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The 4 styles of attachment: which one are you?

We change so much in our journeys from infancy to adulthood, that it almost seems like we’re completely different people. So, have you ever wondered what experiences stay with us as we get older?

I’m studying a master’s in psychology at Kings College London and, as part of my course, we learn a lot about how humans grow from infants to adults and the parents’ role in this process. We also learn about how things that happen to us as babies can affect us even as we get older- this might sound hard to believe seeing as most of us don’t remember anything from when we were babies. So, in this article, I’m going to introduce you to the concept of attachment styles, and how an experience from infancy can have a significant impact on various aspects of your adult life.

What is attachment?

Attachment is the emotional bond formed during early life with, usually, a parent. There are 4 main attachment types, known as:

  • Secure

  • Anxious

  • Avoidant

  • Disorganised

Attachment theory says that your attachment type as a baby also affects the relationships you form throughout your life. ITM writer, Alessandra Biaggi, goes into more depth on why early attachment is so important in her article, but some brief examples of how attachment styles can impact you include: how you express your emotions, how you control your feelings, how you handle arguments and how you set boundaries. As it can affect so many different parts of your socio-emotional wellbeing, it is helpful for you to know a little about the different attachment styles and which one you think fits best for yourself.

It’s important to know that there’s no right or wrong attachment style and you might not fit into just one type.

Let’s have a closer look at the different types of attachment.

Secure attachment

A secure attachment style is when a parent responds quickly and regularly to an infant’s needs. This stable emotional bond encourages the baby to think, ‘I am safe to express my feelings because my parent listens and supports me in the way that I need’- this sets up their worldview on how relationships work and how to express emotions. Because of this, securely attached adults tend to express and manage their emotions in a healthy way and have healthy relationships. Although it is normal to have some conflict within relationships, a securely attached person can usually work through the situation in a healthy and productive way.

It’s important to note that this attachment style is not about having perfect socio-emotional wellbeing all the time (which is unrealistic). Instead, it’s about being resilient (bouncing back when things get hard) and taking responsibility for your emotions.

Anxious attachment

An anxious attachment style is built when a parent quickly responds to an infant’s needs on some occasions but doesn’t respond at other times. This can lead to the baby feeling confused about relationships, ‘when I signal a need to my caregiver, I get mixed messages where sometimes I am listened to and other times, I do not receive what I need’.

Anxiously attached adults may be more likely to have unstable relationships during adulthood, where they feel uncertain about the emotional connection. If you have an anxious attachment, you might feel hyper-sensitive to the emotional tone of the environment and feel anxious during arguments. You may try to cope with this anxiety by needing reassurance and feeling like you need to fix things right away.

Avoidant attachment

Infants with avoidant attachment styles may have similarly experienced inconsistent caregiving, where the parent didn’t respond to the baby’s signals for attention. The infant begins to think, ‘when I signal a need, my parent doesn’t respond so I cannot rely on them to meet my needs’.

If you have an avoidant attachment type, you may feel like you must always do everything by yourself and feel frightened of relying on others for support. You might hide or ignore your emotional needs to avoid feeling disappointed by other people. During arguments, you may feel irritated by others’ emotions and feel like you need space in your relationships to cope with this.

Disorganised attachment

A disorganised attachment style is when the parent becomes a source of fear for the baby. This attachment type is a mixture of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles because the parent is unpredictable and inconsistent. The baby naturally looks for comfort from their parent, but they also know that they cannot depend on them to meet their needs.

Adults with a disorganised attachment style might feel scared of emotional connection and expect to feel disappointed in their relationships. To cope with this, they might put up walls to avoid expressing their feelings, even though they want to experience an emotional connection.

So, I hope you’ve learnt a bit about how different attachment styles develop from when we’re babies and can even affect us when we get older (your memory as a baby is better than you thought!).

As a reminder, parts of different attachment styles may fit you and there’s no wrong or right attachment style. If you find that you display more insecure behaviours, there are lots of ways you can learn to have healthier relationships and express your feelings in a healthier way. Some examples include:

  1. Practising emotion regulation - this is especially important to do when emotions are high (such as during arguments). Some techniques to manage your feelings are: - Take space away from the situation for a specific amount of time and come back when you feel calmer. - Grounding techniques, e.g., breathe in for 4 seconds, hold breath for 7 seconds, breathe out for 8 seconds. - Identifying how you feel (e.g. label the emotion) and giving yourself space to sit with that feeling.

  2. Setting healthy boundaries - Giving your mind and body time to rest when you feel tired/burnt out. - Not pushing yourself too much and saying no when you don’t feel comfortable. - Respecting other people’s healthy boundaries.

  3. Being vulnerable - Being honest when talking about your thoughts and feelings. - Listening to others empathetically. - Work on problem-solving during arguments, instead of getting defensive and blaming.

Even though attachment theory says that your type stays mostly the same over time, modern research has started to suggest that you can change your attachment style- this means you can always improve the quality of your relationships and emotional wellbeing.

So, the relationship you have with a parent as a baby can influence how you think and act as an adult. But this doesn’t mean everything stays the same from infancy to adulthood; therefore, if you don’t have the best start to life, it can always get better.

The main takeaway message of this article is that our experiences as a baby don’t define the rest of our lives! As you grow up, you have more control over how you develop as a person- if you notice yourself displaying insecure behaviours which have been impacting your life, you can always make positive changes (like the examples above) for healthier emotional wellbeing.


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