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Secure  |  Dismissive  |  Preoccupied  |  Fearful

 

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Secure

Generally low attachment avoidance, generally low attachment anxiety

People with secure tendencies manage relationship boundaries without feeling worried, insecure, or the need for emotional distance. They find a natural balance between independence and intimacy with others, and are comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. They are able to provide love and support to their relationship partners and close others, and also feel comfortable receiving love and support. They assume that others generally are positively attuned to them, and derive safety and security from others. They also manage stressful situations effectively, and regulate their emotions without spiraling out of control, or feeling compelled to bury their emotions.

What reinforces secure tendencies? Circumstances in which depending on others has had benefits. Kids become secure when their caregivers provide appropriate love and support as needed. This creates an environment for kids to freely experience and display emotions, and to trust that others will be there for them if they feel distressed. As a coping mechanism, they may seek others who have provided comfort or support, or if others are not available, secure individuals learn to calm themselves down (for example, by simply thinking of others).

What about their approach to personal goals and accomplishments? Because they have learned from others that they are worthy and valued, they derive genuine self-confidence. This security and confidence equips them to pursue interests and goals, without falling apart in the face of failure. Of course, everyone may fear failure at some point. Secure individuals pursue goals and take risks, without exaggerating the meaning of impact of setbacks.

Is it all “good”? This all sounds really good. But that does not mean that secure tendencies are better than other tendencies. Secure tendencies work well when others generally are trustworthy and circumstances support or “afford” for reliable and close bonds that will not lead to getting hurt. However, there are situations in which others may be harmful or toxic. Individuals who are more anxious or avoidant may be better equipped to detect and exit dangerous situations. And insecure individuals may have more wisdom about avoiding dangerous situations.

 

 

 

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Dismissive

Generally high attachment avoidance, generally low attachment anxiety

People with dismissive tendencies strongly prefer being independent and self-reliant. With relationship partners and close others, they never quite seem “all in”. They are somewhat hesitant to acknowledge and endorse a committed or intimate relationship, and enjoy closeness only to a limit. If – or, rather, when – relationships become emotionally involved or require “give-and-take”, they become aloof or uncomfortable, and often perceive that someone (as in, a partner) is attempting to control or limit their freedom. During stressful moments or emotional-laden situations, they often blunt their emotions and become unwilling or unable to feel emotion deeply.

What reinforces dismissive tendencies? Circumstances in which depending on others has been emotionally painful. Kids become dismissive when their caregivers are too harsh or hostile, or when caregivers are too emotionally disconnected and unwilling to provide the love that kids seek and need. This creates a difficult environment for kids to freely experience and display emotions, or to trust others that should provide love and care. As a coping mechanism, they may stop relying on parents or others for comfort or support, and show little preference for parents over strangers.

What about their approach to personal goals and accomplishments? Because of their strong self-reliant and dismissive tendencies, they derive their own self-esteem and even convince themselves that they are better than others, rather than rely on others for praise. They do not want to feel vulnerable or dependent around others.

Is it all bad? Of course not. People ramp up dismissive responses when they have to (avoidance worked out for them). Some relationships warrant dismissive tendencies, especially in cases of hurtful or neglectful behaviors, and some people may thus feel compelled to become avoidant in reaction to a toxic or harmful relationship. Many work relationships may warrant avoidance or call for mistrust. And a lot of other situations reveal benefits of avoidance, such as emergency situations. Avoidant individuals may not be the first to notice an emergency but are quicker than others to exit emergency or dangerous situations, which has obvious benefits.

How can dismissive individuals learn to become more secure? How do they stop missing out on relationships that are worthy of security? Dismissive individuals can learn to become more secure through new positive experiences with trustworthy partners who display support and love, but also are respectful of a dismissive person's occasional need for distance. They learn security through experiences that go against their insecure expectations. For example, they may learn benefits of dependence if they discover, inadvertently, that they were okay or even good at providing care to others. They may discover that others like and appreciate them, which makes them feel good and a lot less vulnerable to the ''dangers'' of closeness. They learn security when they are having fun with others and feel good about it. Finally, they learn security when they get benefits from being closely connected to others, even when the benefits occur beyond their awareness. For example, avoidant people benefit when someone provides help or solutions but does this indirectly or without drawing attention – such as talking about a ‘friend’s issue’ (e.g., “I have a friend who …”), providing dinner or other support during times of stress without making a big deal about it, or doing the avoidant person’s favorite activity on a date night without taking credit for it. All of these experiences – discovering that providing care can be rewarding, doing fun and novel activities that are enjoyable, and benefiting from being closely involved with others even when the support or benefits are not obvious – all foster relationship that warrant or “earn” trust, which is precisely what helps people become less avoidant.

 

 

 

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Preoccupied

Generally low attachment avoidance, generally high attachment anxiety

People with preoccupied tendencies feel insecure around others and worry about whether others want to be with them. With relationship partners and close others, they need reassurance of being loved, seem really invested in relationships, and realign their own happiness and self-esteem based on the state of their current relationships. These individuals may often face problems of jealousy and overdependence in their relationships. Most individuals experience these things when others are, in fact, rejecting or dismissing of them or not all that interested in a close and committed relationship, but preoccupied individuals chronically experience these things beyond what would seem warranted. They yearn for greater closeness and connection, and partners often struggle to do enough. Their romantic involvements seem to be fraught with conflict. During stressful moments, these individuals seem to spiral into negative thoughts and feelings, and experience more drama than most people.

