How can attachment theory and attachment styles help us better understand why we show up in our relationships the way we do? In this episode, we explore this + the highs and lows of doing the work to move from insecure to more secure attachment in relationships.
In this episode, Janice gives a brief overview of attachment theory and the 4 attachment styles. Then she and her guest Melissa Vona share about their personal stories doing the work to move from anxiously attached tendencies to more secure attachment in relationships – including the heartbreaks, trauma-healing, deep inner reflection, and moments of self-empowerment along the journey.
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Intro + attachment styles
Hey everyone, what’s going on? Welcome back to the Soul’s Work Podcast. I’m your host, Janice Ho. And I am super excited to share with you this episode and conversation with my guest and friend Melissa Vona on attachment styles. This was such a deep, vulnerable conversation with Mel – listening back while I was editing the episode, I just felt really grateful for her openness to share about her relationship experiences and healing process. It helps me know that I'm not the only one who has gone through these kinds of struggles, and having her on the episode helped me to open up on a topic that I don’t know that I really wanted to do alone. So, a very heartfelt thank you to Mel.
Before I jump into my actual convo with Mel, I want to give a little bit of background on attachment theory and attachment styles, in case it’s not familiar to you. ‘Cause it’s gonna help make more sense of what Mel and I share. And then we’ll get into our own personal experiences doing the work to move from more anxious attachment tendencies in relationships to earning secure attachment. And it’s still absolutely a work in progress for both of us, but it’s been really uplifting to see both of our journeys doing the hard work to break long-standing relationship patterns that don’t serve us and to learn new ways of doing things so that we get to experience more securely attached relationships.
Alright, so what is attachment theory, what are attachment styles? Here is as concise a description as I could find online, this is from mindbodygreen.com. So, “A person's attachment style is their specific way of relating to others in relationships. According to attachment theory, first developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, attachment style is shaped and developed in early childhood in response to our relationships with our earliest caregivers. Essentially, our adult attachment style is thought to mirror the dynamics we had with our caregivers as infants and children.”
So, I’m going to now share some descriptions about the different attachment styles, and where there isn’t a secure attachment, I’m essentially speaking to what is childhood or developmental trauma. So, I want to just give a gentle reminder to please take care as you listen in. And that the invitation is always to pause or put aside the episode entirely if that’s what you need to do for your self-care, okay?
Alright, so there are four types of attachment styles that the literature usually talks about. And I’m summarizing here from some of the content that Silvy Khoucasian has on her Instagram account @silvykhoucasian as well as what Diane Poole Heller has on her website, at dianepooleheller.com. I’ve learned so much about attachment styles and boundaries from Silvy, and I really appreciate her nuanced approach on both topics. And the book by Diane Heller Poole called The Power of Attachment is a great read that weaves some of the trauma literature into the conversation. I’ll link to their stuff in the show notes.
So, one attachment style is called the anxious attachment style – you might also hear the terms ambivalent or preoccupied attachment style. And people with anxiously attached tendencies might have experienced very inconsistent parenting growing up – meaning, their caregivers might be really present and attuned to them one moment, and then not attuned to them at all the next. And this intermittent reward can lead to the child developing an obsessive focus on the ‘other’ and an under-focus on the self. And the caregiver may respond to the child mostly when their signal cry becomes loud, extreme, or when the child acts out or is ill.
So, as adults, these folks might often be on high alert for external threats to their relationships, they might experience fears of being abandoned; struggle to communicate their needs clearly. And they may ignore caring behaviors because they learned that keeping that signal cry or negative focus on is linked to survival.
By the way, we also want to remember that while there are these challenging aspects of experiencing insecure attachment tendencies, there can also be gifts associated with them – like, these folks with the anxious attachment style can be very attuned to others, really sensitive, and empathic.
Okay, second, the avoidant attachment style – sometimes called the avoidant-dismissive attachment style – is where “Parents are tuned out, not present, neglectful, or rejecting because of their own attachment injury, work commitments, physical illness, mental illness, or due to familial restrictions and challenges. The child is left to their own devices too much of the time without attunement. Their needs are often not seen or met.” That’s from Diane Poole Heller’s website.
So, people with avoidantly attached tendencies tend to struggle with accessing their emotions. They might be a bit of the “Lone Wolf,” and highly independent, but sometimes to the detriment of forming deeper connections with others. They may find it difficult to ask for help or support when needed, because they had learned that their needs would often not be met. And because they learned to shut down that more feeling/emotional side, they can very much be in their left-brains, highly rational. This can lead to great things, like being very task-focused and getting the job done. And also, when they are able to find access to their right brain, which is more relational, perhaps through their own healing process, they get the best of both worlds.
