Growing up, I could not articulate why my family felt separate from the outside world. We had all the trappings of a happy, middle class life—a suburban house, two cars, and a dog. We went to church on Sundays, complementing the conservative, Christian education I received at private schools. I earned high grades and praise from teachers, despite the fact that I was always too afraid to speak up in class and made few friends. I was smart, so I felt I should have been happy, but I was haunted by a sense of never being enough. Shame shadowed the walls of my family’s house. It wormed its way between people in unarticulated anger and hurt and resentment while also binding them together in shared sorrow and secrecy.
I did not learn a language for talking about what I experienced for decades. I was living hundreds of miles away from my family in a cosmopolitan city, working in meaningful nonprofit jobs and volunteering with an activist organization that was rapidly growing. I should have been proud of myself, yet even years after abandoning Christianity and its messages of sin and damnation, I was still dogged by shame. Shame prevented me from forming deep friendships with those around me, leaving me with superficial and unfulfilling acquaintanceships. It held me back from fostering loving, supportive romantic relationships, so I repeatedly dated unavailable men.
These factors finally catalyzed a personal crisis. I left an activist organization I had volunteered with for years after a series of major changes turned its culture from welcoming to toxic, and my on-again-off-again boyfriend and I finally and permanently broke up.
“You keep doing the same thing over and over again, whether it’s with an organization or a boyfriend,” my therapist observed. “You keep fighting to try to get what you need, long after you’ve realized you’re never going to get it. And I’m wondering, has there ever been a time when that’s worked for you, maybe in your childhood?”
I thought for a moment before replying, “I don’t think it’s ever worked. But for most of my life, I’ve felt trapped in situations that I can’t walk away from, so I’ve had to try to force them to work for me, even when they don’t.”
“But you’re an adult now,” my therapist said. “You aren’t trapped anymore. You can do something different.”
Then she told me about attachment theory.
Learning How to Get Love: What Is Attachment Theory?
First put forward in the 1960s by John Bowlby, attachment theory posits that children, being dependent on their caregivers, will adapt their behavior to best elicit attention from and proximity to those caregivers, usually parents. Research from Mary Ainsworth demonstrated that when parents are overall consistently warm and responsive to their children’s needs, the children will usually grow up with a secure attachment style. In other words, they will see themselves as agents in their own lives who expect sensitivity and respect from others, who they also treat with care and sympathy.Children whose caregivers react inconsistently—sometimes comforting their children while other times ignoring or rejecting them—will often adopt an anxious (sometimes also called ambivalent or resistant) attachment style. They will often overdramatize their hurt in an attempt to obtain and keep their caregiver’s attention, and even when caregivers do try to sooth them, they have difficultly calming down. In adulthood, they can be overly preoccupied with relationships and tend to ruminate on whether they have unintentionally offended their romantic partners and friends. They can also have difficulty accepting comfort from others while also seeking an unobtainable and unhealthy level of closeness with romantic partners.
If a child cannot reliably expect warmth, affection, or comfort from their caregivers, however, they will likely develop an insecure attachment style. If caregivers are cold and rejecting, their children will likely adopt an avoidant attachment style, in which they will outwardly minimize any signs of distress, even if they feel upset, and attempt to put on a stoic face. They tend to grow up avoiding deep, emotional connections with others and often have trouble forming and maintaining close relationships. Children whose caregivers react inconsistently—sometimes comforting their children while other times ignoring or rejecting them—will often adopt an anxious (sometimes also called ambivalent or resistant) attachment style. They will often overdramatize their hurt in an attempt to obtain and keep their caregiver’s attention, and even when caregivers do try to sooth them, they have difficultly calming down. In adulthood, they can be overly preoccupied with relationships and tend to ruminate on whether they have unintentionally offended their romantic partners and friends. They can also have difficulty accepting comfort from others while also seeking an unobtainable and unhealthy level of closeness with romantic partners.
While children with avoidant or anxious attachment styles have relationships with their caregivers that are far from ideal, they can, at least some of the time, interact with their caregivers in a way that gets their needs minimally met. Developmental psychologists therefore refer to them as having an organized attachment style. For children whose parents, often because of mental illness or poverty or both, are abusive or neglectful, there may not be any organized attachment style that allows them to receive even minimal care, so they adopt a disorganized attachment style. As studied by Mary Main, a disorganized attachment style means that children will often react to their parents as though they are seeking attention, such as holding out their hands to be held, while simultaneously behaving as though they are avoiding attention, such as by walking backwards away from their parents. As adults, they may relate to others with an anxious-avoidant attachment style, meaning that, like those with anxious attachment styles, they may ruminate and become overly stressed in their relationships, while at the same time, like those with avoidant attachment styles, they will shy away from emotional intimacy with others.
