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Not Just For A Lucky Few: Exploring Secure Attachment

My daughter’s life began at the height of COVID-19, during the winter of 2020-2021. Quarantined with my vulnerable newborn, I had no friends stopping by to see the baby, no visitors to hold her while I showered or napped. Meals were dropped on the front steps. Friends texted and asked for pictures, but I couldn’t take my baby out anywhere to show her off. It was just us in the house—me, my baby, a stack of books, and a lot of Grey’s Anatomy. There was something sweet about being left all on our own, enjoying moments of sheer bliss as a deep bond grew between us. But it was also lonely—gray and cold outside, quiet and still inside.

During those early weeks of motherhood, one of the books I read was the attachment-based parenting guide, Raising a Secure Child (Hoffman, Cooper, & Powell, 2017). I often read it aloud as I breastfed my daughter, lulling her to sleep with the sound of my voice. That book was my first dive into attachment-based parenting—parenting characterized by repairing ruptures, co-regulating, and building emotional connection. I remember how hopeful and soothing it felt, to have found a path to walk in those early, sleep-fogged, lonely days of parenting. Becoming a parent was a wonderful and terrifying experience. But there were so many variables I couldn’t control in my daughter’s life, so many experiences I couldn’t foresee, so many outcomes I couldn’t predict, so many transitions for which I was totally unprepared. Through a growing knowledge of attachment theory, I found confidence that I could mess up many, many times and yet still be a good mother who could raise a resilient daughter.

Throughout my daughter’s infancy, I watched her closely for signs of developing attachment. Did she soothe easily when I held her? Did she mirror my facial expressions when I cooed and babbled with her? Did she check over her shoulder to make sure I was watching when she ventured across the room or tried something new on her own? Did she reunite joyfully with me when I came home at the end of the workday? I watched her attachment bloom, and felt myself transformed in the process. By learning how to co-regulate, I learned a new way of being present to myself. By repairing ruptures with my baby, I grew better at repairing them with myself. By connecting with her little emotions, I became more accepting of my own. Through motherhood, I was growing toward secure attachment.

While my daughter is teaching me how to be a secure parent, I still struggle with secure attachment in other ways.

Attachment styles are apparent not just between parents and children, but in every relational context, from marriage and friendship to our relationships with ourselves. In infancy, attachment is simple, obvious, and straightforward, generally well-defined by seven months of age. But the manifold patterns of attachment grow more complex and nuanced as we mature and our relational worlds expand. What can easily be sorted into four discrete boxes at twelve months of age becomes a multi-hued mosaic at thirty, forty, or eighty years of age, when we’ve been carved and molded by decades of love, loss, and learning.

Secure attachment is a bit like the Holy Grail of mental health—the promise of lifelong wellbeing, sought after in a thousand different ways, by millions who embark on the sacred quest of self-actualization. Those who receive the blessing of secure attachment are neurologically privileged. Optimal development enhances their brain’s performance in learning and memory, gives them self-reflective capabilities as well as insight into the emotions and motivations of others, allows integration of right and left hemisphere functioning, and hones their ability to regulate their emotions, soothe their distress, and feel safe. Secure people start out life with all the neurological capacities they need to thrive.

Relationally, these neurological benefits of secure attachment manifest in beautiful ways in every type of relationship.

In childhood, secure children receive positive attention from teachers and succeed in school settings. They play well with their peers and form meaningful friendships. They tolerate separation from parents, in part due to their innate ability to regulate anxiety and in part due to the support they receive from their generally securely attached parents. Secure children trust their parents, who are warm, emotionally engaged, and active forces of guidance and protection in their lives. Secure children feel safe in the world; even as infants, they have faith that the world is a good place where they can experience joy and fulfillment.

In friendship, secure adolescents and adults assume that others like them and want to be their friends—and most of the time, this assumption turns out to be correct. Secure people feel comfortable initiating with friends, and don’t feel crushed if someone fails to reciprocate. They don’t give up on a friendship at the first sign of conflict; they wade through it in order to build a stronger relationship on the other side. When interactions feel off, they assume the best of intentions in others and apologize for their own mistakes. They also know when to leave a friendship that is harming them, and can do so with minimal damage to the other person.

In professional relationships, secure people are confident and able to advocate for themselves, while still supporting others and engaging in collaboration. Secure people can accept and utilize critical feedback while maintaining a positive self-image. Secure people stay focused on positive connections with others even in challenging work settings. They find satisfaction in their work, because it’s a reflection of their inherent worth rather than a path to earning worth.

