It can be hard to tell someone's attachment style until you know them very well. Attachment triggers are only activated in close relationships, and avoidant types in particular tend to hold their cards close to their chest. But they will have a number of common individual traits. Attachment styles exist on a spectrum; we all have them to different degrees. The characteristics on this site are for someone who registers as strongly avoidant.
1. DIFFICULTY ACCESSING EMOTIONS
People with an avoidant attachment style had to learn early on to suppress their feelings, sacrificing their needs for those around them. Their emotions were neglected, so they felt rejected to the extent feelings felt unsafe and were pushed down as a survival strategy. By adulthood emotional repression has become so instinctive and unconscious it means they can find it hard to understand their own feelings, or even to feel them. They are not very good at expressing their needs because they’re not always aware of them, and learned not to expect them to be recognised, so they don't feel able to ask - consequently, these needs tend to surface through behaviours.
Avoidant types usually have difficulty recognising what their feelings and needs are in real time until they become very strong, so some are not good at setting their boundaries on a daily basis, although they can be quite abrupt with them when they're aware. Anger and irritation are often the main emotions they experience. Feelings of anxiety can be labelled as irritation and annoyance. When asked how they feel about something they will usually respond logically, in terms of things they think. They can struggle to experience and express positive feelings and find it hard to give praise or compliments. Deep feelings make them uncomfortable. It’s rare for someone with an avoidant style to talk to their friends about their deepest feelings, because it would make them feel vulnerable to the pain it gave them in childhood - they feel safer with a sense of independence. As a result, their significant other might feel a little more like a business partner than a romantic one.
Before doing work on themselves, avoidants commonly live in a subtle state of freeze mode, a fight/flight/freeze survival mode that anticipates being overwhelmed, shamed or emotionally engulfed, with a low level of pervasive anxiety. Encountering strong emotions brings this physiological shutdown to the fore and is exceptionally painful. It may be very unconscious, but their early associations imprinted emotions with rejection and the pain of abandonment. So with their whole system geared around suppression of emotion, avoidants tend to live their lives making fear-based decisions to avoid encountering strong emotion, rather than desire-based decisions out of what they want and need (which, because of this instinctive repression, they can struggle to access). This can lead to a sense of being unfulfilled, trapped and to depression, with the unconscious repression of emotions connected to mental as well physical ill-health. And because decisions are largely emotional, not logical, as well as because their decisions were overridden by caregivers so have associations with rejection, they can find it harder to make them (subconsciously: "if I make a decision I will be neglected and alone" - although what avoidants can miss is that the decision to do nothing is in fact still a decision!).
2. SHAME & CRITICISM
People with avoidant attachment carry a lot of internal shame so struggle with vulnerability. They fear revealing themselves - that being understood will show shameful things. Avoidants store a deep wound that there is something wrong with them because their early needs weren’t met, so they respond very strongly to guilt and shame, which they feel easily and are core triggers for trauma and withdrawing connection. Even when unintended, guilt and shame feel manipulating so they may quickly come to resent the source.
Opening up makes them feel very unsafe and vulnerable to shaming, criticism or controlling, so is very painful. It takes a long time for them to recover and feel safe opening up again. They become very uncomfortable if someone tries to get them to confront their own emotions, avoid introspection and talking about the past, and are inhibited from expressing hurts, needs and dreams. At heart, they would rather you did not fully know them. But when emotions don't come out in direct ways, they come out indirectly - perhaps not immediately, perhaps not for a while, but inevitably.
Hyper-sensitivity to criticism: these core wounds understandably also make them highly self-critical, so they find external criticism incredibly painful and close off, which can hinder self-development and resolving interpersonal problems. It means they are highly defensive by nature, have difficulty apologising in spite of the guilt they may feel, and deal with rejection by distancing themselves from the source of rejection. With resilient self-belief, the securely attached interpret criticism as simply information about misstep that requires a course-correct, not a statement on them internally. But to avoidants, criticism confirms a fundamental internal belief, that they are somehow unworthy, which are trying to run from. This can make maintaining relationships very difficult because they shut down in response to anything openly critical (when unless partners are consistently open about what needs improving, relationships don't survive). Their emotions were neglected in some way as helpless children, so avoidants have a deep core wound where they assume abandonment. They feel safer preparing for this ending because they know it will happen. And not allowing themselves to feel is in fact an unconscious form of self-abandonment.
