Do you feel that uncontrollable worrying about your romantic relationships consumes far too much of your mental space? If so, you’re in the right place. Today we’ll unpack healing anxious attachment style. We’ll find out how to heal for a more peaceful, grounded attitude towards love, life and loss.
Table of Contents
What is an anxious attachment style?
Bowlby’s attachment theory
In the 1950’s, psychiatrist John Bowlby carried out what was to become some very famous research upon mothers and their babies. He first observed the behavior of young children in the presence of their mother. He then observed them when she left the room for a while, and again on her return.
Bowlby linked the children’s attachment styles to their distress levels when their mother had gone, and also to their reactions when the mother returned.
The attachment styles of the children were found to depend on the parenting style of the mother. Children with an attentive, responsive mother tended to have a secure attachment style. Those with a disconnected, unresponsive mother were more avoidant. Children with an attentive, responsive yet inconsistent mother (such as one who worked a great deal) were anxiously attached.
Hence, if a child’s needs were not consistently and adequately responded to, they would develop attachment issues, in the form of an insecure attachment style.
The work of Levine and Heller: attachment styles in relationships
More recently, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller published an internationally best-selling book, ‘Attached’. This book took the world by storm and is truly a must-have for anyone living with an attachment wound. I have quoted it many times in my articles – and for good reason.
In the book, Levine and Heller explain in great detail the impact of growing up as an adult with an insecure attachment style. They focus on the interplay of differing attachment styles in a romantic relationship.
Profiles of the anxious vs the avoidant
The insecure-avoidant partner is profiled as having the following characteristics:
- Fear of intimacy, resulting in hot and cold behavior when they perceive their partner as having come too close
- Cold, detached, and requiring a great deal of personal space
- Firm with boundaries
- A deep, often subconscious feeling of inadequacy
- Good at meeting their own needs instead of relying upon others. Also known as ‘self-soothing’
The insecure anxious partner on the other hand, is described as having quite different characteristics:
- A deep, almost insatiable craving for intimacy
- Persistent fear of rejection or of losing their partner. If they have ever been broken up with, they are haunted by the possibility of this happening again
- Obsessive thinking about their partner
- Worrying a great deal about losing the relationship
- A need for a great deal of contact and time spent together
- Weak ability to meet their own needs (self-soothe), and a tendency to rely upon others to do this for them
- Weak sense of self-identity
What it’s like to date an avoidant when you are anxious
Inside of a relationship, an anxious/avoidant couple can run into a great deal of problems.
The anxious partner constantly feels rejected. This confirms their subconscious belief that they are not good enough, and will be abandoned. Both partners fail to understand the other. They don’t understand how to meet each others’ needs or respond to emotional situations. Conflict is frequent. Both partners often feel misunderstood, judged and criticized.
The avoidant (AKA dismissive avoidant) partner feels smothered. This confirms their belief that romantic relationships mean losing independence, and are not to be trusted. They feel frustrated with the anxious partner, not understanding why they need so much attention. Men with mommy issues tend to develop this attachment style. When they grow up to have a dysfunctional relationship with their mother, they usually end up with a fear of intimacy, at least to some degree.
It is important to note that mommy issues in women also exist. But for whatever reason, they seem to be less common than in males.
Crucially, the book points out the that anxious and avoidant partners tend to be drawn to each other like magnets.
The subconscious mind and our choice of partner
In her book ‘The Power of Attachment’, Diane Pool Heller expands on this. As she puts it, our choice of partner is a way for the subconscious mind to confirm its beliefs about the world. An anxious person would likely be repulsed by another anxious person, since their subconscious mind is seeking confirmation from their partner that they are unworthy of love. Two avoidants meanwhile, would probably never be able to establish enough intimacy to create a romantic bond.
Hence anxious and avoidant partners are drawn to one another like moth to flame. And unfortunately this unfortunate coupling can lead to a great deal of pain and suffering for both individuals.
This suffering is due to the radical contrast between the needs and desires of the anxious and the avoidant partner. Despite a fundamental incompatibility, these relationships can be incredibly hard to break free from. The relationship feels familiar and safe, despite the fact that it might be deeply painful and turbulent. The relationship itself is confirming both individuals’ subconscious beliefs about themselves and others. Hence, the attraction is strong.
