An attachment style is the way that we connect and interact with others. All humans need connection. And babies, in particular, need to attach or bond to their parents or caregivers because they’re vulnerable and can’t possibly take care of themselves. The way that we attach to our parents or caregivers becomes the blueprint for how we interact with others throughout our lives. This is called your attachment style.
So far, in this series about attachment styles, we’ve discussed the three attachment styles originally identified by Dr. Mary Ainsworth: Secure Attachment, Insecure Ambivalent (aka Anxious) Attachment, and Insecure Avoidant Attachment. Now, we’ll turn our focus to Disorganized Attachment.
The original research that identified Disorganized Attachment was done by Dr. Mary Main, a student of Dr. Ainsworth’s who continued her research using the Strange Situation experiment and later the Adult Attachment Interview. Dr. Main recognized that some children didn’t fit into the other three attachment styles. Some responded to their mothers in unusual ways and seemed frightened by them.
What causes a disorganized attachment style?
Parents are usually a source of comfort to their children. They reduce their child’s discomfort or fear by feeding, diapering, and bathing them, rocking them to sleep, picking them up when they cry, singing to them, and so forth. But some parents aren’t just distracted or inattentive (resulting in an anxious or avoidant attachment). Some parents are the source of their child’s fear.
Disorganized attachment is often the result of child abuse or severe child neglect. However, it can also develop when a well-meaning parent has unresolved trauma and responds to his or her child in unpredictable or frightening ways, such as yelling at a crying baby when experiencing a flashback due to PTSD.
Why is it called “disorganized” attachment?
We can think of the other three attachment styles as organized in the sense that these children develop a consistent, predictable, or organized way of interacting with their parents. For example, a toddler with an avoidant attachment style will predictably avoid or ignore his mother when she returns in the Strange Situation experiment.
But, understandably, a young child will feel confused if his parent is both the person he seeks comfort from and the source of his fear. Children can’t make sense of an abusive or frightening parent — and they have no solutions, no way to change it or understand it. (Disorganized attachment has been described as “fright without solution”.)
Because the parent is frightening and unpredictable, the child can’t develop an organized or consistent way of interacting with his parent and getting his needs met, hence the term disorganized attachment.
Disorganized attachment in adulthood
An attachment style is fairly consistent over time (unless one actively works on changing it). So, how does a disorganized attachment style manifest in adulthood?
Possible symptoms of a disorganized attachment style in adults:
- Difficulty managing or regulating your mood.
- Dissociation (feeling disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, body).
- Freezing, feeling dazed or disoriented.
- Confusion about what’s happening or how to respond.
- Not feeling safe in relationships.
- Fear of intimacy, fear of rejection, or fear of being hurt by those you’re close to.
- Difficulty trusting.
- Erratic, unpredictable behavior.
- Angry outbursts or aggression.
- A combination of anxious behaviors (clinginess, attention-seeking) and avoidant behaviors (pushing people away).
- Trouble making and sustaining friendships.
- Boundary problems.
- Low self-worth.
- Difficulty making sense of your childhood. May include lapses in memory or giving implausible explanations for your parents’ or your own behavior.
- General sense that the world is harsh, uncaring, or unsafe.
Someone with a disorganized attachment style might think or say:
- I want to be close, but I’m afraid of getting hurt.
- People are generally untrustworthy and getting hurt is inevitable.
- Relationships are confusing.
- People always let me down.
- I might as well end this relationship because I don’t think you really love me.
- Sometimes, I’m afraid of my partner.
- My partner is unpredictable.
- My partner says I’m unpredictable, confusing, or erratic.
- I don’t know how to cope.
- Sometimes, I mentally “checkout” because I don’t know how to cope.
- I need to be on guard, so I don’t get hurt.
Please note: These are possible symptoms of disorganized attachment and aren’t intended as a means of self-diagnosing.
Changing a disorganized attachment style
Someone with an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style can gradually build a more secure attachment. This is challenging, of course, and usually working with a therapist is helpful. The list below will give you an idea of the tasks involved in moving from disorganized to more secure.
Moving from a disorganized attachment to a more secure attachment, involves:
- Making sense of your trauma and working to understand your childhood experiences and how they’ve affected you.
- Developing safe, trusting relationships. Often, forming a positive relationship with a therapist is the best way to start doing this because therapists are skilled at creating emotional safety and responding with empathy, so that you can practice being more vulnerable.
- Learning to regulate your emotions. Again, therapy can be very helpful with this. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is one approach that has been shown to be effective.
- Building social skills, such as listening and reading non-verbal cues.
- Learning to stay grounded in the present moment. Mindfulness skills can help.
There is hope! If you think you have an insecure attachment style (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized), I encourage you to continue educating yourself and seek assistance from a mental health professional who specializes in treating attachment and trauma.
©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
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