AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT:

INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERISTICS

It can be hard to tell someone's attachment style until you know them well. Attachment triggers are 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.

SELECT ARROWS:

 1.  Difficulty Accessing Feelings

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. While they cannot connect well to their own feelings they can find it very hard to deeply connect to others. The defences employed by avoidant people are to inhibit any experience of strong feelings, particularly those of anxiety, fear, anger, shame and sadness, but also too much joy, exuberance and excitement, particularly if they are likely to lead to uncontrolled intimacy or appearing in the public spotlight.

Adults on the receiving end of intrusive or neglectful parenting receive the message that unworthy children disappoint parents. This is painful territory. To defend against such hurts the most efficient way is to switch off those bits of the self that caused rejection - their attachment behaviour. The result is emotional detachment and a downplaying of any attachment behaviour or dependence of any kind. This reduces the avoidant's ability to act with compassion - because they do not have compassion towards themselves. They may contemptuously dismiss anyone, including themselves, who shows emotional dependency or vulnerability or is too free with their feelings. Their position is that anyone who shows emotional need will only get hurt.

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 or feelings of attachment 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. 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. Their assumption is that to be known is to increase the risk of being rejectedAvoidants 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. Avoidants are highly self-punishing - they don't believe they deserve good things, and they may punish others who try to provide these for them too.

 

Avoidants can feel a lot of shame over their avoidant behaviours in particular - finding it hard to feel, for example - so instead feeling they have to pretend to feel to people. This sense of living under a pretence makes it harder for them to deeply connect with anyone because they do not feel able to show their true selves.

 

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. Avoidants are also not good at asking friends for support, finding a shoulder to cry on, or approaching people for advice and guidance - they would rather deny they are in a state of need or go it alone. This can result in shyness and social withdrawal. They are unlikely to seek social feedback for fear of rejection in what they might learn. 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 a 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 they are busy trying to suppress. With this fragile sense of self they may not be able to tolerate any challenge or threat, particularly from a partner.

 

This can make maintaining relationships very difficult because they shut down in response to anything openly critical (when unless partners have an open dialogue 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-abandonmentAvoidants become hyper-vigilant, watching every situation to determine if they are going to be hurt or ridiculed as they were in childhood. This takes an inordinate amount of energy, with little remaining for getting to know people beyond seeing them as potential threats to one's wellbeing.

 

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 painfulA proper 'attachment interview' is extraordinarily stressful and often quite depressing for the avoidant. They tend to speak in vague idealised terms about attachment figures or dismiss the relationship as of little importance to them. These defences are employed to avoid thinking about difficult memories, ones perhaps in which the self felt rejected or unloved. Vulnerability, emotional need and feelings of anxiety are downplayed and they direct attention away from anything that might threaten or distress emotionally.

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.

 3. Independence

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. This means they have trouble getting really close to people or sustaining it, and they will not share or ask for help when in difficulty, pain or sickness.

However, behind this perceived independence many avoidants tend to avoid all risks where possible, to avoid potential exposure to shame and anxiety. They tend not to trust new situations or people so will avoid them, and in that respect can in fact be very dependent on certain environments to feel safe.

 

But underneath their 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. They never want help for anything. Likewise, because they were never taught it they often are not confident in how to give care, providing comfort and support in return, and the need for it can produce anxiety. Avoidants are masters of self-soothing, which often leads to reliance on unhealthy obsessive patterns around substances, exercise, and food. It feels unsafe to show who they are; they’re often dealing with self-doubt and uncertainty. They may busy themselves with a wide array of useless tasks in order to place distance between themselves and others.

PYCHOBABBLE

The Origins & Cycle of Guilt

- Thais Gibson

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. 

