The basic human condition is to search for safety and connection in relationships. It is an evolutionary means of survival that has been programmed into our DNA. As children, we need to experience consistency from caregivers to feel safe. We need to be seen emotionally to have the feeling that someone “gets us.” We need to know that when we are distressed, someone can calm us down. And we need to feel celebrated for our achievements. As adults, we may or may not have experienced some or all of these needs. Unmet attachment needs can shape the way we show up in our relationships, and impact our mental health. For some, that means becoming pre-occupied with the availability of our romantic interest, and remaining in a state of hyper-vigilance. For others, that means feeling overwhelmed, and shutting down. And if that wasn’t enough to grapple with, there are those who experience a combination of both, with different people, or the same person.
Therapy is largely about getting in touch with our attachment models—the messages we internalized about ourselves, and others as children. If our experiences with caregivers, and even peers, were marked by feelings of shame or not feeling safe, we will most likely find ourselves in those same situations as adults, because they feel familiar. Reprogramming our attachment models means noticing how we orient towards these older experiences when we meet new people, but also recording new experiences that counter our old ways of engaging. One of the best ways to start working on our attachment needs is with a therapist. In therapy we build up a repertoire of positive experiences with someone who is reliable and emotionally attuned to our experience. Experiencing this gives us something to search for when we meet new people. We start to “go where the water is warm” because we know what warm feels like.