The Attachment System and Why It Matters: Secure Attachment Style
The Attachment System and Why It Matters
Secure Attachment Style
Following-up on a recent discussion on Disorganized Attachment Style, I now want to dive into the overall Attachment System, the various attachment styles, and why it’s important to your life. We’ll then dial in on the specifics of the Secure Attachment style.
The attachment styles that we develop in childhood play a critical role throughout our entire lives, including how we interact and relate in our adult relationships, including intimate partnerships, professional relationships with colleagues, employees, or bosses, and parenting and caregiving relationships, for example.
“Our attachment styles influence how we form relationships, communicate, and express and respond to caring behaviors.”
On one hand, our Attachment System and our attachment style could generate an assortment of habits and behaviors that actually enhance our ability to feel safe, connected, valued, and joyful in life. It can also generate an assortment of habits and behaviors that impede our ability to feel safe, connected, valued, and joyful in life. It can be a two-way street.
Our attachment style is more about nurture than nature because it is something that we learn, implicity, in early childhood. The Attachment System itself is an innate behavioral system that is physiologically interconnected to our nervous system. We have an innate behavioral system that dictates how we bond with others, and it starts to develop before birth. Upon conception, there is dependence on our very first caregiver and protector–our mother–to keep us safe, healthy, and nurtured until we’re born into the world.
This is one reason why it is important to develop a Secure Attachment style as we grow. Our mothers need secure attachment if we are to learn secure attachment. Ironically, because of how we learn at the earliest stages of life, the implicit mind is in control of the attachment system, not the explicit mind. As a fetus, infant, or toddler our conscious awareness is grossly underdeveloped, so our attachment systems develop within the subconscious or unconscious mind. Because of how the subconscious mind learns implicitly, our attachment styles are pretty much intact and in place by the time we turn four years old.
As we grow into adulthood, our attachment system is often an invisible determinant in how we show up in relationships. If we didn’t learn secure attachment, we may have problems in relationship. Our nervous systems are resilient and algorithmic, and we can make the choice to repair and heal our attachment systems. Our attachment styles are adaptable and aspects can be changed to become more secure.
Let’s look more closely at the Secure Attachment style and its attachment dynamics.
Healthy attachment with parents who are present, safe, protective, playful, and consistent offers a positive enough holding environment that allows for healthy relating and bonding. The good news is we only need about 30-50% attunement with parents and caregivers who value pro-relationship behaviors and have the ability to repair misattunements for this to work well.
Fortunately, no one has to be perfect, and there’s room for the inevitable imperfection of humans. We can re-access the original innate healthy attachment system later in life through appropriate healing and skill building.
What does it mean to have appropriate skill building and to set the right environment for Secure Attachment? For Secure Attachment to develop, we need safety because our nervous systems are designed to operate optimally in a safe environment. Within the limbic system, sometimes called the “emotional brain,” is this little device called the amygdala. I know it’s a structure, but I’m breaking convention and calling it a device because one function of the amygdala is to serve as a fire alarm in our brain. This is where we carry our baggage from one relationship, to the next, to the next… If something happened in a previous relationship that left a traumatic imprint, a little cue in your current relationship could lead to a danger signal inside of you. The amygdala pulls the fire alarm to tell the brain, “there’s a threat, and this is not a safe situation.” However, past traumatic imprints can cause the wires to cross, and there isn’t always a real threat when an alarm gets pulled. More often than not, our amygdala pulls the fire alarm when we’re not actually in the presence of real danger. In many cases, that’s a sign of a dysregulated nervous system, not danger or a threat.
So, what does it look like to be in a safe environment that leads to a Secure Attachment style? There are some key components that set up a safe environment, one of which is protection. Our caregivers should want to protect us and be competent in how they go about it, especially from in utero through our fourth year of life. While protection is one aspect of safety, another aspect of a safe environment is presence, which is about empathy, attunement, and sensitivity. In mainstream society, these words can be considered weak or vulnerable. Also, presence doesn’t just mean a physical presence. This doesn’t mean being preoccupied with your own unresolved past or doom-scrolling on a screen. It’s about being present with your attention to those around you, and that type of presence is important.
You’re really only fully alive in those moments when you’re present–mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Everything else is an aspect of the autopilot feature built-into human physiology.
