Do you feel nervous and uncomfortable when it comes to being vulnerable? Do you find yourself worried that your loved ones will leave you behind?
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You may have an insecure attachment style.
A person’s attachment style describes how they connect and form relationships with people. The original attachment theory by British psychologist James Bowlby was focused on the ways that infants bond with their parents and caregivers1. Since then, research into attachment style has extended into adolescent and adult relationships.
There are four primary attachment styles:
Individuals with a secure attachment style are able to build healthy, long-lasting relationships. These relationships are defined by feelings of emotional safety and connection.
The other three attachment patterns describe forms of insecure attachment. Insecure attachment often manifests as a lack of trust, fear of intimacy, and intense sensitivity to perceived attacks.
For people with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, relationships are full of uncertainty. They generally have low self-esteem and fear abandonment. They may frequently express jealousy or demand validation. They might withdraw and make no demands of their partner at all.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult for a person with an anxious attachment style to develop skills to help manage anxiety. This can cause them and their loved ones significant stress.
This attachment style is not automatically toxic. With support and commitment to change, a person can learn how to overcome anxious-preoccupied attachment.
No two people’s experiences are the exact same, but, in general, uncertainty leads to anxious/preoccupied attachment2. There can be a genetic component, for example, if a person has a family history of anxiety disorders. But often, insecure attachment is attributed to environmental factors.
Often, anxious attachment develops from a history of trauma. Trauma activates the sympathetic nervous system. This is the flight-or-flight part of our brains. That experience leaves a kind of imprint that makes us want to avoid similar circumstances.
Infants and children who are uncertain of their ability to rely on their caregivers can become anxiously attached. They are unable to care for themselves and can become anxious about having their needs met any time they are uncomfortable.
An anxious attachment style can also be the result of anxiety in the adults around them. If adults are being overprotective or often worried, a child can learn to question their safety. If a parent is loving one moment and distant the next, the child can develop anxiety about predicting their parent’s behavior.
Attachment issues can also be developed in adolescence and adulthood. This can be the result of inconsistent or abusive behavior, especially in romantic relationships.
But what does this insecure attachment style look like in adults?
One of the hallmark signs of an anxious attachment style is an underlying belief that love is something one has to earn. When it comes to attachment, anxious adults are constantly prepared to be left behind.
Studies show that a common trait for anxious adults is rejection sensitivity, an oversensitivity or increased reaction to potential social rejection3. That means the slightest change in their partner’s mood or actions can be received as criticism or anger. This can lead to a need for constant reassurance.
Unfortunately, this can lead to problematic behaviors like obsessively checking social media or frequent unnecessary calls and texts. In extreme cases, this person might display narcissistic traits, like love bombing or feeling entitled to their partner’s energy.
An anxiously attached person can often feel like they have to earn affection from those around them. This can lead to codependent or people-pleasing behaviors.
Codependency describes patterns of behavior where a person prioritizes someone else’s needs over their own. In addition, a codependent person’s mood and happiness depend on that of the other person. This often results in the person saying and doing things they dislike to gain approval.
Someone who cares about honesty can find themselves lying. Maybe they give up their hobbies to avoid judgment. They might even enter into or stay in a relationship that is deeply unhealthy for fear of being alone.
The drive to meet the needs of others can lead to a lack of a sense of agency, which is a person’s sense of control over their own life. When a person feels they can’t control or influence their circumstances, it leads to further anxiety and feelings of hopelessness4.
Resilience describes one’s ability to bounce back from a difficult situation. Studies show that a low level of resilience is associated with poor mental health, especially after a disaster or hardship5.
For a person with attachment anxiety, negative thought patterns can take over in a difficult situation. Negative self-talk describes an internal focus and expectation of disconnection, discomfort, and things generally not going well. These assumptions are often reinforced by cognitive distortions or biased thinking patterns based on incomplete information.
Cognitive distortions make it difficult to navigate the present moment. A person can get stuck focusing on what should be or what they expect, rather than what’s actually going on. This leaves them unable to adapt to the situation at hand.
Anxious attachment tends to lead to intense emotions. Unlike someone securely attached, someone with an anxious attachment style can feel out of control when they are angry, sad, anxious, or ashamed.
Because of the intensity, an anxious person can try to suppress how they feel6. This suppression can lead to emotional dysfunction, which is an inability to respond to a situation appropriately.
This can look like a person reluctant to say whether or not they prefer something, only to cry or lash out about the situation later. The loss of control can lead to another shutdown of emotions, which can start the cycle all over again.
Someone with an anxious attachment type can have a hard time letting others know what they are and are not comfortable with. The desire for emotional closeness overpowers their other needs.
Boundaries are an important means of managing interpersonal relationships. They help people to show each other care and consideration. But for someone with anxious-preoccupied attachment, boundaries are seen as a source of disconnection.
Due to this lack of boundaries, people with an anxious style of attachment can have difficulty trusting those around them. This distrust can be subtle, due to the aforementioned people pleasing behaviors, but generally looks like a person who doesn’t want to ask for help or support.
