The four attachment styles describe four distinct ways people behave in relationships, formed based on their early childhood experiences. Of the four, the rarest and perhaps least-discussed attachment style is known as disorganized attachment.
What is disorganized attachment?
Disorganized attachment is the most extreme insecure attachment style, therapist Chamin Ajjan, M.S., LCSW, A-CBT, tells mbg. People with a disorganized attachment style have a strong desire for intimate connections but also put up walls to protect themselves from getting hurt. This attachment style is characterized by fear, mistrust, and inner conflict.
“It is displayed in adults through poor coping skills, a lack of coping strategies, erratic behavior, and difficulty dealing with issues in relationships and in real-life problems,” Ajjan says. “Those with disorganized attachment can be unpredictable and volatile in relationships.”
The term “disorganized attachment” is typically used to describe the attachment style in children; it’s also known as fearful-avoidant attachment in adults. Disorganized or fearful-avoidant attachment is a combination of the anxious attachment style and avoidant attachment style, wherein a person has both high anxiety and high avoidance in relationships.
Signs of disorganized attachment:
- Chaotic, unpredictable, or intense relationship patterns and behaviors
- Extreme fear of rejection, coupled with difficulty connecting to and trusting others
- Extreme need for closeness, coupled with the tendency to avoid closeness and push others away
- Aggressive behavior toward caregivers or partners
- Fear of caregivers or partners
- Negative self-image and low self-worth
- Deep-rooted shame
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Feeling unlovable, inadequate, or unworthy
Disorganized attachment versus avoidant attachment.
Disorganized attachment involves both high anxiety and high avoidance; it’s essentially a blend of both the avoidant attachment style and the anxious attachment style.
“The difference between disorganized attachment and avoidant attachment is that the latter style evades intimacy and dismisses it,” says licensed clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D. “They don’t reach for others and don’t receive when people reach in toward them.”
People with disorganized attachment, on the other hand, crave connection and seek out relationships. Once they have a relationship, however, they tend to reject or push away the other person out of fear.
What causes disorganized attachment?
Disorganized attachment is thought to be a consequence of abuse and trauma in childhood, Abrams explains. This could include physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse from a caregiver. It could also be a consequence of witnessing the caregiver harm others, like another parent or older sibling, she adds. When kids grow up feeling afraid of the same person they’re seeking love and care from, it can affect the way they view their close relationships as adults.
“In short form, when babies/kids learn that someone who loves them can also deeply hurt them or ignore their needs,” Abrams explains, “it creates inner turmoil that then manifests in other relationships.”
What to do if you have a disorganized attachment style:
Seek out professional help.
“Therapy can help you to develop a safe, secure, and trusting relationship with your clinician while teaching you to identify the thoughts and behaviors that lead to an unhealthy attachment style,” Ajjan says. It can also help a person with disorganized attachment develop effective communication skills and set boundaries that make them feel safe in other relationships.
“If, as a result of these experiences, a mental health issue develops, then therapy can also address symptoms of anxiety, depression, and managing social/intimacy fears,” Abrams adds.
Develop consistent and trusting relationships.
Consistency in your relationships will be key to healing from your attachment wounds, and part of this is about choosing the right partners—and not dating unavailable people who will trigger your fears. With the awareness and skills learned in therapy, Ajjan says someone with a disorganized attachment style will be better at choosing who to be in a relationship with. “These skills can help them to identify more reliable, consistent, and trustworthy partners,” she says. “And healthier, safer, and more secure bonds can be formed as a result.”
Be patient and consistent in personal growth.
“Coping with a disorganized attachment style requires some deep self-work,” Abrams tells mbg. Despite having an insecure attachment style, it’s possible to form healthy relationships and secure attachment as an adult. “It takes practice and a willingness to take the risk of creating new kinds of relationships and a new narrative for yourself,” she says.
Like with any insecure attachment style, self-awareness and a commitment to growth are the first steps in coping with disorganized attachment. While it may take some work, it’s possible to develop healthy relationships and greater self-worth.
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