The Hell that is Fearful-Avoidant Attachment (and How to Heal It)

I’ve always been desperate to be loved, and terrified to be seen.

This contradiction is at the heart of the Fearful-Avoidant attachment style.

What is attachment?

I wrote more in-depth descriptions of all the Adult Attachment Styles (and attachment theory in general), if you are not familiar with it.

I will review it briefly here, and then talk about the Fearful-Avoidant type.

Your attachment style determines how you relate to other people on the most basic level, especially in intimate relationships. There are four styles, which my favorite ENFP, Heidi Priebe, brilliantly described this way:

  • Secure (60% of people) – You have a strong emotional immune system.
  • Anxious-Preoccupied (20%) – You have a weak emotional immune system. Love is like medicine for you, you need it and you are desperate to have it. When you do have it, you feel OK.
  • Dismissive-Avoidant (20%) – Love is like medicine, but you’re also allergic to that medicine, so you only can take it in small doses, so you tend to rely on painkillers. If you have reliable escapes and self-soothing methods, you feel OK.
  • Fearful-Avoidant (2%) – You desperately need love like the Anxious person, but you are allergic to it, like the Dismissive-Avoidant, and painkillers don’t really work for you, or not for very long, so you never feel OK. And it feels like it’s the other person who is making you sick.

Here is a summary of the Fearful-Avoidant insecure attachment style:

  • It’s fairly uncommon, only around 2% of people have it.
  • Like all insecure attachment styles, it is an unconscious strategy to survive very early childhood trauma (age 1-2).
  • It forms when a baby can’t figure out a cohesive strategy that works to meet its needs, and is often the result of abuse.
  • It combines the worst features of the Anxious and Dismissive-Avoidant attachment styles, and leads to confusing and contradictory behavior. We desperately want love, and yet we are also terrified of intimacy.
  • We tend to project our terror onto our partner and think that if they were just different, then we would feel safe. We end up being attracted to people who have problems because it feels familiar, and then we spend all our time trying to fix them, in the hopes that they will then make us feel safe. This strategy doesn’t work, leaving us feeling helpless, exhausted, and resentful. Our partners feel invaded, and like they will never be good enough for us.
  • We devalue ourselves (like the Dismissive-Avoidant style) and we also devalue others (like the Anxious style) – “I’m not OK / You’re not OK”. We feel chronically unworthy and unlovable, but can also be highly critical of our partner to the point of contempt.
  • Our relationships are volatile (in a very frustrating, confusing, can’t-leave-but-can’t-stay kind of way). We associate relationships with confusion, pain, fear, distrust, and helplessness. We also feel like we can’t live without them.
  • We flip-flop, are hot and cold, and act contradictory in relationships. We don’t know when to move towards or when to move away, and it’s confusing to our partners and to ourselves. We can never really settle into any relationship and relax, because it just doesn’t feel safe.
  • We get into enmeshed and codependent relationships because it can feel foreign or even unsafe to set boundaries, and it’s very hard to ask for what we need, or even realize that we have needs.
  • We have core guilt and shame and have a lot of emotional triggers.
  • We often get overwhelmed and will just disappear for awhile.

If you want another quick rundown of the FA type, here is just the FA segment in Heidi’s video.

But why would anyone want to be with someone so fucking nuts!?

Well, we also have some redeeming qualities.

  • We are very focused on other people, so we can be very attentive, perceptive, present in conversations, and pick up on details that make people feel seen.
  • We like to study human behavior, and can be very insightful. (Which is a double-edged sword, because it makes our criticism more vicious).
  • We have no boundaries and constantly feel guilty, so we give a lot.
  • We have survived a lot, and can be very resilient and good in a crisis.
  • We care a lot about the underdog, social justice, and other people’s pain. We are far more tuned in to other people’s needs than our own.
  • We are generally pretty accepting and open-minded of whatever issues you have, because we know we are not one to judge.
  • We had to grow up early, and tend to be over-responsible.
  • Because we had to survive around crazy people and learn to find connection anywhere we could, we can be very charming, charismatic, outgoing, and able to connect with lots of different people wherever they are at.
  • We crave deep and authentic connection, and immediately want to go there.

And of course, we try not to appear as crazy as we feel inside.

