AVOIDANT TO SECURE ROADMAP: PART I
TRANSFORMING CORE BELIEFS
'"As long as I do not love myself then there must be something wrong with someone who loves me - and if someone doesn't love me than I have to prove I am worthy by winning that person back. On some level we are trying to earn the love of our unavailable parent(s) to prove to ourselves that we are worthy and lovable'"
“Self-sabotage is about bringing our external reality back in line with what we feel we inwardly deserve”
"We seek the love for things we don't really have. When we get it, the mismatch with our expectations feels unbearable."
"The past is no longer here"
At the centre of the transformation to secure attachment is learning to accept and love our true selves. Once we have accepted our inner selves we do not need to fear being truly seen by someone. We can accept that we need and deserve love and intimacy, and that it's ok for us to have it. But someone wanting to be close to us is too jarring while part of us believes we are unworthy. We instinctively believe we cannot live up to the task and so we must hurt them. We will move to create this output or otherwise just resist close relationships until we have addressed our own deeply held self-beliefs. How we treat people, and the treatment we feel comfortable accepting, is just a reflection of what we think we deserve. Until our internal dialogue supports us to believe we are worthy of good treatment, we may punish those who try to provide it. All research shows that it is ultimately our fear of being unworthy of connection that keeps us from that connection. People who have a strong sense of love and belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging. They then prioritise finding those who will make them feel that way, and do the same in return.
"When we are triggered to feel such anxieties, the cure isn’t to try to dispel anxieties with logic, it is to try to dispel it with love; it is to remind the anxious person (who may be ourselves) that we are not inherently wretched, that we have a right to exist, that past neglect wasn’t deserved, that we should feel tenderly towards oneself – and that we need, both metaphorically and probably practically too, a very long hug. The logic of this analysis is truly counter-intuitive. It suggests that when panic next descends, one should not spend too long on the surface causes of the worry and instead, try to address the self-hatred fuelling the agitation. Anxiety is not always anxiety: sometimes it is just a very well-disguised, entrenched and unfair habit of disliking who we are."
Therapy: the key ingredient
People with an avoidant attachment style usually hate the idea of getting help. But avoidant attachment stems from deep core wounds of inadequacy, abandonment and shame. No website is going to transform our sense of security in relationships. We are hurt by people, so we can only be healed by people. It’s one thing to read self help books all day, but to heal attachment, you gotta get dirty under the hood. It’s not your fault you didn’t have the opportunity to learn the skills of secure attachers, who learnt to trust the reliability of attachment figures and that feelings and needs are ok. But the first and indispensable step is to challenge the core limiting beliefs in a professional setting, otherwise it won't matter if you learn new behaviours (that said, once you've started on this journey head to Behavioural Strategies for some key changes you can make now!).
Everyone’s position is unique; if you are serious about rewiring these core beliefs, it is important to work on healing with a psychotherapist who specialises in adult attachment and dependency issues. Avoidants have blocked emotional memories and denied needs for attachment. A therapist with a good understanding of attachment can provide a reframe of our expectations and actions. Therapy is a process - a journey together. Seeing our thoughts and feelings through the eyes of a therapist can help pull the ship to a calmer emotional shore. But this requires being open and describing feelings, and sharply questioning stories and rationalisations. Rewiring attachment requires reliving it: verbally describing experience to allow it to come under conscious control, through a process of review and transformation that rethinks the past, and allows us to reattribute new meaning to our behaviours, and those of others - understanding, for example, that others' actions are usually not an intentional assault on you. Treatment involves dismantling defensive strategies by encouraging giving up the "false self" constructed to protect against rejection and vulnerability, and by fostering recognition of needs for closeness with others.
Be alert that the ingrained defence mechanisms of avoidant attachment will often look to thwart both self-awareness and psychotherapy (for example, avoidants are also often tempted to give up therapy fast because it is particularly painful to them, and with they inbuilt assumption they are 'not good enough' avoidants naturally fear they won't succeed) . Don’t expect a miracle when working with a therapist - it is hard work and takes time, sometimes years, but has real results. Find a therapist with whom you have a rapport, as trust is a necessary part of addressing past traumas. Within the therapeutic relationship itself, avoidants actually develop secure attachment (in a process known as transference, the unconscious redirection of the feelings a person has about their parents on to the therapist) - a trusted intimate relationship which then forms the basis for expanding new secure behaviours into other relationships.
Attachment is a messy experience and emotional healing requires having someone else grasp who you really are. A good therapist can assist you in in revealing your true self to a partner, and slough off the ill-fitted trappings of unsuitable lives, potentially changing your life path. Your healing will also require enrolling friends and family to talk about it with others, build internal understanding, and learn to trust in the safety of intimacy. It cannot be done alone.
1. Discover the source:
Understand your attachment history & reframe as the inner child
It's vital to understand our own attachment history and identify a coherent narrative, so we come to understand the source of our destructive thoughts and attitudes in the context of our earliest attachments. What were your experiences when you were younger, and how do you remember feeling? It might be difficult if you were very young to remember all the details that are stored in your implicit memory, but if you can recall and recognise situations that caused you a fear of closeness you can free your childhood self of responsibility for those losses, and realise that past doesn’t equal the present moment. We can begin to accept that how we feel is truly not our fault but something that happened to us as innocent children, to recognise our patterns, then separate from and start to challenge that critical inner voice. In doing so we replace self-criticism with self-compassion. A therapist will guide you through this process.
