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The Link Between Attachment Styles and Mindfulness

May 2, 2014

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The Meadows

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Dr. Jon G. Caldwell, DO, PhD

During a recent trip to Los Angeles California, I was aroused from early morning slumber by an eerie sensation of movement. As the veil of sleep was pulled from my mind, I gradually registered the meaning of the shaking bed beneath me and the groaning structures above me: earthquake!

A shot of prickly energy ripped through my gut and landed in my chest, quickening my heart. Adrenaline sharpened my senses and time seemed to slow as I instinctively made my way to the patio door. I looked out onto the street, half expecting to see creviced sidewalks and toppling buildings. Instead, I saw people nonchalantly walking their dogs and sipping their morning coffee.

Despite the apparent banality of the event for local Angelenos, the earthquake was a hot topic at the airport among people unaccustomed to earth-shaking awakenings. As I waited for my flight, I found myself listening to a conversation between two newly-acquainted women.

The first woman excitedly asked the other, “Did you feel the earthquake this morning?” Leaving no room for a response, she went on, “Wasn’t that something! I mean, have you ever experienced such a thing? I didn’t know what to do – I jumped up and ran around in my nightie like a chicken with its head cut-off!”

The second woman, pulling back a bit from the shared space, cocked an eyebrow and flatly replied, “Didn’t bother me much really. This is L.A. after all – comes with the territory I suppose.” Shifting in her seat uneasily she scanned the terminal while drumming her fingers on the chair’s armrest, “Have you seen a trash can?”

The first woman took hold of the other woman’s arm, causing her coffee to quiver and nearly spill, “I just kept thinking, ‘What will I do if this hotel comes down around me? How will people find me? What will my husband do without me? I mean, he can barely make spaghetti!”

The second woman slowly unhinged her arm from the first and with a shrug said, “I guess if it’s your time, it’s your time.” Slipping out of the chair (and the conversation), she stood up and wandered away while casting a comment over her shoulder, “Never a trash can when you need one.”

As a social scientist, I was fascinated by this exchange. You might be wondering what we can possibly glean from this brief conversation between two strangers? Well, I believe that their interaction can tell us something about their attachment tendencies and their capacity for mindfulness. As it turns out, these two constructs, attachment, and mindfulness are linked by how a person expresses and regulates emotion. Let me explain.

How Attachment Styles Affect Your Adult Life

We are social creatures – we enter life ready to attach to other human beings. In fact, our brains are wired for connection and brain development is utterly dependent on input from the social world. Attachment bonds between children and caregivers are the framework upon which the structures of self-regulation are built. In combination with a genetic endowment, repeated attachment experiences shape the nervous system and lay the foundation for how a person thinks, feels, and relates to others.

Individuals who have experienced caregiving environments characterized by warmth, sensitivity, trust, and safety are more likely to understand and accept their inner experience, express thoughts and feelings openly and moderately, and manage intense emotions in a way that promotes greater well-being. Having experienced some degree of unconditional acceptance and love from another human being, these individuals recognize their worth and value and they have implicitly learned to treat themselves with care and compassion. Often, adults with this kind of relationship history have a secure attachment orientation and they enjoy greater intimacy and satisfaction in their romantic relationships.

On the other hand, individuals who have experienced close relationships marked by inconsistency, unpredictability, criticism, lack of affection, betrayal, enmeshment, abuse, or neglect often develop defensive strategies aimed at protecting themselves from physical and psychological harm while also maintaining some degree of interpersonal connection. Implicitly, these individuals develop patterns of thinking, feeling, and relating that help them to survive their adverse social conditions, but these patterns can become habitual over time and can lead to diminished well-being in the long run. Adults with this type of relationship background often have an insecure attachment orientation.

For example, individuals who have experienced attachment figures who are inconsistently available – partners who sometimes show love and affection and at other times are emotionally distant or abusive – may unconsciously learn to amplify their attachment needs. How might this strategy be effective? By hyper-activating the attachment system, these individuals increase the likelihood that their aloof, distant, and inconsistent partners will respond to their relational needs, even if temporarily. These individuals are thought to have an anxious attachment style (which is similar to the term “love addiction”).

