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Attachment Trauma: What It Is and Why You Should Know About It

Would it surprise you to know that your relationships with your primary caregivers in infancy and childhood determine, with frightening accuracy, what your relationships will look like for the rest of your life? That is, of course, unless you develop an understanding and awareness of the nature of those relationships and your resultant attachments styles. If you are able to do some deep work around how your primary caregivers did, and did not, emotionally connect with and support you, you will set the stage for much healthier relationships as an adult. And at the end of the day, aren’t healthy relationships the foundation of a happy life? Much more so than through material wealth, the person who has a secure attachment style will have the opportunity to feel safe, loved, creative, inspired, and inspiring. 

So what is an “attachment style”? First coined in 1969 during an experiment called The Strange Situation this term describes “the characteristic way people relate to others in the context of intimate relationships, which is heavily influenced by self-worth and interpersonal trust.” APA Dictionary of Psychology. The four basic categories of attachment style are considered to be secure, anxious, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized, although sometimes other terms such as preoccupied, dismissive, and fearful are also used. 

To find out your attachment style take this free quiz

Attachment Trauma occurs when an infant’s needs for closeness, safety, and support are not met by a caregiver. We often think of “trauma” as exposure to war, violence, or other outwardly dramatic events, but trauma can happen to anyone, and it happens more often than we know. A child whose parents are emotionally absent, depressed, anxious, in addiction, in a co-dependent relationship (due to their own attachment trauma), grieving, has poor boundaries, is psychologically controlling, or physically absent does not have the same rich opportunity to bond as a child whose parent is emotionally healthy and physically present. This lack of bonding, the most essential stage in human development, creates a core belief that we are unloved (even if we intellectually “know” we are), a pathological fear of being alone, and deep-seated shame.

Here are some of the signs of attachment trauma:

  • A tendency to feel shame or guilt
  • A belief that we need to “mask” or act like someone we are not in order to be loved
  • Difficulty regulating emotions/ handling stress
  • Co-dependence/ enmeshment with others
  • Toxic relationships
  • Chronic depression
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Feelings of isolation even within relationships
  • Avoidance of commitment/ long term relationships
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thinking

If attachment trauma to primary caregivers is your origin story, you are destined to replay that dynamic until you understand what happened to you, and how to address it.

I’ll give you an example from my own life.

Raised in a traditional middle-class family with a stay-at-home mom and a gainfully employed dad, it seemed like I had everything a kid could need or want. My parents certainly tried to make sure that I did. That they were suffering from their own unresolved trauma was not something that was understood or discussed and became what I think of as a silent destroyer. It compromised them so severely that their children’s emotional needs fell to the wayside. Food and clothed we were, but emotionally connected and safe we were not.

My parents were drawn to each other, in part, because of complimentary but diametrically opposed insecure attachment styles, and duly made each other and everyone around them miserable.

Both shame-based people, my dad tried to compensate for his low self-esteem by becoming highly narcissistic, and my mom tried to compensate for hers by becoming co-dependent with him. Their toxic dance and the poisonous atmosphere it created was the stuff we kids breathed day and night.

It wasn’t until years after walking away from my own co-dependent, toxic marriage that I could see how exactly I had reenacted theirs, and many years after that, that I understood why. At the root of it for me and people like me is:

  • The lack of a model for healthy relationships
  • The lack of belief that we are lovable
  • A disconnect, either emotionally or physically, from our primary care givers in childhood
  • A lack of a feeling of consistent safety and support in the presence of one or both of our primary care givers
  • The lack of education around our own attachment styles

If you have found yourself chronically isolated or in a string of unhappy partnerships, this is not an accident. Something happened that programmed you to believe this is how things are supposed to be, even if you “know” they really aren’t.

Which leads us to the million-dollar question: what do we do about it?

Well, not to be all “go to therapy about it” but go to therapy! The thing about attachment trauma is that it a)  it generally (though not always) starts in pre-consciousness and b) happens over a long period of time and across lots of relationships, both of which mean there are many layers and complexities that make it hard (though not impossible) to heal on our own.  A good therapist should always think about attachment styles and family of origin (FOO) issues, so if you have attachment trauma, it will be grist for the mill during treatment.

How do you know when you’ve made progress?  Gina Rider in Psych Central’s article What is Attachment Trauma says, “You are on a path of healing when your past becomes information with non-neutral energy, and it doesn’t define you.” She goes on to list signs that you are headed in the right direction:

You feel safe in your body

  • You practice healthy boundary setting
  • You trust your intuition
  • Your behavior is consistent with your values or beliefs
  • You respond, rather than react

I love that because it really sums up the difference between healthy and unhealthy people, and I know, because I have been both. When I look back at who I was in the past, I see that I struggled with every single one of the above categories. Now, though I’m still a work in progress, those categories read like a check list of the things I do to stay healthy.

Something I realize is that old me didn’t even believe that “healthy relationships” were a real thing because I had never been exposed to them. When we are born into dysfunction, and live and breathe it from infancy on, we have zero frame of reference for how things might be different. We unintentionally end up replaying those old scripts from our family time and again in our other relationships. But healthy relational styles do exist, and we can upgrade ours to become one. If we do, those age-old feelings of shame and self-loathing will subside and a sense of self love, empowerment and safety can begin to emerge.

*To learn more about this important and impactful subject read The Human Magnet Syndrome: The Co-Dependent Narcissist Trap by Ross Rossberg.

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