Especially if you have trouble fully accessing emotions (because they were suppressed to keep you safe when young), awakening you access to emotions begins with the important step of allowing yourself to recognise the things you did not receive in childhood, the times you were let down, and allowing yourself to fully feel your feelings for that in a therapeutic setting - sometimes for the first time - to be fully angry at your caregivers. In doing so we release the emotions we could not then so they do not continue to live in us as trauma, something "wrong" with us. This process of separation and release of emotions can be hard, because typically we love our parents and know often they did their very best. Attachment processes can often be very inadvertent, as parents attempt to manage their own intergenerational traumas. Because we were conditioned to feel bad for our difficult feelings in order to stay close to our caregivers and so feel safe, we might feel very guilty - and we will have to work to dispel that. This is an unmissable step in our healing, our access to our feelings and the development of a healthy self-esteem.
Once you have really understood where this is coming from, begun releasing your anger and sadness around it and so can start to appreciate it is not your fault, an important step is to then reframe that voice as the ongoing engulfment feelings of the inner child, to differentiate from the part feeling the fear, allowing separation and dialogue with that part. The inner child is the instinctual, emotional part of ourselves that developed early on and as logical adults we can be disconnected from. If we recognise the negative voice not as our adult self but simply the scared, vulnerable young version of us who didn't get all their needs met growing up and is trying to express that pain and finally be heard, we can look to really hear and soothe this child - in essence, to compassionately parent our frightened younger selves - in the way we missed out on when we were young, and so reprogram the mistakes of the past.
Your inner child yearns to be heard, and for some loving kindness in separation from the unhelpful words of the inner critic, who operates to keep your damaging core beliefs alive. If we have been unable to “be with” our pain—if we have inherited or developed adult identities that abandon, attack or criticise the parts of self that hurt—then unconsciously we continually reenact certain relationship patterns to force us back into opportunities to meet the pain, to meet the child in us, to finally witness it with different eyes, and to understand what that difference really means. It’s as if the child in us is saying, “This! Right here! This feeling right here—the emotions, the sensations in your body, the instinct to panic or disappear: THIS IS WHAT I FELT! For years! This was real. This happened. Nobody noticed. See me. Be with me. Meet me the way I’ve wanted to be met.”
When we feel these impulses we can engage in a dialogue with that resurfacing child as you might comfort a real one, such as "tell me how you feel," "I'm listening,""I hear you", "It's safe to express", "what are your concerns?", "you don't need to worry because...", "I know you are hurting", "you are loved," "your are safe," "you are accepted and wanted." Engaging in compassionate internal dialogue with this part gives the hurting child (or the old neural network) a compassionate internal witness—one that does not judge or overlook, is not threatened by any emotion, does not attack, pull away, pity, analyze, or try to fix. One that meets them with empathy and compassion to witness their pains and joys in the ways they always wished an other would. This approach provides the impetus for exploring new, more positive ways of relating, and eventually frees people to experience genuine loving feelings and real security in their intimate relationships. Self-compassion and acceptance is the fundamental foundation for our healing. Self-criticism and the absence of self-compassion is strongly linked to depression and anxiety, but self-compassion is associated with living a meaningful, connected and fulfilling life.
Here are some more exercises to rewire your brain.
Someone who has worked through avoidant attachment on their process:
“Look for your inner child - you can find them through statements you make to yourself and describing your feelings. Talk to them like they are a character on your journal or on your mind, find out how old they are, and let them voice themselves, ask them what they want and see if you can get that done for them. If no one else is with you, you can love them, don’t reject them as pain, embrace them, when they are healed you will be whole again. Give yourself at least 1–2 days a week to work with your inner child, (sometimes, several inner children depending on how traumatized you were). Then you can start to introduce your inner child as a character, or a part of you.
When someone says something to you, the most childish and direct answer that comes up in your mind is likely your inner child. Under a safe setting around loved ones, you can let the child out and just talk like one. It will be incredibly healing for you. Though I really recommend not doing this alone, (and knowing this type we WANT to do this ALONE). Step out, join a community, find someone who can help embrace your inner child with you, because sometimes it’s so hard doing it yourself, you need that extra help to heal the inner child. Nothing works faster than letting the child come out and hearing your loved one say “I accept you as you are” and “I am listening to you.” a hug or even “I’m sorry.” Because the inner child was left too long by themselves to begin with, they need that companionship.”
2. Identify & challenge limiting beliefs
The self beliefs you have create a story that keeps you stuck in a fear-based behavioural reaction pattern that causes you more pain and damages your relationships. Your reactions are simply fear-based efforts to avoid the pain of your core beliefs. You have been dodging, fighting and hiding from the pain that is inherent in your core beliefs. These behaviours make you feel a bit better in the moment, but you know they're not the answer because you're still in pain. In particular, self-esteem built on others, around 'being good,' is easy to destroy: just make a mistake and you’re not good, or worthy, anymore. For our own happiness, as well as the success of our relationships, we must come to believe the truth that we both inherently deserve love, and can be very capable of giving it. Thus if we encounter failure, make a mistake, or hit a problem we can see it not as an indictment of us, but just a setback to be worked through on our deserving road to happiness.
