Love, attachment and intimacy. Part 3/4: disorganised or fearful attachment

This is the third of four articles about the way we form relationships, known as an attachment style. This article explores disorganised or fearful attachment. Taking early experiences with parents or carers as the blueprint, disorganised attachment originates in an abiding fear due to lack of safety, resulting in negative views about life, dissociation, and emotional disregulation. In adult life, this makes relationships problematic, as the primary concern of the fearfully attached is avoiding danger and, for that reason, emotions are either heightened or blocked and hypervigilance is the norm.

Each of these four articles about attachment includes music which exemplifies the attachment style. Disorganised or fearful attachment is illustrated by Björk’s Hyperballad. Finally, the role of psychotherapy is outlined, the process of helping someone with fearful attachment reach a place of emotional security and safety. 

The discovery of disorganised attachment

The first article about attachment briefly outlined the groundbreaking research of Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, who described the avoidant, ambivalent and secure attachment styles of infants in their relationships with parents. The method was the strange situation procedure, in which the behaviour of children was observed when a stranger entered the room, the mother left the room, returned, left again, and returned again. Mary Ainsworth was interested in particular in the nature of the reunion, the child’s ability to explore the room when the mother was and was not present, and the infant’s response to the stranger. Was the child distressed when mother left? Was s/he comforted on mother’s return? Did s/he feel safe enough to explore the room? Did the infant prefer the mother or the stranger? The infant’s experience of receiving care forms what John Bowlby called an internal working model in the child, a relational blueprint of what to expect in the world, and the child’s decision about who s/he needs to be to thrive or survive in the world. Each attachment style has a long-term impact on the growing child’s view of themselves, of others and relationships, right into adulthood, unless significant events fundamentally change the relational blueprint.

Mary Ainsworth, John Bowlby, Mary Main: three pioneers of attachment research.

The work of Ainsworth and Bowlby from the 1950s onwards was a revolution in understanding the long-term impact of how infants form relationships. The work of Mary Main, from the mid 1970s onwards, was equally revolutionary. Mary Main and her research colleague, Judith Solomon, reviewed 200 videotapes of infants whose behaviour patterns in the strange situation procedure had been categorised as avoidant, ambivalent or secure attachment, but each included elements which did not fit any of these established categories. They identified that 90% of these atypical infants had features in common. At the reappearance of mother they physically froze, or they approached their mother but then backed away, collapsed to the floor, and looked dazed. Mary Main concluded that the internal working model of the infant was an impossible contradiction between the impulse to approach and to avoid. The child’s internal narrative was saying: I am dependent and therefore mother should be safe, but she isn’t safe and I have nowhere else to go. This alarms the child with cognitive disorientation and emotional disorganisation: the world is not a safe place, I am not safe, and I have nowhere to turn for comfort. This could apply, of course, to the child’s relationship to either parent. This is disorganised attachment.

As with the other three articles about attachment, in this article the patterns for disorganised attachment are shown for the infant/parent relationship and for adult relationships, with the same headings and subheadings in all four attachment articles for easy comparison. Disorganised attachment is then illustrated by a popular song, Hyperballad by Björk, and the role of therapy in repairing the emotional deficits of the attachment style is described.

The use of the words ‘intimate’ and ‘intimacy’ in these articles should be explained. In everyday language, these words are often used as a euphemism for sex, but here it has a broader meaning: intimacy is any encounter between two people where they are truly open, without the need for social role-playing or emotional barriers, without any expectation that oneself or another is anything but their honest self. The parent-child relationship is therefore a powerful developmental blueprint for intimacy: the measure of acceptance the child feels from the parent is the measure of how safe it feels for the growing person to be intimate, to express how they truly feel, and engage meaningfully in relationships with others.

Pattern of parent/child relationship in disorganised attachment

Parental availability: how emotionally available the parent is to the child

The child’s regular experience of the parent is one of fear. A fearful child is generally a sign of maltreatment, a parent or parents who are emotionally or physically abusive. In such cases, the parent may not be abusive all the time, but may fluctuate between nurturing care one minute, and raging rejection the next, responding briefly to the child’s needs but then ignoring, mocking or terrifying the child. Fear becomes the child’s baseline emotion: rejection becomes the expectation.

In some cases, disorganised attachment in the child is not the result of parental abuse. Parents may themselves be struggling too much to be truly available for the child. If the child sees that the parent has erratic moods, or that parents themselves are frightened, sometimes to the point of dissociation (feeling disconnected) in a trance-like state, the child experiences their parents as emotionally unavailable, as withdrawing rather than nurturing. From this regular experience, the child concludes that they are rejected, and that the parent will never be truly available. For an infant with entirely dependent needs, this is deeply frightening.

