Attachment theory describes the early dyadic relationship between caregiver and infant. The relationship serves as the secure base providing comfort, safety, food, soothing, and support which makes exploration away from the secure base possible. The prime attachment period is between 6 and 20 months of age. According to the theory’s founder, John Bowlby, these experiences bring about a theorized “Internal Working Model of Attachment“ (IWMA). It is important to understand how this early attachment conditioning imprints at the procedural level of the mind, well before the narrative mind is fully functional.
I find it helpful to convey attachment conditioning in terms of the questions that it answers for us, namely:
- Is the world safe?
- Are others a source of comfort?
- Can I just be myself and still expect to get my needs met?
- Do I need to modify myself to others in an inauthentic way in order to get my needs met?
- Do others delight in me just as I am?
- Am I a burden?
- Is physical affection welcomed or spurned?
- Are my explorations encouraged or seen as a threat?
- Are others fair and accommodating?
Attachment conditioning forms our foundational model for relationships. It also has profound implications on our ability to emotionally self regulate. Moreover, it largely dictates how empowered we feel around our explorations. Said differently, attachment theory forms the foundation of our psychological development and later personality.
The outcomes of attachment conditioning can be understood as secure or insecure. Insecure attachment conditioning further breaks down into dismissing, preoccupied, and disorganized. A useful illustration for secure vs insecure attachment I take from Dr. Miriam Steele. She said that a securely attached infant when upset or frightened has only one question: “Where’s mommy?” However, the insecurely attached infant when upset or frightened has at least two questions: “Where’s mommy?” and “Is she safe?” or, “What kinda mood is she in?”. “How do I need to present to her in order to get my needs met?”.