Attachment styles, their superpowers and self-regulation
A learning note for whoever wants longevity at work and personal relationships
Getting out of a psychology related degree and lightly touched on psycho-dynamic, I feel an intense urge to probe further into different attachment styles and how they might affect people's relationships. A learning note for whoever wants longevity in their personal relationship, both romantic and at work.
Do you often feel like your partner wants too much and asks a lot from you? And your inability to give or your partner's ask is causing pain on both ends?
A typical profile of someone who embodies avoidance attachment might look like this: their parents tend to be emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to them most of the time. They disregard or ignore their children's needs and can be especially rejecting when their child is hurt or sick. These parents also discourage crying and encourage premature independence in their children.
In response, the avoidant attached child learns early in life to suppress the natural desire to seek out a parent for comfort when frightened, distressed, or in pain because acknowledging and displaying distress leads to rejection or punishment. Some of these children learn to rely heavily on self-soothing, self-nurturing behaviours. They develop a pseudo-independent orientation to life and maintain the illusion that they can care for themselves completely.
As a result, they have little desire or motivation to seek out other people for help or support. Many avoidant children have already become self-contained “little adults”. The main defense attachment strategy employed to children with avoidant attachment is to never show outwardly a desire to closeness, warmth, affection, or love.
However, on a physiological level, when their heart rates are measured during experimental separation experiences, they show strong reactions and as much anxiety as other children. Avoidantly attached children tend to seek proximity, trying to be near their attachment figure while not directly interacting or relating to them. When parents are distant, even very young children "intuitively pick up the feeling that their parents have no intention of getting to know them, which leaves them with a deep sense of emptiness"
How does it affect their adult life?
Also called dismissive attachment in adulthood - because they learned as infants to disconnect from their bodily needs and minimize the importance of emotions, they often steer clear of emotional closeness in romantic relationships. Dismissively attached adults will often seek out relationships and enjoy spending time with their partner, but they may become uncomfortable when relationships get too close. They may perceive their partners as "wanting too much" or being clinging when their partners express a desire to be more emotionally close.
When faced with threats of separation or loss, many dismissive men and women are able to focus their attention on other issues and goals. Others tend to withdraw and attempt to cope with the threat on their own. They deny their vulnerability and use repression to manage emotions that are aroused in situations that activate their attachment needs. When they do seek support from a partner during a crisis, they are likely to use indirect strategies such as hinting, complaining and sulking.
Researchers like Fraley and Brumbaugh told many dismissing adults use “pre-emptive” strategies to deactivate the attachment system, for example, they may choose not to get involed in a close relationship for fear of rejection; they may avert their gaze from unpleasant sights, or they may “tune out” a conversation related to attachment issues. The second strategy is to suppress memories of negative attachment events such as breakup.
People with this type of attachment style tend to be overly focused on themselves and their own creature comforts and largely disregard the feelings and interests of other people. They also struggle to disclose their thoughts and feelings to their partners. Their typical response to an argument, conflict and other stressful situations is to become distant and aloof.
Dismissive adults often have an overly positive view of themselves and a negative, cynical attitude towards others. This high self-esteem is often defensive and protects a fragile self that is highly vulnerable to slights, rejections, and other narcissistic wounds. It exists usually as a compensation for low self-esteem and feelings of self-hatred. Avoidant partners often react angrily to perceived slights or other threats to their self-esteem, for example, whenever the other person fails to support or affirm their inflated self-image.
The critical inner voice to avoidant adults
Although many critical inner voices are only partly conscious, they can shape how people respond to each other in their closest, most intimate relationships. Individuals identified as having a dismissing attachment style have reported thoughts like:
I don’t need anyone.
Don’t get too involved, you’ll just be disappointed.
Men won’t commit to a relationship.
Women will try to trap you.
Why does he/she demand so much from you.
You’ve got to put up with a lot to stay involved with a man/woman.
There are other, more important things in life than romance.
You’ve got to protect yourself. You’re going to get hurt in this relationship.
You’re too good for him/her.
