What is an Anxious Attachment Style in Adults?
This post about anxious attachment in adults is the third in a series. So if you’re not familiar with the general concept of attachment styles or if you’d like a refresher, check out this earlier post that discusses it.
The easiest way to conceptualize what an anxious attachment style in adults looks like is to think of a classically “clingy” person in a relationship. But while this “clinginess” is often portrayed in movies and TV as just an annoying character flaw (Stage 5 clinger Isla Fisher in Wedding Crashers comes to mind), the truth is that there’s usually a really good reason that anxious people behave this way. And it’s completely, 100% possible for people to change their attachment styles, so if you keep reading below and realize that this style sounds like you, don’t give up hope!
What does an anxious attachment in adults look like?
- A low sense of self-worth. This is the driving force behind the whole problem. Anxious attachers do not think that they deserve someone’s devotion and connection, so they have trouble believing it even when it’s right in front of them.
- An overdeveloped “social threat detector.” Just like your brain tells you you’re in physical danger when you see a lion growling yards away from you, it can also send you signals that you’re in social danger, such as angry facial cues or body language from the person you’re talking to. But as Dr. Hal Shorey explains in Psychology Today, for anxious attachers, “the person’s social-threat-detection apparatus is always stuck in the on position.” Shorey says that brain imaging even shows that anxious attachers’ brain activity is different in this way! So they’re prone to interpret social cues that weren’t meant to be personal or negative as personal or negative.
- An inability to let things go followed by a tendency to overact. Anxious attachers see too many social situations as personal, and then they can’t let those situations go. They fixate on them and are so bothered that they feel compelled to fix them. The steps they take to fix the perceived problem, though, often turn people off. For instance, an anxious attacher might think a coworker was upset with them for something and then send an email asking the coworker what they did wrong. The coworker was likely never upset in the first place and therefore feels uncomfortable with the whole situation.
- A tendency to pick fights. Because they’re on the lookout for signs that their partner is unhappy with the relationship, they tend to only see such signs and to forget signs that their partner is happy. They often are very aware that such feelings might be irrational, so they might try to suppress them for a long time, but then the feelings explode and cause a fight that can leave their partner blindsided. This fighting feels better to the anxious attacher than no attachment at all, which is their worst fear.
- A tendency to squelch their own identities. Anxious attachers are sure that their true selves aren’t good enough for their partner, so they often feel willing to hide or change things about themselves in order to gain their partner’s love. The thought of their partner loving a fake version of themselves is better than their partner not loving them at all.
One misconception about anxious attachers is that they have no idea how clingy they’re being and how it’s negatively affecting their relationships. They often are actually painfully aware of this and want to fix the problem, but they just internalize their clinginess as yet another thing that’s wrong with them, which just leads to more self-hate rather than a positive change. They usually come to realize that they have a problem because no amount of reassurance from their partner can make them feel secure. While verbal and nonverbal assurance of love from a partner should ease their minds, it usually doesn’t, and they can feel that and recognize it as problematic.
How does an anxious attachment start?
You probably guessed it: anxious attachment in adults usually – though not always! – comes from a person’s early relationships with caregivers. Some experts theorize that anxious attachment comes from a caretaker who themselves fears abandonment, and therefore creates a codependent child. In other words, if a caretaker fears abandonment, then they might want to make their child dependent on them so that they know they’ll always have at least that one person who needs them.
Other experts theorize that anxious attachment comes from an inconsistent caregiver, a caregiver who might react lovingly one day and then distantly the next day for no clear reason. Obviously, children of such caregivers would have to get used to analyzing the caregiver carefully for nonverbal cues and would develop a suspicion of sincere attachments later in life. A particularly important or traumatic relationship experience in adulthood can also trigger anxious attachment, though, even if a person’s childhood experience was secure.
What can I do about my anxious attachment?
First of all, anxious attachment in adults is usually the result of some fairly serious pain in your past, so if at all possible for you, therapy would most likely be a more effective way to work on your attachment style than just your own self-effort. However, if therapy isn’t possible for you right now for whatever reason, or if you think you might have a milder case of anxiety in your relationships, there are some steps you can take on your own:
- Give yourself a “cool down period” before taking any action when you’re emotionally activated. In the moments or even the hours, after you’ve perceived yourself as part of an interaction in which someone was upset or dismissive of you, you might be tempted to try to fix it. Recognize that your judgment is likely not completely accurate in that emotional moment, and your head will get clearer as you cool off. So delay any action until you can tell that you’re emotionally cooled down.
- Recognize that neutrality is a thing. Anxious attachers tend to see neutral expressions or reactions as negative expressions or reactions. The two are not the same, though; it’s totally possible that a person is having no reaction to you at all rather than an angry or unpleasant one.
- Recognize that “talking about it” might not always be the best strategy for you. Don’t get me wrong; the general principle that talking about feelings is better than bottling them up is still true. But sometimes when anxious attachers perceive themselves as hurt, they have a tendency to keep on talking and talking about that hurt with friends or other available loved ones. While talking it out initially might be helpful, continued rehearsal of the perceived slight can cause an anxious attacher to stay emotionally activated rather than cooling down.
Remember: people successfully work through changing their attachment styles every day. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s completely possible. If you are an anxious attacher, it might feel like you’re doomed to that fate forever, but you’re very capable of change!
If you think you or your partner has an insecure attachment style and you’d like to talk more about changing that, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult to learn more about how working with one of our therapists can help you improve your life.
Envision Wellness is a private practice that offers psychotherapy, psychological testing, and life coaching in Miami, FL. Our team has a passion for helping others achieve happy, fulfilling, and change-making lives that make the world a better place. Each therapist has their areas of expertise. Not sure who you’d like to work with? Click here to schedule a free 20-minute phone consult to help you decide.
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