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.


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.”


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.”


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


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