Avoidant attachment and feelings about self
Attachment is largely created in the first few years of life, through a caregiver’s attempts to meet all a child’s survival needs. This, however, is a tall order – it isn’t really possible for a caregiver to meet all of a child’s needs, all of the time.
Sometimes, as a caregiver is trying to attune and intuit what their child needs, they will inevitably get it wrong. Sometimes a caregiver will overdo it – “impinging”, and sometimes they will underdo it – “neglecting”. If this happens a bit too much, too often, an insecure attachment is created in a child. Today, researchers can measure this with brain scans and hormone tests designed to show the distress this lack of attunement creates in a child.
Creating avoidant attachment
Avoidant attachment is created when the caregiver’s attunement hasn’t quite been enough. This does not, however, always imply neglect (although it can in more extreme cases of avoidance). It can be innocuous and frightening nuanced.
For example, in the 1950s and, again in the 1990s, there was a trend toward routine and discipline-focused parenting. We know now that this resulted in a generation of avoidantly attached babies who were not attuned to, but rather placed on sleep routines and forced to learn quickly what was required of them. Parents often tend to parent in the same way they were parented – so, in a sense, there is a trans-generational element. We also know that caregivers that have their own emotional and mental struggles also tend to have avoidantly attached babies.
Attachments created in childhood are no indicator or barometer of love. Most of us, luckily, were loved and loved more than enough. Most parents are doing the best they can, and are oblivious of the creation of attachment – their own, and what they pass down.
What does avoidant attachment feel like?
Avoidant attachment simply means a tendency to avoid connection. This connection is both with self, and with others.
Avoidance of self
Avoidance of self can be thought of as a sort of defence against certain feelings, thoughts, impulses, or memories. There can be a desire to guard against these with lots of distraction – things that capture and divert attention from what is underneath. A need to dissociate from feelings. This distraction can take many forms: social media, TV, gaming, gambling, drinking, and drugs at the more extreme end.
Avoidance of self can often mean someone is really not sure how they feel – there can be a narrative – a top-line, superficial story, but under that, it can be hard to really access the feelings and emotions. This doesn’t mean there aren’t feelings and emotions. There are – often lots; often huge and overwhelming. But they aren’t easily accessible.
Avoidance with others
It is not true to say that avoidantly attached adults don’t want, need and desire connection and closeness to others. It is just difficult for them.
Relating to others can be fraught - fuelled by a conflict between longing for connection, whilst feeling overwhelmed by it.
Avoidant adults can often have large circles of friends and acquaintances. Avoidance is not in the number of connections a person has, but rather the depth of those connections. Groups can provide companionship and comradery, without the intimacy of one-to-one relating. Avoidance is the desire to stay away from the emotional aspects of connecting – exchanging confidences, exposing raw feelings, asking for help, etc.
For some others though, feelings of shyness and social awkwardness make everyday encounters very painful. For these avoidants, there may be no real social group, even a surface-level or superficial one. The connection to others is just too difficult.
Underneath avoidance is often a huge, frightening and unspoken (maybe even unrecognised) sense of fear, anxiety, and even shame. There can be huge feelings of “not being good enough”, there can be fears of being exposed, judged, criticised, and shamed. There can be a huge amount of negative critical voice, and an inability to self-soothe and self-regulate.
With others, and in relationships, there can be a fear of being taken over, consumed, and engulfed by another.
Some common experiences
Attachment is a spectrum, so not everyone will experience it to the same degree. Below are some of the common feelings and experiences associated with avoidant attachment:
- Your boundaries can be very rigid.
- You are very sensitive to any feelings of obligation, dependence, or feeling “trapped”.
- You might be blunt and direct, but confuse this with being honest and vulnerable.
- You may rely on logic and reasoning to self-soothe or navigate conflict, rather than using feelings and acknowledging emotions.
- You can often feel you have one foot in, and one foot out of relationships.
- You might pull away from relationships when they start to feel ‘serious’ – i.e. loving and intimate.
- You might seem resilient and unflappable, but under that, you may be very sensitive to criticism and feel you are not quite good enough.
- You might find you can only get close and vulnerable when there is no real risk of intimacy (i.e. after a break-up, or when very drunk).
- In a relationship, you need space and distance. But it might never quite feel enough. And you might also feel lonely.
- Your response to feeling overwhelmed is a desire to feel numb, and seek out distraction.