Healing doesn’t have to be linear, but it’s got to be intentional.
Last week, I had the pleasure of collaborating with one of my favorite people, Meredith Graham — the founder of Say It Loud. She recently began documenting her mental health journey on social media. With that, she started the Honest Hour Podcast on Spotify. I’m honored to be featured on her very first episode titled The Anxious Dater.
During our interview, Meredith and I discussed coping with our anxious attachment styles in the dating world. Although I am currently in a healthy relationship with a wonderful man, this was a chance for me to reflect on the years I spent on dating apps in my early twenties. Attachment theory entails a nuanced spectrum of styles and those in between, but the three mains are known as Avoidant attachment, Secure attachment, and Anxious attachment.
Although it has become a mainstream discussion on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram within the last five years, not everyone knows what attachment theory is or what style they have. If you’re one of those people, I highly recommend reading the book Attached by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A. There is also a very thorough quiz you can if you’d prefer to find your results before committing to the read.
It was within the pages of this book that I began to piece together my chaotic history of unsuccessful relationships with a new perspective. I awoke to the truth that being unaware of my attachment style has left me vulnerable and unprepared as I naively explored the dating world.
“…the attachment system is the mechanism in our brain responsible for tracking and monitoring the safety and availability of our attachment figures. If you have an anxious attachment style, you possess a unique ability to sense when your relationship is threatened. Even a slight hint that something may be wrong will activate your attachment system, and once it’s activated, you are unable to calm down until you get a clear indication from your partner that he or she is truly there for you and that the relationship is safe.” -Attached
I learned that anxious attachment stems from certain emotional needs not being met in childhood, whether that looks like flat-out neglectful parents or inconsistent emotional support from them. Anxious attachment core fears are abandonment and lack of feeling desired.
People with this attachment are sensitive to small fluctuations in their partners’ behaviors that most people might not notice. They also take these shifting moods personally upon first observation. What they need to counteract these triggers is loads of reassurance.
In preparation for the podcast interview, I decided to do some serious journaling about my personal dealings with anxious attachment. Unexpectedly, this therapeutic journal session took an abrupt turn for the uncomfortable.
For most of my dating life, I didn’t know the pedagogy surrounding attachment theory or that there was a label and explanation for my habits. This unawareness caused unnecessary confusion and agony as I searched for love.
If I had known earlier in my life that I had natural tendencies that made me feel like an entire song and dance number was necessary in order for me to “keep” a partner interested, maybe I would have sought therapy sooner. In almost all of my previous relationships, my normal seduction technique consisted of tirelessly convincing people of why they should want to be with me.
But that’s not what mainly concerned me this time when I sat down — pen in hand. I’d already surmised most of this upon first reading the book two years ago. This particular writing session led me to recognize that even after I’d been introduced to attachment theory, it was never one of my go-to journaling topics.
Come to find, this was actually the first entry I’d written specifically on anxious attachment ever. The exploration I thought I’d done was not nearly as in-depth as it should have been. My knowledge of it stopped at the basic information I outlined above.
Our attachment systems affect practically every aspect of our lives. The topic is intimidating. It’s confrontational. Ironically, it appears that after all this time, after having taken this attachment quiz several times, I’ve avoided doing necessary shadow work. I stayed safe on the surface of this text, and in doing so, I missed the enriching benefits of self-awareness and accountability.
As I journaled, I time-traveled back to the grueling ages of teen love. It immediately dawned on me that even back then, I thought of dating as stressful and risky. My rejection sensitivities completely tore down my self-esteem and obliterated my mental health during any trivial breakup.
At the same time, for some unexplainable reason, being single was not an option. I felt I always had to be attached or in pursuit of attachment to someone. If not, I was bored and felt purposeless, and in turmoil.
It used to cause me a tremendous amount of grief as I awaited the text back from any man who — when all was said and done — I maybe sort of “got the feeling” that I could potentially like in the future.
