Your attachment style helps determine how healthy (and happy) your relationships are — and there’s a lot you can do to change it.
When exploring what brings people joy, healthy relationships are at the top of the list. And, for highly sensitive people (HSPs), the quality of their relationships is even more crucial — because they are more deeply affected by the people around them.
Feeling “secure,” meaning each person is accessible, consistent, safe and emotionally responsive, is the basis of a healthy relationship. This is what psychologists call having a secure attachment style, and it’s just one of several attachment styles people can have. That means that understanding your attachment style — whether it is “secure” or not — is essential to your happiness as a highly sensitive person.
What is attachment style?
An attachment style is a deeply held set of expectations toward relationships with other people and how to interact with them. Your attachment style was shaped in early childhood and helps determine how your connections with others unfold and whether or not a particular relationship remains healthy.
The four attachment styles, based on the attachment theory developed by British psychologist John Bowlby are:
- Secure — you feel safe and do not fear someone will abandon you
- Anxious Preoccupied — you don’t feel a sense of security in your relationships
- Dismissive Avoidant — the more people try to get close to you, the further you’ll run
- Fearful Avoidant — you go back and forth between wanting both closeness and distance (at the same time)
These four styles explain how we interact and behave in relationships, especially when our relationships feel unstable. While all relationships have their disruptions, how these conflicts are handled have a great impact on our individual attachment style.
Early behaviorists believed that as long as basic needs were met, such as a child being fed, there would be motivation to bond. Further research by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, however, discovered that nurturance and responsiveness are even more important.
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How Early Childhood Attachment Greatly Impacts HSPs
Highly sensitive children (HSCs) are more sensitive to their surroundings than non-HSCs, due to a more active autonomic nervous system (ANS), which signals whether we feel safe. This also means that HSCs are more perceptive to the emotional state of their caregivers.
Highly sensitive children who encounter unhealthy connections with caregivers early in childhood (whether from neglect, abuse, or the impact of mental health or substance abuse issues from the caregiver) will more commonly alter their behavior in attempts to repair the connection. This will look like “walking on eggshells” in order to sustain the connection with their caregiver. This constant effort to appease can negatively impact the ability for the highly sensitive child to develop a secure attachment style, negatively impacting healthy development and the ability to securely connect well into adulthood.
In Dr. Elaine N. Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You, she states that being highly sensitive does not predetermine whether someone will develop secure versus insecure attachment. Rather, approximately the same number of HSPs and non-HSPs have secure attachment styles.
However, Dr. Aron’s research does suggest that HSPs, especially those who experience unhealthy or inconsistent caregiver relationships in childhood, will be somewhat more likely to develop insecure, and often anxious, attachment.
What Anxiously Attached HSPs Should Know
Because HSPs are hardwired for empathy, they more naturally attune to other’s feelings. So, at times, they struggle to set boundaries, in fear of hurting people they are in a relationship with. Yet when an HSP does not feel safe expressing their needs and setting boundaries, it leads to more insecure attachment, and the likelihood of anxious or avoidant styles to emerge.
Which style becomes dominant depends on what protective factors were more useful in their past relationships. For example, was it better (so to speak) for them to disappear in the face of a relationship rupture? Or did it feel better to caretake and become clingy?
What this means is that the insecurely attached HSP will be more likely to attract other individuals who are also insecurely attached, opening them up to potentially toxic relationships. HSPs with insecure, or unstable, attachment styles are more likely targeted because they naturally enter relationships with a more codependent mindset, simply because HSPs often think about others’ feelings before their own. While codependency can be a risk factor for HSPs when choosing relationships, the risk can be mitigated by remaining aware of your needs and being intentional about your self-worth.
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Once You Know Your Attachment Style, You Can Change It
In Jessica Baum’s book, Anxiously Attached: Becoming More Secure in Life and Love, she outlines the incredible ability that our brains have to rewire themselves toward safety in relationships with others. While the high sensitivity trait is genetic, based on dopamine-related gene expression, attachment style is not. Our attachment style is directly connected to our experiences within relationships, both in the formative years (where we learn to connect) and further into adulthood.
The quality of relationships a highly sensitive person chooses has a dramatic impact on both their current and future attachment style. Medical Researcher Thomas Boyce, MD, author of The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Sensitive Children Face Challenges and How All Can Thrive, explored the impact of both positive and negative environments on the health of HSCs. He uncovered that, although negative experiences impact HSPs more drastically, so do positive experiences.
Often, people describe this experience as sensitive types being like a “sponge” and absorbing the energy of those around them. What this means is that HSPs have a great deal of power, because when they choose securely attached people to spend their time with, they, too, become more secure in their ability to attach.
The HSP Power to Repair Attachment
Research on motherhood shows that even if nearly half of the interactions between mother and child are out of sync, they can still experience secure attachment — as long as they’re able to realign with one another. That is the beautiful thing about attachment: It is something that can be actively worked through. And, for HSPs who are highly conscientious, they have the power to repair connections if they feel safe to share emotions openly. HSPs can use their power to realign by doing the following:
- Notice reactions you have to your partner as they arise
- Share these reactions readily and with compassion — the more often emotions are shared, the more secure the relationship becomes
- Express requests or boundaries, if needed
- If boundaries or requests are not respected, you may need to assess the health of the relationship
When it comes to relationships, highly sensitive people have the capacity to be true masters at attachment. Much like how an HSP knows how to alter things in the room to make everyone comfortable, they, too, can address issues in a relationship, especially if they honor their intuition and sensitive nervous system.
HSPs have the ability to enhance their relationships when they remain aware of their attachment style and pay attention to their needs within the relationship. Because HSPs are highly intuitive, the more secure they feel in themselves, the more courage they will have to end unhealthy relationships when necessary to do so.
You might like:
- What Happens When an HSP Grows Up With Insecure Attachment?
- How to Know Your Attachment Style as a Highly Sensitive Person
- These Are the Roles HSPs End Up Playing in Their Families — And How to Change Them
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