Anxious Avoidant Attachment (Part 1)

Attachment styles can help us better understand our relationships with others and even within ourselves. They help us introspect on our actions and behaviors in our social interactions with others. Our attachment styles were formed during our childhood based on our relationships with our caregivers – how attentive they are, if they met our needs, and if they made us feel that they would be available when we need them. There are four different types of attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant. Any attachment style that isn’t “secure” is known as “insecure” attachment. I am not going to give a whole rundown of attachment theory, but you can read more about it here.

My attachment style is anxious-avoidant attachment aka disorganized attachment, and honestly, it is what the name says. One of the difficulties of having this type of attachment style is the paradoxical nature of what it means. For the anxious portion, I need constant validation and reassurance because I am overwhelmed with the possibility of abandonment. On the flip side, avoidance portion tells me not to get close to others because it will end in rejection. So the bottom line is fear, but also contradicting wants of intimacy and fear of getting it and losing it or being denied it all-together.

This attachment affects my behavior, and I can come across as needy and clingy and/or aloof any given time to the same individual which is hard in any interpersonal relationship. I see the attachment style “side effects” as I’ll call them more in romantic relationships, but it also affects friendships and familial relationships as well. Of course, I have exhibited secure attachment with some people, but for me, that really depends on the person because the very basis of secure attachment is trusting that the person will not leave me.

So where do I start in explaining what the experience is like with this attachment style? I guess I can start with childhood because as I mentioned earlier, our attachment style forms during our early childhood based on our sense of security with our caregivers. There is also assumptions of neglect and abuse in childhood that could contribute to the development of anxious-avoidant attachment. This would probably explain my attachment style quite well. I didn’t have a consistent caregiver and I went through childhood trauma… not sure if I could really call it neglect and abuse, but some might.  I will include a trigger warning here as I continue on with my story in case you find this a sensitive topic. I wouldn’t want to re-traumatize or trigger you.

*** Trigger Warning: Contains anecdotes of childhood trauma and abuse***

My parents were recent immigrants to America when I was conceived and birthed. They had two other children and a newborn to provide for, so they had to work… a lot. This meant I spent significantly less time with my parents (as far as I can recall) than with other people in my life. If you asked me who my primary caregiver during my early childhood was, I truthfully could not tell you. I know my sister played a large role in caring for me, two of my aunts, and maybe daycare? I mean those are the most prominent figures I remember. Not to say my parents were never around, but I did not spend nearly as much time with them as the others because they would be home late or infrequently.

For most of my life my dad worked far from home and would only come home once a week, and I’m pretty sure that was the case in my early childhood too. I don’t remember him ever being home on a daily basis that wasn’t because he was between jobs. So I only ever saw my dad once a week, and he would usually run errands and visit my aunt. The day he was home I was in his care. I don’t have the best relationship with my dad now, but when I was a child we got along pretty well. He favored me much more than my siblings, but our relationship has always been unstable.

My dad isn’t great with emotional regulation, and the emotion that comes out most is anger. As a child, Dad being angry meant someone was going to get his with his belt and it wouldn’t be intentional punishment where it’s like one or two soft-ish hits. It meant he was going to wail on us until he calmed down. The person on the receiving end of his anger was my brother and I witnessed a lot of that happening, but I also wasn’t immune to it. There’s a reason why I don’t wear belts and I still get anxious when belts are around. So basically, when my dad was angry and any of us either triggered it or were around for it and said something he would turn on us and project it to us. There were many times when I ran away or tried to and that was always the wrong move because I would be dragged back and hit harder. The worst part of it was that it wasn’t like he went and got a spare belt to use. He would literally unbuckle the one he had on and fold it in half and swing. He didn’t care where he hit as long as he made contact. So I’m pretty sure this is where the avoidant in the anxious-avoidant style developed.

My dad wasn’t a safe space because I didn’t know when his switch would flip and I would be the one subject to the belt. Sure, he treated me well, bought me stuff I liked, and cooked my favorite foods, but I was on edge and wary, anticipating potential misstep and accompanying punishment. Coupled with only seeing and spending time with him once a week, it didn’t make sense to put myself in a position to be attached, so distance made sense. Even thought I saw and interacted with him significantly less than others who took care of me, there is cultural emphasis on how important parents are, so even the little bit of contact made big impact.

