What Attachment Theory Says About the Cause of Your Fears
To travel is to be a stranger in a strange land. We may be calling your fears about this illogical today, but even though they’re out of proportion to risk, in fact, they’re perfectly natural. Humans are designed to fear strange situations. That’s just how we’re made.
But in 1969, when Mary Ainsworth started researching how children react to strange situations, she wasn’t thinking about travel at all. She was a student of John Bowlby, the guy who wrote the book on mother-child attachment, and she wanted to carry on in his tradition and add to our store of knowledge about this oh-so-important first relationship.
Now Bowlby had developed his theories by working with children who’d been orphaned in WWII. He’d observed their reactions to mom substitutes, the nurses and aides who cared for them in the institutions where they were raised. He studied children who were homeless too, children who had no reliable caregiver, paid or otherwise, to meet their needs.
The conclusion he drew from all his work and training was that children need mothers who will be there for them. And before you say, “Yeah, duh,” you might want to consider that Bowlby himself was pretty much raised by nannies until the ripe old age of 7, at which point he was sent away to boarding school. Prior to his departure, he spent some time with his mother, about an hour a day, if she was in town. She didn’t want to spoil him.
She wasn’t a bad person. At least that’s what I think. She was just motivated by the upper-middle-class ambition to inch forward into the lower-upper class. She was a product of the prevailing “wisdom” of her time, which said children should be thrown into a room and raised together, like siblings. Later, as adults, they could call in the favors from those boyhood bonds and use them to jump class.
That practice probably worked for some. But the separation from his mother was extremely painful to Bowlby, and he spent his career proving that children need a consistent caregiver in their lives. Maybe that was his way of rubbing his mother’s nose in the dirt. I don’t know.
Anyway, all this to say that Bowlby’s theories may seem obvious now, but they were ground-breaking at the time. His work shifted our understanding of the importance of strong parent-child bonds, and that needed to happen.
The Strange Situation
That’s where Ainsworth comes in, with her desire to expand on Bowlby’s work. She wanted to focus on “proximity seeking” in particular, which is just a fancy-pants way of saying that little kids will make a beeline for their mom when they’re scared. We do this naturally, automatically, when we’re little, because that’s how we evolved. Seeking closeness to someone you can count on to keep you safe is a good survival tactic.
But if Ainsworth was going to gather data about proximity seeking, she’d have to observe what children do when they’re scared, and that meant she’d have to scare them. The best way to do this, she figured, was to put them in a strange situation.
Imagine being a little kid and going somewhere you’ve never been before. It’s a comfortable room, with lots of interesting stuff to explore, but since it’s strange to you, you’re a little nervous.
At least there’s someone with you, mom, and she doesn’t look scared. That’s a good sign. Maybe you can relax a little and pick up something shiny. But before you can immerse yourself fully in play, a stranger comes in and wants to talk. And if that’s not bad enough, mom sneaks out the door and leaves you alone with this unknown person. Ack!
Over the next few minutes, there are lots of comings and goings. Sometimes you’re in the room by yourself. Sometimes mom is with you. Sometimes the stranger is, and sometimes you’re all in there together. And it’s unnerving because you can’t see the bigger picture. No one bothered to explain that the room is really a laboratory. It was created by a top-notch developmental psychologist who’s monitoring everything that goes on inside. You’re not in any danger. It’s just all this strangeness, you know, this lack of familiarity.
The strange situation experiments taught Ainsworth a lot about proximity seeking, which was her goal. But they also taught her about the various attachment styles that could develop between a mother and her child. She discovered that children who were securely attached reacted to all the comings-and-goings in the lab in predictable ways. At first, when the mother was present, the child would play with the toys in the new environment. The mother’s departure would be upsetting, but her return and a few soothing words would make everything okay. The child would sniffle for a minute and then start exploring again.
But that wasn’t the case for children who were insecurely attached. Insecure attachment styles develop when you’ve got a mother who doesn’t read you very well. Maybe she’s depressed. Maybe she’s distracted. Maybe she’s volatile or self-centered. For whatever reason, she doesn’t respond to your needs in a way that makes you feel safe. And if your mom didn’t make the world feel safe back then, it won’t feel safe today. You’ll keep your fears in check by sticking with familiar situations. You won’t be as likely to strike out on your own.
You won’t be as likely to strike out with other people either, because you can’t take in much comfort from them. It doesn’t matter if they’re seasoned travelers, or even if they’re tour guides. You can’t trust them. Not completely. Not enough to put yourselves in their hands, relax, and immerse yourself in the delights of a strange, new situation.
It’s normal to be nervous about braving the unfamiliar on your own, even after you’re all grown up. But it’s also normal to be interested in new experiences and to explore them when you feel safe. That’s why part of kicking hodophobia to the curb is developing your own sense of security.
How do you do that?
Become Your Own Safe Base
One place to start is with self-care. Eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep are three ways to show yourself you’re important. You can take great care of yourself today, even if you weren’t well-cared-for when you were small. Self-care also lowers your baseline anxiety by reducing stress. That makes it less likely that taking a trip will push you over the edge.
Another way to develop a sense of security is to form a new family, a tribe of friends you can count on to be there for you when you’re scared, even if your mom couldn’t.
Was your mom a safe base? If not, have you developed a sense of safety from the inside out? I’d love to hear about what helped.