 4. Other Characteristics

Social

  • 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;

 

  • Can 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;

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  • Typically people-pleasers in daily life - often charming and good with people, very socially-conscious, attentive to the needs of their friends and family, and sensitive to how others might be viewing them (cognitive attention is directed outwards rather than inwards). Used to closely monitoring behaviour and adapting themselves accordingly to meet approval. "This produces a chameleon-like response to social situations as the avoidant personality tries to be as they believe the other person would like them to be. There is an anxiety to be accepted, not as one is, but as the individual thinks others would like them to be. This produces a 'false self'. The anxiety to be liked and not rejected means the individual 'is' that which they think the other would perceive as most likeable. The net result is that individuals tend to respond to the needs of other people rather than their own attachment needs."

  • While some may be shy others have a large friendship circle, but don’t share their inner life even with close friends. "Friendship groups can provide companionship without the intimacy of one-to-one relating. Get-togethers do not require deep sharing of self, exchanging confidences, exposing raw feelings, or asking for help." They can find it hard to make real new friends as anxiety is felt about getting too close and involved in each other's lives. Self-loathing may be disguised through self-deprecating humour that suggest they are comfortable with their flaws. 

  • But may feel anxious or self-conscious in group settings - there are many people's needs to be met, which avoidants struggle to detach from and not put before their own. 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;

  • 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

 

  • Outwardly maintain a positive view of themselves and negative view of others; have high standards, 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, as well as their unsympathetic internal stance towards themselves). On the surface this and self-reliance 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; "the apparent self-confidence and arrogance of some avoidants does not reflect genuine good feeling about the self, but self-esteem so fragile that flaws cannot be tolerated. The self is idealised as a defence against the fear that one is not perfect"

  • 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);

 

  • 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;

  • Many avoidants are always well-dressed and their home and hospitality perfect and extensively planned. Carefully curate their social image, always being careful about appearances;

  • Want validation like everyone else, but only from people close to them and only in small, consistent doses. Can find praise difficult to believe and prefer to be rewarded for doing something than in advance. Typically their core needs are warmth, consistency, support and safety;

Mood

  • 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);

  • Emotionally closedprivate 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;

  • Can have dissociative symptoms - may disappear or disconnect without realising it;

  • 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 and tend to say no to new ideas of others. 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;

  • Sometimes misunderstood as an attachment style as they can be wonderful partners - extremely sensitive and thoughtful when they feel understood.

Work & Interests

  • Strong thinkers and often intellectually orientated. Enjoy the news, analytical by nature and can often be critical judges. "Emotions are denigrated and rational thought is reified";

  • Enjoy rich fiction and fantasy worlds, have an active imagination with many keen readers and into films, games or other culture. They may feel very connected to the characters, who provide a world through which to safely explore emotions (although some can be uncomfortable with and reject art that feels too emotionally direct). Removed from a draining sense in interaction that someone needs things of them, they are free to feel intense empathy for the characters.

 

  • Throw themselves into workhobbies 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. Avoidant children were most likely to earn parental acceptance when they were occupied, independent and successful. Similarly, adults seek acceptance by being good at what they do rather than showing how they feel. "The avoidant internal working model is that the self is only accepted when it is competently getting on doing things, a self that does not make too many emotional demands on others. Sticking to the task is how control is maintained and rejection avoided. Thus anyone or anything that distracts from what they are doing will make them feel anxious and annoyed."

  • 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. So some are high achievers in their careers; others resist new situations or responsibility and are held back by their fears, never really taking off - a self protective strategy to avoid being shamed as incompetent. They may avoid taking on challenges or demanding tasks where there is a risk of not succeeding. They live in fear of making a mistake and try to be perfect, making high demands of themselves; secretly they expect others to be too;

  • At work, avoidant report lower levels of stress but also less willingness to help co-workers. Though conversely they may not know their boundaries in work, and overwork or take on others' responsibilities. Bosses and work conditions can overtly matter less - they just want to do their job and go home. Tend to take the safe route and least risky strategy in the workplace;

  • Tendency to 'play by the rules' - there is an underlying anxiety that if everything is not controlled and kept in place, they will be rejected. So love and acceptance are conditional on people keeping to these rules. There is often a heightened sense of right and wrong and a rigidity to ideas about how relationships, social groups and organisations should work by the book.

