Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: wallpaperflare.com
I’ve been afraid to write this post ever since I started the blog, but today it felt like I couldn’t write about anything else. My run-ins with my avoidant attachment style are probably the main cause I’ve started on my journey of self-exploration a few years ago now. I also have an anxious attachment style in certain relationships, but for this article I’m focussing on my dominant style of dismissive avoidant attachment.
The problem with having an avoident attachment style, is that it does not feel like a problem at all. It just feels like I’m very independent and don’t need others as much as they need me. Children who grow up feeling they can’t rely on their caregivers to meet their emotional needs (which was the case for me, even though I had two loving parents who did the very best they could and knew to do), learn to rely on themselves. They learn to keep their emotions under the radar, until they get pushed so far down that it becomes difficult to feel they are there at all.
All the while we, avoiders, still crave love and connection. We fantasize about an ideal romance that will instantly feel ‘right’. The person you meet will understand you without having to use words and meet your every need without you having to ask for it. There will be no uncomfortable feelings involved. Ever.
Sounds impossible, right? That’s kind of the point, but that doesn’t take away the desire.
So having an avoidant attachment style doesn’t really ‘feel’ like anything, because feeling is something avoidant people have an issue with in general. Actually, they have a non-issue with it. Most of my life I was very content with the fact that I was able to ‘control’ my feelings so well, unlike those poor people who’d explode in anger or burst out in tears in the middle of the street.
All the while I didn’t realise that I was denying my own feelings, and my own needs, until it was too late and situations blew up in my face or my own emotions overwhelmed me and couldn’t be denied any longer.
Since feelings are a hard one, it’s by your own thought patterns that you learn to recognize the avoidant attachment style. When it comes to relationships, romantic or otherwise, I’ve built up a whole system of beliefs and convictions that pop up whenever I fear someone is getting too close.
It was not until reading that list of beliefs in a book on anxious/avoidant relationships, that I realised I wasn’t quite so original after all. All my thoughts I’d had in previous relationships were nicely put together. These are the thoughts you think while in the grips of fear of commitment.
- Others shouldn’t depend on me.
- One-night-stands are way easier than relationships.
- I always fall in love with people who are, in some way, unavailable.
- I just want to be free. I need my space.
- Relationships are mostly like cages.
- The perfect partner is out there, and when I meet him, everything will fit just right.
- I don’t miss my partner when I’m in a relationship. I’m happy to be on my own.
- I always need an escape plan.
- My partner is almost perfect, if only he wasn’t so…, if only she didn’t have that …
- I don’t like to introduce my partner to my friends, colleagues, extended family. Things should just stay between the two of us.
- I always knew something wasn’t quite right with this relationship. It always felt temporary.
- Having a ‘relationship’ takes all the fun out of it.
- I just want to keep all my options open.
- People don’t really see me for who I am, just for who they want me to be. If they did, they would leave anyways.
Over the past decades, I’ve seen this dynamic influence my romantic relationships, my social life and my career. I’ve kept big decisions at bay, or tried to keep a (mental) back door open. And when I did take a major decision (like getting married at 21) it was with the full understanding that things could always change (we’ll see where it takes us). Even in jobs I would try to keep one foot out the door, and never felt 100% satisfied with what I was doing (with a very diverse C.V. to show for it).
But there’s a big price you pay when you avoid getting close to people. Somehow your relationships are always lacking. My first instinct was to blame this on the people around me: “They just don’t really care about me“. “They don’t like me“, or, “They just want too much from me“. It wasn’t until this dynamic became very clear with my current partner (who’s on the anxious end of the spectrum), and he, ever so gently, put a book in my hands on this dynamic, that I started to see this fear of commitment as a problem that’s been getting in the way of me leading the life I want.
Realising that it’s not just about that romantic relationship, but about my relationship to myself and the entire world around me, was probably the incentive I needed to take the first small steps on the road to healing.
I’m not there yet, by far. But I have great therapists, and good youtube channels, and books, and family and friends, and, above all, a partner who is respectful of my boundaries and willing to explore these issues together.
So what tips have I learned so far to start on this healing process?
- Learning to feel. Connect to your body and consciously pick up those bodily sensations. Then try to link them to emotions. I start with the basic ones because that’s about as far as I’m getting at this point. I’m healing a long-lasting disconnect, and I’ve got time.
- Being gentle with myself. My avoidant attachment style was a coping mechanism that has served me well in the past. It doesn’t serve me any longer but my brain doesn’t quite know that yet. It helps to embrace that triggered reaction as part of my journey instead of pushing it away and judging it as ‘bad’.
- Inner child work. My fear of commitment is a genuine fear that stems from the part of me that’s still a little girl. It takes recognising this little Jorinde, talking to her, holding her, loving her, to help ease that fear.
- Sitting with my uncomfortable feelings. I have go-to responses for numbing those feelings (read my post on Your drug of Choice for more on this) and it takes conscious effort not to do that. Sitting with fear and loneliness and sadness and anxiety is not fun. It has led me to being able to embrace positive emotions though, because I don’t fear the negative ones that might follow as much as I used to.
- Becoming an expert on my own thought patterns.
I’m now very well aware of when my fear of commitment gets triggered. I recognize the thoughts that come up, and even though they still feel true, I know better than to act on them. I’ve commited, in my previous post, to not making any decisions when I’m in this state of fear which gives me time to unravel those thoughts and feelings.
Is it still scary when we get close? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Any fear reaction is often delayed until I’m alone and can really check in with myself. There are thankfully also countless moments of pure bliss, and having someone I can learn to fully trust is a wonderful gift.
Do you know what your attachment style is? This video below by the wonderful School of Life (yay for Alain de Botton!) is a short introduction to get you started. There is also this test you can take, though you have to sign up for the newsletter as well.