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Unpacking the Impact of Anxious Attachment: "I Don't Want to Be Good. I Want to Be Free."

Updated: Apr 16

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves ~An excerpt from the poem "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver

The plight of the anxiously attached person is extraordinary. The intense pursuit of perfection is unrelenting. For the person who is anxiously attached the love was sometimes there and the next moment it was gone and when it was gone, things were dark and things were dire.

The environments that foster the formation of the anxious attachment style are inconsistent and unreliable. Periods of warmth are overshadowed by periods of emotional neglect or abuse and those who grow up in such environments feel powerless and hopeless.

When love and care are given intermittently, getting the love becomes a high priced gamble.

Being in relationship with somebody who is incapable for one reason or another of being consistently there in a loving way means one is attached to somebody who often either disappears and becomes unavailable, thus threatening the stability of the connection or becomes mean and hurtful, thus causing injury and damage. In adult relationships, this kind of bond with someone who periodically becomes unavailable, dysfunctional or harmful is called trauma bonding.

Why stay in such relationships, one might ask, but the intermittent pattern of reinforcement makes it incredibly hard to sever ties with.

The intermittent pattern of reinforcement is addictive in that it trains the person to stay preoccupied with their relationships for emotional sustenance. Furthermore, it teaches the person to accept crumbs for meals and to ignore the desire for consistency or the hunger cues when they surface. Usually those who are anxiously attached have profoundly high threshold for distress and mistreatment. Relationally, they can tolerate long stretches of getting much less than what they want fearing that if they leave now, they would miss out on some great reward that seems to be right around the corner. The reward, of course, never comes.

One of the hallmarks of the anxious attachment is intense perfectionism. The perfectionism is a coping strategy meant to defend against deep inner shame. Those who grew up in environments that fostered the anxious attachment style know all too well the burden and the agony of trying to do more and be better to maximize their chances of safety and stability. No matter what they did, however, they didn't feel safer or more loved. Again, the reward for all the hard work never came. And while the reward never came, the behavior stuck.

A big part of the healing process for someone who is anxiously attached is to break the cycle of perfectionism and preoccupation with the other in order to connect with the presence of their own life bubbling inside.

Let's talk for a moment about the ways you can discern the inner drive for perfection from the genuine desire to grow into who you truly are.

One of the simplest ways to see the difference is to ask yourself a question why. For example, every time I see a new client, I asked them to tell me a little bit about their goals for therapy. I hear things like "I want to feel less anxious" or "I want to have a better relationship with my spouse" or "I want to have less conflict in my life." What I want to know next is why are those specific goals important to the person. What would be different when you feel less anxious or when you have a better relationship with your spouse when you have less conflict in your life? Who are you making all these improvements for?

I will never forget a specific person who at the onset of therapy told me she wanted to work on a particular behavior, which involved checking her partner's email whenever she felt afraid that her partner was unfaithful to her. When I asked the client why she wanted to work on this behavior, she told me she wanted to be "better than that" and that "good wives don't do things like that." As we continued to work together, I invited this client to see that her checking behavior was the way she managed her fear and that managing her fear wasn't about her not being good, it was about her being afraid. To go on meant we needed to explore origins of this client's fears, which were much less about her marriage and more about her childhood experiences. The culmination of this conversation was my client saying, "Maybe I don't want to be good. Maybe what I really want is to be free of this constant fear I feel in my body. I want to be free of feeling constantly insecure and I want to be free of worrying. I guess what I really want is to finally be able to relax."

I bet you can see in this example the difference between wanting to be good and the desire to be truly free/autonomous.

Sometimes when we can notice in ourselves the drive to do more or to be better, it is wise to pause and to wonder why. Often what we'll discover is that deep inside we're defending against feeling insecure or small or insignificant. Often what we'll see is that our drive for perfection is an attempt to stop the pain of being not enough, of feeling unworthy or unlovable. And it is in those moments that we have a choice to either ignore the feeling underneath and to push harder or to refuse to do more to cover up the pain and instead tend to what hurts.

The truth is those parts of ourselves that are driven to seek perfection are utterly exhausted and are waiting for the opportunity to rest. No genuine rest is possible, however, without the safe space to rest in, which brings me full circle. The perfectionism is born out of the environment that is unable to give consistent love and care, so it can only be put to rest in the environment that offers that loving consistency in spades.

A healing practice for cultivating the inner security as life resource:

As I mentioned here earlier, the anxious attachment style forces one to be preoccupied with the other. For example, anxiously attached people always worry and wonder what their partners are doing or if they're doing OK or what they need and how to help them. The more this behavior occurs, the deeper the person feels absorbed in their partner. The more intense the absorption, the more suffocated the person starts to feel.

The practice that I recommend to my clients who are anxiously attached and find themselves in the throes of deep and painful absorption with the other is to redirect the worry and the concern from the partner to themselves each time it comes up. For example, if you notice yourself worrying if your partner is doing OK when you're away from your partner, redirect the worry to yourself and ask yourself if you're OK and if you need something. The more entangled you are psychically and emotionally with your partner, the harder and more unnatural this practice will feel at first.

However, worrying about your partner when they're away isn't going to make them feel better. Worrying about your partner when you're away and cannot do much about their state anyway is only burdening you and adding to your stress. Each time you redirect the anxious rumination to ask yourself if you're doing OK or if you need something when you start to worry about your partner, you're not only disrupting the trauma-based behavior, you're giving yourself the attention, the love and the care you yourself can use in the moment.

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