Insecure attachment makes so much sense.

Posted by on in Attachment, Blog, Motherhood, Therapy, Trauma | 0 comments

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It’s easy to understand how insecure attachment gets a bad rap. 

There’s loads of research studies talking about the early negative and often lifelong impact of these relational styles.

It impacts our social relationships,

academic performance,

rates of mental illness, and, to add salt to the wound,

success rates in therapy. 

(Let’s appreciate the unfortunate irony of that last one for a moment.)

So I’m not surprised that when you type ‘insecure attachment’ into google, the most commonly seen autocomplete threads say something like

‘do I have it’ and then

‘treatment’ … I get it.

It’s a long list of consequences to something that gets established in our earliest years, well before we get much of a say in anything.  It’s natural to want to try and address things straightaway.

This post isn’t meant to dismiss the challenges of living with insecure attachment.

What I want to do is offer some context, to understand each attachment style as simply a survival strategy that is wisely fitted to the nervous system and family context a child is born into.

Though biology perhaps meant for secure attachment to be our birthright, in fact it is a kind of privilege.  It is a privilege that nearly 40% of us live without.

We are built to bond, but that feature of our design can be a liability in a family system fraught with trauma. 

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Your attachment style depends largely on the family you’re born into and the mental health of your parents, alongside social and cultural stressors and supports that either strain or buffer one of the main projects of childhood: developing a secure bond with each of your caregivers.

In attachment, there’s a dance with temperament and genetics, too—the fit of personalities and temperaments between parent and child can facilitate or strain the bonding process—but in the end, it’s all about the relationship, baby.

Which makes sense.

Attachment bonds are co-created between two people.  They’re the relational glue that holds life together. 

Parents hold a very real, very powerful responsibility of being first authors on that narrative.  And we don’t get to pick our parents.  And they didn’t get to pick theirs.  And trauma therapy is a pretty new thing, don’t you know.  It can be quite expensive, too.

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We used to have other rituals, practices, and communities that helped us digest trauma, but many of those have been dismantled as a part of modern life— in white, western culture, at least.

When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that any of us got to where we are, considering what the psychoanalysts love to call the vicissitudes of life.

There are so many articles documenting the very real, very lasting challenges of living life from this place.

Insecure attachment is often languaged as an issue of deficit, of poor outcomes and problems. 

And it ignores the very real feature of context, of understanding that attachment styles are strategies and that we will pick the wisest one to navigate early life with each caregiver that crosses our path.

Let me say that again:  our attachment styles are wise adaptations to our circumstances.

Yes, I understand.  If you’re a therapist who does parts work, you may point out that sometimes we learn things early in life that might need some softening or editing or healing as we get older.

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It’s true that what saved us when we were young can be a prison as we age. 

And unless we have help letting the young ones in our inner communities know that it’s safe to come out, they may still run things from the shadows.

Of course they are.

They’ve had a big job from very young, bigger than they were ever meant to hold, and they—and their protectors—are unlikely to yield that influence without first being met with compassion and understanding about their very important roles.

And this is why how we talk about insecure styles of attachment matter.

The insecurity does not lie within us.  It resides within the quality of the bond we co-created.  It is no moral failing or defect.

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It is knowing when you cross a rickety bridge that you step carefully. 

It is learning to swim across the moat if you think the drawbridge will surely drop you. 

It’s learning to swim with the monsters in the moat, to live on the edge of terror every day without drowning in it, because it is not safe inside your own home.

We must honor the wisdom of insecure attachment styles.

Because lasting change rarely comes from a sense of shame, censure, or defectiveness.

And these are all messages that someone with insecure attachment has already taken in from their family growing up.

As therapists we have a responsibility to change the narrative and reconsider how we think about and talk about insecure attachment. 

As people in the process of healing, we owe ourselves that sort of compassion and understanding.

Our healing can safely emerge when we can approach things from a place of curiosity, wanting to understand origins and context, and from there to hold the question about how things might improve and what support is needed to help foster that change.

Incidentally, I’m not the only person raising this question about how we understand insecure attachment.  Researchers have taken a bird’s eye view beyond the relational dyad to explore the possible adaptive function of insecure attachment styles, which looks at social defense theory.

I’m inclined to agree with their premise; a bunch of securely attached individuals would never survive a zombie apocalypse.

(Ok, they didn’t talk about a zombie apocalypse, but you get my meaning.)

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I’d want some folks on my team with some hypervigilance, keen skills in compartmentalizing, and the capacity to do whatever it took to survive.

Context dictates what is adaptive.

It makes me think about Elaine Aron’s work on the trait of high sensitivity, or other less socially supported traits like introversion.

Susan Cain didn’t need to write a book called Loud: the amazing gifts of extroversion in an introvert’s world, did she?

Yet approximately 20% of us have highly sensitive nervous systems tuned like hummingbirds or wind chimes—the slightest breeze and we sing and glide… or collide, it depends on the day.

Can there be space in the universe’s divine plan for this kind of diversity?  Is homogeneity really the best we can hope for?  I think not.

And yes, there’s a big difference between making room for innate traits that cannot be changed and learning to live with that in a culture that isn’t designed with you in mind, and understanding the critical impact of key relationships in early life (which can be changed!) and supporting parents and families so they can offer their children with the best possible start in life.

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But when that support isn’t forthcoming?

When the reality is that 35-40% of us aren’t getting that favorable start?

Until everyone gets that beautiful bridge over life’s turbulent waters to secure attachment?

I’ll be holding up a sign for the rest of us navigating shaky bridges and swimming in moats.

I see you.

You’re not alone.

There’s nothing wrong with you.

I sure am glad you learned to swim.

When your nervous system or relational styles are taken out of context and compared to a securely attached, extroverted gold standard, it’s hard not to get a little down on yourself, isn’t it?

So let’s change the narrative.

Let’s understand each style of insecure attachment as a wise adaptation to a crazy-making situation. 

Let’s understand it as a strategy that enabled us to survive. 

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And let’s support our families, communities, and governments in supporting people in their ability to choose if parenthood is right for them,

in supporting parents in the hard work of child-rearing,

and in supporting all of our citizens in having safe spaces to hold, heal, and release the trauma that life hands us.


As always, knowing which changes to make isn’t the hardest part of change.

It’s actually doing it, and sustaining those changes over time, in spite of the resistance and backlash that may come.

If you’re wanting to work with a therapist who honors where you come from while holding space for the possibility of gentle change, I’m your gal. 

If you’re in Austin, Texas, and you’re looking therapy for insecure attachment or trauma recovery, I can help.  I offer free, half hour consultations in person at the office, and I’d be glad to set one up for you.


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