When someone is triggering to us it is usually revealing something important about our relationship to ourselves - ways we treat ourselves the things we don't allow that we have not yet owned. If we work on healing this, we can integrate ourselves back into wholeness and the triggers will naturally abate.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: how thoughts contribute to emotions
This is a form of talk therapy where you interact with a trained therapist, but it isn’t about your past. Instead, it focuses on the present and teaches you to recognize how you respond to stressors in your life and how you might change your responses in order to ease your distress. The basic principle is to pay close attention to notice the link between our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and then start to challenge the assumptions underpinning them. It allows you to identify and challenge unhealthy core beliefs, to find evidence contrary to the beliefs and gives you tools to replace it with realistic thought patterns. For example, it is important to recognise and find evidence that while you may have experienced love as painful in the past, there is no reason to believe it will be in the future and there are people who can be trusted to be close to you. Common CBT behavioral techniques then include scheduling activities for yourself that bring you enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment, planning ways to make the best use of your time, breaking down big, daunting tasks into smaller, more manageable ones, facing your fears gradually and systematically so they diminish.
CBT with a therapist is more effective than self-help, but self-directed CBT can be very effective too. This site isn't a resource for CBT but there are many online, and multiple options for doing CBT without a therapist, including self-help books and Internet-based treatment. One of the major goals of CBT is for you to "become your own therapist" by learning skills that you can continue to practice after you've ended treatment.
Be aware that a fear of not living up to imagined futures, and so an aversion to discussing such futures, is a natural projection of core beliefs that we are not good enough. This will make everything look bleak and us feel trapped. A future with someone begins to feel easier not by changing partners but as we start to believe more in ourselves. It is important to make peace with your worst case scenario in terms of intimacy and abandonment – would you rather experience all the benefits of opening yourself fully and have your worst case scenario happen, or live never experiencing that? If the worst happens, how would you be ok? Trust in yourself to be able to climb out of the challenges your life can bring. If your worst scenario happens you would still be ok and could move forward and heal. Think through in detail how you would adapt and be ok to reprogram your associations.
CBT Cognitive Techniques - Brief Overview
1. Learn to identify your thought patterns, and discover how your thoughts affect your feelings and behaviors.
"What am I thinking about?" What emotions am I struggling with that might be causing me to feel this way? What is the belief behind the assumptions I'm making?"
2, Determine if your thoughts are accurate and replace biased thoughts with more realistic ones..
"What’s the evidence for that thought? Are there any cold, hard facts that things will go poorly, or am I just speculating? Is there a more balanced appraisal?"
Examples of unconscious beliefs include:
Shame-induced unconscious beliefs:
I’m a failure
I’m not important
I don’t deserve to be happy
I’m a bad person
I’m a phony
Avoidant mental biases:
Generalisations - "I'm not cut out for relationships," "people can't be trusted," "the world is not a safe place"
Black & White Bias - "I knew she wasn’t the right one!"
Threats Bias - "He's controlling my life, I've got to stop it," "This probably isn't going to work out, I need to get out now"
Unfavourable Comparisons - "My ex would have never done that"
Malice Bias - "He’s obviously trying to annoy me"
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: focus on responding differently
People with an avoidant attachment style often don’t know how they should respond in emotional situations. Another important job a therapist can provide is to help you relearn how to react to one another in a healthy way. They can also help facilitate uncomfortable conversations with yourself and with loved ones about how you or they feel.
In contrast to CBT's focus on thoughts, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for example focuses on breaking down avoidant behaviours and helping a person place their energy into living a meaningful life (and being willing to experience whatever emotions arise as a result). Your core beliefs are powerful and have been with you for a long time - you can counter them and in time they may reduce, but unfortunately they can't just be eliminated. Nor can you avoid the situations where you might get triggered if you want to live a full life. But you can control your responses to those triggers. ACT recognises that pain is inherent to human experience. Pain related to our core beliefs isn't pain we can just overcome - because our core beliefs are formed from part of our earliest experiences, they are an enduring part of our individual experiences. While it is vital to challenge them, if you expect to just rid yourself of them, rather than accepting that they are part of your history, you are liable to disappoint and shame yourself further. ACT identifies primary pain as the unavoidable pain that is part of the human condition. Secondary pain is the pain we create when we try to avoid or control our primary pain. So rather than being focused on eliminating core beliefs or the pain that comes from them, ACT uses acceptance and mindfulness processes and commitment and behavior change processes, with the goal to learn to respond differently when core beliefs are triggered.
So accept that pain will emerge when your core beliefs get triggered, and focus on changing your behaviour in reaction to the flood of negative emotions you experience when triggered. Once you can accept that your attempts to stop the core-belief related painful emotions have only increased the suffering for you and the people you are close to, you can get rid of the ineffective and emotionally exhausting bag of tricks you used to combat them - they aren't needed anymore! Yes, negative thoughts will be there, but like a storm they will pass. Try to accept them like the sky accepts the changing weather.
Read this on ACT cognitive diffusion skills for negative thoughts and relationship OCD.
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder results from prolonged traumatic experiences over months or years where there is little chance of escape. PTSD is triggered in certain situations and means we have a stress response to events that somehow connect us to these elements of our past. As well as standard PTSD symptoms, CPTSD symptoms include lack of emotional regulation, negative self-perception, difficulty with relationships (avoiding people because of distrust, or seeking out people who harm us because it feels familiar), feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, suicidal feelings, feeling hostile towards the world, helplessness, attachment to a perpetrator, disassociative symptoms. At a higher level this can come from things like experiences in war and prolonged abuse, but at a lower level elements can occur from family situations and relationships where there have been persistent problems with boundaries and ignoring of our needs.
Core values - a motivation to change your behaviour
What will prevent you from slipping back into your familiar coping behaviours? When our core beliefs are triggered, the fear-based instinct to behave in ways that suppress them can be so powerful that it overrides our core values. By getting in touch with what your core values are and committing to live a value-drive life rather than a fear-driven one, you can stop yourself resorting to your old coping mechanisms. You can feel good that your responses are more in line with your values. For example, you might want to distinguish confidence from courage. Confidence in your own self-reliance gives an illusion. True courage is being willing to battle through the things you find most difficult.