In romantic relationships, secure partners aren’t afraid to speak up when they feel hurt, or to own their mistakes when they hurt their partners. Secure partners can take risks, building intimacy over time both emotionally and sexually, as well as through more formal stages of commitment. Secure partners have good communication skills and can stay calm while navigating conflict. They are able to balance both distance and closeness in a relationship, cultivating an identity as a couple while also maintaining their identities as individuals. When a relationship ends, it hurts, but secure partners have faith in their ability to heal and experience intimacy with new people.

In parenting, secure adults don’t feel threatened by their children’s normal childhood behaviors—temper tantrums, lying, boundary-pushing, behavioral struggles, big emotions, and occasional disrespect. Secure parents take all of this in stride, consistently showing up as the calm, wise, and gentle adults their children need. They aren’t afraid to apologize when they make mistakes; they're authentic with their children, working through hard moments together. They balance structure and flexibility, creating routines that feel safe while also allowing the immediacy of their children’s needs to influence their responses.

Finally, in their relationships with themselves, secure people are self-compassionate, deeply connected to a loving core within themselves that grants them equanimity in the face of suffering. They are self-aware and connected to their bodies, able to identify emotions and sensations and make use of this information without self-judgment. They are always learning and always growing.

But what if you miss out on secure attachment in childhood? Are you doomed to subpar relational experiences for the rest of your life?

The short but definitive answer is, no, not at all!

The ideal path to secure attachment begins in infancy and takes shape through thousands of safe, emotionally connected interactions with wise, kind caregivers—but this is not the only path. Around half of us experience devastating disruptions in childhood relationships that were supposed to be safe; most of us have experiences where loved ones fell short in critical ways, leaving us to either pull away and try to numb our hurt, or to act out our fear and rage until we get the response we’re craving. But even for those of us arriving at adulthood with insecure attachment styles, there is such a thing as Earned Security.

Sometimes, we can achieve Earned Security through putting in years of hard work in long-term relationships with securely attached partners or friends. But not all of us are lucky enough to have those experiences. For many years, as a therapist, I believed that “corrective emotional experiences” in the context of relationships with secure others (a spouse, a friend, a therapist, perhaps even a Higher Power) was the only way to heal attachment. I no longer believe that’s true.

The journey toward secure attachment does involve corrective emotional experiences in relationship—but that relationship takes place within us. Even the most traumatized, abused, and neglected among us has an undamaged core Self that is wise and kind and able to offer security to our younger, hurting internal parts. This wise, kind Self is often obscured by trauma or insecurity, but is always accessible through practices of mindfulness, self-compassion, introspection, or spiritual connection. As we learn to live out of our wise, kind Self more than our wounded parts, those insecure parts of us that are so afraid of abandonment or harm get a chance to experience Safe Haven and Secure Base. And security grows from the inside out.

Recently, I’ve begun exploring Internal Family Systems (IFS), a modality of therapy that relies on the wise, kind Self gently reparenting the lost and hurting child parts of us. It has felt like finding the missing map for the attachment journey that started in a rocking chair with my infant daughter. I’ve suspected the presence of a core Self for a while, because I’ve met my own wise, kind Self a number of times—in dreams, in my journal, in moments of compassion cutting through self-protective instincts. What I’ve found, though, is a truth I never even dared to hope for: there is a wise, kind Self inside every single one of us.

The potential for secure attachment rests in the strength of our wise, kind Self far more than in the story of our past.

In the middle section of this blog post, where I offered a detailed description of securely attached folks, I’m sure some of you were thinking, This is ridiculous. These people sound too good to be true. Nobody is really like this! Honestly, you’re not wrong. With the possible exception of Jesus Christ (though even that is worth hearty debate), there is no such thing as perfect secure attachment. Nobody on this planet is perfectly secure, because nobody on this planet was raised by perfect caregivers in a perfect culture. Most of us lean toward one or more insecure styles of attachment when we’re under stress; most of us are complex conglomerations of security and insecurity. Maybe in those descriptions above, you recognized faint glimpses of your best self—the way you sometimes function in relationships when you’re at the top of your game—but then felt some self-recrimination over all the ways you fall short.

The truth is, we all fall short. But we can all grow toward security, because we all possess a wise, kind Self that can guide us.

If you want to learn more about your wise, kind Self, check out the book No Bad Parts by Richard C. Schwartz. If you want to learn more about attachment styles, including the ways various types of insecurity can transform toward security, please revisit this blog—or subscribe, so you don’t miss out on upcoming posts about anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. Attachment is a journey; I hope this series becomes a helpful roadmap for you as you make sense of where you’ve been and where you want to go.

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