If you have an anxious attachment style, your relationship can feel like something of a battleground.
You might experience all the typical emotions associated with falling in love- elation, excitement, adoration, devotion, extreme empathy for the other person.
Yet your happiness, and to some degree, your partner’s happiness, will be regularly spoiled by feelings of dread, guilt, inadequacy, and even rage.
Even if you are extremely close to your partner most of the time, small separations or disconnects can trigger these feelings. Sometimes, it can feel as though they came out of nowhere, but are still impossible to shake.
Other times, you might be able to pinpoint an event, like being apart for a night, or having a loving comment or gesture go unreciprocated, that sets off the feeling that you are not safe in the relationship.
With such an insecure emotional base to work from, it’s no wonder you want to know how to self soothe anxious attachment.
Women Need To Test Men’s Investment
…But anxiously attached women never fully feel safe.
A woman’s ability to test the strength of a man’s investment in her has been crucial to the survival of the human race, as women have until recently been highly vulnerable and dependent on men through the process of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.
And in a general sense, it’s a good thing to reserve our attachment for people who are willing to invest in us too.
But what happens when a man has proved to us that he will be there for us, as much as anyone reasonably can, and we still won’t relax and trust him?
What happens when we need more proof, more reassurance, and more investment up front from a man, before we are willing to show that we’re investing in him too? And our need never ends?
In an intimate relationship, and arguably in life as well, there is not much more valuable than our ability to surrender.
Because it is only as we begin to surrender- to pain, to joy, to life, to death, that we can begin to love, not for what we hope to get back, but to truly lift the other person towards all that they can be.
Of course, we can never totally surrender, never totally be free of ourselves. But to have a relationship that expresses something of that spirit- that is where the value lies.
Our partner has to earn this from us- earn our love and our trust.
How Is Anxious Attachment Formed?
But this is where things go wrong with anxious attachment, because no matter how much the other person has poured into us, we never feel filled up, never feel safe enough to receive it, never relax into returning it.
And so we never reach the place where we can actually love them back without choking on our own fear.
This fear exists because we have come to believe a story about ourselves and other people that we learned as children.
What’s The Story Of Anxious Attachment?
A story that tells us that love and connection, first shown to us by our parents, are not to be trusted.
What does the story of anxious attachment tell us? It tells us that…
- When we need to belong, we will be abandoned
- When we try our best and fail, no one will have faith in us
- When we have basic human needs, we are ugly and disgusting; and people will be angry with us and turn away from us.
This story, when we really believe in it, can destroy any good relationship we might have had.
It can keep us in a cycle of relationships that start out passionate, but fail to progress, or that lack the depth to withstand the hardships of life.
The good news is- we don’t have to stay here. And I say we, because I’m still in this, still working my way out.
As I’ve fought for my relationship, and my partner has fought for me, I’ve come up with some simple ideas on how to self soothe anxious attachment, so that I can manage the fears that come up for me.
These are really easy things that you can do from home any time you want- that will help you process your emotions, shift the story you’re telling yourself about relationships, and actually be present and available to your man.
Step One: Practice Curiosity
Anxious attachment is, in some sense, a delusion. You believe this story about yourself and about other people, about what your worth is in this world, but that story isn’t true.
That story may be the legacy of one or both of your parents, or perhaps a past partner, who may have been too damaged, weak, or emotionally unavailable to give you the love and connection you needed.
As you come to realize that, and to identify anxious attachment as a pattern in your life, it’s helpful to adopt an attitude of curiosity.
You believe everything you believe for a reason. But sometimes those reasons aren’t very solid.
With anxious attachment, once you see its fragile foundation, and the fragile person it’s built around, some of the story you’ve been telling yourself loses its power.
Sometimes simply knowing that you are primed for pain in relationships can help you stop yourself and think-
“Wait a second, is this person actually hurting me right now?”
And you can take that further and ask more questions-
“I wonder what else they could be feeling or thinking, other than what I’m afraid they’re thinking?”
“I wonder if I might act this way sometimes too?”
Taking a stance of curiosity, rather than judgment on yourself (“I can’t believe I’m feeling this way again”), or the other person (“I can’t believe he didn’t do Xyz for me”), can help you see things more clearly.
Step Two: Feel Your Pain
An anxious attachment style does not form without significant pain in relationships.
So when we think about how to self soothe anxious attachment, what we really need to do is to feel that pain, to feel the fear of abandonment and inadequacy that we’ve been trying to run from our entire life.
As hard as it is, we need to surrender to those parts of ourselves that we’re terrified to acknowledge.
It’s taken me many years of mostly-functional adult life to even be willing to do this. To confront all the plans and routines I’ve made to avoid feeling, and let them all go, and just sit with the frightening emptiness that is left.
To do this, I often like to listen to music. I find it helps bring my emotions to the surface quickly.