3. Address guilt
Avoidants developed hyper-attunement to others as a survival strategy to avoid abandonment around somewhat neglectful caregivers (attuned to the parent's needs and feelings instead of, in a healthy parent-child bond, the other way around). This caused them to become less able to separate healthy sympathy for someone's situation from feelings of overwhelming personal responsibility. But because they also did not learn they could be be soothed by others, avoidants weren't always taught the skills of how to effectively comfort and support people and help resolve the emotions that created the potential for their guilt in the first place. Together these two characteristics create a fertile breeding ground for overwhelming, disempowering and paralysing guilt, which can stymie connection and relationships as well as leading to depression, anxiety, and long term physical health problems - so it is vital to work on.
Guilt holds us back from making choices. In a relationship, if your motivation comes from guilt you’re carrying around a heavy weight that you use to beat yourself up, that stops the focus on solving relationship challenges positively, putting it behind you and moving forward. You will have a hard time making decisions if you are unable to get past the feeling you owe someone something (even if it’s someone who isn’t currently in your life right now). If your motivation comes from shame, you cover up who you are. Shame comes from a feeling of not deserving because we’re inherently unworthy; we fear we have some fatal flaw. So no one gets to know the real you; they only get the presentation. And if one of those nasty disowned parts unexpectedly pops out, it creates more shame to swim in. You are therefore looking for acceptance from someone who does not know the real you, keeping you in a never-ending battle for validation. Both guilt and shame make us beat ourselves up because we feel we don’t deserve good things, or that we must be punished. They keep us stuck in the reward/punishment cycle, diminish our self-worth and allow no room for us to be human. With low self-esteem avoidants can also expect to be guilted by people because they feel innately bad. And if a partner senses we cannot respond constructively to difficult things they may avoid saying how they feel for fear our guilt would push them further away, rather than simply resulting in positive action. This is ultimately dangerous for relationships and risks putting the responsibility for managing our guilt onto our partners, so we need to learn how to address it healthily!
First, take time to understand where your predisposition towards guilt comes from, so you can separate your past defence mechanisms from your present needs (for info on the source and repetition of chronic guilt, read the section on the Cycle of Guilt on the Individual Characteristics page if you haven't yet). Then master the skills to respond constructively to it:
9 Steps to Deal with Guilt
1. Explore your feelings of guilt non-judgementally
Self-enquire, don't judge. Ask yourself without judgement why you made those decisions in the first place: "how was I hurting and what need was I trying to get met?" "Is it reasonable to feel guilty about this?" Were there factors involved that were out of your control? Did you do what you felt was best at the time? How do you see your actions differently today? Really dig into the root of the problem to find solutions, consider whether the guilt is proportionate (keeping in mind your boundaries - we can't be completely responsible for how someone else feels), then look forward in terms of action, and what you could do to resolve things. This will help you take the right lessons and move forward positively with that information. Don't dwell on the past and avoid replaying over and over - once you feel you have explored and fully understood what was going on, refocus your attention on something more positive.
Keep a guilt journal so you can see how much it is showing up in your life, and how it is affecting you. This will make you alert to your unhealthy patterns and the thoughts that trigger them, and able to take a more objective view on their rationality.
3. Remember the source and reprogram beliefs
When your guilt is triggered, remember that it may be a survival adaptation of being hyper-attuned to others that no longer needs to dominate. Reprogram your core beliefs about being selfish for prioritising your own feelings and needs, so you aren't tempted to self-sacrifice and overstep your boundaries, which will breed resentment and more guilt-inducing behaviour in a never-ending cycle. Recognise any unrealistic expectations - most of us have a set of unconscious rules hovering in the back of our minds about how we expect ourselves to behave. But those rules, many of which we absorbed in childhood rather than actually thought about, are not always realistic. And challenge negative self-talk ("I am a bad person", "I will always hurt people" etc) with counter-examples and action plans for how this will not be the case. Remember that negative self-talk can be a strange comforter because it conforms to our worldview and we are used to it - it is hard work to constantly counter it - but that ultimately letting the old program run is encouraging us away from action and positive change that will make us happier. Challenge your inner critic.
4. Recognise guilt may actually be more comfortable than the alternative, and counter this
Guilt actually gives a sense of comfort and security because it is a survival adaptation that protects us from the fear of abandonment. It can be more painful to do the thing that you know you should be doing, such as trying to right a wrong, than it is to do nothing at all. Feeling guilty is actually the easy way out of the situation. It might not feel great, but it’s less painful than the alternative. At least it’s somewhat comfortable, and you feel better because you at least have a sense of taking responsibility for not taking action. For avoidants in particular, guilt is a familiar learned feeling. While unpleasant, this sensation and confirmation of our negative beliefs provides a sense of comfortable familiarity that is often subconsciously preferred to the unfamiliar and scary discomfort of engaging head-on with someone else's emotions. But productive guilt is only useful in as much as it encourages us take action to fix things and change our behaviours. So question - are you feeling guilty rather than acting? And don't hide behind guilt as a reason not to do these things - instead simply translate it into proactive questions about what you can do going forward, and action them.
