A Story of Avoidant Insecure Attachment
Imagine a little boy named Rupert. Rupert is four years old and wants to play with his older brother Troy, but Troy does not want to play with him and pushes him away. Rupert’s amygdala sounds the alarm for fight/flight. Rupert is hurt and upset and does what upset four-year-old brains are wired to do—he goes to one of his parents for comfort. He finds his mom and with tears and sniffles he tells her how Troy does not want to play with him. Rupert’s mother has an avoidant attachment style. She grew up with parents who were unable to help her soothe her upset emotions, so she formed a mental model that people have to be tough to survive. She believes that Rupert is too sensitive and emotional, and is not able to comfort Rupert and help him regulate his emotions. Instead, she tells him with frustration in her voice not to let it bother him and to go and find something else to do (or she settles the dispute using punishment or ultimatums). Without enough emotional support, Rupert has no choice but to shut down his feelings and go into some degree of freeze.
Rupert’s mother does not receive the help she needs to be present with emotions, and Rupert does not have another adult to help him with his vulnerable emotions, so he learns to cut off from his emotions and vulnerability. One of his mental models is “it is not OK to have emotions or to ask for help.” He grows up to be a man with an avoidant attachment style—cut off from his emotions, uncomfortable with intimacy (except, perhaps, with sexual intimacy). Unable to ask for help, or to comfort others effectively, Rupert thinks that those who express vulnerable emotions and need help are too sensitive and needy. The last thing his amygdala wants to do is open up, express emotion, ask for help, or comfort others, because it was not safe for him to do so in the past. Instead of finding help to heal his attachment trauma and restore his capacity to feel, Rupert blocks out his implicit memories with alcohol, TV, work, the Internet, and food.
Many of us block out our attachment trauma and painful feelings with any number of addictions. As a teenager and adult, I’ve used, to varying degrees, television, video games, alcohol, drugs, work, extreme sports, and spiritual practices to block out my attachment trauma. These days I tend to use food, exercise, or work to distract myself when implicit memories from my attachment trauma surface; that is if I don’t give myself empathy or reach out for help. In a society that values strength, accomplishment, productivity, independence, and self-sufficiency, it takes courage to reach out for help and take the time to feel.
If Rupert wants to learn how to have secure attachment and have healthy, fulfilling relationships with partners and with children, he must process and integrate his painful implicit memories of not receiving emotional support and comfort. Doing so will allow him to share more of his emotions with others and support others with their emotions. Even if Rupert does not remember much of his childhood he can resolve his implicit memories by working through his present-day challenges. As long as he uses processes that guide him to notice, feel, and regulate the sensations and emotions in his body, he will be integrating implicit memories.
Rupert might convince himself that he has no trauma and that his relationships are fine, but not realize or want to admit to the lack of depth, passion, playfulness, purpose, and creativity in his life and his relationships. Without identifying and processing his implicit reactions, he will not be able to contribute to the evolution of linking and differentiation necessary for more meaningful, rich relationships and for a more meaningful and rewarding life.
Below are overviews of avoidant attachment styles for adults. These overviews are not exhaustive, nor do they capture the full complexity of avoidant attachment styles. The overviews are meant to give you a general sense of avoidant attachment styles for adults. Keep in mind that attachment styles are on a spectrum, which means that you may fall somewhere between avoidant and secure or between ambivalent and secure. In other words, you may have some characteristics from one attachment style and some from other styles. You can find overviews of all attachment styles and much more information on Attachment Theory in my book Meet Me In Hard-to-Love Places: The Heart and Science of Relationship Success.
Dismissive Avoidant Insecure Attachment
- I am not comfortable with sharing vulnerable emotions.
- I do not enjoy being intimate/sharing more personally and openly with those I care about or with people in general.
- It is not easy or natural for me to express care for others’ feeling and needs. I prefer to give advice or do things for others. I may offer more than I can give because I do not want to admit that I have needs, too. Or, I may find others too needy.
- It is not easy for me to reach out for help, especially emotional support.
- I feel uncomfortable or impatient or contemptuous when others express vulnerable emotions.
- It is not easy for me to admit I have made a mistake or to make repairs.
- I like plenty of time to myself but often fill that time with work, entertainment, or other distractions that keep me from looking at or connecting more deeply with myself.
- I have a narrow range of emotions, especially when I am with others; I mostly feel fine or good.
- I am not interested in ongoing growth or inner work, or I do not think I need any more growth or inner work.
- I am not comfortable with physical intimacy (cuddling, warm hugs, etc.) and other expressions of affection except, perhaps, sexual intimacy.
- When there is conflict with a partner, I would rather deal with it quickly and logically and then move forward or simply leave it behind.
- I mostly feel that I don’t need others. I do not like to rely on others. I do not like having others rely on me.
- My partner and others tell me they would like me to show or share more of myself.
- I often view myself more positively than I view my partner; I tend to think I am more capable, stronger, smarter, more together than my partner or others. I do not tend to worry about what my partner or others think of me (or don’t want to admit that I care what others think of me).
- I often withdraw from my partner (physically or emotionally) without saying anything.
Fearful Avoidant Insecure Attachment
- I am not comfortable sharing vulnerable emotion.
- I am not comfortable sharing in a very personal and open manner with people I care about or with people in general.
- I tend to take responsibility for other people’s feelings and needs.
- I am afraid of, or not confident in, my ability to help others.
- I am not comfortable reaching out for support, including emotional support.
- I am uncomfortable or anxious when others are emotional.
- I tend not to take responsibility for my actions and not to make repairs when necessary.
- I feel safer being by myself, but often feel lonely as well.
- I have a narrow range of emotions.
- I tend to be very hard on myself and sometimes believe there is something fundamentally wrong with me, or broken in me.
- It can be hard for me to enjoy physical intimacy and expressions of affection.
- I tend to avoid conflict.
- I acknowledge I need others, but I do not feel comfortable relying on others and having others rely on me.
- I tend not to view my partner or myself positively.
- I want close relationships but it is hard for me to trust others.