The anxious/avoidant relationship is particularly hard for the anxious partner. Because they tend to be more sensitive and highly attuned to others, their mental health can really take a hit. Relationship anxiety is their modus operandi. And sometimes they can end up with full-blown anxiety disorder.
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Healing anxious attachment: why it’s so important for a happy life
Being an anxiously attached partner can really suck. Especially if you are dating an avoidant. If this article on healing anxious attachment goes down well, I’ll write another on healing avoidant attachment.
It is not uncommon to feel that the ground beneath your feet is constantly shaking. Everything you love and cherish could be ripped away from you in an instant. The fear of losing your intimate relationship quite literally haunts you.
Due to being a naturally more sensitive, people-oriented person, you are highly attuned to words, body language and behavior of others. Particularly that of your partner. This can lead to over-analysis, and foreseeing problems that do not and will not exist.
Perhaps your partner took three hours to respond to your text when they usually write back straight away. In reality, they may have been in an important business meeting, or driving. But in your head, they were cheating on you, or were losing interest.
In response to this over-analysis and constant worry, the anxiously attached person can resort to unhealthy behavior. This can include texting or calling many times in a row, or showing up at their partner’s house without warning. This is pretty unattractive behavior for anyone. But particularly if they are dating an avoidant, it can have disastrous consequences.
In their lifelong quest to find, maintain and protect their intimate relationship at all costs, they often end up pushing it away.
This is why healing anxious attachment is so important in order to have a happy, less stressful life.
Living with an anxious attachment style
When you are the anxiously attached person
The anxiously attached person typically has a weak sense of identity, and huge abandonment issues. They have problems meeting their own needs and an over-reliance on others.
Anxiously attached people often live with the following problems:
- Poor mental health: intense attachment insecurity means that they are plagued by thoughts about their relationship. This can impact their ability to enjoy other things in life such as friendships and hobbies
- Hyperstimulated nervous system: the nervous system of a person with an anxious attachment style is often overstimulated. They experience frequent, intense anxiety and strong emotion in response to ups and downs in their romantic life. Constantly foreseeing problems, the sympathetic nervous system is dominant. The physical health consequences of this can be dire. Exhaustion and burnout are looming threats
- Jealousy: the anxiously attached person is also prone to jealousy. Constantly on the lookout for a threat, they can be preoccupied with thoughts of being cheated on. Jealous women in particular can suffer a great deal. Societal pressures make women feel like they need to be ever youthful and beautiful. More vulnerable women can be driven to distraction by the idea that their partner is spending time around younger, prettier women. False accusations may fly around left, right and center. Life is not fun for either person in the relationship.
This is why healing anxious attachment is so important if you want to have a happy life and a successful relationship.
When you are dating an anxiously attached person
So, we can see it isn’t easy to have an anxious attachment style. But nor is it easy to date someone with this attachment disorder.
We have seen how behaviors of the anxious might cause problems for an avoidant partner. But even for someone with a healthy attachment style, some of their behaviors can still be quite troubling.
The constant need for reassurance and confirmation that they are loved can be annoying. Feeling responsible for your partner’s happiness is a heavy burden to carry. Having an anxiously attached partner can feel draining. They need a great deal of attention, and when they become triggered and upset, you need to know just how to handle it. If you don’t, they can be even more distressed. Many relationships fail due to the overly needy, anxiously attached individual.
Healing anxious attachment: 5 steps to move towards relationship security
So, you think you’re anxious, or perhaps you are dating one. What next?! Well, I hope that you primarily feel some relief, because you have realized that you are neither crazy nor alone.
Attachment styles are not death sentences. They can be healed and moved through. All it takes is some retuning of the subconscious mind. By reprogramming our subconscious mind, we are effectively freeing ourselves of the programming installed during our early childhood years.