Emotional acceptance: how accepted the child feels by the parent

The chief characteristic of the parent is that s/he scares the child with emotional and possibly physical punishment and rejection. The parent is both a figure of needed comfort and of existential fear. The messages the child receives from the parent cause the child such a level of anxiety that s/he becomes emotionally detached. The result of detachment is great difficulty in processing emotions, as the manner in which emotions are processed is something the child learns from their caregiver, who is unavailable. This lack of emotional regulation leads, in turn, to the child’s difficulty in creating a sense of themselves, in forming a personal identity.

Parent/child relationship: the nature of early interactions between parent and child   

This creates the key issue for the child: survival. The irresolvable dilemma for the child is that the person who should be the provider of safety and care is unsafe and feels dangerous to continued existence. Because this dilemma cannot be resolved practically, it is resolved cognitively: by detaching, dissociating, becoming absent, and mentally blocking what is too fearful to take in. This internal absence is the child’s way of trying to remove her/himself from continued trauma.

At the age of 1, the child appears confused and dazed as a result of the stress hormones flooding their body, bringing on the fight, flight or freeze response. (For more on fight, flight or freeze and stress hormones, click here). By the age of 5, it is common for the disorganised child to have a strategy: reverse the roles of child and parent. Ultimately, as a matter of survival, a small child cannot reject the parents upon whom they are dependent, so this inversion, with the child looking after the parent, is a way of maintaining proximity. Either the child asserts their parental role with the same punishing aggression they received, or they give the parents the care they would like to have received themselves, an implicit lesson in what they needed all along, at the expense of the child losing their childhood.

Secure base: a measure of the child’s sense of security, whether or not s/he can use the parent as a secure base from which to explore the world, knowing the parent will be welcoming on their return

The key point in disorganised attachment is not whether the parents experienced trauma, but whether parents have unresolved trauma. If parents themselves experienced distress that is unprocessed, they are ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of child care. The child’s expression of needs, such as crying in the night, triggers the parent’s unresolved emotions, which are never far from the surface. The resulting parental response, verbally or physically threatening the child, or completely retreating, leaves the child’s needs unmet. This threat or retreat leads to the child’s terror, feeling endangered rather than nurtured by their attachment figure.

For such a child there is no secure base from which to explore the world. In the strange situation procedure, when the parent is absent the child cries but, on the parent’s return, the child cries more and cannot be soothed. Sometimes the child looks dazed or runs towards the returned parent but then runs away: the child both wants and fears the parent, and prefers the company of strangers.

Developmental steps: how supported the child is by the parent in their emotional and relational development  

When the child makes incremental steps towards independence — walking, talking, dressing, developing interests that are not those of the parents — the disorganised child has decided from experience that being a dependent child is dangerous, so parental support or approval is not sought. Due to the primary emotional experience of fear, development is interrupted: speech patterns may be confused, vague, and unable to stay on topic; memory has significant gaps; physical movement may be uncoordinated or paralysed when afraid; s/he may have an intense awareness of personal space, and be in a persistent state of hyper-vigilance.

Pattern in adult relationships

Sense of self: the person’s view of themself and relationship with their own emotions

Mary Main and Judith Solomon noted that, in both childhood and adulthood, the person with disorganised attachment also displays character features of one or more of avoidant, ambivalent and/or even secure attachment. It is for this reason that, in their earlier groundbreaking work, Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby did not recognise disorganised attachment as a discrete pattern. In adulthood, disorganised attachment is called the fearful personality, marked out from other attachment styles by emotional detachment and the lack of a continuous or narrative sense of self.

The securely attached child receives parental nurturing: support in times of emotional difficulty, celebration of their successes, and secure boundaries, the building blocks for establishing an internal world, a positive sense of identity. The disorganised child’s abiding fear means s/he is preoccupied with safety and survival so, without parental support, emotions cannot be processed and the internal world, the sense of identity, remains a vacuum filled with fear.

This leads to a chronic state of biological over-stimulation. Together, the amygdala, the alarm centre of the brain, and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which are meant to be temporarily activated in times of danger, are jammed in the ON position, in a continuous state of fight, flight or freeze. The result of this continuous state of emergency is either dissociation, not feeling located in one’s own body, or an awareness of the body which is frightening, or swapping between dissociation and frightening awareness. (For more details on the effect of stress hormones, click here). The effect of this trauma on the brain is to suppress the consciously thinking hippocampus, leaving the alarmed amygdala to react without the protection of understanding, not able to think through the issue in the moment. Everything is intensely present tense alarm, easily triggered by non-threatening events which appear dangerous. Among the long-term physical effects of being in this chronic over-stimulated state are muscle tension, high blood pressure, breathing difficulties, poor sleep, erosion of thyroid function and a compromised immune system.

