Anxious Attachment Style: How to Stop Letting Toxic People Ruin Your Life
It is in your power to choose healthy relationships and happiness.
Many of us have developed unhealthy attachment styles as kids. As adults, we are unconsciously still driven towards relationships that mimic the toxicity and pain we experienced in our childhood. We keep on struggling as we grow older and seem to always end up with the wrong people close to us — until we face some hard truths and learn our lessons.
Learning how to stop letting toxic relationships rule our lives is a challenging and uncomfortable process. But it is not as painful as spending the rest of our lives with people that are capable of making us miserable and do so frequently, whether we are talking about narcissists, energy vampires, or people who physically or emotionally abuse us in other ways.
Nowadays, I firmly believe that happiness is a choice and being happy is a skill that can be learned and improved. But it is closely intertwined with our relationships and whether or not we can set and preserve boundaries. It took me a long way not only to recognize but understand this.
Something that helped me a lot was my discovery of what psychologists refer to as attachment theory. Educating myself about it helped me to unlearn my unhealthy attachment style, change my behaviours and expectations for the better and stop attracting as well as unconsciously looking for people who (will) hurt me.
Here are the most critical steps that helped me to recover from my childhood trauma and finally develop a secure attachment style as an adult.
What is Attachment Style?
Our attachment style determines how we relate to other people and what we are looking for in relationships. We acquire it throughout childhood, and it continues to function as a working model in adulthood.
Though the exact terminology may vary, depending on which expert is consulted, in general, psychologists relate to four different attachment styles.
- Secure: “Being close is easy!"
- Dismissive-avoidant: “I’d rather not depend on others or have others depend on me!”
- Anxious-preoccupied: “I want to be emotionally intimate with people, but they don’t want to be with me!"
- Fearful-avoidant: “I want to be close, but what if I get hurt?”
According to a study by Dr Phillip Shaver and Dr Cindy Hazan, about 60 percent of people have a secure attachment style.
This insight leaves 4 out of 10 people with a non-secure attachment style. But there is hope: The attachment patterns someone has developed early on do not have to define how they relate to others for all of their life.
The goal is to have a secure attachment style.
Before I could change my relationships, I had to really see myself and adjust my trauma.
By learning about ourselves and how we relate to others, we can uncover a lot. We can unlearn our unhealthy habits, reactions, insecurities and triggers. We can explore our limits and set appropriate boundaries that make us feel secure and open up to authentic trust. But we have to learn to trust ourselves and our perception first.
How to Recover from An Insecure Attachment Style
The first, hardest, most influential, and time-consuming step on my journey of recovery was to uncover and acknowledge that I was suffering from an unhealthy attachment style. It took until my late twenties to figure this out.
Today I would suggest to anyone who wants to explore this topic to take this test as a starting point. It can help to determine your attachment style and learn about how it is affecting your relationship.
1. Educate yourself.
I read and learned a lot about the attachment styles theory and my attachment type. Knowledge is power, and it took me one step further to understanding myself, my trauma, and the underlying mechanisms.
There are a lot of sources to start with, from Wikipedia to books like “Attached” by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel S. F. Heller to the podcasts of relationship expert Ester Pherel.
2. Take an honest look into the mirror without shying away.
I realized and admitted to myself that I had a problem. But this problem was not that I was a terrible or stupid person, or that I was not worthy of love, or whatever negative things were buzzing around inside my head.
My challenge was that I always ended up with the wrong people. And the reason for that was rooted in my past. I worked hard on making myself aware of this until I finally believed it; until I was ready to do something about it.
I endured the pain this caused me. I even actively engaged in it and got curious about my motivations, fears and patterns. I got to know myself and how I tick.
3. Open up and use language as a catalyst.
If I were to be back in that situation again, I hope I would reach out to an empathetic therapist during my deepest phases of suffering.
But I wasn’t able to do that back then. Instead, I started to journal, writing about my feelings, my patterns and my pain. I used journaling to analyze my inner dialogue, and it helped immensely. Without it, I might have never started actually to talk about it with strangers in bars and later on with the few persons I still trusted.
I also started to meditate. In the beginning, I only sat down for a few precious minutes a day. But it helped me to focus, train awareness and get to know myself better and better.
Occasionally I read old journal entries to remind myself how far I had come. That realization always energized me and kept me going.
4. Set and preserve boundaries.
“Sometimes you just have to be done. Not mad. Not upset. Just done.”
I implemented and kept my distance from toxic people and those who fueled my trauma with their own insecurities and pain.
I set boundaries and cleaned up. That was incredibly hard because the people who had the most toxic influence on my wellbeing were the ones closest to me. But the drama I experienced with them drained my energy continuously.
I learned to say “no” and prioritize my needs without feeling guilty. I also accepted the consequences of making myself a priority.
This step was not easy. But I could no longer entertain and endure the people who cemented my unsafe attachment style further with their behaviour.
At that point, I knew I could not heal if I would hold on too tight to such relationships. I could not get better whilst fearing to lose someone that I needed to let go of in order to healing myself.
5. Dive deeper into one’s self.
I sought the loneliness and learned to be comfortable with it. I started to look for who I was underneath the trauma, for what was important to me.
I took my time with new relationships. It’s easier to learn to surf alone than with a second person on the board. In return, the connections I make today are much more enjoyable and robust.
But I had to set strict rules for the transition time and omitted from relationships with a significant other until I felt completely secure.
6. Keep pushing through the loneliness.
I kept pushing, even if I felt desperately alone. But I knew I could not give up. Instead, I acknowledged and clung to the little wins and changes that happened over time.
Life is about learning, so I got up again. My injuries took a long time to heal, and some scars will never fade completely. But one day, I knew that I didn’t have to try and work hard on myself anymore. One day I was confident that had attained what I believe a secure attachment style felt like and knew I would never get myself into such BS relationships and situations ever again.
From that day on, I was able to look back and even be glad about some experiences I made. They are an essential part of what made me the seldom wavering, self-assured, and calm person that I am today.
Or, as Meghan Laslocky frames this experience: “My sense is that for those attempting to upgrade their attachment style from insecure to secure, it is, as the saying goes, just like riding a bike: Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Over time you can still challenge yourself to become a “better biker” — a stronger one, a faster one, a more agile one — but once you’ve mastered looking ahead and pedaling at the same time, you are forever good to go.”
How to Let Go and Find Happiness
I have learned about my attachment styles and my insecurities.
Now, I understand why I kept reliving the same patterns and unhealthy types of relationships. I uncovered why I always felt magically drawn to specific types of personalities. Though I thought they were wide-ranging, they had certain personality traits in common and evoked specific reactions within me — throughout their differences.
It took me until I was close to thirty years old, but I have made my peace and opened myself up to finding happiness in healthy relationships — starting with the one to myself.
If you are struggling with this, too: I encourage you to put in the work and start your journey today.