  • Like to be busy and active; find it difficult to relax and feel anxious when there is too much downtime. Have difficulty with unstructured time. Some get bored easily and need to seek new thrills. Lifestyles are designed around anything that avoids being too much in their own head or with their emotions;

  • Can be big on self-discipline: "self discipline is essential if shaming exposure is to be avoided. The discipline required to resist eating, to work long hours without sleep, or to deny oneself pleasure while pursuing exceptional achievement are an extension of self-containment: rigidly holding oneself together and keeping the outside world at bay. While some avoidants amass material goods and wealth in place of internal security, others may develop a certain kind of morality to justify depriving themselves of comfort: "it's wrong to eat so much when there are people starving," "I feel bad about being so privileged - I'm a waste of the world's resources" etc. There develops a sadomasochistic relationship with the self as the avoidant punishes himself and denies himself comfort";

  • 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.

 

  • 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;

"Avoidant individuals employ a remarkable range of defensive manoeuvres against intrusions from the outside world, but also against feelings, memories and fantasies arising in the internal world. Such self-protective measures can include inflated grandiosity, contempt for others, bullying, arrogance and anger used as a smokescreen to hide behind. Workaholism - a strong work ethic, need for targets and deadlines, and a driven sense of ambition, are often found. The by-products of this way of being are professional identity, respect, status and a kind of security that comes from financial rewards. Work also provides an ideal excuse for avoiding unwanted family and social occasions.

 

Avoidants usually prefer action, working towards a goal, rather than relaxing in the company of other people or sitting alone with their memories. Self-control, controlling the degree of intimacy in relationships, and controlling one's environment have complex defensive functions, hiding any needs from the view of others. And with so much effort directed towards these struggles, there is little mental space to attend to uncomfortable emotions or memories."

Physical & Mental Health

 

The unconscious repression of emotions is connected to both mental and physical ill-healthFears of rejection, the need to achieve in order to feel accepted, feeling anxious and uncomfortable with emotions and their arousal, and the lack of close supportive relationships increase the risk of loneliness, poor mental health, stress and psychological disorder. These internal pressures can also manifest in a range of bodily symptoms. 

 

  • Mental health: 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 (depression and anxiety being primarily symptoms of unmet human needs and negative beliefs: "an unexpected cause of high anxiety is self-hatred, for if one doesn't think one is worthy it must follow that the world is permanently and imminently at high risk of punishing one in the way one suspect one deserves"; Bowlby: "someone who is readily plunged into prolonged moods of hopelessness and helplessness has been exposed repeatedly during infancy and childhood to situations in which his attempts to influence his parents to give him more time, affection and understanding have met with nothing but rebuff and punishment")

  • Physical health: Emotional repression is associated with physical illness and poorer health outcomes, creating the tension required for diseases to thrive. There are a wide range of emotionally-linked compaints and disorders, including chest pain and hypertension, IBS, chronic fatigue, infertility, sleeping problems, blindness and seizures. Individuals who repress their emotions also suppress their body’s immunity, making them more vulnerable to a variety of illnesses ranging from common colds to cancer. Patients with cancer and other forms of malignancy that chronically mask their experiences and feelings are more liable to die despite treatments than expressive patients. The amount of relief from pain and discomfort reported by patients with chronic illness has been found to be commensurate with how able they are to deeply and authentically express their emotions and feelings. Conversely, the free and uninterrupted expression of emotion possesses clear and sustainable benefits for physical and mental health and general wellbeing.

