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The Unpredictable Nature of Having a Disorganized Attachment Style

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Have you ever heard of attachment style? Do you know what your attachment style is? It can be an extremely useful lens through which we interpret our feelings and behaviors in relationship to others. Mine is “disorganized” and let me tell you, it can get in the way of fomenting strong connections with others, which can really hamper one’s ability to heal from trauma. Having done some work in this arena and psycho education on attachment theory, I thought it may be helpful information to others to start thinking about their own attachment style and to read about what it looks like in terms of my own lived experience.

• What is PTSD?

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment Theory is a psychological and evolutionary framework originally proposed by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the mid-20th century. The central tenet is that a child must develop a secure emotional bond with a primary caregiver, which will insure that child’s survival by providing comfort and protection. This responsive (enough) caregiver thereby creates a secure base from which a child can go on to explore the world. Put simply, an attuned parent who reliably reacts to the needs of a child will create a foundational sense of security, from which that child can grow into a healthy and emotionally resilient adult.

The four primary attachment styles are:

Secure: This represents an ideal child/parent attachment based in the stability of the responsive caregiver creating a resilient, trusting child able to rely on others.

Ambivalent: When a child cannot rely on a parent they may become distressed and therefore can be somewhat clingy toward their caregivers for fear that they won’t return.

Avoidant: These children have learned that relying on a caregiver can be dangerous. They could have experienced abuse or neglect or may have even been punished by the caregiver for seeking out their support. As a result, these children will often avoid the caregiver and become self-reliant.

Disorganized: These children often vacillate from being ambivalent to avoidant. They have experienced the caregiver to be inconsistent and therefore they don’t know when and if that parent will respond. This often occurs where a child has experienced prolonged abuse or neglect or has grown up with an emotionally immature or unavailable parent.

What does this mean in adulthood?

While these attachment styles develop in childhood, they persist into adulthood and can manifest in myriad ways within an adult’s relationships to others. Individuals like myself, who have a history of chronic trauma throughout childhood (C-PTSD) often grow up struggling to maintain healthy relationships. It’s as if we never developed the imprint of what that should look like to be able to emulate it. We lack the skills, emotional awareness, trust and confidence to seek out, nurture and cultivate relationships with healthy others, and this can cause devastating effects.

In my own experience growing up with an absentee father and single mother who had untreated mental health issues and her own unresolved trauma history, I often felt alone, confused, and afraid of which mommy would show up in any given moment. I became keenly adept at assessing my mother’s mental state before engaging with her…avoiding her if I could sense she wasn’t able to attune to my needs in an effort to not just protect her, but to save myself from the pain of feeling like I was a burden and was being rejected. Other times when she was in a good headspace she could be fun and playful—almost a fellow playmate rather than a caregiver. When nurturing, protection or guidance were needed, I learned to rely on myself—not exactly an effective long term strategy, but certainly an adaptive one for survival.

This chaotic childhood led me to be an unpredictable adult where relationships are concerned. For the most part in my teens and early adulthood, I avoided others and isolated out of fear that I would overwhelm them or be somehow too much. It led me to be incredibly lonely and incapable of articulating my needs or feelings. I was very shut down, dissociated to the point that I have very few memories of that period. Even when I am shown photos from that era with myself in them, it’s like I’m looking at another person. It doesn’t jog any kind of connection to a memory or cognitive narrative. It’s something I find deeply distressing now when I talk to people I knew then. They will recount stories of things we did together or something memorable and I can’t connect to these memories at all. It’s as though I was living in some kind of checked out zombie state, a hallmark symptom of “disorganized” attachment.

As I grew older, particularly when I met my husband, I would vacillate from wanting to be around him all the time to shutting him out. Physical proximity would sometimes terrify me and other times feel soothing. Emotional proximity had to be carefully and slowly cultivated so that I didn’t get flooded and pull the proverbial rip cord. Somehow I think our unique childhood experiences and attachment styles were matched enough that we were able to communicate on a level that felt safe enough for us to establish security. Although, even after 24 years of marriage I sometimes go silent and withdraw if I feel overwhelmed, not because I don’t trust him, but almost out of habit. The person you love the most is the one who can hurt you the most, so you have to protect yourself from being rejected. It’s an insidious pattern of behavior that’s hard to break.

I have also struggled immensely with friendships because I felt wholly unworthy of them and was deeply concerned that being my full authentic self would eventually send them running for the hills. When I did dip my toe into the proverbial friendship waters, I’d inevitably sabotage the relationship by either withdrawing or being too clingy. Finding the balance between the two has taken a ton of therapy and self-reflection (and a super attuned therapist who recognized my disorganized attachment for what it was, rather than some kind of pathology).

It’s only in the past three to four years that I feel as though I have enough of a grasp of my trauma history and upbringing and how it affects my attachment style to adequately manage friendships. When I get the urge to pull away, I push myself to reach out and am often pleasantly surprised at the degree to which friends want to be there for me. When I find myself becoming too co-dependent, I resist the temptation to over text or fixate on when our last communication was or what the tone of their message was. I’m far more able to navigate my instinctual urge to self-blame, and I’ve learned to take a step back and remind myself that often a lack of engagement has nothing to do with me and everything to do with what’s going on in their lives.

It’s hard though, I’m not going to lie. Small triggers can set me back, re-enacting that well honed instinct to attempt to predict the mood of and potential response from every human I encounter.  And when I do I tend to regress into my child self, behaving in ways that seem like an overreaction or a hyper-response to whatever I perceive to be going on. This often results in my apologizing to whoever I lash out against, typically my husband or therapist, since they are the most secure attachments I have. Its almost like I can practice retraining that insecure child’s impulses without fear of abandonment with them.

If you are curious about your own attachment style and how it may be impacting your relationships, I recommend asking your therapist, if you are seeing one, to do a formal attachment assessment with you. There are also free ones online that while not as accurate may at least give you a starting point to work with. Once you understand what you are working with, you can begin the process of slowly retraining yourself, which can be a game changer on your healing journey.

Getty image by lolostock

Originally published: July 1, 2022
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