Earn your forgiveness. There are several steps involved in forgiveness, including acknowledging the hurt you have caused by taking time to ask, hold and sympathise with the emotions of how someone else feels, taking responsibility for your actions, apologising, and making amends. You can apologise to anyone who may have been hurt by your actions, and do what it takes to make things right. Finally, vow to move forward, and make it happen. It's important for us to acknowledge our role in hurting another - for the pain to be acknowledged, and to be held accountable - for both to successfully move past it. So face up to what you have done, even if time has passed. Apologise sincerely once, and offer your help to fix things. Apologies need explanation of why something happened for those on the receiving end to feel reassured it won't happen again and that it is worth investing in your connection once more (even if this amounts to nothing more than thinking well of you). If in doubt, ask what you can do. If the other person takes-up your offer, then great. If not, then at least you will have the peace of mind knowing that you reached out sincerely and tried to make things right (see part 2 for the art of effective apologies!). This can free you from lasting guilt. You are not beholden to them forever and if they choose not to accept it, it's then on them. If you do this after a long time, that can still be ok. People would often rather hear an apology and have the opportunity to make peace than nothing at all, and can greatly appreciate the gesture. If you feel it really has been too long and might cause affront, you can find ways to earn your own forgiveness by channelling things you have learnt from the experience into your life now.
6. Create strategies and take action
Don't sit in the guilt - just work out what you can do about it! Write down what your needs are from others, and start creating strategies for how to get those needs met - recognising it is ok to be vulnerable and to ask for help. This will stop you self-sacrificing and then being more likely to do things that motivate guilt again. And if you do something wrong, look forward about how to fix it, not backwards. Accept that the past can't be changed, accept how you are feeling, and then move to a solution-focused framework, drawing up an action plan for any of the things you've been feeling guilty about. Make a list of the things you feel most guilty about, and come up with actionable strategies you can address each with - start taking control to influence things positively: "what can I do to improve this situation?" "how will I begin?" "what is in my control?" "what is a positive I can I take from this?" "how can I do things differently next time?" "how will this help me to avoid feeling guilty?" Become well-versed in how to effectively empathise with, comfort and support someone (some first tips on the Behavioural Strategies page) so you have a reliable, actionable way of connecting with them over guilt. And do good rather than feel bad. Not only will you forgive yourself, but doing so will turn your life around in ways that you can only imagine.
Be open about how you are feeling with your partner, friends and family, even if you are feeling ashamed or regretful - they may be able to give a new perspective. It is not your job to shoulder everything alone. And one of the best ways to help you manage our own guilt can be to help someone else with theirs. The act of helping another person overcome their guilt can provide you with the experience and knowledge you need to work through those feelings yourself.
8. Forgive yourself and others
If you find that forgiving yourself is difficult, try to earn your forgiveness by practising the steps above, including writing out a meaningful apology to yourself. And don't guilt yourself for guilt itself! Try the Buddhist meditation on forgiveness, which can be practised at any time:
"If I have hurt or harmed anyone, knowingly or unknowingly, I ask forgiveness. If anyone has hurt or harmed me, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive them. For the ways I have hurt myself, knowingly or unknowingly, I offer forgiveness."
However it should be noted forgiving others is not necessary where there has been true malevolence towards us (taking pleasure in someone's pain). There can be need to understand, and to accept, and to hold the wrongdoer accountable, if even by laying the blame where it ought to be in conversation with a therapist or friend; there is need to grieve the idea of what could or should have been; there is need to love the younger self who has endured the hardship; and there is need to make a plan to move forward; in this way we can learn from such encounters and move on.
9. Aim for progress, not perfection
The need to perfectly control outcomes or do exactly the right thing can get in the way of taking any action at all. Be alert to your perfectionism and that perfectionism can be the enemy of progress. Better to do something than nothing. Be kind to yourself and know this will take time and effort - unfortunately we can't just magic guilt away. The thing that matters is just is to be trying. If this whole process seems easier said than done, use self-compassion exercises to guide you through the healing process. Try this exercise to help heal shame and lead to self-forgiveness.
4. Build your self-esteem
Improving our life will ultimately come from learning to like ourselves, not from external fixes. Self-forgiveness provides a fresh start. Once you're no longer bogged down by the pain of the past, you can work on building yourself up. You likely have years of experience with negative self-talk, shame, and criticism, which as well as hurting you can get in the way of moving forward with your life, so it's time to turn things around. Research also shows that people with higher self-esteem have more satisfaction in relationships. Here are some practical ways to build self-esteem and help yourself create a secure attachment style (also check out Build Anti-Fragile Ego):
1. Make yourself a priority
People with low self-esteem tend to neglect themselves. They can ignore their health, hygiene, and emotional wellbeing because they don't feel worthy of self-care or self-compassion. If you're in the habit of neglecting your personal needs and desires, make a list of the things you've neglected. Do you need to go to the dentist? Are you feeding yourself nutritious, delicious foods? Would you like to give up drinking or smoking? Once you have a list, commit to tackling these problems one by one, and practice self-compassion when you find yourself falling into old patterns.