This pain from criticism, introspection and emotion makes them the least likely of the attachment styles to undergo self-improvement or to recognise their own style and behaviours. They tend to see others as the problem, and having unconsciously internalised that their needs weren’t valid they can misdiagnose themselves as having an anxious attachment style for possessing any needs at all. They tend to view seeking professional help as a weakness, and with their whole personality structure geared around suppressing emotions, therapy can be extraordinarily painful. A proper 'attachment interview' is extraordinarily stressful and often quite depressing for the avoidant.
The Impact of Shame
Guilt - a judgement about a behaviour, that should motivate us to want to correct or repair the error
Shame - a feeling about oneself; an intense global feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, or self-loathing. A feeling of exposure and humiliation, as if others can see your flaws. Ultimately it is a fear of disconnection.
Shame creates a profound sense of separation — from yourself and from others. It’s disintegrating, meaning that you lose touch with all the other parts of yourself, and you also feel disconnected from everyone else. Chronic shame can lead to depression, hopelessness, and despair, numbness and disconnection, perfectionism, people-pleasing and addiction. Shame creates many fears and anxieties that make relationships difficult, especially intimate ones. It can lead to control, caretaking, and dysfunctional, nonassertive communication. You aren’t assertive when shame causes you to be afraid to speak your mind, take a position, or express who you are. You blame others because you already feel so bad about yourself that you can’t take responsibility for any mistake or misunderstanding. Meanwhile, you apologise like crazy to avoid just that! Fear of success and failure may also limit job performance and career options.
Because shame is so painful, it’s common for people to hide their shame from themselves by feeling sad, superior, or angry at a perceived insult instead. Other times, it comes out as boasting, envy, or judgment of others. Another tell-tale symptom is frequent idealisation of others, because you feel so low in comparison.
Healing requires a safe environment where you can begin to be vulnerable, express yourself, and receive acceptance and empathy. Then you’re able to internalise a new experience and begin to revise your beliefs about yourself. It may require revisiting shame-inducing events or past messages and re-evaluating them from a new perspective. Usually it takes an empathic therapist or counselor to create that space so that you can incrementally tolerate self-loathing and the pain of shame enough to self-reflect upon it until it dissipates.
People with avoidant attachment have strong emotional independence and self-sufficiency. They expect not to rely on others and others not to rely on them, because subconsciously needing someone is a threat. They are very good at self-soothing - their emotions feel unsafe so are often blocked out entirely. At root they have a profound, if subconscious, fear of depending on others.
But behind this self-reliance they are often gentle, sensitive souls who simply didn't have their needs met, so must protect that vulnerability - with strong fears of rejection, abandonment and loss. They tend not to have the expectation that their wishes, feelings or needs will be recognised. They really want connection - they just don't believe in it very much; they are often quick to think negatively and feel shame and anxiety when their partner expresses needs, though keen to meet them if they can be clearly, positively and consistently expressed in the form of solutions.
Avoidants invest heavily in things outside relationships - some (not all) can be quite social and have a wide network of friends on a surface level where in-depth emotional relationships are not required. Even though they have difficulty connecting to their own emotions they are very attuned to the needs of people around them socially. However, usually they are introverted by nature and need time and space by themselves to recharge (though avoidant attachment is distinct from introversion - introverts can have any of the four attachment styles). There are few people whom they really trust and feel safe around, which takes a long time to build. It becomes easy to be critical of everyone coming from the learned assumption of non-mutuality - that ultimately everyone wants something from us and could overwhelm - and takes a very long time to trust that someone won't.
Avoidants are protective of their own space and can withdraw totally, not always being present when together. Growing up, they were only able to get comfort or relief from anxiety by being alone, so they're used to being by themselves when upset and don’t really know how to get relief or comfort with someone without getting space from them.
