Understanding The Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated February 02, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil

One of the most defining personality traits for any given individual is their attachment style. Attachment style refers to the relationships people establish with one another. Some styles are more or less healthier than others, and some styles are more or less social. We're going to take an in-depth look at each one. By the time you have finished reading, you will hopefully have procured a deeper insight regarding yourself and those around you.

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There are two schools of thought concerning attachment styles. The first one consists of three theories: Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant attachment. This model is an excellent place to start because its rigidity makes it easier to understand. The drawback, ironically, is also its rigidity. The simplicity with which it addresses so complicated a question limits its accuracy.

The prevailing theory is one that incorporates the use of a spectrum. There are categories, yes - and you will end up in one of them - but there is a difference. This model considers the degree to which one meets the criteria of a category, as well as the degree to which one meets the criteria of the others. As a result, you get a complete picture of the attachment profile. The category you are placed in is your dominant style, but it will not adequately describe you.

This model consists of two variable axes, labeled "self-esteem" and "perception of others," or something similar. Your results on each measure will place you in one of four quadrants: secure, preoccupied, dismissive, or fearful. The "fearful" quadrant is also known as "anxious-avoidant," and that is what this article will cover.

What Is Anxious-Avoidant Attachment?

Secure individuals score high on both measures. They can form healthy relationships and have no aversion to pursuing them. The other two are less healthy, with preoccupied individuals trusting people recklessly and dismissive individuals being apathetic toward relationships altogether.

Someone with a fearful attachment style has placed on the low ends of both the "self-esteem" and "perception of others" spectrum. You might describe this person as someone with negative affect and high levels of neuroticism. Not only are they unable to trust other people, but (perhaps more importantly) they are unable to trust themselves.

You can imagine how difficult it would be to have this outlook. Fearfully attached individuals are unable to reach out to anyone, and anyone that tries to reach out to them is promptly denied. As social creatures, we humans suffer when we are unable to make connections with others that we inherently need.

Some will try to explain this phenomenon as a simple tendency toward introversion. This is not the case, however. Introversion, defined by the comfort found in solitude, is not affected by self-esteem and perception of others. Because low metrics on those spectra characterizes anxious-avoidant attachment, it can be easily separated from an introverted personality.

In fact, that explains why this attachment style is so painful to have. These people do not want to be left alone. They are deprived of affection from themselves and others, and they know they need it. They are just too afraid to take the risk.

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This can have serious implications depending on the severity of the anxious-avoidance. Those on the far end of this spectrum may find themselves struggling to feel fulfilled. They may have trouble finding a job, relaxing, or feeling happy at all. Extreme isolation has been known to cause depression or even hallucinations.

Someone closer to the center, however, might only experience negligible effects. This person could still function and find happiness in their lives. While a secure attachment style is always the best-case scenario, being in the middle is better than being incredibly anxious-avoidant.

For example, Edward Scissorhands, from the movie of the same name, is anxious-avoidant. He wants to be loved and accepted but is so mortified of rejection that he becomes a hermit and suffers anyways. You can see how this differs from secure attachment, where one pursues relationships, and the ones they have are healthy.

How Is This Attachment Style Formed?

When I first learned about attachment styles, my immediate reaction was, "I don't want to be anxious-avoidant." It sounds incredibly difficult to live with. This begs the question: what determines someone's attachment style?

It is generally accepted that attachment styles are formed in early development. A child's relationship with their parents sets a precedent for what relationships are like in the world. Young children are continually learning, and what their parents teach them about love is sure to stick.

Children who spend a healthy amount of time with their parents and learn to trust them will eventually score higher on "perception of others." Likewise, if the child is allowed to explore, take risks, and learn through trial and error, they also will learn to trust themselves, scoring higher on "self-esteem." It follows, then, that those who score lower on these measures when they grow up did not have a foundation of trust for themselves or others.

Children can behave in ways that are very indicative of the attachment style they will grow up with. This can be observed at any time a child's parent leaves them alone, such as dropping them off at school. Depending on their style of attachment, they will react to being separated from their guardian in different ways.

