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  • Writer's pictureShani Banks

Unpacking the Lingo: What is "Attachment"

As a therapist, I often find that one of the most powerful (and sometimes nerve-wracking) tools in developing self-awareness is understanding our personal attachment styles. Are you anxiously attached? Securely attached? A mix?  Attachment is a term that gets thrown around quite a bit on the mental health side of social media, but what exactly does “attachment” mean?

First of all, it is important to note that attachment is a theoretical concept. Basically, we’re not sure if attachment is real or not, but we have a lot of evidence and research that supports attachment styles as a framework. All that is to say, if you think you have an insecure attachment style, don’t freak out! You are a whole person, you are complex, nuanced, and you have a deep well of resources to pull from. You are more than an attachment style and you have access to supports that can help you get where you’d like to be. 

So let’s start with some definitions. Attachment refers to the emotional bond we form with others, particularly in our early relationships with caregivers. These bonds shape how we relate to others throughout our lives, influencing our patterns of behavior, thoughts, and emotions.

Think back to your own childhood. How did you feel when you were upset or scared? Did you seek comfort from your parents or caregivers? How did they respond to your needs? Were they present both physically and emotionally? Did you feel safe, secure, seen? Attachment theory says that your answers to these questions will lay the foundation for your attachment style.

Attachment styles are patterns of relating to others that develop in childhood and continue into adulthood. They affect not only how we relate to our parents but also our friends, our romantic partners, and even our colleagues. There are four primary attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

  1. Secure Attachment: People with a secure attachment style feel comfortable with intimacy and are able to trust others. They have positive views of themselves and their partners, and they can effectively communicate their needs and feelings.

  2. Anxious Attachment: Individuals with an anxious (sometimes called anxious-preoccupied) attachment style often fear rejection and abandonment. They may be overly dependent on their partners and seek constant reassurance of love and acceptance.

  3. Avoidant Attachment: Those with an avoidant (sometimes called dismissive-avoidant) attachment style tend to avoid intimacy and suppress their emotions. They may prioritize independence and self-reliance, and struggle to open up to others emotionally.

  4. Disorganized Attachment: Also known as fearful-avoidant attachment, this style combines aspects of both anxious and avoidant attachment. People with a disorganized attachment style may crave closeness but fear getting hurt, leading to a cycle of pushing others away while simultaneously desiring connection.

You may notice that you can recognize yourself in one or more of the different attachment styles. This is because attachment is a spectrum. We may feel secure most of the time but can feel avoidant or anxious at times too. Another important thing to remember is that having a predominant insecure attachment style does not mean that you can never become more securely attached. Attachment styles change based on the relationships we cultivate and how we choose to navigate those relationships.

Attachment isn't only about looking backward, and it is not about placing blame on our caregivers' mistakes—it's about fostering healthy connections in the present. Ultimately, the journey of understanding attachment is a deeply personal one. It's about looking back so that we can understand where we came from and how we can better move forward. It's about learning to embrace vulnerability and connection, nurturing meaningful relationships. And it's about recognizing that our capacity for love and intimacy is abundant.

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