Understanding Attachment: How Our ‘Old Stuff’ Defines Us

Elevated view of young boy sitting on a beach staring out at seaThe “old stuff”—the things we carry from the past—cycles through our lives, in and out. We hold it in glimpses of childhood, images and emotions that are sometimes disconnected from one another. We carry mud puddles and faces, toys, bedrooms, yards. We hold memories of clouds, angles of sunlight on the side of a shed. Our bodies maintain postures of humiliations and accomplishments. They hold our sadness and fear, our anger, trust, and hope.

Living within our adaptations, we take what we are given biologically and survive childhood by ignoring the parts of ourselves that remain unreflected. We may discard the bits that trigger caregivers, and we may take their instantaneous bodily reactions to us as representation of the entire world and build our expectations and strategies around these.

After childhood, as we begin to explore and adapt to any number of new systems, we may start to recognize the arbitrary nature of systems themselves. This realization may lead us to to gradually and naturally gravitate toward reconnection with the parts of self we previously left behind. With this transition often comes a mix of acceptance and grief.

Our templates of childhood experience may lend form to our expectations in relationships, to our style of attachment. These experiences may be preverbal, and we may lack the concrete language to articulate them, even to ourselves. But when intimacy reaches a threshold, a certain temperature, they often rise up within us, perhaps presenting as fear or anger, as an automated reaction that occurs without awareness and is typically witnessed only in hindsight, when the body has calmed.

Meeting as We’ve Been Met for Generations

When our needs are met by caregivers and by ourselves, reliably and consistently, throughout childhood, this pattern of connection is likely to continue throughout generations. Secure attachment can be understood to mean that we know how to be, with self and with other.

The two extremes (anxious/avoidant) of insecure attachment can occur when caregivers do not know how to meet particular behaviors or emotions. Perhaps nobody modeled these skills for them, or perhaps they experienced trauma that affected their ability to meet our needs. Whatever the cause, when our early interactions are affected by this inability to have our needs met, we may begin to separate from parts of self and lose the connection to “other” as well as self.

When a person with limited tolerance for internal sensation becomes a parent, a specific set of “containment” skills is often passed to the next generation. In other words, children learn how best to avoid the discomfort of being with self or other. On one level, this is purely adaptive and may even be beneficial, based on what has been experienced. On another level, this training to protect the self from internal sensation can become a tunnel through which children learn to navigate the world, and it may perpetuate a pattern.

The parent is not the only teacher. Children learn from siblings, from relatives, through accidents, through the very unpredictability of life. In those homes where a child fails to define a sense of self or aspects of self are lost, an alternate cycle—a pattern of disconnection—can continue through generations, leading to extreme reactions and polarization. This insecure attachment may be avoidant or anxious, an internalized sense of rigidity or chaos, “too much” or “not enough.”

Integration Through Differentiation

Both within and without, we must define the pieces before building the puzzle. First we separate, identify, and name. We move apart to differentiate, to identify present changes since the previous separation. Then we come together. We join to experiment, to share what we have learned, to teach one another about ourselves, to teach others how to treat us, or to teach parts of self how to meet other parts. When our early interactions are affected by an inability to have our needs met, we may begin to separate from parts of self and lose the connection to “other” as well as self.

One major challenge here is the underlying “wish” of either extreme that someone else will come, to save or redeem us, bring us worth, nurture or define us. This wish is often born of a hoped-for childhood experience that did not happen. To take ownership of our own lives, we must grieve this wish.

Ownership often happens at a gradual pace. “If they are not coming, what must I do now?” Often ownership coincides with a relationship or takes place in a created community. There may be an underlying acceptance in the letting go, an acceptance that accompanies a recognized appreciation for what actually is: “In this moment, even without resolution of the ‘old stuff,’ I’m ok. I can grieve for those times when I was not ok. I am learning what my caregivers did not know at the time. My needs are met. My body is calm.”

The Underlying Animal: Fight or Flight in Child Rearing

When our emotion or behavior as a child triggers a fight response from parents, we lose agency and may feel invaded at a core level. This is a building block of avoidant attachment. We may carry an internalized ongoing feeling of being controlled, emotionally rejected, unheard. We may feel as if our needs don’t matter, that we are losing self. Thus, we may decide to give nothing more, to close down.

These extreme responses serve to represent our individual positioning in a global pattern of basic human responses—fight, flight, or freeze—and illustrate the ways this pattern propagates, continuing from one generation to the next.

Alternately, when a parent pulls away or flinches in the presence of something we perceive as our core self, we may internalize this flight response and continue to abandon ourselves throughout life, believing that some part of us is hideous and must remain hidden. This belief—and the subsequent creation of patterns of internal polarization that only serve amplify that part within us and make it more obvious—characterize what is known as anxious attachment.

With the high prevalence of extreme attachment styles on a cultural and global scale, it may be of great importance to begin exploring our own reactions. At a foundational level, awareness and attunement to our own natural biological responses can potentially affect generations.


