Dr Ng Wai Sheng

Rethinking Attachment Theory through the Lens of Internal Family Systems

Rethinking Attachment Theory through the Lens of Internal Family Systems

Rethinking Attachment Theory through the Lens of Internal Family Systems

Article by Dr. Ng Wai Sheng

Diagram by Thurgambikai Murugayah and Ng Wai Sheng


According to Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory, every person has multiplicity of internal parts that are often in conflict with one another. One common example is a part that feels worthless, and another part that tries to compensate or protect. In fact, there are two parts to the “protector”, and they are often in polar opposites. So, there might be a Protector who is workaholic that collects accolades to protect or compensate the feelings of worthlessness. And there would usually be another Protector who tries to compensate/balance the workaholic through under-functioning or apathy (Schwartz, 2018).

Schwartz’s ideas inspire me to rethink about Attachment theory. The original attachment theory posits that children can have secure vs. insecure attachment; and the latter can be further categorized as anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant and disorganized/disoriented attachment styles (Ainsworth et al., 1978).

A simple way to differentiate each type of attachment is by assessing how the child reacts to the caregiver’s leaving and returning. Children with secure attachment are typically a little upset when the caregiver leaves, but happy and seeks comfort when the caregiver returns. Whilst the anxious-ambivalent child may react in high distress when the caregiver leaves, and angry and clingy when the caregiver returns; the anxious-avoidant child, on the other hand, shows little distress when the caregiver leaves, and ignore or turn away when the caregiver returns. Finally, the disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern refers to children who do not fit in with the other types of attachment; they may show confusion between wanting and rejecting attachment at the same time, or disoriented behaviors (such as jerking, freezing or dissociation).

Furthermore, according to Bowlby (the pioneer of attachment theory), children’s attachment with their primary caregiver forms the internal working model of their future relationships (McLeod, 2007). In line with that, subsequent researchers began to explore how childhood attachment predicts adulthood attachment or intimacy patterns. For example, some studies suggest that adult attachment are somewhat correlated with childhood attachment patterns, and can be categorized as secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissing-avoidant and fearful avoidant (Fraley, 2018).

Often, I find such fixed categories of attachment very limited, sometimes downright unhelpful, in understanding the fluidity of human psyche and relationships. Given that all human relationships are dynamic, I’m inclined to say that all relationships are INSECURE by nature! Sometimes we lean more towards anxious-ambivalent attachment (when we are more needy of attention and assurance), sometimes a little more towards avoidant attachment (when we try to create distance for our own sanity); but every now and then, there are some moments of peace and security (when we simply engage in a trusting manner).

Reflecting upon IFS theory, my hypothesis is that, in any relationships, we often oscillate between the part of us that is avoidant (a.k.a. the Flee-r) and the part of us that is anxiously preoccupied (a.k.a. the Fixer). Both parts function as “Protectors”, because there is almost always a hidden “Wounded Child” within each of us [See the diagram above]. Inevitably, we all suffer some wounding from our not-so-perfect family-of-origin experience, in spite of our parents’ best intention and efforts to give their best to their children.

In essence, both Protectors are anxious (insecure), but one reacts by actively avoiding the problem, whereas the other reacts by actively pursuing the problem. Both exist and work in polar opposites to balance each other. And if the two parts are in intense conflict, you may very well see a person acting in quite disorganized or confused ways! In fact, studies are now showing that the bigger the trauma and grief during childhood, sometimes indirectly experienced through parents’ own unconscious grief and trauma, the more disorganized and disruptive behaviors are displayed in the child through adulthood (Esch, 2013; Granqvist et al., 2017).

Whilst there is some truth to the findings on how childhood attachment patterns affects adulthood attachment, it is far from deterministic! The biggest missing link in Attachment theories is the fact that, what we call “insecure” attachment patterns may actually be functional and protective for the needs of a vulnerable child who had been wounded. Essentially, these wounds from our childhood are really trying to heal, if we care to acknowledge its presence.

According to Schwartz (2018), often the wounded parts get freeze or stuck in development, in moments of high stress or trauma. And I would add that, even for those with relatively uneventful childhood, a highly stressful or traumatic experience in adulthood can also keep the person stuck or freeze developmentally; or worse, add further strain upon any unresolved or unhealed childhood trauma/wounds that one already has.

Suffice to say that, if anyone wants to change their attachment patterns, the key is to learn about one’s own wounded parts within. Only when we truly understand our own basic fears and concerns about ourselves (in relation to the world around us), perhaps then we can begin to gently ask the Anxious (Fixer) Protector to relax, and encourage the Avoidant (Flee-r) Protector to engage more. This creates an internal healing space, whereby the Wounded Child can mature and be less reactive to any real or perceived threats in all interpersonal relationships. As cliché as it may sound, the key towards healing and maturity is Self-Compassion.

Not forgetting too, we all need a caring community of at least one other person who can show us true compassion. But here’s another interesting point to note: the “tormenting” vs. the “mentoring” parts are often the same, according to Schwartz (2018). Eg. the spouse that comes across as “tormenting” you may very well be “mentoring” you to work on those unattended/unhealed wounds from childhood through our interactions with our family-of-origin. So, before you start fixing or fleeing from your “tormentor” (Disclaimer: not withstanding those who are in a physically or emotionally abusive relationships), you may want to ask yourselves: what is this person inviting you to learn about yourself, and the parts that still need healing and self-compassion?

May you and I find the courage to be compassionate to the parts of us that need it the most.



Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum. As cited in Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory

Esch, A. K. (2013). Disorganized attachment and trauma in children. Master of Social Work Clinical Research Papers. Paper 175. Retrieved from http://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/175

Fraley, R.C. (2018). Adult attachment theory and research: a brief overview. Retrieved from http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm

Granqvist, P. et al. (2017) Disorganized attachment in infancy: a review of the phenomenon and its implications for clinicians and policy-makers, Attachment & Human Development, 19:6, 534-558. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14616734.2017.1354040

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Bowlby’s attachment theory. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html

Schwartz, R. (July 17, 2018). Greater than the sums of our parts. Audio podcast interview. Retrieved from  https://www.soundstrue.com/store/weeklywisdom?page=single&category=IATE&episode=13343&utm_source=bronto&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=N180722-WW&utm_content=This+Week:+Featuring+Richard+Schwartz+and+Sarah+Bamford+Seidelman