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Can You Change Your Attachment Style?

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I feel like I could be one of the poster children for the Dismissive Avoidant Attachment type. I was a latch-key kid in a single parent home. I have a younger sibling who has a disability and required more attention as a child. My family didn’t display a lot of affection around each other, as that Scandinavian Stoicism was often present. 
I wasn’t abused or neglected though. In fact, when I was the only child, I was lavished with attention, love and praise. But then my brother came along and it all kind of fell apart. The family dynamic changed – dad disappeared and mom was suddenly very busy.  I got used to self-soothing when I was lonely or needed something. I became very internal and quiet, preferring to escape into books or fantasy where things always worked out in the end. It was a refuge of my own design.
 Attachment Theory in psychology attempts to explain how we form attachments to other people and how our upbringing can affect the ways in which we connect (or don’t) in adult relationships – romantic or otherwise.  There are four main types of Attachment and you can find them all here.
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There are two types of Avoidant Attachment styles – Fearful/Anxious and Dismissive. The Anxious Avoidant desperately wants to be close to others but is also afraid of that closeness or anxious that they may not be deserving of love. In that way, they are very hot and cold – inching closer and then pulling back. (I can see a little bit of myself in this one...but only a bit.)
Dismissive Avoidant types tend to distance themselves from others, operating under the principle that connecting emotionally to other people is unnecessary and even undesirable, that it’s better to be able to stand on your own and not need to seek help or validation from others.  They are able to shut down their emotions and detach from those around them – very much the isolated hermit. 
Anxious or Preoccupied Attachment types tend to feel wary, insecure, and paranoid in their relationships with others. Because they often received very sporadically or inconsistently during their formative years, adults with this type come off as clingy and require constant reassurance from those around them that they are, indeed, loved.
Secure Attachment is the gold standard when it comes to this psychological theory – these people have their sh*t together.  They are able to easily connect with others emotionally and are not fearful of rejection or being alone. Securely Attached adults have a positive view of relationships and human interaction, so they are able to draw healthy boundaries for themselves and express intimacy and feelings in a constructive manner. 
Of course, no one’s perfect and so even Secure Attachment types experience a bit of anxiety or uncertainty in their relationships – but it’s not the defining theme in them.  Gold standard, right?
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While our attachment styles are imprinted on us in early childhood, the brain is a remarkably elastic thing even in our later years and it’s possible to rewire your synapses to favor a more Secure Attachment style.  Knowing yourself and your Attachment Style is a step in the right direction. 
I know that I’m Dismissive Avoidant. I know that I tend to push people away or keep them at a distance, believing I’m more capable of taking care of myself and that I don’t need to risk being hurt by opening up to another person. I know that I typically attract Anxious Attachment types and that has never ended well for me. 
So, what can I do to challenge some of the thoughts and behaviors contributing to this vicious cycle?

  1. No Man is an Island – even though I’m not a man and ‘island’ isn’t currently an accepted gender identity, it’s important that I confront the belief that it’s better to handle everything alone. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness and doesn’t make me a failure of a human being.
  2. Learn to Communicate my Feelings – this goes beyond being “avoidant” for me, Myers-Briggs pegs me as an INTP every time and I’m an Enneagram 5w4. So I’m kind of a loner by nature, which is fine, but it’s critical to be present and engaged with the people in my life. Part of being present includes open lines of communication. (And if I’m not sure what I’m feeling, I guess I can just be honest about that!)
  3. Step out of my Comfort Zone – I’m used to being involved with possessive, toxic, and clingy individuals. So stepping away from that and engaging with those who are secure in their relationships and honest about their needs and feelings is a whole new thing for me. It’s scary, but an important step in learning how to healthily connect with someone.
  4. No More Excuses – and I mean no more making up stories in my head about why this relationship won’t work or this person won’t like me. That path always leads to self-sabotaging behaviors and that has to stop. Catching myself with this negative internal dialogue and turning it into something else is critical. 
There is nothing inherently wrong with having an avoidant or anxious attachment style if it is not ruling your life and your relationships. However, if you believe that you and those around you would benefit from adapting to a more secure attachment style, there are many psychologist resources online you can take advantage of.

Therapy is also recommended for those with deeper, underlying issues.

We are not bound by our past. We are not hardwired to be a certain way and with a little support and a lot of hard work, we can change for the better. The science supports it, so I believe it.

Listen here to my new podcast episode on Changing Attachment Styles:


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