Part 4 of 4 of a series diving deep into the Attachment Bond, What It Looks Like and What Type of Attachment Style You Might Have
Having a Disorganized Attachment style is very painful and lonely. For many who struggle with this type of attachment style they often desire connection with others but this connection is fraught with anxiety, fear, and pain as well as with safety and security. How confusing? This is because at the root of Disorganized Attachment is a person who had a parent/caregiver who was both frightening and their safe base. A parent/caregiver who might have had their own unhealed trauma that came out in their parenting style.
What Exactly Is Disorganized Attachment and How Does It Develop
Disorganized attachment essentially is a failure of the parent/caregiver to consistently function as the child’s protector but instead is both the source of anxiety and fear as well as care taker. Babies learn how to manage their emotional ups and downs based on their parents ability to consistently attune and respond appropriately to their child when the child is in distress. This begins early on in infancy and continues on throughout the childs development. For most parents/caregivers when a baby is in distress they go about the task of soothing the baby by trying a myriad of things such as feeding, rocking, gentle (safe) touch, soft/gentle words, etc. But for other parents/caregivers when the baby is distressed they may not go to the baby to soothe them but instead they either remain at a distance or they may attempt to stop the babies distress by acting out aggressively verbally (yelling) or physically (by shaking). At other times the parent/caregiver may be attuned and connected but it’s going to be on the parent/caregivers terms and more importantly the distress of the child is what causes the parent to become dysregulated to the point where they are frightening to the baby/child rather than a safety net to buffer the babies own fears and anxiety. This again is either because they act out aggressively or because they have their own internal feelings of fright and helplessness which keeps them disconnected from their baby/child. The result for the baby/child is chronic state of internal distress, difficulty with self soothing/self regulation, problems with reading/understanding social cues, and a complex and unhealthy way of connecting with others.
Disorganized Attachment: The Fear That Goes Unresolved
Often with Disorganized Attachment when the baby becomes distressed the parent responds to that distress with fear, which compounds the childs fear. In this instance the adult is not able to protect the baby/child which is what the baby/child is needing in that moment. The baby/child then begins to shut down and disconnect from their own internal experiences because there is no buffer or no one there to soothe their distress (Learned Helplessness). In these tough moments the child’s distress is not truly recognized by the parent/caregiver or mirrored in them which is how we learn the tools to self regulate (identify the discomforting emotion and act accordingly to alleviate that discomfort, appropriately). Parents/caregivers behaviors in these moments are unpredictable and erratic, which increases the baby/childs anxiety, and the child begins to mirror these unintegrated communication patterns with their own parents/caregivers which becomes a cycle.
Disorganized Attachment results from unresolved fears. These fears may be as a result of some type of overt abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or combination of the 3) or a parents own unresolved trauma which leaves them emotionally unavailable in the way that their baby/child needs. Babies/children naturally seek out the adults in their lives for safety and protection. We are wired for connection just like we are wired for survival through the Stress Response System. So Disorganized Attachment results when a child’s parent/caregiver is the one who is suppose to protect them but is also the one who harms them. They experience their parents/caregivers as unpredictable and thus their attempts at getting their needs met often seem chaotic or out of control.
DisorganizedAttachment Between Parent & Child
-When the child attempts to get close to the parent/caregiver the parent caregiver decreases proximity (creates more distance)
-Does not soothe their baby/child when the baby/child is distressed but instead acts out aggressively towards the baby/child, ignores the distress, or attempts to soothe but at a distance (look for dissociation in the parent)
-As a baby/toddler upon separation they may cry but upon reunion they might either go to their parent/caregiver and act out aggressively toward the parent/caregiver or approach them but then freeze.
-Older children may be parentifed and you may see their attempts at soothing their parents when their parents/caregivers are distressed but very little to no attempts by the parent/caregiver to soothe their baby/child’s distress
-Inappropriate affect towards a distressed child. Example, a child is crying and the parent laughs at them
-A parent who is unable to give praise to their child or observe anyone else praising their child. When they observe another praising their child they may become dysregulated and instigate distress in their child by name calling, or teasing their child
-An inability to comfort their child because they don’t want to. This is not about attempts to self soothe but rather about he parents/caregiver lack of desire to comfort their child believing that they can do it on their own
-Dismissing their child’s distress.
