Attachment Patterns and Highly Sensitive People
Updated: Jan 31
Have you wondered how your relationship patterns developed? Have you considered how you developed the relationship you have with yourself?
While we may not consciously remember what we were like as young children, our early life experiences can have a significant impact on our lives today. As babies, we relied completely on our caregivers (typically our parents) to meet all our needs. Whether we were hungry, tired, or overwhelmed, we expressed our distress through crying. How our caregivers responded to us taught us what to expect from others and how to respond to our own needs.
Types of Attachment
According to attachment theory, our primary attachment bonds set the foundation for how we understand relationships. Our caregivers teach us both how they respond to our needs, but also how we respond to meet their desires. That is, even as babies and children, our survival response is to adapt to our parents’ responses, so they continue to care for us (Aron, 1997). For these reasons, we develop distinct attachment patterns, such as secure and insecure attachments.
A secure attachment develops when we feel safe with our caregivers because they respond appropriately to our needs, such as comforting us when we are distressed. When we need help or reassurance, our parents are emotionally available to us. This teaches us our needs are important, and we can rely on others to support us. We also learn how to develop our inner resources, so we can be attuned and care for ourselves. We are likely to have a secure attachment if we can: trust and seek support from others, have effective communication, know how to regulate our emotions, and have close relationships with others (Mandriota, 2021).
For a variety of reasons, we may have developed an insecure attachment to our parent(s). This may be due to our parents’ own anxieties, raising children similarly to how they were raised (e.g., generational trauma), influence from culture/society on parenting styles, life circumstances (e.g., poverty), being highly sensitive and our parents not knowing how to respond, etc. The following are three main types of insecure attachment styles:
1) Avoidant Attachment
When our caregivers are emotionally unresponsive/reject us when we express our needs, we learn we cannot rely on others for support and may instead become hyper independent. Some parents are neglectful while other parents may have been preoccupied with other priorities, so they did not take the time to understand our emotions/needs. We are likely to have an avoidant attachment if we: avoid/struggle with emotional closeness, have difficulty trusting others, dislike expressing feelings/needs to others, and have a strong preference for independence.
2) Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment
We can develop an anxious attachment when our caregivers inconsistently respond to our needs. It can be confusing when our parents occasionally are responsive and dismissive at other times. Parents can respond in this way, especially if they themselves become overwhelmed and then can seek emotional support from their own children. If this has been your experience, you may have grown familiar with taking care of others and prioritizing others before yourself. According to Mandriota (2021), some common indicators of anxious attachment include: fears of rejection/abandonment, persistent need for validation from others, intense jealousy/mistrust that contributes to reassurance seeking, and ignoring our own needs while caring for others.
3) Disorganized Attachment
When we grow up in environments that were abusive and neglectful, we are likely to have disorganized attachment patterns. Rather than a space of safety, our parents could have been sources of childhood trauma. Understandably, this can lead to our own relationship challenges, such that we can be unpredictable, confusing, and view others this way as well. This can look like wanting connection but also pushing others away out of fear of rejection. Disorganized attachment patterns can look like a combination of avoidant (distant and hyper independent) and anxious (insecure and codependent) attachment styles listed above.
Attachment Styles and Highly Sensitive People
Generally, insecure attachment patterns can contribute to challenges in our mental health that can stem from relationships issues with friends, work, romance, and/or even within ourselves. Additionally, if you have traits of a highly sensitive person (HSP; you can read more here), insecure attachment patterns and its impacts can be additionally harmful. It is likely we do not care for ourselves very well since we tend to treat ourselves the way we were treated.
Take some time to consider if you have been disconnected/neglecting/ignoring your needs. As HSPs, we have distinct needs that can take time to better understand. If consistent with your goals, you can learn to offer the nurturance to your inner child and develop internal resources for yourself as a method of working on your attachment needs.
If you are interested in learning more about your attachment patterns and how this impacts your well-being, you can reach out to us here.
Stay tuned. Our next topic is "Relationship Considerations for Highly Sensitive People."
Aron, E.N. (1997). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Broadway Books.
Mandriota, M. (2021). Here is How to Identify Your Attachment Style
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.