When people hug one another, they start with an embrace, hold on to one another, and then let go of one another. There is a natural cycle in this, that starts with uniting and then goes on to separating. It’s a natural movement both will intuitively handle. Sometimes there is a slight difference between the length both want to hug, but once separation is engaged, both will usually follow the movement.
However, when one of both continues to hold on, despite the move to separate, it will feel awkward. Especially if a tension establishes itself resulting from opposing movements.
It’s the visible cost of holding on.
Sometimes, however, the fear of letting go outweighs the cost of holding on. It isn’t necessarily clear what this fear is about, and it easily is overshadowed by the sense of safety gained from holding on. It’s what holding is supposed to provide.
Holding on to can happen with anything. A thought, an emotion, a person, a position, etc.
The way people find ease in holding on and letting go can be explained through the attachment theory. It is based on the clinical observations John Bowlby started to describe in the 1950s.
When something in the environment changes, may it be through one’s perception, through one’s actions, or external events, people need to adjust to that change. A change can impact them in multiple ways, and they have to determine how. It’s the moment when people notice being confronted with uncertainty. It’s when there is a spontaneous search for feeling secure.
According to the attachment theory, these were the moments babies looked out for their mother or went back to her to reassure themselves. The care and attention provided by the mother helped the baby feel secure and allowed to somehow integrate the sense of uncertainty. Once done the baby was able to let go again and continue his exploration. The mother acted as a secure base allowing the baby to resource himself and let go of the sense of uncertainty helped him to reestablish confidence.
Emotional regulation is served by the ability to go back to a secure base. But also, by the quality of resources it provides so that letting it go becomes possible again.
Sometimes, the experienced quality of that secure base wasn’t adapted to the child’s needs. Learning from that quality the child assessed his relationship with his environment and the people in it. As the research showed, the children adapted their emotional regulation to the situation. They chose from two options. Either they developed strategies to minimize and control their emotions, or they developed uncontrolled, disorganized, or ineffectively managed emotions.
These choices remain present as adults.
Learning a more effective habit of emotional regulation is possible. However, the learned attachment behavior will stay and can continue to reappear when the desire for a secure base can’t be addressed as needed. It will show up depending on the change in the environment. It can be in the way people hold on to something as well as in their reaction to a need to let go of something.
Holding on to or refusing to let go tells us about a lack of a secure base contributing to a fear of stepping away and exploring the territory.