Anxious attachment and feelings about self

Our attachment styles are created in early childhood, shaped by the responses we have to the quality, consistency and degree of attunement we receive from caregivers. These attachment styles stay with us into adulthood and can get replayed in many areas of our lives in an unintended way.


Anxious attachment is created when a little bit too much of the parental attunement given to us was inconsistent (so it was unpredictable) – sometimes it was there and it was good, sometimes it wasn’t. This inconsistency in attunement from a caregiver causes a great deal of distress in a child, which over a long period of time can cause an anxious attachment to form. 

It can also be created by ‘intrusive’ or ‘impinging’ parenting, which is more about the parent's need than the child’s need, or role-reversing parenting (when a child needed to ‘be the adult’), or when there is too much criticism or high expectation from a caregiver. Attachment styles can often be passed down through the generations, as most parents tend to parent in a similar way to how they were parented. 

Attachments created in childhood are no measure of love. Most of us were loved more than enough. Most parents were doing the best they could and were unaware of how attachment is created – their own, and what they unintentionally passed down. 

Seeking to understand our attachment and how it was formed, is not an exercise in looking back and blaming caregivers – it should be about looking at the present, what may be getting repeated and enacted, and so thinking about what might need to change. 

The attachment styles we develop in early childhood can have a far-reaching effect on our adult lives. They can impact:

  • our ability to communicate our emotions
  • how we experience and manage our emotions 
  • how we manage and respond to conflict
  • the expectations we have of our relationships

What does anxious attachment feel like?

Fear of rejection and feelings of “not good enough”

There can be a real fear of being rejected (or abandoned) by others, which creates a series of feelings and behaviours to try and stop that from happening. 

Adults with an anxious attachment style might think highly of others but can often suffer from low self-esteem and lack of confidence. There can be a previse, underlying feeling of being “not good enough”, or somehow wrong – flawed and at fault. Because of this, adults with anxious attachment might need a huge amount of reassurance that they are loved, worthy and good enough, although this reassurance may not be accepted or believed. It might be rejected, batted back and met with disbelief. 

They may spend a lot of time ruminating on what their perceived flaws are, so engaging in a lot of critical self-talk, further enforcing the feeling of 'not good enough'. 

Preoccupied with feeling

Anxiously attached adults are sensitive and can be overly attuned to the needs of others. 

Anxiously attached adults can be very preoccupied with others, and what they imagine and assume others think and feel (often confusing this with empathy). It can be very important then, for anxiously attached adults to feel accepted and liked, so may become quite pleasing and adapt themselves to what they perceive others require from them. 

They can also be very preoccupied with their own interior world, getting lost and hung up on their own feelings (often negative ones). Whilst there may be a lot of thinking and feeling (perhaps ruminative thinking) it can be hard sometimes to calmly think and reflect in a neutral and observing way without all of the emotions becoming overwhelming. There can be a huge need to feel understood and validated by others, so as not to feel alone in their deeply intense emotional world. 

Stay close (or stay away)!

A strong fear of abandonment might cause anxious adults to be jealous or suspicious, which could lead them to feel clingy. Some adults with an anxious attachment style are often afraid of or even incapable of being alone. They may constantly seek intimacy and closeness and are highly emotional and feel dependent on others. 

However, some others retreat into themselves, so overwhelmed by the huge emotions and feelings brought up in them by others that they may go inside themselves and shut down. Friends might conjure huge feelings of resentment or bitterness, and lovers may create unbearable feelings of disappointment or even repulsion. This ruminating and clinging onto feelings ultimately leads to feeling exhausted, so a shutdown occurs. At some point there can be a desire to reengage, only for it to be shut down again, an ongoing cycle created. 

Some common experiences:

  • demanding of themselves
  • overly perfectionist
  • can be prone to experiencing their emotions very intensely
  • can be prone to hyperactivation during times of stress - emotions can become amplified, and overdependence on others to help re-regulate can occur
  • clinging onto emotional content/finding it hard to let go
  • a feeling of being haunted by past experiences or past relationships
  • feelings of anxious fretting and grievance that others may perceive as disproportionate or an overreaction
  • boundaries can be difficult to navigate: Some relationships can feel enmeshed and claustrophobic, whilst others might need to be held back in fear of what they bring up
  • can become unsettled by contact with certain people so shut themselves off because the emotions and feelings brought up are too overwhelming
  • often experience feelings of dissatisfaction or disappointment
  • may need to feel intensely in order to feel something is real
  • some may feel helpless or out of control in some areas of life
  • some may have a sense of having no autonomy of self, and being at the mercy of external forces
  • can fall into compulsive caregiving (in order to actually get their own needs met)
  • can be good at creating a feeling of hyper-connection to others (but may then feel overwhelmed by that connection)
  • may over-share (then later regret it) as a way to foster a quick and intense connection to others
  • can be very caring and nurturing of others, but also feel resentful if they feel others don’t reciprocate their need or requirements to be loved and nurtured back
  • may feel panicky when conflict isn’t resolved right away
  • overly sensitive to the actions and moods of others

In a romantic relationship:

  • can be hypervigilant to any (perceived) signs of rejection
  • feelings of quiet contentment in a relationship may feel hard to access
  • there can be a desire to feel intensely to feel a relationship connection is real
  • strong fear of rejection, criticism and abandonment
  • may require a lot of loved ones’ time and attention to feel loved/appreciated/secure
  • can become jealous and frustrated when a partner is unavailable/inattentive
  • can struggle to communicate their needs and desires clearly and/or directly
  • feel as if they are the ones fighting for emotional closeness in a relationship
  • can tend to be overly helpful in relationships to make a partner “need” them
  • can be anxious about whether a partner can and will meet their emotional needs
  • can be hypervigilant to signs of rejection

If you resonate with this article and are looking for support, use our search tool to find a counsellor near you. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N4 & E17
Written by Danielle Corbett, (MBACP (Accred), Adv. Dip)
London N4 & E17

I am a qualified and professionally trained psychotherapist in North London, with a background in NHS Mental Health Services. I also work with a wide and very diverse range of people from all backgrounds in my private practice based near Finsbury park.

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