Mistyping and the Fearful-Avoidant

When I first read about attachment over 10 years ago, I thought I was Anxious-Preoccupied, because I had a lot of anxiety around connection and could be super clingy and demanding. My anxious behaviors were just a lot more obvious to me on a conscious level than my avoidant ones, so I would recognize myself in descriptions of the Anxious style.

But recently, I realized a few things that made me realize I’m actually FA:

  • I didn’t realize how much subconscious terror I was suppressing constantly in connection with relationships, and humans in general. I knew I would often avoid people and situations that might trigger me, and I got overwhelmed and withdrew a lot, but I hadn’t felt deeply into the actual terror underneath.
  • In my first (TW) long-term relationship, the other person was Dismissive-Avoidant, so I was more triggered on the anxious side, and not the avoidant side of FA. (I still did a lot of FA behavior, I just didn’t realize what FA really was at the time).
  • My second long-term relationship started when he was in prison, which meant it had a huge amount of distance built-in, which also triggered more anxious behaviors than avoidant. It is only since he has been out that I’ve slowly started to unravel it.
  • I didn’t realize my rescuing/fixing pattern is actually an FA thing, not an Anxious thing. Anxious people are attracted to people who feel like a good parent to them–people who seem like they have all their shit together. FAs are more likely to be attracted to people who seem to be not OK in some way (traumatized, stuck, hopeless), because that is what feels familiar, and therefore safe. I’m actually terrified of people who seem to have their shit together, because I feel like they will definitely see me.
  • I would think of myself as super-committed, and not consider that I spent the entire relationship wondering why I was in the relationship and fantasizing about leaving. To me, commitment meant that I would never disclose or act on those fantasies. It never occurred to me that Anxious people don’t have constant internal turmoil over whether they should stay or go, they just want to stay. I wanted to stay…if I could just make the other person feel safe to me, which was impossible, because I carry my fear around with me.
  • FA is often described as people who leave once the relationship becomes serious or more intimate. I have done the opposite (dive in and hold on no matter what), so I didn’t identify with that description. But I actually just have a different strategy to avoid intimacy–choosing people who couldn’t offer it or were also avoiding it. I also have such a hard time setting boundaries or feeling like I have the right to my needs that if I was dating someone I didn’t want to be with, I would essentially make them break up with me. (And an inability to set boundaries is definitely an FA thing.)
  • FA involves a lot of blame and unconscious projection. So I would mostly assume it was the other person not being appropriately committed or intimate, and that’s why I was feeling turmoil about commitment or intimacy. I didn’t think I was “uncomfortable with closeness” (as FAs are often described)–I just thought the other person was doing closeness wrong. FAs are very focused on the other person in relationships and even though I spent a huge amount of time and resources trying to develop self-awareness, I just had a long way to go.
  • I didn’t realize that constant fault-finding is actually an FA thing, and not, like, the obvious fact that I’m perfect and the other person is riddled with problems. (See previous point on self-awareness.)
  • I did so many workshops and am fine talking about my feelings with strangers, and cry easily, so I thought I was fine being vulnerable. I didn’t realize I have a kind of strategy around vulnerability, where I share certain things and keep the “real” vulnerability (the terror and shame) locked away. There is also a kind of built-in distance to workshops, since everyone goes home at the end. There is no personal commitment, no stakes, no investment, so it didn’t trigger the same terror that intimate relationships do.
  • FA is just not all that common, and when I originally read about it, they often made it sound like all FAs are in horribly abusive relationships, on drugs, or have a lot of casual sex. They focused on the most dramatic behaviors, and didn’t really explain the internal mechanisms, so I didn’t relate to it. They also often made it sound like it couldn’t really be fixed and you’d be in therapy the rest of your life, and who wants to identify with that?

It is fixable.

You can change any insecure style to “earned secure”, but it takes a lot of work, because attachment colors your entire worldview and subconscious patterned behavior. And FAs have twice as much work to do as Anxious or DAs, because they have to transform their relationships both with themselves and with other people.

When I studied attachment many years ago, I was told at the time that you had to work one-on-one with an attachment therapist to re-pattern your template for relating (or luck out and end up with a secure person who can tolerate your insecure behavior until you can heal).

But, I really just couldn’t handle the intimacy that it sounded like attachment therapy would involve (and if I’m too fearful to get treatment, it’s not super helpful!).

Regular therapy didn’t help.

