Help for disorganized attachment

I’ve been reading about attachment styles, and am wanting to summarize, in my own words, what I’ve been discovering about these different styles.  (These summaries, by the way, are not about mental illness, not even a little bit! These are about ways we all learn to cope with how connection has been for us. Which means that I work from the premise that anyone who grew up with your parents and environment would likely come out with the same attachment style you have: it’s not who you are but how you learned to relate.)

Today, I want to review some of what I’ve learned about one of the most misunderstood styles, the “disorganized” one.

If you’re struggling with a disorganized attachment style, you are torn between two or three different impulses in relationships. It feels chaotic inside, and it can get chaotic in your relationships. You yearn for closeness, yet that very closeness you yearn for can bring on some of your scariest, saddest, hardest places inside.

The deeper, the scarier

You are fine with acquaintances, but once a relationship gets deeper…

You are fine with acquaintances, but once a relationship gets deeper, you start feeling some internal chaos — like you don’t know whether to get way closer, to run away screaming, or to split the difference somehow!

You find yourself feeling like you’re going in two directions at once in the same relationship, and it’s exhausting for you (and maybe the other person!). It’s like wanting to floor the accelerator and pound on the brake of a car at the same time.

You are afraid to get close to people, afraid of the chaos this might unleash.

You have a vague sense of dread in relationships. You may not be able to identify quite what this is all about, but somehow, it feels like you aren’t really safe with others. You can’t settle.

You feel out of control of your own feelings, impulses, and behavior.

You alternate between trying to avoid someone and wanting to be very close to them, and you often don’t know what’s governing these cycles of closeness and distance.

You say things that other people find to be inconsistent. Like you ask for help, but then if help comes, it doesn’t feel safe, or good, or like what you asked for. Maybe others find you hard to please.

You sometimes feel like giving up on yourself, or giving up on relationships. But you have intense yearning at the very same time.

You feel stuck in your relationships, and if you’re in therapy, often feel stuck there — like you, your therapist, or both of you, are being too difficult!

Relationships feel like a landmine.

And yet, you need relationships

You want to be close. (We all do!) When closeness stirs up memories of abandonment or hurt, though, it’s like your body starts doing something else. It’s as if you move toward and away from relationships at the same time.

Connection has gotten entangled with hurt. With fear. With rage. With desolation. With desperation. With conflict.

It makes sense that you’re divided!

This is what happens when, early on, some of the people who were supposed to take care of you, listen to you, and keep you safe were the same people who walked away from you, didn’t listen, or were the source of hurt.

As children, we can’t just walk away.

As children, we can’t just walk away. When we’re young, we don’t have the option to say, “Sorry, this isn’t working out. I’ll find other parents who are a better match for my needs.”

We have to connect to them. Even when it’s scary. Even when it’s confusing. Even when it hurts. 

But, when we’re being hurt — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — we also have other impulses, to flee or to fight. Our self-protective impulses kick in.

These are good impulses. But they aren’t safe with caregivers who are bigger and more powerful, than the moment, than you are. You end up with suppressed rage, an urge to run but nowhere to go, or …

And  yet still, the yearning for connection.

Often, this all gets so confusing that you freeze up — it’s like you don’t feel safe coming toward your caregivers, but there’s nowhere to go. It’s not safe to fight, but it doesn’t feel safe to connect, either.

As an adult, you feel like these same binds keep playing in your relationships over and over again. You may sometimes feel like you’re insane, and other times feel like the  whole world’s gone mad!

Things just don’t seem stable, or safe. You just can’t get comfortable. Someone feels great to be around one moment, and terrifying the next. It’s like everything keeps getting flipped upside down in your mind, in your world. It doesn’t seem to make sense.

Even when you’re with a partner, or a friend, or a therapist who demonstrates that they care for you over and over again, and who never hurts you, sometimes you still can’t trust them. And, on a deeper level, you feel like you can’t trust yourself.

So what can be done?

Counseling for disorganized attachment

If you see someone who has experience in working with these types of binds, your  sense of hope may start to come in quite soon. A lot of this is that when someone “gets it” about disorganized attachment, you can more easily  start to talk in a candid way about yearnings, fears, yearnings towards and push-aways — and this opens up a safe space for all of the parts of you to come forward!

You can also work, carefully, to help you through the traumatic reactions in your body — reactions to the “fear without solution” you experienced when you were small.

You might notice empathically together what’s happening for you. For some clients, this is the first experience they’ve had of getting explicit compassion for their conflict within relationships. We start to notice what’s happening together, and what might happen next.

One client of mine and I started noticing a pattern: She would feel connected in a session, like I was understanding her so well. Things would start to make sense and a sense of compassion and warmth would open up.  She would start to share deeper things with me, to really start to kind of “land” — and then, all of a sudden, it was as if I couldn’t say anything right! The slightest shift in my tonality could be experienced as hurtful — and yet, it also didn’t feel safe if I backed off or was quieter to give her more room.

She had never understood what was happening in these perplexing moments, never had someone to give voice to the parts of her that wanted to get close and open up and also to the parts who were terrified of this same connection, afraid to trust, afraid they’d be let down again.

We worked to keep both parts right with us, so she could experience compassion for both. Especially when connection started to deepen, I’d pause her for a moment and ask if we could check in with this more wary part to see how she was doing, if she needed anything from either of us. This opened up more freedom in her other relationships, too. And it helped to make our work safe in the very moments that other work had mysteriously flown into chaos and disconnection.

