Chaotic Attachment: Can People Change?

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Annie Gurton uses a mixed toolbox of psychotherapeutic techniques, theories and approaches which include elements of classical Rogerian Person-Centred, Human Givens, Freudian, Adlerian, NLP, CBT ...Read More

It is a fact frequently quoted these days, that the...

It is a fact frequently quoted these days, that the way we experienced our childhoods has a profound and predictable effect on us as adults. People whose primary caregiver (usually their mother but not always or necessarily so) was consistently there for them, reliable, reassuring and safe, turn into adults who are confident, self-assured, resilient and stable.

Do you have successful adult relationships, even if you have experienced a divorce? Can you manage stress and easily forgive others? Do you let go of grudges? Are you affectionate without expectation? Do you have balanced, expressive emotions?


Then you probably have a secure style of attachment, your childhood was safe, and you don’t need to read further.

Children whose primary caregiver, on the other hand, was unreliable, who failed to provide a place or sense of safety, and/or was abusive, will become adults who are insecure, and that insecurity can manifest in one of several ways. They grow up with a sense that their lives are chaotic and disorganized. They can be explosive, unpredictable and abusive – because that’s what they experienced as children. They can find it hard to trust even though they crave security. They tend to “test” the people they are in a relationship with by pushing the boundaries, doing outrageous and unacceptable things. When their significant other says that enough is enough and ends the relationship, the chaotic personality says, “See, I told you so – I knew you would leave in the end.”

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It is not their fault. People who have a chaotic lifestyle invariably have parents who themselves lack boundaries and structure. They lack the skills to bond properly and parent successfully, and are unable to be consistently available and willing to meet their child’s needs. The child learns through being rebuffed time and again to keep their needs to themselves because if they try and get their needs met, they end up being unsatisfied or hurt. If you know that the answer is always “no” you stop asking the question.

Sometimes these parents are inconsistent and unpredictable. Sometimes they are there, sometimes they are not. The child learns that what they need is only available sometimes and they cannot anticipate when those times will be. Unexpectedly, the child develops a deep-seated anxiety about whether their caregiver will be there for them. They learn to stay close to the caregiver so that they are there when the need provision is available; as a result that cuts off their need to explore and develop self-confidence.

The message they subconsciously tell themselves is that they are not good enough to attract appropriate care.

People who have experienced such parenting learn not to trust those around them, and develop strategies for self-protection. There is frequently a subconscious message – “I don’t need anyone, I can do it myself” – that they bring into even their most intimate relationships. They deny and hide their feelings and needs in order to be close to others and feel safe. They can develop a deep sense of hyper vigilance and, worst of all, a low sense of self-worth. The message they subconsciously tell themselves is that they are not good enough to attract appropriate care.

If the parent is unresponsive to their needs, the child doesn’t think the problem lies with the parent – they think it’s their fault. They feel that in some way they are inadequate and a failure at using their innate skills to request attention. This translates into a sense of low self-esteem when they are adults. This is also true if the parent is abusive; the child subconsciously thinks that in some way they are a failure, unlovable and deserving of cruelty. The child attempts to find a way to attract positive attention, and this may lead to them developing unsociable learned behaviors for attention-seeking and to get satisfaction.

Therapy can work well for people with a disorganized and chaotic temperament. Provided the therapist is mature and experienced, something very profound can take place. For the first time in their lives, people with a chaotic style can experience a relationship which is focused on their needs, with a person who is attuned to understanding them and working with them. Someone they can rely on, and who is there consistently in a safe environment.

This can lead to a degree of attachment between therapist and client. It is usually temporary, although sometimes it can last for up to five years. In effect, the client will fast-track through the missing stages of childhood when safety and security were absent, but they almost always arrive at a point where, like the secure young adult, they are ready to engage with life on their own, in a secure and resilient way. The relationship with the therapist can wake their old unmet needs for connection, to see themselves positively reflected, and for their innate need to be respected to be met, often for the first time in their lives.

The relationship with the therapist can wake their old unmet needs for connection…

Regardless of how difficult, traumatic or unsatisfactory someone’s childhood is, it is never too late to repair the damage and heal. People who are highly chaotic can, in the right therapeutic hands, find themselves believing in themselves, confident and resilient. Our attachment styles developed in childhood translate directly into attachment styles in adulthood, but they are not fixed. People can change, and people do heal.

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