“Tell us about the love of your life.” In 1985, psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver conducted a study to assess whether childhood attachment influences romantic relationships later in life. Hazan and Shaver hypothesized that the way we were loved, taken care of, and engaged with our parents impacted how we love, take care of, and engage with others.
So, they decided to publish a “love quiz” with 95 questions in a local newspaper called Rocky Mountains News. The quiz asked the readers to think about the most important romantic relationship they ever had and answer the 95 questions. Hazan and Shaver got more than 1,200 replies. The results awaken the interest of the scientific community!
In Hazan and Shaver’s study, 56% of adults had a secure attachment style, 25% an avoidant style, and 19% an anxious style. These numbers resemble studies of researchers evaluating parent-child relationships. The anxious attachment style undoubtedly represents the smallest number among the three groups.
However, when you think about this percentage of the general population, it means that a large group of people engage in close relationships with feelings of anxiety or preoccupation. Perhaps you or your partner belong to that group!
For that reason, today, we will dive deeper into the anxious attachment style. How does it develop in early childhood? How does it manifest in adulthood? Most importantly, how can you improve your way of relating to others?
What Is Anxious Attachment?
Attachment theory is a psychological concept created in the 1960s by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby. The theory was developed to help describe how children and adults engage emotionally with others. Bowlby explained that there are four main attachment styles:
- Secure attachment
- Disorganized attachment
- Avoidant attachment
- Anxious attachment
If you want to know more about the main characteristics of any of these attachment styles, you can review this article later.
Anxious attachment is also called preoccupied attachment. If you have ever experienced an episode of anxiety, you may already have insight into this attachment style’s negative and positive aspects. For example, anxiety may lead us to overthink, worry, overreact, feel insecure, and engage in catastrophic thinking.
Anxiety is triggered by fear and a sense of lack of control. Some people experience stress because of their workload, homework, or life routines. For some people, anxiety governs how they love, care, date, parent, and engage with their romantic partner.
But how can you identify if you or your partner has an anxious attachment style? Below are some signs you may want to look for.
Signs of Anxious Attachment Style
- You may feel emotionally insecure in your relationships or experience “emotional hunger” (i.e., you may worry that those around you will abandon you)
- You may think that you are not “good” enough and always need to prove yourself.
- You may feel that you love people more than they love you.
- You may excessively worry when your loved ones do not text or call you back (you may think about the worst).
- You may fear that people may leave you after arguing.
- You may overthink or overreact when your loved ones do not say something positive about you.
- You may have a hard time doing things alone.
- You may blame yourself if your children or partner has a bad day or feels upset.
- You may overprotect those you love (i.e., making sure you are involved in their decisions, knowing their whereabouts)
- You may be willing to work on your interactions with your romantic partner, children, or a close friend.
- You can be a great caretaker in helping people meet their needs.
- You value the power of relationships.
- You are open to communicating with others.
How Does Anxious Attachment Develop in Children?
Attachment styles do not arise from anywhere. Instead, they result from the primary relationship with our parents or primary caregiver. As babies, we observe, internalize, and repeat the actions and behaviours of our parents and significant adults in our lives. John Bowlby and many psychologists realized that depending on the level of attunement, consistency, and stability that parents offer to the children, they grow up with secure or insecure forms of attachment.
Anxious attachment develops in early childhood when the primary caretaker is not in tune with the child’s needs. This lack of attunement can manifest in at least two forms. On the one hand, parents’ anxiety may drive them to be overprotective with their children. Protecting a child is super important, but equally important is to allow children to have some level of independence and autonomy.
On the other hand, overprotective parents often create barriers for a child to explore their surroundings or take age-appropriate risks out of fear that something horrible may happen. The result is that the child sooner or later internalizes these same fears, worries, and insecurities and may become increasingly dependent.
In other cases, inconsistent parenting may result from life circumstances, childhood trauma, or family history. Sometimes, people’s past or present life get in the way of engaging in the best practices of parenting. For example, a person may be struggling with her financial situation, dealing with a mental or physical illness, or experiencing conflict. These or other influences may affect the capacity of a parent to connect with their child on a deeper emotional level. These personal or environmental factors may lead parents to engage in inconsistent behaviours that confuse the child.
For example, one day, a parent may be there to feed and comfort her child when she starts crying. However, the day after, the same caregiver may fail to respond to the child’s crying because she may be dealing with emotional pain and symptoms of depression.
When these changing responses repeatedly occur, the child can become confused about whether the caregiver will show up or not. This lack of predictability may trigger feelings of insecurity, fear of abandonment, unhealthy emotional bonds, and attention-seeking behaviours in the child.
