An important source of our self-esteem and our ability to be personally effective lies in our attachment system. Our attachment system is a built-in, biological system that drives us to seek and maintain close relationships with others, and to seek others’ protection and comfort when we feel threatened or distressed. From the time we are born, when those we rely on are empathic, responsive and supportive, we feel secure, loved, and valued. When those we rely on are either not available or not supportive, we can experience considerable distress. From an early age, our attachment system automatically stores memories of how others have responded to us. These memories form an unconscious, mental model of our personal value and the extent to which others can be relied on for support.
About 56% of Americans are securely attached. People become securely attached when they have generally experienced others as available, empathic, and supportive. People who are securely attached have tremendous advantages in life. They feel safe and secure, trusting someone will be always be there to support them if needed. They are free to focus their energy outward, explore the world, learn, accomplish and take risks. They feel genuinely good about themselves and their worthiness of others’ unconditional understanding and support. They tend to be open to new ideas and perspectives, and to see and take responsibility for their own imperfections without being self-critical. They tend to be highly aware and caring of their own thoughts and emotions. They tend not to be overwhelmed by negative experiences or feelings, but to care for themselves and reach out for support when desired. They have a stable, internal source of high self-esteem and are not dependent on other’s approval. On a typical day, they tend to have many positive feelings and few negative ones. When they have emotional impulses, they tend to pause before they act to select the most constructive response. They tend to have high work satisfaction and success, and to be realistic, flexible and adaptive in setting goals and how they go about achieving them. They tend to feel confident they can handle what life throws at them. They tend to be in tune with their bodies, be healthy, live long, and to have mature levels of religiosity or spirituality.
People who are securely attached also have tremendous advantages in their ability to get along with others. They tend to respond to others with openness, respect, and caring, even when they disagree, and to expect the same consideration in turn. They tend to see others as inherently good, even when others behave in harmful ways. They tend to be good at protecting themselves from unwanted demands from others as well as at enrolling others to help them achieve desired goals. They tend to understand, forgive, and constructively manage conflicts. When they hurt others, they tend to feel appropriate guilt and care for the other’s hurt. They tend to express themselves openly and nondefensively, and not to feel threatened by other’s accomplishments, difficulties, or differences. They tend to have a network of people they can rely on and care for and find simply being with those people naturally rewarding. When they lose a loved one due to death or breakup, they tend to experience normal grieving that eventually heals. They tend to keep their emotional bonds with those who have been lost through death or separation. They tend to feel confident they can build new relationships to meet their ongoing needs for closeness.
In short, people who are securely attached are emotionally and socially intelligent.
In an ideal world, everyone would be securely attached. In real life, war, poverty, natural disasters and tragic accidents happen. Parents become physically absent, preoccupied, anxious, overprotective, critical or controlling, or unable to protect their children from physical or emotional harm. Their children become insecurely attached and their children tend to raise insecurely attached children and so on, such that the effects of disasters on attachment can be felt for many generations. Insecure attachment, though less than ideal, is a normal adaptation to difficult real life circumstances, increasing survival in very stressful conditions. Researchers generally describe three main types of insecure attachment.
About 25% of Americans are avoidantly attached as a result of consistently painful past experiences with caregivers they needed to feel secure and safe with. People with avoidant attachment suppress their innermost feelings and needs for closeness. With avoidant attachment, the painful feelings they’ve had with those they’ve relied on are suppressed because they have no better way to deal with them. People with avoidant attachment tend to become highly self-sufficient, minimizing their own vulnerabilities and needs for support. They tend to set very high standards for themselves, and to be self-critical if they don’t meet those standards. They can often feel highly self-confident because of their ability to survive on their own. They can have a strong sense of accomplishment because they have been able to succeed without much help. Deep down, however, they tend to feel inadequate in some way. Their earlier life experiences may have created difficulty trusting that others will respond well to their emotional needs and vulnerabilities. Avoidantly attached people may expect to be hurt and may hurt others if they get too close. They may keep others at a distance by staying in control and discouraging intimacy. They may manage their relationships with others, tending to impress or placate. Avoidantly attached people can be well-liked and admired in the community at large but may have interpersonal problems when others see them as uninvolved, overly competitive, or controlling. People who are avoidantly attached tend to become defensive and angry when criticized. They may sometimes sense they don’t know themselves very well, and may feel more comfortable in work and community relationships than with their family. Romantic relationships may be rocky and may seem not worth the effort. Intensely uncomfortable feelings can occasionally arise, and people with avoidant attachment tend to do their best to avoid them or push them away. They may have a sense they are missing out on something, but may be skeptical that more to life is possible.
About 19% of Americans are anxiously attached. Anxious attachment results from inconsistent experiences of support, sometimes empathic and sometimes painful, from those they have relied on. Because people with anxious attachment have learned they can never be certain whether or not caregivers will be there for them, they tend to not be certain of their own self-worth or the trustworthiness of others. As a result, they may spend significant mental time and energy on their relationships. They tend to feel strong needs and desires to be close to others, but at the same time are wary of hurt and betrayal. They may be clingy, needy, helpless or demanding in their efforts to get what they need from others. They tend to feel vulnerable to rejection and abandonment and spend much of their energy paying attention to others whereabouts, well-being and emotions. They may have less energy to pursue personal growth and achievement. They tend to feel close to others and experience positive emotions on a daily basis, but may also feel many negative emotions. They may feel easily insulted and become angry at others when they feel slighted. They may become emotionally overwhelmed by distressful events, which interferes with their ability to perform well at work. They tend to feel dependent, blame themselves partly for everything, and stay stuck in unhappy relationships. They may be generally very warm and pleasing, often going along to gain other’s approval, yet may become hurt, angry or demanding when they feel ignored. Deep down they may feel humiliated when they feel rejected, and deeply shameful when they hurt others. They may miss out on what their life could be like if they were more confident in themselves and didn’t have to spend so much energy on their relationships.
Everyone has some degree of anxiety and some degree of avoidance (or both) in relationships – it’s a matter of degree. The less anxiety and the less avoidance you have, i.e, the more secure you are, the better off you are. You can find out how much anxious and avoidant attachment you haveby taking the on-line survey .
Keep in mind that when we are anxiously and avoidantly attached (or both, called fearful attachment), it’s difficult to even imagine what we are missing out on, kind of like trying to imagine the color “red” when we are color-blind. Yet becoming aware of the degree to which we have anxious and avoidant attachment styles is the first step toward increasing our self-esteem and personal effectiveness.
Much of what happens in the attachment system, and in our mind in general, happens outside of conscious awareness. In psychotherapy, becoming more securely attached involves becoming increasingly aware of your automatic feelings, beliefs and ways of interacting with others. It involves developing compassionate understanding for yourself and your suppressed or distressing feelings. It involves revisiting and reprocessing the childhood or later experiences that are the source of your anxious and avoidant attachment. The psychotherapeutic relationship itself provides the responsiveness, comfort and understanding you need to feel safe during this process, and to begin to experience new ways of being with yourself and others. As work continues, you may develop increased feelings of warmth and self-esteem, new self-awareness and personal insights, and new, more effective ways of being with yourself and others.