So if my dad contributed to the avoidant style of attachment, where did the anxious come from? My mom. As I said, I didn’t have a constant caregiver, so I wasn’t ever sure who if anyone was going to stick around. This was way more obvious when it came to my mom. I was very clingy as a child. On her days off, I would go with her to get groceries and be around her when she did the house chores. I bathed with her and slept in her bed. I was very attached. But my mom has the tendency to slip away without letting me know, so there’s the abandonment.

My mom wouldn’t wake me up to let me know she was going to work, so I would wake up in my parents’ bed and she was gone. My mom dropped me off at day care and my sister picked me up, except one time when they had an argument and my mom picked me up late after everyone already left. Let me tell you, I felt like an orphan for a minute there because I really did not know if anyone was going to come get me. My mom did reassure me over her friend’s cell phone they were on their way, but I don’t know that I fully believed it. I recall also being very reluctant to let my mom leave the first day of kindergarten when she dropped me off. I bawled and cried and begged her to stay, and she removed my hands from her and told me to go inside while she quickly escaped through the throngs of other parents and children. However, the most jarring memory I have is when my mom was invited to a wedding banquet.

My mom had a lot of work friends who invited her to many weddings and each time I wanted to go she would tell me she would bring me next time. I noticed the red invitation envelope each time she brought one home and I perked up, only to be denied again. This one time though, I was determined to go. I wouldn’t leave her alone to get ready. I am persistent and I was even as a child, so I would not let up and I think I may have tried to get dressed myself, and crying and having a whole episode of begging her to bring me with her. She got dressed despite my behavior and was worried she was running late because she would be going together with her friends. I think I may have actually hugged her to stay with her at some point, the ultimate level of clingy. Tired of my antics and not knowing how to get me to stop, she tried bribing me with a bunch of stuff and I said no (told you, persistent), she enlisted the help of my siblings to distract me. My brother and my sister did their job, they lured me into playing cards with them because why wouldn’t I want to play with my cooler older siblings. It made me feel grown and it was always a good time when we played together.

I was distracted enough to let my mom finish up getting ready, but when she went leave I ran after her. I think she made a comment about me needing socks or shoes or something, so I went to get them. Meanwhile, she instructed my siblings to lock the door so I couldn’t go to the hallway and follow her. I was tall enough and knew how to open the bottom lock which was just to turn the little knob thing, so they also used the chain lock. We didn’t use the chain lock unless it was nighttime and everyone was home. My siblings blocked me from the door as I tried to get out. They realized I couldn’t actually do anything, so they let me open the bottom lock and look through the crack of the door. I screamed and cried for my mom. I still heard her too because she had gone upstairs to meet up with both of my aunts who lived upstairs to head out. I was ignored and unacknowledged.

I tried jumping to unlock the chain lock and it didn’t work. Then I had the idea to get a chair to use, but my brother blocked me from getting one. It wasn’t until we all heard my mom and aunt leave that they let me get a chair and let myself out. I ran upstairs and opened the outside door, but my mom was already gone. I didn’t see her on our block anymore. I cried so hard and went back down to my floor of the house (we lived in a three-family home) in defeat. I was still crying, but I wasn’t bawling anymore. I was trying to self soothe but feeling left behind and I was so upset and angry that they did that to me. That my mom would sneak away, and my siblings would help trap me. But yeah, that’s a very powerful memory for me (a “core memory” if you will, courtesy of Disney’s Inside Out). And it makes sense that this is where the fear of abandonment and anxious attachment came from.

Basically, my attachment style was shaped by my relationships with my parents at an early age, under five years old because I hadn’t started kindergarten yet when most of these incidents happened. But to think, something so long ago still affects me today at 30 is mind-boggling.  I have made many strides to work on my anxious-avoidant attachment style and correcting it to a more secure one. I figured if my parents could shape the attachment style I have, then I can probably reshape it too. But it’s a long arduous journey and several lost relationships along the way, which I will talk about in a later post. After all, this is part 1.

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