What does it mean to have secure attachment, anyway?

Hi!

As I'm facilitating the Attachment Exploration Group that started last week (another one is happening in June!) , I am realizing how often I have alluded to the concept of secure attachment, but haven't spent much time focused directly on the importance of secure attachment--or what it means to embody security in relationships. So let's dive in!

Security is really about knowing in our bodies that we are generally safe, worthy, and loved, and even if we are not getting those messages directly at the moment, they are still true. Security is trusting that discomfort will pass, that difficult feelings and interactions are temporary, and believing that even when circumstances are hard, you are still a worthwhile, lovable, valuable person in the world. I encourage folks to feel into their sense of secure attachment rather than think logically about it. When we conjure up positive, vivid memories, our bodies have a chance to re-experience them and we reap the benefits of the safe experience all over again. When we do this, we also continue to carve out a clear neuropathway toward secure attachment, which helps us significantly in the moments where we feel insecure or disconnected. That pathway supports us in staying regulated rather than being hijacked and redirected to the anxious/avoidant/fearful pathway that we are working to heal.

One of the ways to get more familiar with the felt sense of secure attachment in your body is to try this exercise. If you would rather hear this meditation prompt, you can go here to listen to me read it to you:

Sit comfortably and take some breaths in through your nose and out through your nose. Notice the feeling of your body grounded into your chair, the floor, or the earth. As you breathe slowly, feel your body begin to sink into the chair. Notice any areas of tension or stress and give them permission to rest for a few moments. Once you are feeling a bit more settled, allow your mind to wander to a place where you are able to remember a time where you felt safe. Cared for. Held. Protected. Deeply loved. It can be any time in your life. It could be with a caregiver, a partner, a friend, a pet. What was it about that moment that allowed you to feel so safe? What was happening that allowed your nervous system to relax? As you continue to breathe, notice what shows up as you stay with this memory. Notice what happens in your body. Notice any warmth in your eyes, any tingly sensations in your back or shoulders. You might scan your shoulders, chest, and stomach. What do you notice? What sensations are present that weren't there before? Take the opportunity to continue to experience this feeling of safety and love. You deserve to feel safe and loved. Allow yourself to stay with this memory for a few more moments as you continue to breathe. Take as much time as you need. When you are ready, slowly come back to the present moment.

How was it for you to be with that positive memory for a few moments? How do you feel in your body? What shifted for you? The places where you felt any intense sensations of love, joy, pleasure, or longing are where your secure attachment "feelers" live in your body. The places where we get the warm fuzzies are really important as far as attachment goes. When we stray from security, other parts of our bodies are activated instead. If you tend to feel more anxious in relationships, your energy might live in your chest or your stomach (and you may feel like your breathing is restricted and your stomach is upset often). If you tend to feel more avoidant in relationships, your energy might live more in your head, where you spend a lot of time thinking logically and rationally and staying away from intense emotions if possible.

Knowing where our secure attachment feelings live in our bodies is important. I would encourage you to spend some time noticing those areas more often, regardless of your primary attachment style. The more we focus on creating security, activating our security, and allowing that part of us to be present and vulnerable, the better. Every bit of secure, safe, stable, and consistent energy we can put out into the world is helpful. For all of us. (I also want to note that if nothing happened for you during the meditation or you are unclear about where your secure attachment system lives in your body, it's okay--there isn't anything wrong with you. It's possible that your system is a bit more guarded for good reason, and the more often you practice getting in touch with this system when you are feeling rested, relaxed, and safe, the more likely it is you will be able to access it. You can reach out to me if you have questions about this).

When we feel secure in who we are, in how we are in the world, everyone benefits. As we become secure, we are able to listen deeply, feel our emotional triggers show up, and learn to work with them without losing the solid ground we have created for ourselves. When we are secure, we are able to change our minds. When we are secure, we able to see the world through a sense that includes more than just our own personal experiences; we are able to dive deeper into empathy. We need that right now. Desperately.

Feeling secure doesn’t mean we don’t get triggered. I still notice my emotional triggers all the time. I think I do a better job of being with them for a bit before I respond to them now, but there are still times where I get hijacked and react strongly to my internal experience (my partner can vouch for that). We are all on a journey toward more security because we all deserve to feel calm and safe. What I do differently now is recognize that my experience is based on how I am feeling in that moment--how vulnerable I am, how rested I am, how safe I feel. That doesn't mean my experience isn't real, it just means that my emotional state changes and I need to take that into account when I process interactions I've had with others.

So what does secure attachment really mean in a practical way? How do we know we are feeling secure, experiencing security in a relationship, or developing more secure traits? Here are a few things I've noticed personally:

  • Resiliency. I am able to bounce back when things are uncomfortable. For example, I might be triggered by something my partner says or does, but I am able to come back to a place where I can remind myself that everything is okay and it was unintentional, and essentially it rolls off my back more quickly (side note: it has not always been this way. There have been times in my life where it has taken me actual hours to come back from something tiny in a relationship—but the bouncing back, even if it takes a long time, is still resilience. You’ve got it. We are working to amplify it and support you in feeling relief more quickly). 
  • Awareness. Having the capacity to tune in to our emotions, pay attention to them, and learn more about ourselves is a clear sign of security. The fact that you are reading this right now and are doing the work to heal yourself and improve your relationships is a sign that you have awareness. Moving our awareness into relationship dynamics in real-time can be more challenging, and it's a process--so be patient with yourself.
  • Groundedness. For me, this is the ability to notice what's going on without feeling emotionally hijacked. Slowing the process down enough that I can say “my stomach is hurting. I know that happens when I’m feeling anxious and upset. It happens when I’m feeling abandoned too. I wonder if that’s what’s going on right now” and then expressing my awareness verbally. “I am noticing I’m feeling triggered right now. This happens sometimes when I’m feeling abandoned or afraid. I need a minute to allow this feeling to settle/I need you to put your hand on my back and sit quietly with me for a moment/I need to take a walk and come back in 15 minutes/I really need a hug before we talk about this."

Thank you for reading and for understanding the importance of this work in your relationships and our communities. I am so grateful for you.

Hugs,

Elizabeth

P.S. I want to thank my friend and mentor, the incredibly skilled clinician Patti Elledge, for inspiring this blog post.

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Why You Shouldn't Avoid Avoidants (this is a bit controversial)