AVOIDANT TO SECURE ROADMAP: PART I
CHALLENGING CORE BELIEFS
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"
Unfavourable Comparisons - "My ex would have never done that"
Malice Bias - "He’s obviously trying to annoy me"
'"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”
"The past is no longer here"
People with 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 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 Part 2 for some key some behavioural changes you can make now!). Because 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.
Everyone’s position is unique; if you are serious about addressing and rewire these core beliefs, it is important to work on healing with a psychotherapist who specialises in attachment. 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). Don’t expect a miracle when working with a therapist - it is hard work and takes time, sometimes years, but has real results. Within the therapeutic relationship itself, avoidants actually develop secure attachment - a trusted intimate relationship which then forms the basis for expanding new secure behaviours into other relationships.
1. DISCOVER THE SOURCE:
UNDERSTAND OUR 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.
Once you have really understood where this is coming from 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.
If we have been unable to “be with” our pain—if we have inherited or developed “adult” identities that abandon or attack 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", "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.
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 AND CHALLENGE LIMITING BELIEFS
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.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy 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. 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.
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
It is also 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.
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. You will have a hard time making decisions because you feel 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.
First, take time to understand where your predisposition towards guilt comes from (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. Don't dwell on the past and avoid replaying over and over - 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.
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. But productive guilt is only useful in as much as it encourages us take action to fix things and change our behaviours. So 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 taking responsibility for your actions, apologizing, and making amends. You can also apologize to anyone else 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 - 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!).
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 - 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 practicing 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
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
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, 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. You can, too. For individuals who have spent their lives filled with negative self-talk and shame, this process can seem daunting, but it's worth the effort. You can compliment yourself while looking in the mirror and/or keep a list of your accomplishments. The goal is to become your own cheerleader. 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 ________." 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. If you enjoy taking photos, take up photography. If you feel at home on the water, try boating or waterskiing. Not sure which hobby to try? Check out the world's largest list of hobbies to discover an activity you love!
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
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.
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 (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. Avoidants may not have individuated from their situation of origin (family/friends), separating, focusing on their own goals 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. 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.” 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. 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 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.
“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.”