The kinds of negative, distrustful and hostile attitudes toward other people that are associated with a dismissing attachment style are compounded by destructive thoughts or critical inner voices. The overly positive and seemingly friendly views of self that are experienced by many avoidant individuals are also promoted by the inner voice and are often a cover-up for vicious, self-degrading thoughts. Both kinds of voices, toward the self and others, are part of an internal working model based on a person's earliest attachments, which act as a guideline for relating to a romantic partner. The critical inner voice can be thought of as the language of these internal working models and act as a negative filter to help them look at themselves, their partner and relationships in general.
How to transform avoidant attachment into a secure one
People don’t have to remain trapped within the confines of the defensive attachment developed early in life
Developing an "Earned secure attachment" at any stage of life is possible. The primary factor is you realise this type of attachment is not bringing your partner a good experience; thus, you reflect back on yourself on how you can alter it.
One essential way to do this is by making sense of your story. To "make sense of your story", you can do it by writing a coherent narrative, which helps you understand how your childhood experiences still affect you in your life today. When you create a coherent narrative, you actually rewire your brain to cultivate more security within yourself and your relationships.
The other way to change is being with someone with a secure attachment style, which is one pathway towards change. Going through therapy is similar to having a securely attached partner - the therapeutic alliance or relationship offers a safe haven in which to explore our attachment history and gain a new perspective on ourselves, others and relationships.
Not that avoidant attachment is all bad; they come with their own sets of superpowers.
Avoidant workers could be considered evolutionary altruists. They are incurring a personal cost in order to enhance the quality of life of others. They usually have the ability to increase the productivity of their team and save on resources. Avoidant attachment is associated with quicker responses to threats, which is beneficial in the workplace as they can rapidly identify problems and leave enough time to solve issues or reduce their impact.
Avoidant attachers are less likely to require the support of others in the workplace when making decisions. They are highly independent and are more likely to have confidence in their professional choices and abilities. Therefore they often increase efficiency and reduce the demand for resources at work. They are less interested in socialising at work. Colleagues with avoidant attachments are more likely to focus their energy on their work and performance.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style is likelier to push themselves towards success and greatness in the workplace. Seeing as they are less likely to spend time on their personal relationships, they are keen to commit themselves to their job and career growth. Therefore they are able to scale to the top of their professional ladder.
In a relationship, they are less needy and clingy with their partner; thus, they will be less demanding and suffocating within a relationship than other attachment styles, but of course, the attachment style of their partner will determine how they respond to this amount of space.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style will likely respect their partner's boundaries. This means that they won't infringe on the other half's parameters and thus threaten the relationship. They won't probe for too much information or force them to share too much personal information, and they will respect the other person's freedom.
Their best type of partner is the great at reading what an avoidant partner think because they are more likely to protect their emotions. This means that an avoidant partner can be reserved in relationship and less likely to expose themselves emotionally and be vulnerable.
That also doesn't mean you can't alter your attachment style if you think it is causing harm in your relationship
Unhealthy ways that someone with avoidant attachment might use to self-regulate after being emotionally provoked:
- Focusing their attention on things that they can control, such as their careers or life goals
- They may use repression to manage unpleasant feelings
- They tend not to seek support from their loved ones when they need it
- Might sulk or complain instead of directly asking for support
- Pre-emptive strategies such as breaking up with their partner, to cope with their feelings
Avoidant/dismissive adults still self-regulate in unhealthy ways; they might feel threatened by triggering dating or relationship situations, such as a partner trying to get emotionally close, and they might shut down their emotions in an attempt to feel safe and avoid feeling vulnerable.
This doesn't mean that they don't love their partner, but as a child, they were taught that expressing their emotions was bad, so they respond to circumstances out of their comfort zone by retreating or pulling away.
How to healthily self-regulate when you have an avoidant attachment style?
8 potential emotional triggers for adults with avoidant attachment:
- A partner wanting to get too close
- A partner wanting to open up emotionally
- Unpredictable situations or feeling out-of-control
- Having to be dependent on others
- Feeling like the relationship is taking up too much of their time
- Being criticized by their loved ones
- Feeling like they’re going to be judged for being emotional
- Their partner demands their attention
Any of these triggers could cause the avoidant attachment style to withdraw from the relationship. They will also distract themselves from unpleasant emotions with work or hobbies. Or repress their feelings and pretend that they don’t exist.