I couldn’t tolerate intimacy in therapy enough to ever go deep enough with it to work on these things. I basically chose therapists who felt safe and who didn’t push me too far into territory that terrified me, and then I didn’t get a whole lot out of it.

Or, the few times we did get close to something, I ended up doing weird unconscious defensive-angry behaviors until they fired me as a client. Super confusing for everyone involved.

I’m writing about this because I finally found something that does work.

I have recently found a resource that has really helped me both identify and start working on my FA, and a lot of the material on this post and my attachment overview page is based on what I’ve learned there: the Personal Development School.

They have a quiz that can help you identify your attachment style, and the founder, Thais Gibson (who was FA herself) has a lot of free YouTube videos. (Heidi also references them and is where I found out about it).

I don’t particularly love the idea of sharing my most private and intimate problems with random strangers on the internet. But I am, because it’s so, so painful, and if I can help one other person find a way out of this pattern, then it’s worth it.

As I work through my behaviors down into the root level of terror, it gets easier, and it feels less terrifying to disclose what it’s really like to be me. It feels less like a secret, shameful flaw, and more like just something I’ve had to deal with.

If you are Fearful-Avoidant, it’s not hopeless.

If you suffer from this, I know it doesn’t seem like a pattern that some videos and exercises could fix. It feels like we are just terminally broken. It feels like our inner world will never make sense. It feels like we couldn’t possibly ever truly feel lovable or good. We constantly try to earn our worth by over-giving, just hoping someone will notice and love us back in some way that we can actually receive. We are desperate for something to sooth our pain and constant anxiety. We long for some place, some way to actually finally just be able to rest. It’s exhausting. And it feels permanent.

It feels like there are just people who are broken and people who are not, and you are one of the broken ones.

But it’s not permanent. It’s just a set of stories our brain made up when we were being hurt, and had no other way to make sense of the world but to blame ourselves and blame other people. We were in distress, and we didn’t know why, and we couldn’t do anything about it, and our brain did the best it could.

But if you are alive, you can change your brain. You can change your beliefs. You can change your stories. You can change your subconscious emotional response patterns. You can heal this. 

Where to start

If you want to get started on your healing journey, I really recommend YouTube as there are some great teachers on there. Protip: I watch everything on 1.5x speed and you can skip ahead or back 5 seconds with the arrow keys. You can use AdBlockPlus to block ads if they are annoying to you (on desktop, not your phone).

Here are the channels I have found personally the most helpful:

As far as books go, I recommend Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, which covers “emotional flashbacks” which are common with attachment wounds and any kind of early childhood trauma.

As far as attachment-specific books, there are several out there but I haven’t read them, the only one I’d definitely avoid is “Attached” (the one with the magnet on the cover). It doesn’t cover FA at all and is just not very accurate in terms of how it explains the theory. Most attachment books focus more on the two main styles and do not talk much if at all about FA, whereas there is a lot of material on YouTube of people covering it now.

You can also work with a therapist. I would recommend interviewing them until you find one that really knows their stuff on attachment and understands FA specifically. Heidi’s channel linked above has some videos on how to find a good therapist, and what to do if you can’t afford one.

Update – two years later

This post is one of my most popular ones, so I thought I’d give an update on how my healing is going. I got divorced since I wrote this post, and that took a long time to get through and recover from as well. But overall my healing is going great! I no longer feel “broken”, I feel peaceful and good most of the time, and I can imagine a future where I could actually have a relationship that is healthy and works.

I think the biggest thing I have learned is that healing FA involves three different things:

  1. Learning how to self-soothe, meet your emotional needs, and become emotionally independent.
  2. Letting other people see your authentic self–learning that it’s safe to stop hiding.
  3. Integrating two very different survival strategies–the hot and the cold–so you have access to your whole self at the same time.

Each of these things is a whole thing in itself. So far I’ve made progress on all three, but I started with the first one. I think that is a good place to start because it gives you a place to stand to work on the other ones.

True emotional independence is not the anti-dependence of keeping everyone away from you. It means being able to truly love yourself and care for yourself emotionally without feeling like something is always missing that you can never find. It means healing the shame that makes you feel broken, and recognizing that you are just as deserving of love as anyone else.

