If you share the fundamental belief that living in relationship with others is part of what it means to be human, you will probably understand that our sense of identity will be affected by the quality of these relationships, no more so than in our early developmental years. We see ourselves reflected in how others respond to us, but particularly in the responses of our early primary caregivers.
Attachment theory (developed originally by child psychoanalysts John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth during the twentieth century) explains how as babies and young children, our relationship with our primary caregiver develops. Subsequent research has built on this and today there are a number of widely recognised attachment styles, each being determined by how a child’s caregiver responds to its needs for closeness, security and safety. And so, as a result, we will be either securely or insecurely attached to our mother, father, or whoever fulfilled the crucial caregiving role.
Insecure styles of attachment, resulting from relationships with caregivers who were hostile or rejecting, or who were unpredictable and inconsistent, can be broadly classified as avoidant, ambivalent or disorganised. Each of these classifications identifies specific characteristics that may result; for example, being preoccupied, dismissive or inclined to addictive behaviours, having frequent outbursts, periodically detaching ourselves, and so on.
When our most important relationship in childhood is insecure, later we can have difficulty understanding and managing our personal boundaries; for example, what parts of our mind we own and what parts we don’t, or what (or who) we’re responsible for or not. This has implications for the roles we develop as adults and how we interact with others – for example, as victim or persecutor, whether we are compliant or controlling.
We try to protect our key early relationship by taking responsibility for it ourselves. Strangely, it feels ‘safer’ for us to do this. But later, our insecure attachment makes it difficult for us to sensibly interpret how we experience our lives. We continue to take full responsibility, often unconsciously, for our adult relationships and tend to blame ourselves when things go wrong when this isn’t appropriate or helpful.
But once we recognise and acknowledge the reality of our past life and, crucially, develop compassion for it, we can gradually let go of the self-doubt and begin to appreciate our own innate value. Thankfully the ability of the brain to rewire itself in this way can mean recovery from a deeply unsatisfying way of being.