Healthy self-regulation when you have an avoidant attachment style might mean:
- Resisting the repression of emotions
- Expressing your needs and desires to your loved ones
- Allowing yourself to trust others
- Allowing yourself to be dependent on others
Four tips for adults with avoidant attachment to self regulate in a healthy way
1. Take personal space when you need it One thing worth recognising for an avoidance-attached person and their partner is their need for personal space, which won't change. If your partner is there for you, they will understand it.
2. Open your communication At their core, someone with avoidant attachment fears expressing strong emotions or appearing out of control. Therefore, being able to discuss things in a relationship openly and honestly is the key to co-regulating emotions. Both partners should aim for clear communication to safely raise concerns without judgment. In time, adults with avoidant attachment will learn that talking about their feelings is better than bottling them up.
3. Challenge your inner critic Distrust of others and feeling like loved ones will judge or reject you for expressing emotions is compounded by how an avoidant attacher thinks - their inner critic. Someone with an avoidant/dismissive attachment style may self-regulate with critical thoughts around expressing emotions. Or they worry about how others might respond to them for expressing their emotions. In contrast, they may have overly positive thoughts about themselves, which may be covering up for self-deprecating feelings.
For example, if you think, "I can't get too involved with someone. They'll just disappoint me", try to think of a time when someone that you cared about was really there for you. This can help you to realize that your inner critic isn't always right.
4. Try therapy
It's not the last resort. If you notice your attachment style is affecting your relationship and it is not achieving the desired outcome, you should consider therapy and step forward.
On top of the four attachment styles, secure attachment is the one with less difficulty in cultivating and maintaining healthy relationships.
In contrast, a secure attachment style implies that a person is comfortable expressing emotions openly. Therefore adults with a secure attachment style can depend on their partners and, in turn, let their partners rely on them.
Relationships with someone with a secure attachment style are based on honesty, tolerance and emotional closeness. Although someone with this attachment style often thrives in their relationships, they don't fear being alone while comfortable spending quality time with their partners. Secure attachers tend to have a positive view of themselves and others, so they do not overly seek external approval or validation - they can successfully identify and regulate their emotions and even help a partner do so with theirs.
Typical caregiver behaviors that promote a secure attachment style in children:
- They are warm, nurturing, and attentive
- The caregivers are attuned to their child’s needs and wants
- Stay close to their child, but still allow them the freedom to explore their world
- Are reliable in their actions
- Focus on who their child is as a person rather than what they achieve
- Encourage a sense of independence in their child
Generally, a child with a secure attachment style has well-developed social skills and is not concerned by the presence of other children. They are happy to give, take and share, and they show empathy to others when they are distressed, thus When they grow up, their partners, regardless of the attachment style, can feel much safer expressing their feelings and assist their partner to "make sense of their story".
A securely attached child will also respond well to discipline - even though they might likely behave like a typical child even when they grow up, they still trust their caregiver to guide them in the right direction.
In time, they model their behaviour on this guidance and are able to make the right choices for themselves.
Furthermore, children with secure attachment usually have a strong sense of self and independence. Consequently, these children are confident and secure enough to explore their environment and adapt to unfamiliar situations. They are able to settle into new schools, communities, and groups without too much fear and turmoil.
And if you want to raise a child with a secure attachment style, five conditions are all required and cannot be missed.
- The child feels safe
- The child feels seen and known
- The child feels comforted
- The child feels valued
- The child feels support for being their best self
How about disorganised attachment style (also known as Fearful-Avoidant)?
Depending on their mood and circumstances, people with disorganized attachment styles tend to vacillate between anxious and avoidant attachment traits. For this reason, someone with this attachment style tends to show confusing and ambiguous behaviors in their social bonds.
For adults with disorganized attachment, the partner and the relationship themselves are often the source of both desire and fear. On the one hand, fearful-avoidant people do want intimacy and closeness, but on the other hand, they experience trouble trusting and depending on others.
