Insecure attachment can greatly complicate our relationships, friendships and parenting, even all areas of our lives. Viewing attachment styles as comprised of parts of the mind with the help of Internal Family Systems (IFS) can help clarify the intricacies of avoidant, anxious and disorganized attachment styles and what they actually boil down to inside of us, also helping to heal this trauma.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Based on John Bowlby’s attachment theory, now widely used in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy, we are all thought to have one of four attachment styles. None of them are set in stone or “bad”, some just add more challenges to your life. Sometimes when individuals with different attachment styles interact, it may feel like the parties are conversing in a different language, when everyone is just trying to get their basic human needs met.
If your early childhood is emotionally secure — a caregiver is present, attuned to your needs and soothes you when called for — you will likely grow up securely attached, which encompasses 50–60% of people. You are able to commit to a partner (without smothering them) and can handle things such as conflict or your spouse needing more or less space than you do.
Lacking that emotional security in your early years can lead to a type of insecure attachment. This can show up as e.g. being “clingy” (anxious attachment) or aloof (avoidant or dismissive attachment) in relationships — and clingy people often find themselves attracted to aloofness and vice versa, complicating things further. In other words, if you weren’t sure you could rely on your caregivers, even as an adult you may fear your partner is about to leave you any moment and become preoccupied with that (anxious attachment is also called preoccupied attachment). Avoidant attachment tends to associate with more severe trauma than anxious attachment — instead of fearing your parents wouldn’t be there for you, you knew they wouldn’t be.
Attachment trauma can ensue without any abuse. As attachment styles are primarily formed in early childhood, the person may also lack memories directly related to it. Postnatal depression or parental bereavement in the first two years of life can give rise to insecure attachment in the child, who might not recall any maltreatment or neglect. Even conditions during pregnancy, such as prenatal depression, are now considered to potentially play a role in attachment foundation.
While anxious and avoidant attachment styles can result from parents simply being “out of tune” with their child, abuse eliciting fear in the child (and possibly also caregivers being dissociated) may lead to disorganized attachment, also called fearful-avoidant. It combines neediness with a strong desire to withdraw, provoking a chaotic pattern of relations. It’s not the same as having anxious patterns in some relationships and acting avoidant in others, but more like enduring both simultaneously. This type covers just a few percent of people.
Disorganized individuals crave affection, but can’t take it, or may leave their partner preemptively to avoid being dumped. They may get diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is unfortunate, as it’s all about developmental trauma and wounded parts that can be healed, not a disordered personality.
New attachment wounds can develop in adulthood, but they’re usually not as overarching as our attachment style, formed in the early years. All attachment trauma is healable, which is discussed near the end of this article.
What Is IFS?
Internal Family Systems was developed by family therapist Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. In recent years it has rapidly gained popularity for a multitude of reasons. IFS can be used to treat simple and complex trauma, addictions, many types of mental health conditions as well as everyday issues like procrastination and perfectionism. IFS takes into account the person’s current situation (such as systemic injustices) and doesn’t pathologize or call anything maladaptive. In contrast to most types of psychotherapy, in many cases IFS can be practiced as self-therapy or with a peer, though severe traumas may be best left to professional IFS therapists.
The key concept of IFS is that our minds are comprised of parts, kinds of subpersonalities, which make us the incredibly complex and fascinating beings we are. Parts are why we sometimes act in ways “uncharacteristic” to us, why we may do things we don’t want to do (as with addictions, bad habits and arguing) or don’t do the things we want to do (like going to the gym or expressing our boundaries). Most parts have developed in our childhood and may be mentally stuck there, viewing the world through the lens of a child. Using IFS, we can contact these parts, hear them out, comfort them and solve many issues that way.
There are several other types of psychotherapy that rely on the concept of parts. The main thing that sets IFS apart from most of them is the concept of Self, which is outside of any part and the cornerstone of therapeutic work. When you are in Self, not blended with any part, certain positive qualities like curiosity and compassion naturally arise. Even though alcoholism or withdrawing emotionally may have ruined many things for you, from Self you are able to appreciate the parts behind these issues or at least meet them with curiosity.
Underneath all other issues, everyone has a Self, regardless of their attachment style, the severity of their trauma or any mental illnesses. The qualities of secure attachment do not stem from parts but Self, though that doesn’t mean securely attached people are always in Self or cannot have any tricky parts. Having access to Self makes it much easier to heal parts and provide an inner secure attachment figure to them. Trauma can make this more challenging, though even some heavily traumatized individuals quickly learn to get into Self, at least temporarily.
