I recently did some reading about different forms of attachment styles in relationships. I’m fascinated to learn more about myself as part of my ongoing personal development journey, and determined to provide the healthiest version of myself to Annie, my son and the people I care most about. Basically, what I’ve learned is that there are 2 attachment styles: Secure and Insecure. Like many things, there’s a spectrum and although we can swing like a pendulum between the two, we typically have a primary attachment style, heavily influenced by our upbringing. The goal is to work towards the Secure Attachment Style. Unless you had a “perfect childhood” many of us fall into the Insecure model. In the insecure model, it breaks down even further into the Avoidant attachment style and the Anxious Attachment style (I’m over simplifying this because there’s variations of the Anxious attachment style as well).
I dug deeper to determine what my attachment style has been in past relationships, determined not to repeat the same pattern in my current relationship with Annie. Based on a checklist of the behaviors, I fell into the Anxious Attachment Style. If you’ve ever felt or thought the following incessantly, you’re likely similar to me: I’m not good enough for this relationship, she’s ignoring me, I need her love and affection, I need others to validate me on social media, she’s going to leave me because I’m boring and unattractive. Simply put, the resulting behaviours are: insecurity, neediness, attention-seeking and needing validation. I lacked self-esteem and therefore pursued romantic relationships to fill a void that was left open by my caregivers. That’s not love. That’s pining for another person to fill a gap that I needed to repair on my own. (Note: when talking about our caregivers, this is not a situation of blame. It’s about understanding traced reasons to repair past wounds.)
So I asked myself, “If I identify with my thought patterns and know I was an Anxious Attachment style in dating, does this awareness already give me an indication that I am in the process of changing that attachment to a more secure one?”
The answer is, yes. Because awareness exists, I cognitively realize what’s happening in my brain, therefore I can take action to change any negative and insecure thought patterns, versus previously when I was dating and did not have any awareness at all. I was like metaphorically driving blindfolded, eventually crashing into a concrete wall (which is part of the main reason why my relationships failed miserably). Some call this operating on auto-pilot. For individuals like myself who had a difficult upbringing, running on auto-pilot is not an option for a healthy relationship.
Just simply realizing my anxious attachment style is a great first step to a healthier future. We tend to forget to be compassionate of ourselves and forget to give praise when duly noted. For the anxious attachment individuals out there, giving yourself recognition is ever so critical, because failure to do so, only reinforces the negative cognitions that we’re not good enough.
Just realizing my attachment style isn’t enough however. But, what now? What will I do about it? The anxious attachment form of thinking isn’t going to magically disappear just because I’ve suddenly become aware of it. Even though I’m no longer driving blindfolded, I still need to steer the wheel. I’m now able to see two routes – one towards the same concrete wall (if I choose to do nothing about it) OR one through a gravel road that’s bumpier to start off but headed towards a nicely paved road. The necessary actions to get me onto that paved road is to learn to heal, cope, process, understand and diffuse (not necessarily in that particular order).
My awareness has been my biggest weapon against my past insecurities and fears. This catalyst puts me in a better position today to have a healthier relationship with myself and with others. I’m not afraid to deal with my past. I’m not afraid to tackle face-on where my pain and hurt have come from, which is a far cry from where I was many years ago. Learning that my anxious attachment style in the past was interconnected to my past needs has been an eye-opener. This puts things into context instead of driving blind-folded in my relationships. My youth was plagued with insecurities: the need for a loving mother who was emotionally unavailable and the need for a safe and secure home especially in my days as a young boy can’t be emphasized enough. The missing links of feeling love, wanted, and parental availability that I needed as a child, is something I’ve now discovered. This gives me the power to distinctly distinguish between present needs in a relationship vs past needs as a child.
Tools I’ve learned to help reprogram the Anxious Attachment Style in Relationships:
- Label the feeling. There’s different terms people use (ie Naming it or giving it a voice) with this ever so critical step. When you feel at onset of rejection, labeling it out loud, draws awareness to that feeling. Some labels might be: abandoned, rejected, unwanted, not important enough, unlovable or worthless. Typically the feeling of rejection, loneliness, abandonment and unworthiness arise in the chest, heart area. It’s like feeling a lump there and your mind runs with panicky and anxious thoughts about not being good enough for the relationship.
- Accept and acknowledge the feeling. Many self help gurus will call this leaning into the feeling, if you’ve ever wondered what leaning in means. Don’t deny the feelings. Allow them in because they are real and it’s OK to feel them. Allowing the feelings isn’t the same thing as allowing the thoughts to consume you. This is critical. Allowing the feelings means recognizing physically where these feelings are felt (in the chest, head area) and admitting openly, “yes, I FEEL hurt, abandoned, alone and unwanted.” But, go no further with any running thoughts that give this feeling energy (ie “he’s not texting me back…she’s mad at me again…what did I say wrong to make her reject me?)
- Investigate. What stories are you telling yourself? She’s going to leave me. He’s never coming back. He’s upset with me, I just know it. I’m a boring person and she’s eventually going to discover that, are a few examples we tell ourselves. Once you estabilish some of the stories you’re telling yourself, DISPROVE THEM! Investigate and ask yourself for hard evidence that these stories are true. There’s a high likelihood you’re going to have a hard time proving them to be true. Then replace those negative thoughts with reasons that they do like you. Be specific and list out specific reasons (ie. they tell you that they love you, they are affectionate, they help you around the house, they do kind things for you, they ask you how your day is, etc).
- Rewire. Tell yourself in your mind, on paper or out loud: “I’m safe now. All my needs are taken care of by myself.” Don’t identify with your feelings. Remember, you need to reprogram the mind to believe this to be true. The key here is to acknowledge that the painful experience you’re feeling now has very little (to nothing) to do with the event at the present moment, but moreso about the painful experience that was felt in childhood (fear of abandonment). For example, if your boyfriend doesn’t text you, you beging to feel anxious that he doesn’t care. This “pain” you’re feeling has nothing to do with the fact that he’s not texting. He’s not texting because he’s busy, or he’s preoccupied. Your feeling of pain, is more likely connected to a similar pain you felt when your mother/father didn’t give you the reassurance you needed as a child to feel safe and wanted.
To learn more about Anxious Attachments, I highly recommend the following links. And in the video and webinars, there’s some very useful exercises that hits the core of the problem. These aren’t just breathing exercises and meditation. It gives you written and mental exercises that you can do. Remember, it takes hard work to untangle and reprogram, but in the end we’re all worth it!