Daughters who grow up with mothers who send mixed signals—who are sometimes emotionally available and loving, and other times not—develop an attachment style called anxious-preoccupied. While a securely attached daughter knows that she can depend on her mother for empathy, support, and guidance, the anxious daughter is never quite sure which Mommy will show up; her view of the world is that it is an unreliable place, where your status can change from moment to moment.
While the anxious-preoccupied daughter desperately wants connection, intimacy, and relationship, deep down, her internal models don’t permit her to ever let her guard down fully. She learned to self-protect in childhood so, in adulthood, she’s like a sailor who goes on to the water on a perfectly clear and cloudless day but can’t enjoy herself because she’s constantly scanning the horizon for storm clouds. That’s what the anxious daughter does in every relationship she has—whether it’s with a colleague at work or the next-door neighbor, with a friend, or with a lover. She’s always waiting for the other shoe to drop. She needs constant reassurance that she’s really loved and cared for which, to say the very least, can be wearing for the person she’s involved with. Even worse, she’s volatile—quick to get into an argument, amp up the volume if she feels threatened in any way—if she convinces herself that things are about to go south.
It’s estimated that roughly 20% of us are anxiously attached.
These are unconscious processes so that the woman experiencing these feelings and thoughts believes she is acting reasonably and thinking things through when, in fact, she’s not. The truth is that her behavior is being triggered automatically and unless she gets a bead on the dynamic, she’ll continue to put stress into each and every relationship, often to the breaking point.
Here’s an example: On Tuesday, Kate is thrilled to get a call from Margie, someone she considers a close friend, inviting her to a mini-college reunion. She’s one of six women Margie has invited. Later that day, she hears from Sarah, who mentions that Margie invited her yesterday morning. Kate starts stewing because she considers Margie one of her best friends. Is Sarah actually closer to her? Why did Margie call Sarah first? Kate starts wondering if she was a last-minute fill-in for someone who couldn’t make it? Does Margie feel obligated to invite her somehow? It doesn’t take long for Kate to get totally revved up and decide that Margie has slighted her by calling her a day later than everyone else. She calls Margie and Margie says she only had time to call a few people on Monday and it meant nothing. But Kate doesn’t believe her. She hangs up when Margie says she’s overreacting.
Mind you, Kate is convinced of her own truth but all that’s happened is that her anxiety—triggered by her extreme reactivity to possible slights and rejections—has totally commandeered her thoughts.
Here are three situations that can function as triggers, and what you can do about them:
1. When things don’t go according to (your) plan
Because anxious people are always looking for signs and signals of impending loss or rejection, changes in plan can easily push them over the edge into triggered behavior. Their anxiety makes them inflexible in many ways, so that when there’s a discrepancy between how they imagined things unfolding and what actually happens, they can become incredibly reactive. Say you’ve made plans to meet Justin for drinks on Friday but then, on Thursday, he texts you to say that he’s got to work late Friday, and can you get together on Monday instead. You start thinking about the last time you saw Justin and how standoffish he seemed. Maybe he doesn’t want to see you at all? Has he lost interest? You decide you’re not playing this game and text back that you’re busy Monday and it’s Friday or bust.
As a therapist told me years ago: Stop. Look. Listen. The minute you feel your chest tighten and your head racing because you are feeling hurt, stop. Think about something else or take a walk but do not react to the perceived threat in the moment. Look at the situation and try to subtract your reactivity: Why would Justin make up an excuse? If he didn’t want to see again, he wouldn’t bother asking you out for Monday. Think it through calmly. Listen to your complaints and see whether they’re legitimate, given what actually transpired. The likelihood is that if you’ve stopped, looked, and listened before you act, you will stop your anxiety from cascading.
2. When you start catastrophizing
Anxious people not only imagine the worst possibility but they tend to maximize that possibility. You have a fight with your husband when he’s going out the door in the morning and you think to yourself,” Now I’ve done it. He’s going to leave me for sure,” and then this thought morphs into what your life will be like without him and how no one is ever going to love you again and you become utterly frantic, and you send email after email to him in the office with no response. Or you’re at work and you’ve totally muffed the call with an important client and you begin thinking that you’re going to get fired—your boss made it clear how key the account was—and that no one will ever hire you again, that you’re toast. Again, stop. Recognize these as runaway reactions to events in the moment. Sit down and visualize a person who makes you feel safe and cared for, or a place where you feel utterly relaxed. Experiments show that by first calming yourself and then recollecting the moment and asking yourself why you felt as you did—it’s called “cool processing”—and sorting out your feelings and what triggered them can stop you from escalating in this way. Do not relive the moment blow-by-blow by remembering what you are feeling because that will put on the ruminative Ferris wheel
3. When you’re on the ruminative Ferris wheel
Catastrophizing and rumination often go hand-in-hand, so it’s important to stop the cascade of thoughts. One suggestion offered up by Daniel Wegner, who has studied intrusive thoughts, is to invite the thought in and focus on it. Is it true? What if this worry actually came true? You can also write the thought down and describe both the worst case scenario and what you would do if it actually happened. You can defang these thoughts by pulling them off the wheel and seeing what they are.
Bringing the unconscious into consciousness is the way out.
Photograph by Taylor Nicole. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Wegner, Daniel M. “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression,” American Psychologist (November 2011), 671-680.