The farther I go in my own journey of learning and healing, the more I understand the importance of my own attachment style, history, and struggles. It sometimes hits me in waves, either when I am doing a piece of my own therapeutic work, or, when I am discussing with clients their own struggles with resilience, receiving comfort, and embracing their truth that they are “enough.”
Largely attributed to the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, and later to Ainsworth’s student Mary Main, Attachment Theory now recognizes four common infant attachment types: Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent, and Disorganized.
• Secure: Child is able to play freely when caregiver is present, shows appropriate discomposure when the caregiver is absent, but returns to a state of contentment when caregiver returns to provide comfort.
• Avoidant: Child shows less interest in caregiver when present and shows little or no distress when caregiver leaves room. Child shows little or no visible response to caregiver when caregiver returns.
• Ambivalent: Child is distressed when the caregiver leaves but also has a hard time reconnecting and being soothed by caregiver upon caregiver’s return.
• Disorganized: This category, later added by Mains, refers to children who seem to lack a coherent attachment strategy altogether, acting in contradictory, disoriented ways, perhaps frightened or frightening, and/or perhaps freezing or shutting down at times.
Based largely on Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiment in which a caregiver left a child with a stranger for a few minutes, infant reaction seemed to fall into these categories. While these categories over-simplify the definition of the four attachment styles, they offer a context in which to be curious about our own child attachment style, and how that style impacts our current relationships. For example, would you describe yourself as Velcro, clinging to those you care about to be sure of their support and love? Perhaps the Ambivalent style is familiar. Or would you describe yourself as preferring to keep others at a distance and have lots of space to repel them when needed? Perhaps the Avoidant style is one you developed in childhood.
Knowing and understanding our personal attachment styles can be an excellent tool in seeing our own areas of resiliency and vulnerability. It can provide insight into how we form and maintain relationships, and how we respond when we feel attuned to, or threatened by, those with whom we are close.
If you are curious about your own attachment style, there are a number of free online tests to take that explore this topic, including one found at Dr. Diane Poole Heller’s website. It can be enlightening to discover more about one’s attachment history and its impact on current functioning. I encourage you to investigate your own style further.
Next time, in Part 2 of this post, I’ll explore how these attachment styles affect how we handle change in our lives.
~ Meghan Vosloo, LCSW