form of an “insecure” attachment style. There are different categories of insecure attachment, like “ambivalent”, “avoidant”, and “disordered”, which we may or may not fit neatly into. The main gist of all insecure attachments is that we don’t have a solid home base. As a result, we don’t feel completely secure and supported, and we’re less likely to develop a healthy sense of self.
Determining your attachment style
It can be hard identifying which attachment style we had with our primary caregiver because it starts to form in early infancy, before we remember. If we feel comfortable doing so, we can ask our parents, older siblings, or other family members about those years. But if that’s not a conversation you’re able to have, start by looking at your life as an adult and working backwards, like I did.
I thought I had a “normal” or even “great” childhood until I started working to stop my harmful actions as an adult. Poor emotional control—being overly sensitive and easily flooded with my feelings—was at the root of my worst behavior. I learned that these issues were likely the result of my experiences early in life. Maybe things were not as rosy as I had remembered.
Here’s what I did know. I was the second child of parents who both worked on a farm. My father was an alcoholic, and that this was a major source of conflict between him and mom. In fact, she had him committed to rehab when I was about 4 years old.
I also know that dad was emotionally unavailable and didn’t see childcare as his responsibility. That means mom must have had to shoulder all the work of childcare for two kids by herself, while also helping with farm chores. My guess is that with all of this work, conflict, and chaos, my needs may have been ignored from time to time.
The attachment style jigsaw
By piecing together your own childhood in a similar way, you may be able to identify whether you had a secure or insecure attachment style. If yours was insecure, your primary caregiver may have:
- Spent a lot of time away, or was emotionally unavailable.
- Made you feel suffocated or intruded upon (think: “helicopter parent”).
- Was inconsistent or conditional with their love – sometimes available and supportive, but sometimes not.
- Ignored or neglected your needs, perhaps because they were struggling with their own issues, like depression or addiction.
- Mistreated or abused you.
Insecure attachment styles later in life
Like many aspects of our childhood, our attachment style can have big effects later in life. This is because our relationship to our primary caregiver is our first relationship – and usually our first experience of love. From them, we learn core beliefs about ourselves and how relationships work.
When we grow up with a secure attachment, we learn things like:
- I am capable, valuable, good, and lovable.
- People are safe and I can count on them to love and care for me.
- A good relationship is loving, honest, respectful, trusting, and secure.
In contrast, an insecure attachment is likely to teach us things like:
- I’m not capable, valuable, good, and lovable (unless my loved one says so).
- I can’t count on my loved ones to care for me (or I have to escalate my demands to get the care I need).
- Relationships are meant to be hot and cold, distant, suffocating, or hurtful.
For better or worse, all of us take these beliefs into our adult relationships to some extent. In an almost bizarre way, we subconsciously gravitate toward people who are like our primary caregiver. In doing so, we unintentionally recreate the relationship dynamic we had as children—hoping this time to get a better outcome. Our own behavior, and the challenges created by the wounded and difficult partners we select, can make it hard to have a healthy adult relationship.
My example, again
One of the patterns I noticed about my intimate relationships was an excessive desire to get positive assurance from my loved one. If my partner was critical or disapproving, I’d feel terribly hurt, unworthy, and unlovable. If she was busy, distracted, or made plans without me, I’d feel desperately disconnected and rejected.
My response to these powerful emotions led me to actions I regretted. I’d get defensive or counterattack when criticized. I would blame her for not treating me in the kind, loving, attentive, and respectful way that I thought I deserved. When these poorly designed attempts at connection failed, I’d escalate the intensity of my demands.
Substituting partner esteem for self-esteem
There’s nothing wrong with wanting our partner to treat us in a kind, loving, and respectful way. It’s when we have an excessive desire for it that gets us in trouble. That’s when we start pressuring them to prop up our sense of worthiness. It’s expecting our partner to fill holes in our soul that they were not designed to fill.
What I was doing, in fact, was trying to avoid my own uncomfortable feelings by trying to change her behavior toward me. Of course, I couldn’t see that hidden motive at the time. In the process, I hurt my partner, damaged our relationship, and ultimately, hurt myself.
Back to one of my original questions: Why am I so sensitive to certain situations, while others think nothing of them? Understanding my attachment style offered an explanation. Having an emotionally unavailable parent like my dad, or an inconsistent caregiver like my mom, likely left me with an insecure attachment.
Sadly, many people endure worse: abuse, neglect, and other kinds of severe trauma. Here’s the truth: if we don’t intentionally heal from these wounds, they’ll continue to plague us. Then, it’s all too easy to reproduce them in our adult relationships, hurting ourselves and our partner in the process.
Healing from an insecure attachment style
So, are we all just broken records, recreating whatever relationship we had with our primary caregiver? If we grew up with an insecure attachment, are we doomed to insecure, hurtful, or even abusive relationships later in life? Thankfully, the answer is no. In fact, it’s very much possible to fill in the holes left by an insecure attachment style.
The first step is looking back on our early years to understand our attachment style, like I have here. Think about what you remember from your childhood and know about your parents’ lives when you were an infant. How secure was the connection between you and your caregiver, and what beliefs did you develop about yourself as a result? What did you learn about the world from your relationship with them?
Unlearning the negative lessons we may have picked up from this relationship is the second step, and this takes time and perseverance. Practice challenging the thoughts that aren’t serving you. Especially focus on very negative (and untrue) self-talk that says you are unlovable, worthless, a failure, or not deserving of respect. Journaling can really help with this process of identifying and healing from core wounds and unhealthy beliefs.
Help with healing
If you think you may have experienced some gaps in your development because of an insecure attachment, check out one or more books on attachment style. If it’s an option, get help from a counselor. Counselors can help us delve into our early life, spot the patterns, process our trauma, challenge negative beliefs, and learn new skills. Think of a psychotherapist as a master mechanic, helping you repair the broken parts inside and rebuilding yourself the right way.
Importantly, this process is not about blaming our parents or primary caregivers. Often, they were just doing their best, handling their own pile of insecurities from their own imperfect childhoods. Whatever mistakes they made, fixating on them won’t help you. Focus on what you can do to make the changes you want to see in your life.
All earthly parents and guardians are imperfect in some way. They mess up, let us down, cause us pain, and sometimes leave us doubting our own self-worth. This world, and the people in it, are imperfect.
God, on the other hand, is perfect and therefore the perfect parent. He is always there for us when we need him. His guidance is gentle yet perfect, instructing us on how to experience the best from life. He gives us the freedom to turn away from him, yet he welcomes us back with grace when we turn back.
Through his unconditional love, he meets our needs at the deepest level. This includes the sense of value and lovability we were supposed to get from our earthly parents, but sometimes didn’t. God fills those holes in our soul that no one, including our partner, is able to fill.