The most recent thinking on the big question of what makes some people happier than others focuses on the ability to handle negative emotions during times of setbacks and stress, and to be able to regroup after those experiences and to move forward into the future with set goals and plans. Science points to what’s called “the happiness set point” which is largely genetic in origin, includes personality, and determines about 60% of the happiness pie; that leaves about 40% of happiness in an individual’s hands and depends on volitional acts and agency.
Alas, the playing field isn’t level when it comes to making the best of that 40% in part because happiness largely depends on how we manage our feelings when we’re in the midst of unhappy-making stuff. Once again, what we experience in childhood and the mental models we form about the world play an enormous part in determining our emotion management skill set. Securely attached people—the ones with positive models of both interactions and the world generally—tend not to get flooded or paralyzed when things go south. Having learned young that the world is a safe place and that close others are supportive, they pull up positive memories to manage their negative emotions and get support when needed. They have the mental stuff to be able to bounce back.
That’s not true for those who have an anxious attachment style. No, for these people, even a trickle of pain or disappointment feels like a tsunami, threatening to pull them under. They are not only always on high alert and worried about getting hurt or abandoned but they have a habit of exaggerating and misreading the cues offered up in all manner of situations.
Let’s look at three things that get in the anxious person’s way, and what she can do about them.
While it’s true that anxiously-attached people are quite adept at reading other people’s faces and discerning their emotions, it’s also true that their being on alert all the time makes them way too reactive and prone to catastrophizing. All that readiness to prepare for possible loss has them read in way too much, sometimes ascribing motives when there aren’t any or seeing the worst- case scenario when someone isn’t totally clear or sending mixed signals. This is what Patti told me:
I am always quick to jump to conclusions and I keep losing friends because of it. I take everything to heart so when someones doesn’t call me as she promised, my head doesn’t think things like ‘she got busy’ or ‘maybe she forgot.” No, I end up writing a whole script about how she’s not really my friend or she’s using me or something. And then when I do talk to her, it’s my script I am answering, not her words. I keep working on this in therapy but it’s a lifelong habit.
As a therapist once said to me, in these moments, you have to Stop. Look. Listen. Ask yourself if the way you are responding is tempered and actively work on seeing it as if it happened to someone else. And see it from a distance, making sure you are not recalling what you felt in the moment. Play director and run the video and ask: Would that woman react as you did? Forcing yourself to reframe events and interactions—Was your boss joking or did he mean to call you out? Were you deliberately excluded from that event or did Mary really forget to invite you?—will give you a better bead on what you’re bringing to the party.
Many daughters of hypercritical and demanding mothers have trouble with any kind of criticism and, moreover, often see criticism where none is intended. Any comment that sounds even vaguely critical can throw the anxious person into an over-reactive state of high alert which often has the unfortunate consequence of escalating into an argument that was highly avoidable in the first place. Take this scenario: Anne is about to go grocery shopping and as she’s heading out the door, her husband calls out: “Do you have your list? Don’t forget the milk!” She doesn’t answer but feels instantly picked on, the way she was as a kid when nothing she did was ever good enough for her mother. Now, she did shop without a list last week and did forget the milk which created chaos the following morning but did he have to bring that up? By the time she’s done shopping, she’s in a full snit and, when she gets home, she starts yelling at her husband, asking why he’s always criticizing her. He is, as you might imagine, bewildered.
This sounds like an exaggeration but, for many anxious women, it isn’t. The way they were marginalized in childhood and made to feel inadequate can dog their everyday lives in ways that are highly unproductive.
What to do? Again, work on reframing and see the incident as if from a distance. Recognize that it’s a trigger from your past—not what’s happening in your present—that’s provoking your reaction. Being able to deal with criticism and owning up to small mistakes and large ones from which you can learn and change is a part of life.
3. Playing tit for tat
Anxious attachment is filled with paradoxes and contradictions. On on the one hand, you are a scaredy cat on the prowl and alert to rejection, slights, and criticism. You feel intensely vulnerable all the time because you really want the close connection and ties you didn’t have growing up, and you desperately want validation. But, on the other hand, you are also very volatile, quick to pick a fight, apt to be jealous, and subject to emotional highs and lows. All of that has to do with what you didn’t learn in childhood: How to manage and regulate your negative emotions. So, when you’re on the defensive, you slip into high offensive, and start the rollercoaster on the track. And you’re really apt to play tit for tat because, somehow—wrongly—you feel that’s just and it makes you feel more in control, and it confirms your view of the world, the one you learned as a child.
It’s not just. It’s an unproductive, emotionally immature game that your wounded self indulges in.
So, when someone doesn’t call you back first, then leaves you a message, do you wait to return the call so he or she “will know what it feels like?” When you’ve reacted because you felt slighted and the person—it could be your spouse or partner, a friend or colleague—tries to ask what happened, do you roll your eyes or disparage him or her, just as your mother did you?
Stop. Look. Listen. Reframe. Get a different perspective. And begin to work on managing your emotions by paying attention to them. You need to locate the source and then be able to label and name your feelings with accuracy. Ask yourself: Am I hurt? Scared? Defensive? Angry? Confused? Frustrated? Agitated? Emotional intelligence is about knowing what you’re feeling and why, and you need to work on growing it.
Bottom line: Taking responsibility for your own happiness is harder for the anxious but not impossible. Take baby steps and Stop. Look. Listen.
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Photograph by Maria Victoria Heredia Reyes. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade, “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.” Review of General Psychology, vol.9, no.2. 111-141.
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Walter Mischel. “When asking “why” does not hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions.” Psychological Science, 16, vol.9 (2005), 709-715.