Understanding an avoidant attachment, in a graphic Featured

Understanding an avoidant attachment

As with all the attachment styles, avoidant attachment forms depending upon how our physical and emotional needs were met.

We develop an avoidant attachment when our needs were consistently not met. This can be for a number of reasons. The carer may not have known how to respond due to a lack of confidence, they may have been very triggered by crying or other expressions of emotion and shut down. There may have been substance misuse or mental health issues which muted the responses. The carer may have been advised to not respond or not spoil the baby, this approach was well documented in the 70’s and unfortunately continued for years.

When a babies cries are not answered, if a young child gets no attention, if they are hurt or scared, then sending out a distress signal does not work. These children have to find some other way of dealing with their distress themselves, therefore developing coping mechanisms. Some get very used to self soothing, rocking themselves to settle down. Some get attached to a toy or blanket, basically using something in their external world to help soothe whatever distress they are feeling. Another way they cope is to just shut down their needs, cut off from feelings and not show any outward sign of distress. All of these coping mechanisms serve a purpose but have consequences for emotional well being.

The main difference between an avoidant and an an ambivalent attachment style is consistency. With avoidance, the lack of attention or care was consistent. There is no point having adaptive behaviour if there is no response coming.

What does an avoidant attachment look like?

Children who learn to self soothe develop a high level of self-reliance. So then as adults, they learn quickly that the only people they can depend on is themselves. They will get so used to doing things for themselves it barely occurs to them to seek help.

  • They can have issues with authority as they are used to making decisions for themselves.
  • They can be very particular about the way they like things done and hate their routines being broken. These children can be labelled as oppositional, when in effect they are just used to being solely in charge of themselves. It can feel quite threatening if they feel someone else wants to take their control away, as it’s been their main source of survival.
  • As they grow up they can be seen as inflexible or controlling, they often have one way of doing things and it may never occur to them that there might be other ways. This can be a difficult learning curve when interacting with others.
  • For the children who learn to shut down and minimise their needs and feelings it can be a lonely and disconnected existence. We can’t discriminate between the feelings we want to cut off from and the ones we like, we cut off from both the negative and positive. Of course, there are degrees of cutting off but in the extreme.
  • Children and adults with an avoidant attachment find it difficult to connect with others. They also find it difficult to read expressions and gauge moods.
  • They find social situations overwhelming and confusing, as the rules of engagement can seem like a mystery. In groups they may watch others and learn the rules that way, however, if there is a sudden change in activity or emotion within the group, they don’t pick it up and can seem out of step with everyone else.
  • They will probably prefer isolation to group events and can come across as rude or overly blunt.
  • Growing up they find regulation difficult and tend to rely on external things for regulation.
  • They can come across as controlling, as they may need things to be a certain way in order for them to feel safe or calm.
  • They might always be a different body temperature to others, needing windows open when everyone else is cold. This is because body temperature is part of our regulation system, if we are very disconnected we don’t get reliable messages from our body, or our temperature control is offline.
  • They may have a high pain threshold, as they don’t feel and register pain. They may have bumps and bruises they don’t recall getting.
  • They can also be quite hurtful to others, but be completely at a loss as to why they have caused offence. Empathy is a connected felt sense, they may seem cold and uncaring but in fact it’s just a lack of empathy.

People with a very pronounced and dominant avoidant attachment style can be misdiagnosed with Aspergers or Autism quite easily. The ability to detach and avoid also displays itself through behaviours. As the title would suggest, they are experts at sidestepping and avoiding difficult emotional situations. They don’t even have to try, it’s like automatic guidance system. Anything they are likely to find difficult, a radar will go off and they will skilfully avoid it, purely because they know they do not have the means or capacity to deal with it.

As with all the attachment styles, we can relearn different ways of doing things. We can awaken our physical and emotional feelings, and widen our window of tolerance to cope. This attachment style also has it’s advantages; it means we have people who are much more likely to meet others needs rather than their own, or we have people who can go through really difficult experiences and come through relatively unscathed.

As with all the others, it’s only a problem if it gets in the way of living the life you want, in the way you want to.

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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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Understanding an ambivalent attachment

Ambivalent attachment is the most common style of attachment I see with my clients. This has led me to believe that’s it’s the one which can cause major issues in everyday life.

It’s how we respond and adapt when we’ve had very inconsistent care growing up, or there were significant changes in our formative years. It can happen so easily, if there is a divorce or separation, a bereavement or any major upheaval at vital times. If our carers were under a lot of stress, or using substances which might have made their behaviour erratic.

Any of these factors mean that it becomes very hard to trust any positive experiences, the fear of loss makes it too hard to invest in things. The pain of our loss can be so great that subconsciously we don’t want to put ourselves in that position again. This inconsistency can have varying impacts on us.

So what does this look like?

Some of the signs to look for are:

  • Extreme indecision, not knowing what choice to make for fear of it being the wrong one. Spending hours/days struggling to make a decision, often just getting stuck or trying to get others to make the decision for us.
  • Mistrusting our own judgement. Once we’ve made a decision, then not being able to fully commit. Constantly worrying if the other one would have been better. Talking about it over and over, going round in circles.
  • Not being able to fully enjoy what’s going on. Having the constant nagging in your head, ‘What are they really thinking about me?’, I’m talking too much/not enough’.
  • Looking for things that are wrong, feeling on edge, not being able to relax & feeling on guard the whole time.
  • If you’ve been out, you’re reflecting on everything you said, worrying that it was the wrong thing. Ringing friends asking for reassurance.
  • Feeling to blame and taking responsibility for everything, ‘It must be me’, ‘everyone turns against me in the end’.
  • Trying too hard to please. Going over the top, offering to do things you later regret, but keep doing them anyway.
  • Never feeling good enough. Judging yourself against others and finding yourself lacking. Not being able to put yourself forward for anything, even though you know logically that you could do it, and even be good at it. Always finding an excuse not to.
  • Having more than your fair share of broken relationships. Feeling unable to fully trust someone, ‘why would they want to be with me?’. ‘It’s only a matter of time before they leave me’. Finding fault with things, even when things are going well. Feeling really uneasy when it is going well, picking an argument. Having some sense that you’re sabotaging things, but not knowing why and not being able to stop.
  • Doing things in the extremes, all or nothing. Going to the gym every day, or not at all. Crash dieting or total indulgence. Being a perfectionist and very particular about the way things need to be done.

All of the above has grown out of uncertainty and control being taken away with painful consequences. The need to be alert for any negative sign means it’s much harder to be present and enjoying the moment. Because you’ve had experiences of your needs being met, when it suddenly changed the loss felt dramatic and very painful.

Knowing where this has come from means we can start to prepare and look after these parts of us. It affects our behaviour without us knowing why. Staying in the moment and learning to enjoy and appreciate little things can be a great re-learning. Experimenting with little choices and decisions, picking one and being curious about what happens, instead of trying to work out if it’s right or wrong. You need to learn to find the middle ground and stay away from extremes, but in a mindful knowing way.

Understanding our own attachment style can be very revealing about why these behaviours happen. Giving us an opportunity to observe ourselves and do something different. Understanding why will help us be more compassionate and empathetic, instead of self-critical. All of these things can change once we understand what’s going on. Consistency is key for this style of attachment, resources that work every time that we can depend upon. Growth and healing starts with little, manageable, consistent steps that we can build on. Don’t aim for the stars, just the first rung on the ladder for now.