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Attachment Strategies - Are You Anxious or Avoidant?

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

We are all designed to be in connection with others. To seek out love, support, and safety in our relationships. It's part of our survival as individuals and as a species.

However, in our not-so-perfect world, many obstacles can get in the way of us feeling like we belong. For most of us, feeling like we belong is essential to our sense of safety. How we maneuver ourselves or mould ourselves to feel like we 'belong' or are 'safe' can be categorized as your attachment style.

You can read more about how our attachment styles impact our relationships in this blog post.

This blog post is written to dive deeper into anxious and avoidant attachment styles.

We can look at insecure attachment patterns as a continuum between anxiety and avoidance. In other words, a continuum between clinging to our partners or detaching from them and being as independent as possible.

This graph is based on Bartholomew's 2 Dimensions of Anxiety and Avoidance. Having a visualization helps me to understand my own behaviour patterns a bit better; I hope it helps you too.

You can see there are two few really important factors when it comes to our attachment style:

1. The view we have of ourselves

2. The view we have of others

If we have a positive view of others (meaning we trust them to meet our needs) AND we have a positive view of ourselves (we have a solid sense of self and autonomy), we are more likely to have a secure attachment style.

If we have a positive view of others and a negative view of ourselves, we are more likely to have an anxious attachment style, also known as preoccupied attachment.

If we have a positive view of ourselves and a negative view of others, we are more likely to have an avoidant attachment style, also known as dismissing-avoidant.

And the most challenging attachment style, and the rarest, is fearful-avoidant. This happens when we have a negative view of both ourselves and others. This style is often categorized as having extremely inconsistent attachment strategies, moving towards intimacy but also being fearful of that intimacy. This often develops when a child's primary caregivers are both a source of security and fear.

All four styles have their own traits and characteristics, but it's also important to know that while we might use more anxious or avoidant strategies, we can move around that continuum, using different strategies depending on what we learned has worked best for us. If one strategy doesn't work, we can move on to the next. And yes, this all happens at an unconscious level; our brain knows exactly how to change course so that we can feel as safe as possible.

That's why we need to do the work of recognizing our patterns so that we can bring that unconscious behaviour to the surface and begin to create new, healthier patterns. It's like the quote by Carl Jung,

‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate’

When you know how these behaviour patterns or attachment strategies have been directing your life (and causing stress, anxiety, or isolation in the meantime), you can actively work to create the relationships you want.

So let's dive in:

Anxious Attachment Style:

What do anxious attachers fear the most? Abandonment.

Staying true to the name, people with anxious attachment styles tend to feel a lot of anxiety in their relationships. They are very sensitive to, and always scanning for, signs that their partner might leave them. Being out of physical and/or emotional contact with their partner can be particularly painful for anxious attachers, and it's very hard for them to soothe these feelings until their partner returns.

This style of attachment is often referred to as co-dependency. The anxious attacher may put their needs aside to meet the needs of their partner in an attempt to avoid rejection and abandonment. They may even take on a caregiving role so they feel needed by their partner, increasing their own feelings of safety.

Some traits of Anxious Attachment Styles:

  • Can lose a sense of who they are in relationships

  • Neglect their own needs in relationships

  • People pleasing or caregiving behaviours

  • Feelings of urgency/anxiety when not close to their partner

  • Neediness or clingy behaviour

  • No boundaries or poor boundaries

  • Difficulty asking for what they want/need

  • Need lots of reassurance from their partner

  • Always on alert for signs of abandonment, filter for negative

  • Feels responsible for their partner's emotions

  • Are unable to regulate their own emotions without the help of their partner

  • Difficulty being alone

  • Can blame their feelings on others (you made me feel this way!)

  • Sensitive to criticism

  • Avoids conflict

  • Feelings of unworthiness

Avoidant Attachment Style:

What do avoidant attachers fear the most? Intimacy.

Somewhere in an avoidant attachers life, they've learned that the people they rely on the most will not be there to meet their needs. So they turn away from relationships and become as self-reliant as possible. Anxious attachers find it challenging to connect with others, resist, and/or run away from deep, meaningful relationships. Getting too close to someone feels uncomfortable.

Unlike the anxious attachment style, where a person feels emotionally activated (stressed) when there is distance between them and their partner, an avoidant person will feel activated by being too close and too dependent on another person. Being too reliant on another person feels unsafe, so they can bring back those feelings of safety by distancing themselves from their partner.

Some traits of Avoidant Attachment Styles:

  • Strongly independent

  • Spends more time alone than with others

  • Often ambitious, high achiever

  • Guarded and reserved

  • Emotional connection is desired but feels unsafe

  • Needs a good amount of distance/space in relationships

  • Limited tolerance for partner's wants/needs

  • Avoids getting too close to partners

  • Difficulty opening up and being vulnerable

  • Shuts down/avoids/distracts from big feelings

  • Believe that needing something from others will be an inconvenience

  • Avoids conflict

  • Absent early memories (from childhood)

If you recognize yourself in some of these behaviours, you may be wondering what to do now.

I want to remind you just how important this first step of noticing is. Remember, our goal is to start by making the unconscious conscious. We can't change the past, this is true, but you can start making changes now by really understanding how/why we have shown up in our relationships in the way we have; none of it was good or bad, right or wrong. We are just searching for that feeling of belonging and safety we all deserve!

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