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How secure are you? Notes on Attachment Theory

We are not born with a developed self. As babies we do not know consciously what we need and what we want, not even what we feel. We  learn how to regulate our nervous system and our affect via our primary attachment relationship. Our brains get wired via emotional and sensory interactions with our primary caregiver, and it is through these interactions that we get to know our body and begin to develop a sense of self.

When a baby fusses around, the good enough mom (Winnicott) will try to figure out what is going on for that little being. The baby learns in an implicit way that her actions have certain, if everything  goes well, predictable consequences. The secure base of this relationship helps us to explore the world around us. Through this process we develop our self-agency, and learn that our actions and intentions have an effect and create responses from people around us (Knox, 2011).

Difficulties in developing secure attachment in the first few years of life can interrupt the self-development process. The consequences of these interruptions can leave us with serious relational, psychological, spiritual and physical health problems.

Attachment theory views the sense of self as essentially relational. The unconscious sense of self is formed by internalisation of a relational dynamic between self and other (Knox, 2011).

Here is a little video that explains attachment theory:

Or you can read about it here:

The self experience or attachment states of mind as adults, can be described using the four attachment styles according to McLean (2013):


I am free to ask for help as I am lovable. Others are useful and reliable. I can express emotions openly, and clearly. I value relationships. I have a strong sense of agency.

Dismissive or Avoidant:

I have to do everything myself, others are not helpful or they will reject me. Being needy is shameful. I avoid or minimise feelings. My focus is on being independent, strong, achievements, fun and material success.  My childhood memory is scarce.

Preoccupied or Anxious Ambivalent:

I can’t do it by myself but others are not trustworthy. I feel anxious, angry or blaming. I often feel helpless and hopeless. My memories can be vivid. I am often overwhelmed.


I can’t do it, but others will make it even worse. The ones that should help are frightening or frightened. I often feel dreadful, disconnected, confused, fragmented, bad and afraid.


The research shows that attachment patterns are enduring through the lifespan and transmitted through generations.  The good news is that attachment patterns can be changed via supportive secure relationships and in-depth psychotherapy. Anyone can have as we call it earned secure attachment.

If you relate to the any of the insecure or disorganised attachment states of mind (above), it might be worthwhile to find an attachment informed psychotherapist. To move towards security, therapy needs to be regular, emotional based interaction between the responsive and safe therapist and the client. It is important that therapists have their own therapy and know their own attachment styles (Wallin, 2007).

For example an avoidant therapist might not be best suited to an avoidant client. They might have fun or intriguing, intellectual conversations but the client won’t be able to move forward towards security.

Therapy needs to integrate the emotional and implicit parts of the brain and body system, The use of creative, conversational or somatic, body-based resources can be very effective in the therapeutic relationship (Meares, 2007, Levine, 1997).

While there are many simple online resources to find out your attachment state of mind, the most reliable and validated assessment tool is the Adult Attachment Interview. It can be an expensive and somewhat time consuming adventure to have your AAI done, it can help clearly identify the clinical focus of therapy and possible unresolved traumas and losses (Hesse, 2008). It is especially useful for future or young parents, people in the helping industry, and generally for people who feel they might have some attachment related problems.

I am a reliable coder of the AAI, if you have any questions about it, please shoot me an email.

My hope is that we collectively can move towards more security to ourselves and all others.


Collaborative Formulation: Listening with an ear for attachment, Using markers of attachment to inform collaborative formulation. Dr Loyola McLean (2013).

Hesse, E. (2008). The Adult Attachment Interview Handbook of Attachment (2 ed.).

Self-Agency in Psychotherapy Attachment, Autonomy, and Intimacy Jean Knox,
PhD, MBBS, MRC Psych. (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition (2011).

Schore, A. (2013). The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Meares, R. (2005). The Metaphore of Play; Origin and Breakdown of Personal Being (3rd ed.). East Sussex, England: Routledge.

Levine, P. A., Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. California, USA: North Atlantic Books.

Hesse, E. (2008). The Adult Attachment Interview Handbook of Attachment (2 ed.).

Kathy Brous at

Wallin, D. J. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy New York The Guilford Press



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