Coping With an Insecure Attachment Style

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Research has shown that our attachment patterns are set in early childhood and persist throughout our lifetime. The patterns are either secure or insecure. If a child grows up with consistency, reliability, and safety, they will likely have a secure style of attachment.

People can develop a secure attachment style or one of three types of insecure styles of attachment (avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized).

When adults with secure attachments look back on their childhood, they usually feel that someone reliable was always available to them. They can reflect on events in their life (good and bad) in the proper perspective. As adults, people with a secure attachment style enjoy close intimate relationships and are not afraid to take risks in love.

People who develop insecure attachment patterns did not grow up in a consistent, supportive, validating environment. Individuals with this style of attachment often struggle to have meaningful relationships with others as adults.

However, someone with an insecure attachment style can learn to change their behaviors and patterns. Working with a therapist can help them develop the skills they need to improve their relationships and build the security they didn't have as a child.

Patterns of Insecurity

If a person develops an insecure style of attachment, it can take one of three forms: avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized.

  • Avoidant. People who develop an avoidant attachment style often have a dismissive attitude, shun intimacy, and have difficulties reaching for others in times of need.
  • Ambivalent. People with an ambivalent attachment pattern are often anxious and preoccupied. They can be viewed by others as "clingy" or "needy" because they require constant validation and reassurance.
  • Disorganized. People with a disorganized attachment style typically experienced childhood trauma or extreme inconsistency growing up. Disorganized attachment is not a mixture of avoidant and ambivalent attachments; rather, a person has no real coping strategies and is unable to deal with the world.

Avoidant and ambivalent attachments remain organized. While they are not ideal ways of coping, these attachment styles do allow for some rational and logical approaches to dealing with complex situations.

On the other hand, a person with a disorganized attachment style is unable to process and cope with any degree of adversity.

Signs of disorganized attachment include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Frequent outbursts and erratic behaviors (which stems from the inability to clearly see and understand the world around them or properly process the behavior of others or relationships)
  • Poor self-image and self-hatred
  • The perpetuation of trauma in relationships, especially related to parenthood (for example, struggling to form healthy attachments with their own children, which perpetuates a cycle of dysfunctional attachment)

People with an insecure attachment style generally have trouble making emotional connections with others. They can be aggressive or unpredictable toward their loved ones—a behavior that is rooted in the lack of consistent love and affection they experienced in their childhood.

Overcoming an Insecure Attachment Style

No one has to be a victim of their past. No one is unable to change or grow. A person who does not have a naturally secure style can work on "earned security," which means developing a secure style through relationships and interactions in adulthood. For example, security can flourish in the context of friendships and psychotherapy.

When a person undertakes intensive psychotherapy, a therapist helps them identify past traumas, recognize where their behaviors are anchored and move forward in life with a more positive self-view and world-view. This work will ultimately help the individual learn to form healthy, secure attachments.

The strategy for creating an earned secure adult attachment style involves reconciling childhood experiences and making sense of the impact a person's past has on their present and future.

To earn security, you have to develop a coherent narrative about what happened to you as a child. You also need to explore the impact it has had on the decisions you might have unconsciously made about how to survive in the world. You will need to think critically about how your upbringing affected your attachment style, and work on breaking those patterns.

For example, couples sometimes get into repetitive patterns of interactions. They might reflect and not know how things "go so out of hand." While they might not be aware of it, their childhood memories and experiences of insecurity can influence feelings and interactions in their adult relationships.

Even though the couple is fighting about a "surface issue," insecure attachment triggers might be underlying the interaction. The level of emotional arousal and reactivity can seem out of proportion to the situation. If it's severe, the couple's therapist (particularly if they are attachment oriented) might need to facilitate change in the safe environment of the therapist’s office.

Earned security can take time. Getting married and becoming a parent are critical elements to shifting one's attachment style. A good marital relationship can play an important role in supporting your sense of security.

A healthy relationship is one where partners are mutually caring, supportive, respectful, and loving toward one another. For people with insecure attachment patterns, these characteristics can help shift them away from feeling negative about themselves.

Thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain will begin to change as a person changes their behavioral patterns and beliefs. A person who is insecurely attached can build the security they need by integrating new, supportive, loving experiences into their lives.

With time, they will be able to trust that a reliable and consistent person (such as a partner) will be there for them in times of distress (the opposite of what they had as a child).

A Word From Verywell

Establishing earned security after a lifetime of insecure attachment patterns can be tough. While it requires risk-taking and vulnerability, it can also bring you the kind of love and security you have always wanted. An earned, secure attachment style can forever change your life and your relationships for the better.

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