What is secure attachment?

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Hi, Ann Stoneson here.  Today I want to talk with you about what is attachment, specifically secure attachment, and why does it matter.

So, whether you’re in the field of psychology practicing as a therapist or just a person who’ve been reading books and hearing in podcasts about secure attachment, today I want to talk to you about what secure attachment is and how it impacts our lives from “the cradle to grave”– which is a quote from John Bowlby who is actually the father of attachment theory.

So, when I talk about attachment and attachment theory, I want to be sure to be clear that this is different from attachment parenting which is a certain way of thinking about how to raise about children that draws some from attachment theory, but it’s a separate thing– so I want to be clear about that.

Attachment styles are ways of getting our relational needs met. They’re developed early in life with our caregivers.  As you might guess, we have outcomes or ways of negotiating our needs in relationships that are preferable and ones that – I wouldn’t say they aren’t preferable, but they can cause problems later in life.

All strategies that we come up with early in life to meet our relational needs are important, they all matter and I want to be clear in the next video I’m doing which is on insecure attachment, it’s very important that we acknowledge how clever and adaptive we can be when we’re trying to work with a difficult situation and get our needs met.

So let’s talk about secure attachment, which research shows is the thing we’d like to see for everybody if possible.  People who have a secure attachment style are people who generally expect that the world is a good and safe place, people are fairly reliable.  They come to expect that their needs are going to be met in relationships and they don’t expect a perfect world.  People with secure attachment have a lot of resilience, they can roll with things. When something goes wrong, they’re good at repairing in the relationship.  They’re good at apologizing and receiving apology.

They’re good at getting back to baseline, “Hey, it’s good, we talked about it, we’re all good.”

So the gift of secure attachment, and it truly is a gift, is something that I want everybody to have.  And some of us get to have it early in life because our caregivers, the people looking after us, equipped us with this because they responded to us frequently enough, consistently enough, and in a really attuned way, meaning “I see you, I perceive your needs, and I respond in a timely and effective manner.”

We get that kind of attuned or contingent communication, we develop a sense of being loveable, of people generally being safe and predictable, and that when things go wrong– it still turns out all right because we can repair, we can rebuild, people apologize, and no matter what happens, I’m not alone.  That’s basically at the heart of what secure attachment is.

We learn these pieces and develop these attachment styles and a preference for certain styles by age 3. So this is something that takes place early in life, from those earliest moments and even in utero actually, children are developing an emerging sense of themselves in the world and how safe they are.

So secure attachment as I mentioned, has a lot of positive impact on life, people with secure attachment have more stable relationships, they tend to have better self-esteem, they tend to perform academically and on cognitive tests.  The benefits are numerous.

So you may be thinking, “That doesn’t sound like me.  Secure attachment sounds great, but I struggle in relationships.  My relationships are really volatile, they’re up and down.  Or I’m not really comfortable with intimacy, I want to stay over here.”

Don’t worry, those are all strategies that we use to cope with the tension of trying to be close to other people.  I’m going to talk in another video about insecure attachment and there are a couple of different styles of insecure attachment. 

But I wanted to explain first what secure attachment is, why it matters, and the good news which is, if you’re a parent and you’re thinking, “Gosh, 0-3 this all gets laid down and then refined over time.  I hope I’m doing a good job, I don’t know that I am.”

I want to give you a little recipe that I think is such a helpful thing.  In terms of the ratio of how often you need to be getting it right, meaning you’re attuning to your child and responding to them in a timely and effective way.  This comes from Ed Tronick’s work, who did the Still Face Experiment.

If you actually look it up on YouTube, it’s kind of hard to watch, I find it really hard to watch.  Ed Tronick has done some really important work around the issue of infant mental health and attachment.

The recipe for secure attachment is 33% getting it right, attuned communication, I’m picking up on what you need and I’m meeting those needs and it’s great.  33% of that.

33% screwing it up.  Rupture is what we call it.  Not understanding what the need is, you were crying, I thought you were hungry but you actually had a dirty diaper.  Or, you know, we see this not just with children but throughout life—“I missed the mark, I screwed up”—33% of the time.

The final third?  What are we supposed to be doing?  This part is really essential.  Repair. When we mess up, we recognize it and we go back later and say “I’m really sorry about that, I really screwed it up.”  Repair is actually what is essential for developing secure attachment because none of us is perfect, but if we have faith in the process of repair and we receive a deep sense of that from the inside over and over again?  We’re golden.  We can get through life if we know repair is possible.  We’re equipped to know how do it gracefully and we can also receive it from others.  And have room for them to screw up and then try to repair with us.

So, for all the parents out there, I just want you to know, you don’t need to be getting it right 90% of the time.  33%!  Okay?  And the rest of the time you’re screwing up and making amends.

We can do that, right?  That sounds like a more forgiving ratio.

For the rest of us, whether you’re a parent or not, I want you to know that if secure attachment doesn’t sound familiar to you and you’re worried about that… even though this stuff gets established when we’re young, it can evolve throughout the lifespan.  

One way that it can evolve, it needs to evolve inside relationships.  The therapeutic relationship is one place where that magic can happen, where you have essentially a different relational experience with someone who’s warm, available, consistent, and there with you, accompanying you over and over again through your feelings, through life’s hardships, it’s part of why therapy exists.

I like to say that I’m a mom to many, one hour at a time, one week at a time.  I actually have many children, my clients, because a lot of that work is about me showing up again and again with that warmth, and that connection, every week.  And I love it, I love doing it.

So, that’s a little bit about secure attachment.  If you enjoyed this video, you’re welcome to subscribe to my channel because I will have more videos coming out about insecure styles of attachment and specifically anxious or preoccupied or ambivalent attachment, it goes by different names.  Because that’s where people pleasing lives, and that’s at the heart of my private practice here in Austin and I absolutely love working with folks who struggle with anxious attachment, it’s something I know very well. So, thank you so much for watching, be sure to check the show notes below for links to other helpful videos and some of my writing about these topics, and I will catch you

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