Mental Health in the 21st Century
Society is becoming increasingly aware and open to talking about the importance of mental health. That’s why words like boundaries, trauma, assertiveness, or attachment are increasingly part of public discourse.
We may hear or read these words often, but still not have a clear understanding of their meaning. To get a deeper understanding of these terms today we’re going to talk about attachment styles, and more specifically about the anxious or insecure attachment style.
What is Attachment
Attachment, as is understood in the field of psychology, is a term that emerged from the works and research of John Bowlby in his attempt to explain the impact of orphanhood on children after World War II.
Attachment theory, then, is an attempt to describe and explain the ways in which human beings attach to those people they depend on during the early years of their childhood and how that way of attaching has an impact on adult relational behavior.
Human beings are one of the few species that are born completely defenseless. We absolutely depend on someone to feed us, protect us, clean us, give us warmth, and take us from one place to another. That’s why we have evolved a way to ensure that we receive that protection (otherwise, we would die). This method is attachment, we attach to one (or several) people with whom we seek proximity, in whom we focus our attention, and with whom we interact.
Depending on the context and behavior of the people we depend on, our attachment style will vary.
Types of Attachment
Based on how the child’s way of attaching to their attachment figures is, a variable number of attachment categories have been described. Sometimes there are three:
- Anxious or insecure attachment
- Avoidant attachment
- Secure attachment
But two more have also been described:
In any case, today we will focus on the anxious or insecure attachment style.
Anxious Attachment Style
Starting a new relationship with someone I like destabilizes me a lot, I get a lot of anxiety and insecurity, and I constantly feel like they’re going to leave, that they’re going to stop contacting me.
At a rational level, I know that nothing is going to happen, but… I start acting in a way that I really don’t like. If I send a message and they don’t answer me, I start to get upset, then I send more messages or check if they’re connected or have activity on Instagram. I get even more upset if I see that they were connected and haven’t answered me yet.
I get into their social media and start looking at who has “liked” their posts and I start making up stories in my head, I don’t like it at all, it’s really hard for me!
This is an example of what a person with a primarily anxious attachment style might tell us in a session.
Do you see yourself reflected in this?
Living in Fear
As we’ve seen before, our attachment system is one of our internal mechanisms responsible for monitoring and being attentive to the safety and availability of our attachment figures.
People with an anxious attachment style are hypersensitive to the state of such bonds. They are vigilant and alert, paying attention to any signal that may indicate that the bond is in danger. That’s why they need unmistakable signals that everything is going well and that the relationship is safe.
That’s why they have certain super-powers like:
- Detecting changes in the emotional expression of others more quickly and sensitively.
- Interpreting the signals that others send consciously and unconsciously more easily and accurately. BUT!!! They tend to rush to their conclusions, and in doing so, misinterpret (towards the negative) the information they receive.
That’s why if they wait before reacting automatically to the signals and gather more information, they can really be the best at these skills.
Alert mode activated!
When, for whatever reason, their alarm system is activated and their anxious attachment system kicks in, various mental mechanisms go into action with the intention, despite what may seem, of getting closer to the other person (mentally or physically) and checking and reinforcing their bond.
These mechanisms can be:
- Constantly thinking about the other person and having difficulty concentrating on other things.
- Only remembering the positive aspects of the other person.
- While putting the other person on a pedestal, people with insecure attachment undervalue themselves and feel that their qualities and abilities are worse than they really are.
- They will suffer anxiety that will push them towards all kinds of behaviors that can bring them closer to the other person. Such as sending them messages, going to see them, visiting their profiles on social networks, calling them, etc.
- Catastrophic thoughts will appear that point to the irreplaceability of the current bond.
- “I’m only compatible with very few people.”
- “How am I going to find someone like him/her?”
- “It’s very difficult to find someone, I’ll end up alone.”
- Thoughts that it is preferable to stay with this partner, even if we are unhappy:
- “If I let her go, she will eventually become an excellent partner… for someone else.”
- “At some point, things will change.”
- “All couples have problems, this is normal.”
In addition to these behaviors, they are likely to engage in protest behaviors that aim to shake up, or move the other person to respond.
- Making a thousand calls, sending multiple DMs, lurking where the partner lives or works with the intention of bumping into them, etc.
- Practicing the silent treatment, being in the presence of the other person, ignoring them, sitting with their back to them, or looking at their phone, not responding when they speak to them, talking to other people on the phone in their presence, etc.
- Keeping track of how interactions develop. If the other person takes a few hours to respond, they do too. Waiting for the other person to make the first move, etc. It is a way of trying to maintain power and not showing their vulnerable position.
- Acting hostile, rolling their eyes or leaving when they are spoken to. Sometimes even resorting to direct violence.
- Threatening to end the relationship. In order to get the other person to ask them to stay.
- Manipulating the relationship, ignoring the other person’s calls, pretending to be busy or unavailable. It is likely that by acting in this way they themselves may think that when the other person does not respond it is because they are using the same “tactics”.
- Provoking jealousy, in another attempt to awaken a response and manipulate, they may engage in behaviors with the idea of provoking jealousy in the other person.
A lot of pain
All these behaviors, as horrible as some of them may seem, serve the purpose of “protecting” the bond with the other person.
People with this type of attachment may find the anxiety and distress generated by the situation very difficult to handle, and feel that the only way to avoid having to hold those unpleasant emotions is to consciously and unconsciously engage in these types of behaviors.
Where does all this come from?
You may wonder why this happens to you, or perhaps it happens to someone you know.
No one shares 100% of another person’s life experience, but there are a series of common conditions that we can find in the childhood of people with an insecure attachment style, let’s see what they are.
We can say almost certainly that the primary attachment figures of these people, those on whom their childhood survival depended, were not warm, close people who made them feel that regardless of how they felt, what they thought or did, they would be loved in a consistent way.
When love, protection, care, and closeness from our attachment figures is inconsistent, when it depends on certain conditions, when in the face of the same circumstances it is sometimes positive and sometimes negative. We will feel that our bond is not secure, we will not be able to know when it is really safe, and we will have to be careful and pay close attention to know when it may be in danger.
What can we do?
Although our attachment style is quite rooted in our nervous system and will probably accompany us for the rest of our lives, we should not give up.
We must become aware that we tend towards this hyper-vigilance and fear of losing the bond. Therefore, when our alarms go off, it doesn’t have to catch us off guard.
By becoming aware, we can avoid falling into automatic behaviors like the ones I described earlier that, despite their initial intention of bringing us closer, are likely to screw up our relationship.
So you can do things like:
- Practice skills to connect with the present and thus prevent your mind and the stories it tells you from taking up all your attention and ruining your day.
- Effectively communicate to your partner what you need to feel secure in the relationship. This step is very important because we all have different needs and we cannot assume that the other person knows ours.
- Get to know yourself better and know what your triggers and most common reactions are so you can handle your reactions more healthily.
- Look for a partner who is compatible with you, such as someone with a secure attachment style. Who can provide you with the security and stability you need in your bond. And be very careful about having partners of the avoidant type as it can be a very tormenting experience.
If you’re interested in the topic, we recommend the book Attatched by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, where you can find more information on attachment styles and how to improve your relationships.
Remember, becoming aware of our attachment style and learning to manage our reactions can help us have healthier and more fulfilling relationships.
If you would like to get to know yourself better and develop more skills when dealing with these types of relational problems, therapy is always one of the most effective and productive ways. You can contact us through our website.
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