Secure Attachment: Feeling Safe, Seen & Soothed
Our relationships shape us throughout our entire life. Our experiences throughout our early childhood especially have a profound influence on who we become and how our brains develop. They create a model, a blueprint, of how our future attachments will work.
Broadly speaking, we either attach to people in secure or non-secure ways. Secure relationships provide mutual rewards and enable us to be differentiated as individuals while still linked to others. Insecure relationships push us to being either rigidly shut down or chaotically overwhelmed.
Dr. Siegel points out in his book, “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain”, that we need to be “seen, safe, and soothed, in order to feel secure.”
Seen – Our inner emotional life is sensed under our behavior. Our caregiver is able to recognize and meet our needs.
Safe – Protected from harm and not terrified by our caregiver.
Soothed – When we feel stressed, our caregiver’s response makes us feel better.
Being seen, safe, and soothed in a reliable way gives a sense of security in our relationship. Over time this security becomes internalized into a state of mind. We feel good about ourselves and our relationships and feel confident that are needs will be met. We are better able to regulate our emotions, attune to and empathize with others, soothe our fears, and be grounded in our sense of morality. You could also look at a secure attachment with your family as being a launching pad into adult relationships.
Seen, safe, soothed, secure. Sounds wonderful. But, what happens if we didn’t have security in our childhood relationships? More often than not people will either become avoidant or anxious in relationships and in rare cases, disorganized. These are known as “attachment styles”.
Avoidant attachment style is a form of insecure attachment stemmed from repeated experiences of not being seen or soothed. You end up feeling disconnected from others and your own emotions. You internalize the idea that you don’t need others because other people can’t give you what you need.
Anxious attachment style is when your caregiver is inconsistent or intrusive. You’re sometimes seen and soothed, but inconsistently. You never know what to expect, so your caregiver isn’t a reliable safe harbor. You might sponge up your caregiver’s anxiety and feelings flooding your own inner world as well.
Disorganized attachment style can occur when your caregiver is terrifying to you. Imagine your fear response getting activated, and the person you run to to keep you safe is the one that’s doing the thing that’s scary to begin with! You can’t go both toward and away from the same person. You end up struggling with regulating emotions, having good relationships, feeling fragmented, and difficulty staying present when stressed.
Fortunately, the promising hope for this research on attachment styles is that a sense of security can happen at any age. If your parents did offer you a secure attachment, you are not doomed to stay in a non-secure attachment style. We can re-learn how to connect with others and know ourselves better. There’s always hope to move from a place of insecurity to security.