-A child who is afraid of their parent/caregiver
-A child who seems stoic all the time or very adult like and controlled in their emotions
-Chronic feelings of loneliness or emptiness
The Disorganized Attached Adult
-Difficulty opening up to others
-Difficulty trusting others
-Difficulty managing stress
-Difficulty with emotional regulation, seeming to move from low to high very rapidly
-Poor social skills/difficulty connecting with others
-Will report they don’t feel anything or they don’t have emotions
-Trouble keeping a job due to inability to emotionally regulate or communicate appropriately
-Trouble with making or maintaining friendships. They may see things as black or white, initially holding folks up on a pedestal and then disregarding them the moment they are not “perfect”
-Poor social skills such as oversharing about past trauma with people who haven’t earned the right to know that knowledge (essentially sharing inappropriately due to lack of boundaries and understanding social cues)
-Threatening others they are connected too
-Unpredictable in the way you respond/react to others
-Lack empathy for others
-Feeling and experiencing the world and the people in it as unsafe
-Difficulty making sense of your experiences and integrating emotions and memories
What A disorganized Attached Relationship Between Adults Looks and Feels Like
-Often choose partners who confirm their belief that the world/people are unsafe-people who exhibit both frightening and loving behaviors.
-Romantic relationships are frightening, not just scary but actually you feel fright
-You might feel confused about romantic relationships
-You have a hard time not being in a relationship
-You and your partner take advantage of each other
-You feel trusting your partner is dangerous
-You are always taking care of your partner and not thinking about your own needs. You may be afraid to alert your boundaries for fear that you will lose your partner
-You are in a relationship with a partner who emotionally, physically, or sexually assaults you and you feel a deep pull to stay and fear about leaving
-You are in a relationship filled with a lot of friction and fighting and this feels “normal” to you. In relationships where you don’t argue, fight, and generally don’t feel an undercurrent of fear for your partner, you might experience that relationship as boring and anxiety producing.
4 Steps for Healing Disorganized Attachment, So You Can Feel Securely Attached In Your Relationships
#1 Recognize your triggers for feelings of abandonment. Feelings of abandonment arise when we feel disconnected from others and from our selves. When we feel such fear and anxiety that we begin to question our own self worth. In these moments we will do anything to stop feeling what we are feeling. We may run and cling to others or take a scorched earth tactic of angrily lashing out at our loved ones. We do this as we feel out of control and want a way to feel some semblance of control and also power. But at the end of the day it leaves us feeling lonely, sad, and afraid. So take a moment to reflect on what leads you to behave in this manner. When that threat of loss starts to take shape, what is happening in your life and with the people in your life that are making these feelings come about? Internally what emotions are being signaled? Physically how does your body feel? What urges do you have ? (hint they are usually either the urge to run, to hide, or freezing-exactly the mechanisms of the stress response system)
#2 Learn how to self soothe. Moving from tip 1 right here into tip 2, think of them like steps. Do 1 then immediately move here to 2. Unfortunately, your parent/caregiver was unable to teach you the techniques for self soothing so you have to take it upon yourself to learn those tools. This will require you to look carefully at the times when you feel calm and tap into that feeling. What kinds of things do you like to do that make you feel calm that are healthy. For most folks they fall into the movement category. This is how we first learn to self regulate, by moving in rhythm. Rocking, walking, dancing, etc. Remember as we develop in the womb we are moving, in the amniotic sack, so this is the most natural way we can go about feeling calmer and more regulated. For others maybe you want to stop moving. Instead you can choose to lay or sit down. Then there are those who only want or can only move parts of their body, usually hands and/or feet. In these moments focus on the rhythm of your heartbeat, the rhythm of parts of your body, the slow and methodic breaths you are taking.
Once you start to calm your nervous system physically you will start to notice and have more agency over your thoughts or your cortex. It is here where you can start to do some self talk. Speak gently to yourself. Talk to yourself in a way a loving person would speak to a child, after all your inner child is what is having the hard time in these moments. So speak gently to that part of yourself. Remind yourself that you are deserving of love and connection. That you have wonderful people in your life and name those people, slowing picturing them in your mind as you say their names. You can also reflect upon the ways they show you love and connection and how you show them love and connection.