One way to access Self is to ask the currently present part (e.g. anxiety, frustration or self-criticism) if it is willing to step aside for a bit to let you access Self. And usually they do oblige! This may seem perplexing: I can ask my anxiety if it would go away and it does, how is that even possible? Because you’re not wishing for a part to go away, as we so often do, you kindly ask it to step back for a moment (unblend) for a good reason. If you discover another “negative” emotion underneath, you can similarly inquire if it would agree to do the same.
Attachment Insecurity from an IFS Perspective
Attachment styles are often viewed as labels, that you either are securely attached or not, but attachment isn’t about having one avoidant or anxiously attached part. Instead, it’s a network of dozens of parts in a complex interaction, which may form constellations that have you act avoidant in some situations and preoccupied in others. Even the most securely attached person likely exhibits some needy or avoidant traits. (Someone with dissociative identity disorder can certainly have alters with distinct attachment styles, but the alter would likely be comprised of different types of parts.)
In IFS, parts are normally divided into three types: managers and firefighters are types of protector parts guarding exiles that carry pain. Managers have more rational approaches to self-soothing, while firefighters fight fire with fire and may escape into addictions or even self-harm. Personally, I’ve often found the way structural dissociation theory categorizes parts more helpful. This system divides trama-related parts into five types: fight, flight, freeze, fawn/submit and attach.
Fight parts can be aggressive, judgey, paranoid or controlling, but may also direct their vitriol inwards. Flight parts fear commitment and flee into addictions and other escapism. Freeze parts feel numb, detached and scared. Fawn parts are ashamed, people-pleasing, conflict-avoidant and lack boundaries. Attach parts feel needy and seek comfort in others. Everyone, regardless of their attachment style (and whether they have actual dissociation or not), likely has all types of parts, as well as ones that don’t fit this categorization, just in different combinations.
As could be expected, people with anxious attachment tend to have strong attach parts and often also fawn parts, which may be willing to compromise on almost anything to maintain relationships. These attach parts can be very triggering for avoidant individuals, for whom fight, flight and freeze parts dominate, though they may also have prominent fawn parts. And unfortunately, fight and flight parts set off anxious people, creating a vicious cycle.
Avoidant attachment is also called “dismissive-avoidant” and it often comes with a markedly angry and judgmental side. Some avoidant people appear more distant and cold, having strong flight and freeze parts. Others can be warm and social, yet with ruthless criticism bubbling underneath, coming off dismissive rather than aloof. Anger and strong judgment both originate from fight parts.
Disorganized attachment may fluctuate between all types of parts, but freeze tends to be particularly dominant, and they even get triggered by their own attach parts. Their system is heavily built on highly reactive firefighter parts. Anything that could be perceived as even slightly off in a relationship may spark massive alarm signals. Often the only way for a disorganized person to manage this hurt in relationships is by attempting to sink into a constant freeze.
Shared Patterns in Insecure Attachment
In many ways, avoidant and anxious people seem like opposites. This is particularly obvious in the ubiquitous avoidant/anxious pairings, often featuring cat-and-mouse pursuits that serve as the cornerstone of romantic fiction and film in the West: will they or won’t they. From the perspective of drama, a relationship between two securely attached people would be a real yawner in comparison. Yet those with different forms of insecure attachment also have a surprising amount in common.
In IFS theory, “The 8 Cs” are eight qualities that emerge from being in Self. These are Compassion, Curiosity, Courage, Clarity, Creativity, Connection, Confidence and Calm. However, parts can also mimic these qualities. E.g. freeze parts may resemble equanimity or tranquility, while judgmental parts may believe themselves to represent confidence, courage or righteousness.
One particularly common pattern in attachment insecurity is parts that mimic compassion. There are various definitions for empathy and compassion, in psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and religious traditions (as well as different kinds of empathy recognized in psychology). It’s commonly asserted that if you feel compassion for someone, you will also feel their pain. For many people with insecure attachment, this is a major problem: they may feel others’ pain so strongly that it becomes unbearable.
This is not empathy or compassion. It’s parts reacting to trauma and parts making others’ pain about themselves, which often leads other parts to resent this person and spin stories about them. From Self, you naturally feel compassion for yourself, your parts and other people, yet their suffering does not trigger or overwhelm you or feel like a burden. In this headspace, you project authentic caring and the problem doesn’t become about you.
Another common compassion mimic is rescuer parts, which can be found in people with all insecure attachment styles. These are parts of the psyche that want to fix or save others. Yet what having these parts feels like is being a deeply compassionate person burning to help others. This can be true, too, but deep down these parts’ motivations are not about altruism but control. It can turn quite ugly if the other party isn’t keen on being controlled or doesn’t appreciate the proposed solution.
