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Ask A Therapist: What’s The Big Deal With Attachment Style (And How Might It Show Up With My Therapist)?

THE Casey Tanner explains how your attachment style can impact your experience in therapy.

This month is extra special! You get to hear from Casey Tanner (aka @queersextherapy), CST, LCPC, author of Feel It All, therapist, and CEO of The Expansive Group! Read on to discover Casey’s insights about how your attachment style might show up in therapy:

Intro To Attachment Style

If you’re reading this, you’re a person using the internet in 2024, which means you’ve probably stumbled across a lot of “therapy-speak.” Does “attachment style” ring any bells? If not, don’t worry, we’ll explain…

Attachment styles aren’t a passing fad. Decades of research contributed to the development of attachment theory, which asserts that early interactions with caregivers impact how people connect and build relationships with others, even through adulthood. If your physical and emotional needs were met by caregivers—meaning you could rely on them for consistent comfort, attention, and care—you’re more likely to develop stable (or secure) relationships as an adult.

If your needs were not met, you likely developed coping mechanisms to retain and maintain relationships with your caregivers. These coping strategies, or attachment strategies, can be described using attachment styles.

With some slight variations in language, attachment styles are usually categorized as:

Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, or Disorganized. If you’re curious about your own attachment style, there are many free assessments online, and you can read more about the formation and presentation of each style through online articles and books.

It’s important to remember that your attachment style is not a condemnation, it’s a framework that—if it resonates for you—can teach you more about yourself and the ways that you connect with others.

It’s Not Just About Childhood

Just like our earliest childhood experiences shaped our attachment styles, so too can relationships in our youth, adolescence, and adulthood. For example, people with Anxious, Avoidant, or Disorganized styles can develop what’s called Earned Secure Attachment by having secure, stable relationships throughout their lives. Similarly, people with Secure attachment styles can develop anxiousness or avoidance through the experience of difficult, traumatic, abusive, or unstable relationships.

As clinical psychologist Dr. Coda Derrig explains, “Your attachment style from your infancy can influence your relationships with others. But as humans, we’re complex creatures…There are a lot of other factors at play as well. We all have multiple experiences that influence our ability to form healthy relationships over time.”

Why Would Attachment Style Matter In Therapy?

In learning about your own attachment style, it can be informative to get curious about how it’s showing up in therapy.

As Casey Tanner, CST, LCPC explains, “Your relationship with your therapist is just that—a relationship. The coping strategies you learned to maintain relationships in the past are likely to show up in the way you navigate building trust with your provider. If you notice skepticism towards your therapist or struggle to be vulnerable, it’s worth getting curious about whether or not that disposition has shown up for you before.”

This can be hard to detect because you may have different reactions to various people. Your attachment style is not static or one dimensional, which means you may show up differently in relationship with your therapist than you do with partners, colleagues, family, or friends.

“...If you notice that you often try to make your therapist laugh, desire to know more about your therapist’s personal life, and/or often wonder how they feel about you, you might find that these experiences mirror the way you feel about other important people in your life,” says Casey.

Casey reminds us that attachment style is not a value judgment, and says “The feelings that come up in therapy are neither good nor bad, they’re just information—often, they’re information about how you have protected yourself from hurt and attempted to build closeness in the past.”

When Might Attachment Style Show Up In Therapy?

Your attachment style is present in therapy while you build a relationship with your therapist, maintain and strengthen that relationship over time, and navigate rupture and repair.

Casey shares, “your attachment strategies may show up even in the seemingly little things.”

Notice, for example,

  • How do you feel when your therapist is running a few minutes late or has to reschedule a session?
  • How aware of you are the time that passes in session?  
  • Do you feel it is your responsibility to end the session right at the 50-minute mark, as to not “overstay” your welcome?  

This reflection can offer additional data points, more information or evidence about your attachment-related dynamics.

So, Now What?

Casey explains, “Because your attachment strategies are bound to show up in the therapeutic relationship, you have the opportunity to decide whether or not you want to talk about them. Often, naming the way you feel about your therapist or the experience of therapy can deepen the relationship and open the door to new forms of healing.”

Depending on their therapeutic style, your therapist might initiate this type of dialogue with you. They may ask you questions about how the space has felt for you, or invite you to share what’s working and what’s not. Casey suggests a meta-process: “If you’re new to naming these feelings, begin by talking about talking about them.”

Before talking about the feelings directly, you can talk about the possibility of discussing the feelings with your therapist. “You could even say to your therapist, ‘Hey, I read this blog about attachment and therapy and I was interested about how that might relate to our work together,” says Casey, “Odds are, your therapist will have some questions or strategies for facilitating the conversation.”

Noticing what comes up in your relationship with your therapist is another well of potential information on your journey of deeply knowing yourself. And remember: your attachment style is not static or unchangeable, and it does not dictate the quality or health of your relationships.

If your interest has been piqued and you’d like to connect with a member of our team, please fill out our intake form.