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Attachment: Why Early Relationships are the Foundation to Sense of Self

Good enough parenting describes what the majority of Americans experience with their caregivers. It means that our earliest attachment figures met our needs more times than not. From these experiences, infants conclude that the world is safe, relationships are enjoyable, and people can be trusted. Not only that, but they internalize these beliefs and build a structure of self-concept from them. This is referred to as a secure attachment style.

Our attachment styles are at the core of how we view ourselves and the world. However, these narratives exist as implicit survival blueprints in our brains, funneling the intake of information from our environment, storing it, and responding to it accordingly without conscious awareness. Our attachment styles begin as early as in the womb when we begin to hear our mother’s voice and acclimate to her reactions of the external world. Babies born during active wartime versus babies born at times of peace have different sensitivities to fight/flight/freeze, as their mother’s amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for survival) sends signals to her fetus’s amygdala to prepare it for survival in outside world.

What happens to babies who don’t receive good enough parenting? Although the original researcher of attachment, Mary Ainsworth, identified two types of insecure attachment styles, ambivalent and avoidant, Mary Main and Erik Hesse added a third, disorganized. When caregivers are consistently unpredictable in meeting their baby’s needs, they aid in the development of an ambivalent attachment style. Here, the baby enjoys the times that their caregiver is present and engaging, but because it is too painful for the caregiver to leave, due to not knowing when or if the caregiver will return, the baby learns to associate the caregiver’s presence as also being emotionally painful. They tend to cling to the caregiver, but are also difficult to be soothed by the caregiver.

When caregivers are neglectful or even rejecting of a baby’s needs, the baby goes on to develop an avoidant attachment style. The baby learns that relationships aren’t enjoyable and adapts by becoming autonomous and learning how to meet his or her own needs. The last type of insecure attachment style is the rarest of all, disorganized attachment. In this type, caregivers are abusive, scary, or present as completely confusing. Without any means of coping, the baby shuts down in freeze mode and is unable to attach to his or her attachment figure.

Attachment styles are important to understand because we will continue to project them onto subsequent relationships (colleagues, friends, romantic partners,) until our survival brain feels it has mastered, or “completed”, this particular type of trauma. This type of re-enactment is quite common, and can be overcome by making the implicit explicit through somatic therapy, ego state therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and other body wisdom approaches. Because of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rewire throughout the lifespan, we have the capacity to develop a secure attachment at any point in our lives!

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