There’s a feel to a safe environment that includes an easy flow and flexibility between connections with someone else. When we’re in this easy flow, we can be okay with being alone or we can be okay with being connected. Another important component of a safe environment is creating a basic level of trust in the other person. Simply knowing that they’re going to be there for you, and they’re going to show up and provide consistency in your life can nurture secure attachment.
A positive holding environment can also be referred to as holding space. Again, we’re not looking for perfection here. Remember, it’s 30-50% of being present, attentive, attuned and holding positive space that is necessary for secure attachment habits. It needs to be positive enough that we don’t have too many attachment ruptures or disruptions because if you have too many, then it becomes harder to repair.
Within the Secure Attachment style, repairing ruptures might be the most important aspect of maintaining and fostering Secure Attachment with a relationship. I want this component to stand out the most! Repair happens when I realize that I’ve hurt your feelings, and by knowing that, I choose to hold myself accountable and make it right. My attempt to repair must be sincere. If I’m willing to make modifications to my own words and actions in the future, to make a sincere effort not to do it again, and to work through it, then that can create a sense of safety and repair any attachment ruptures I’ve caused in the relationship.
I encourage you to think in first-person language when you consider repair. Thinking in terms of “you” or “we” can implicity cause the mind to avert responsibility. If this is a pattern of your, work towards holding yourself accountable with “I” statements that acknowledge what you’ve said or done that hurt someone followed-up by “I” statements–and actions–as you follow through and repair.
Initiating repair is important, and receiving repair is incredibly important, as well. If somebody is approaching you with a sincere, heartfelt attempt to repair a rupture that caused you hurt, it’s important to receive that and not be committed to making them wrong. If you’re not willing to receive an apology, or perhaps you have a pattern of committing to making the other person wrong, then there may be other issues that need working through that are blocking secure attachment.
Why is repair so important? If nothing else sinks in, remember the importance of initiating and receiving repair.
There is an 80% chance of developing a healthy, secure relationship simply by learning this single skill of repair.
Another aspect of safety in a relationship is being reasonably reliable. Again, we’re not looking for perfection! This is about being predictable and consistent because reliability is important in building and maintaining trust. Emergencies come up, but real emergencies don’t happen all
that often. When you’re late, you want people to say, “this isn’t like them, something is wrong,” because it’s out of the ordinary for you. This is secure attachment in a relationship.
The final component is a sense of calm, peace, and relaxation, which is regulation in the nervous system. Sure, in your relationships you might get angry or upset, or you might feel down in the dumps, and that’s normal. When your nervous system is regulated, you’ll still have enough vitality to get through your day with relative ease. You will not be completely taken out by a situation that’s upsetting or disappointing.
Being able to self-regulate your nervous system and also co-regulate your nervous system is important. An example of co-regulation is realizing that somebody in your presence is not at the top of their game and realizing you can hold a safe space for them without following them down that rabbit hole of anger, panic, or anxiety.
I hope this introduction is helpful in explaining what the Attachment System is, how it begins to develop, and what conditions create a Secure Attachment style.
For additional resources on different attachment styles, learn more about The Attachment System: Secure Attachment, Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment, Avoidant Attachment, Disorganized Attachment, and Revisit Disorganized Attachment and Take an Attachment Quiz.
I’m Jennifer Whitacre, trauma specialist, empowerment strategist and shadow guide, and I help people strengthen their internal relationships through a process of SELF discovery. I guide and support my clients through the transformative process of developing SELF presence so they can shift from rigidity, reactiveness, and chaos into more flexibility, responsiveness, and connectedness.
People who are able to make this internal shift find they have more agency, decisions aren’t as difficult, they have more emotional stamina to deal with life’s ups and downs; and they have much higher levels of empathy and understanding for themselves and others.
The process is similar and unique for each client. Healing the invisible wounds inflicted from past trauma requires that we become familiar with non-verbal communication. That’s because the subconscious mind communicates non-verbally and unconsciously, the opposite kind of communication valued by the conscious mind. By understanding our own subconscious minds, the two minds become coherent and our lives naturally become more integrated.
Learn more at: jenniferwhitacre.com
This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat or diagnose. Reading this blog does not create a practitioner/client relationship with Jennifer Whitacre or with Jennifer Whitacre LLC. If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional. If you are interested in becoming a client of Jennifer Whitacre LLC, please connect by visiting: jenniferwhitacre.com