What’s Your Attachment Style? About Anxious Attachment
I recently wrote about attachment theory as a way to better understand relationships and how we relate to others in relationships. This shows up no matter the relationship - with your spouse/partner, family members and friends, co-workers and bosses. You can read more about the theory of attachment here.
Our attachment style originates in our childhood experiences and the three primary styles are secure, avoidant, and anxious. In this post I want to further explore the anxious attachment style. I discuss secure attachment style here and will discuss avoidant attachment style in a future post.
What does an anxious attachment style feel like?
To understand the anxious attachment style it helps to focus on the word “anxious.” You may experience a lot of anxiety regarding your relationships in both subtle and overwhelming ways. There is often (or always) some anxiety that the connection to the other person is threatened - you often don’t feel “OK.” Delays in email and text responses from friends, your partner’s tone of voice and word choices, behaviors where you perceive the other person is distancing themselves from you - all of these things can trigger anxiety that there is something wrong with the relationship.
This anxiety is often based in an underlying belief that there is something wrong with you - that you are either too little or too much in relationships and that who you are is causing the other person to move away from you.
What does an anxious attachment style look like?
What happens when you feel anxious in your relationships and have an underlying belief that there is something wrong with you? You try to do things to relieve your anxiety and reassure yourself that you and your relationships are OK.
This can play out in a lot of ways. You might notice that you are highly sensitive to others, constantly scanning and aware of your partner/friend/boss’s mood and behavior. You might spend a lot of time checking for clues that something might be wrong - you stay alert to make sure that you and the relationship are OK.
This can lead to problematic behaviors. When you perceive a threat to the relationship you might act out in ways to fix or repair the connection or confirm that it actually isn’t threatened. You might check in a lot to seek reassurance from the other with frequent texting, verbally asking for reassurance, etc. Since the relationship may or may not actually be threatened, these actions can stress the relationship bond and stress your partner. Even if your partner or friend or boss assures you that things are OK, you still might not feel OK.
You might use sex to feel better about yourself and the relationship. While getting closer to someone is a primary reason to have sex, with an anxious attachment style it can be used in unhealthy ways - instead of actually moving you closer, you seek sex to ease your anxiety and to reassure yourself that you and the relationship are OK.
You might notice the urge or act on the urge to threaten the other with breaking up or leaving, hoping that they will then affirm the connection, that things are OK. These threats (or break ups) are driven by the anxiety to feel OK about the relationship, not by an actual need to break it off.
Finally, others may have told you that you are needy, or have told you to back off, slow down, or calm down in the relationship. You might understand this and know it is a good idea, but the anxiety and fear about the relationship gets in the way.
Codependency is a pop psychology term for many of the behaviors associated with an anxious attachment style. Codependency is a set of behaviors that put the other’s needs and wants before your own. You put the other’s needs first and sacrifice your own needs in the hope that this will keep you and the relationship feeling secure. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, these behaviors rarely help you actually feel less anxious and OK with the relationship.
How did you get here?
There are a lot of reasons. Consider that how you relate to others is established in childhood experiences. Experiencing trauma, abuse, or loss can lead to an anxious attachment style.
Perhaps your parents or other caregivers had an anxious attachment style themselves or weren’t able to manage their own emotions in their interactions with you. When caregivers are overwhelmed by their own emotions and stressors or act in ways that feel intrusive, insensitive or controlling if can lead you to not learning how to regulate your emotions as well.
All of these experiences can lead to an overall sense that you aren’t OK and that relationships are, as a rule, insecure.
What can you do about it?
It can be really helpful to take a look at some of the behaviors that you might engage in that feel related to the underlying anxiety discussed above. What patterns do you notice that seem to drive people away? What behaviors feel like they are more about helping you to feel better than engaging more fully in the relationship? If you notice patterns that seem problematic, what could you change?
These behavior changes can help in improving how you to relate to others and might improve the relationships you engage in, but you will also need to address the underlying anxiety. Learning how to relate differently to the anxious feelings and thoughts, as well as the urges to behave in problematic ways, is an important part of addressing anxious attachment. Mindfulness is a great tool for relating differently to anxiety and therapy is often an important part of addressing anxious attachment as well. Specifically, EMDR is a therapy that can help in healing childhood attachment experiences that are still showing up in painful ways.
An anxious attachment style can be a challenging and painful experience and can put strain on any relationship you’re in, whether it be a friend or family member, a partner or a co-worker. The good news is that you can take steps to shift your behavior and relate differently to the painful experiences to move toward more meaningful relationships.