I used to be a Class-A Avoidant. I was an over-doer, over-achiever obsessed with my image… meaning I went to great lengths to hide my true self in order to pretend I had it together. Not only did I NOT have it together, I was an internal mess. I was exhausted from trying to control everything and be who I thought people wanted me to be, which left my stomach in anxious knots.
I was constantly busy (i.e. distracting myself) so as not to feel pain. The problem was, I didn’t feel joy either. I thought I was a freak of nature, but as I dug into Attachment Theory, I realized I wasn’t a special snowflake. I fell under Avoidant Attachment, basically someone who avoids getting attached to people emotionally. Oh yeah, that was me.
How We Become Avoidants
According to Attachment Theory, when parents are largely dysfunctional, distant, or intrusive, they cause their children considerable distress. Kids learn to adapt and feel safe by building defensive attachment strategies, which often include modulating or toning down intense emotional states. They construct a protective shell around themselves and become self-contained little adults. In my case my mom called me her “little soldier,” essentially dismissing my emotional needs.
As a result, these kids would avoid expressing their desire for closeness, warmth, affection or love. They would swallow their tears or retreat to a safe place instead of crying in front of someone for fear of rejection or abandonment. Even though there was a strong desire for physical and emotional closeness with a parent, they emotionally detached because it was safer. Most developed a deep sense of emptiness, lack and low self-esteem because of this emotional insecurity. They didn’t feel safe being themselves, always needing to edit or self-correct.
In childhood these strategies were formed without logic or reasoning—they were simply a response to an unstable and/or emotionally distant environment. A kid certainly wouldn’t say, “I’m feeling neglected, but I know my mom is doing the best she can, and her inability to get close to me is the result of her angry alcoholic father.” Without the ability to reason, kids simply adapt to their environment, and subconscious patterns are born.
Avoidant Attachment in Adulthood
Lodged deep in the subconscious and reinforced over and over through repeated behavior, these coping mechanisms are carried forth into adulthood. The problem is, what protected you as a kid also protects you as an adult… against love, connection, acceptance and everything a human truly craves. Your adult behavior mimics that of your childhood, although you’re mostly unaware. Many Avoidants end up single their entire lives, or stuck in an unfulfilling relationship with another Avoidant (or with an Anxious Avoidant).
Life is lived on an intellectual level while emotions are shoved down for safe keeping. Without self-awareness, these Avoidants don’t understand why they are single (“I’m smart and successful—what gives?!”) or why their relationships are filled with drama. They think the problem is with the other person, so if they could JUST meet the perfect partner, it would all be sunshine and roses. Unfortunately… nope. You attract people where we are, so you’ll continue attracting other Avoidants or Anxious Avoidants until you become aware of your behavior and make changes.
Avoidants who become anxiously attached to another Avoidant fall into the Anxious Avoidant category. Most become attached to someone who exhibits characteristics that remind them of the emotional abandonment they experienced as a kid. This counterintuitively produces a sense of safety because it is familiar, but at the same time there is a deep desire for unconditional love from a person who is unwilling or uncapable of giving it. This creates a push/pull cycle of clinging then distancing, set on repeat. Fun, right?
The Anxious Avoidant is desperate to receive what they didn’t get in childhood. Interestingly, if the Avoidant in the relationship were to become emotionally available, the Anxious Avoidant would immediately bolt because intimacy is unknown (they never witnessed or experienced it before) and therefore very scary. There is also a fear of being engulfed by their own emotions, and that of their partner.
Avoidant Attachment Style Characteristics
Based on my experience coaching hundreds of clients, many of whom are Avoidants, they possess a good handful of the below traits:
- Highly intelligent, using mental strategies while suppressing emotions
- Control freak, constantly juggling and people-pleasing to keep life on an even keel
- Embodies the negative belief: I am meant to be alone
- Embodies the negative belief: I am unlovable, not good enough and/or not deserving
- Difficulty dealing with rejection, taking it personally
- Is very independent and self-sufficient
- Maintains an overly positive view of themselves and negative view of others (this hides latent self-hatred a low self-esteem)
- Is always looking for (and never finding) the perfect partner
- Doesn’t understand why the people they are attracted to never like them while those who like them, they aren’t attracted to
- Is married with a lover on the side, or is the “lover on the side” to a married person
- Chooses relationships based on sexual chemistry instead of emotional intimacy
- Feels misunderstood (may be seen as an asshole, cold or distant)
- Perpetually busy, feeling anxious when there is too much downtime
- Has generalized anxiety or frequent highs and lows
- Numbs out with food, alcohol, sex, TV-watching, shopping, etc.
- Feels disconnected or detached much of the time; simply going through the motions
- Has a string of yo-yo relationships (come close, go away)
- Feels anxious or self-conscious in group settings
- Is a perfectionist seeking validation from others
- Afraid of being “found out” they are worthless, no good, etc., preventing them from getting close to people
- Afraid of losing their status, relationship, money, success, etc.
- Avoids confrontation or difficult conversations
- Often feels “blah,” cut off from emotions
- Indecisive and constantly second-guessing or suffering from FOMO
- Believes “I will be happy when _____ happens,” thinking a new job, perfect partner or something external is the answer to their problem
- Is attracted to “holics” of any type (alcoholic, sexaholic, shopaholic, etc.)