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Securely attached children are likely to cry at first, but they will eventually learn to make friends and be social. Kids with a preoccupied attachment style will cry incessantly, desperately wishing for the parent to return. Dismissive children will not even care - they will just find some toy to play with and seem overall apathetic about being on their own and meeting new people.

Anxious-avoidant children, though, have it the worst. They will be very shy and emotional. They will want to make friends, but their hesitation to talk to new people will be very apparent. While the other kids play together, they will sit on the outside, waiting to be invited but too afraid to jump in on their own. This is why we call it fearful attachment - it is characterized by a persistent fear of relationships and their worst possible outcomes.

Does this mean that all shy children are fearfully attached, and all the outgoing ones are secure? Certainly not - remember, this is evaluated on a spectrum. These are examples of the most extreme conceivable cases. Most children will probably exhibit some mixture of all these behaviors and traits.

Can I Change My Style?

This question is similar to the infamous "Nature v. Nurture" debate, which has no simple answer. As such, there is little consensus on this in the scientific community. It is important to evaluate both sides' arguments and form an individual opinion.

One side says no, you cannot change your attachment style. The experiences you had as a child have already had their effect on development, and your tendency toward this attachment style is set in stone. The best option, then, is to employ strategies that allow you to cope with this disposition.

The other camp says yes, you can. New experiences are very much able to influence your brain today, just as they could when you were younger. We have seen both good and bad events change people we know completely. Why would attachment style be any different?

The correct answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Early experiences certainly have their permanent influences, but new ones cannot be completely discounted either. In any case, the question has yet to be definitively answered.

It is worth considering that your parents, while they set the stage for your social future, are not the only people you have relationships with in life. There are grandparents, brothers, and sisters that may be present when you are young as well. We cannot neglect the friends we make as children, either. Could good experiences with family and bad experiences with peers lead to a strong in-group bias that this model does not account for? What about the opposite?

Attenuating The Effects

Regardless of whether or not attachment style can change, someone who is extremely anxious-avoidant probably wants to make an effort to be more socially at ease. There are steps you can take to make your life better. One of them might be seeing a therapist.

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As we’ve discussed, it is very difficult for people with the anxious-avoidant attachment style to build relationships with anyone. It is essential for these people to find someone they can trust. Once they can let down their walls, the weight of the world will come off their shoulders. Psychologists understand the human mind and have certainly had to break down these sorts of barriers on more than one occasion.

Many mental disorders have no known cure, but psychologists can manage the symptoms. While anxious-avoidant attachment is not a disorder, its unpleasant effects can be mitigated. You may find that your style changes or you may find that you can live with the one you have. Either way, therapy is a great option and is sure to increase your quality of life exponentially.

Of course you’ll work with your therapist to develop the best approach for you, but you probably want a sense of how likely therapy is to help you, right? One common type of talk therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (which is one of the most effective treatments for social anxiety disorder). Because CBT can be used to treat so many things, it has been studied quite a bit. The research to dates indicates that it’s just as effective when delivered online as it is in person (as long as you’re not dealing with an incredibly severe issue).

There may be some additional draws of online therapy for you. If you’re someone who is nervous about leaving the house and interacting with strangers, online therapy might be an easier step; you can reach out to your counselor from anywhere you feel comfortable as long as you have a secure and reliable internet connection. BetterHelp also works to match you with the right person, so you’re working with someone you can trust. However, if you find that you do want to switch counselors, it’s easy to do so and more than 14,000 counselors are associated with BetterHelp.

If hearing from someone else is helpful, though, here are some recent reviews by BetterHelp users about their counselors:

“Natalie is a great listener and is incredibly easy to talk to. I was extremely nervous to start video sessions but she made them low stress and easy to open up in. It's rare to immediately find a therapist you click with and I count myself very lucky to have matched with Natalie.” Read more on Natalie Thwing.

“Ms. Natalie is so sweet, caring, understanding and has a demeanor in which I felt comfortable being able to open up to her right away. I always feel better after our therapy sessions and I’m confident that I’ll be able to grow and reach my goals with her help.” Read more on Natalie Bouffard-Lewis.


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