People with this attachment style often struggle with identifying and regulating their emotions and tend to avoid strong emotional attachments due to their intense fear of getting hurt.
How were they developed in childhood?
Also known as anxious preoccupied attachment in adulthood, anxious ambivalent attachment typically develops in children in the first 18 months of life.
During this formative period, a child's caregiver may have acted nurturing and responsive one minute and unavailable or insensitive the next.
For example, perhaps when the baby cries for affection, the caregiver sometimes runs to cater to their need, but on other occasions, it feels like it's best for them to self-soothe, so they ignore their cries. This kind of behaviour might mean that the child starts to see their caregiver's actions as unpredictable.
As a result, the child starts to feel conflicted about how their caregiver will respond to them. When their parent is attentive, the child is content and happy, but when they're not, the child is confused. For this reason, the child may start to develop ambivalent attachment patterns and behaviours: They might feel distrustful of their caregiver but also desperately want affection and for them to meet their emotional needs, so they cling to them.
And the cycle is endlessly intense
The child feels hungry, lonely or uncomfortable, but their needs weren't met, and they turn into rage mode of anger, helpless and hopeless but still lack of relief by being neglected and ignored. The child lost trust in their caretaker and people in general - they felt like the world was unsafe.
For example, a child might react fearfully to being left alone with unfamiliar people on the first day of kindergarten. Instead of soothing the child, their caregiver might shout at them or punish them to get them to stop crying. As a result, the child might not feel safe expressing their emotions. ultimately, the child feels perplexed about their caregiver - they simultaneously love them and crave their affection but also fear them.
And it continues.
Regulating emotions of disorganised attachment person
Healing disorganized attachment requires effective self-regulation strategies, but people with this attachment style were not modelled healthy self-regulation as children, so they often struggle as adults to understand how to balance their emotions.
Self-regulation is the ability to control your emotions and the actions you take in response to them according to what is appropriate for the situation. This ability is the key to successfully maintaining healthy relationships, problem-solving when there's a conflict and having a stable sense of self-confidence.
Not many people know that our ability to control our emotions and how we respond to them is influenced by our attachment style. Therefore, while it's important to understand when to trust our emotions, it's equally important to know when our attachment style influences how we self-regulate.
People with secure attachments don't mean that they are in total control of their emotions, but securely attached people can typically self-regulate healthily. This means that they are more likely to be empathetic and sensitive to their own and other people's emotions and can set appropriate boundaries.
Such a skillset makes securely attached people more likely to feel emotionally stable and satisfied in their intimate and close relationships: They're comfortable being in a couple, but also secure enough to be by themselves.
6 ways that a securely attached person might respond to an emotionally provoking situation:
- Being aware of how their emotions and thoughts influence each other
- Writing down what they think and feel
- Trying meditation or therapy
- Exercising to relieve stress and increase endorphins
- Practicing being aware of their thoughts when they’re emotional
- Removing themselves from an emotional situation if it is becoming uncontrollable
However, how disorganised attachment style self-regulates might look quite different.
Adults with a disorganised attachment style may react in the following ways when their emotional attachment system is triggered.
- Seeing relationships as threatening
- Having difficulties with opening up to their loved ones
- Reporting that they don’t feel anything or have emotions
- Behaving unpredictably when faced with an emotional situation
- Responding to emotional situations with angry outbursts
- Experiencing difficulties with trusting others with their feelings
- Deciding not to show outward expressions of emotions
- Pushing for closeness because deep down they want to feel loved and safe with their partners
Depending on the situation, they may either withdraw from emotional situations or become overly emotional in a bid for affection and closeness. Behaviour like this is highly damaging to an intimate relationship, so it's clear that if a disorganised attacher wants to establish and maintain healthy relationships, they need to learn healthier ways to self-regulate.
It is possible to gain control over our emotions - even if you have a disorganized attachment style. Being open to communication, challenging your inner critic, and considering therapy can help you to manage your emotions in a healthy and constructive way.