Of course, in the moment, it was never obvious that these men were less than satisfactory matches for me. I would always convince myself early on that a person understood me like no other ever would. Any glimmer of hope I had for the potential of a relationship made me hold on for dear life, despite whether the connection was in my best interests.
In a nutshell, my dating life was centered around perpetually seeking reassurance from outside sources. I also was undeniably defined by whatever relationship I was in at a given moment.
Why was I consistently motivated by the most minuscule nuggets of validation? Why did I feel I needed to be attached to someone who I barely gave myself the time to vet properly? Before, I’d chalked all of this up to my teen-to-adult immaturity or societal pressures to center men, but I now know better that those are not the only factors.
Enmeshment and intensity are how people like me tend to recognize love. While scribbling out this longwinded journal entry I had a breakthrough about how my anxious attachment style has been weaponized against me by manipulative people.
Those of us who attach this way are a huge target for abusers because we idealize codependency. When someone love bombs us, we think it’s our dream come true.
Of course, this train of thought led me to the next devastating conclusion. The abuse was my normal for so long, so healthy connections cause me to feel neglected. If someone isn’t obsessively and overwhelmingly affectionate, I hesitate to trust them.
Even though I understand how unrealistic that is, its a belief that exists in my mind because anything less than that treatment leads me to suspect that my romantic partner hates me. I become very cynical and start to feel disrespected. I’ve been operating on these extremes for as long as I can remember. If I was actively ignoring healthy, it means I was seeking toxicity.
I struggled with this at the start of my current relationship and often still deal with intrusive thoughts comparing us to my past abusive connections. But as I was writing this all down, I realized that the difference was that in our beginning stages — which have always been a minefield of insecurities for me — my now partner of two years showed me every day that he wanted to get to know me.
The men of my past showed this with bold romantic gestures that were inconsistent and therefore ambiguous in meaning. Instead of making me feel as secure as my partner does now, they always triggered me to feel like I had to mold myself into someone more appealing in order to keep them.
At this point in my entry I decided to map out how being triggered by abandonment issues affects my behaviors in my relationships. My hypervigilance clues me into various changes, and this intuition is usually semi-correct.
Why semi? Because technically, anxious attachment partners can sense when a change is occurring or if an action indicates something. However, we could be completely wrong about what that something is until we talk to our partner about it. Our downfall is that, until then, we spend our time fixating on all possible outcomes and trying to prepare for the worst.
For example, if my boyfriend didn’t happen to like my Instagram selfie, I start to use this action as proof that he’s losing interest in me and slipping away.
In situations like this, depending on how insecure the event makes me feel, I begin protesting behaviors. I start to think things like “I’m such a catch, he’s going to regret not liking my selfie! So many others liked it.” Then I might pretend I’m unbothered and cop a haughty attitude. Or maybe I’ll act majorly passive-aggressive and antagonize my partner into an argument.
These are unhealthy coping mechanisms to distract and deflect from my pain.
It’s been a sizeable challenge to finally confront all that in myself. It takes a ferocious amount of energy, but the only way to combat these thoughts is to answer back with encouragement and truth instead of accepting them as reality.
Despite the stubborn avoidance of my anxieties for two years, I’ve somehow managed to create a system that works for me within my relationship. Whenever I’m triggered, I’m required to decide whether the thoughts I’m having are productive and will help my boyfriend and me to understand each other, or if they are my anxieties coming out to sabotage us and will cause him harm.
If I suspect the thought to be fear-based, I will journal it, give myself some space and time, and then read the entry later with a calmer mind. Sometimes instead of journaling I choose to talk it out with someone else and get an outside perspective which can help to bring me back down to earth.
As time passes, I reflect on everything. Dissecting each factor, giving myself and the other party empathy, and then I decide how I want to talk about it. It feels like detective work, but it’s worth it to me to heal my inner child and to give my partner the respect and consideration he deserves.
