This article comes from somatic therapist & holistic mental health practitioner, Jacqueline Bush. In this article, Jacqueline identifies insecure attachment style patterns and recommends ways to proactively reflect and respond. If your heart has been seeking healthy relationships, give this a read.
When we go through the deep pain of a breakup or divorce, we often come out the other side swearing we won’t repeat those same mistakes. We want to do better, but how can we ensure we don’t end up in the same dynamic with someone else?
As a clinically trained attachment and grief therapist, I can explain the challenges of making long-lasting changes and how you can make true shifts in the kind of love you seek.
Every relationship we form has a foundation rooted in our personal attachment system. The attachment system, located within the limbic portion of the brain, dictates how we bond with our romantic partners. Our attachment system is formed at birth.
Babies cannot survive independently; the attachment system evolved to help bond us to our caregivers for survival purposes. When our caregivers witnessed our emotions, needs, or distress, they became either: 1) distressed themselves and responded with a survival response (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) or 2) were able to offer stability while mirroring back our feelings and supporting them.
Stay with me for a minute more. Because our nervous systems are connected to our limbic systems (where the attachment system is located), our caregivers’ response styles formed how we sense threat or security in anything we feel bonded to. So how does all this impact your romantic life? Well, as adults, because we don’t need our caregivers for survival, the attachment system then focuses heavily on our romantic attachments. This is why relationships matter so much to us and can sometimes feel like life or death when we experience conflict, distance, and even closeness. Basically, our nervous systems are linked to our sense of safety in relation to ourselves and others. This means that our early experiences in life strongly influence the kind of relationships we seek, how we respond to others, to life events, and how we view ourselves.
In my perspective, how our attachment system develops and evolves is the root of everything. When we feel secure, we respond in ways we identify as our authentic or highest selves. With a secure attachment style, we know how to experience our emotions without feeling threatened by them and how to support ourselves. Secure attachment gives us care & trust for our unique needs, boundaries, and desires while maintaining healthy relationships to others. We know how to accept limitations, don’t expect the worst of people, don’t live in fantasy, and know when to walk away. We find it easy to be guided by our intuition rather than our survival responses (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) running the show. Therefore, we become drawn to healthier relationships and have more brain flexibility, which means finding harmonious solutions is easier.
However, when we are insecurely attached, we often feel distress in our relationships. Distance can feel distressing or closeness might feel overwhelming. When we experience this threat, even minutely, our nervous systems become dysregulated. And the more dysregulated we are, the higher our chance of engaging in survival responses. And the more we respond from our survival place, the more our neuro-pathways become reinforced in responding that way.
Examples of survival responses in our daily lives are: avoidance or procrastination, inability to concentrate, feeling numb while craving large amounts of sugar, instigating aggressive confrontation (instead of communicating conflicting perspectives), saying yes when you feel something is actually a no for you, obsession, blaming your partner (rather than communicating your feelings and boundaries), or becoming completely tongue-tied when you are aware expressing your perspective might create disapproval from another. Other examples include overeating, over-drinking, avoiding uncomfortable conversations, or pressuring our partners to respond before they are ready to.
The tricky part is that the less secure we are, the more we are drawn to people who trigger us to worry, obsess, shut down, or abandon ourselves. But the good news is that we can shift these response patterns by reinforcing new neuro pathways.
In order to create lasting change and enter into a healthy relationship, we need a majority of our neuro-pathways supporting security and connection rather than survival responses. This means the number one thing you can do to change is to balance your nervous system. Start by tracking when you feel worried, obsessed, guilty, lonely, angry, shameful, or numb. Take note when you want to ignore your hunger and fullness cues, when you want to drink alcohol, or when you can’t stop thinking about a conversation you had with someone. Notice when you feel anxious or depressed, even if it is only slightly so. Observe when you are impatient, suppress your opinions to avoid conflict, or forget things. This will give you insight into when you are dysregulated.
Awareness is crucial — when you become aware, you have the opportunity to create change rather than repeat old dynamics. After you become aware you are dysregulated, focus on regulating your nervous system. Insecurely attached people often regulate their systems by relying on others to make them feel good or distracting themselves to avoid engaging with others for support.
While securely attached people sometimes engage in these methods (they aren’t always bad), they are also able to utilize two other ways of regulation: 1) the ability to internally tolerate their emotions while supporting their needs and 2) engaging in connection and support with others while maintaining their sense of self.
Which of these areas do you feel weak in? If it is hard for you to tolerate uncomfortable emotions and unpredictability, try this: state out loud or write down your feelings and thoughts about a specific situation. For example, perhaps you are feeling distressed about a breakup. If you feel sad, do you also fear that the feeling might never go away? Do you notice you also feel lonely? Are you scared of feeling lonely? Does the loneliness trigger hopelessness that you might never find the right person for you? Is there a part of you that wants the feeling to disappear? Does this make you want to fix things? Do your hands feel weak, or does your chest feel tight? Do you feel ashamed? Are you angry at this person for how they treated you? Does it remind you how you felt as a kid or in past relationships?
Then continue to explore your experience by finding different descriptors and nuances about it. Whether it makes sense or not, let your feelings and thoughts pour out of you. Allow yourself to experience what it is like to have those feelings and thoughts. Notice any physical sensations or associated memories that come up in relation to this.
When you feel finished, imagine all of those feelings, thoughts, and sensations standing in front of you as a large group. Ask them what they need to feel supported. As a response to the example, you may get the answer that you need to feel like everything is going to be ok, and that you will meet your partner one day and have the relationship you imagined.
Now finish by finding a way to give yourself what that part of you needs. In regards to this example, imagine what it would feel like to feel that things are ok. Let yourself imagine what it would be like to meet that partner. Allow those feelings to wash over you. Tell yourself you will have this, and write down anything that occurs to you to do in order to achieve that.
The conscious experience of these feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations builds tolerance and support for your experience, which, if you have insecure attachment, is what you didn’t get (and led to insecure attachment).
If you tend to run avoidant in attachment style, you most likely haven’t developed the muscle to regulate with others. This is ultimately due to a lack of trust that you can meet someone else’s needs and/or that others can meet yours. If you relate, then work on finding a few friends to practice sharing your feelings and needs with. Because your distress might be harder to recognize, practice doing this in moments that you think others might feel distress about. For example, follow up with a friend after a date or a moment of conflict with someone. Try exploring your feelings and searching for what you need with the person you share. Do you need to vent? Do you need comfort? Are you confused by what you need and want help figuring it out? Over time, you will develop a higher aptitude for attunement to your inner experience.
While it might seem indirect, these examples of regulation will directly affect what you seek in a partner, how you react, and how you respond to others. These techniques are meant to create a lifestyle and perspective shift, and if practiced consistently, each small moment you take to regulate yourself will create new secure neuro pathways. You may not notice results right away; they are cumulative. You will have bad days where you don’t feel like these tools work and good days where you feel like they do. Over time, you will notice yourself responding differently. You will “naturally” develop the ability to pause and meet your own needs. You will begin to have clarity, more trust and peace within, and find yourself drawn to healthier dynamics. And, most importantly, you will be on the path to having the relationships you always wanted.
Jacqueline Bush is a specialist trained in clinical psychology, somatic attachment repair, grief, and EMDR. Learn more about her work at www.jacquelinebush.com