Is an Avoidant Attachment Style Bad, and How Do I Fix That?I don’t know who needs to read this, but maybe you do.
Sometimes in life, you learn the name for a phenomenon you’ve long experienced but never knew was a thing. That’s what happened when I discovered that A) all people have their own specific styles of behavior in relationships and B) those behavioral patterns can manifest in some pretty fascinating ways—like an avoidant attachment style.
Without getting into my relationship history (platonic or romantic), I’ve definitely noticed a pattern of emotional distance on my part. And that distance would be justified because people are generally terrible and can’t be trusted… right? Right??
Turns out, people who tend to resist or downplay their need for affection could have an avoidant attachment style. And that relationship pattern could keep them closed off from having meaningful relationships, explains therapist John Taylor, PhD, LPC, an assistant professor in the urban public health and nutrition department at LaSalle University in Philadelphia.
Below, you’ll learn more about avoidant attachment, who it happens to, and how to deal if it’s becoming an issue.
What is an avoidant attachment style?
For those not knee-deep in TikTok therapists’ content and mental health memes, here’s the gist of attachment theory: It dates back to the 1980s when psychologist John Bowlby studied how infants responded to their parents leaving them alone. The idea is that the way we were taken care of (or not) by our caregivers can impact how we approach our adult relationships—romantic or otherwise.
In theory, if the people who raised you were reliably on top of your physical and emotional needs, you’d develop a secure attachment, where you believe you’re worthy of love and attention and that other people will probably accept and respond to you, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
If that wasn’t quite your experience (to put it nicely), you could form an insecure attachment or the type of attachment styles that are a lot less helpful in life, like anxious attachment and, of course, avoidant attachment.
With that last one, it’s often the case that the parent or caretaker didn’t show enough affection or responsiveness to the child’s needs, leading them to struggle with their emotions on their own. “During their childhood, they developed an attachment with a parent or caretaker who didn't express warmth or love (emotional and/or physical),” says sex therapist Jessica Sanchez, LMSW, an assistant professor of clinical practice at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Overall, [their caretaker didn’t create] a nurturing environment beyond providing the basic essentials, like housing and food,” adds Sanchez.
Essentially, someone with an avoidant attachment style may have learned early on that their needs or concerns weren’t important—no one’s coming to save them, explains Sanchez.
The reason this is called “avoidant” attachment is because people with this attachment style feel it’s safest to detach from others when they’re upset or stressed, says therapist Sefora Ray, LMFT. And, even if they’re not feeling tough emotions, they might feel overwhelmed or threatened when people try to get closer to them, she adds. Sometimes that means ~avoiding~ emotional connection without realizing it.
How can you tell if someone has an avoidant attachment style?
I must admit, when I started learning more about avoidant attachment, I was feeling rudely called out. Avoidant to the point of rejecting emotional closeness? Sure. Doing so in the name of self-protection and/or self-preservation? Yes. Thinking avoidance and withdrawal can somehow shield you from experiencing more pain and abandonment? Mm hm. It all sounds way too familiar.
While everyone’s avoidant attachment style manifests differently (no two childhoods are exactly alike, after all), one way to tell if someone is avoidant is by assessing how they respond to stress: Do they prefer to ride it out solo or seek support from others?
When people with avoidant attachment feel upset, sad, or just off, they often turn to dissociative activities to distract themselves, like work, exercise, video games, or social media, says Ray. Along the same lines, they might appear very chill when they’re experiencing seriously high levels of stress. “They tend to have difficulty staying with their feelings or even knowing what they are feeling at all,” she adds.
When other people are upset around them, someone who has an avoidant attachment style might struggle to comfort the other person or even withdraw from the situation in order to feel better, Ray explains.
“These individuals are often reluctant to ask for help, uncomfortable sharing their feelings, and usually expect their partners and friends to ‘just know what they are feeling,’” Dr. Taylor says. “In my work, I often find people with an avoidant attachment style spend a lot of time in their heads, thinking and feeling undervalued.”
Other signs someone has an avoidant attachment style: They’re reluctant to say “I love you,” they focus on small imperfections, they judge people who depend on others (or just the idea of it), and they might resist physical touch, Sanchez says. One recent study also suggests that those with an avoidant attachment style had a harder time processing facial expressions compared to people with a secure attachment style. So there’s that.
While it’s tempting to self-diagnose (thanks, internet!!), getting a professional’s opinion is still the best way to assess your attachment style and figure out what to do about it. Personally, therapy has helped me recognize patterns and be more thoughtful about how I approach emotionally tense situations. The more you know, right?
Can I change my attachment style?
If Team Avoidant is sounding not great, know that we’re still absolutely worthy and deserving of love. “One of the most common myths I hear from individuals with avoidant attachment style is that they feel like they’re hard to love,” Sanchez says. “Then, of course, I have to gently challenge that person’s view on what it means to love and to accept love.”
Dr. Taylor often recommends that his clients use writing to identify their feelings, express them, and heal from the situations that might’ve contributed to their insecure attachment style in the first place. By journaling about the things you’re feeling (maybe instead of distracting yourself from those feels), you can pinpoint what triggered them and maybe see how valuable your emotions are, he adds.
Another exercise that he finds especially helpful is writing a letter to your younger self about your life today. That provides an “opportunity to express all the things that happened when you were a child and attach a feeling to the experience,” explains Dr. Taylor.
Getting familiar with where you feel emotions in your body can also be helpful, says Sanchez. You can do that with an exercise called body scanning, in which you relax each part of your body starting with your head and working your way down, she explains. As you work through that process, you can identify where you feel things in relation to a certain situation or trigger.
As you become more in tune with your body, your ability to react to a situation in a more helpful way or advocate for yourself can improve, explains Sanchez. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
The people in your life can also help you develop a more secure attachment style. When you spend time with a friend or partner who makes you feel safe enough to open up and is patient when you’re less willing to do the same, you can start to develop healthier ideas of trust, acceptance, love, and self-love, Sanchez says.
“Our attachment styles are not fixed, and with the right amount of prioritization, we can all become more secure,” Ray says.
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