Insecure Attachment Styles and Lack of Emotion Regulation Prompt Defense Mechanisms?

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In Recovery circles and groups we are often struck by the common use of ego defense mechanisms in negotiating social  interactions. We have often queried why such a common use of these maladaptive means of regulating one’s emotions and one’s self, if you like, when interacting with others?

This study (1)  appears to answer some of these questions suggesting that attachment and subsequent alexithymia appear to prompt a tendency to use ego defense mechanisms to regulate emotions in what appears to be a maladaptive way.

In George Eman Vaillant’s (1977) categorization, defenses form a continuum related to their psychoanalytical developmental level Vaillant’s levels are:

  • Level I – pathological defenses (i.e. psychotic denial, delusional projection)
  • Level II – immature defenses (i.e. fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out)
  • Level III – neurotic defenses (i.e. intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression)
  • Level IV – mature defenses (i.e. humor, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation)

Robert Plutchik’s (1979) theory views defenses as derivatives of basic emotions. Defense mechanisms in his theory are (in order of placement in circumplex model): reaction formation, denial, repression, regression, compensation, projection, displacement, intellectualization.

These lists are not exhaustive.


“Alexithymia refers to deficit in the ability to recognize and express of emotion, including: (a) disability in distinguishing emotions; (b) disability in describing feelings.

It is also described as a difficulty in emotion regulation (e.g., Bermond et al., 2010; Stasiewicz et al., 2012) which is the complex process of interaction between neurophysiological, motor-expressive, and cognitive-experiential systems of emotions.

Because of this, alexithymia elicits in different forms such as disabilities to conceptualization of affect, distinguish among emotions, experience of emotions consciously…Alexithymia has association with a variety of psychological disorders and physical illnesses (Evren et al., 2012). Therefore, it is important to know more about the developmental background of alexithymia. Studies show that childhood experiences with caregivers who do not express their emotions, and use insufficient strategies of responding to children’s negative emotions, have a strong effect in emotion regulation in adulthood (e.g., Carre` re and Bowie, 2012; Roque and Verı´ssimo, 2011).

These findings imply that the ability to recognize, describe and regulate emotions is related to child’s relationships with attachment figures. Research on the relationship between attachment styles and alexithymia shows that alexithymia features are more common in the insecure attachment styles (Besharat, 2010).

Family studies of alexithymia show that children who grow up in an emotionally and physically insecure environments which prevent them from expressing emotions do not learn successful coping skills for their emotions and consequently feel discomfort when they do experience emotions (e.g., Besharat, 2010). These difficulties, in addition to lack of appropriate patterns for expressing emotions, may lead to anxiety and ambivalence toward expressing emotions (e.g., Karukivi et al., 2011).

Individuals with poor maternal care experiences show alexithymia characteristics, especially difficulties in expressing emotions (e.g., Karukivi et al., 2011). Insecure attachment may cause failure in learning how to feel and may pave the way for alexithymia (Wearden et al., 2005). Insecure feelings in attachment relationships anticipate defect and inadequacy in the identification of and expressing of emotions (Dewitte et al., 2010).

Mickelson et al. (1997) noted that psychological defense styles may serve as moderators or mediators of early negative relationships and adult psychopathology. Therefore, it can be predicted that defense mechanisms may play an important role in the development of alexithymia when attachment style is insecure.

Defense mechanisms are automatic self regulating processes which reduce cognitive discrepancies and minimize sudden changes in external and internal reality by distorting the perception of threatening events (Vaillant, 1994). Andrews et al. (1993) categorized three defense styles based on twenty defense mechanisms suggested by Vaillant (1976). These are named ‘‘mature’’, ‘‘neurotic’’ and ‘‘immature’’. The mature defense style represents normal and adaptive methods of coping whereas the immature and neurotic styles are dysfunctional and maladaptive coping strategies.