2. Practise positive self-talk
People who are naturally secure and self-confident have an uplifting inner dialogue. For individuals who have spent their lives filled with negative self-talk and shame, this process can seem uncomfortable and daunting, but it's worth the effort. The key is to treat yourself as you would a friend, to imagine what you would say to soothe them when they have doubts or worries and to say it to yourself. You already have all the skills to do this. You could compliment yourself while looking in the mirror and/or keep a list of your accomplishments. When negative thoughts creep up, identify it as the vulnerable inner child of your past who needs protection and support from the adult you, and make a conscious effort to combat those thoughts with positivity. For example, you may think, "I can't do anything right." Reply by stating, "That isn't true; I'm great at a lot of things, including ______ and ________." The goal is to become your own cheerleader. By fighting off negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, you'll build self-esteem and begin to create a secure attachment style that will allow you to trust yourself and others. Try these exercises:
Use positive affirmations correctly. Positive affirmations such as “I am going to be a great success!” are extremely popular, but they have one critical problem — they tend to make people with low self-worth feel worse about themselves. Why? Because when our self-esteem is low, such declarations are simply too contrary to our existing beliefs. Ironically, positive affirmations do work for one subset of people — those whose self-esteem is already high. For affirmations to work when your self-esteem is lagging, tweak them to make them more believable. For example, change “I’m going to be a great success!” to “I’m going to persevere until I succeed!”
The three compliments journal: This exercise is included in a great self-esteem building article authored by the Enlightenment Portal. All you have to do is jot down three compliments to yourself in a notebook each morning. Looking in the mirror can be part of the ritual, but if this practice seems awkward or uncomfortable, a mirror isn't required. The goal here is to acknowledge your positive attributes on a regular basis. This practice will help you see yourself in a more positive light.
Affirm your worth after setbacks.The following exercise has been demonstrated to help revive your self-esteem after it sustained a blow: Make a list of qualities you have that are meaningful in the specific context. For example, if you got rejected by your date, list qualities that make you a good relationship prospect (for example, being loyal or emotionally available); if you failed to get a work promotion, list qualities that make you a valuable employee (you have a strong work ethic or are responsible). Then choose one of the items on your list and write a brief essay (one to two paragraphs) about why the quality is valuable and likely to be appreciated by other people in the future. Do the exercise every day for a week or whenever you need a self-esteem boost.
3. Identify your competencies and develop them
Do more of what you love, and things that give you confidence. Develop your skills. Self-esteem is built by demonstrating real ability and achievement in areas of our lives that matter to us. If you pride yourself on being a good cook, throw more dinner parties. If you’re a good runner, sign up for races and train for them. In short, figure out your core competencies and find opportunities and careers that accentuate them.
4. Set yourself a challenge
We all feel nervous or afraid to do things at times. But people with healthy self-esteem don't let these feelings stop them trying new things or taking on challenges. Set yourself a goal, such as joining an exercise class or going to a social occasion. Achieving your goals will help to increase your self-esteem. Try a new hobby: part of learning to value yourself is finding activities you love and pursuing them wholeheartedly.
5. Start saying 'no'
People with low self-esteem often feel they have to say yes to other people, even when they don't really want to. The risk is that you become overburdened, resentful, angry and depressed. For the most part, saying no doesn't upset relationships. It can be helpful to keep saying no in different ways until they get the message.
6. Acknowledge successes and accept compliments
Often people with low self-esteem will dismiss their successes as luck or chance. Or they might focus on not being perfect rather than highlighting how far they have come. People with high self-esteem take the time to celebrate their accomplishments. They say, “Thank you,” when people compliment them, rather than dismissing their praise. This doesn’t mean that people with high-self esteem are arrogant or narcissistic; they just have faith in their abilities and acknowledge successes when they do happen. One of the trickiest aspects of improving self-esteem is that when we feel bad about ourselves we tend to be more resistant to compliments — even though that is when we most need them. So, set yourself the goal to tolerate compliments when you receive them, even if they make you uncomfortable (and they will). The best way to avoid the reflexive reactions of batting away compliments is to prepare simple set responses and train yourself to use them automatically whenever you get good feedback (e.g., “Thank you” or “How kind of you to say”). In time, the impulse to deny or rebuff compliments will fade — which will also be a nice indication your self-esteem is getting stronger.
7. Build positive relationships
We reprogram our expectations of whether our needs are met by recalibrating all the relationships around us. So start actively and unapologetically asserting your needs in all your friendships, and be mindful of who you spend your time with and how they behave to you. Be very conscious of situations where you may have to play a role, always cater to others, or not be yourself or express your needs. Seek out relationships with people who are positive and who appreciate you. Spend time with people who are interested in you, respect your needs and give you space to discover them, encourage you to express yourself, build you up and make you feel good about yourself, not those who overlook your needs or value, or cut you down. Distance yourself from any “toxic people” who tend to ignore your contribution, don't behave supportively or make you feel your needs aren't always worth recognising.
8. Stop comparing yourself
If we easily feel insecure compared to others, then as well as being horrible for us personally it can be harder to be there for them and build people up. But your own life should be the yardstick rather than others’ lives, because what is your best may not be someone else’s, and vice versa. How are you improving from previous versions of you? Remind yourself that any time you make an improvement or prevent yourself from repeating a mistake, you are making progress.
A core element to work on in therapy for people from enmeshed backgrounds (see the Origins page - can be less for those from neglect) is individuation. This refers to the process through which a person achieves a sense of individuality separate from the identities of others, so they can confidently pursue their own life path and learn to assert their sense of self within the family unit. Avoidants may not have individuated from their situation of origin (family/friends), separating, focusing on their own goals instead of serving their family's, and building new individual paths and connections, which leads to a lack of confidence in one's own choices and a degree of adult infantilisation. Without asserting new boundaries, these very situations avoidants cling to for safety can be the ones further entrenching our avoidant behaviours. In enmeshed families it may be impossible to know whether you’re living your own life or simply pleasing everyone around you. Individuation creates a well-established line in the sand, and boundaries communicate, “this is what I believe and what my needs are.” Learning to get used to sitting in the discomfort of not people-pleasing is a process. But ultimately this reduces the avoidant fear of engulfment, which stems from a belief that if we get too close to someone we will lose ourselves or our identity.