Insecure Attachment

Individuals who are high in attachment anxiety tend to doubt their own worth and desperately fear abandonment. They desire closeness and they cling tightly to relationship partners, even when they are unhealthy. They spend a great deal of time worrying and ruminating about their relationships and they are constantly trying to gain their partner’s affection while avoiding disapproval and betrayal at the same time. They are hypersensitive to relationship threats and can react to perceived threats with strong negative emotion (i.e., anxiety, fear, anger).

In contrast, individuals who have encountered attachment figures who are neglectful, abusive, overbearing, or enmeshing might unwittingly gravitate toward strategies involving deactivation of the attachment system. And why might this be adaptive? When one’s deepest needs for closeness and safety are not met or, worse, are met with harshness or indifference, an individual may tacitly learn to shut down their attachment needs in an unconscious effort to protect themselves by limiting emotional connection and intimacy with others. These folks are said to have an avoidant attachment style (similar to the concept of “love avoidance”).

Individuals who display high levels of attachment avoidance typically find it very difficult to rely on and trust others. They avoid depending on others because they have learned that it is safer to take care of their own needs (“rugged individualism”). Thoughts and feelings that might lead to interpersonal closeness and intimacy often trigger fear and are therefore downplayed or actively suppressed. In contrast to people with an anxious attachment style, individuals with an avoidant attachment style hide their vulnerabilities and suppress their emotions. While this stance discourages connection with others, it can also result in these individuals feeling disconnected from their own tenderhearted feelings.

It’s important to remember that these insecure attachment styles make sense in the context of an unhealthy attachment relationship. In fact, they can be considered an adaptive response to a suboptimal situation – a person’s best efforts to negotiate challenging interpersonal contexts with some degree of intrapersonal safety. These insecure attachment styles develop because at some level they work… at least in the short term. They enable people to maintain a measure of interpersonal connection, while simultaneously protecting themselves against loss and pain.

If insecure attachment patterns persist over time, they can influence how a person thinks and feels about themselves and others (i.e., “Am I worthy of love?” or “Can I trust others to be there for me?”) A person’s attachment patterns can have a profound effect on perspective-taking and how a person moves through the world. For example, these attachment-related patterns can play an important role in how a person: a) copes with life’s challenges, b) approaches loss and disappointment, c) deals with vulnerability and shame, and d) expresses and regulates emotion. Attachment orientations may also be related to mindfulness, which can be defined as the capacity to pay attention to the present moment, with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment. (See my recent article on Precious Presence.)

Attachment Anxiety and Avoidance

With this information in mind, let’s return to the story of the two women in the airport. When discussing the earthquake, the first woman displayed intense emotion and she seemed to accentuate some of the potential threats. She focused on her vulnerabilities and her need for support and help. In fact, one could even say that she seemed to envision herself being abandoned by the world under a pile of rubble. This cognitive-emotional style is often associated with attachment anxiety.

In contrast, the second woman showed little if any emotion about the matter (although her body language clearly displayed anxiety and fear). In fact, she seemed very uncomfortable with the first woman’s display of emotion and efforts to connect and she vigorously avoided both. As a way of maintaining safety, she erected a facade of invulnerability, as if to say, “death, loss, separation…no big deal.” Of course, this cognitive-emotional style is consistent with attachment avoidance.

So, one can make inferences about the attachment styles of these two women, but what about their capacities for mindfulness? To my mind, this is a very interesting question! Despite the apparent differences in cognitive-emotional style, both women had trouble talking about the earthquake in an open, curious, present-oriented, and mindful way. The first woman attempted to move into her experience of the earthquake, but she quickly became overtaken by ruminative thoughts and intense emotions. The second woman appeared to have meaningful thoughts and feelings on the issue but actively moved away from her own experience. In the end, both women struggled to connect with each other and, in a mindful way, with their own life experiences.

