How To Identify The Signs And Heal

How To Identify The Signs And Heal

Things they don’t tell you when you’re young: understanding yourself, and why you do the things you do, isn’t an easy or straightforward journey. Luckily, some smart people have dedicated their lives to the human psyche (a hefty undertaking, shoutout to psychologists) and developed theories that can help you better understand yourself and how you form and maintain connections, a.k.a. your attachment style.

“Essentially, an attachment style is the way in which a person relates to others in relationships,” says Dr. Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, director of psychological services at Amwell.

Ever noticed how certain people seem to easily jump back into dating and form new connections after a breakup, while others are still hung up on a relationship that ended more than a year ago? It might seem like luck of the draw, but those behaviors actually stem from differences in attachment styles.

Attachment styles fall into two categories—secure and insecure—and begin when you’re an infant with your caregiver(s), explains Henderson. “When a caregiver is responsive, engaged, and connected with a child from the beginning, that can lead to secure attachment,” she says. “You can trust the people around you, you can love people, and you yourself can accept love. You can get your needs met, and you can feel secure in how you interact with others in the world.”

Insecure attachment styles are more complex. “They may start to develop when a caregiver has difficulty either consistently meeting the needs of an infant or are absent, neglectful, or abusive,” says Henderson. Out of the three insecure styles–anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment–the latter is the most uncommon, rare, and confusing style. People with disorganized attachment struggle to feel safe in relationships and may push others away, even while saying that they want intimacy. Cold one moment, then overly engaged the next, their behavior can be an emotional, painful rollercoaster.

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If that sounds familiar, you may have disorganized attachment style. But before you diagnose yourself as doomed in relationships forever, it’s important to note that these are learned behaviors… which means they can be unlearned. “While we can usually identify more strongly with one type of attachment style, we don’t fit neatly in a box,” adds Henderson. “Different areas of our lives bring out different attachment styles with us, and it can change over time.”

Whether you’re beginning your journey of self-discovery, or you’ve been at it for years, learning about your attachment style is key to understanding yourself better. “It can validate what’s going on for you [because] putting language to what you’ve been struggling with is helpful,” says Henderson. Think of it as another step towards self-improvement, that can help you work on changing destructive behaviors and ultimately develop healthy, long-lasting relationships.

What is disorganized attachment style?

Basically, disorganized attachment style is a type of insecure attachment that results from childhood experiences such as abuse and neglect, explains Silvi Saxena, MBA, MSW, LSW, CCTP, OSW-C. Because people learn how to interact with others based on their early experiences with caregivers, they develop unconscious expectations of how others will respond to our needs for care and connection.

When a child’s caregivers are inconsistent or unpredictable, that child doesn’t know what to do with the lack of reliability at home and can develop disorganized attachment style, explains Amanda Pasciucco, LMFT, an AASECT-certified sex and relationship therapist.

With disorganized attachment, a person wants both to attach to others and avoid a connection at all costs. Someone with disorganized attachment wants a close, intimate relationship, but feels incapable of achieving it because it’s so frightening to them. They may be flooded with intense feelings and not know how to manage them.

Is fearful-avoidant the same as disorganized attachment?

Yep, the “fearful-avoidant” attachment style is just another name for the disorganized attachment style, says Jordan.

What does disorganized attachment feel like?

It can be scary and uncomfortable to have this type of attachment style where you think you have an inability to feel safe and cared for, despite craving that very thing. “The subjective state of a person with disorganization tends to be one of feeling flooded, traumatized, unsafe, and confused fear,” says Dr. Krista Jordan, PhD, board-certified psychologist and therapist.

A trademark of disorganized attachment is conflicting emotions, as one feels torn between wanting to belong, to be loved, and to love people, but not being able to let anyone in. “They’re afraid that the people who they’re closest to are going to hurt them, and feel like rejection and hurt are inevitable,” says Henderson.

What does disorganized attachment look like in adults?

Those conflicting emotions manifest in confusing behavior with all kinds of relationships–friendships, familial connections, romantic partnerships, and even professional relationships. It’s common for adults to experience the same type of abuse or neglect in adulthood as they did when they were children, and they may end up with romantic partners who were just as unavailable as their parents, says Pasciucco.

But even if friends, partners, family members, and coworkers support them, people with disorganized attachment tend to have a hard time believing that. They often struggle to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors and can act impulsively and inconsistently–hot-and-heavy one second, cold and distant the next.

Being confused, worried, and unsure of relationships is typical of disorganized attachment. This can lead to self-sabotage in the form of “I’m leaving you before you have a chance to hurt me,” adds Henderson.

