According to the attachment theory, developed by British psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby, we all have a specific attachment style, one that is formed through the way our parents — or caregivers — cared for us when we were little.
Your attachment style is how you act and interact with romantic partners within relationships and there are four major styles of it: secure, anxious/insecure, disorganized, and avoidant.
Knowing your attachment style can help you get in tune with your emotions and recognize where they come from, understand why you keep dating the same people, and ultimately, develop a healthier, more secure style.
On the other hand, knowing your partner’s attachment style can help you better understand how they function in your relationship and choose a more appropriate response to their actions/behavior.
Now, the most rare and often overlooked one is the disorganized (also called fearful-avoidant) attachment style. It is mainly characterized by mistrust, fear, and inner conflict and develops when a child’s parents or caregivers become a source of fear instead of a source of safety.
As Mariana Bockarova explains in her article in Psychology Today:
“Alongside anxious and avoidant attachment, disorganized attachment, which is the most extreme of the insecure attachment style, is hypothesized to be an outcome of abuse and trauma in childhood. For example, stemming from when an attachment figure — a parent or anyone who may have had a close hand in helping raise the child — offers inconsistent emotional support and/or abuse. This can include verbal, physical or sexual abuse, or the child witnessing an attachment figure commit a traumatizing act, such as a father hitting his spouse.”
Let’s dive right in and take a closer look at what’s a person with a disorganized attachment style like and what you can do if you recognize these signs in yourself or your partner.
1. They Have an Extreme Fear of Rejection
The biggest fear people with a disorganized attachment style have is being rejected.
They rarely make the first move, ask someone on a date, or tell them they like them because they wholeheartedly believe they’ll be rejected.
They also tend to act in inconsistent, unexplainable ways in their attempt to protect themselves from rejection. For example, they might bombard you with enthusiastic texts and calls one day and then completely disappear the next.
Or, they might go out on a couple of dates with someone, have a great time, and make future plans; but then, out of fear of upcoming pain and rejection from that particular someone, they will stop replying to their texts or calls.
In the article mentioned above, Mariana Bockarova continues, explaining:
“Although people with a disorganized style of attaching want to connect, they pull away, see signs of rejection where none exists, and develop a self-fulfilling prophecy: They act in ways that protect themselves from rejection and pain. For example, they may fear how they’re being seen, stop replying to a potential partner because they believe they’ll be rejected, even abandon the relationship entirely to avoid further self-viewed embarrassment, intense shame, or negative emotion, ultimately ending the relationship.”
2. They Have Poor Coping Skills
Most of the people who have developed this attachment style struggle to cope with stress, pressure, anxiety, hurt, or any other kind of negative feeling.
In other words, they have poor coping skills.
According to this article in PsychAlive:
“A person who grew up with a disorganized attachment often won’t learn healthy ways to self-soothe. They may have trouble socially or struggle in using others to co-regulate their emotions. It may be difficult for them to open up to others or to seek out help.”
For example, instead of using a healthy coping mechanism in order to manage and ease their negative emotions, an individual with this attachment style will use negative ones, like drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or indulging in unregulated eating.
3. They Have a Negative Self-Image and Low Self-Esteem
Having been neglected and/or abused throughout their childhood, people with this attachment style usually suffer from low self-esteem, have a negative self-image, and might even indulge in self-hatred.
When it comes to love, they’ll usually think things like:
- I will never be good enough for someone.
- I am not worthy of being loved.
- No one will ever truly love me.
- I deserve to be alone and lonely.
Besides love and relationships, this kind of negative thinking expands in other areas of their lives too. For example, they won’t leave their boring job because they think they won’t be able to get a new one.
They won’t ask for a raise or a promotion because they are sure they’ll be rejected. They won’t initiate a conversation with someone they’re (friendly) interested in, afraid that the other person won’t like them.
4. They Have Difficulty in Regulating Their Emotions
If you want to know whether your partner/friend/relative has a disorganized attachment style, take a look at the way they regulate their emotions.
