If you ever find yourself scared, stuck, or struggling when you try to figure out what steps next—or to get yourself to take the steps that you know are good for you—I want to offer you some context for why you might struggle.

In today’s love letter, I’m going to introduce a lens that I’ve found very helpful for understanding why we do the things we do—attachment theory.

We’ll explore attachment wounds through the lens of how babies learn to meet their needs.[1]

As we go, keep in mind that attachment wounds can occur throughout our lives—on the playground, in the classroom, on the sports field, at work, in romantic relationships, on the campaign trail, in elected office, and in many other situations. Any time someone we thought we can trust acts in a way that breaks our trust and we find it difficult to trust again, we experience an attachment rupture.

And if you’ve lived with the experiences I write about, reading about them can bring up difficult feelings—grief, rage, shame, regret, numbness, and so forth. Please know that whatever response you have is totally normal, and proceed at your own pace.

And if you feel worse or overwhelmed as you read, you can pause, look around the room, stand up, shake your arms and legs, or do whatever else you need to do to take care of yourself.

Here’s How We Ideally Learn to Identify What We Need

Let’s imagine that a baby wakes up after a nap.

The baby starts crying, and the caregiver comes into the room, coos lovingly to the baby, picks the baby up, and sways back and forth.

The baby stops crying. The baby realizes, in perhaps not so many words: “Oh! That feels good! I felt lonely, and now I’m held. I had a need for attention.”

After a moment, the baby starts to squirm with discomfort, the caregiver checks the baby’s diaper, realizes it’s wet, and changes the diaper. The baby knows, consciously or unconsciously: “Oh! That feels good! I felt wet, and I needed to be dry!”

After a few more moments, the baby begins to cry. The caregiver realizes that the baby hasn’t eaten for a couple of hours, so they offer the baby a breast or bottle. The baby eats, feels sated, and knows: “Oh! I felt hungry, and now I feel full. I had a need for food!”

The baby and caregiver go on with their day, the baby communicating their needs, and the caregiver attuning and responding.

When Our Needs Are Less Than Adequately Met, We Can Develop Attachment Wounds

Although most of us come into this world with the capacity to express when our needs are not met, we are not born with the ability to meet our needs.

In the ideal scenario, we humans develop the ability to attune to our needs through being in  relationship with people who attune to our needs and offer solutions that match.

And we develop secure attachment—the sense that we’re able to trust ourselves and others (or not trust others when they don’t earn that trust)—when caregivers consistently attune to and match their ours.

However, if babies don’t receive attunement and repair consistently-enough, they are less likely to learn how to interpret, trust, or effectively respond to their bodies’ signals.

Instead, they develop strategies of avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, or disorganized attachment.[2]

Avoidant Attachment

Now, let’s imagine that the baby cries, but the caregiver consistently does not attune to or match the baby’s needs.

The caregiver may be hostile or critical toward the baby, or they may be absent for other reasons such as an illness or preoccupation with their work or other kids. The parent may also appear involved, but only become excited about a shared interest or the child’s high performance.

Although the baby still experiences feelings of distress and unmet needs, when they don’t have the ability to soothe their own discomfort or meet their needs, it can begin to seem pointless to the baby to even pay attention.

Avoidant attachment emerges when small children learn to avoid discomfort by turning down the volume on their body’s signals or denying or forgetting they have needs. As a result, people with an avoidant strategy tend to under-respond to their needs and have a hard time identifying what they feel, need, or want.

Because avoidant people tend to develop a belief early on that other people won’t or can’t help them feel better, they learn to not trust other people and to rely only on themselves.

They often refuse support from others and show up as the most competent person in the room. This can lead avoidant folks to become highly respected yet lonely leaders.

When a person relies on an avoidant strategy, when they experience anxiety, rather than bringing awareness and care to how they feel, they are more likely to go into a functional freeze and hyper-focus on tasking without much awareness of what’s going on within them or around them.

Dominant culture often privileges avoidant people’s ability to work hard and appear calm, and internalizing society’s narratives can lead avoidant people to look down upon others for their messy emotions, feel embarrassed to acknowledge their own feelings and needs, and have a hard time playing and experimenting.

Anxious Attachment

Now, let’s imagine the same baby again. This time, the caregiver occasionally attunes to the baby and matches their response to the baby’s needs.

Often, though, the caregiver offers the wrong thing at the wrong time. For example, the baby might cry out of loneliness, but the caregiver gives them a bottle, or the baby is overtired, but the parent sits them down in front of the tv.

Anxious attachment sometimes emerges when a parent over-confides in a child or relies on the child to meet the parent’s needs.