The goal here is to just calm yourself down and get your cortex online. Do not react out of that out of control triggered emotional place.
#3 Ask Yourself what it is you are needing in this moment. As you begin to feel calmer you will start to see the thoughts that you are having. Explore those thoughts with curiosity and not judgement. Realizing that you are triggered ask yourself “what is it that I need right now?” You can find this out by further exploring and asking yourself, “why was I so triggered by_______?” Remember to still be kind to yourself and that you are just curious about what is going on. Although you may be used to being criticized I don’t want you to criticize yourself. So many of us have an angry voice inside ourselves that is critical and can say mean things to us. But it’s not the time to listen to that voice and in fact with enough practice that voice can be silenced and/or ignored.
Once you have identified what your needs are then you can think about how to communicate that to your loved one.
#4 Learn how to communicate your needs appropriately. This takes practice and no one gets it right 100% of the time so again be gentle and patient with yourself. Thinking about what your needs are and what you want, you can then start thinking about how to express this to your loved one. You do need to know something about who your loved one is and their communication style in order to get the messaging right, but generally using “I” statements works best. “I” statements such as, “I need you to say good morning to me because it makes me feel loved and cared for. I know you love and care for me but this extra step is really validating and eases some of my anxiety. Can you try to do this more often?” Or something to that effect. Here you are communicating your needs clearly, the why of it’s importance and then giving your partner a choice. Now of course be mindful of certain things:
- Make sure you are truly in a safe and loving relationship otherwise this can blow up in your face and make you feel worse if the person does not reciprocate. When I say safe I’m not only talking about physically safe but also emotionally safe. It’s normal to feel some nerves or anxiety when having to be vulnerable, especially if you are not used to do this, but if you feel fear or terror then your relationship may not be safe.
- Be mindful of your tone of voice. Be calm and clear not accusatory or angry. Those emotions can put someone on the defensive and in those moments your message will not be heard with the intention that you want it to be heard.
- Be gentle, patient, and forgiving towards the person you love. They may not get it right 100% of the time so you will have to also remind yourself of this and not blow up at them for getting it wrong sometimes. Again we all want to be treated with love, respect, nurturance, and kindness so keep that in mind when you are communicating with those you love.
Bonus Tip: Grieve the loss of your inner child and find a way to accept and move on without repeating your parent/caregivers mistakes. It can be hared to come to terms with our own pasts and our relationships with our parents/caregivers. We may have feelings of anger because they did not give us what we needed, whether that was because of their own unhealed trauma, their own mental health struggles, or just general lack of knowledge and understanding. We are tempted to look at other people who did get what they needed from their parents/caregivers and feel angry or jealous. It’s ok to acknowledge that this is how you feel but remember you have control over your own behaviors. You can choose to be angry and lash out at your parents/caregivers or others as a way to make yourself feel better but in the end it really wont. Being able to grieve what you didn’t have and accept it is part of healing. When you allow yourself to grieve you expel that hurtful energy rather than bottling it up. The bottling up leads to negative emotions that will cause you to behave in ways that don’t make you feel connected to others in the way you want to. So as you grieve and feel your different feelings be kind to yourself. Love yourself. Surround yourself with others that love, nurture, and care about you. Be open to experiencing love in different forms from others who are not your parents/caregivers. This will help ease the pain and reinforce what you all ready know, which is that you are worthy and deserving of safe, nurturance, love, and care.
Disorganized attachment is an attachment style which can leave you easily overwhelmed by your emotions. Often times these emotions are triggered when you are relationship with others, both romantic and friendship. You struggle with getting close to others, because the closeness creates a lot of fear and anxiety but so does the separation. These conflicting feelings and behaviors can take a toll on you and for many this causes a detachment from themselves and their emotions. But this detachment only leads to outbursts later so you must do the tough work of feeling your feelings and acknowledging your fears as well as your true desires. By using the steps above you can learn how to do this and improve your relationships with others in your life so you don’t have to feel alone and disconnected. Healing from disorganized attachment is possible.
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