Over the last two years with my boyfriend, I’ve gotten so much better at not lashing out when I’m feeling abandoned. This is in big part due to how incredibly supportive and understanding he is. I’m no longer ashamed to explain my anxious traits to him. If he had not created such a safe environment for me, I wouldn’t have felt so comfortable being this vulnerable.
Today, when something like this occurs, I start with, “This is what bothered me today. This is what happens in my head when I see this.” I then make a point to ask him, “What was going on in your mind as this played out?” or “How do you feel about my perspective?”
Of all the attachment styles, anxious attachment tends to have the most stigma. This is likely due to cultural commentary and social media debates regarding anxious attachment girlfriends not wanting their boyfriends to ogle other women’s pictures or go to strip clubs etc.
Often within this discourse, harsh language is used to depict anxious attachment people as insecure and toxic. People describe us as clingy, needy, and high-maintenance.
This explains why, previous to my learning about attachment style theory, I experienced a lot of self-hatred, repression, and denial. Lately, as the discussion about anxious attachment behaviors has become more normalized, I’ve met and spoken with many others like me. This community has enabled me to forgive myself for that hatred. With that, I’ve become better at communicating with my partner and friends, and family members about my anxieties.
But before I found my new friends and admitted my problems, I was in denial. I told myself that a lot of behaviors were “fine” or “normal for someone with PTSD.” This must be why I avoided writing about these triggers for so long. In pure anxious attachment fashion, I didn’t want to associate myself with the undesirable trope that had been created by those who didn’t care to investigate my attachment style before judging.
My writing session proved to be highly enlightening and certainly helped me to collect my thoughts before Meredith and I collaborated. In fact, it was her preliminary prompts that guided me as I wrote this entry. Appropriately, I reserved a portion of it for imparting advice to the beautiful young people that I know are going through these messy phases that I once did.
The best advice I have is not going to be popular in the anxious community, but it is quite possibly the most important message I have to give: being single is golden for us when we’re learning and healing. If you reach a point where you’re feeling hurt by every connection, listen to yourself. You don’t have to always be attached to someone. You don’t have to be constantly on the lookout!
Imagine all of the emotional exhaustion of detective work and hypervigilance in your life could just disappear. Well, it can! Silence the preoccupation by eliminating romantic pursuits for a moment.
It is extra challenging for those of us with an anxious attachment style to feel grounded in our own identities. Our personalities will slide around based on who we are with until we intentionally work towards security within ourselves.
The truth is, we don’t really need anyone in order to feel love. Seek it from within, not from outside sources. Being single for a minute is all the quiet you need to focus on this. Ironically, these single phases are often when people become more appealing to others.
When I was 25, I went through a single phase where I ignored men and pretended romance wasn’t real. I was doing my best to enjoy life during a difficult time after a period of trauma. Space was necessary for healing to take place, which allowed me to figure out so much about myself.
That’s when I fell into a beautiful unexpected friendship with my current boyfriend. I wasn’t fully healed when I met him, and I’m still not. I don’t know if “full healing” is a thing, but it’s a goal. He is someone who loves me for all I am, including my anxieties and traumas.
For those of you who are coming to terms with the fact that you may potentially have anxious attachment issues, I want you to know that I get you. You are not crazy, and the people who are meant for you will never think of you in this way.
The bottom line is that you are valid, understood, and not simply “toxic.” You are so much more complex than “insecure.”
If you don’t want your boyfriend to go to the strip club, tell him. His response will convey all you need to know about his respect for you. Your partner should take it seriously and never minimize the situation — just as you should do the same for yourself. Hold the people in your life to this standard.
You should not feel like you’re constantly begging for love, in pain, and exhausted when you’re dating the right people. Loving ourselves is a learned skill for us, but it’s so so worth it. If you feel stigma and shame for being an anxious attachment cutie, do yourself a favor and listen to our episode!