Self-regulation to help overcome disorganized attachments
Self-regulation means managing your emotions and actions regarding what you want in the long run. Basically, before you react to a situation, think about what you desire out of the situation before you act. To do so, you may need to understand, recognise, and reflect on the typical relationship triggers in relationships for the disorganized attachment style and how you usually respond to these triggers.
8 emotional triggers for adults with a disorganized attachment style
A partner acting in one of the following ways may trigger an unhealthy emotional response for someone with a disorganized attachment style:
- Behaving inconsistently (anxious dimension)
- Seeming distant or distracted (anxious dimension)
- Forgetting important events, such as a birthday or anniversary (anxious dimension)
- Coming home late or failing to notice something new (e.g. a new haircut) (anxious dimension)
- Attempting to become emotionally close (avoidant dimension)
- Acting unpredictable and making a situation feel out-of-control (avoidant dimension)
- Requiring dependence in the relationship (avoidant dimension)
- Confronting them with intensity or creating an emotional situation (avoidant dimension)
Have a think about these triggers. Do you find that you identify more anxious or avoidant triggers? If you're anxiously triggered, then you might try to self-soothe by attempting to grow closer to your partner. However, if you identify more with the avoidant triggers, then you might self-soothe by taking space away from a loved one.
Healthy self-regulation when you have a disorganized attachment style
Regardless of whether someone with a disorganized attachment style identifies more with the anxious or avoidant dimensions of attachment, healthy self-regulation or self-soothing for the disorganized attachment style typically results in one of the following responses to triggers:
- Acknowledging that their attachment system is triggered and why
- Actively choosing to respond in a balanced way
- Employing self-soothing strategies
- Resisting repressing your emotions
- Not allowing emotions to explode in angry outbursts
- Feeling safe expressing needs and desires to loved ones
- Trusting others to not hurt or abuse them
- Trusting in themselves to make healthy choices
Six Self-regulation tips for disorganized attachment
The following tips are useful if you want to overcome a disorganized attachment style or if you are wondering how to help someone with disorganized attachment.
1. Recognize the role of your attachment style
Your attachment style plays a large role in the situations that upset you and how you respond to them. Self-awareness includes educating yourself on your triggers and how your system is primed to react to these triggers in certain ways. Once you recognize these triggers and reactions you can self-soothe by actively noticing when your emotions are escalating and choosing to respond in more healthy, balanced ways.
2. Practice communicating your feelings
Constructively discussing your feelings is a more functional way of managing emotions than repressing them or allowing them to explode. It can also help strengthen the bond of a relationship as you’re demonstrating trust in the other person.
For example, instead of holding your anger in and directing it towards yourself or allowing it to explode at your partner, you recognize that you're starting to feel angry and clearly communicate it to your partner in the following ways.
4 examples on how to communicate to your partner when you are angry (for people with disorganized attachment):
“I feel upset, and here’s why___________. You might struggle to understand, but for some reason, it really bothers me.”
“Would you mind if I took a little time to wind down? When __ happened I started to feel angry, so I need to take a little time to myself.”
“I feel hurt. I know that you probably didn’t intend that, but I’m worried about our relationship because of _.”
“Would you mind staying in more frequent contact with me so that this doesn’t happen again?”
3. Take personal space when you need it
If you find that you align more with the traits of an avoidant attacher, then you might find that you will still need to take personal space in order to manage your emotions.
And that's perfectly fine. Taking emotional space in a relationship when a conflict escalates is probably the constructive thing to do - it may even help the relationship grow.
If you sense that an argument is building, you could say:
“Look, things are getting a little heated at the moment. Can we take a break for a couple of minutes and talk about things after?”
Here are some more things that someone with a disorganized attachment could say in a relationship if they need space but don't want to create friction:
“I am grateful that you’re always there for me, and when I feel ready, I promise that I’ll talk to you about this.”
“I understand that it’s really important for us to discuss this, but I feel like I need a couple of minutes to clear my head. Can we talk about this then? I’ll be able to open up about it with some time.”
“There are so many positives about us as a couple. Let’s take a breather and come back together to talk about them.”