Avoidants and Relationships
Avoidants avoid, that’s what they do. They avoid their own feelings, other people’s feelings, intimacy, speaking up, emotional risks… basically anything that feels emotionally unsafe. This makes healthy relationships extremely difficult, if not impossible. Many feel unheard, unseen and misunderstood, unable to communicate their needs to their partner. Some believe they are emotionally expressive, but often just verbalize their victimization, “My ex was a narcissist who never put me first,” or “I have a strained relationship with my mom because she’s needy and always trying to control me.” Avoidants feel they got the short end of the stick, rarely taking responsibility for their choices (because they don’t feel they have any).
Validation plays a big role in the life of an Avoidant. Because there is an inherent lack of value, they seek it externally through people-pleasing, over-giving or playing the role of “perfect partner” in order to receive breadcrumbs of attention. All of these behaviors, however, are energy depleting and reinforce the Avoidant’s belief they must sacrifice themselves for their partner. Avoidants don’t prioritize themselves and their needs, which leads to a build up of anger and resentment, usually directed at their partner.
Instead of leading with their hearts, people with Avoidant Attachment try to intellectually resolve emotional issues. They follow artificial timelines (we should date for 9 months, then get engaged 12 months before getting married), and even try to control who they fall in love with. They have a long list of “must-have” qualities in a mate and quickly reject those who don’t tick the boxes. Unfortunately none of this aligns with emotional intimacy and true partnership. Instead it aligns with their subconscious patterns to protect themselves and stay “safe.”
Breaking Avoidant Patterns
The good news is you weren’t born this way, and don’t need to wear a scarlet ‘A’ for the rest of your life. You learned Avoidant behaviors as a kid, which means you can unlearn them. It is not easy and requires a LOT of emotional courage, but it is absolutely possible. I know because I barely recognize the Class-A Avoidant I once was. I’m not perfect, and still catch myself falling into old patterns, but the point is I catch myself.
Once you become aware of your Avoidant ways, you can stop yourself and make a different choice. It’s this repeated cycle of awareness, connection to your feelings and taking different (often opposite) action that interrupts old patterns. And it takes time. You spent years reinforcing these thoughts and behaviors so undoing them won’t happen overnight. It’s an ongoing pursuit.
Avoidant Attachment and Fear
Fear is at the core of what holds people back. If it feels scary (and almost everything associated with emotions is scary for an Avoidant), your subconscious will tell you to abort mission. Fear will tell you to pack your bags and turn around. I wish I had a trick to outsmart fear, but I don’t. You can’t go over it, under it or around it. The only way is through it. Brave people aren’t fearless; they just choose to step into it. It’s 1,000 small decisions in the direction of fear that leads to change.
You do what feels safe because it is familiar (even if it doesn’t lead to what you want). The unknown is scary, so anything you do where the outcome is unknown will summon your loyal friend fear. And actually, fear CAN be your friend. It signals when you’re about to take an emotional risk. If it isn’t scary, you’re repeating old patterns… which leads you back to the exact place you’re in.
Instead of relying on mental strategies, Avoidants need to learn to connect with themselves and build emotional intelligence. Here is the definition by Salovey, Mayer and Caruso:
“Emotional Intelligence includes the ability to engage in sophisticated information processing about one’s own and others’ emotions and the ability to use this information as a guide to thinking and behavior. That is, individuals high in emotional intelligence pay attention to, use, understand, and manage emotions, and these skills serve adaptive functions that potentially beneﬁt themselves and others.”
Yep, emotions are the key to healthy relationships and a life fully lived. When Avoidants actually feel their feelings instead of shoving them down, they are able to better connect with themselves and others. Again, this is scary and takes time because Avoidants have been wearing emotional armor since childhood, and that isn’t easy to take off! But by continually checking in with yourself by asking, “How am I feeling right now?” you become more attuned to your emotions. It may sound corny and awkward to ask yourself how you’re feeling, but it works if you pause and actually connect with the feelings in your body. Answering intellectually won’t work.
Acceptance and Moving Forward
The term “Avoidant” doesn’t define you as a person. It’s used to better understand your behavior, where it came from and how to grow from it. When you are able to clearly see yourself and your challenges, you can decide how to move forward. What you don’t see and don’t accept will go unchanged. Guaranteed.
But it’s very important to understand something: There is nothing wrong with you!
You are not inherently flawed, you are not unlovable, you are not damaged and you are not worthless. You deserve happiness, whatever that looks like for you, and it is absolutely possible to have it. I am married to the most amazing partner I could ask for. Is he perfect? Nope. Am I perfect? Hell no. Do we emotionally trigger each other? Oh yeah! But we also have fun together and talk about EVERYTHING. We are both open books, and if that’s possible for this “little soldier,” it’s possible for you too.
I have a new group targeted specifically to Avoidants. It’s intense, and best suited to those who have already done some work on themselves. Maybe you’ve tried other things and are ready to really dive in. Like… dive head-first into the deep end! I will push you to the edge of your comfort zone while holding your hand. If you think you might be ready, find out more here.