Attachment Theory: How Our Childhood Experiences Affect Our Lives

Oct 22, 2022

The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature.

-John Bowlby

Attachment is your biggest strength and your biggest weakness. Though it gives you the power to love someone more than yourself, it becomes difficult to live when you lose something you are attached to. Even when we have lost, we should go beyond that and get truly attached to someone. Loving someone truly is the most beautiful feeling.

-Shahid Kapoor

Most people would agree that our childhood experiences significantly shape who we become as adults. A better way to explain this relationship is through attachment theory.

Today we shed light on one of the most remarkable findings in all of psychology, learn how our attachment styles can support - or impair - ourselves and our connection with others, and discover solutions to some of the most difficult challenges that come with them.

What Is Attachment Theory, and How Does It Work?

If you're like most people, your first experience with attachment theory was probably through the work of renowned psychologist John Bowlby.

So what is attachment theory? It is the idea that our early experiences with our caregivers (usually our parents) have a profound and lasting effect on us.

According to it, these early experiences shape our view of the world and ourselves and influence how we interact with others for the rest of our lives.

In other words, attachment theory is all about how our earliest relationships lay the foundation for all of our future ones.

The Role of Animal Behavior

Attachment theory has its roots in ethology, the study of animal behavior. Bowlby was particularly influenced by the work of Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who observed that certain baby animals (including chicks and ducklings) become attached to their mothers almost immediately after birth. Lorenz called this attachment behavior "imprinting."

Bowlby believed that attachment is also an innate, instinctual behavior in humans and that it serves an important survival function.

He argued that babies are born with a natural tendency to seek proximity to a caregiving figure, which evolved because it increased the chances of survival. After all, a baby attached to a caregiver is more likely to be protected and cared for than one not.

Bowlby's work on attachment theory was hugely influential and continues to shape our understanding of human relationships today.

In fact, attachment theory has been supported by a great deal of empirical research, and we now know that attachment styles developed in childhood can have a lasting impact on our lives.

The Four Different Attachment Styles

According to attachment theory, four different attachment styles develop in early childhood:

  • Secure
  • Anxious-ambivalent
  • Anxious-avoidant
  • Disorganized

Secure attachment is characterized by a positive view of self and others. People with this style feel confident and comfortable in relationships. They're not afraid to be emotionally intimate with others and can give and receive love and support easily.

Anxious-ambivalent attachment is defined by a negative view of self and a positive view of others. Those who grew up with this type of attachment can be clingy and needy in relationships. They strongly yearn for closeness and intimacy but often feel insecure and anxious. They may find it difficult to trust others and often worry that their partner will leave them.

Anxious-avoidant attachment describes a negative view of both self and others. People with this attachment may be distant and disconnected in relationships. They're uncomfortable with intimacy and often withdraw from close connections. They struggle to trust others and believe that social relationships may be a source of potential pain.

Disorganized attachment is characterized by an incoherent or contradictory view of self and others. People with this attachment style often find regulating their emotions challenging. They may even fluctuate between feeling close to others and withdrawing from them. They may not trust others and experience strong feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness.

While some may develop one attachment style, it is surprisingly not uncommon to discover people with two or even all of these types.

How Our Early Childhood Experiences Can Affect Our Adult Lives

Attachment theory has important implications for our understanding of adult relationships. Our attachment style is thought to be largely determined by our early experiences with caregivers.

  • If we had a secure, loving, and supportive relationship with our parents or primary caregivers, we're more likely to develop a secure attachment style as adults.
  • If our early relationships were characterized by neglect, insecurity, or abuse, we may develop an anxious, avoidant or even a disorganized attachment style.

However, our attachment style is not static. It can change and adapt over time in response to our experiences.

For example, someone with an insecure or dysfunctional relationship with their parents may develop a more secure attachment style if they form a close and supportive relationship with their partner in adulthood.

In other words, we're not powerless over it, and it doesn't have to define who we are. If you're unhappy with your current attachment style, you can take steps to change it.

Tips on How to Work on Your Attachment Style

Some attachment styles may prevent you from building loving, happy relationships with others and even yourself. You may need to work on your attachment style if you find it causing problems in your life.

One of the emerging forms of help is somatic psychology, which helps work on the deep-seated issues that are often the root cause of attachment insecurity. These include early traumas, such as abuse or neglect, that have been stored in the body and affect our current relationships.

Somatic psychology is a form of therapy that emphasizes the mind-body connection. It's based on the belief that our early experiences are stored in our bodies and can affect our current thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

In turn, it can help us to become more aware of our bodily sensations and learn to regulate our emotions.

Some techniques that combine a somatic approach with attachment theory are:

  • Learning how to express emotions in a heathy way -- and having them heard and received. If it has not been safe to express our feelings growing up, it can be incredibly reparative to be able to express our feelings to another person and have them be heard and received.  We might express our anger constructively rather than repressing it or acting out in aggression. For instance, you might tell someone your angry or use the feelings wheel to appropriately describe your emotions -- and they might actually be able to still remain connected, even in the face of your anger.  For those of us who were never able to express how we feel this can be incredibly healing.
  • Working on building trust. You can learn to be more vulnerable with others and share your thoughts and feelings with them. You may begin with close friends or family members and then branch out to others.  Learning that we don't have to be alone with what we hold inside can be incredibly healing.
  • Building self-compassion. Practice loving-kindness on yourself by setting boundaries, taking time for yourself, celebrating little wins, and treating yourself with respect and self-worth.
  • Gathering support from loving friends and family. Find a tribe from which you can draw love, care, and security. Purge toxic people, such as those who are constantly negative or those who don't support your efforts to grow.

Conclusion

Attachment theory is a useful framework for understanding adult relationships. It informs us that our early experiences with caregivers can have a lasting impact on our lives. It can result in different attachment styles that may either help or hinder our relationships.

If you find your attachment style to be causing problems in your life, there is hope. You can take steps to change it with the support of professionals, friends, and family who have your best interest at heart.