Healing anxious attachment is done by moving towards a more secure attachment style. Here are 5 simple steps you can take to start feeling more attachment security, today:
1. Develop your sense of self
The first step to healing anxious attachment is developing your sense of self. One of the biggest voids in an anxious person’s life is their sense of self.
You are hyper aware of other people. And that is a beautiful thing – a gift in itself. But this often leads to ignoring yourself and a weak self-identity.
If you want to depend less on others, you first need to fix the relationship with YOU.
Get to know yourself. Find out what you stand for and what you enjoy doing. This will contribute to better self-esteem and a more robust emotional system. Rejection, or the threat of it, will bother you less when you know who you are.
One of the biggest voids in the anxious person’s life is a sense of self. Due to their tendency to cling to others to gain validation, they
2. Learn to meet your own emotional needs
Another anxious attachment pattern is an over-reliance on others to get emotional needs met.
If you identify as anxious, you probably turn to your romantic partner to satisfy the majority of your emotional needs. As a child, your parents satisfied your needs for comfort, play and love for some of the time. But at other times, they were not present and your needs were left unmet.
The abandonment wound
This means that you did not learn to meet your own needs, as the avoidant partner does. But instead, developed an intense fear of not having them met by others. In adulthood, this manifests as a fear of abandonment.
In order to heal from fear of abandonment and over-reliance on others, you must learn to meet your own needs and self-soothe.
This feeds directly into step 1, because it involves the relationship with yourself. You must begin to believe and teach your subconscious mind that you can fully nurture, care for and stand up for yourself.
We develop anxious attachment as a response to inconsistency during childhood. When we were babies, our survival depended upon our parents meeting our needs. If this was not done consistently, we take this fear about survival into adulthood. When our romantic connection feels threatened in the smallest of ways, we can quite literally feel as though we are about to die.
Once you become more able to meet your own emotional needs, our survival will no longer feel threatened. Thus, the anxiety will greatly decrease.
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3. Learn to distinguish your emotional triggers from reality
A lot of the time, the reactions of a person with anxious attachment are not incongruence with what is happening in reality.
Understanding the extent of your hypersensitivity is absolutely key to healing anxious attachment. You must identify the areas in your life where your anxiety is being triggered, and then rationalize your way through those events.
If you can master the art of overriding your natural reactions through ration, you will conquer your emotions.
If your partner says or does something that makes you feel highly distressed, step outside of the situation. Observe the facts and identify the real problem: your attachment style having been activated.
A real-life example of choosing ration over emotion
For example: your partner told you they would be home at work by 6pm. It gets to 7pm, then 8pm. They are still not home. They have not picked up any of your calls.
Your natural reaction might be to assume that they are going behind your back with another woman. You may start to feel extremely agitated, anxious and feel butterflies in your chest. You might be tempted to start calling them again and again to find out where they are.
It is at this point that you need to stop catastrophizing. Take note of the facts vs the fiction (which is rapidly gaining traction inside of your head). Listen to the voice of ration, which tells you that your partner might have been caught late in an extended business meeting, or countless other viable explanations.
Your activated attachment wound is screaming at you that you are about to be left. But it’s your choice whether you listen to it or not. I suggest taking the more conscious path. Most of the anxious people on the planet are walking around worrying themselves sick about things that will never happen. It is no different for people with anxious attachment. And it is a shame that something that is meant to bring so much joy and happiness – brings so much suffering and upset.
4. Ask for what you need
If you are anxiously attached, you may well have a problem with asking for what you need.
Due to the constant fear of being left, you fear that if you voice your needs, you will be rejected.
You may also believe that you should not need to ask your partner to meet your needs. If they love and care for you, they should be able to meet them without you asking.
Both of the above are a recipe for disaster. People have vasty differing needs. So how could someone be expected to psychically predict what another person wants?
Not voicing your needs inevitably leads to them not being met. This further perpetuates the anxious person’s feelings of inadequacy. They believe they are not worthy of having their needs met. Self-esteem remains low. And so the cycle continues.
If you have an anxious attachment style. Practice asking for the things you want, and speaking out against the things you don’t want.
5. Stop people pleasing
People pleasing is the toxic human habit of being a yes person. This kind of person sometimes views themselves as a martyr, and always subjugates their own desires to satisfy the desires of others.