4. OTHER CHARACTERISTICS
Usually don’t want to be the centre of attention;
Conflict-averse: withdraw from problems and difficult conversations; able to shut off their feelings and deal with emotions by going inward;
Tendency toward depression and anxiety - a deep disconnect with their feelings which can manifest in numbness; may feel disconnected or detached much of the time;
Feel extreme empathy for those around them - as a child they were influenced by or had to take on their caregivers needs so didn't learn healthy boundaries around feeling sympathy with separation. But often it's very internalised and not outwardly expressed, so might sometimes appear uncaring - they didn't learn that others can be a source of soothing and support so can be unsure how to provide this themselves;
Typically people-pleasers in daily life, very socially-conscious and attentive to the needs of their friends and family. Often charming and good with people, but don’t share their inner life even with close friends. May feel anxious or self-conscious in group settings - there are many people's needs to be met. In closer relationships they can put up walls and sometimes appear self-orientated through protecting needs, but underneath they are very sensitive and respond kindly to direct requests;
Strong thinkers and often intellectually orientated. Enjoy the news, analytical by nature and can often be critical judges;
Enjoy rich fiction and fantasy worlds, have an active imagination with many keen readers and into films, games etc. They feel very connected to the characters, who provide a world through which to safely explore emotions. Throw themselves into work, hobbies and creative pursuits all as a safe proxy for emotional self-expression, and connect through such discussions as a safe proxy too. Can be workaholics or have an obsessive hobby;
Because of their ability to focus on work and act independently, can be phenomenal independent contributors;
Emotionally closed, private and can appear secretive (because not used to sharing). Some may lie to hold space from others. Prefer not to talk about their past. May have factual memory of an event in the past, but no great felt sense;
Outwardly maintain a positive view of themselves and negative view of others; find faults easily and tend to see others in a cynical/negative light (though they may not express this. This isn't their fault as much as the unavoidable reaction to the learned assumption of non-reciprocity). On the surface this and independence can be confused by others with the confidence of a secure individual, and some may outwardly have a high level of self-regard, though this is all covering up and protecting a fragile, low self-esteem. There is an association of insecure attachment styles with narcissism, when the person acts as if others do not matter, but of course most avoidants are not narcissists;
May struggle with fear of failure and powerful perfectionism, but don’t want to appear vulnerable so either gloss over as if they don’t care and may seem apathetic, or work overtime to make sure they succeed. They may not know their boundaries in work, and overwork or take on others' responsibilities;
Can appear slightly cold/standoffish or hard to read from distrust of connections - their learned instinct in any pressured situation is to withdraw. This means they can feel misunderstood, alien, outcast or not belonging;
Like to be busy and active; feel anxious when there is too much downtime. Lifestyles are designed around anything that avoids being too much in their own head or with their emotions;
Can have dissociative symptoms - may disappear or disconnect without realising it;
May have moods and be passive-aggressive because unconsciously it’s a safer, less vulnerable way to emotionally express (though consciously they’re often not aware of what they’re actually feeling);
Because their early experiences were marked by a feeling of lack of control, they value predictability, and operating in survival mode they are often resistant to change, normally preferring not to plan ahead long-term. Strongly resist vulnerability so are risk-averse. Operating in the survival short term (with interactions representing constant low-level disruptions to their system that produce an undercurrent of anxiety and keep them in short-term thinking) they may be indecisive and have difficulty committing to life choices, and also afraid of losing their economic or social status. However they tend to think a new job, perfect partner or something external will be the answer to their problems;
More likely to use drugs and/or alcohol as coping mechanisms (‘addictive behaviour stems from turning away from others and towards the self for comfort, as substitutes for intimacy’ - Clinton & Sibcy). Avoidants are particularly prone to addictive behaviour to suppress the pain of looking into emotions and identifying the root causes.