So be mindful that individuation may be the opposite of what you want to do, because in situations of enmeshment inherent self-esteem has been replaced by self-esteem through our parentifying role in our family: "Avoidants can grow up feeling very good about themselves in their role in the family of origin because they feel special to have a role taking care of one or both parents. They learn that to be connected means they get to be the High Power to someone else, and yet it also means to be drained." Because the long term impact and the way it affects your other relationships may not be immediately obvious, on the surface you may feel it is what makes you feel good!
Therapy can help people who are attempting to successfully individuate by helping them work through their concerns while allowing for the expression of aspects of the self that may not be acknowledged in other settings. A therapist can provide support as people work toward being better able to set healthy boundaries, communicate assertively, and develop other skills that allow for the expression of personal identity. Time exploring you own identity and goals away from those you are most enmeshed with, solo trips, signing up to things with new communities and separate self-discovering activities can also help.
Remember that as a child you may not have had control of the role you played in your family, but as an adult you do, and it is never too late to recalibrate the relationship. Depending on the situation this does not have to mean separating from or upsetting your family, although it may be required. It means first simply becoming alert to how you might be subjugating your own needs around your family, then to practise gradually starting to identify and claim these needs, establishing an new, healthier dynamic. This shouldn't mean losing your family - in childhood our greatest fear which programmed an aversion to trying to change things. It simply means lovingly adjusting the ways we interact, which can be done in small ways, to make sure we unashamedly assert our preferences so no more lose ourselves (it will feel uncomfortable - always reminding ourselves these preferences are valid as we do), and finally coming to the relationship as adults equally respecting each other's needs. A truly loving family want you to be healthy and happy. They should ultimately respect you showing them what you need, and everyone benefit from a healthier dynamic.
“Over and over, I see clients who didn't individuate from their family of origin. Until a person has individuated, it is nearly impossible for them to have a healthy romantic relationship. It’s a real tragedy when people forgo the opportunity for real joy to please their family. More often than not, they look back at the end of their life with regret that they didn’t take more risks and speak their truth.
Families often provide tremendous resistance. But this is not a reason to stop moving ahead. In fact, it may be indicative that the adult child is now on the right path. Individuation can bring up a host of negative feelings—hurt, anger, sadness, and betrayal. While the initial process can be sad or messy, there's also the potential for a better relationship on the other side. You no longer need to fight to assert your independence. You don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to your family’s opinions. You have the emotional distance to enjoy them as regular people. Once you individuate, you silence the critics. Their opinions no longer matter. When outside forces are silenced, the inner critic quiets, too. From there, you can step into your power for real productivity and personal fulfilment. Best friends—the kind that form the basis of strong romantic partnerships—are not interchangeable. If you’re lucky enough to find love in this life, embrace it boldly and tend to it with full consciousness.”
The Paradox of Therapy for Avoidants
Patients who are primarily dismissing (avoidant) of attachment demonstrate significant defensiveness in therapy, along with a tendency to view themselves as independent, strong, and self-sufficient. Paradoxically, such patients present as highly help-rejecting, defensive and minimising, despite concurrent expressions of need for treatment and high levels of symptomatic distress. Horowitz (1976, 2001) described the appearance of denial and general emotional numbness that follow traumatic events for many such patients. Despite psychological vulnerability from trauma, the individual puts forth significant defensive efforts to maintain a view of self as strong, independent, and normal.
These opposing factors converge so as to put the patient— indeed, the therapist as well—into a dilemma. Considering and talking about traumatic events flies in the face of defensive avoidance. Yet, failing to recognize one’s own history flies in the face of reality. In treatment, empathic statements recognizing how difficult or painful a particular experience must have been for the individual are met with cool, cavalier denial. But for the therapist, keeping things light would be complicit in the act of minimizing traumatic events and failing to provide the patient with a psychologically safe environment within which to explore painful experiences. Consequently, such patients have considerable difficulty engaging in the psychotherapy process. They possess a combination of characteristics that make therapy necessary but at the same time highly threatening.
Deactivation, a central defensive characteristic of dismissing attachment, has as its goal to shift the individual’s attention away from those feelings, situations, or memories that arouse the attachment system. It enables the person to diminish, minimize, or devalue the importance of attachment stimuli. Individuals who are dismissing of attachment put considerable psychological effort into closing off discussion of threatening issues. Unless challenged, such issues will likely remain closed off.
In the case in which the patient is speaking of a traumatic event, particularly one that is attachment related, the tendency is to minimize the meaning of negative life experiences, which may also be accomplished by putting a positive ending on an otherwise negative story, without much awareness of the resulting incoherence of the overall story. Other important characteristics include the tendency to perceive and present themselves as strong, normal, self-reliant, and independent; the tendency to idealize one or both parents, such that the characterizations of the parent in question come across as far more positive or glowing than the recalled events actually warrant; a tendency to have a weak memory for childhood, such that large blocks of time are unaccounted for or traumatic events are glossed over, forgotten about, blocked, or perceived as unnecessary to dwell on; and the tendency to seek therapy only for symptom-based reasons.
But unless the attachment system is activated in treatment, it is impossible to reappraise or restructure mental representations of self or other. The consequence would be an indefinite circling around disquieting topics without addressing them substantively.