Emotion regulation is a term generally used to describe a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to their emotional experiences.
Now, when it comes to the disorganized attachment style, people who have developed it have great difficulty in regulating their emotions and usually use unhealthy “hypoactivating” or “hyperactivating” emotion regulation strategies.
As clinical psychologist Christine Braehler and Dr. Kristin Neff explain:
“Insecure and disorganized attachment styles are linked to emotion regulation difficulties. If caregivers did not sufficiently soothe the distress of the child, the child needed to develop alternative ways to regulate the distress, either by making it disappear or by increasing its display to get help.
Hypoactivating emotion regulation strategies involve the downregulation of affect to hide it not only from others but also from oneself. These can include withdrawal from others, not speaking about feelings to others, experiential avoidance, or numbing feelings through substances or food.
Hyperactivating emotion regulation strategies involve the upregulation of affect to elicit a care response from others. These can include worry, impulsiveness, high emotional expression, or frequent seeking of closeness including sexual intimacy.”
5. They Are Chronically Anxious or Depressed
Since the disorganized attachment style is developed through childhood trauma, emotional neglect, or abuse, it’s natural for those who have it to suffer from chronic anxiety or depression.
On the one hand, we’re talking about people who want to belong, want to love, and crave to be loved. On the other hand, they believe they’re not good enough for somebody to love them, they are afraid to let anyone in, and live their lives in fear of rejection from pretty much everyone and everywhere.
Between their contradicting thoughts, inability to regulate their emotions, and poor coping skills, falling into an endless pit of anxiety and/or depression is, most of the time, inevitable.
What to Do if You Have a Disorganized Attachment Style
Although the above signs can suggest you have a disorganized attachment style, they cannot clearly indicate it.
For example, you might suffer from low self-esteem, chronic anxiety, or depression and still have a different attachment style. If all these signs, however, sound familiar, there’s a high possibility you have developed this style.
The question is, what do you do next?
- Remember that your attachment style doesn’t define you. You shouldn’t feel helpless or think things like “that’s just the way I am”. Through a lot of self-work, time, and patience, you can escape your toxic behavior patterns and develop a healthier attachment style.
- Work on your self-esteem either by yourself through some courses, books, or articles or ask for a professional’s help. Increasing your confidence and understanding your worth will help you stop feeling inadequate and not good enough for the people around you.
- Push yourself to work on your childhood trauma. That is extremely important, because we carry out childhood traumas throughout our adulthood, and often let them affect our relationships. And although there are plenty of books, articles, or courses, I would highly suggest that you seek a professional’s help.
- Be honest with yourself, first and foremost by acknowledging and accepting your emotions, instead of running away from them. You shouldn’t let them guide your actions — the sooner you deal with them face to face, the sooner your healing journey can begin.
What to Do if Your Partner Has a Disorganized Attachment Style
If you are currently in a relationship with a person who has a disorganized attachment style, it is important to try to be understanding of their sometimes peculiar behavior, be by their side, and help them develop a healthier, more secure attachment style(or encourage them to get help).
Of course, since you can never know for sure all of their inner thoughts and feelings, you might not be 100% sure of the right way to act with them.
Some things you could do are:
- Show up consistently when you said you would.
- Be there for them during times of stress.
- Do your best to communicate in a simple and clear way. Since people with this kind of attachment usually grew up with caregivers who sent them confusing messages and mixed signals, it’s important to be as clear, direct, and honest as possible with them.
- Show them that even though their parents/caregivers were not there for them as a child, things won’t be the same with you.
- Follow through with your promises to them.
- Let them know in a gentle way that their behavior might hurt your relationship and assure them that you are willing to help them work on and change some unhealthy patterns of it.
Encourage them to do some self-reflection and explore their childhood in order to understand their triggers or seek a professional’s help, without making them feel they’re weird.
Previously published on medium
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