The Rise of Attachment Science
Most of the clients I work with now understand what their attachment style is from taking an online quiz. This is good news. Attachment and relationship science has been around for decades and has produced some impressive longitudinal research about the importance of our relationships for our overall health and wellbeing. You can read the entire Handbook of Attachment if you like scientific research.
Unfortunately, most people do not understand that attachment style is not a diagnosis but rather a biological response to how we cope in a fearful situation. And as a biological response and development need, our style can affect many areas of our lives.
Since the publication of Attached: The New Science of Dating, millions of people have discovered a name for their type of insecurity. Feeling that they now have a “diagnosis” they often seek to find relief from their suffering. Unfortunately, what has transpired is not a focus on our own personal development but rather an obsession with changing the other person’s behavior. Most of my clients believe that their love lives would be perfect if only their avoidant partner would process or open up about their feelings. This, unfortunately, is not the path toward healing.
What the popularization of attachment science has done is fed into the dichotomy we have between anxious and avoidant people rather than provide a path toward healing our insecurity. Most do not realize that these two classifications are really two ends of the same spectrum I call toxic insecurity. They are simply behavioral patterns we have learned in the context of previous relationships that have shaped our physiology and mental representations of relationships in general. Our attachment style is the result of behaviors we demonstrate when we are stressed and feeling scared. Given how much trauma we have suffered this insecurity is very common and is estimated to occur in 40% or more of the general population. For those of us heading onto a spiritual path, we are being asked to heal it — now.
Why Anxious Types Seek Psychotherapy
Those with an avoidant attachment style rarely seek psychotherapy. Why? Well, psychotherapy means having to process emotions and most people have been avoiding that their entire lives! It is, therefore, often those of us with an anxious attachment style that seek the support of mental health professionals. Unfortunately, I have been seeing a dangerous trend of supporting a victimization story that blames the avoidant partner for not seeking psychotherapy. Just because you are anxious and your partner or desired partner is avoidant does not mean you are right and they are wrong. Emotionally avoidant are very much distressed — you just won’t see it through their emotions or in outward behaviors. Which begins to raise the questions as to whether opposite ends of the toxic insecurity spectrum need different healing paths.
When I was completing my training at Tulane Medical School with some of the best attachment researchers in the world, we used to assess attachment style in children under the age of five. Attachment style is measured in a play based procedure where the parent and child are eventually separated for a couple of minutes and we watch how the young child deals with the stress. The most profound lesson I learned in my training was that even though some children appeared to not be distressed when their caregiver left them alone for a couple of minutes, their physiological symptoms (increased heart rate and cortisol levels) were actually higher than those little ones who were anxious and hysterically crying when their parent left the room. People who are truly avoidant are suffering too — they just don’t want you to know but their body is screaming for healing even if their mind does not recognize their distress. This is why the anxious partner is so confused — their nervous system immediately recognizes what is going on and wants to help their partner. The resulting rejection leads to a great deal of suffering and drama for both people.
Why Insecure Relationships Provide the Best Learning Opportunities
It is incredibly difficult for all of us to understand and see relationships from the purview of a learning opportunity. Anxious and avoidant people are equally insecure and are really craving love. They just happen to be insecure in differing ways and sometimes one of them looks meaner, more narcissistic, and less empathic than the other. When my client finally makes it to their Zoom session, they often want to know how to change their avoidant partner. My response is always the same — you can’t change your partner per se, but changing yourself will affect your partner or who your future partner will be. Healing will also benefit all the relationships in your life. That person who is causing your suffering is really a sign for you to focus on digging deeper into yourself.
According to research, avoidant people are able to identify emotions — they just disconnect from positive emotions quickly. It is kind of like they assume, based on experience, that there is no point in being around warm and fuzzy people. In order to re-wire the brain, avoidants need to be around more positivity and decondition their attentional biases — not something they always want to do! When an anxious person cannot regulate his or her emotions, they are creating the very environment that the avoidant expects and vice versa. The anxiously attached often create a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to them to blame themselves when, in reality, the ensuing drama is uniquely designed for each person to heal their insecurities.
