Understanding a disorganised attachment

Attachment isn’t a choice, we have to form one in order to survive. This means we are capable of being very adaptive, even if the people caring for us are unpredictable or at times, dangerous.

With a disorganised attachment, you learn very quickly what gets you the right kind of attention and how to avoid making things worse. You are likely to form a trauma bond with dangerous carers as a child. You learnt to track their every move and recognise signs of upcoming trouble. This means that from a young age, you become hyper-vigilant and learn to keep people in your sights. Proximity can be safer than separation, as you need to know what’s happening around you. You also learn to suppress any needs or emotions, which might have angered your carers, meaning you become very disconnected from your body and your emotions as adults.

People with a disorganised attachment have to learn how to get their needs met in a very indirect way. This means they learn to play the long game, setting things in motion, planning in advance or learning to manipulate, rather than being open and direct. They might get really good at forgetting incidents, changing their moods really quickly, not dwelling on things and are able to wipe events out as if they never happened. They learn to dissociate on a regular basis, so they don’t have to deal with whatever is happening. They also get really good at making it look like everything is fine, even when it’s not. Getting good at telling lies can also be a really good coping mechanism, believing the lie is even better.

This kind of attachment style happens when our carers frighten and hurt us, and we don’t receive any empathy from them. We’re usually told it’s our fault and that we deserved it. This means that we ourselves don’t develop the ability to empathise with others, resulting instead with the potential to hurt others, have poor understanding of the rules of conduct in the outside world, and develop poor social skills. We usually have to minimise and hide what’s going on, so forming close relationships with others is both unwise and not a skill we have.

None of these things are planned, they are part of our development. They become such a way of life and of operating that we can be completely unaware that we’re even doing these things, or that there’s anything wrong with them. As with any style of attachment, there are varying degrees of how we are affected and how much of an impact events have on us. It also depends on what else is available outside of the family home. Some children find solace with grandparents, friends, even school can be a safe haven, allowing us a totally different experience.

We are so adaptive that it’s possible to have more than one attachment style. We have learnt through studying behaviours of people being taken hostage how quickly we adapt. Hostages can form a very close bond with their captors, this is known as Stockholm Syndrome. Hostages would thwart attempts to rescue them, because of the bond they formed with their captors. The fear of being killed meant alliances were formed. Sometimes these bonds stayed in place with people visiting their captors, or writing to their imprisoned captors long after the siege ended.

So what does this look like?

Some of the ways our disorganised attachment can show up is through characteristics or behaviours. These are all in degrees and not an exhaustive list:

  • Having a high pain threshold, they may seem impervious to pain.
  • Having very little recollection of their childhood.
  • Showing little or no empathy, they can seem cruel and may even seem to get pleasure from hurting others.
  • They can seem very manipulative, getting people to do things without being direct. They can cause a lot of chaos without actually doing anything.
  • They can be very disruptive, causing problems and unrest, but being able to function really well in these conditions.
  • They can be accomplished liars, unable to tell the truth even when all the evidence points against them.
  • They can also be very cruel towards animals, sometimes inflicting deliberate pain and appearing to enjoy it.
  • They can be very isolated, having few acquaintances and poor social skills.
  • They can be very hard to read and hard to predict.
  • They can be fearless, nothing seems to scare them. They may love really gruesome and scary films.
  • They might play violent games for hours on end.
  • They will be drawn to people of similar attachment styles and possibly drawn to things like gangs.
  • They may have no qualms about breaking the law. The only consideration might be if they are likely to get caught or not.

While a lot of these things can be viewed as negative or antisocial traits, some of them can be useful skills to have & many have really established professional careers. It can be useful if you’re a prosecutor to be logical rather than emotional. The less empathy you have for the defence, the more effective you are likely to be. This can be the same for a lot of professions, to only focus on one objective and be unaffected by the potential damage to others. For some professions, it’s necessary to feel no fear and be able to function under conditions that others, with a secure attachment, would be unable to.

It’s only if things cause a problem to ourselves or others, that we might seek help and understanding. We stay adaptive all of our lives, we’re all capable of forming different attachments, or changing and healing attachment wounds that are causing us distress or difficulties.

We also don’t always parent our own children by repeating the same pattern of attachment and behaviours. I’ve seen many people bring their own children up completely different to the way they themselves were parented. We are incredibly adaptive and creative, we all have value and the ability to grow and develop.

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