People with an anxious attachment style have a desperate need for approval of others. This almost always leads them to become people pleasers. But people pleasers don’t tend to actually get what they most want from others (approval and respect). It actually has the opposite effect, and people lose respect for them.
This even further perpetuates the feelings of inadequacy, and leads to even more people pleasing. As you can see. It’s a viscious cycle!
If you want to move towards a secure attachment style, practice putting up some boundaries and saying no. This will also feed into a stronger sense of self, and better self-esteem. Stop taking responsibility for other people’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. Rarely are things personal.
Healing anxious attachment: your responsibility
So, we have understood the basics of attachment theory. We have seen how our entire adult attachment style comes from programming installed during our earliest years. Our relationship with our parents forms the basis of our adult relationships. When we had a healthy attachment to our parents – all is good! But when we did not – we grow up with dysfunctional relationship habits and attitudes. In the case of those of us with anxious attachment, relationships can be very worrisome.
Hopefully you can now identify if you are somewhere on the anxious attachment scale. If you are, I sincerely hope you have realised how NOT alone in this you are. Although an anxious attachment style can lead to a difficult, troubled relationship, it doesn’t have to.
Anxious attachment is common. More than 25% of people on the planet have this attachment style. Although it can cause a great deal of distress, pain, shame and suffering, it can be completely healed. But doing so is your responsibility. It takes effort and time to decondition yourself. But the rewards are worth it.
If you want to start healing, the five steps above are a great place to start. They will definitely help to recondition your subconscious beliefs about love and relationships. To go even deeper into this work and truly heal an anxious attachment style, along with many other elements of life, work and relationships, you can take my free relationship training for men here.
If you are a woman reading this because you have an anxious attachment style, and your partner is avoidant, why not suggest he takes it? Regardless of where he falls on the anxious-secure-avoidant spectrum, it will help him to become a better partner, meet your needs and respond to your emotions in appropriate way.
What helps with anxious preoccupied attachment?
Learning to recognize when your attachment wound is being emotionally triggered helped a great deal with anxious attachment.
What does it mean to have an anxious attachment style?
Having an anxious attachment style means that you grew up with loving yet inconsistent parents. Your needs were met, but not always. Perhaps your parents worked a lot or had other children to tend to. This led you to crave intimacy, yet at the same time remain deeply fearful of losing it.
How to self regulate in a healthy way when you have anxious attachment?
When you have anxious attachment, self-regulating can be difficult. The key is to become more emotionally intelligent. Recognize when your attachment style is activated and causing you to become disregulated. Apply ration to every situation. Trust this over your first emotional reaction.
How can you overcome an anxious attachment style?
You can overcome an anxious attachment style by holding better boundaries and developing your sense of self. People pleasing behavior should also be kicked to the curb. All of these things will help to boost your self-esteem and independence. These are crucial when building a healthy attachment style.
How do people with anxious attachment feel?
People with anxious attachment can struggle in their relationships, friendships and work. The fear of loss haunts them. They may be hypersensitive to the emotions and reactions of others. Perceiving threats between the lines, they crave intimacy yet fear losing it.
How might someone with secure attachment respond to emotional triggers?
Securely attached people still get triggered. But that trigger may not cut them as deeply as it cuts someone with anxious attachment. They are less likely to suffer from mental health problems related to their relationships. Less disturbed, they can go on with their daily activities, and do not experience extreme physical symptoms of anxiety such as shaking or palpitations.
Can people with anxious attachment style have healthy relationships?
Yes, people with anxious attachment style can have healthy relationships. They can lessen the degree of their relationship anxiety and move towards a more secure attachment style. If they are with an avoidant partner, however, this is more difficult. Anxious/avoidant partners tend to trigger each other. For this reason, it is better for someone who is anxious to try and find a secure partner.
What’s it like to date someone with an anxious attachment style?
Dating someone with an anxious attachment style is not always easy. It can be frustrating to constantly be asked for reassurance. Observing people-pleasing behavior is also challenging and can lead to a lack of respect for one’s partner.
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