As a licensed psychotherapist, I’ve treated hundreds of individuals, couples, and families. By far the most foundational issue I’ve helped people face is damaged attachment.
The core of the human experience lies in connecting with others. We’re social animals. It’s what we do. And we need to feel securely connected. We want to know people want us and will keep us around.
But too often, our ability to attach gets damaged and leads to insecurity.
Let’s talk about insecurity, attachment, and what role they play in broken relationships.
What is insecurity and what does it feel like?
If depression feels like trying to swim with weights on your ankles, insecurity feels like living in a house that’s constantly experiencing earthquakes. No matter how many times you set things up they come crumbling down again, and you’re constantly racing around trying to brace up things that look like they’re about to fall. The floor shakes under you and wobbles your every step. Even moments of peace are frightening because you don’t know when the shaking will come back twice as hard. Life is spent wondering if this is the day the ceiling finally crashes down and buries you.
Insecure people even worry about their worrying. Starting to worry sets off a reaction of nervousness about how worried they’re going to become and how much of their day the worrying is going to swallow.
Apply this mental picture to every facet of life:
Imagine if every moment of every day was filled with some level of bubbling anxiety, constantly nagging at the corner of your mind and telling you that somewhere, something important is about to fall apart.
Imagine believing everyone who ever calls you their friend is only one realization away from rejecting you completely.
Imagine your family is your greatest source of pain. They’re supposed to be the most welcoming and accepting of all the people in your life, but you never feel more alone and more resentful than you do with your family.
Imagine believing that everything important to you will fall apart at the moment of triumph and leave you disappointed and ashamed.
Insecure people don’t have to imagine the above scenarios. For people with insecurity, these are real experiences in their everyday life. Moments of great joy are instead immensely fearful. Family gatherings and parties with friends feel alienating and exhausting. The slightest ambiguous word from a loved one is interpreted the worst possible way and kicks off a cycle of obsessive worrying which leads the insecure individual to run damage control before the perceived problem is even acknowledged.
In the secret core of their heart, insecure individuals believe no connection to another human being will ever be truly secure.
In the simplest terms, insecurity is a problem with attachment.
What is attachment?
Attachment measures a person’s ability to connect to other human beings.
Healthy attachment means a person connects to others with an expectation of emotional security. The person with healthy attachment does not worry they will be abandoned or forgotten because they know others will think of them even while they are apart and will make decisions with their wellbeing in mind. They do not worry when disagreements arise because they know they are connected at a deeper level. Mistakes aren’t feared because the attached person knows they’ll be given a chance to explain their mistake and make things right. Vulnerability is relatively easy because a person with healthy attachment believes others have their best interests at heart.
In short, a person with healthy attachment believes love is freely given instead of earned, that others love them for who they are, that people will continue to love them even in their absence, and that love cannot be casually destroyed.
Unhealthy attachment means a person struggles to believe in any emotional security, so vulnerability to others becomes dangerous and fearful. In fact, vulnerability is utterly terrifying because it could lead to judgment and abandonment as secret imperfections are revealed. Vulnerability may even lead to outright victimization by those around them. The detached person struggles constantly with worries of abandonment and being forgotten because they don’t believe others really love them for who they are, only for the services they perform. They believe decisions others make will usually conflict with their own needs because the people they love don’t think about them enough to remember their wellbeing, or else they just aren’t important enough to consider. Disagreements and mistakes are often the end of relationships to them because they believe they’ll be abandoned and rejected instantly upon displaying imperfection and will be given no chance to explain or make amends.
In short, a person with unhealthy attachment believes others only love them for the services they perform, that love must be continuously earned, that people will actively fall out of love with them every moment they are not refilling the person’s pleasure meter, and that love can be accidentally destroyed by the slightest mistake.
There are many different attachment styles and attachment disorders, but for the sake of simplicity this book will stay within the realm of non-diagnosed individuals. A person can struggle with attachments without ever meeting criteria for a full diagnosis. Likewise, a person with a severe attachment issue may never be diagnosed.
With that said, people who struggle with unhealthy attachment styles often have, at the very least, attachment wounds which have fundamentally altered the way they connect to other human beings. Experts disagree on exactly when attachment styles become cemented, but studies seem to indicate that attachment develops in infants under 6 months old and continues developing throughout childhood. In fact, some experts argue that attachment styles never stop changing and growing, though it may take more effort to change as the person grows older.
What determines attachment health?