Transparency and genuineness (from your counselor and from you!) are so deeply important, because you and your therapist both need to contend with being human beings who impact one another, and who can make mistakes and repair them. One of the big things that heals is when they stick with you, and you with them (Assuming the counseling is truely safe-enough and a good fit!). You might  look carefully together at both the moments that feel great and the moments that don’t feel so good — and find new experiences together. Experiences where you can come closer — and have your needs heard, met, seen, and understood. Experiences where you can have your terror understood, worked with, talked with directly, and soothed.

A skillful counselor can also gently bring behaviors to your attention that may be sabotaging relationships — but without blaming you or minimizing your feelings. This kind of feedback can be deeply healing when it’s done with empathy for you and the places your behaviors come from. Often, people with this type of attachment yearn for someone to be real with them, to tell them how they’re really coming across — and others have walked on eggshells instead, further deepening your fear that your problems are too deep to even be talked about. With someone you’ve built trust and safety with, however, the behaviors can be spoken about directly. Because you need to know what gets in your way, and you need to hear it with enough clarity that you can see it too. On the other hand, simply saying “Stop that!” doesn’t work. The behaviors that trip us up come from deep pain that needs to be seen, heard, understood. We do both.

In this kind of therapy, you learn over time to be more compassionate with yourself. You learn to tolerate other people’s mistakes without them feeling so dangerous. You learn to notice what’s safe and what isn’t safe. You learn to draw toward people at a pace that’s safe for you.

By the way, none of us are all one attachment style, so even though your relationships may have been fraught with significant conflict, there are still lovely moments that you have with people. In counseling, you get to notice what it’s like to come in to see someone and to just know that you’re welcome, or what it’s like to feel those tears of relief when your sense of urgent need is welcomed and understood.

Clients who do this deep work often report unexpected changes in their lives in a short time period: Sometimes, they feel an overall sense of increased calm. Sometimes, they find that they can take a nap when they’re tired and go to sleep at night, when this had been difficult before.

Clients use words like “ease,” “safety,” “feeling welcome”.

Clients also use words like “relief” when they see and hear that someone “gets them” (finally!), and that it’s possible to work through the feelings that have been too hard to put to words — together.

Attachment wounds heal through relationships. So you and your therapist work to build a relationship that feels safe enough, steady enough, good enough. (Not perfect, because no relationship is!).

If you’re dealing with wounds from this attachment style, counseling can help. Even if it hasn’t helped before. Even if you’ve had your attachment dilemmas pathologized or you’ve been blamed before for your “faulty thinking” or your “poor communication.”

Once you work with a therapist who understands trauma and attachment wounds and knows how to work compassionately with them (and there really are lots of us, even though finding one well-suited to you might take some time.)– well, it’s not necessarily smooth sailing. But it gets SO much easier! It’s important to know that you don’t need to settle for someone who deepens your shame or tries to change your behavior without regard for your emotions. It’s important to know that true care and attunement can help to heal these internal rifts and help you to go beyond managing and to find true relief that is felt and seen from the inside out.

Counseling for disorganized attachment

When looking for therapy for disorganized attachment, one of the biggest things I recommend is finding someone who has regard for you, and who you have regard for. Someone who remembers and reaches out to your best self, someone who knows that your struggles make sense — and who can work not to personalize it if you get mad or scared or conflicted. Someone who can sit with you through fear and anger and ambivalence and yearning – without blaming, or scolding. Someone who understands something about this, or who wants to understand. That way, you can be curious together about what unfolds within you and between you. This is a key part of how we develop security in relationships.

I also recommend walking in knowing that this might feel conflicted for you at times, and that you discuss past rifts with anyone new you’re looking to work with. That way, you can get a sense of what this counselor’s approach looks like with moments like the ones you’ve struggled in before.

I’m particularly fond of experiential kinds of therapies  that have a focus on attachment. By having an experience in therapy rather than just talking about your struggles, you get to feel what healthy attachment looks like. You begin to know how it feels to have someone else who is attuned to your needs and curious about you.

Disorganized attachment can heal. You can become securely attached. The yearning for safety and closeness you feel are not just yearnings, but a clue to what’s possible for you in relationships — both with others and with yourself.

Author: Michaela Lonning

I'm a counselor in Corvallis, Oregon, and I work mostly with intelligent and sensitive people who are struggling with a sense of connection to themselves or in their relationships. Near Corvallis? Come see me. Not near Corvallis? I work with clients around the world via Skype: Come see me.

2 thoughts on “Help for disorganized attachment”

  1. I can not thank you enough for this post. I have been diagnosed with complex/attachment trauma. Last session my therapist told me that I have disorganized attachment. I researched it and my heart broke. Article after article called people like me selfish, remorseless, volatile, cold, unempathetic, narcissistic, abusive and more. All I could think is “my therapist really doesn’t think much of me.”
    Thank you for your understanding. Thank you for wanting to work with people that developed this attachment style because they were hurt. Thank you for caring!

    1. I’m so glad this helped, and so glad you found my post at a moment that you needed to hear a compassionate perspective about this. Thanks for writing and letting me know how this made a difference for you!
      And yes, I do love working with people who’ve developed this style. It’s not a pathology, just a complex set of ways people learn to cope and adapt to a difficult environment. Real help is possible!
      By the way, I’ve mentioned disorganized attachment to clients of mine before, and now I’m realizing that I need to direct them to good kind articles about this so they don’t have your experience! Hopefully, you’ve had the chance to talk with your therapist about this, and hopefully, they think a lot of you!

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