Tend not to ask for or accept help, don't want to be a burden to others; may distance from and deny need for others, may retreat to animals for support;
Particularly if they came from enmeshed or narcissistic parenting, where there was a lack of recognition for their boundaries, there may be a tendency towards enmeshment with toxic people in friendships and relationships - people who are takers or emotionally unavailable follow the avoidant's expected pattern of what love is (as children they stayed alive through this, so the subconscious assumption is it must be safe);
May prefer big cities, which provide more options in all areas of life - where the prospect of something/someone new is always available they don't feel trapped and engulfed;
Big gifts can make them feel guilty and uncomfortable - as children this may have been uncommon or used as leverage, so they expect it is conditional. They can appear more takers than givers if things are being given, but simply because they don’t feel confident in how to return them;
Want validation like everyone else, but only from people close to them and only in small, consistent doses. Typically their core needs are warmth, consistency, support and safety;
Sometimes misunderstood as an attachment style as they can be wonderful partners - extremely sensitive and thoughtful when they feel understood.
The Origins & Cycle of Guilt
Guilt was originally an adaptation survival mechanism. Children rely for safety on feeling that their caregiver is attuned to their needs. As children, we personalise the behaviours of our caregivers. We are not yet able to fully understand that a lack of attunement may not be about us having done something wrong. And the only way we feel safe from childhood abandonment is when we can trust a caregiver is attuned to our needs. If caregivers are emotionally unavailable, inconsistent, or deriving a sense of connection from the child - not fully attuned to their child (which many of us didn't get as our parents are passing on their own unconscious patterns), the child develops a major fear of abandonment. Abandonment is a biologically-programmed fear - as a helpless young child, abandonment can equal death, so is inherently terrifying. To counter this prospect these children develop a major adaptation of realising they need to be hyper-attuned to their parent's feelings to maintain connection and insulate them from abandonment. They do not feel safe enough to be themselves and become more attuned to the parent's feelings than their own, as it feels safer. This situation becomes the breeding ground for guilt, as well as emotional disconnection from our own needs and boundaries.
This background produces a huge fear of being 'bad' - bad becomes unsafe as subconsciously it could violate the reciprocity of the attachment figure's connection. You become over-attached to everyone else's feelings and needs and under-attached to your own. This means you naturally perceive guilt everywhere - the moment someone is down we feel the need to fix things or save them and that we aren't doing enough. Often this isn't possible, so then we feel even more guilt and helplessness, and seeing guilt everywhere but without being able to separate ourselves from it, we can come to feel very negative about the whole world. Subconsciously we then become so afraid of this potential of guilt - guilt that equals possible abandonment - we spend our whole time in a survival state trying to avoid it by making decisions as a people pleaser, which means we can lose our sense of self-identity, more focused on avoiding guilt and living for others than connecting to what we need, and unable to take actions for ourselves that fulfil our potential.
Because we become hyper-aware of situations that could even have the potential to produce guilt, we may want to avoid the risk. And there is no greater source of potential guilt than close relationships - the closer we get to someone the more guilt we are liable to feel. Even though being riddled with guilt is horrible, our subconscious mind wants to hang onto it because it feels dangerous to let it go - this was a learned fundamental survival adaptation: "If I'm hyper-attuned to others I won't be abandoned". So even though, as adults, rationally abandonment no longer equates to a danger we won't survive, subconsciously we may rather steer clear of those situations and retain the survival mechanism than adapt the mechanism itself.
Proportionate guilt can be a helpful emotion because it can help us learn from our mistakes, producing positive action. Compassion is functional, but disproportionate deep sadness, remorse and negativity about the world doesn't serve - it actually gets in the way of positive action. Guilt hides the root of the problem - being ridden with guilt actually prevents us from enquiring about and identifying in a judgement-free way why we behaved that way in the first place so we can look forward and create long-term solutions (e.g. what need was it expressing and how can I get that in a healthier way?). When we feel very guilty we also self-sacrifice to try to try to alleviate that guilt and make amends. This ends up breeding resentment as we suppress our own needs and feel a sense of imbalance - and as a result we are eventually more likely to act out in ways that will once more trigger guilt, in a continuous cycle. Chronic guilt is also linked to auto-immune disorders and health problems. And once we are happy with ourselves we will be much better at showing up for other people than if we are guilting or shaming ourselves. To break the cycle we need to recognise the pattern and get rid of the excessive guilt! While avoidants may instinctively feel the answer is to get away from the person close to them who can potentially produce guilt, the only long-term solution is to learn to process guilt more productively - see the solutions section.