Attachment Orientation and Mindfulness

Recently, my colleague, world-renowned attachment researcher, Phil Shaver, and I published an article in an international relationship journal called interpersona that examined the connections between attachment orientation and mindfulness. We evaluated nearly a hundred young adults and asked them questions about their attachment style, patterns of thinking and feeling, and their capacity for mindful awareness in everyday life. We found that people with a secure attachment orientation reported the highest levels of mindfulness, people with an anxious attachment style reported lower levels of mindfulness, and people with an avoidant attachment style reported the lowest levels of mindfulness.

What was particularly interesting is that people with attachment-related avoidance and anxiety had trouble practicing mindfulness for different reasons. People with an anxious attachment style indicated that they tended to ruminate a lot. That is, they tended to dwell on negative themes and they were prone to excessive amounts of worry and obsessional thinking. They reported that their tendency to ruminate made it hard for them to focus and manage their attention. It was the combination of rumination and poor attentional control that contributed to their problems with mindfulness.

On the other hand, people with an avoidant attachment style had fewer problems with rumination, but they did tend to suppress unwanted thoughts. They indicated that they frequently avoided or didn’t think about things that might be distressing to them. For individuals with an avoidant attachment style, the tendency to actively suppress unwanted thoughts was associated with less control of attention, and these two characteristics both contributed to lower levels of mindfulness.

Again, rumination and thought suppression are responses that can be useful in the context of an insecure attachment relationship. For people with an anxious attachment style, rumination helps to hyper-activate the attachment system and serves the purpose of keeping an inconsistent relationship fresh in the mind, while also guarding against strong fears of abandonment. For people with an avoidant attachment style, suppression of unwanted thoughts is part of a deactivating strategy aimed at keeping attachment-related threats out of awareness so that interpersonal distance and safety can be maintained.

However, as illustrated by this research, these attachment-related patterns of thinking and feeling are associated with undesirable consequences in other contexts, like difficulties in managing attention and practicing mindfulness in daily life. In an insecure relationship, rumination and thought suppression can be protective in some ways, but they can also leave a person with less capacity to effectively manage negative thoughts and emotions and to practice mindful awareness of his or her own experience. Development and maturation always come with trade-offs – short-term benefits can have long-term consequences.

For many people who have experienced relational trauma and attachment insecurity, there comes a time when this trade-off doesn’t make sense and they become unable or unwilling to continue making the same sacrifices. Sometimes it takes dramatic changes in a person’s close relationships, like separation or divorce, before the habitual attachment-related patterns can shift. Other times, life intervenes in challenging ways and the old patterns just don’t seem to work anymore, on any level. Whatever the impetus for change, often a point is reached where the relationship patterns that were once protective and adaptive become a barrier to realizing a deeper connection with oneself and others.

It turns out that mindfulness and self-compassion may be powerful ways to improve the insecure attachment patterns from our past by wholeheartedly stepping into the present moment (see the upcoming third article in this series). Cultivating a practice of kindhearted presence can improve our connection to our true selves and lead to a greater sense of contentment and peace. Acceptance and compassion for the life that is here results in less need for fearful thinking, rumination, and avoidance of our thoughts and feelings. Gradually, with heart-full practice, it becomes easier to be at home with ourselves. The capacity to be with oneself in a nonjudgmental and loving way can open the door to healthy relationships and greater intimacy. It is possible – don’t give up.

About The Author

Dr. Jon G. Caldwell, DO, Ph.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist and clinical researcher specializing in the treatment of psychological trauma and addiction. He is a lead psychiatrist at The Meadows and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Arizona. His approach to healing has been heavily influenced by his graduate work at the University of California, Davis in human development and by contemplative teachings and practices like mindfulness and loving-kindness. He has published a number of articles on childhood maltreatment, attachment theory, emotion regulation, and mindfulness. Dr. Caldwell is a noted international speaker and trainer on these and other topics. He resides in Arizona with his gurus, his wife, and two children.