Attachment Styles and Emotional Memory: When We Cling to Pain

Attachment styles and emotional memory share a direct link. Thus, having had a traumatic or neglected attachment figure will make the present moment to be mediated by those painful memories.
Attachment Styles and Emotional Memory: When We Cling to Pain
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Attachment styles and emotional memory make a meaningful relationship. For example, it’s known that people with an anxious attachment style focus on the most painful memories of their past. They focus on the wounds of yesterday and consider themselves unable to overcome the anger or grief that an attachment figure caused them by failing to meet their emotional needs.

Thanks to John Bowlby’s attachment theory, we’re able to better understand human behavior, personality styles, and, above all, the lower or higher quality of interpersonal relationships. Now, something that people don’t talk about often is the link that exists between attachment styles and emotional memory.

Think about it for a moment. Much of who you are today depends on your past experiences. The interactions you’ve had with your family and other close people have sculpted much of the anatomy of your personality. Whether you like it or not, you’re just like a small ship that moves daily through the sea of ​​emotional memory.

Now, having a past surrounded full of good memories makes your journey so much freer. It gives you the strength to go to places where you feel safe. On the contrary, painful, cold, or absent relationships create a burden. It’s impossible to move forward because your gaze is always set on yesterday, a time full of frustration, suffering, and unresolved issues.

Two kids before a giant jellyfish.

Attachment styles and emotional memory: types and characteristics

Many people are molded by the tyranny of their own memories. Your past shapes you, there’s no doubt about it. However, you should never allow yourself to be a permanent victim of it. Don’t let the present moment go to waste.

Attachment styles and emotional memory have everything to do with each other because the quality of the former largely determines your psychological well-being. In fact, a study conducted at the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior of the University of California, Irvine indicated the following.

Different types of attachment can even mediate the quality of human memory. In that sense, depending on each of them, people may even suffer a great memory loss. In other cases, the person lives focused on certain images from their past.

Now, let’s look at the characteristics of each attachment style and their relationship to emotional memory.

Secure attachment

Secure attachment is one where the child knows that their parents will offer them what they need. The child trusts them because they’re accessible and will be there in a time of need. Also, if there’s one thing that defines this healthy attachment style, it’s that the little one feels safe to explore the world.

Undoubtedly, something like this leads them to have only happy memories. It shapes a nurturing and uplifting emotional memory where the child is able to give way to a mature, independent, and self-confident adult capable of freely creating their own present.

The eye of a woman.

The anxious attachment style

In this case, the child learns that their parents aren’t trustworthy from a very young age. When they need something, those attachment figures aren’t always available. Sometimes, they show a certain affection and, other times, they’re cold and distant.

We’re talking about fathers and mothers who oscillate between times of neglect and moments of severity and control. Of course, this generates ambivalent situations in which the child lives in a state of constant anxiety and insecurity. They have little to no control over what happens, so they never know what to expect. It’s a type of uncertainty that they don’t know how to manage and that only produces insecurity.

Attachment styles and emotional memory tell us that the individual, in this case, ends up focusing on certain past events. For example, the adult will remember those moments when they needed support or help and didn’t receive it, moments when they felt alone, scared, etc.

Thus, the subject has an attachment to these unresolved and painful issues. As a result, they become frustrated and angry. These emotions tend to block the person’s individuality and potential. This explains why it becomes difficult for them to release these painful memories.

A dirty, broken door, representing the attachment styles and emotional memory.

Avoidant attachment

In this case, avoidant attachment appears when a child assimilates, even if not consciously, that their need for care will be answered with indifference. This means that, on average, these children try to become emotionally self-sufficient.

Thus, in order not to experience further damage, emptiness, or suffering, they choose to shape an emotional disconnection that will characterize most of their relationships.

Studies such as the one mentioned above indicate that, in these cases, it’s common for fragmented memories to rise to the surface. Many childhood episodes are completely blurred. Interestingly enough, those who have an avoidant attachment style in their affective relationships also show memory problems.

Oblivion probably facilitates their emotional disconnection with the people around them. As a hypothesis, we can think that it’s a defense mechanism that the brain comes up with. It raises the sensitivity threshold in order to lower the intensity of the suffering.

As you can see, attachment styles and emotional memory share a direct link. The quality of your early relationships mediates the quality of your emotional life. That’s why, if a past of traumatic experiences is hidden behind the door of your present, you need to cross that threshold to resolve and heal that universe.

Don’t be afraid to release the tyranny of the painful emotions that fill your memory!

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Edelstein. RS (2006). Attachment and emotional memory: investigating the source and extent of avoidant memory impairments. Emotion, Vol. 6 (2), mayo de 2006, 340-345 DOI  10.1037/1528-3542.6.2.340

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.