Psychologist Jay Earley discusses the polarization of people-pleaser (fawn) and passive-aggressive (fight) parts in his IFS book Self-Therapy, Vol. 3 (pp. 193–197). The people-pleaser dishes out promises, while the passive-aggressive part resents these offers and believes it must have been forced into them (because “it” didn’t make those promises, it was another part!). The resentment can make it view the other party as controlling or manipulative. This is a highly destructive pattern that may sound obviously avoidant, but I’ve encountered it with anxious people, as well.
Other Factors Playing a Role
Attachment isn’t just about the types of parts in your system, however. No matter your attachment style, you’re likely to have e.g. multiple attach parts and fight parts. The relations between parts as well as parts and the Self make a big difference and parts also interact with your current circumstances.
In dissociation, trauma is “split off” from consciousness so as not to feel unbearable, a stronger form of compartmentalization than just exiling a part. This provides a vital survival mechanism particularly in cases of continuing maltreatment, e.g. living with abusive or neglectful caregivers while attempting to behave in a way that minimizes their harmful actions. Those with disorganized attachment tend to dissociate heavily, though this is also a common pattern in avoidant people and found in anxious attachment, as well.
Dissociation refers to two somewhat different but related phenomena: “spacing out” (which may also be experienced as derealization, confusion or fogginess), and compartmentalization, which may not be noticed consciously. The former is usually caused by a single freeze part producing distraction to prevent the person from going anywhere near the trauma, while the latter is more about parts (typically a large number of them) becoming disconnected from each other. When severe enough, this is known as dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly multiple personality disorder, but milder forms are very common. The actual attachment trauma may also be dissociated away, such as blocking out avoidant or clingy traits or using dissociation to gain the needed space in a relationship.
Other factors that may be involved include the parts’ age (how old they think they or you are), how extreme they are with their beliefs, how strongly they’re stuck in the past and how strongly polarized with other parts. Whether you get very blended with parts or are able to be in Self at least partially has a huge impact on how attachment patterns play out.
Someone, regardless of their attachment style, might have e.g. a part that believes their partner owes them consolation every time they feel bad. Depending on the person’s inner dynamics, there are many possible scenarios that can result. A securely attached individual with access to Self could view it as a belief they have, which may not be fair or true. This is what happens when a part is active but you are not fully blended with it, so you are able to question its perspective.
Another person could become completely blended with their “you must comfort me” part. Someone with anxious attachment could feel ashamed and inconsolable, while an avoidant person might perceive they were wronged and erupt in rage. If the part was more dissociated, it might show up as feeling lonely and dejected (anxious), or resentful (avoidant) without being aware of why, and possibly spin a story to explain this reaction. Someone with even more dissociation might just start believing their spouse is a bad person.
It’s also possible for parts to mistake someone in your life for your parents. You’ve probably heard of daddy issues and people looking for mother figures, and some parts want to pretend a partner or friend is your mom or dad, but sometimes a part will actually believe that this is the case. (Parts’ ideas of reality can be complex and confusing and this isn’t as icky as it may sound.) And as bizarre as this perhaps seems, parts can even be confused about who you are. You might have a part that’s convinced you are your abusive mom or dad!
Attachment trauma also interacts with one’s overall environment, such as the actual safety of current circumstances and how one’s attachment style is perceived. Studies have found different cultures to mostly have surprisingly similar rates of different attachment styles, yet some cultures as a whole are quite “avoidant” and others much more “anxious”. E.g. the US society is very individualistic to the point of glorifying avoidance in some contexts, such as dating, which would be more prone to creating strong parts ashamed by “clinginess” than a very collectivistic Asian culture.
There is a curious pattern I call attachment introjecting which involves internalizing patterns from partners’ or friends’ attachment trauma in adulthood (an introject part is one trying to mimic the behavior of another person). As avoidant people tend to be more dominant and more likely to be idolized, this is usually dismissive/avoidant patterns, which can be absorbed by avoidant and anxious individuals alike.
Other Aspects of Attachment Style
Often attachment style is only thought to apply to romantic relationships, but it also plays a role in friendships, parenting, other family relations and even situations that are not directly interpersonal.
Anxiously attached people tend to struggle with low self-esteem, experiencing a lot of shame and a sense that there’s something deeply wrong and flawed about them. The criticism they receive from avoidant individuals and avoidant areas of society (like the dating scene) may intensify these parts, e.g. if a partner labels them clingy or “too intense”. These feelings often coexist with other types of inner critics. The shame about being needy can lead to dissociating away attach parts or adopting seemingly avoidant strategies to reduce clinginess, like keeping a new partner at an arm’s length to not smother them.
