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 i 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.