Personal communication: how well the person can communicate on a personal, intimate level 

The communication style of the fearful personality is characterised by negative global views of life, the world and the self. Positives tend to be countered with negatives. The dissociation which results in a lack of a sense of continuous self leads to an inability to see relationships clearly or consistently, and can result in difficulty feeling empathy for others. Small events can be blown out of all proportion, real or imagined sleights are harboured in the heart, and relational difficulties appear insurmountable. Imagine the fearful adult stuck in the same place as the neglected or abused child s/he once was: the emotional blueprint is one of nowhere to turn, no support, no possible resolution.

One observable consequence of this fear is lapses of logic, which can result in magical thinking. When talking about their upbringing, for example, someone with a disorganised/fearful attachment may speak as if a dead person who was alive in their childhood was still alive now, or they may believe that their revenge fantasies were responsible for hurting or killing someone. This has been explained above in relation to the thinking hippocampus overwhelmed by the alarmed amygdala. In developmental terms, this is the person thinking as a child, what Transactional Analysis (a branch of psychotherapy) calls the Child ego state, with a capital C to differentiate it from an actual child.

It is a global truth that, in a traumatic situation and under too much stress, when our emotional resources are inundated, there is a general tendency to return to the Child ego state where it feels that others are in control and we are not. But someone with a disorganised/fearful attachment had such a traumatic upbringing that their resources for handling difficult situations are low. Because the volume and constancy of the trauma was so great, they get stuck in replaying the trauma of the Child. Their ability to develop adult cognitive resources is compromised, so the tendency is to be swept along by the negative emotions they felt in childhood, unable to stand back and assess the situation.

For the fearfully attached, not feeling in control is a chronic default position. This results in a generalised feeling of being trapped with no way out, and may involve fantasies that ‘nothing ever goes right for me’, or ‘everyone is out to get me’, or a tendency to believe conspiracy theories to fuel the fire of fear.

Relationships: the nature of the person’s emotional engagement with others

In terms of engagement with others, the other three attachment styles have a strategy based on the internal working model learned in childhood. The securely attached learned the strategy: I can be appropriately open about my emotional needs and enough of the time my needs will be recognised and met. The ambivalently attached learned: my emotional needs are exceedingly difficult to meet, so I will either plead for attention, show anger to demonstrate how much I need to be noticed when I’m not, or withdraw in defeat to avoid being hurt again. The avoidantly attached learned: my emotional needs are not allowed and therefore dangerous, so I either shouldn’t have any emotions or shouldn’t admit to them.

Each learned strategy is an internal organisation of how to function in relationships. What marks out disorganised attachment is the internal chaos, the lack of a learned strategy to indicate how to function. Since there is no strategy, for those with disorganised attachment it feels impossible to have emotional needs met like the securely attached, or to have the compromise strategy of the ambivalent or the avoidant. All that’s left is an abiding fear with no known resolution. This is shown graphically when the child runs to the parent for comfort then turns and runs away in fear. The internal world is an impossible contradiction: terror of abandonment coupled with avoidance of closeness. It is unsurprising, then, that this developmental blueprint results in a regular or perhaps global sense of being unsafe and either a lack of emotional containment or emotional shutdown.

The fearful person still desires the safety of that primal intimate relationship in its adult, romantic form, but the more intimacy becomes real, the more dangerous it feels. The lack of a coherent or solid sense of self means that connection with another feels like an existential threat to identity. The partner implicitly comes to represent past parental neglect and/or abuse — and therefore danger and rejection — leading to fear, confusion, panic and rage. This is transference, when the emotions and thoughts of one situation from the past are transferred to another in the present. This happens unconsciously due to unresolved trauma: all the fearfully-attached adult and their partner are likely to know is that increased intimacy regularly brings emotional turmoil.

A song of disorganised attachment: Hyperballad by Björk

It is important to understand that each of the four attachment styles has a range, so some people are more or less disorganised than others. One person may be able to manage their fearfulness to a greater or lesser extent due to being with an understanding and loving partner, while another may be terrified by feeling subsumed by the personality of another, or by the fear of reliving their childhood neglect in transference, so the relationship seems impossible.