The single biggest thing that helped me with emotional self-regulation was learning  how to give myself self-validation. It sounds too simple to work, but it was life-changing. Validation was the biggest missing piece for me emotionally as a kid. I constantly felt like it wasn’t OK to feel the way I felt–that my feelings were wrong, and made me bad. Giving myself validation for why I feel the way I feel shifted me out of constant dysregulation almost overnight.

Letting people see the real you is something that you have to take slow, so your body can get used to feeling safe. But over time, that jagged raw feeling of exposure starts to diminish. I wouldn’t say I’m completely healed around this, but I’m a lot farther along. I no longer feel broken whatsoever.

I’ve gotten so many emails and messages from people who resonate with this article, so I know that I’m far from alone in having experienced this. None of us are broken. This is just what it feels like to have gone through what we did, and our brain did its best to cope.

It’s never too late to heal. You’re not too old or too anything. It takes time and it involves grieving for the pain you experienced, but it’s not impossible or out of reach. I really recommend starting with Heidi’s videos (linked above) as she goes very in-depth and also is a recovering FA.

Nothing that happened to you was your fault and you deserve to heal from it.

You have to decide to allow yourself to let go of the idea that you are broken or bad. I know you would not look at a hurt or abused child and say that it’s their fault and they don’t deserve love or happiness. But that is what you are doing to yourself every day. I do think there is an inner decision that has to be made to give up this whole line of thinking, and change your inner narrative from “I’m broken and bad” to “I was hurt and I can heal”. The “broken” idea is just an idea, a belief–it’s not true. And it’s a very painful thing to believe, and just giving up that one idea brings a lot of relief and hope.

Healing is a long process, but every step you take in your healing journey brings relief from the constant pain, until it is replaced with a sense of constant peace. I know it’s hard to believe that it’s possible after a lifetime of not understanding your own reactions to things or why you just can’t “be normal”, but it is possible to heal.

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Hi there! I’m Emma and I write about self-liberation. My writing is meant to share my process & inspire your own. If you want more frequent/current writing, visit my Substack Sparkly Dark, where I’m unpacking my neurodivergence.

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Also! I’m also looking to start a community of people looking to build authentic connnections & grow together.

Thanks so much for reading! ~Emma

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The Hell that is Fearful-Avoidant Attachment (and How to Heal It)


  1. Im crying while reading this! Ive spent my whole life (im 64) not understanding why Im this way and its so painful.
    I want sobmuch to be in a happy, healthy relationship but once Im in them Im terrified and miserable! But you say theres hope to heal it? Im listening and willing to do the work! Thank you,

  2. Your opening line perfectly describes me, so I believe I am fearful avoidant. Also, because I was afraid of my parents growing up–of their religious judgment, emotional unavailability, and physical abuse. It was experience devoid of affection. I have grown-up children, and just now realize how afraid I am to ask anyone for what I want and need. Deep inside, I don’t feel worthy. I have avoided close relationships and friendships for fear of judgment. It seemed to serve me for many years, but now, I am an emotional wreck who lives alone. I avoid and isolate, while agonizing over being alone. I’m not sure what the rules and boundaries of relationship are, especially friendships. When I feel rejected, I back off and withdraw. I probably come off as uncaring or indifferent. But I am confused. It’s so awful to be experiencing this as an adult.

  3. Yes, this sounds exactly like me as well, as do the responses above mine ^. This has been compounded by kids leaving home, divorce, then pandemic isolation. Throw in moving to a community where I know no one and a new job and home, the loneliness and despair is physically painful sometimes. I went to one highly rated (and insurance approved) therapist, she told me I was just bummed from the pandemic and to ask my MD for meds. I need to change myself, not just throw drugs at it. I don’t know how I got this old and still feel like I’ve got no self awareness or do I just accept this is what the rest of my life will be.

  4. THANK YOU. Wow, it’s like you are describing me. I have spent so much time trying to understand why I am so conflicted and complicated. It’s very isolating–I don’t really know how to describe it to other people and it feels too hard to try. I also recently discovered the PDS and feel hopeful about what I’ve learned so far. I really appreciate you taking the time to put this into words and share what has helped for you. Would love to know more about what has changed as you’ve started to heal.

  5. It is very interesting how your story reflects mine. For the longest time i thought i was AP. I guess it is the side that responds the most. Recently i have thought it through a lot and read more, now i know beyond the shadow of a doubt that i am FA or disorganized. You have given me much hope for healing. Would you share more about what specifically you have had to do to heal?

