Human beings have a natural tendency to form attachment bonds once they are born. Some authors believe this is motivated by a need for survival. What is interesting, however, is that the quality of attachment doesn’t seem to be driven so much by the existence of a primary giver who feeds and changes the baby but more by a figure who communicates and plays with the child to some extent. In other words, healthy attachment occurs when there is a sensitive responsiveness to the baby’s needs. This has been also found in a very interesting experience conducted by Harlow.
Harlow’s experience shows a monkey going straight for a ‘wire’ mother, who could provide food, and then switching to a ‘cloth’ mother, who had just physical comfort to offer. The monkey spent more time with the cloth mother than with the wire mother. As demonstrated in another experience, when frightened, the little monkey also ran naturally to the cloth mother instead of the wire mother, looking for refuge and protection from a scary object. Curiously, after connecting with the cloth mother for a while, the monkey started to respond to the stressful situation and being able to explore its surroundings.
These experiments mirror what happens with human babies and they give substance to my previous article on human needs. Contrary to the expected decades ago, psychological needs, such as social and esteem needs, play a huge role on our development as human beings. Ainsworth’s experiences within Developmental Psychology demonstrated this too. The quality of the attachment with the primary caregiver shapes a child’s behaviour when frightened or threatened. Children who form a secure attachment style tend to have a more balanced response to stress, while children who form an insecure attachment style tend to have unhealthy ways to cope with stressful situations.
In order to develop a secure attachment style, the primary caregiver needs to be sensitive to the baby’s signals and needs. These include basic needs such as food and security, but also psychological needs such as love and affection. Secure babies experience low anxiety and seek the support of their primary caregiver. They want contact but they don’t feel like they need it in order to feel loved or safe. Insecure babies, nonetheless, tend to experience greater levels of anxiety and avoidance, because their caregiver somehow failed to provide a sensitive response to their signals and needs. This contributes to a greater negative impact on a baby’s nervous system.
|SECURE TYPE||PREOCCUPIED TYPE|
|– trust others easily|
– emotionally attuned
– good communication
– cooperation & flexibility
|– no contact creates anxiety|
– desperately initiates contact
– forces contact by all means
– tendency to “act out”
|DISMISSIVE TYPE||FEARFUL TYPE|
|– comfortable with little to no contact|
– don’t care if others reply back
– high avoidance, low anxiety
|– fear of being needy|
– agonises over making contact or not
– pulls away & acts cold
Within the insecure attachment style, we can find three types of dysfunctional attachment: preoccupied, dismissive, and fearful. Preoccupied babies want and need contact to feel loved and secure. Dismissive babies do not need contact and resent people who expect it. Fearful babies want and need contact but they fear to be needy. Please remember that attachment is responsible for the creation of internal working models, meaning that attachment early experiences in childhood have a great influence on our behaviour as adults, if we don’t heal what needs healing. I believe we can heal attachment issues. Actually, we must heal them, if we want to become healthier adults and prevent us from passing toxic patterns to following generations.
I have been working for years on my attachment style. I have been very conscious of the relationship with my parents and of how that relationship has shaped my unconscious decisions about life in general. I used to have an insecure attachment style of the type preoccupied. This means that no contact made me feel extremely anxious and I would desperately initiate contact with another person. If contact couldn’t be made, I would force it until it happened. I then realised how destructive that was for me and my relationships. Who can tolerate a constant source of frenetic psychological energy?
I believe there is a strong connection between the preoccupied type and the development of high sensitivity and intuitive skills, since this type tend to have a very sensitive nervous system and problems with communication. This makes them less keen on communicating their needs directly and more prone to “act out” when triggered, also known as doing stupid stuff as revenge (drug abuse, cheating, stealing). Today I oscillate between the fearful and secure types depending on the situation.
If there is some degree of balance in a relationship, I can display secure patterns of behaviour, meaning that I’m able to make contact when necessary or whenever I feel like doing so. When I start to experience situations that trigger my childhood memories though (anger outbursts, insensitivity, control), I revert to fearful. I despise returning to needy so I constantly agonise instead about making contact with someone or not. Most times I want to make contact, but I’m afraid of the outcome and of being triggered again so I tend to pull away and act cold as a self-defense mechanism.
Dismissive babies (and adults) are comfortable with little to no contact. They don’t care if they hear back, or not, from others. They don’t provide a response all the time, even if necessary. They take other people’s lack of response as a sign to respect people’s wish for no contact. This type downplays the role of relationships in their life and are extremely self-reliant. Dismissives experience high avoidance but low anxiety, whereas fearful types experience high avoidance and high anxiety. Fearful types tend to be more dependent on relationships than dismissive ones but they fear rejection and tend to have low self-esteem.
To end on a good note, let me go back to the secure type so that we are all reminded of what our aim should be when commiting to heal our attachment issues. Secure babies (and adults) can trust others easily and are attuned to other people’s emotions and their own. This type is comfortable with communication and telling others about their hurt and upsets in a direct way. They also engage with others in a basis of cooperation which in turn makes flexibility possible in relationships. Now how do we reach this stage, if we are inked by insecurity since our early childhood? I would say inner bonding and inner building are golden keys of such journey, and which I hope to develop further in another article.