Bustle’s Personal Best is a series on how to identify — and then unabashedly go after — what you truly want, by learning from people who’ve already done it. In this edition, 34-year-old family therapist and attachment coach Jessica Da Silva shares with writer Kate Morgan how she healed her anxious attachment.
Late in my 20s, I found myself in a relationship that had turned abusive. It wasn’t my first dysfunctional relationship — I’d already been married at 19 and divorced at 21. In fact, all of my relationships up to that point had been dysfunctional failures. But I was determined that the last one would be, well, the last one. I knew something had to change, and I realized that thing was me. I went back to school, and began studying attachment theory.
Attachment stems from the relationship between caregiver and child in early childhood. It can get a bit complicated, psychologically speaking, but really, it’s this simple: Our attachment style is the way we experience love. Our earliest relationships — the first time we learn what it’s like to love or be loved — shape our attachment style.
There’s a disorganized attachment style, which puts you constantly on edge. It develops in children whose parents don’t soothe their feelings of fear or distress. Another name for that style is fearful attachment.
People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style are independent and uncomfortable with intimacy. They don’t let anyone get too close.
Then there’s anxious attachment, otherwise known as neediness. People with this attachment style get invested in their relationships to the point of co-dependency. They’re desperate for love and affection. The anxious attachment style was predominantly my attachment style.
When you have an anxious attachment style, you're putting all of this responsibility onto this other person to meet every single need that you have.
With the anxious attachment style, your caregivers were attuned to you. They met your physical and emotional needs, except it was inconsistent. My mom was very nurturing, but she worked a lot. I was the only child for five years, so I got a lot of attention, and then all of a sudden, I had younger siblings and that went away. My mom had my two younger sisters, and she had her own mental health challenges. So she couldn't be there for me all the time, or at least not the way that I needed, to feel seen to feel loved to feel supported. So that created that anxious way of experiencing love where I just longed for it. It was like, I want more of Mom; what do I have to do? What do I have to do to get mom's love? You do whatever you can, in order to get that attention, and to get that connection.
My dad was there as well — physically present, but emotionally disconnected. He had more of a dismissive-avoidant attachment style. All of these different factors played into why I was so needy.
When you have an anxious attachment style, you're putting all of this responsibility onto this other person to meet every single need that you have. You're craving external validation; you're craving love. That's why people with anxious attachments tend to jump from one relationship to another. These patterns and cycles continue on until we decide that we want something different for our lives, and we don't want these dysfunctional ways of experiencing love anymore.
My training is in marriage and family therapy, and I got my bachelor's in psychology. I've always been very, very interested in relationship dynamics and family dynamics. When my last relationship got to the point where it was abusive, I realized, Whoa, this is not this is not the life I want. That’s when I went into graduate school and started learning about all this stuff and started doing my own self-development. I got my master's in marriage and family therapy, and I realized, I needed to love myself. I needed to find my worth, so that I could find somebody worthy as well. I needed to go from anxious attachment to secure attachment.
In psychology, they call it earned secure attachment, because you are working for it. It takes it takes a lot of effort to change these ways of experiencing love, but it is possible.
It starts with creating a vision for who the secure you is. You know how you want to experience relationships. Then from there, it's really just learning how to be that person. It’s cognitive behavioral therapy, where you learn to self-soothe and self-regulate.
I began challenging my insecure thinking patterns. I’d think, “this person is going to leave me,” and then stop and force myself to consider, “is that true? Or is it just an insecurity?”
It takes it takes a lot of effort to change these ways of experiencing love, but it is possible.
I constantly ask myself, How would secure-me feel? How would she respond to this? It was like learning to speak another language. At first, I’d have to stop and translate my responses, thinking about what secure-me would say. Eventually, I became fluent: I didn’t have to replace that insecure thought with the secure one. I just responded from a secure place, because I’d become the version of myself I envisioned.
A lot of it is learning to accept yourself and to have patience with yourself, because any healing work is going to take time. This is an ongoing process. Often it feels like a never-ending process, but it's just part of being human.
When I started doing more of this personal development work, I became stronger and more self-assured and more secure, and I found somebody secure as well. Someone who respects me, someone who honors my boundaries. I'm finally in my healthiest relationship ever, and it's been almost five years. Applying this framework into my relationship has helped tremendously.
It's amazing to see how one person changing allows other family members to feel safe and more secure as well. There's been so much more communication in our family. Feeling more grounded in who you are allows other people to feel more secure as well. It made me realize, Wow, I really can change. I really can make a difference in my own life. But on top of that, I can help other people on their path to secure attachment.