What reinforces preoccupied tendencies? There is increasing evidence of an underlying biological or genetic predisposition for attachment anxiety. But certain experiences activate that biology, such as being with others who are inconsistent or incompetent in providing love and care – others who seem to ''miss the mark''. Think of caregivers who can be, at times, genuinely loving and caring, but at other times they disappear or disappoint. People on the receiving end experience uncertainty and don’t know what to expect. Other caregivers may be preoccupied and ignore pleas for help some of the time, and then overbearing at others times; this robs kids of opportunities to learn on their own and know that they can count on support if needed. As a coping mechanism, they cling onto the people they want with them but also become angry toward them, all of which reinforces overdependence and being overly focused on the others’ availability, care, and love.

What about their approach to personal goals and accomplishments? Because of their preoccupation and overdependence, anxious individuals seem to stake everything on their relationships. They read into issues and often feel that they are not sufficiently loved. This causes them to less worthy of love than others – not as competent, likeable, and worthy of others’ esteem. Individuals who chronically experience attachment anxiety tend to have low-self esteem, lack confidence in themselves, and fear failure. They become risk-averse, avoid pursuing new goals, and suppress being imaginative and creative about possibilities (“What if I fail?!!”).

Is it all bad? Of course not. People ramp up preoccupied responses when they have to (attachment anxiety worked out for them). Some relationships warrant anxiety, especially when a partner is not all that trustworthy, loyal, or caring. Preoccupied tendencies, therefore, may help when weeding out others who are not ready for a committed and loving relationship. And a lot of other situations reveal benefits of anxiety, such as truly reckless situations or emergencies. Anxious individuals detect danger more quickly than others, which can have obvious benefits when people need to leave an emergency situation.

How can preoccupied individuals learn to become more secure? Many relationships are worthy of security. Despite apparent doom and gloom, preoccupied individuals can learn to have more fulfilling and secure relationships with partners who are committed and want a thriving relationship. Preoccupied individuals learn security when they know they can count on partners to provide reassurance as needed, and soothe their anxious concerns and worries. But they also must learn to become independent. They learn to feel more secure when they discover their own talents and personal value. (We have studied people for a long time and have yet to come across a person who has absolutely no talent or gift, or who is not special and valuable in some important way). For example, partners can show their liking and appreciation. Empty compliments won't work. It’s more convincing when partners share with others what they like and appreciate, or commemorate what they like and appreciate – for example, by making dinner or doing something effortful to show appreciation. Preoccupied individuals also benefit from learning what they do well and challenging themselves, in small ways at first but eventually taking on greater challenges. Partners can be allies in helping anxious people become more confident – for example, when partners provide encouragement, help put setbacks or failure in perspective, or reinforce the need to be persistent and patient in order to reap rewards of one’s efforts. Partners need to be honest and earnest in their appreciation and encouragement. All of these experiences – knowing that a partner is there for them, feeling genuinely appreciated by a partner, and gaining confidence and efficacy in things one can do – all foster self-assurance, which leads to being less anxious about the state of one’s relationship and more secure in oneself.

 

 

 

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Fearful

Generally high attachment avoidance, generally high attachment anxiety

It is more difficult to study fearful tendencies because these individuals sometimes may look like preoccupied individuals and other times like dismissive individuals. But we know a few things about individuals who identify with a fearful pattern. With relationship partner and close others, they desire reassurance of being loved, and yearn for closeness. They take a partner’s cue before acknowledging a committed or intimate relationship, a defensive strategy to protect oneself in case a partner wants less closeness than they do. During stressful moments, these individuals may have vastly different response. Some stressful moments may cause them to spiral into negative thoughts and feelings, and experience more drama than most people. Other stressful moments or emotional-laden situations, may cause them to “shut down” and blunt their emotions, as a self-protective strategy. They feel a lot of things that preoccupied individuals feel (see above) but often protect themselves by acting dismissive (see above). As adults, fearfully attached individuals may come across as being very defensive. Unlike dismissive individuals (who also possess a defensive nature), fearfully attached individuals are not able to suppress their emotions and may lash out as well as act in clingy and overdependent ways. 

What reinforces fearful tendencies? As with preoccupied tendencies, fearful tendencies may have a biological or genetic component. But certain experiences activate that biology, such as being with caregivers or close others who respond to the needs a child with fright, withdrawal, or in unpredictable and senseless ways. Although children are born with an instinctual need to seek care from adults, fearfully attached children were unsuccessful in finding a good strategy for making sense of their caregivers’ behaviors, and may view caregivers to be a source of both comfort and anxiety or stress. Fearful children are unable to develop consistent expectations about how their caregiver will react, and do not derive security from their caregivers to the same extent as secure children. As a coping mechanism, they may stop relying on parents or others for comfort or support, and show little preference for parents over strangers.

What about their approach to personal goals and accomplishments? Because they feel vulnerable around close others but also are preoccupied with relationships, fearful individuals may read into issues and often feel that they are not sufficiently appreciated. This causes them to less worthy of love than others – not as competent, likeable, and worthy of others’ esteem. They may internalize this as low self-esteem the way that preoccupied individuals do, or they may react by deriving their own self-worth without having to derive self-worth from others.

Is it all bad? Of course not. People ramp up avoidant responses or anxious responses when they have to (when those responses worked out for them). Some relationships are toxic and warrant insecurity, especially when partners are hurtful or neglectful, untrustworthy, disloyal, or uncaring. If fearful individuals have innate anxieties compounded by experiences with close others who “missed the mark”, they become adept at detecting dangerous situations and finding an exit plan. They are very smart and wise with respect to toxic relationships, and they become adept at weeding out others who are not ready for a committed and loving relationship.

How can fearful individuals learn to become more secure? Fearful individuals may be no more or less likely to change than other individuals. But the path that might benefit them most can tricky to figure out: It really depends on the person. Read more on how preoccupied individuals and dismissive individuals become more secure, and figure out what works for you or for your partner.