Emotional security and our ability to love are shaped by our earliest intimate relationships, most substantially by interactions between mother and child. These interactions continue to be explored in a foundation of contemporary psychotherapy called “attachment theory.”
In his highly regarded book, Attachment in Psychotherapy, David Wallin offers the promise of how we can improve our initial attachments created by parents who are merely human, which means, like all of us, imperfect.
Parents and children live together and form bonds during years that are filled with the common issues of life, like fatigue, marital disagreements, financial problems, and drug or alcohol abuse. To make these early family relationships even more challenging, parents may repeat what they learned about raising children from their own parents. Time and research often unravel previous beliefs about the ever-changing demands of parenting as society embraces new perspectives.
Wallin, a clinical psychologist in practice in California, offers this perspective as a way therapy can help revise troubling initial attachments so they are healthier and more functional for a person’s current life.
... the therapist’s role is analogous to that of a mother who provides her child with a secure base from which to explore the world. -- JOHN BOWLBY 1988
“Although our stance toward such attachments is shaped most influentially by our first relationships, we are also malleable,” says Wallin. “If our early involvements have been problematic, then subsequent relationships can offer second chances, perhaps affording us the potential to love, feel and reflect with the freedom that flows from secure attachment. Psychotherapy, at its best, provides just such a healing relationship.”
The patterns of our first relationships are reflected not only in how we relate to others, but also in our habits of feeling and thinking,” says Wallin. By creating a new style of attachment with the therapist, a person can change earliest habits.
“The therapist’s role here is to help the patient both to deconstruct the attachment patterns of the past and to construct new ones in the present,” says Wallin.
These are the basic attachment styles in children and adults.
One way to see how four attachment styles play out in our daily lives is to reflect on how they impact our work relationships. This can help us understand reactions to workplace stress that don’t always seem logical, but the are triggered by our earliest relationships.
Recognizing these attachments can help us form new and healthier styles of relating to our colleagues and in the long-run, to others in our lives, according to an article in the New York Times by Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach.
This type of attachment style at work allows a person to take tasks as they come and easily address issues that arise. They work hard and and are able to say “no” when necessary. This person generally has a good work life balance and can adjust to changing circumstances in the workplace.
A fear of upsetting others drives individuals with an anxious preoccupied attachment style. This style can cause a person to assume negative information in emails, for instance, and be overly attentive to checking them and responding to them. This attachment style can make it difficult to set boundaries and say “no” when necessary for your own health and productivity.
The way to revise this reaction is to recognize your initial flight-or-flight response and instead practice positive self-talk, as in, “Let’s wait and see what happens” or “Everything will be O.K.” To set boundaries, for example, be clear that you will not be available to answer emails after work hours, but will attend to them first thing in the morning. Then do it.
Individuals with dismissive avoidant attachment at work tend to think they are smarter than others. That can lead to conflict, mistrust and causing others to micromanage them.
To balance this way of thinking or behaving, do your best to listen to what others have to say, consider they might have valuable suggestions, and recognize that just because someone has an idea different from yours, it’s not necessarily wrong. Strive for harmony and collaboration in professional relationships.
This can feel like being “stuck.” For instance, someone with fearful avoidant attachment may not even open certain emails because they fear it may be troublesome or critical. That dread can be paralyzing and inhibit actions that need to be taken.
To minimize this type of attachment, positive self-talk can be helpful, as well as support from colleagues or friends. Take small steps, like opening emails for 15 minutes so they are dealt with, or start on an overwhelming project for 30 minutes at a time. As you see progress and become comfortable, these times can increase, as the fear decreases.
Remember that different workplaces or personal relationships can trigger varying attachment styles in the same person. So the best thing to do is be aware of these attachment types and learn to adjust your reactions, possibly with the help of a trained therapist, to create a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
Wallin, David J., Attachment in Psychotherapy, Guilford Press, 2007
Ackerman, Courtney, “Attachment Theory in Children and Adults: Bowlby and Ainsworth’s 4 Types,” Positive Psychology Program, April 27, 2018
Saunders, Elizabeth Grace, “The 4 “Attachment Styles ‘and How They Sabotage Your Work Life Balance,” New York Times, Dec. 19, 2018
Becker-Weidman, Arthur, “The Four Patterns of Attachment in Children,” Good Therapy, Nov. 9, 2009