The experiences of childhood carry over into our adult lives as an unconscious pattern of responses and reactions which elude our conscious, thinking selves. An unloved daughter who’s received mixed or negative emotional signals from her mother growing up—feeling pressure to please her but never quite getting there, being ignored or dismissed or told her feelings don’t count, being told again and again that she’s somehow lacking—becomes a woman who, while she needs and wants intimacy, has trouble getting close because her worry gets in the way.
What she fears most is rejection—which is what she experienced in childhood—yet, paradoxically, her behaviors in the here and now, if not examined and dealt with, will yield exactly that.
Her worry is the driver of her responses; she’s constantly scanning the horizon for cues that will confirm that rejection is imminent, that the person she’s with is somehow unreliable, whether that’s a friend or a romantic partner. She doesn’t really understand boundaries—her neediness gets in the way but then so does her angry and defensive response if she feels the other person is pulling away—and so the relationship often ends up being more of a roller-coaster ride than not. Needless to say, not everyone is willing to stay on the ride.
Is This You?
Here are four common patterns that amp up both your worry and your reactivity. Learning to recognize these triggers is the first step in getting into the present that’s really the present, unfiltered by the past. Awareness of these underlying patterns is the key. The examples are drawn from stories shared with me.
1. You’re overly sensitive to possible slights
While studies show that, in fact, anxiously-attached women are good at reading people’s faces for emotional cues, they also read too much into situations, often mistakenly attributing motives where there are none. For example, a friend says she’ll call you Friday and the day comes and goes without her checking in. A securely-attached person probably won’t even notice until late in day, and then won’t be bothered, assuming that something came up, the gal pal got busy, or maybe she even forgot. Not so the anxious woman who has all sorts of scenarios running through her head, none of them good. The chances are that by the time she picks up the phone to call her friend, she’s actually frosted.
Work on recognizing this behavior for what it is: An over-reaction.
2. You need constant reassurance about everything
Your neediness, alas, gets magnified not just by your own insecurity—bolstered by your constant self-criticism—but by your over-sensitivity. It’s not just your knee-jerk reaction to asking “Do you really?” when your partner or spouse tells you he loves you but just about every situation from the dinner you cooked (“You don’t have to say it was delicious when it wasn’t”), how the new paint you chose looks (“Are you just saying that or do you really like it?”), to the presentation you gave at work (“I think my boss was under-whelmed but he was too polite to say so and now I feel awful.”) This can be understandably wearing for a partner, and undermines closeness in the end. Hit the pause button before you speak; with some practice, you’ll chip away at it.
3. You want to depend on people but it makes you crazy
Your watchfulness about rejection and betrayal sometimes makes you fearful and anxious about people and situations that don’t warrant your concern. At the same time, because you need validation from those around you, you want to depend on people but your anxiety ties you up in knots. Try to focus on what you’re bringing to the party and, again, try not to read in. You asked your guy to bring asparagus home and he ran late and forgot. Don’t do what marital expert John Gottman calls “kitchensinking”— a catalogue of all the things he’s ever forgotten and more. Don’t globalize; focus in on the fact that this is about asparagus, nothing more.
4. You personalize everything and globalize
Your tendency to read into situations often has you putting yourself center-stage in a way that you shouldn’t. Yes, this is a variation on your sensitivity to slights but if you focus in on your reactions, you may be able to recognize the triggers. You’re going to brunch with four friends and, speaking to the person who organized it, you realize you were invited last. Your immediate reaction is to feel insulted—maybe they really didn’t want you there? Was inviting you an afterthought?—and you’re about to say you’re not going. It’s at this moment that you need to remind yourself that, if four people need to be called, someone will be called last. Or you get home and your husband is sitting on the couch, quiet. You ask him what’s wrong and he says he had a rough day and he’s beat. You go to start dinner and suddenly, all these thoughts tumble into your head. Is he angry with you? It can’t just be fatigue. Maybe there’s something else? Maybe he’s tired of you. It’s at this moment, again, that you need to hit the pause button and realize that you’re globalizing. You need to stick to the particulars: The man is tired and it’s not about you.
Recognizing how you are getting in the way of yourself and the intimacy you want and need are the first steps toward a happier future. Once you’ve identified your behaviors, you can begin working on changing them.
Photograph by Daryn Bartlett. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside Books, 1994.