Working toward a more secure style of attachment can be difficult, but not impossible. If you’ve noticed signs of anxious attachment in yourself, try these tips to improve your sense of self.
Self-talk describes the way people think of themselves, their relationships, and the world around them. It includes conscious and subconscious beliefs. For someone with an anxious attachment style, relationships are surrounded by negative self-talk.
Positive self-talk is a pattern of thinking that is focused on connection and self-efficacy. A person with a positive internal narrative recognizes that things are not always ideal, but assumes things are going to get better.
If you find that your self-talk is more negative than positive, practice identifying the source of your negativity. Afterward, look at the situation or relationship in front of you and try to think neutrally about how the present is different from past experiences.
Let’s consider a friend who tells you she can’t have lunch with you this week. You might automatically think she’s avoiding you. Where does that come from? Were you often left out of fun activities as a kid? Did you feel that your parents didn’t pay attention to the things that were important to you?
Remember, that’s not what’s happening now. Remind yourself of how your friend is different from your parents or mean middle schoolers. Take deep breaths and remember that your friend regularly has lunch with you, but this week she has a project deadline to meet. Confirm for yourself that lunch next week is still on.
By recognizing the source of anxiety and comparing it to the here and now, an anxious person can learn to balance negative and positive thinking.
Positive self-talk isn’t just about other people. It’s also about how you see yourself. And one of the best ways to increase your self-awareness is to intentionally connect with your own emotions.
Even unpleasant emotions serve a purpose. They let us know that something is wrong internally or externally so that we can make changes and help ourselves. If you have negative thoughts about “negative” emotions, you’re unlikely to actually meet your needs.
Anxious attachment triggers an intense response to uncomfortable emotions. If you struggle with this, find ways to self-soothe until the emotions are more manageable. Soothing yourself is most effective when you try to do something pleasing to the senses, like taking a warm shower or listening to your favorite music.
Calming yourself down might take a while the first few times you do it. Give yourself some grace - you’re teaching your inner child an entirely new skill.
Once you’ve calmed down a bit, you’ll notice that you still have an unpleasant feeling. That’s normal. Now you can check in with yourself about what the emotion is trying to communicate.
Are you frustrated and hurt by a friend who always cancels plans at the last minute? Are you anxious when you notice your partner behaving inconsistently? Do you feel lonely? Are you disappointed when your partner forgets important events?
Once you know what the root of the problem is, you can communicate with your loved ones and engage in much-needed self-care.
We cannot control everything, which is why it’s important to recognize the circle of concern versus the circle of influence. There are a lot of things that you might be concerned about in your life, but we can only really control or impact a certain portion of those issues.
By focusing on what you can have an impact on, you are able to improve your sense of self-efficacy. This increase in your personal agency can lead to a reduction in anxiety7. This, in turn, can lead to an increased ability to handle the unexpected8.
Differentiating between what we can and cannot influence is a skill that takes practice, but it isn’t necessarily complicated. When you’re worried about something, simply ask yourself what you can effectively change.
Can you change the way you look at the situation? Are there actions you can take to change the way you feel, even if you can’t change the situation? Is the issue completely out of your hands? What would be a more effective use of your time and energy?
Asking for help is one of the most neglected coping skills when it comes to insecure attachment. The lack of trust at the heart of an anxious attachment style can make relying on others a difficult prospect.
In order to improve your adult relationships, you have to develop trust. But developing trust is not a quick process. Trust has to be built little by little. In order to trust the people around you, then, you have to start by asking for little things and give them the chance to earn that trust.
There will be times when people fall short and lose your trust. It can be tempting to never mention it and just stop asking for support, but that’s how anxious attachment keeps you disconnected. Instead, let that person know you need support from them and give them a chance to show you they will.
Even getting to the point where you can ask for little things can be overwhelming, however. If you find that you’re not sure where to start, consider working with a professional, participating in therapy, or finding a mentor.
These supportive relationships can also be helpful for times when you recognize a relationship is unhealthy or your connection with someone unexpectedly ends. These are situations that can leave you feeling anxious, but you don’t have to deal with them on your own.
A person with anxious attachment needs reassurance that their partner likes them, not just what they do for their partner. To show this person love, initiate contact frequently and encourage them to share their emotions. Avoid making decisions for both of you, and instead, invite conversations to work through problems together.
A person with an anxious attachment style might show some narcissistic traits. Because they feel anxious, they might feel entitled to their partner’s time and energy. They might engage in love bombing or lash out when they feel hurt.
Anxious attachment is not as healthy as a secure attachment style, but it’s not inherently toxic. Someone who is anxiously attached can learn to manage their own feelings. They can develop more secure attachment behaviors. This can be helped by working with a professional life coach or mental health professional.
It can be uncomfortable for people in a relationship with someone who is anxiously attached. Anxious-preoccupied attachment usually results in behavior that is meant to bring people closer but often pushes loved ones away.
Due to the attachment process, people can be anxious about losing connection to their loved ones. Though attachment anxiety can have a negative impact on a person’s relationships, there are ways to improve your internal narrative and build loving relationships.