Defense mechanisms are associated with physical and psychological consequences (Vaillant, 2000) and predict several kinds of psychopathology in adolescents (Besharat and Shahidi, 2011; Kwon and Olson, 2007). Several studies show that development of defense mechanisms is affected by attachment style (Besharat et al., 2001; McMahon et al., 2005). The way people cope with stressful conditions is influenced by their defense styles, which in turn is determined by their attachment styles (Kobak and Sceery, 1988). On the other hand, it was shown that dysfunctional defense mechanisms are associated with disabilities in recognizing and expressing of affects (Besharat, 2010; Besharat and Shahidi, 2011).

Secure and insecure attachment styles were significantly associated with alexithymia in opposite directions, in line with the findings of previous research (Besharat, 2010; La´nge, 2010; Thorberg et al., 2011). These results could be explained in terms of several possibilities. The mothers of securely attached children engage in open affect-related discussions with their children and allow them to express their positive and negative emotional states (Leibowitz et al., 2002). According to Cassidy (1994), securely attached children expect that their emotion signals will be responded to, thus they openly express their emotions. This early experience plays an important role in the development of narrative abilities and emotional understanding.

Indeed, secure children have an understanding of mental states in themselves and in others and identify and speak comfortably about their emotions (Mcquaid et al., 2008). Therefore, mothers who are sensitive and responsive promote children’s understanding, acceptance, and regulation of difficult emotions while teaching their children thattheir emotions are valid and providing the supportive context for expressing their feelings (Erickson and Lowe, 2008; Lowe et al., 2012). In contrast, mothers of insecurely attached children speak about external events rather than their child’s emotional states (Mcquaid et al., 2008) that lead to difficulty in recognizing and expressing emotions. Also, these children attempt to prevent negative emotional expressions and try to appear happy to avoid their caregiver becoming angry (Crittenden, 1992)…. is possible to conclude that part of the relationship between attachment styles and alexithymia could be explained by defense mechanisms. Consistent with former studies that showed defense mechanisms are determined by attachment styles (Besharat et al., 2001; McMahon et al., 2005) and are associated with alexithymia (Besharat, 2010; Besharat and Shahidi, 2011; La´nge, 2010; Thorberg et al., 2011), these results could be clarified by several possible explanations. People with insecure attachment styles experience lower levels of positive emotions and higher levels of negative emotions than those with secure attachment style (Gresham and Gullone, 2012). Positive emotions provide securely attached people with the use of more mature defense mechanisms, while negative emotions make insecure people susceptible to using more neurotic and immature defense mechanisms.

Positive emotions may function as strengthening ego in the service of using mature defense mechanisms, whereas negative emotions may function as conflict flaming preventing ego from using mature defense mechanisms. It is also suggested that secure attachment style play an important role in reducing anxiety (Besharat et al., 2001; Feeney and Kirkpatrick, 1996). Similar to positive emotions, this anxiety reduction functioning also helps people with secure attachment style to use mature defense mechanisms more frequently.

The mechanisms of using either mature or immature/ neurotic defense mechanisms here is the same as positive/ negative emotions. Again, while anxiety challenges ego in using effective defense mechanisms, anxiety reduction may help ego to use more mature defenses in stressful situations. Several studies have supported the important role that early caregiver’s sensitivity and responsiveness, as the main components of secure attachment, have in development of emotion regulation both in childhood (Bowlby, 1969; Hershenberg et al., 2011) and adulthood (e.g., Carre` re and Bowie, 2012). This property assists the individual in developing functional defense mechanisms. Conversely, in the case of insecure attachment, individuals use immature and neurotic defense mechanisms to act against stress and block conscious awareness of negative emotions.

Based on the attachment theory, children with attachment anxiety are different in their coping styles. As mentioned, insecure attachment styles may deprive potential opportunities for learning emotion regulation skills in the context of relations between mother and child and weakens a person’s ability to deal effectively with stressful situations. This increases the likelihood of the person using neurotic and immature ego defense styles when faced with stress.


  1. Besharat, M. A., & Khajavi, Z. (2013). The relationship between attachment styles and alexithymia: Mediating role of defense mechanisms. Asian journal of psychiatry, 6(6), 571-576.


Further Reading:

Vaillant, G. (1994). Ego mechanisms of defense and personality psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103 (1), 44-50 DOI:10.1037//0021-843X.103.1.44


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