Try to be mindful that whereas these scripts would be effective with a securely attached person or avoidance-attached person, an anxious attacher might find them triggering to their emotions because they desire closeness to another person, so expressing a need for space is a cause of fear for them.
4. Challenge your inner critic
Distrust of others and feeling like loved ones will judge or reject you for expressing emotions is compounded by how someone with a disorganized attachment style thinks–their inner critic. Someone with this attachment style may maladaptively cope with triggers by repressing their feelings because they tell themselves that others might leave them to express what they really feel.
First of all, it may be helpful to learn how to identify these thoughts, as they may only be partly conscious. Then challenge them by learning to agree to disagree with them. Think of times when there was evidence to prove the opposite of the thought. You can learn How to recognize negative automatic thought patterns. The typical patterns are all-or-nothing, overgeneralisation, jumping to conclusions etc.
For example, if you think “I can’t let them know what I really feel – they’ll think I’m looking for attention and just use it against me,” try to think of a time when someone that you cared about was really there for you. Doing so can help you to realize that your inner critic isn’t always right.
5. Practice open communication and take time to think about your needs
Someone with disorganized attachment might have difficulty expressing their needs to their loved ones because they fear a negative response. Communicating your needs clearly and effectively takes some practice, so be gentle and kind to yourself.
Take some time to think about your needs and how best to express them to your partner (it might be worth noting their attachment style for this).
Using “I” statements and keeping a calm tone of voice will prevent your partner from feeling offended. Be gentle towards them and yourself during this process. In time, you will learn that talking about your feelings is better than bottling them up.
6. Try therapy
Remember, disorganized attachment person comes with their superpower -- you are not horrible people
A disorganized colleague might be capable of acting as the workplace "sentinel". In other words, they become the guardian of their team and work hard to ensure nothing bad happens. People who score high on disorganized attachment are more likely to be vigilant and alert to potential threats. They are more likely to notice when something is wrong and take action to prevent it from escalating. They are also more likely to be aware of the needs of others and to be sensitive to their emotions. This means that they are more likely to be able to support their colleagues when they are struggling.
Therefore, if a disorganized adult aligns with the traits of anxious attachment, then they may just be the "scared saviour" of the team.
If a fearful avoidant colleague aligns more with anxious attachment, stressful situations may trigger their fight response.
Another potential benefit of having a fearful avoidant attachment in the workplace is that you may not require the support of your colleagues in order to make decisions or finish tasks. Similar to the avoidant attachment style, fearful avoidant workers may be highly independent at work. As a result, this can reduce the demand for resources and increase efficiency.
Also, as they may not be as interested in socializing as others may be, they might be more likely to focus their energy on meeting deadlines and getting the job done.
Alternatively, due to some disorganized workers' willingness to open up to others, they may be able to communicate effectively with their colleagues and seek support from others when necessary. You can view this as a balance between the fight-or-flight autonomic response. So if a disorganized adult aligns more with the anxious attachment style, stressful situations may trigger their fight response.
Thus, they will do their best to achieve a positive outcome and not disappoint others. However, an avoidant attacher might respond with the flight response as the stressful situation may trigger their tendency to avoid difficult situations.
In a relationship they could be great for an avoidance-attached partner
Remember that someone with a disorganized attachment style might need to do some personal development work before they can fully heal their attachment style within a relationship. However, once they do this, they may be capable of the following traits.
Adults with a disorganized attachment may not act needy of a partner’s time and attention in a relationship. Though they often deeply crave connections with others due to their early experiences. Of course, their partner’s attachment style may determine how they respond to this space. For example, if the partner has an avoidant style, then they will likely appreciate someone respecting their boundaries.
A disorganized partner often retains their independence and individuality in a relationship. Due to their early experiences, they will likely be protective of their emotions. This means that they are less likely to expose their vulnerabilities in relationships.
Remember that someone with disorganized attachment might need to do some personal development work before they can fully heal their attachment style within a relationship.
A disorganized adult could also give themselves over entirely to relationships if they identify more with the traits of anxious attachment. They could potentially fall in love easily and put a lot of effort into their relationships. Even if the relationship is in trouble, they may continue working hard to maintain the bond and not call it quits.