Breaking the Silence of Shame with the Language of Attachment Theory
Looking at my life through the lens of attachment theory provided newfound clarity. The persistent shame I carried with me was related to my family’s lack of emotional attunement to my needs as a child, causing me to grow up expecting rejection from others and, as a result, feeling an intense hatred for myself that led me to engage in unhealthy behavior. Like many other adults who grew up with insecure attachment styles—avoidant, anxious, or disorganized—I had no idea how to understand or articulate my own emotions and needs, and I would often dissociate from my feelings. Alternatively, I might become so overwhelmed by emotions that they would paralyze me, as I did not have a role model for handling strong emotions, particularly negative ones, in a healthy way.Likely because of insecure attachments to their own parents, my parents had not been able to give me the kind of warmth and affection that I had needed as a child, though I trust that they meant the best for me and truly loved me. Like all of us, they were products of their generation, their parents’ modeling, their socioeconomic circumstances, and other factors.
Insecure attachments in particular are often generational and related to socioeconomic situations. For example, my paternal grandfather was raised by a mother who was, very likely, severely mentally ill. He was also raised in a Midwestern culture that emphasized hardiness and self-sufficiency, characteristics necessary for dealing with the difficulties of rural living. Stoicism was valued in boys and men, who were only allowed to fully express one emotion—anger. My grandfather in turn influenced my father, who was usually robotic and emotionally shut-off. When he did express his feelings at all, he would burst into erratic bouts of rage, bellowing insults at my mother and me. My maternal grandmother, raised in a strict, working class German Lutheran community, and my maternal grandfather, a first-generation American who grew up in urban poverty, both saw their duty to their children as to provide primarily for basic needs and enforce discipline through corporal punishment. At the time, this type of parenting was considered the best way to raise moral, disciplined, exemplary children. Raised to take on household tasks like cooking and cleaning from a young age, my mother seemed—justifiably—to resent the exhausting “second shift” chores she took on at home after work. Her acrimony spilled out in venting to me as a child about her adult problems at work or with my father—troubles that I, at that young of an age, could not comprehend.
From their perspective, my parents were a vast improvement over their own. They provided me with a middle class life that was—compared to the hardship my grandparents faced—luxurious. When I would object to a spanking, my mother would remind me that her own father whipped her with a belt when she misbehaved, and at least I was spared such a humiliating and painful punishment. My parents were also dedicated to assisting me academically: they sent me to private schools for many years, supported me in my high school extracurricular activities, and funded my college and graduate school education. My parents had to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of higher education on their own (none of my grandparents graduated college) and my parents were determined that I would receive more encouragement and support in my studies than they had.
My parents were, and still are, in many respects generous, kind people, and I am privileged to have had the life that they gave me growing up. My material needs were always met and my academic ambitions were applauded. However, despite my parents’ best efforts, they still passed on their emotional dysregulation, confusion, and bitterness, which left both them and me with a sense of shame and secrecy. Inwardly, we were not as functional or happy as we seemed outwardly, so we had to pretend—both to each other and to ourselves as well as to outsiders—that we were what we appeared to be: a normal, white, middle class, Christian family. We kept hidden my father’s rage, my mother’s anxiety, their frequent and fierce fights, and my teenage anxiety and depression. Growing up this way left me with a profound fear of being found out as well as a sense of shame. How my family behaved behind closed doors was unacceptable, so I assumed that I, as a human being, must be fundamentally unacceptable as well.However, my childhood had not been nearly as bad as that of some of my friends and ex-boyfriends. I knew people with parents who were physically abusive; who were so neglectful that their kids sometimes went days without food; who banished their son from home for coming out as gay; or who passed out from drinking all night and couldn’t be roused the next morning. I had not weathered horrific experiences like these, so I assumed my family was fine and that my persistent shame was the result of my own ingratitude or weakness or some other moral failing. While I never experienced trauma on the level of severe abuse, neglect, or ostracism, attachment theory did give me a framework for understanding my own baffling childhood. It shed light on my difficultly forming and maintaining healthy romantic relationships and friendships as an adult, despite excelling in both school and the workplace. It also allowed me to begin to identify my emotions and needs, better understand myself, and recognize maladaptive patterns and coping mechanisms that were now hurting rather than protecting me. After all, to break old patterns, you first have to name them.