I truly do understand the heightened levels of anxiety that relationships can cause. I’ve worked in my own personal development for years to learn better ways to handle my stress and anxiety. I too have gone through the cycle of blaming men for being emotionally unavailable. What I have learned on my personal journey is that healing my own insecurity required me taking responsibility for learning to manage my own emotions. That learning and responsibility flourished during the time I took for myself to learn meditation, yoga, travel the world, and practice being more authentic and transparent with every relationship in my life. And, frankly, I’m still learning!
Why Emotions Matter
Emotional people have a great gift to give to the world. That gift can only be accessed when you learn the tools to regulate your moods. Some people with an anxious attachment are the emotional ones struggling to find a way to find more balance in their emotional lives and are simply not ready to be in a relationship that is triggering their insecurities. Some avoidants may actually be empaths unknowingly absorbing the dysregulated emotions of others and panicking due to a lack of skills to manage their sensitivities. In both of these cases, you can learn to take care of yourself and likely improve the quality of all your relationships. It really isn’t anyone’s fault that most of us have not learned the skills required to be emotionally secure but it is quickly becoming our responsibility to learn.
The emotionally avoidant person really is not the problem. While they may be less likely to seek mental health support, they often give their anxious counterparts the opportunities to practice setting boundaries, to practice saying no, and to practice walking away to honor their higher selves. Far too many of us focus on other people and not on our own journey. And up until recently, there were fewer alternative options for people to start their healing journey elsewhere.
Can emotionally avoidant people change? Yes, they can. They, however, cannot do that work in an environment that is emotionally tumultuous. They have to heal their nervous systems first. They need to learn to feel emotions in their body before they can deal with the emotions of another human being. In so many ways emotionally avoidant people run because they are like the three year old who is so distressed that their mother left the room, they shut down and simply pretend they are okay. Trust me when I say that emotional processing is not going to help an emotionally avoidant person open up. Neither is yelling at them, crying, or demanding they go to therapy.
What is needed for emotionally avoidant people to heal is for all of us to understand that healing is a personal journey that no longer needs to start in a psychotherapist’s office.
What We Can Do to Help All of Us Heal Our Insecurity
What does help is being in the presence of a grounded person who has the skills to regulate his or her emotions. We all need mentors and examples of people who have figured out this emotional well-being dance. We all need to see people who have learned to parent themselves rather than rely on other people. It is only in the context of seeing emotional security that we can begin to understand what our personal journey needs to be in order for us to bring the mind, body, soul and heart back into alignment. The kicker of this whole issue is that, in reality, we do not have to talk about our feelings to have intimacy or heal our insecurity. The energy of someone who has been on their healing journey for a long time speaks for itself and often naturally leads to the safety required to talk about emotions. For an emotionally avoidant person to heal, they need to first feel the safety through energy not in words.
We have to honor and respect everyone’s journey and their process of healing. We don’t have to like it and we don’t need to necessarily spend time with people who trigger our fear and wounds before we are ready to deal with them. We do, however, have to stop the victimization mindset and the spiraling of our own fear. Being with someone who is emotionally avoidant is the golden opportunity to incorporate your emotional regulation and spiritual skills in the real world. It is highly advanced work and it is okay to walk away from that work if you do not feel ready or it feels wrong but it does not give you the right to blame someone else for being a horrible person. Emotional intelligence is not telling someone they are horrible — it is meeting them where they are and sometimes the person we love is not emotionally where we wish they were.
If you truly want to help the avoidant person — you have to help yourself. You have to learn to regulate your emotions so that the other person has to actually deal with his or her own issues. No matter which way we look at this situation, getting angry and blaming an avoidant person doesn’t get us anywhere and certainly doesn’t motivate them to seek support to learn new ways of being in the world. At the end of the day, your work on your anxiety will open up new opportunities either with your current partner or perhaps with a far more emotionally secure partner. Walking your path is never a bad investment — we simply have to stop getting distracted by other people’s behavior!
Previously Published on Medium