What does it mean to have secure attachment?
According to the dictionary, the word secure means to be free from danger or attack. It can also mean being free from the risk of loss. In a word, secure means “safety.” From cradle to grave we all desire safety, but who provides that sense of safety is different at different ages. Infants and children look to their parents and other caregivers to provide sense of safety. Adults look to partners, spouses, friends and family for a sense of safety. Certainly, infants and children need their caretakers to protect them from physical dangers. But they also need protection from emotional dangers, stress and distress. Adults also think of safety in terms of physically safety, but they also seek protection from and soothing of emotional distress.
Attachment refers to a tie or bond that connects one person to another. It is a bond of affection or loyalty. Of course we do get attached to other things, like pets or even smartphones, but the most powerful attachments are those we have with other people - close relationships in particular, such as parents, siblings, close friends, marital or other intimate relationships. So together a secure attachment refers to felt sense of security, caretaking or soothing we experience as a result of our interactions with attachment figures. We don't always have to be in the pressence of attachment figures to experience felt-security. Thinking about our attachment figures can also give us a sense of security.
Sensitivity - The Key to Creating Secure Attachment
Scientists believe that we are not born with secure attachment, but rather all human beings are born with the innate desire to bond with their caregivers - in other words we are programmed for attachment relationships. A secure attachment style is something develops through the interactions we have with our caregivers early in childhood - usually our parents, but sometimes other caregivers too (like grandparents or even daycare providers).
Infants are born without the gift of language or the ability to move around in the world, and therefore they depend on the watchful eyes of their caregivers for protection from danger, and relief from emotional distress. Babies naturally seek protection and soothing from their caregivers when they are frightened or distressed, but parents have to be particularly sensitive to their infant's cues and respond accordingly. This is what attachment researchers call "sensitivity." "Proximity-seeking” is the process of seeking closeness to an attachment figure, especially if you need help, protection or soothing. What "proximity-seeking' looks like will depend on the age of the person. A new born infant will cry, turn it’s head toward or reach out for their caregiver. An older infant will cry, call out for or crawl towards their caregiver. As children age, they will still cry, but they will also use language and walking or running towards their caregiver. And after they get their first smart phone, in come the text messages and FaceTime calls. All of these are methods to seek the attention of, closeness to and care from attachment figures.
The research has shown that children are more likely to have secure attachment when their parents are 1) physically near or available, 2) watchful and attentive to the cues of their child’s distress or fear, and 3) who are good at reading and respond to cues (therefore are good at soothing distress). If parents have secure attachment styles, they are more likely to have these skills and therefore embue secure attachment in their children. Based on their experiences with their attachment figures, children develop expectations about close relationships with regard to the availabilty of their attachment figures and those figures ability to provide safety and caretaking. When parents are sensitive, their children learn that when they are distressed and they can seek the care of others and they are likely to receive it - because that’s what their experience has shown them. They feel worthy of receiving care and they are trusting that others will provide it. In other words, they have a positive view of themselves (worthy) and a positive view of others (trusting). Children with insecure attachment don’t hold these positive views. Insecure attachment develops when children either receive the message to not seek help from their caregivers (be strong, don't bother me, etc.) or when they do seek help or protection their caregiver gets overwhelmed by the demands of the child, or worse, is frightened by or frightening to the child.
Wanting protection and support from attachment figures never really stops in life. Today, adults have all kinds of sophisticated methods of seeking protection and soothing from their loved ones, from calling, to writing, texting, emailing, FaceTime or Skyping to traveling long distances to spend time with their attachment figures. When distressed, people will go to great lengths, and be very persistent, to receive soothing and protection from their loved ones. And when they receive protection or soothing from their attachment figure(s) they feel good, calm and loved and what’s called "felt-security." And when we feel safe and secure there is a resumed interest in exploration - going out and experiencing the world and all the adventures it holds for us.
How is secure attachment different from over-dependency?
The word dependency gets a bad rap in our society that values self-sufficiency (pulling yourself up by your bootstraps). But actually, a certain amount of dependency in relationships is a good thing. Healthy dependency allows families to flourish, help each other, be stable and produce healthy children. We all need certain things in our lives - like food, shelter, healthcare, air and water. In addition to these basic needs , there are other needs such as the need for social interaction, intellectual stimulation, connection with others and love. Having these needs doesn’t make us weak, it just means we are human. There is lots of evidence that suggests the brain is built for social interaction and that without it we could die. Child and adults need closeness, protection and emotional support from attachment figures throughout life. But just because we need or are dependent on someone for protection at times, it doesn’t mean that we can’t cope on our own when necessary.
