The basis of the Anxious Avoidant Attachment
Relationships and connections are the basis of human existence. In no era or time have we seen evidence that humans function alone. We run in packs. As we have evolved, the way we connect changed. In addition, we began to develop a larger pre-frontal cortex. Which was great for evolution, but less great for connection. Our bigger brains have made us more susceptible to psychological damage via the process of how the amygdala (our emotional instinctive brain) and pre-frontal cortex (our thinking brain) interact while under stress. This interaction leaves us vulnerable to trauma, and most definitely susceptible to the attachment traumas that take place early on in life. This article will talk briefly about what attachment is, how it forms, etc. Then I will talk about the anxious-avoidant attachment style and where it came from. I will close by talking about the effects this attachment style has on functioning.
What is attachment?
The idea of attachment is thrown around frequently in media, conversation, and especially in the relationship arenas. But what is it? It seems like a tangential abstract idea that exists in our minds, but has no basis in actual experience. WRONG. Attachment is a well-studied psychological factor that Mary Aimsworth popularized in her “Stranger Situation” experiments. She set to determine the different ways children attached/bonded to their caregivers, and the behaviors that resulted from each type of attachment. Further research has been able to identify how each of these attachment styles form, and further how they affect the way we interact with people as adults.
Therefore, attachment is another word for connection, and it is the broad term for the way in which we connect to others. For example, when I am a small child, and my mother and I are in a room… and a stranger enters- my attachment style will dictate the way that act in the space in the presence of a stranger. It will also predict my behavior if my mother were to leave me with the stranger and return. In brief, this is the idea of attachment and attachment styles.
So, how does a child or infant begin to develop their attachment to their caregiver? An infant has needs. Everyone has needs. The attachment style is formed by the caregivers’ ability to attune to the child and meet the child’s needs. An attuned parent forms a secure attachment. A parent who may not meet needs consistently, or may not obtain perfect attunement will result in one of the other attachment styles. For the sake of today, we will not get into it, but feel free to visit this blog for more info: https://paxtherapy.com/secureattachment/.
The anxious-avoidant attachment style
The anxious-avoidant attachment style (aka the fearful attachment) is a cross of the anxious and the avoidant attachment style. The anxious attachment style would be a child who continually checks in with mother before they do anything. That results in adult relationships where a person may freak out if their loved one does not answer the phone after the 2nd ring. The avoidant attachment style is the child who, when the mother comes back into the room after leaving, completely ignores the mother. This, as an adult, looks like someone whose initial response to a problem is to shut down and not engage.
Now, imagine the mix of the anxious and the avoidant attachments. These children want their mothers’ approval to engage in a tax, while simultaneously pushing the mother away if the child expresses a need for help. This is where many, if not most, people with childhood trauma reside.
How is the anxious-avoidant attachment style formed?
It is harder to understand the anxious-avoidant attachment because it often results from a mixture of parent bonding issues. These are 2 of the issues I see result in the anxious-avoidant style. There are many more, but it might bore you to read them. In addition, similar parenting in one bond may result in a different attachment style based on the nuanced needs of the individuals.
An emotionally inconsistent parent: This parent may be attentive, nurturing, and meeting the needs of a child at some points. This parent simultaneously will become angry, distant, and chastise the child for age appropriate behavior. For example, a mother loves, feeds, and dotes on their child as most mothers do with infants. However, this infant smacks the bottle away from the mother repeatedly. Mother, who struggles with her own ability to regulate her feelings, becomes frustrated and angry. She may put the child down, tense her muscles, yell, cry, and then set the baby down and let the baby cry. The mother may come back to the child after the child stops the crying, and then interact with the child the same way. This time when the child bats the bottle and cries- mother is nurturing, loving, and understanding. This sends a mixed signal to the child. The child learns on a procedural and body level that their environment is not consistent, and they cannot expect to consistently be nurtured by their parent.
An angry parent: This parent will respond to small defiance or developmentally appropriate behavior with rage. They may be angry, chastise, or make it known to the child that they are disappointing the parent. The child then learns that developmentally appropriate behaviors are not ok, begins not to trust themselves, and eventually develops negative thoughts about themselves while also seeing the parent as unsafe.
So, what does the anxious-avoidant attachment look like in adults?
This attachment style is the fear of being judged, coupled with the fear of being “uncovered for what you really are”. It is the attachment style where you see yourself as unworthy and not good enough, while point to all the flaws of the other person.
The attachment styles are often looked at how they show in romantic relationships. Today, I want to talk about how attachment styles can affect your interactions in platonic and familial relationships that are not spousal or romantic in nature. They can even play out with in the parent-child relationship.
Let’s look at Jane. Jane craves connections to other women. She feels like she wants to have safe space to be herself outside of the family. The problem is Jane feels very unsafe around new people (strangers), and in new situations and places. She often feels that she cannot meet new people without being around the safety of someone she already knows and trusts. Jane feels nervous, anxious, and her thoughts revolve around things like, “No one will like me, I’m weird, my humor is strange, and I’ve never had friends”. This is the anxious part of her attachment style, which by itself is easy to surpass through strong will and a safe friend.
However, Jane has an anxious-avoidant attachment. The avoidant piece of her attachment leads her to defensively fear others. What does that look like? Well, in groups of new people Jane may resort to making judgmental comments, making faces, crossing her arms, and staying away from others. She may report that the people were not her type, and she thought they were vapid and vain.
Therefore, the difficulty of the anxious avoidant attachment is that people believe they will be rejected while simultaneously rejecting others.
TIPS for Connection with Others if you have an anxious-avoidant attachment style.
- Be aware that when meeting new people- you will assume they will not like you, and you will probably have the urge to shut down and judge others. Awareness is the first step. If you find yourself doing either of those things, I challenge you to use tip #2
- LEAN IN. Lean in to the discomfort you feel with others, and do the opposite of your initial instinct. If you initial instinct is to not go to that mom party in your son’s class because, “all those stay at home moms don’t get being a working mom”, LEAN IN and go.
- Talk about it. Talk about your fear of rejection, and your want to connect. Talk about it with others, family, and friends, who can help bring new awareness about how you interact with people, your strengths, and what you bring to the table.
- Read some books. Books about becoming yourself, finding who you are, and living authentically (like anything by Brené Brown) will be helpful.
- Go to therapy. Attachment trauma is hard to heal without the help of a professional. It is difficult to heal because how behavior is so nuanced, and how each individual interacts with his or her environment is different. A therapist can help guide you to understand yourself, and to find the roots of your connection patterns and issues.
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