Attachment is the study of emotional safety and the impact it has on the human nervous system.
What does a nervous system do when it has emotional safety? What does it do when it doesn’t? How does emotional safety change our views about our place in the world?
Four predictable attachment patterns give us a window into how well two brain systems are integrated: the attachment system and the exploratory system, described by Harvard psychologists Daniel P. Brown and David Elliott in Attachment Disturbances in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair.
Our exploratory system prefers a state of certainty, action, and doing. As the exploratory system activates, we automatically turn down the dial on emotion. This attachment position is commonly referred to as an avoidant pattern.
The exploratory system attends to analytical details, information-gathering, and problem-solving with logical efficiency, but it removes events from their context and gets judgmental. We might metaphorically experience such coping strategies as though they dip our feelings and relationships in liquid lidocaine.
In high doses, it may leave us with a numb sense of growing despair.
We might be alerted to someone’s shift into an exploratory perspective when we feel the loss of their presence as they scroll through their phone. Perhaps we notice being assessed with judgmental eyes. Maybe we see a parent prioritizing their child’s behavior over the quality of their relationship. Maybe we notice ourselves getting brisk and task-oriented, impatient or annoyed by interruptions.
Even as you read this, you may notice how the quality of our experience has changed as I moved from a shared moment to analysis.
We need our exploratory system to make sense of our lives. We need it to support our relational values, so we can have a rich and full life. But as we shift into exploratory-dominance, as Bonnie Badenoch says, “meaning has a tendency to get lost.”
It’s difficult for us to notice and interpret body language correctly. We are more likely to misinterpret people’s intentions. We miss the hurt in our child’s averted eyes. We overlook the changes in our partner’s tone that might tell us of their unmet attachment needs.
Western culture leads with, prioritizes, and celebrates the independence of the exploratory system. It is the adaption our nervous system shelters in to turn off conscious awareness of pain when relationships have been a source of emotional rejection, as far back as infancy.
In neglectful or critical environments, if we sought emotional support and experienced rejection, such as a well-intentioned caregiver repeatedly telling us to push down our feelings, buck up, toughen up, and do it on our own, we will orient to the world through our exploratory system.
We’ll be successful, independent, and emotionally isolated—often without awareness of our isolation.
. . .
When our nervous system defaults to the exploratory view, we tend to get more rigid and isolated. But without the support of the exploratory system, our attachment system enters the chaos of pursuit. This attachment position is commonly referred to as an anxious pattern.
The fourth pattern, called disorganized, combines these approaches, alternating unpredictably and sometimes simultaneously between hyper-activation and down-regulation of the attachment system and the exploratory system.