What if our primary attachment figure is not available when we need them? What if your partner is out with friends or visiting family or at work or sick and unable to help you when you are needing comforting? You certainly turn towards secondary attachment figures, such as close friends or other family members like a sibling or extended relative. But as we mature we can also learn self-soothing skills to help reduce emotional distress. The research suggests that just thinking about your attachment figure(s) or looking at their picture can reduce distress and fear. Hearing their words of reassurance in your mind can also be very soothing. But exercise, deep breathing and meditation can also be very, very helpful in reducing emotional distress. Sometimes just distracting yourself or reaching out to help others does the trick.
Why is secure attachment so important?
People with secure attachment exhibit a whole list of personality qualities that result in their experiencing very satisfying and stable close relationships. They have high self-esteem, good communication skills, handle conflicts effectively, express their feelings in positive ways, experience compassion towards others and feel gratittude in their relationships. People with secure attachment experience more joy and positivity about life. They make friends easily and are liked by others. People with secure attachment styles are more altruistic - unselfishly concerned for or devoted to the welfare of others. Most importantly, they are good caregivers to their partners and know how to receive and appreciate care when offered. Does this mean that people with secure attachment don't encounter interpersonal problems? Of course not. But they do seem to navigate those difficult times with greater success and ease than those with insecure attachment.
What is Insecure Attachment?
Insecure attachment are coping responses to emotional distress that are prone to cause problems in close relationships. Insecure attachment results when a child's primary attachment figures are not available, are not protective or are not adept at soothing distress. Does this mean their parent's don't love them? Of course not. It just means that for various reasons, their parent(s) may not have learned or developed these skills as a child or while growing up. Children are very adaptive to their environments, so when a parent is not skilled at providing protection or soothing, the child develops secondary strategies to get relief from distress.
Common strategies a child may use to get attention and help include becoming clingy, demanding or angry with their parent. Another strategy is to keep a constant watchful eye on the parent to see if they are available or open to interaction. This is called "hypervigilence." Another strategy is to develop self-reliance to the extent that they stop seeking the help of others altogether. Some children try to cut themselves off to all distressing emotions, as much as that is possible. The problem with these strategies is that they either inhibit exploration (if you are clingy) or normal emotions and they all just reinforce anxiety about close relationships. If you are constantly waiting for your parent’s attention, you are less likely to focus on other things. If you will want to stay very close, and be ready to act when you sense an opening you are not going to focus on other things. The more clingy you are, the more likely you will feel anxious at times when you are separated from attachment figurest. Some people feel smothered by neediness and will either consciously or unconsciously pull away - only heightening anxiety. You can probably see how these patterns could become problematic in adult relationships. Being clingy, over-dependent, preoccupied, entangled or angrily focused on your loved one may not only be oppressive to them, but it will also prevent you from growing and learning to be more self sufficent.
For some children, no matter what they do, the parent(s) is non-responsive. Eventually these children may unconsciously or consciously give up on getting soothing from attachment figures and become extremely self-sufficient. They never really stop wanting close connections, but they have learned how to turn off any overtures for help and soothing. This can also be problematic later in life because it may result in a person being cold and distant in their relationships. These individuals have not learned the benefits of seeking support and caretaking from others, nor have they learned to be good caregivers to others.
These coping strategies to unavailable, insensitive parenting will get incorporated into the child's personality and may become life-long patterns of responding in relationships. Depending on who they choose as a partner, these strategies may become seriously problematic and require changing in order to reduce anger, conflict and dissatisfaction and promote greater relationship intimacy and stability.
The Secure Base Priming Program
Based entirely on empirical research, the Secure Base Priming Program, is a training program developed to help people boost their attachment security. If we think about attachment security on a continuum - with secure attachment on one end and insecure attachment on the other end - then everyones attachment style can be located somewhere on that line - from extremely secure to extremely insecure and everything in-between. In fact, that’s were most people are, somewhere in between. One of the first tests you will take in this program is the Experiences in Close Relationships (Revised) that will measure your attachment style. You will also take this test after the program to see if there are any changes in your attachment style. Another questionairre you will complete is the WHOTO Scale. This is a scale to help you identify the primary attachment figure(s) in your life. You will also be asked to complete a mood questionnaire each day before and after the priming exercises to see how you overall mood changes during the course of the program. All your answers will be kept confidential. Like any workout, the more you use the priming exercises, the more likely you will see the benefits of priming.
At this point in time, the vast majority of research studies have examined the effects of single priming experiences on attachment behaviors. These are generally short-lived changes. However, there is evidence that repeated priming may have longer-lasting effects. This program/study is examining the effect of repeated priming on attachment behaviors. In order to answer this question, participants are asked to complete at least 10 priming sessions over the course of the month.
If you ever have any questions about the Secure Base Priming Program or the research study, you can email Dr. Sonkin at email@example.com.