Furthermore, a disorganized adult may welcome intimacy in their relationships as they often crave emotional closeness. They also may have the potential to be highly attuned to their partner’s needs and be able to provide them with the support that they require to feel valued and loved.
Although someone with a disorganized attachment may see themselves in a negative light, they may see their romantic partners as mostly positive. This means they could help their partners see themselves through their eyes - as loveable and worthwhile.
The anxious ones
Adults with an anxious attachment style tend to have a negative self-view, but a positive view of others. This means that they may view their partner as their literal "better half." Because someone with this attachment style deems themselves less worthy of love than other people, the thought of living without their partner (or being alone in general) causes high levels of anxiety. In other words, they deeply fear abandonment.
To ease this fear of abandonment, people with an anxious attachment style strongly desire security within relationships, and a partner's attention, care, and responsiveness tend to be the "remedy" for their anxiety.
On the other hand, the perceived absence of support and intimacy can lead someone with the anxious attachment style to become more clinging and demanding, preoccupied with the relationship, and desperate for reassurance that they are loved.
In a nutshell, people with this attachment style value their relationships highly, but are often hyper-vigilant towards threats to their security, as well as anxious and worried that their loved one is not as invested in the relationship as they are.
How a child develops an anxious attachment style is similar to the ones with a disorganized attachment
For example, maybe the caregiver misread the child's signals. Or perhaps they were unsure about the best parenting style to take. So they switched between being affectionate and reassuring at times, to letting the child self-soothe on other occasions instead.
This would lead to a child being a bit confused about what to expect regarding their caregiver. Are they going to respond when they need them? Or are they going to stop being attentive? The child starts to feel anxious and upset.
As a result, they self-regulate by throwing temper tantrums, becoming impossible to console, and acting very needy. They feel comforted by being close to their caregiver, so acting this way makes it more likely that they will pay attention to them, so their negative emotions will reduce as a result.
Unhealthy ways that adults with anxious attachment style might react to emotionally triggering situations:
- Constantly thinking about their relationship
- Focusing on potential threats to their relationship (whether they exist or not)
- Trying to be as emotionally and physically close to their partner as possible
- Constantly trying to contact their partner
- Using blame or guilt during an argument to get what they want
- Becoming angry, even if this anger is sometimes directed at themselves.
Because anxiously attached adults tend to focus on threats to their relationship, they can become furious at what they see as a danger.
However, their fear of rejection can cause them to hold their anger in and re-direct it towards themselves. This unhealthy self-regulation can cause them to feel resentful towards their partner, but also self-critical, sad, and depressed.
Protest behaviour such as this is highly damaging to a relationship, so it's clear that if someone with an anxious attachment style wants to establish and keep a healthy relationship, they should learn how to self-regulate healthier.
The following might be emotional triggers in a relationship for someone with an anxious attachment:
A partner behaving inconsistently
When a partner seems distant or distracted
If a partner forgets important events, such as their birthday or anniversary Your partner coming home late A partner not messaging back when anticipated
A partner failing to notice something new (e.g. a new haircut)
Any of these triggers could cause the adult with anxious attachment to become over-emotional in their attempts to re-establish a connection with their partner. This could look like creating an argument or being overly dramatic to try and get their attention -- and they might try to gain attention by any means.
What does healthy self-regulation when you’re anxiously attached look like?
- Resisting big emotional reactions to upsetting circumstances
- Calming yourself down when you become overly stimulated
- Managing your frustration if your partner’s plans change
- Handling a conflict without becoming aggressive or overly angry
The healing guide would also look like that of someone with a disorganized attachment style.
Avoidant Attachment: Understanding Insecure Avoidant Attachment by Joyce Catlett, M.A.,
Bowlby, J. (2012). ++A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory++. London: Routledge.
Brown, D. P., Elliott, D. S. (2016). ++Attachment Disturbances in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair++. New York: W.W. Norton.
Salter, M.D., Ainsworth, M.C., Blehar, E.W., Wall, S.N. (2015). ++Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation++. New York: Taylor & Francis.