Leveling Up: Bringing Together Attachment Theory and Positive Disintegration
Being someone who has always been intellectually overexcitable, after my therapist introduced me to attachment theory, I compiled a lengthy reading list. It included everything from serious, peer-reviewed psychology journal articles to silly-sounding self-help books like Amir Levine and Rachel Heller’s Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. I also dove into Mario Mukulincer and Phillip R. Shaver’s tome, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change, an authoritative and detailed overview of the psychological research on attachment theory stretching from Bowlby’s initial writings to contemporary findings. Initially hopeful as I began reading the book, I quickly became despondent as I read study after study that concluded that people with insecure attachment styles were more likely to be unhappy in their relationships, more likely to experience loneliness, more likely to raise insecurely attached children, and more likely to be physically unhealthy, among other miserable outcomes. Though people with insecure attachment styles could change and develop an earned secure attachment style (often through a supportive, warm, and empathetic relationship with a therapist, friend or romantic partner) the studies in Attachment in Adulthood seemed to suggest that most people with insecure attachment styles stayed that way. Disheartened and doomed to an existence both too needy and too distant, I gave up reading the book.Around the same time I was discovering attachment theory, a friend of mine (and also the editor of this publication), Jessie Mannisto, recommended that I look into Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration. Initially and admittedly still somewhat skeptical of some aspects of Dabrowski’s work, I did find his theory intriguing in its insistence that anxiety and unhappiness were not necessarily symptoms of weakness or brokenness but rather catalysts for personal growth. The notion of shedding old ideas and former ways of interacting with others and the world to achieve a more profound insight presented a more active and positive approach to personal change. Attachment theory seemed to require the insecurely attached individual to wait, inert like Snow White in her glass coffin, until a magical kiss from a securely attached Prince Charming imparted the hidden knowledge of how to form healthy romantic relationships and friendships. It’s true that sound psychological research shows that seeking out friendships and romantic relationships with securely attached individuals—as well as sessions with a skilled psychotherapist—can provide the best model for insecurely attached individuals to learn to form secure relationships with others. However, Dabrowski’s perspective of a person in flux, always developing and always learning rather than stuck in a static state, changed my perception of myself as I attempted to alter the ways I had previously related to others. Instead of defining myself as inherently broken, I could see myself as disintegrating and attempting to reach a higher level of understanding—of myself as an individual, of my family, and of my past relationships.
In Dabrowski’s terms, as I understand them, an insecure attachment style would be a primary integration. It would be influenced both by a person’s genetic make-up (i.e., Dabrowski’s first factor), which seems to contribute at least somewhat to an individual’s attachment style; and by the patterns of behavior and emotion management that the family demonstrated (the second factor). However, if someone were to undergo a crisis—as I did after a series of unhealthy dating relationships and with a volunteer organization—that individual could find themselves in Dabrowski’s second level, unilevel disintegration, in which they realize that their previous patterns of behavior and their formerly-held beliefs are no longer helping them or holding true—but don’t see a way up and out.
The third level, spontaneous multilevel disintegration, seems to be where I am right now. That’s because I have recognized that alternating between desperate neediness and untouchable aloofness in relationships will only leave me feeling frustrated, empty, and exhausted—but I’m still trying to figure out how to address that. My hope is that by learning to articulate my needs to others, accept their assistance and comfort when they offer it, and distinguish between nurturing and damaging relationships, I will be able to progress through Dabrowski’s third level and begin working my way toward not only healthier relationships but also a life that aligns with my values of compassion, empathy, and justice.
Conclusion: The Journey for Its Own Sake
It seems to me that the Dabrowskian level someone attains is not, in and of itself, as important as their journey—that is, the path of questioning and thinking critically about what they had assumed to be true. For me, that journey includes going to psychotherapy, taking time to recognize and interrogate my own emotions and needs without judgement or self-blame, and finding and fostering friendships with people who do not shame or dismiss me when I voice those needs. I’ve also been investing more time into friendships I formed with individuals from my former activist organization who kept in touch with me even after I left.My journey also included over a year being deliberately single. During that time, I realized that I can be genuinely happy without a romantic partner, though I have begun cautiously dating again to test the maturity I hope I’ve gained in the past year.
At the same time I changed myself personally, my worldview also evolved. In my year alone, I began questioning some of the lessons I learned from our patriarchal, capitalist society, which teaches women that their worth depends on men’s opinions of them—especially of their physical appearance. Women are also implicitly taught that our best hope for security and safety is to rely on an individual partner rather than expecting a social safety net to care for us if we become ill, disabled, or unemployed. Though for many years I’ve been critical of power structures like sexism, since learning about attachment theory, I’ve thought more about our culture’s myth of romantic love. From fairy tales and Disney movies, girls absorb the notion that happiness can only be achieved through marital bliss with one heterosexual partner. This myth, while appearing harmless, seems to reinforce certain inequalities.What would an alternate society look like if it were based on gender equality and communal care rather than atomized, heterosexual, nuclear families? What if women did not depend so much on men or the commercial marketplace for their sense of self-worth? What if we could build communities where people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, and abilities might recognize their interdependence and rely on each other for care, both physical and emotional? What if we could foster not just securely-attached familiar bonds but nurture a securely-attached society? I don’t know if I will ever have concrete answers to these questions, but I suspect the process of exploring the questions will ultimately be more important and more productive than the answers themselves.
In the meantime, as I work toward an earned secure attachment in myself, I may feel as though I’m disintegrating. However, I’m discovering that disintegration can be positive if it leads to new and more effective ways of coping with emotions and interacting with others. I’m realizing that people— and thus the relationships that they enter into with each other—will always be imperfect, so perhaps my goal should be to practice a sense of openness toward others and acquire self-knowledge. Those are two skills that I can spend the rest of my life building.