  1. Attachment. (2012). Encyclopedia on early child development. Retrieved from http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/attachment/introduction
  2. Kinnison, J. (2014). Type: Anxious-Preoccupied. Retrieved from https://jebkinnison.com/bad-boyfriends-the-book/type-anxious-preoccupied

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Naomi

    August 18th, 2016 at 8:54 AM

    But it is often the old stuff that best defines who we are

  • Naomi

    August 20th, 2016 at 4:49 AM

    Our attachment needs and psychological choices of adaptation has not changed and play a crucial role in our personality development and how we cope with our emotional needs however as we experience that our adaptation style is not serving us well at the present we can consciously and intentionally learn and practice new coping skills which Then changes our experiences

  • Daisy

    January 21st, 2019 at 10:11 AM

    Your follow up is nearly close to what I was going to reply. Though our past identity and handling of situations are our default reactions, through patience with self and others in the process of un/relearning, we allow ourselves to adapt to react and produce better outcomes. We can redefine ourselves each and every day to be better.

  • Gus

    August 19th, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    out of curiosity any thoughts on why there are such extreme attachment styles now?

  • Chris

    August 23rd, 2016 at 5:27 AM

    I think the attachment styles are used as examples, to help the reader connect with one, or both, of the attachment styles. I see both patterns of attachment in myself at different times, depending on stimuli, and at differing ‘strengths’ or activation.

  • Toni

    August 23rd, 2016 at 8:08 AM

    Chris I believe you are right on, with varying stimuli; especially, triggers that pop up from our past to remind us how dysfunctional/unhealthy/scary some attachments (relationships) can be- whether we recognize these triggers consciously or not. For example, I never bonded with my mother and had no desire to I realized later in life. She was very needy, unstable, and clueless in bonding with me. I felt responsible for her emotional stability, for her happiness, and did my best not to be a burden her with my needs, growing up. Today I have found I repeat this pattern with people in my life in an unhealthy way. I may find a potential relationship, only later to recognize that same neediness in that person unrealistically reminds me of my mother and how I wanted to separate myself from her and her issues. We are all dependent on each other to some degree, some being the critical term. I have to continue to recognize that attachment patterns from my past do not dictate the relationships of the present, which takes time, with detail to knowing and learning myself

  • kelly

    August 19th, 2016 at 2:01 PM

    Ultimately I am convinced that I held myself back for a very long time waiting for someone else to come along and solve all of my problems for me. I did not learn until much later that I was the one in control of turning my life around, not another person. If someone wants to be there for me and support me and guide me, then great, we could all use a little bit of that. But to put complete faith that the actions of another will do it? Not going to happen. This is something that I had to learn to take control of on my own.

  • John

    August 22nd, 2016 at 4:57 PM

    Bravo for recognition and taking action.

  • Jano

    November 29th, 2016 at 9:19 AM

    Awesome Kelly! I felt this way too until I realized I had a lot more strength & resilence than I gave myself credit for. It helped me immensely to work with an AEDP therapist who was a model of consistency for me. Now I know I too am responsible for me & yes, support is welcome. 😊

  • Toni

    August 20th, 2016 at 5:22 AM

    I recommend John Bowlby for attachment related reading. I love his works – Secure Base, Loss. And more

  • Cassidy

    August 22nd, 2016 at 7:48 AM

    I have not thought about looking at each individual piece, I am generally only looking at the big picture

  • kendrick

    August 23rd, 2016 at 2:15 PM

    If all you have ever known is the going into protection mode, then it is very likely that you are always going to be that person who buries his head in the sand and stays away from the uncomfortable parts of life as much as possible.

    How will we ever learn about our true strength if we are too afraid to test it every now and then?

  • Helene E. Goble, MFT

    August 27th, 2016 at 11:24 AM

    Depending on the situation, or its severity, processing the trauma on a physical level can be the breakthrough a person needs. The author mentions “freeze.” At this point some people store the traumatic event physically, and triggering events leave them right back at the trauma. EMDR, Brainspotting, and other Somatic work can help relieve the trauma to help a person “unfreeze” and move on to a healthier place. After the trauma work has been completed, a person is better able to make new choices about their thinking patterns. In other words, CBT works better after trauma work has reduced the triggers.

  • Ina

    November 25th, 2016 at 12:44 PM

    I have realized a while ago how my childhood relationships and role models influenced my present relationships to self and others. I find it difficult, almost impossible to break the viscous cycles. What are best known practices to recognize what is not serving us well at the present moment and learn new coping skills which then change our experiences?

  • Thomas T

    November 25th, 2017 at 10:37 AM

    Ina. I enjoyed your brief. You are so correct It’s so very hard , If not impossible to break those habits that form us.

  • Jennifer

    March 5th, 2017 at 1:48 PM

    Wow this is an excellent article and provides you with lots to think about and work on. I always wondered why things from my past kept creeping up. Its just how do you go about dealing with them and changing them when you have done the same thing for so long?

  • Helene E G

    March 5th, 2017 at 9:17 PM

    Educate yourself! It’s amazing how the area of trauma therapy is changing…and improving. Explore Peter Levine, Bessel Van de Kolk, Francine Shapiro, and David Grand on You Tube. They each offer a different perspective on releasing trauma…and having lasting change. There was a study done about survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy that used 25 different trauma treatments to help them overcome their PTSD. It’s interesting how the participants reported improvement with Brainspotting over the types we are more familiar with, such as CBT and EMDR.

  • Rick

    August 11th, 2017 at 8:48 AM

    So much of this resonated with me.
    I grew up in a dysfunctional family. My mother’s dad was an abusive alcoholic and I am sure she was traumatized by him. My father was a WWII vet, and I believe he had undiagnosed PTSD. He was not violent, but he was checked out. In my own family I think several factors contributed to my parents’ detachment – the trauma of immigration (my grandparents were all immigrants and completely broke contact with their families in Italy), the depression, and WWII.

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