I did a really interesting exercise tonight as part of my Somatic Attachment Therapy course online with The Embody Lab and Dr Diane Poole Heller. During the lesson, I was put in a break out room with one other student on the course and we had to practice making direct eye contact with one another through the web cam and tracking our feelings and physical responses to it. My partner was a young woman from Indiana in the US who told me up front that she has an insecure-avoidant attachment style and was nervous about the exercise – but wanted to try it anyway.
There are 4 main attachment styles and only one of them is considered healthy: secure attachment. If you have a secure attachment style, chances are your parents / caregivers did a decent job – because you don’t have a problem accepting and giving love, being vulnerable around others, supporting others, sharing yourself with others, setting and holding boundaries etc. without feeling guilty. You likely didn’t experience feelings of guilt, shame or being a disappointment during childhood (or at least not very often) and you probably haven’t had much serious trauma in your life OR – if you have experienced trauma, you’ve dealt with it in a healthy way because you were already coming from a place of security.
I have a secure attachment style.
The other 3 styles are all variations of an insecure attachment style: insecure-ambivalent (you switch forwards and backwards between being needy, clingy and co-dependent or disconnected and defensive), insecure-avoidant (you try to be entirely self-reliant and avoid vulnerability and deep intimacy with others, often by dissociating / working a lot / being alone) and disorganised (characterised by severe trauma, can lead to psycho-pathology – the most difficult style to work with and resolve). You can find your attachment style by taking the quiz at the link below. It’s worth knowing, believe me, as it affects ALL your human relationships.
So, me and my partner – who have different attachment styles – began the process of making prolonged eye contact with one another and it was my turn first to be the “therapist” and her the patient. I looked directly into my webcam at her with a kind, accepting and positive expression. Quite quickly she looked away. When I asked her how she felt when she was looking away, she said relieved – because my eye contact had made her feel nervous, tense, and under pressure. But when she looked back and found me still looking directly at her she said it felt like a bit of a surprise… that I was still there. We continued in this process for several minutes and she related that every time she looked away the relief was less intense, and every time she reconnected with me the awkwardness was less intense until, in the end, she was comfortable and no longer needed to look away (this is an exercise for building more secure attachment). Her feelings of nervousness and anxiety when sharing direct eye gaze with me (characterised by a tightness in her chest and throat) are typical of someone with insecure-avoidant attachment.
She asked me how I felt when she looked away. I felt nothing. Even though I forgot for a moment that we were doing an exercise, my instinct told me she had a good reason to look away (maybe she has a cat and it just knocked something off the kitchen side; maybe there was a knock at the door etc.). She asked me if I felt insecure or abandoned when she removed her attention from me. I didn’t. I felt sure she would bring her attention back and it was no problem for me to wait. I didn’t feel in any way “triggered” by her looking away from me and I waited calmly.
If I had, for example, an insecure-ambivalent attachment style, I would have felt potentially a little hurt or anxious when she looked away – because it’s triggering abandonment wounds, potentially from early childhood when I was seeking the attention of my caregiver and they weren’t giving it.
Then we switched roles. Now I was the patient and she was the therapist. She looked directly at me with a kind expression through the webcam. I felt good. Safe. Happy to be in connection with another human, on the other side of the world. Lucky. Enjoying the moment. And then I had to move my eyes away. And though I did so, I felt frustrated because I didn’t want to. I told her this – that I almost resented having to look away – and she was quite struck by how different my reaction was to hers (she was relieved to look away). I asked her how she felt when I looked away and she said I looked bored; that she felt that probably I was now bored by the interaction.
We repeated this process and each time I was annoyed to look away and happy to bring my gaze back to meet hers. At the end, she asked me why I had felt so enthusiastic to hold her gaze, and I said, “Because I WANT to know you! Because we have only 15 minutes and then they’ll close the break out rooms and I want to know you as much as I can in these 15 minutes and I don’t want to waste them!”
She asked me what I wanted to know – why was she interesting for me?
“Because you’re another human. And you’re thousands of miles away and I want to know how you experience life. And I see an easel behind you, I want to know if you’re an artist. I see what looks like a dog lead hanging on the door handle, I want to know if you have a dog…” (and so on).
She was amazed… that I could be so interested in her. But then she started to talk. She told me about her art, about why she was studying Somatics, about her work with the LGBTQ+ community (at which my face lit up and both of us then started to talk very quickly about fighting for and protecting people in minority groups – and she talked about her own sexual orientation and how hard it can be to be herself living in a conservative mid-Western state etc.) and that was it. I felt – we had connected and we were both smiling widely.
Before the breakout room closed we took a moment to reflect on how our individual attachment styles had affected our interaction. We acknowledged how her insecure-avoidant style had made her anxious and stressed in the beginning about eye contact and being vulnerable and sharing, and how my secure style had made me feel completely comfortable with the exercise and with her and allowed me to feel nothing but sheer curiosity about her and gratitude for the chance to be in connection with someone I would never otherwise meet and we both processed the fact that – yes – our attachment styles deeply affect the way we interact with our world. With fear, defensiveness and trepidation; or with confidence, curiosity and joy. It only took ten minutes though to get us both on the same page.
Interestingly, almost every relationship I’ve ever had – both romantic and platonic – has been with insecure-avoidant individuals. I struggle with the clinginess or unpredictability of the other two insecure types and I somehow don’t often end up finding many other secure types (though we do, reputedly, make up around half the population… I find that hard to believe though). Mind you, I did marry someone with a secure attachment style. Because I wanted that in a co-parent. Attachment parenting is at the heart of how I raise my kids and always was.
It IS possible to change your attachment style through various therapeutic practices – and through being in a relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style. It’s hard to change though if you’re surrounded by folk who have the same issues as you… and, sadly, seeing as insecure attachment often goes hand in hand with low self-esteem and negative self-talk, many folks with insecure attachment feel somehow “undeserving” of a healthy love and end up in relationships that add to the problem, rather than learning from a secure partner how attachment should be.
If you’re interested in learning about your attachment style and beginning the process of reflecting on how it has affected your relationships, please take the quiz below. It’s free, and I don’t think my teacher (the owner and creator of the quiz) has any particular interest in your personal data, apart from potentially using results to compile anonymous statistics.
A last word: I don’t think my partner for this evening’s exercise felt anything when she went back to the meeting and left the breakout room, but I welled up and got a big lump in my throat about the fact that I’ll probably never see her again. For someone with secure attachment, I sure do get pretty damn attached to those I connect with.