Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

My psychologist returns from leave and a strange situation begins.

In the 1970’s Mary Ainsworth conducted structured observations (called the Strange Situation procedure) in which a young toddler would play in a room while a parent and stranger enter and leave in a series of patterns such that sometimes the child was alone, sometimes all three were together, sometimes the child was left with the stranger and so on allowing her to conclude that there are 3 attachment styles. (A 4th attachment style was discovered in the 90’s.)

Of course, it is not purely the mother’s responsibility to ensure their child has a secure attachment, after all it was predominantly my father’s abuse not my mothers neglect that resulted in me having the most chaotic attachment style – disorganised, but it was the 70’s when this research was done and so of course everything was the woman’s fault.

Here is a nice chart to explain it all. Feel free to mentally insert “caregiver” in place of “mother”.

Oh look! Only 10-15% of the population is messed up in quite the same way as me! How special.

When I first started seeing psychologist J, I truly belonged in the bottom row of this chart but after a decade of therapy with him I thought I was pretty much in the top row. After all I went from being terrified of all males to being able to marry one and give birth to one. I must be fixed, right? It also helped to get the correct diagnosis. My first psychiatrist insisted that I had bipolar and was born this way but my current psychiatrist and psychologist agreed that original psychiatrist was wrong and perhaps all those illegal things parent 1 did to me while parent 2 turned a blind eye might better explain my suffering.

Image from

But it turns out that when psychologist J and I delve into trauma memories such that I have to actually try to talk about them face-to-face rather than sending him emails with my right hand while my left hand claims to know nothing about it, or talking about body parts in session but using language so vague for all you know I could be talking about my neighbour’s rabbit or yesterday’s lunch, when I try to say the proper words to describe the things I recall…well it seems that woven tightly into those memories is a bunch of very young disorganised attachment states.

So I already know that when psychologist J returns next week, despite me being a full grown adult fairly well educated on the topic of trauma and attachment, despite having a brain with a pretty decent IQ, I know the moment he opens his door and pops his smiley face around the corner to let me know it’s time to come in, my adult brain will vanish and in it’s place will be my brain at 18 months of age.

Next I will sit in the comfy chair with the comfy cushion and cling to the comfy blanket with my eyes fixed on either the mat, his bookcase or his shoes so long as he isn’t wearing those ugly blue boots that scream 20yr old hipster. Sometimes I might venture to raise my eyes up to the painting above the bookshelf that I know his sister did (because you don’t go 10 years with a therapist without doing some social media stalking) but that he told me “a friend” did. I like to stare at the patterns on the rug, the long words in the book titles or the ugly rocks in the painting and get myself into a nice comfortable trance so I can block out most of his gentle and kind attempts to ease me back into therapy. As much as I WANT to feel comfortable and engage with him and get on with this business of fixing me, while we walk in the trenches of trauma, we do it with my original attachment system firing. He calls it “trauma world” or he might say “your attachment trauma has been activated”.

Blue hipster boots marginally less offensive than psychologist J’s but equally NOT welcome to walk alongside me in trauma world. Image from

While I do my best impression of a statue, he will probably attempt to guess how I feel.

“Things feel really hard. They look really stuck right now.”

or he might mention an email I sent him

“It sounded like the break was really difficult. It’s hard to come back to it.”

or he might notice the subtle signs of an impending flashback like shallow breathing, unfocused eyes, stiff muscles and offer some assistance to ground me to the present

“Is something happening right now? Do you need some help?”

I never know exactly how these strange situation reunions are going to play out because I never know if he is going to look familiar or scary and I never know exactly what I need to hear to break the spell of the past until he or I stumble across it. Sometimes he finds the right phrase and I feel brave enough to make eye contact. Other times I bark “Stop talking!” so I can concentrate on making my neck move so I can check that no one from my family is in the room.

But back to Mary. I can’t help but wonder about those babies from the original experiment. They wouldn’t be much older than me now. What happened to them once Mary Ainsworth determined they had a less than ideal attachment? Did anyone do anything to fix it? Were any parents investigated? Are any of those babies now adults sitting in a room much like J’s one having to re-enact the experiment with their therapist? Do they even know they were in the experiment?

When J returns next week, in those first 5 or 45 minutes when we are locked in a re-enactment, I’ll be sure to give it some thought. It will be a nice change from staring at the floor. And I really hope his dog ate those boots.


Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bell, S. M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41, 49-67.

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. In M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti & E.M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the Preschool Years (pp. 121–160). Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

McLeod, S. A. (2018, August 05). Mary ainsworth. Simply Psychology.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (1994). The body keeps the score: memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry. Jan-Feb 1994;1(5):253-65. PMID: 9384857 DOI: 10.3109/10673229409017088

Published by sarcasticfringehead

I'm an adult survivor of child abuse who documents therapy; a yellow brick road to hell.

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