Attachment styles form as a result of the young mind trying to understand one thing: Will I be loved for who I am, or do I have to earn love?
This complicated question is boiled down to a simple black-or-white equation because the young mind is not capable of nuance. At 3 months old, an infant only knows its mother is not responding to its cries. At 3 years old, a toddler doesn’t understand that daddy is hitting him because daddy has alcohol problems. At 10 years old, a little girl doesn’t understand that she’s been abandoned because her parents have mental health issues.
To the little mind, everything that happens is about them. Everything that happens is a direct result of the child’s behavior and quality. Therefore, abuse and neglect and abandonment make the child believe:
“I deserve this.”
“No one will ever treat me better than my parents, and even they couldn’t love me.”
“I will not be loved because I don’t deserve to be loved. But maybe I can earn love if I’m good enough.”
“There is something inside me that others can see, something horrible that makes it so others can’t love me. I don’t know what the bad thing is, so I don’t know what I can’t show people. I need to lock down and keep everything inside so people won’t see this horrible thing and abandon me.”
Any serious disruption in early life can create an attachment wound.
- Divorce, where the family is ripped apart and the child is told “sometimes love just doesn’t last”
- Abuse, where the child learns they can be hurt by anyone at any time and no one will protect them
- Daycare in significant amounts and especially early in infancy, where the child is separated from their parents and must compete with others for attention and love, and where the workers change based on shifts or employment disruptions so the formed attachments disappear
- Parental neglect or emotional distance, where the child doesn’t understand why their parents seem to want nothing to do with them and don’t invest time or emotional energy in the child
All these occurrences can send the message to a child’s brain that they are the cause for their own loneliness and that they are not worthy of being loved. As irrational as it may seem, the child’s brain truly believes the parents would not get divorced and split the household if they could have loved the child enough, or that abuse would not have happened if the child was better behaved.
What changes come from damaged attachment?
Usually, the child sets out on a journey to earn love from others. They become enormously eager to please and cannot say no. They are frequent targets of abuse by others because they’re so desperate for approval and have no one to report abuse to.
Sometimes a detached child develops in the other direction. “If no one can love me, then screw them! I don’t need their love anyway!” The child develops anger issues and avoids connection with others.
Some children may even develop a combination of both styles, avoiding connections with a cold outward persona but then becoming anxious and obsessive over the few connections they do manage to make.
What all these attachment wounds often turn into is a belief that mistreatment and misfortune is earned through behavior. Whenever something bad happens in their life, the child concludes they weren’t focused enough, they weren’t worried enough, and their latent anxiety increases.
They’re also anxious because their belief is that they’re utterly alone in the world. If no one can love them then they possess no emotional security at all. Anything bad can happen at any time and no one will come rescue them.
And finally, the detached child believes they can never truly earn real love because they have this secret evil thing inside of them which will make others abandon them if they relax and accidentally let the secret out.
Abandonment becomes linked to death in the child’s brain. Evolutionary psychology teaches that this occurs because human brains were not formed to survive in modern urban society. Instead, our brains developed for life as it was ten thousand years ago, living in the forest and running from bears. To such a child’s brain, being abandoned by both parents because the child is unlovable means they’re likely going to die alone in the forest, starved or eaten or killed by strangers.
Abandonment is to be avoided at all costs. Shame and humiliation are nothing compared to abandonment, so the person with unhealthy attachment will often cast aside self-respect in a desperate bid to be loved. And when they make a mistake or perceive the other person to be abandoning them, even if it just means their phone calls haven’t been answered in ten minutes, survival protocols click into action.
“You can’t abandon me if I’m the one who rejects you!” the detached person screams as they send a stream of texts ending the relationship.
These initial equations about being loved versus earning love stay buried in the back of the child’s mind into adulthood. Because they’re the foundational building blocks of the detached person’s approach to the entire world, these assumptions are never questioned or even really noticed. The detached person takes these assumptions as gospel truth and approaches every moment of their life according to the implications of their belief that they are fundamentally unlovable.
And then these individuals grow up and get married. The pile up secret expectations. They force their partners to jump through a million hoops. Eventually their partner can’t take it anymore, and it all goes to hell.
This post is an excerpt from my book Slaying Your Fear. Pick up a copy for tips on crushing your insecurity and developing confidence in relationships.
And if you’re looking for additional resources on transactional relationships, check out my whole series dedicated to Transactional Relationships right here.