Of course, the everyday impact of this attachment style varies from person to person. Where some people with more mild levels of disorganization feel these emotions and exhibit those behaviors occasionally, others with more severe disorganization experience it chronically—and the repercussions can be serious. “Disorganized attachment is correlated with dissociation, self-harm, addiction, depression, PTSD, and most mental illnesses,” says Jordan. “It can also lead to difficulties in school for children and young adults as it drains mental resources that are needed for acquiring and mastering new information.”

How do I know if I have disorganized attachment style?

Disorganized attachment manifests itself differently in everyone, but signs often include having low self-esteem and low self-worth that impacts your ability to keep consistent, safe-feeling, and long-lasting relationships, says Saxena.

But beware the self-diagnosis trap: It’s normal to be afraid of getting hurt, but still want a close relationship. (Vulnerability can be scary!) The only way to really know if you have disorganized attachment style is through a diagnosis from a qualified mental health professional, trained in identifying adult attachment patterns.

“You cannot reliably self-assess attachment [styles] because we cannot be truly objective about unconscious processes like attachment,” explains Jordan. So those quizzes and questionnaires on the internet? Skip ’em, and speak to a therapist instead.

I’ve been diagnosed with disorganized attachment style. Now what?

1. Learn self-regulation and effective communication techniques.

If you associate with disorganized attachment style, start learning how to self-regulate your emotions and behaviors. “But it’s important to work with a professional who can figure out how to navigate that with you effectively,” says Henderson. “It can be helpful to talk about your past and how these attachment tendencies may have come about but do so in a healthy way with tools to cope with the feelings that come up.”

One tool Henderson suggests that can be particularly helpful as part of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is learning “I statements,” as in “I feel ___ when ___ happens.” These types of statements can help you communicate exactly what is going on in your head that feels so overwhelming.

2. Recognize that you’re not in this alone.

It’s natural to want a quick fix you can DIY, but we’re talking about rewiring your relationship template here. Depending on how deeply ingrained this behavior is, that’s not a fast process, so anticipate that this work will take months or years, which is why recruiting the right help is key. Find a therapist that is familiar with attachment theory and has an effective way of working with this problem. They can guide you in developing appropriate coping mechanisms.

Beyond having a therapist support you on this journey, attachment patterns can also be reworked in romantic partnerships, so find an attachment-based couples therapist to guide the two of you in healing each other’s attachment wounds through your relationship, suggests Jordan. This style of couples therapy is called the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT).

3. Understand that your attachment style is subject to change.

While attachment is often formed in the early days with your caregiver, you could’ve had a great childhood, yet still struggle with relationships as an adult. Trauma can happen at any stage of life, making a once securely-attached person start to exhibit disorganized attachment. “Building a foundation is really important, but our life events and our relationships with others as we age can shift how we connect and form relationships. It’s a moving, living, breathing, evolving thing,” says Henderson.

The bright side? That also means disorganized attachment style isn’t necessarily a life sentence. Everyone can grow and change how they relate and connect with others.

How do you support someone with disorganized attachment?

It all comes down to the root cause of disorganized attachment: fear. Proving you are a safe person is the number one thing you can do for someone diagnosed with this attachment style. “Given that they developed an expectation that people can be sources of pain, you need to be very patient and extremely consistent in order to help a person with a disorganized style,” says Jordan. Some expert-approved tips include:

    1. Demonstrate that you’re there for them, that you care for and love them, and make your affection for them is known. It can even be helpful to know their primary and secondary love languages to ensure you’re showing up for them in the ways that matter.
    2. Communicate through both words and actions that you’re not going to disappear unnecessarily or abandon them, which will build trust.
    3. Remain calm throughout all the emotional disregulation they experience.
    4. Recognize that there’s inconsistency in how this person approaches your relationship, and tolerate the ups-and-downs as much as you are personally able to.


Having a relationship with someone with disorganized attachment style tendencies can be extremely taxing. So, while you can support them in the aforementioned ways, only they can learn to rewire their relationship template. “Know your limits around what you can do for somebody who’s struggling with significant attachment problems,” says Henderson. “As much as you care or love them, you can’t save them or fix it.”

Whether you or a loved one has disorganized attachment style, with the right support system and commitment to self-work, anyone can experience many affectionate, long-lasting, and meaningful relationships.

Hunter Levitan
Hunter Levitan is a freelance journalist specializing in fashion, style, culture, sex, and wellness stories, as well as a writer/poet, photographer, and mixed media brand consultant.

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