Do you tend to feel insecure in your relationships? Do you often feel worried, lonely or jealous? Have partners commented on how clingy you get? Then you might have an anxious attachment.
“Anxious attachment is a way of describing the way some people connect with others — especially emotionally significant others — in their lives,” said Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and speaker. Individuals with an anxious attachment believe they’re flawed, inadequate and unworthy of love, she said.
Our attachment styles develop in infancy. Some infants perceive their parents as inconsistently available, which distressed them (understandably so, “children need their caregivers for their very survival”).
When kids become distressed, their parents may give them extra attention. These kids also may receive attention when they meet others’ needs.
Over time, “they develop a characteristic sense of feeling needy for attention and needing others to help soothe them,” said Becker-Phelps, author of Insecure in Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It.
Kids with an anxious attachment grow up to believe they need to earn others’ support and attention because they’re essentially flawed, she said. They believe they aren’t loved for themselves, but for what they do for others or how they respond to their needs.
Naturally, such beliefs negatively affect their relationships. Anxiously attached individuals are often self-critical and regularly question themselves, which “can be tiring to friends and loved ones who try to be supportive.”
They also cling to their relationships and get jealous easily. They expect others to leave them because, inevitably, they believe they’re going to disappoint others, said Becker-Phelps.
An anxious attachment isn’t permanent. With awareness and self-compassion, you can build healthy relationships, both with yourself and with others.
Below, you’ll find more on how an anxious attachment manifests and what you can do to become secure.
“[A]nxious attachment exists as a range rather than as a single descriptive category,” Becker-Phelps said. Some people might relate to certain patterns more than others and experience them in varying degrees.
According to Becker-Phelps, an anxious attachment may manifest in:
- Trying to earn another person’s attention or support by being overly nice or giving.
- Pleasing others without focusing on your own feelings, needs or desires.
- Trying to be exceedingly competent and worthy at work.
- Fearing rejection or being abandoned.
- Getting emotionally overwhelmed easily and turning to others to calm down.
- Feeling lost in relationships because you don’t feel like you can express yourself fully or focus on your own interests. So you overly focus on your partner’s interests, which feels stifling to them.
- Picking partners “who are somewhat distant.” This puts you in the position to work for their attention and keep a tighter hold on the relationship, which only perpetuates your belief that you’re not good enough.
Awareness is key when cultivating healthier relationships. Becker-Phelps suggested gaining awareness into how you connect to others and yourself, which you can do by paying attention to your:
- Sensations: “How do you feel in your body?” Becoming aware of your bodily sensations can reveal how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking.
- Thoughts: “What are your thoughts about yourself and your partner?” Focus on how your thoughts affect your emotions and sensations.
- Emotions: “What emotions do you struggle with?” Becker-Phelps stressed the importance of being specific. Instead of saying “I am upset,” label your emotions as “sad,” “hurt,” “angry” or “guilty.” “Consider how your emotions affect and are affected by your thoughts.”
- Patterns: How do “you repeat similar patterns in different relationships or in certain relationships over time?” How do these patterns reflect your inner experiences and your beliefs about yourself and your emotional availability to others?
Self-compassion also is key when you’re making personal changes, Becker-Phelps said. Since you’re probably used to being self-critical, she suggested approaching yourself in the same way you’d approach a friend or child who’s struggling — by being supportive and caring.
“With such compassionate self-awareness, [you] will be able to nurture a stronger sense of [yourself] and a more secure way of connecting with [your] partner.”
Plus, you can learn to communicate more directly about your thoughts, feelings, needs and interests, she said. Doing so helps both partners express themselves fully. And it creates a more emotionally intimate, healthier relationship.