We are often quite unaware of the deeply engrained patterns that can prevent us from feeling at peace, forming lasting satisfying relationships or achieving our goals in life. They are like a default setting that we return to time and time again. In my work with clients and from my own experience as a client, it can be useful to take a step back and try to identify these engrained patterns that are holding us back in some way. After all, how can we understand or change something we are not even aware of?
“It is the quality of the earliest attachment relationships formed between parents and their babies that tend to predispose the behaviour of the developing child and emerging adult. There is now overwhelming long-term scientific evidence that points to the first two years of a person’s life as the critical period for their personality traits to become established.”
Sue Gerhardt 2004
To this end, it may be useful to understand some of the basics of Attachment Theory.
Without going into too much detail, back in the 1950s and 60s, the majority of the research was undertaken by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist working with children. He explored the connection between the child’s relationship with his/her mother or major care giver and how this affected their emotional, social and cognitive development. There are plenty of articles on this on the internet which you can explore to your heart’s content. A good place to start might be:
Briefly, Bowlby identified 4 different patterns of attachment as follows:
1 Secure attachment,
This child has a mother who is sensitive and responsive to the needs of her baby. The child experiences attention, consistency, gentleness and loving touch. S/he sees loving facial feedback and reasonable harmony between other family members. The child’s feelings are contained, soothed and managed by the caregiver. Unsociable or dangerous behaviour is clarified, boundaries maintained. Painful feelings such as fear, sadness or anger are heard and held. The mother is supported herself and is not usually overwhelmed by her own feelings.
Secure attachment is likely to be characterised by
Able to be open and appropriately friendly
Able to share and play
Able to express and regulate difficult feelings such as anger
Successful and long lasting friendships and relationships
Stress response is appropriate and temporary
2 Anxious resistant attachment
The child has inconsistent care from the mother. There are some sensitive responses, but this is unpredictable, so the child takes a risk, with the hope still of some positive attention. The prime caregiver is likely to be anxious herself, prone to angry outbursts or despair. She is sometimes able to soothe the child but her reactions to the child are changeable. Boundaries are changeable too. The mother is likely to be lacking in support herself. There may be absences due to ill health, or other family demands.
Anxious resistant attachment is likely to be characterised by:
Being clingy and demanding
Being inappropriately friendly
Inability to regulate impulses
Becoming easily and regularly flooded with stress hormones
Inability to relate in a mutually loving way
Experiencing loss as unbearable
Being unpredictably hostile to caregiver
Charming and Ingratiating behaviour
As a child and adult prone to depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders, addictions, sexual abuse and low immunity
If you have this style of attachment, you may find it unbearable to be without a partner and consequently, in your eagerness to find a partner, form relationships with unsuitable partners. You may also find you are never satisfied with any partner and find it hard to settle down with one person – they never seem to be what you are looking for. I sit with many clients who try to work through this recurring agony. If this rings any bells with you, see my next blog: ‘Are you looking for a partner in order to feel complete?’
3 Anxious avoidant attachment
The child is cared for by a mother suffering from depression or other debilitating condition, who is unable to offer cheery positive feedback to her baby. There is a flatness of feeling coming from the mother, a tiredness, low energy, a complete lack of spontaneity or fun. Sadness prevails and the child learns not to express his needs. The rebuffs to any request for attention eventually lead the infant to suppress his feelings. Keeping a watchful eye, he learns to become emotionally self-sufficient. He will probably be described as a good quiet child, will not venture far, nor express any desires or strong feelings.
Anxious avoidant attachment is likely to be characterised by:
Doesn’t ask for support
Difficulties in expressing feelings
Quiet and shy as a child
Puts himself last
A good carer for others,
Own needs easily overlooked
Low stress response
As a child and adult, prone to constipation, allergies, asthma, arthritis, SAD, depression, ME, and psychosomatic illnesses
If you have this style of attachment, you may find it difficult to talk about or express your needs and emotions. It can be lonely and you may feel isolated and feel that your needs are overlooked. Some people who have an anxious avoidant attachment style find counselling difficult to start with but, from my experience, when trust is built up with the counsellor, find talking about their own feelings very therapeutic and can, if willing to take the risk, learn to be more open and honest with others about expressing their own needs or preferences. This can be life changing!
4 Disorganised, chaotic attachment
This child is subjected to repeated neglect, left crying when hungry or needing a clean nappy. She will learn not only that that no-one comes, ie no-one cares, but that the mother is actively cruel. She is the abused child, suffering violence, witness to all manner of domestic chaos. Her mother is likely to be suffering from severe mental ill health, with a history of abuse herself and without the necessary emotional stability to care for her child. This child is prone to mental ill health.
Disorganised, chaotic attachment is likely to be characterised by:
Unable to regulate impulses
Unable to relate to others
Unable to learn at school
Prone to long term severe mental health problems
If you identify with this, don’t despair. There are amazing stories out there of people who, with the right sort of restorative relationships and good support and counselling have overcome many of their difficulties and lead fulfilling lives.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. London: Pimlico.
Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why love matters. East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge
McLeod, S. Attachment theory (2009). Retrieved 20 August 2015, from