How do all these elements translate into the child’s everyday life?
Signs that Young Children Have Anxious Attachment
- A child may feel very agitated when the primary caregiver (mother or father) is not around.
- A child may have a difficult time taking age-appropriate risks by herself.
- A child may need continuous validation from adults to engage in new activities.
- A child may feel frustrated very quickly when she makes a mistake.
- A child may engage in attention-seeking behaviours in large groups (i.e., tantrums, yelling, throwing toys, etc.)
- A child may show symptoms of anxiety often.
- A child may find it difficult to relate to her peers because they may not offer validation, comfort, and support.
What Does Anxious Attachment Look Like In Adult Relationships?
Anxious attachment can affect how you interact with others in your adult life. For instance, just as an anxious child may feel insecure about whether her caregiver will or will not be there, adults with preoccupied attachment issues will crave people’s validation and reassurance. Otherwise, they may feel insecure about themselves and their relationships.
Adults with anxious attachment often experience a lower level of self-esteem and have a deep fear of being rejected by others. This may lead them to become people-pleasers and overprotective in their relationships. Depending on the type of relationship they engage in, these behaviours and attitudes can take different shapes and forms.
- You like to connect with others, care for others, and get to know your friends on a deeper level.
- You may seek constant validation from your friends, especially when you make a mistake or wrongdoing.
- You may overthink conversations with your friends to determine if you said something wrong.
- You may want to be overly involved in your friends’ lives out of fear of being left out.
- You may overanalyze your friend’s words and actions to assess if they are upset with you.
- You feel that you fail at something if you do not belong or do not fit.
- You are not being “good enough.”
- You may be hypervigilant with your friends.
- You may feel overly anxious about not meeting or exceeding your boss’s expectations.
- You may find it difficult to create boundaries when your coworkers ask for extra help.
- You may find yourself working extra hours and taking more work to please everyone.
- You may struggle to accept constructive feedback (i.e., you may take feedback as criticism or as something personal).
- You may be hypervigilant about your relationships with your coworkers and boss.
- You may find yourself always conforming to the group, even if you disagree with their opinions.
- You may not express your point of view out of fear of being negatively evaluated.
- You love to be in a relationship but may feel jealous or guilty if your partner does not give you full attention.
- You may see your partner’s boundaries as a threat to your relationship. Feeling that more space will create distance between both of you.
- You may fear your partner will reject you or abandon you every time you argue.
- You may become overprotective of your partner to the point that you dismiss your mental, emotional, and physical needs.
- You may want to know your partner’s whereabouts, plans, and daily routines.
- You may find it challenging to engage in solo activities.
How Can You Improve Your Anxious Attachment Style?
As we mentioned earlier, not all is bad about having an anxious attachment. You like to relate to others, care for others, and communicate with others already give you an excellent point to start improving your social, family, and romantic life. However, in your path to change, there are some things you have to keep in mind:
Work on Accepting and Loving Yourself
The first relationship you need to nurture and take care of is the one you have with yourself. Most of the time, people with anxious attachment experience low self-esteem because they are overly focused on pleasing others. Taking care of others is excellent, but not so much when you think your value as a human depends on that role. As a human being, you are worthy of love, appreciation, and respect just for being the person you are.
The only thing you need to do is recognize and appreciate that value. So please, starting from today, take a moment to self-reflect on who you are as a person. Think about what you like, your personal goals for the future, and what steps you may take to accomplish those goals.
Can you envision enjoying new experiences all by yourself? What are some self-care practices you can start doing right now?
Talk with Your Loved Ones About Establishing Boundaries
Do your loved ones often complain that you do not give them too much space? Do you feel upset every time you start to worry unnecessarily for your loved ones? Every person has their own needs. Healthy relationships depend on communicating our needs and respecting the needs of others. Sometimes that means enjoying more time together, but other times it means giving them more space or freedom.
Boundaries are not a threat or a form of rejection but a way to honour people’s individuality. One way to heal a wounded is by talking about your and the other person’s needs and establishing boundaries that honour that conversation.
Reach Out and Seek Professional Help
Changing our pattern of thoughts, behaviours, or healing old emotional wounds can sometimes be very challenging. There are times when our life feels like a roller-coaster, and we do not know where to begin. Perhaps, you are struggling to meet your child’s needs, your partner seems distant, and you are experiencing low self-esteem. Having a supportive and non-judgmental therapist by your side can do wonders in those challenging moments.
At Wellbeing Counselling, we count on a team of caring mental health professionals ready to help you grow the relationship you have with yourself and with your loved ones. Whenever you feel ready to start your healing journey, you may book a free consultation with us online or by calling us at 604-305-0104.
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