A song which appears to express one person’s compromise, their way of managing their fearful attachment in a romantic relationship, is Hyperballad by Icelandic composer and singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir. As we have seen, for the fearfully attached, the more intimacy becomes real, the more dangerous it feels. My interpretation is that the character in this song has found a way to express and exorcise her rage at abuse or neglect carried in the Child ego state, which threatens to overwhelm her and destroy the relationship. Her rage is secretly enacted every morning by going to the edge of a mountain top, hurling objects down, watching and hearing them crash, and imagining her body slamming against the rocks below. Thus the child who ran to the parent for comfort then turned and ran away in fear is symbolically enacted and temporarily resolved every morning: the Child’s terror of existential abandonment is ended in the ultimate fantasy of self-destruction, and she thus has “a habit, a way to start the day … so I can feel happier to be safe up here with you”, tolerating closeness by imaginatively enacting her accompanying fear and rage. It is my therapeutic experience that, for some with a disorganised or fearful attachment, suicide fantasies perform the function expressed in the song: knowing there is a way out allows the person, day by day, to decide they will live.

Click the picture to see a performance of the song, which opens in YouTube.

We live on a mountain, right at the top:
This beautiful view from the top of the mountain.
Every morning I walk towards the edge
And throw little things off,
Like car-parts, bottles and cutlery,
Whatever I find lying around.
It’s become a habit, a way to start the day.

I go through all this before you wake up
So I can feel happier to be safe up here with you.
I go through all this before you wake up
So I can feel happier to be safe up here with you.

It’s real early morning, no one is awake.
I’m back at my cliff and I’m still throwing things off.
I listen to the sounds they make on their way down.
I follow with my eyes till they crash.
I wonder what my body would sound like
Slamming against those rocks;
And when it lands will my eyes be closed or open?

I go through all this before you wake up
So I can feel happier to be safe up here with you.
I go through all this before you wake up
So I can feel happier to be safe up here with you.

The role of counselling and psychotherapy

The role of therapy cognitively is to understand how the adaptation of disorganised attachment was reached, to tell the story and have it heard and understood. Emotionally, therapy aims to provide the client with experiences of genuine care and nurture, to dispel the internal chaos, creating a new internal working model based on building trust between therapist and client. In this way, the therapist becomes a kind of replacement parent-figure, a secure base calmly absorbing the client’s fear and existential anxiety in ways the parents never did, and friends could never be expected to. This is reparative work, going to the root, building from the ground up, slowly working with the client to establish that missing sense of self.

This requires a great deal of trust in the therapeutic relationship from the client. This can be a tall order when the adaptation in the face of childhood abuse or neglect was to keep safe by trusting no one. If this block to progress can be carefully removed – and, with time, it can – then step by step comes the client’s emerging ability to lay aside global suspicion and to trust. Trust develops by degrees and with nuance, learning to make judgements about who and how much to trust. As we have seen, another adaptation in disorganised attachment may be suicide fantasies as an escape hatch that makes living possible. Eventually, through the therapeutic relationship, the goal is to receive and absorb enough genuine care for life to feel manageable and enjoyable, so that global suspicion and suicide fantasies no longer feel necessary.

An important element in this process is the client’s relationship with their own body, which holds their traumatised physical processes. The natural response to physical and mental hypervigilance (being super-sensitive to surroundings, fearing danger) is for the mind to want to escape, to dissociate from the body. A fearful person does not want to feel their own emotions but doing so, at a pace that feels safe, is essential to the reintegration of mind and body. Over time, we build the tolerance for difficult emotions, for bodily sensations, as doing so diffuses their potency and puts the person back in charge, no longer ruled by their trauma. We work incrementally and with care on the ability to feel emotions without mentally escaping, building self-awareness and a shared vocabulary for expressing feelings. Thus, by increasing emotional self-regulation, we decrease and then cease the cycle of feeling trapped by sensations in the body. Instead, the body becomes an important sender of signals about how to maintain our well-being.

In this way, the plan is to move as far as possible towards an earned secure attachment, a state in which enough care has been experienced that the person can begin to value and care for themselves. This is the subject of the fourth and final of these articles about attachment. It never ceases to be a privilege to be part of this process.


About Ian Pittaway

Ian is a psychotherapist and writer with a private practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Ian’s therapy is integrative, chiefly comprising key elements of transactional analysis, object relations, attachment research and person centred therapy. Ian has a special interest in trauma recovery and bereavement.

To contact Ian, call 07504 269 855 or click here.


© Ian Pittaway Therapy. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.