Because the child’s needs are more likely to be met if their parent’s needs are met, people with an anxious strategy often learn to contort themselves into what they think others want, prioritize other peoples’ needs over their own, and become preoccupied with tracking everyone else rather than tending to their own needs.

Moreover, if a parent expects a child to be able to handle adult emotions and scenarios, the child is likely to expect this of themself as well.

But no matter how hard the child tries, the child likely doesn’t have the power to effectively respond to their situation. They might blame this on themselves, and in turn, come to believe they can’t trust themself.

The anxiously attached person may learn to expect disappointment and abandonment because even when their needs were met, they learned that soon, they wouldn’t be. As a result of expecting disappointment, anxiously attached people often stockpile grievances and harbor resentment rather than making clear requests.

Even when things are going well, anxiously attached people often feel a sense of foreboding, like something’s about to go wrong.

When they think about something good that’s happening in their life, they’ll often immediately follow up with a but… and refocus on what’s not working or explain why the good thing is less good than it could be.

Because anxiously attached people often didn’t learn to effectively soothe themselves, they can become hyper-perceptive to every little feeling they experience and struggle to feel comfort in their bodies. Sometimes, to avoid the discomfort of rejection or other sources of emotional pain, anxiously attached can appear to become avoidant.

Disorganized Attachment

In the disorganized household, not only do caregivers not attune to the child, the child also experiences prolonged periods of overwhelming stress, chaos, or terror with no escape. These patterns may arise from substance abuse issues or mental illness.The child might feel like a black sheep, like they don’t belong in their family, or like know one really knows or loves them.

Disorganized attachment can feel like hitting the gas and the brakes at the same time. The caregiver often sends very strong “come here, go away” messages and puts the child in double binds. For example, the caregiver can be both the source of the child’s terror and the person to whom the child must turn to for comfort, food, and shelter. Or, the caregiver demands that the child do something that makes the caregiver happy but that puts the child in distress.

Disorganized attachment can feel like rapidly going from being frozen to aggressive or overwhelmed, being deeply distrustful of others or ourselves, downplaying abuse, seeking out turmoil, feeling trapped in a double-bind n which we’re screwed if we do one thing and screwed if we do another, or lacking agency or power to solve problems.

Repair Matters

Lest you start to worry about all the times you weren’t there for your kids, research shows that parenting doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact, if parents attune to their children about 30% of the time, research shows that a child will likely develop secure attachment.

Additionally, secure attachment is cultivated through repair. If we’ve caused harm—even if it feels like the distant past—a lot of healing can come from naming the harm and its consequences, offering a sincere apology, and changing our behavior.

Steps Toward Healing

If you recognize yourself in any of the above attachment strategies, what do you do?

Here are just a few proven practices that can help heal attachment wounds:

  1. Avoidant Attachment: Turning toward ourselves with warmth and care, Tracking body sensations, and Acknowledging the needs that our bodies are communicating.
  2. Anxious Attachment: Savoring what feels good, Completing the stress cycle, and Centering core values.
  3. Disorganized Attachment: Cultivating a sense of safety, Working with a securely attached therapist or professional support person, Learning to turn toward yourself with warmth and care, no matter how long it takes.

Somatic practices can be helpful in healing attachment wounds as well. (If you haven’t yet, I invite you to receive support in my free video portal, Somatic Practices for Social Change.)

I’d be curious to hear what practices you’ve found helpful! Feel free to share with me.

The goal is not to pathologize any attachment strategy or to become perfectly secure but to learn to reach for support when we’re struggling and cultivate a more trusting relationship with ourselves.

If you’d like to get a clearer picture of how these attachment strategies show up in your life, I recommend taking these free assessments: dianepooleheller.com/attachmenttest/ and yourpersonality.net/attachment. You can take these assessments repeatedly over time to track your healing.

Reading about this stuff can bring up a lot. I invite you to stretch your arms and legs, turn your body from side to side, and scan the room for signs of safety. Perhaps drink some water or go to the bathroom. Please ask your body what you need before moving on with your day.

Wishing you many trusting relationships—with yourself and with others.

[1] I learned these teachings about attachment from Carmen Spagnola’s course, Secure. Although I had read about attachment theory many times, it wasn’t until I took this course that these teachings clicked for me. If you struggle with anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment, I highly recommend Spagnola’s course, which is available on an ongoing basis as part of her Numinous Network.

[2] While most people refer to these strategies as styles, I use the word strategies to underscore that these are ways we attempt to meet our needs and that we can learn new strategies to meet our needs.


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