Before we dive deep into this blog, take a moment and read through this statements:
"I wish I could open up and share my true feelings.”
“It's safer to keep my emotions to myself."
"I don't want to rely on anyone else.”
“I'll figure this out on my own, just like I always have."
"I want to have close relationships, but I also feel this overwhelming urge to back away whenever things start getting too intense.”
"I don't want to burden others with my problems or emotions.”
“I've learned to handle things by myself, so why would I need anyone else?”
Sounds familiar? I mean, almost all of us have had these thoughts at some point or the other in our lives, often after some antagonising experiences have contributed to them. However, if you’ve noticed this consistently comes up in your relationships with friends, family or romantic partners, might you suspect that it is a pattern? Often, this is a pattern that we (avoidantly) attach to experience.
So, what is avoidant attachment?
Avoidant attachment is a term coined by Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main who categorised attachment styles based on observations of infant-parent interactions. In their studies, they identified different attachment patterns, including secure attachment, avoidant attachment, and anxious/ambivalent attachment.
A person experiencing an avoidant attachment style might feel a little bit scared or uncomfortable when they get too close to others (or when others get too close to them), and feel worried about depending on others or asking for help. They might think it's better to be independent and not rely on anyone else. They might even try to push people away or keep their distance to protect themselves from getting hurt. While on the surface, we might seem like unshakable rocks, unfazed by the ups and downs of relationships.
In fact, people even admire our ability to stay calm during breakups or losses. But deep down, we crave deeper connections and struggle to express our true selves. Noticing this pattern in ourselves can make us feel frustrated and at odds with ourselves when we see how our attachment styles compulsively play out in our relationships. We might feel angry and disappointed for getting in the way of trusting relationships and sometimes even wonder: ‘Why am I like this?’
While we sometimes can't help but feel frustrated, it really helps to understand these styles of attachment and their purpose for existing in us before we start dealing with them.
So, instead of seeing our avoidant patterns as the bad guys, let's reframe them as well-intentioned - if a bit clumsy - heroes. As children, we don't enjoy feeling ignored or dismissed, but if we face an environment where we consistently face such dismissal of our emotions, we try to protect ourselves from these sources of pain by creating a sense of security that may sometimes come through shielding ourselves from people. It protects us (if only for a moment) from a dismissive or over-bearing environment but continues into adulthood and is repeated in our adult relationships. By distancing ourselves from others and dismissing our feelings as well as theirs, we repeat the same behaviours that helped us cope as kids, but now, leave our partners, our friends and even ourselves confused with our behaviour. Of course, the intention is a well-meaning one; to create a sense of well being and security for ourselves.
Our attachment styles are shaped by our early experiences and the patterns we pick up along the way. They were at one point, coping mechanisms. So instead of hating on ourselves because of the way our attachment patterns play out, could we take a deep breath and listen to what they ultimately want to achieve? A secure and loving relationship, although they go about in confusing ways towards that goal.
What can you do then?
Self-awareness: Start by understanding and acknowledging your attachment style.This can help you take proactive steps towards change.
Practice self-reflection: Journaling can be a helpful tool to explore your thoughts and feelings. Paying attention to the emotions as well as behaviours that arise when you feel too close or too distant or at the prospect of separation from others would provide insight into your patterns. Simple prompts such as ‘What happened?’, ‘How am I feeling?’, ‘What do I feel like doing?’, ‘What can I do instead?’ can be a good place to start.
Practice being open and vulnerable: even if it feels uncomfortable at first. Start with small steps with people you are most comfortable with and whom you trust.
Ask for help: As an avoidant individual, you may have a tendency to self-soothe rather than seek comfort from others. While self-reliance is valuable and should be practised, at times you can also try to inform a trusted companion about how you are feeling.
Set realistic expectations: Understand that changing attachment styles takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and practice self-compassion. Accept that there may be setbacks along the way, but view them as opportunities for growth and learning.
Therapy or counselling: Consider seeking a professional, a therapist can provide guidance, support, and specific techniques tailored to your situation.