Anxiety is something that can rear its ugly head in all sorts of places, whether it be at work, with self, or in our relationships with other people. Earlier this year, we spoke about attachment styles based on attachment theory, a concept that explores how parent-child relationships influence the way we love and form attachments in important relationships later in life. According to said theory, people form attachments in four ways: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. For a quick recap of the more anxiety-prone attachment styles – anxious-preoccupied and fearful-avoidant – check out our article, "What Your Attachment Style Says About Your Love Life". Although there were four attachment styles discussed, in this article, we want to focus solely on the ones that speak more to the anxious types.
So, we recently spoke with award-winning psychotherapist and relationship expert, Rhonda Richards-Smith, who provided some real-life tips in an effort to help women navigate through some of these attachment styles while dating and in relationships with people.
1. Be prepared to unlearn a lot of things.
Many of us carry a "false sense of loyalty and legacy" when we think about the things that we were taught over the years as it relates to all types of relationships. As much as we respect and honor what our parents or guardians taught us, we also have to acknowledge that our parents don't know everything, and sometimes the advice is not applicable to our lives.
Rhonda recalled some of the wisdom her dearly departed grandmother (God rest her beautiful soul) would constantly tell her when it came to relationships. For example, she would say things like, "Just make sure they love you. Don't worry about you loving them back." Although Rhonda knew it was coming from a loving place because her grandmother wanted to protect her from hurt and disappointment, Rhonda also learned and knew that it wasn't necessarily true or the greatest advice for her. Moreover, just because she didn't necessarily agree with the advice doesn't mean she loved her any less.
Oftentimes, "we look at the source and not the quality of what people are saying. You can love someone, respect them, and care about them, but they can still give you advice that's just not applicable to your life." Nevertheless, Rhonda encourages us "to be mindful about the messages that we take in. We have to be critical about what our thoughts and our feelings are, and make sure that they're true to what we believe versus what others impose on us."
2. Be flexible in your relationships.
There's a tendency to assume that our current relationships will be exactly like the relationships we observed through our parents and family. For example, people who were raised in a home with both parents either: strive to replicate their relationship based on what they saw, or they will do whatever they can to make sure it looks nothing like what they witnessed. Conversely, for someone who grew up in a single-parent home, there isn't as much pressure to replicate what they saw. Hence, "it allows a bit more flexibility and creativity within the relationship."
Either way, we crave what's familiar even if it was chaotic or dysfunctional. So, if it doesn't show up in the relationship, then we assume it must not be a real, healthy or it must not be love. Moreover, when the relationship starts to look different from what we saw growing up, even if that "different" is good to us and good for us, it can feel like a "betrayal when we don't adhere to everything we saw or were taught."
Nonetheless, whether we came from a two-parent home or a single-parent home or some other dynamic, the reality is that "most of our parents or family members did the best that they could with what was at their disposal, but what may have served them then, may not serve you today."
Although it may feel uncomfortable or it may require some courage, give yourself permission to release certain traditions for the sake of your relationships. Be open to the fact that your journey may look completely different, understanding that what may have worked for someone else may not necessarily work for you.
3. Be committed to doing the self-work.
Not only is it important to consider what we take in from others, but we also have to think about what we're telling ourselves, as well as how we engage with our partners. Rhonda encourages us to seek clarity and consistency, and we do that by being vulnerable with the people we're with, the people we're surrounded by, and/or even with a therapist or trusted advisor.
Personally, I relate to both of these anxious attachment styles especially when it comes to feeling as if I'm waiting for the ball to drop or someone to hurt me. It wasn't until I started going to therapy and really started to dig deeper and realized that so much of who I am and my behaviors is directly connected to the absence of my father. Now, I'm able to better manage a lot of the anxiety and those feelings of doubt a lot better because of it; which in turn, is also helping my marriage as well as how my people-pleasing tendencies show up in other relationships.
So, don't be afraid to do the work and dig deeper by having real, open, candid conversations.
4. Be intentional about engaging in mutually beneficial relationships.
No matter the relationship – lover, family, friend, etc. – there has to be mutual work on both sides. It can't be one person doing all the work. For example, "Men have to be just as invested in making the relationship work as women are" whether that's through counseling, reading books, attending seminars, or more.
As Rhonda explained, "Both partners need to have an independent level of understanding and awareness. You have to find a happy medium. Otherwise, these anxiety-filled attachment styles can lead to all or nothing or an unhealthy dependence on each other."
5. Be willing to take risks.
There are never any guarantees when it comes to life and love. There will always be a risk, but how we were raised or the things we've been told have made some of us risk-averse.
Think about a time when you were actually going to take a risk, but then, someone discouraged you from doing it. Later, you realized that they were merely projecting their fear and reservations onto you. That's why Rhonda suggests that we actually start taking more risks in other areas of our lives. We can't just be risk-takers when it comes to relationships. "It has to be a lifestyle shift. The more you take risks in other areas of your life, the easier it'll be to do in your relationships."
6. Be ready and willing to forgive.
Contrary to the Disney princesses' fairy tale endings, life isn't perfect and neither are relationships. However, having a willingness to forgive prepares you for the inevitable ups and downs that will occur in your relationship. Hence, instead of immediately defaulting to planning an exit strategy due to anxiety, fear, or the thought of someone leaving you, you're more prepared for the disappointment and more likely to take a step back and figure out how it is that you're going to forgive.
Of course, if there are major red flags or unhealthy behaviors within the relationship, then, it might be time to decide if you should stay or go. But choosing to leave just because you're scared, anxious, or worried doesn't have to be your first option.
7. Be willing to shift your mindset and focus on the secure attachment style.
Part of managing or changing these attachment styles also means shifting your focus from what you're not doing well to more of what you should be doing. It's "understanding what the secure attachment style looks like, why it's important, and why it's the healthiest attachment style" when it comes to your relationships.
As with most anything in our lives, you have to have what Rhonda refers to as a "North Star". Metaphorically speaking, the North Star helps keep you grounded and focused. It's a constant, reliable force despite whatever else is going on around you. Let the secure type serve as a your "attachment style North Star" and a reminder for what you want to strive to be - "straightforward with people…avoiding passive aggressiveness." It's a reminder to be "clear and communicate with your partner in terms of your needs, and also be receptive to their feedback."
Ultimately, the goal is to have secure attachment so that regardless of the relationship, "you can weather storms in a healthy way, maintain your self-worth, and focus your energy on what could happen in the future versus what happened in the past."
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