Research has pointed to significant health and mental health-related consequences associated with defensive avoidance and has indicated that the defensive process of deactivation is highly effortful and prone to breakdown in the face of high stress in general and attachment-related distress in particular. Active suppression away from issues that activate the attachment system requires considerable effort and anxiety. Deactivation may work adequately as a defence when demands are minimal. However, in more psychologically demanding contexts, such as stressful life events (e.g., illness), or during periods of developmental shift (e.g., birth of a child), dismissing defenses can become incapacitated. As well as being prone to breakdown under high stress, deactivating coping patterns (e.g., ignoring, distancing, and not seeking social support) favoured by dismissing patients are associated with significant health and mental health–related costs (depression & negative wellbeing associations, association with cardio-vascular disease, high blood pressure, psychological pathologies etc). Thus, helping patients build healthier coping patterns may yield tangible, meaningful benefits.
Treatment approaches should run counter to the defensive strategy favoured by such patients, that is, an approach that is activating of the attachment system, one that turns the patient’s attention toward attachment-related experiences and challenges defensive avoidance. An approach that is challenging of defensive avoidance disconfirms patient expectations and perceptions. The process of examining themes suggestive of vulnerability may yield feelings such as anger toward the therapist, especially early in treatment. After all, the individual’s attention is being turned toward uncomfortable emotional needs. However, such transference reactions may also present an opportunity to explore the experience of appearing vulnerable and weak in the presence of an important other. Vulnerability is a basic prerequisite for intimacy. Without such challenge, the psychotherapist runs the risk of colluding with avoidant coping patterns that may evade distress in the short run yet turn out to be ineffective over time.
Addressing the “I’m-No-Victim” Identity
One of the challenges in working with this population is related to the strong contrast between the traumatic events that have ostensibly touched these people’s lives and the usual ways in which they view themselves. Commonly recognized trauma-related language is very off-putting. Trauma, abuse, and victim all conjure up images of weakness and vulnerability, and affective states associated with trauma, such as grief, disappointment, despair, and ambivalence, are very uncomfortable and are inconsistent with the dominant identity such patients work so hard to construct.Keeping these two worlds separate requires a process of splitting information along two separate story lines. Such cognitive disconnection keeps a very real and important aspect of these people’s lives separate and unexamined.
Not only do such patients put forth efforts to suppress painful stories and their emotional meanings, but many also communicate unapologetically harsh attitudes toward other victims, including a strong tendency to blame victims, when they learn of others’ traumatic experiences. This is reflected in an ideology that dismisses psychological causation and assumes that victims should just get over it. The conspicuously harsh language used in reference to other victims leads the clinician to wonder just how harsh the self-criticism would be if the patient were to view him- or herself as the victim. By keeping up a self-image of strength and normality (as opposed to that of a victim), they can protect themselves from both the vulnerability connected to having been victimized and the criticism that may be applied to them for any perceived role they may have played in their victimization. Equally as compelling, they protect the represented attachment relationship from the destabilization it would suffer if the individual were to view him- or herself as victim of the very parent she or he idealizes.
Using symptoms as motivators
For such patients, the decision to start psychotherapy is often linked to a period of defensive breakdown, wherein coping resources are overextended. Initially, the presence of symptoms and the wish to make them disappear can be highly motivating and can provide a buy-in to therapy. Given the tendency toward competence and self-reliance, such patients feel considerable disappointment in themselves for becoming symptomatic. When defenses no longer work effectively and they become symptomatic, they find themselves shocked that they are no longer holding it together as they used to, asking them- selves, “Why can’t I handle things anymore?” Their current symptomatic state is inconsistent with their proclaimed self-image. So they become disillusioned. There is a sense of failure and shame for having fallen apart or self-directed anger for being so needy, along with a desire to figure out how to protect themselves from falling apart in the future. For one such patient, who saw herself as “tough and level-headed,” her unmanageable feelings surrounding an inexplicable, out-of- character, 3-month drinking binge reportedly made her feel a sense of outrage and anger at herself and served as a motivator to seek therapy. However, early on in treatment, it is important to help the patient make a shift toward a position in which the psychotherapy starts to be important to him or her on a deeper level, one in which the person begins to experience a more meaningful connection to the process. If the individual’s motivation for psychotherapy stays at the level of simple symptom relief, she or he may become disillusioned with the process and terminate treatment prematurely.
To address this issue, the therapist can make use of the symptomatic presentation to help such patients find a much more meaningful connection to psychotherapy. One way is to draw a connection between symptoms and attachment-related issues. The therapist may ask about relationship- based themes in the initial pattern of symptom presentation. Doing so helps the patient recast symptom-based problems and goals into attachment-related ones. For example, the individual who allows him- or herself to make the shift from viewing the problem as depression and loneliness to that of self-isolation or keeping people at arms’ length is far more likely to find psychotherapy meaningful.
Asking activating questions around caregiving and protection
Activation of caregiving mental representations and questioning around themes of protecting others can be clinically productive. The victim orientation, so distasteful to such patients, assumes passivity. In contrast, protecting others is reflective of the capacity to act and the wish to make things better. As presented earlier, such patients have tremendous difficulty engaging in honest critique of their own parents. Instead, they deny feelings of rejection or vulnerability and minimize the failure of their own parents to provide adequate protection. Nevertheless, they are more willing to engage in discussion regarding the protection of others, such as romantic partners, their own children, or their own imagined future children. The act of thinking about protecting others is one in which such patients are willing to engage, and do so much more readily than the act of thinking about their own failed protection. Once mental representations of caregiving have been activated and discourse on the act of protecting others has been opened up, such patients can more easily tolerate activation of the attachment system, and there becomes some softening to the idea of looking inward.