  6. Practically in tears reading this. Hard to come to terms with, but you explain the tough nuances of this style SOO well. And you describe me to a T. Very helpful to point out that conventional therapy often doesn’t work because of the attachment style itself, that I have to fix relationships both with myself AND others and I love the term “earned secure.” I hope for that in myself in the near future. I am working on the mother wound which is a profound compliment to the attachment style and using Positive Intelligence to build up my internal emotional stability. Powerful work and very grateful to have found your website!

  7. Yes this was very helpful, because I didn’t know this even existed. This was helpful mainly because you have personal points that actually sounded similar. Just found out a week ago why I’m the way I am and I really want to overcome this, Thanks for your vulnerability. It is definitely helping others!

  8. Thank you Emma for sharing this, my reaction is like the others above, tears and all. I can’t imagine sharing it with the world – thank you!

  9. This FINALLY Gave me clarity. I thought you had to be severely physically abused in order to have the FA style… but nothing could resonate more than this. Thank you for helping.

  10. I may also be fearful avoidant (and HSP)… some of my initial reactions to realizing this: 1) dread, “Oh no, I am the WORST one (attachment style) which means I am doomed; 2) guilt/shame, “No wonder I am so bad at relationships, I suck”; 3) despair and resentment, “I will never know true love and belonging, and I’ll never be at peace with myself… even if I can work on healing, it will take so much work, it’s not fair!” The fact is, I’ve been in therapy for a few years. A breakup catalyzed my recovery work, and now, being in another exclusive relationship, the same old fears are cropping up, so I’m wondering… is therapy working? Am I getting better? Will I ever get this “right” and know what intimacy and security feel like? Books have been great resources (Pete Walker, especially) but it is still hard to feel confident that I’m moving in the right direction, that I am in fact healing.

    1. You’re definitely not doomed! I feel so much more recovered a year and a half after writing this. It does take work, but it’s totally worth it. I do feel it’s important to take ownership of your healing and not rely on therapy only. A lot of the work of healing FA is changing your relationship with yourself to be loving and self-validating, and not self-critical. That is a daily practice of affirming that you CAN and ARE healing, that love and belonging are your birthright, and there is nothing wrong with you. Creating a supportive inner environment is a big part of developing a sense of inner security. It’s a decision you can make to be your own best friend and your own biggest ally, every day. Parts work (IFS) is really helpful too, you can use it to work with the critical parts.

  11. The best description ever. I found out I turn to back when triggered as a reminder of what is really the cause of my distress. It helps to remove the secondary anxiety and defuse somewhat from primary one.

  12. Dear Emma,
    am so grateful you shared your experience. You taught me a lot. Have a great life and wish you all the best ♥️🤗

  13. Thank you Emma! I really appreciate this article. It felt real and so much more intimate than other articles. Hoping I can take all of this and grow to be secure.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve struggle in relationships since I could remember. At the age of 42 and twice-divorced, I finally learned in my most recent relationship that I am FA. It all makes sense now, but even with that info I can’t seem to get better. I’ve even been doing hypnotherapy.

    What you shared is so liberating. It feels so good to know you’re not alone or “crazy.” But to say I’m sick of it is an understatement. I also came across the Personal Development School and signed up. I’m praying for a breakthrough!

    Again, thanks for sharing.

  15. This sounds like the “quiet disorganized” Adam Lane Smith ( attachment specialist) talks about vs the chaotic disorganized ( the sex addicts etc). Worth looking into- as yes, we pretty much fly under the radar, and we turn the hurt inside more than outside (the chaotic disorganized turns the hurt outside)

    1. I read his description on Twitter, I definitely would not fit that. He describes it as “low drama” – I don’t know any FA who is low drama. Maybe people don’t see it unless they are in a relationship with me, but it’s definitely there. We can’t help it, our brain anticipates abuse from people we love, of course we freak out (until we heal). His categories basically seem to read as “the good kind of avoidant”, “the bad kind of avoidant”, “the good kind of FA”, “the bad kind of FA” etc. I think that’s really a damaging way of seeing attachment (or any issue rooted in trauma). It’s just drawing a new line to justify throwing some people under the bus. I’m for throwing *nobody* under the bus.

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