  • Stress: Avoidant strategies are not good for mental relaxation or living a low stress life. Although the outward self is desperately trying to maintain a show of composure, physiologically and psychologically levels of stress tend to be high. Concealing and repressing emotions gives rise to stress-related physiological reactions, and fear that overt emotional expression would cause social disapproval and punishment is itself intimidating and stressful. In the workplace, stress brought about by such protracted repression of emotion can cause an increase in heart rate, anxiety, low level of commitment and other effects which can be detrimental to productivity.​

  • Compulsions, deprivation & self-injury: The anxiety of trying to contain emotions and worry you are not in control can lead to behaviours that are angry, obsessive/compulsive, and deliberately depriving, and forms of OCD are common. Extreme cleanliness, exercise, and dietary restriction can be seen as an attempt to tame one's appetites rather than allow any messy needs to be acknowledged or seen by others. Patients with difficulties in managing their emotions may also subject their health and wellbeing into gross negligence and as a result are more likely to display a history of substance abuse, poor nutrition, and disordered eating, lack of exercise, abnormal sleep patterns, poor compliance with medical interventions and behaviours that are injurious to oneself. 

  • Grief: Avoiants often do not cope in a healthy way with loss. The pain and confusion of, say, the death of a parent or loss of a partner are put to the back of the mind, denied and downplayed. This means the grieving process does not get started, and thoughts and feelings associated with the lost other remain suppressed and inhibited.

  • Ageing: research on ageing and longevity has demonstrated that psychological factors around emotions are actually more important predictors of a long, healthy life than other factors like diet and activeness. Individuals who remain actively engaged in the emotions of life have a sense of hope and optimism and can deal with moments of sadness by finding purpose and meaning, instead of bowing to depression and despondency. They are also more likely to live longer and healthier than their pessimistic counterparts. In old age, the balance tips towards dependence and vulnerability, particularly difficult for avoidants who retain a stubborn independence for as long as possible. Reluctant to display need, they deny distress and delay asking for medical need or social support. The attachment style of spousal carers affects the degree of problematic behaviours in deterioration. Secure partner caregivers are the most accepting and compassionate, but the higher the level of caregivers' avoidance, the higher the level of problem behaviour shown by the recipient - reluctance to get involved is sensed and increases annoyance, agitation and aggression.

Avoidance in response to loss, and recovery through secure relationships

"When my mum died it felt like an earthquake had struck. So many things I had never had to question; so many things that were irrefutably strong; so many things that had always been dependable – so many of them, levelled in an instant. Long after the funeral, the shockwaves kept coming: waves of emotion and waves of despair too. Because earthquakes like losing a loved one always bring unanswerable questions. The hardest of all: “Why did this happen?”

 

I couldn’t bear the pain for very long. I didn’t have the strength to stay with the intensity of my feelings or emotions. So I fled. My escape was to busy-ness, distraction and the start of my career. It was a chance to escape the wreckage and start building new life elsewhere. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I lost a lot of trust in the safety and sanctity of the world, and in particular, I lost my trust in other people. I found it very hard to accept support, help or love from other people. It was safest and easiest if I just did it all myself. I couldn’t see the link at the time, but that loss of trust led to a lot of anxiety. The anxiety I experienced, and still experience, is the bit of me that’s always got one eye on the Richter Scale. It’s always wary of the next Earthquake, looking fastidiously, nervously and distrustingly at what's happening in my life and the world around me.

Time passed, and slowly I started to build new areas of my life with love, support and trust at their foundation. The cornerstones have been my relationship with my wife and my relationships with my dad, brothers and close family and friends. It's only with this support, that eleven years later I’ve found the time, support and strength to revisit the scene of that earthquake. To return to that place has brought with it great sorrow, but also great love. I’ve had the chance to let go of some of the grief that I had no idea I had been storing up. And at the epicentre of the earthquake I discovered a beautiful fault line. On one side is the love I will always feel towards my mum. On the other side is the pain I will always feel because she died before her time and she left me behind. Today, I have the strength to stand at that fault line… with one foot on either side."