Career Through an Attachment Lens

By Charmayne R. Adams & Arden A. Szepe

Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory is a framework to explain the behavioral strategy system that is engaged when animals – humans included – experience stress (Bowlby, 1988). These strategies are learned through both lived experience and observation to create what John Bowlby called an internal working model, through which one views the world. This model is constantly changed, strengthened, and challenged throughout one’s lifespan. Based on the work of Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main, Attachment Theory moved beyond a framework only applied to early life experiences, into becoming a lifespan model that suggests early attachment experiences create the foundation for later attachment strategies (Ainsworth, 1989). These strategies, informed by our individual internal working models, dictate expectations for interaction outcomes. These patterns of behavior are used in our interactions with friends, family, intimate partners, teachers, employers and many more interpersonal interactions throughout our lifetime (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 2015).

Implications for Career Decision Making

Career counselors can help clients identify frequently used attachment strategies and account for how this impacts self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as “the belief in one’s ability to successfully perform a given behavior which is required to produce certain outcomes” (McAuliffe, 1992, p. 26). Client view of self-efficacy can impact a client’s decision to enter into trusting relationships, their view of how they are being interacted with in the workplace, and their view of work performance. Attachment strategies formed during previous experiences can include heightened levels of anxiety and a desire to avoid decision-making, impacting new career decision making. For example, if a client is expecting rejection or a notion of “not being good enough,” the client’s behavior can model one of resistance or avoidance. Clients with low self-efficacy are more likely to reduce career alternatives or exploration (Bullock-Yowell, McConnell, & Schedin, 2014). This means that clients may be limiting themselves to what they feel like they can safely accomplish, and they may be resistant to vocational choice or maturation within the workplace. Career counselors may also need to explore a client’s ability to display resilience when outside support is not available or adequate.

Attachment in the Career Counseling Office: A Case Study

Mary has been seeing her client Ben for three weeks. Ben is an 18-year-old, first semester freshman who is struggling to choose a major and career path. Since Mary conceptualizes clients from an Attachment Theory perspective, she will collect information concerning patterns around Ben’s decision-making, beginning with how his primary caregivers made decisions, their reactions to him when he made decisions previously, and his expectations for the future. Mary will work with Ben to understand the internal working model that he is operating from and how that may be affecting his ability to make a decision concerning his major and in turn his career.      

From asking related questions, Mary learns that Ben has a tendency to become nervous about outcomes without validation from his professors. His expressed fear of “making the wrong choice” indicates that he may use anxious attachment strategies. It helps both the career counselor and the client to look at past events when trying to predict future behavior, especially during times of stress. Since Ben is a new college student, he may feel some level of stress from the transition into college, and the decision to choose a major is triggering the same anxious strategy of indecision. By identifying other times in his life that this feeling has been triggered, the career counselor is able to help Ben identify attachment strategies/patterns, and potential solutions.

Practical Suggestions for Career Counselors

  • Assist clients in identifying patterns of behavior.
    • Questions like: Can you think of a time when you have had to make a similar decision? When someone close to you was faced with a hard decision in the past, how did they respond?
  • Work with a client to understand how their primary caregiver viewed work.
    • Questions like: Were you taught that work is a place to get a paycheck or a place to live out your passion? How was work ethic defined and rewarded in your home? Was there high value placed on achievement (promotions, awards, good grades)?
  • Use the career counseling relationship to incorporate new expectations into the internal working model of the client.
    • Avoid value statements and model acceptance. Even saying, “wow” or “good, could give a client the impression of judgment. Instead, use statements/strategies such as: It seems like this experience was important to you. I can feel your sadness/anger/frustration/joy by the way you’re describing the situation. I can tell this means a lot to you.
    • Reinforce resilience and reflect healthy coping strategies by identifying strategies the client has used in the past, making sure to highlight the situation they were used in and how it could translate to the current decision making scenario.
  • Using a decision-making matrix, pro/con list, and other decision-making strategies in each session to help build self-efficacy and a sense of mastery.

Continued Application of Attachment Theory

We have briefly demonstrated the utility of Attachment Theory for career counselors, especially those working with clients struggling to make career decisions. Attachment Theorists continue to uncover the depth and effect that our early childhood attachment figures have on our relationships and feelings of self-efficacy as adults. This research has continued in the field of developmental psychology, neurobiology, and clinical psychology. We hoped to demonstrate that the information in these fields is very applicable to the work of career counselors and can be utilized to help explore a variety of career related issues.



Ainsworth, M. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44(4), 709-716.

Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S., (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. New York: Psychology Press.

Baim C., & Morrison, T. (2011). Attachment-based practice with adults. Brighton: Pavilion Publishing.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.

Bullock-Yowell, E., McConnell, A. E., & Schedin, E. A. (2014). Decided and undecided students: Career self-efficacy, negative thinking, and decision-making difficulties. NACADA Journal, 34(1), 22-34.

Crittenden, P. M. (2006). A dynamic-maturational model of attachment. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 27, 105-115.

McAuliffe, G. J. (1992). Assessing and changing career decision-making self-efficacy expectations. Journal of Career Development, 19(1), 25-36.



Charmayne AdamsCharmayne Adams, MA, NCC is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee studying Counselor Education. She holds a degree in clinical mental health counseling from Wake Forest University. She has experience working and teaching in the University of Tennessee Center for Career Development. Her research interests include integrating the theory and practice of Attachment Theory. Charmayne can be contacted at cadams49@vols.utk.edu.



Arden Szepe, MA, NCC, is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee studying Counselor Education. She holds a degree in counseling and human services from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Her research interests include career development and social emotional learning. Arden can be contacted at aszepe@vols.utk.edu.


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Linda Zimmerman   on Tuesday 05/02/2017 at 07:18 AM

Enjoyed your interesting article and sample questions. (Ironically I was just reading a book about attachment theory and the implications for patients suffering from trauma.)

Linda Zimmerman   on Tuesday 05/02/2017 at 07:18 AM

Enjoyed your interesting article and sample questions. (Ironically I was just reading a book about attachment theory and the implications for patients suffering from trauma.)

Danielle Menditch   on Tuesday 05/02/2017 at 01:35 PM

Great article! I'm taking a course in attachment theory for my continuing education as a LCSW. I also like to ask my clients (such as in the case study mentioned above), "What strategies have you used to successfully overcome obstacles in the past?" It's a great way to help clients identify possible solutions to current situations and change behavioral patterns.

Liz Mohler   on Thursday 05/04/2017 at 05:37 PM

Interesting article and good reminder to refrain from comments that pass judgement such as wow or great. I often walk a client through their resume to ask why or how they transition from job to job. A pattern is likely to appear providing an insight into their decision making.

Juliana Parker    on Monday 05/08/2017 at 12:36 PM

Wonderful and insightful article! Thank you for sharing.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.