Avoidant people tend to be much more critical of others. They may idolize other avoidants, but generally believe themselves to be superior to anxious and securely attached people. This doesn’t mean they can’t also have inner critics or even an overall negative self-image, however. An extreme example is narcissism. A narcissist is often suggested to “love themselves excessively” but is more accurately described as someone who never learned to love themselves as a result of childhood trauma and tries to get it through seeking validation from others. (Curiously, there has been a great discrepancy in studies as to whether narcissists have been more likely to have avoidant, anxious or disorganized attachment.)
People with an anxious attachment style are often overall quite anxious and fearful and may come off as the chronic worrier type. The world can seem like a very dangerous place to them. Many avoidant individuals also have anxiety, but may be better at hiding and suppressing it, especially as they prefer dealing with it themselves rather than seeking support from others. The anxiety can seem to mirror the attachment pattern: avoidants may deal with nagging unease that is trying to distract them from things, while those with anxious attachment have anxiety begging for their attention.
Addictions also seem to follow a similar pattern. There is a dysregulated nervous system at the core, but for avoidant people, addictions are generally about escapism and distraction. As such, research has generally found those with avoidant and disorganized attachment to be the most addiction-prone. When anxiously attached people develop addictions, they may involve trying to get their needs met — e.g. food is for emotional soothing, shopping is an attempt to increase status and video games help satisfy social needs.
However, addictions are complicated and comprise many different parts, with shame and firefighter parts trying to suppress it usually playing a major role. Some studies have suggested that heroin addicts may be more likely to be disorganized, those misusing cannabis are likelier to be avoidant and alcoholics tend towards anxious attachment, but the evidence isn’t clear-cut. Avoidant escapism can also manifest in seemingly positive ways, such as spiritual practice with the goal of leaving the world and other people behind, a form of spiritual bypassing.
Securely attached people tend to be more skilled at self-regulation and managing impulses and more optimistic, patient, trusting and forgiving, qualities that emerge from Self. Parts can have similar traits too, but they often take them to unhealthy extremes — a fawn part quick to forgive anything may not be very helpful, while parts that believe things will obviously always turn out well for you are more characteristic of narcissism.
In general, securely attached people tend to have a more realistic view of both themselves and others. Projection is a common aspect of attachment insecurity, especially avoidance. It refers to seeing things in others that aren’t really there, typically your own qualities. Projected traits are often unpleasant — either flaws you deny having or issues that you are well aware of and believe others to possess too — but can also be positive.
Projection usually originates from the interaction of several parts involving exiles or dissociation. If you block out some of your own unfavorable qualities and possibly even events that have taken place between you and another person, it’s much easier to view them in a negative light. Avoidant or disorganized attachment can also lead to lovebombing, expressing fondness in an effusive, idolizing fashion early on, which later turns into devaluation, even demonizing. Lovebombing is often viewed as an intentional control tactic, but is more likely to stem from attachment trauma and dissociation.
Healing Attachment Trauma
If you suspect you or your partner might have insecure attachment, even being aware of it and what kinds of major parts it could entail can be transformative. The IFS slogan is “All parts are welcome” and it’s incredibly helpful to learn to appreciate the good intentions of all your (and others’!) parts, even if they have wreaked havoc in your relationships or have been shunned by friends or partners. Some of your parts likely hold perspectives about yourself and others that are not true. Believing ideas stemming from attachment trauma is rarely constructive, and learning to question them goes a long way, while inner critics judging and shaming such parts isn’t going to solve the problem.
Discussing all this with your partner or close friends can be illuminating and healing. IFS is also well-suited for communication: talking for your parts from Self instead of from your parts, such as “It hurts my ashamed parts when your critical part judges me”. However, not everyone is a fan of “therapy speak”. Many people won’t be receptive to ideas like parts or attachment style (this aversion also originates from parts, but it’s likely best not to mention this), or can take a long time to warm up to them. Emotionally mature people may appreciate someone pointing out some of their parts to them from Self, while yelling “You’re again in a flight part because you’re avoidant!” during an argument is unlikely to go down well.
A healthy romantic or therapeutic relationship with a securely attached person can help heal attachment wounds. Securely attached people can also generally deal with others’ insecure attachment much better. This also means that if you are in an anxious/avoidant relationship and your partner isn’t keen on therapy, even just healing your own attachment trauma could help solve many of the hurtful patterns between you (obviously this is not the solution in cases of abuse!).
In IFS, the Self can act as an attachment figure, allowing parts to develop a secure base. You can work on most attachment-related parts using the same IFS techniques as on other parts. There’s also a somewhat IFS-like practice for attachment repair called Ideal Parent Figure. Attachment trauma can of course also be healed with other types of trauma therapy, such as Somatic Experiencing and EMDR.
You can learn more about attachment, trauma, dissociation, parts, spiritual escapism as well as Internal Family Systems and other forms of therapy in my free book Loving Awakening.