Third, the fearful-avoidant attachment style – a.k.a. disorganized attachment – may develop because the person had a caregiver who was intrusive, abusive, or highly misattuned. That could include, by the way, that the caregiver themselves were really fearful, perhaps due to their own traumas. And so whether it was that and/or the child experienced the caregiver as scary because they were, say, abusive, the child then might not have felt safe to reach out, they might have felt afraid or unsure of what was going to happen if they did, how would their caregiver respond to them?
So, folks with strong fearful-avoidant attachment tendencies can often have a mix of anxious and avoidant tendencies. On one hand, they might really desire closeness in their relationships, but once they start to get more attached to the person, they might experience a lot of anxiety because that triggers the fears and mistrust from those earlier childhood experiences. And so, they might then pull away, which is more of the avoidant tendency. So, with healing these attachment wounds, or learning skills to mitigate the disorganized adaptation, a person is usually a great protector of self and others and very attuned to safety.
Okay, and last but not least, there’s the secure attachment style. People with securely attached tendencies likely had primary caregivers who were attuned to their needs and responded when they, as a child, wanted warmth, connection, and physical contact – and the caregivers did so enough times to give the child a deeply grounded sense of safety, connection, and love. And if the caregiver were to make mistakes, as humans do, they would be attuned enough to notice and then make the repairs needed to restore the connection. Also, these caregivers likely allowed the child to explore and develop autonomy while still being available as a “home base” for when the child needed to reconnect for security.
And so, as an adult, folks with strong securely attached traits tend to have that healthy kind of autonomy, they’re likely more trusting and collaborative as well as sensitive to others, while also being attuned to their own needs and not neglecting themselves.
So, it’s really important to remember that this isn’t about boxing ourselves or others into one specific style or another. This is not the be all, end all or the ultimate truth of who we are. Like, these kinds of frameworks and theoretical models are really meant to be potentially helpful guides to better understand people’s behaviours and patterns. But they’re never going to be able to fully capture all the nuances and complexity that make up one individual. And that includes the fact that we might more strongly identify with a particular attachment style in one relationship, but not so much in another relationship. Or within that same relationship, we might find that our attachment style shifts from one to another depending on the situation, or maybe over time as the relationship evolves.
Okay, so that is a super quick overview. There is so much more info out there on attachment that also provides strategies for how we can navigate the challenges that might come with our particular attachment tendencies, or the challenges that tend to arise in certain pairings of different attachment styles – like the anxious and avoidant-dismissive pairing, which is quite common. I’ve definitely experienced that relational dynamic a lot in my life – and Mel and I talk about that in this episode – and it can come with a lot of challenges in terms of what can feel like or actually be conflicting needs, as well as different ways of handling conflict and communication.
And so, besides Silvy Khoucasian and Diane Poole Heller, here’s a few resources for y’all to consider, if you want to learn more. I took two online courses by Heirloom Counseling, one on understanding the avoidant attachment style, the other on the anxious attachment style. I thought the avoidant attachment one was especially good, it really helped me to better understand and have compassion for folks who tend to have avoidant tendencies, and learn ways to be in better relationship with them if that is something I’m striving for.
There’s, of course, the seminal book in this area of study called Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller. I love the book Polysecure by Jessica Fern. Although it does kind of focus more on folks who are exploring or practicing consensual nonmonogamy, there is so much good stuff in there even for individuals in monogamous relationships. Because it’s really about building secure attachment no matter what relationship structure you’re in. And the first maybe three chapters describes attachment theory as well as trauma in, I found, a really easy to understand way.
I’m sure there’s more great resources out there. But hopefully these ones are a helpful start, I’ll link to them in the show notes for this episode on thesoulsworkpodcast.com.
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All right, so it is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Melissa Vona. She is many things, among them a beekeeper with a business called Forest Fairy Apiary that practices ethical, sustainable, organic beekeeping with “the ladies” – i.e., her bees – and makes raw, unpasteurized honey. Mel has been in the farming scene for the past 6 years. With that comes a background in horticulture therapy and herbalism. This year, she’s working on a natural medicine line, herbal tea line, and skin care line made from the natural ingredients that she grows. You can follow Forest Fairy Apiary on Instagram @forestfairyapiary to learn more. Mel is also an amazing hairdresser, certified yoga alliance instructor, and a Thai Massage and Indie Head Massage practitioner.
And I know Mel through our connection with the farm that I live on, she’s one of the farm business members. And it’s been so amazing to get to know her within that community, to share food, laughs by the fire, and chats about life and relationships, like the one you are about to hear right now. On that note, let’s dive into my conversation with Mel. Enjoy.