I also like to watch movies or read books that depict experiences that were similar to mine growing up.
Sometimes children’s movies can be really good for this- I found watching Tangled recently was very evocative, helping me engage with the nuances of what I experienced growing up.
Of course, you can use any movie that resonates with you, but children’s movies can be very powerful because attachment trauma usually happens in childhood, so they can be a quick route back to some of the painful memories you need to process.
Sometimes the ones that feel unbearable to watch are the ones that really help you heal.
It can also be helpful to talk through feelings and experiences with others, whether online or in person.
When the pain of insecure attachment is being routinely felt and worked through in a safe environment, it doesn’t need to crop up and ruin perfectly nice moments the rest of the time.
For this reason, this strategy is best used as a preventive measure, although it can be very powerful in the moment when attachment related anxiety is triggered as well.
Step Three: Access Memories of Safety
In every relationship worth investing in, you will have moments where you felt known, safe, and loved.
When attachment anxiety is triggered, these moments can become great memories to return to, to help remind you how it felt to be close to your man and to feel his investment in you.
You might have pictures of the two of you together, or text messages, emails, or letters that he sent you, or gifts that he gave you, or simply a memory of something you did together, a time that your man showed up for you when he didn’t have to, a time when he gave to you even when it cost him a lot.
Sometimes you end up realizing that there are so many of these that all your doubt seems trivial.
And other times you notice that this is a moment when instead of receiving love and attention from your man, it’s your turn to reach out to him and offer him your love and presence even though you’re scared.
Step Four: Take More Responsibility
On that note, another key strategy in learning how to self soothe anxious attachment is to practice taking more responsibility.
A lot of the time, a relationship meets our needs in predictable ways- until it doesn’t.
My partner is a living being, a person with real needs and experiences, a person who is as vulnerable as I am to the uncertainties of life, to happiness and fulfillment but also to the crushing fear that he isn’t good enough, to the stress, busyness, and passion of trying to do something in this world.
And sometimes, it’s my job to take responsibility for helping him through all of that.
Sometimes I need to be the one to take the lead in the relationship, to show him that I love him and am there for him even when he’s worn down and doesn’t have as much to give.
Some days, I’m the resourceful one, the one that looks for ways to make his life easier. Even when that just looks like leaving him alone for a while.
It’s even more difficult, perhaps, to take responsibility for the health of your relationship. Because that can mean that you have to recognise the things that you’re doing that are creating distance and dissatisfaction in your man, even when you know that you’re coming from a good place. It can be really hard to accept that some of your habits and ways of showing love are not coming across the way you want them to.
But when you approach your relationship from a place of resourcefulness and responsibility, you’re not coming into it with the mindset that “he should just appreciate all I do for him”- you genuinely want to offer him something that is valuable to him.
Step Five: Try a Thought Experiment
Sometimes, when we’re stuck in unhelpful beliefs about ourselves, it can be really helpful to just try on other beliefs and see where they take us.
No one is forcing you to commit to them, but it can be helpful to look at a situation from multiple angles, just to show yourself that there are many competing stories that could apply.
The story that we come up with from a place of anxious attachment is never the only story.
So when I’m feeling anxious, like I’m not worthy of love and am already being abandoned, I sometimes go back to a moment when I felt like I was worthy of love, a moment when I realized,
“Oh, I’m actually not the loser that that bully in school made me out to be. I’m actually completely, totally okay.”
And I just re-approach the relationship problem that I’m having with that knowledge. It often completely changes my perception of what’s going on.
Some other beliefs that you can try on are-
“What if he actually does love me?”, or
“What if I actually do matter to quite a few people, maybe even a lot?”, or
“What if I actually am beautiful enough/smart enough/talented enough/resourceful enough?”.
Just imagining how that would feel and what you would do if you knew it were true can make a huge difference in pushing past anxiety.
These five strategies for how to self soothe anxious attachment will help you navigate situations where you feel that your relationship is under threat.
While your natural tendency might be to lash out, blame your man, blame yourself, try manipulative tactics to control him, or simply get revenge on him, these strategies offer ways to reframe what might be going on before you damage what is most precious to you.
You can do better than a relationship where you simply accept the pain and chaos of anxious attachment, and expect your man to accept it too.
Yes, it’s good to share your history with your partner and help him understand your fears and suffering. I’ve certainly done this in my own relationship, and it’s incredibly helpful to feel like I have someone on my side.
But ultimately, it is my responsibility to learn how to give love, to be present with it, even when I might have every reason to be afraid of it.
I am not entitled to certainty, to safety, to reassurance. I have to find a way to be more than those needs, otherwise I will just end up depleting every person that loves me.
Sarah has a Masters in psychology and works as a special education advisor in early childhood. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with her partner and two children. She has a passion for evolutionary psychology, attachment theory, and personality psychology.