By the time we are toddlers we have developed strategies that help us navigate relationships. We learn from interactions with our caregivers that behavior brings forth different responses. A baby cries out, communicating distress: “I’m hungry, my diaper needs changing, I need to be held” – mom responds with reassuring tones: “It’s OK, I’m here, now let’s see what you need.” Mom feels warm and touched as her soothing responses help the child relax. They feel a secure attachment. Both feel joy and comfort in the pleasure of being known for what they experience.
But what happens when an adult is distressed? Much depends upon her awareness of states of mind – hers and whomever she is engaging with.
We can be empathic even when struggling with distress, like feeling ill or sad. However, if we are preoccupied with unresolved trauma* (* traumatic events which continue to influence our state of mind because they have not been sufficiently understood) our ability to be emotionally available is challenged. It is hard to remain empathic in the grip of loss, fear, anger or guilt. Meeting someone in need may trigger difficult feelings like resentment or confusion.
Anxious Attachment Strategy
A father observes that he has a pattern of becoming anxious and aloof when he is busy and his child wants attention. He doesn’t think he has the right to say, “Can you wait until I finish my work and have a shower?” Instead he feels hostage to his daughter’s needs and he becomes fidgety and irritable. Through repeated experiences the daughter knows that if she asks dad to listen to her there’s a good chance he will be annoyed. But she still feels the need for connection and tries to shatter his cold, hard shell. She wants to impress him with her intelligence, but she’s talking to a wall, he doesn’t look up at her. Finally he mutters a subdued, “Oh yeah,” as he leaves the room. This interaction is stressful for both but neither feels free to honestly express their thoughts or feelings. Both father and daughter can be said to have developed anxious attachment strategies – they don’t feel secure when coming together in relationships. The daughter has learned to anticipate discomfort stepping into social situations. Her relational style tends to be aggressive when seeking connection with others – father deals with his anxiety with avoidant behavior.
Why bother knowing about attachment strategies?
Observing strategies we employ for dealing with feelings that come up in relationships, we can analyze how they have evolved and how they impact intimacy. Leaving judgments behind, we are free to consider how we became secure or insecure. Deepening attunement to the ways others relate we learn how needs can be met in relationships.
Working with a psychotherapist to learn about your attachment strategies can be highly effective in changing patterns. Exploring relational styles is empowering – we gain understanding that there is meaning behind our responses to connecting with others. New options emerge when we feel secure knowing ourselves and in being known by others. Patience and practice are essential if we are to make inroads into these complex but not impossible emotional-psychological dilemmas.