Yes, we can. But, there are many important considerations to keep in mind.
Attachment conditioning dictates much of how we behave in relationships, view ourselves, how well we explore our world, and how good we are at emotional self regulation (Brown et al., 2016). This conditioning is largely determined very early on between the ages of six and twenty-four months (and to a lesser degree up to three years). The conditioning that takes place at this time occurs at the procedural or implicit level, which is pre-verbal. The implications are that this implicit learning colors our experience like an unconscious lens; being highly determinant of our psychological health and how we view self, other, and world.
Can attachment styles change? Yes, it is possible to heal insecure attachment and to develop better relationships, better emotional self-regulation skills, and the ability to explore what is meaningful to us.
So the next question is ‘How do we change your attachment conditioning?’. If the emotional conditioning of childhood happens at a deep level before the narrative/cognitive mind is fully formed, what can we do about it, as adults? We’ve got to drop down, back into the procedural level of the mind to do the work.
Critically, this is why many forms of talk therapy, such as CBT, often fail to heal deep attachment conditioning. The correction needs to happen at the implicit, experiential, and emotional level, not at merely the cognitive level.
We use guided visualization meditations to bring about corrective emotional experiences (Leslie Greenberg). To achieve this, we first inhabit, feel, and believe the negative schema (belief or view), feeling into the vulnerability, disappointment, and pain of the unmet need of childhood. Our imaginal parents attend to us giving us the safety and permission to feel into our messy experience. Then we experience the opposite of that negative schema by being loved, accepted, received, understood, and attended to by our imaginal parents. This disconfirms the old schema with a new positive one bringing about permanent memory reconsolidation (Ecker et al., 2012).
For effective emotional reconditioning to take place, a practice needs to be systematic, calibrated, and voluminous. In other words, to heal our attachment conditioning we need to do committed practice.
To further clarify, to be systematic, the technique should trigger the insecure schema (felt-sense belief, or emotional learning) and then repattern it with a positive experience that is dissonant with the earlier problematic experience. Examples would be feeling into the felt-belief of defectiveness and then having imagined parents validate the difficulty of the emotion, soothe us, and then convey total joy in our very being.
For a technique to be calibrated, it should deal with your specific difficulties or deficits. If you experienced neglect then your imaginal parent must be interested in and available for you, empathetic, and reliable; you might see them in your mind’s eye watching you with rapt attention, rejoicing in getting to be with you. If, on the other hand, you didn’t experience the freedom to fully develop your independence as a child, your imaginal parent should be trusting and aware of your individuality; they might encourage your explorations, and let you know that you’ll be great at any endeavor you desire. For this reason, it is important to understand attachment theory, the different attachment styles, and how it all relates to you and your particular situation.
And the practice of the technique must be voluminous. To get in touch with your inner child and their emotional pain can be a wonderful, if challenging, thing to do. But to truly reap the transformative benefits of emotional reconditioning, you need to amass enough corrective experiences to bring about the desired changes. Ideally, this would be for thirty minutes a day for an extended period of time, although any time you can commit to practicing will contribute to your growth. As you receive care from your imaginal parents again and again, your inner child becomes more confident, and you will find your unconscious behaviours weakened and replaced with intentionally chosen, healthier behaviours.
Attachment repair is still young and evolving. Although early research suggested that attachment styles are fixed from a young age (18 months), they can be changed. We achieve this change with emotionally corrective experience of memory reconsolidation of feeling seen, cared for, validated, protected, supported and valued which we ‘map over’ the earlier negative felt-beliefs. Through repeating this over and over we move the Internal Working Model (IWM) of attachment from insecure to secure.
Brown, D., & Elliott, D. (2016). Attachment Disturbances in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair, Norton & Company, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00029157.2018.1544438
Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley L., Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation, 2012, Routledge.