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Understanding an ambivalent attachment

Ambivalent attachment is the most common style of attachment I see with my clients. This has led me to believe that’s it’s the one which can cause major issues in everyday life.

It’s how we respond and adapt when we’ve had very inconsistent care growing up, or there were significant changes in our formative years. It can happen so easily, if there is a divorce or separation, a bereavement or any major upheaval at vital times. If our carers were under a lot of stress, or using substances which might have made their behaviour erratic.

Any of these factors mean that it becomes very hard to trust any positive experiences, the fear of loss makes it too hard to invest in things. The pain of our loss can be so great that subconsciously we don’t want to put ourselves in that position again. This inconsistency can have varying impacts on us.

So what does this look like?

Some of the signs to look for are:

  • Extreme indecision, not knowing what choice to make for fear of it being the wrong one. Spending hours/days struggling to make a decision, often just getting stuck or trying to get others to make the decision for us.
  • Mistrusting our own judgement. Once we’ve made a decision, then not being able to fully commit. Constantly worrying if the other one would have been better. Talking about it over and over, going round in circles.
  • Not being able to fully enjoy what’s going on. Having the constant nagging in your head, ‘What are they really thinking about me?’, I’m talking too much/not enough’.
  • Looking for things that are wrong, feeling on edge, not being able to relax & feeling on guard the whole time.
  • If you’ve been out, you’re reflecting on everything you said, worrying that it was the wrong thing. Ringing friends asking for reassurance.
  • Feeling to blame and taking responsibility for everything, ‘It must be me’, ‘everyone turns against me in the end’.
  • Trying too hard to please. Going over the top, offering to do things you later regret, but keep doing them anyway.
  • Never feeling good enough. Judging yourself against others and finding yourself lacking. Not being able to put yourself forward for anything, even though you know logically that you could do it, and even be good at it. Always finding an excuse not to.
  • Having more than your fair share of broken relationships. Feeling unable to fully trust someone, ‘why would they want to be with me?’. ‘It’s only a matter of time before they leave me’. Finding fault with things, even when things are going well. Feeling really uneasy when it is going well, picking an argument. Having some sense that you’re sabotaging things, but not knowing why and not being able to stop.
  • Doing things in the extremes, all or nothing. Going to the gym every day, or not at all. Crash dieting or total indulgence. Being a perfectionist and very particular about the way things need to be done.

All of the above has grown out of uncertainty and control being taken away with painful consequences. The need to be alert for any negative sign means it’s much harder to be present and enjoying the moment. Because you’ve had experiences of your needs being met, when it suddenly changed the loss felt dramatic and very painful.

Knowing where this has come from means we can start to prepare and look after these parts of us. It affects our behaviour without us knowing why. Staying in the moment and learning to enjoy and appreciate little things can be a great re-learning. Experimenting with little choices and decisions, picking one and being curious about what happens, instead of trying to work out if it’s right or wrong. You need to learn to find the middle ground and stay away from extremes, but in a mindful knowing way.

Understanding our own attachment style can be very revealing about why these behaviours happen. Giving us an opportunity to observe ourselves and do something different. Understanding why will help us be more compassionate and empathetic, instead of self-critical. All of these things can change once we understand what’s going on. Consistency is key for this style of attachment, resources that work every time that we can depend upon. Growth and healing starts with little, manageable, consistent steps that we can build on. Don’t aim for the stars, just the first rung on the ladder for now.

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Let’s talk about anxiety

Feeling stressed and anxious is normal for us humans. Normal that is if we know why and the levels of anxiety seem appropriate. However, a lot of people experience almost constant levels of anxiety from the minute they wake up, or at certain times of the day. This kind of anxiety is a different and can affect us in a number of ways. It can make us feel really down, as if there is no end to it and nothing that seems to shift it for any length of time. It can send our head into overdrive, thinking about what is wrong, this can lead to quite catastrophic thoughts. It can affect our behaviour, making us fearful of seeing people, going out, scared that we might have a panic attack and isolating ourselves. 

This type of anxiety affects our emotions, our thoughts and our physical health over time, it sends the head into overthinking. It’s unlikely that talking about it will help, firstly, because we probably don’t know why we are anxious in the first place but secondly, it just makes us think even more.

We need to focus away from our thoughts, stop trying to work out what’s wrong and help our body feel calmer when we do that the head becomes quieter. There are many things we can try, the ones which work need to be noted and practised on a regular basis. If we can try to notice where we feel the anxiety this can be a good measure if some of these things work.

Then try some experiments and notice after each one if anything has changed. Here are some things to try:

  • Squeeze your arms tightly into your body really hard hold for ten seconds then release. You’ll take a big breath automatically then notice what your body tells you, repeat.
  • Press the palms of your hands together in front of you and push them against each other, feel all the muscles working, hold for ten seconds than release, repeat and notice.
  • Link your fingers together, hold them in front of you and pull, feel the different muscles working hold and release. Try and see which one your body prefers pulling or pushing.
  • Sit down and place your hands on either side of your knees, at the same time press in with your hands and push out with your knees, create resistance, hold for ten seconds then release, notice and repeat.
  • Stand with your back against the wall, walk your legs out in front of you so you can really feel your leg muscles working, push down through your feet and press your back against the wall, really notice the solid feeling of the floor and the wall. 

The main thing is to really listen to what your body tells you about each of these experiments. How can you tell which ones work better than others? If some of these work then set a timer or a post it on the fridge and aim to do them two or three times a day. Even if you only get a break from your symptoms for a few minutes remind yourself that you gave your head and body a break.

Noticing is the first step in mindfulness and so important in knowing what helps.