“You will always have a home here”
At 21, I moved from my Portuguese hometown to Paris. In the 12 years that followed, I lived in 4 countries, quit a few jobs and relationships, changed careers completely, traveled full-time for some months, and created my own business.
Every time I start getting ideas about taking a new, bold step in my life, I have a chat with my parents. And every single time, no matter what my new plan is, my dad tells me this:
“You will always have a home here.”
It is the most powerful and liberating sentence I ever heard in my life and the base on which I build everything I do. I can try anything, literally anything, and if it all falls apart, I know I can go back to the place where I grew up. Not to hide from the world but to find my footing again in a place where I am loved and feel empowered.
What Psychology Tells Us About It
In 1944, British psychologist John Bowlby conducted a study called “Forty-four juvenile thieves”, where he noticed that a great percentage of boys who had been abandoned at a young age suffered from anger, humiliation, and a sense of worthlessness.
Bowlby theorized that what children need the most are the feeling of safety and the possibility of exploration. While these may seem contradictory, they can and should go hand-in-hand, as David Brooks explains in his book, “The Social Animal”:
“The more secure a person feels at home, the more likely he or she is to venture out boldly to explore new things. Or as Bowlby himself put it, ‘All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.’” — David Brooks, in The Social Animal
Bowlby’s study was the base for what later became known as “Attachment Theory”.
The central theme of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant’s needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world. — Verywell mind
The attachment theory identifies four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. The last three are considered non-secure.
Secure: Adults with this attachment style are able to form safe, loving relationships with others, giving and receiving love, respecting boundaries, and not becoming dependent. This kind of attachment style allows people to lead less anxious lives and be more self-confident, having the courage to take more risks. According to a 1980 study, 56% of people identify as having a secure attachment style.
Anxious: People with an anxious attachment style tend to be afraid or incapable of being alone, thus becoming highly dependent on others. They are also risk-averse, as risk represents a danger to them.
Avoidant: this attachment style forms in children who don’t experience sensitive responses to their needs or stress. Usually, it transforms them into adults who have more trouble showing their emotions and refuse help from others.
Fearful-avoidant: this attachment style combines the two previous ones. Normally, it is present in people who respond to a lack of bonding with others by being afraid of future bonds, while still actively looking for them. Fearful-avoidant adults have trouble regulating their emotions and tend to respond inappropriately to negative situations, thus not being the most risk-prone individuals.
Out of the four attachment styles, the secure one provides a more solid foundation to live life on your own terms. It doesn’t mean you will never feel fear or that you’ll be able to conquer anything, but people who fall into this category usually feel more empowered to try new experiences. Because they feel loved and secure, they have an emotional balance that allows them to be both daring and vulnerable.
What if You Don’t Have a Secure Attachment Style? Can You Change It?
Before you give up and start blaming your parents for the way they raised you, know that you can still stack the odds in your favor. Attachment styles are not set in stone. And while they do start forming in your childhood, they can be adjusted throughout your life and are constantly shaped by the experiences you go through.
If you feel you have a non-secure attachment style and would like to work on it, here are some tips you can follow:
1. Work on your self-esteem
A solid self-esteem is essential to be able to embrace risk. This TED Talk has taught more than 12 million people how to improve the way they see themselves. These are the 5 tips psychologist Guy Winch shares:
- Use positive affirmations correctly
- Identify your competencies and develop them
- Learn to accept compliments
- Eliminate self-criticism and introduce self-compassion
- Affirm your real worth
2. Stop reacting
What if you could have a bird’s-eye view over your life? Instead of panicking about quitting your job, you would realize that there is always the next job. Instead of fearing your partner breaking up with you, you would understand that you don’t want to be with someone who’s not interested in being with you anyway.
One of the most effective ways to achieve this bird’s-eye view is through meditation. Regular practice gives you the tools to lead life peacefully and gracefully. It gives you the freedom to experiment without worrying and stressing. It gives you a green pass to be human instead of another piece in the puzzle of society.
3. Take small steps out of your comfort zone
If your ultimate goal is to feel empowered to do anything you want, don’t aim for the moon just yet. Take small steps that will confidently lead you in the direction you want without being too disruptive and risking endangering the whole process. Here are some suggestions on how you can do it.
4. Don’t be afraid to seek therapy
Regardless of the attachment style you have, there are very few things in life as precious as mental health. A healthy person mentally has the foundation to achieve anything. An unhealthy person, on the other hand, is always standing on shaky ground.
Yes, being fearless and taking risks can be the key to an amazing life, but don’t take risks that you know you won’t be able to handle. Not yet, at least. Go work on your mental health and enlist the help of a therapist, if you feel the need for it. Eventually, you’ll be ready.
I realize I am writing this from a place of privilege. Not everyone has their parent’s home to return to when everything comes crumbling down. Some people have families to take care of and mortgages to pay. But most of those people also have a very narrowed view of the world because they never even dared to look beyond their set ways of life.
A safe place doesn’t have to be your parent’s home. It can be your best friend, a financial cushion, or a previous employer who kept the door open for you. It can be anywhere or anyone who would have your back in the worst-case scenario. You know, the scenario that almost never happens.
Once you free yourself from obsessing over the negative, you set yourself up for success and for that best-case scenario that you to think never arrives. Except that, most times, it does. You just need to dare.