Understanding Attachment Theory
We are so honored and eager to bring to you guest host and author, Jade Miller, who has created a three-part series on attachment and how it relates to trauma to share with you here. We know the words 'attachment theory' can sound foreign or intimidating to those without a psychological background, or even sound like something that doesn't really pertain to you or matter much. But, it truly does, and our goal throughout the series is to demystify it in a way that is very approachable and can teach you valuable things about yourself and your healing. It is so helpful for survivors (especially those with C-PTSD and Dissociative Disorders), as well as their loved ones and supporters, to truly understand the complexities and nuances of attachment, because they play such an integral role in how these disorders come to be and why they're so multidimensional beyond just the PTSD. While the trauma itself is disruptive, it's the attachments we have not only to our perpetrators but with everyone else on the outside that further impact how we internalize that trauma and how we view the world around us. We truly hope this series is both enlightening and helpful as you continue on your path of understanding and wellness. And, we are truly thankful to Jade for allowing us to bring you her insights and wisdom. Please be sure to check out all the wonderful things you need to know about her below!
Attachment Theory in a Nutshell
Attachment theory is the theory that humans are born with an innate tendency to seek care, help and comfort from members of their social group when they are facing overwhelming danger and/or are in physical or emotional distress. The group of behaviors used to solicit caregiving behaviors from others is known as the “attachment system.” In infants, the primary attachment-seeking behaviors would include crying, and (when old enough) what is known as an “approach” method - which seeks physical closeness to, and comfort from, the attachment figure. (The attachment figure is usually the mother and father, but can sometimes be another relative or whoever takes care of the baby’s physical and emotional needs most often.) If you’ve ever had the chance to people-watch in a place where there are children, you’ll probably notice that very young children stay close to their parent. And if they do venture away – on a playground, for example – and something scares them, they will run or crawl quickly back to their parents. This “approach method” is an attachment-seeking behavior. The opposite of carrying out an attachment-seeking behavior is trying to “avoid” something in the environment that is perceived as threatening. Attempts to avoid a threat usually involve the baby either ignoring it or actively seeking distance from it, rather than trying to approach it. The behavior of approaching a caregiver when distressed is simply part of our survival instinct as a species.
What is important to understand about the attachment system is:
1) it is primal and innate, as it has been linked to evolution and survival, and forms the patterns by which the person relates to others in the future,
2) it is formed during the earliest development of an infant through interactions with the mother, father, and/or primary caregiver(s), and
3) the attachment system is powerfully activated during and after any experience of fear and of physical or psychological pain. This is why it matters so much in relation to trauma.
So now that you know what it is, let me briefly describe the types of attachment that can be formed, depending on those crucial early interaction patterns.
Attachment Styles - Secure and Insecure
To break it down for you, there are 2 types of attachment: secure and insecure.
Secure attachment is (or should be) the goal of all parenting behaviors and interactions between mother/father/caregiver and child, from birth to independence and beyond. Securely attached infants develop positive, healthy, and relationally-effective internal working models (called IWM’s by the psych folks) that become the blueprint – or software, if you prefer – for the way they interact with people and the world at large, generally speaking, for the rest of their lives. It also affects, to no small degree, their perspective of themselves and their own lives. The securely attached infant’s IWM is based on the belief that the world is a good place and the infant is a good person; they are forming the belief that others are capable of and willing to meet their needs, and that they are worthy of having their needs met. Securely attached babies may express distress when they are separated from their caregivers, but they readily accept comfort when the caregiver returns to them.
Insecure attachment, on the other hand, breaks down into 3 subgroups:
Insecure-avoidant (also known as insecure-dismissive) is the infant that may appear content – or even indifferent – in regard to their caregiver. Sometimes these infants are even mistaken by people unfamiliar with infant development for securely attached children because they do not react to separation from their caregiver. They do not react to reunion either; they appear indifferent to their caregivers’ presence or absence. The truth is that these infants have closed themselves off to the world. Their IWM summary – if they were able to think abstractly – would be “the world is a bad place but I am a good person, so I will shut out the world.” They do not turn to other people for help or comfort. Brain scans of these babies, when placed in a situation that would normally cause distress, show that despite the fact that they do not cry or fuss, they truly are distressed and their level of distress – as shown by the brain activity on the scans – is the same or greater than their peers who are securely attached (or insecurely attached but in a different subgroup); they have simply learned to suppress it. They don’t actively seek caregivers’ attention. They turn inward and search for internal resources and solutions that do not involve other people.
Insecure-anxious (also known as insecure-ambivalent) is the infant that seeks their caregivers’ attention when distressed, but is not readily comforted despite their caregivers’ attempts to do so. Their IWM would be summarized: “The world is a good place but I am a bad person, so external comfort cannot help me.” These infants exhibit attachment-seeking behaviors but when the caregivers try to comfort them, it takes much longer to calm them down, if calming can be achieved at all. They seek outside help but simultaneously view such help as ineffective.
Insecure-disorganized infants have not managed to organize their reactions in any enduring way. Sometimes they appear avoidant, sometimes they appear ambivalent, and other times they appear secure. Their reactions to separation or distress are unpredictable and un-enduring over time. These infants’ IMW would be summarized thusly: “The world is a bad place and I am a bad person, there is nothing I or anyone else can do to help me.” They are unpredictable and seem confused. They sometimes exhibit both attachment-seeking and avoiding behaviors simultaneously or in rapid succession, as if they are trying to pursue two incompatible goals at the same time. They do not seem to know what they want or how to get it.
Attachment theory is a topic that I am very passionate about, because I believe the early blueprints we develop, which become our beliefs about the world and ourselves, inform every future relationship we have with others and even ourselves. A person’s attachment style, and the availability of healthy people with which they can bond, profoundly affect the impact a traumatic experience will have on someone. I will write more about that in the next blog post.
If you want more in-depth history and discussion of attachment theory, the research is plentiful and easy to find. If you don’t like any of those links, Google “attachment theory” or “John Bowlby” and/or “Mary Ainsworth” and you will have an abundance of reading material. Their methodology for establishing the foundation for their theories is also available, which I’m not going to discuss here because it’s not pertinent to the material at hand and I’m already attempting to condense plenty of information. If you do want a breakdown of the methodology, Google “The Strange Situation," in conjunction with Bowlby/Ainsworth.
In the next post I will talk about why attachment style matters and how it affects a person’s response to a traumatic experience.
Jade Miller would describe herself as a blogger, artist, SRA survivor, peer worker, and member of a poly-fragmented DID system. ..who also desires to bring education and awareness about the reality of SRA/DID to the public and increase the number and availability of resources to survivors for healing. We would firmly agree, and also add that she's a fantastic advocate, with an abundance of passion, knowledge and experience of which we can all benefit. Her blog is not only an invaluable resource, but she's also a published author with some must-read material. Notably for survivors are her two illustrated books for younger parts of DID systems called Dear Little Ones and Dear Little Ones (Book 2: About Parents)! You can even listen to her read it on YouTube, and see the illustrations. She's also written books on Attachment and Dissociation, and has also compiled her experiences of struggle and healing into more personal books in the past. All of these are very well worth your time, and we strongly encourage you to seek out all of her published work as well as her online presence (listed below). We are super honored to partner with her to bring you this series and deeply value her support to us, and to survivors everywhere!
FIND JADE ON ALL HER PLATFORMS!
MORE INFORMATIVE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:
- DID Myths: Dispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative identity Disorder
- Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
- Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
- Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201: Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
- Imagery 101: Healing Pool and Healing Light