Breakups generally suck for most folks, but for those of us with an anxious attachment style, they can be absolutely soul-crushing. I’d like to share a bit about why this could be.
One of my last breakups was particularly instructive. At the time, I was already years deep into therapy and recovery from codependency and various addictions. I honestly don’t recall who initiated the split or if it was a mutual decision, but I crumbled into a pile of dust nonetheless.
I’m type 1 diabetic, and I’m here to tell you that my body was literally shutting down. Diagnosed as a wee lad, managing the illness is second nature to me. Yeah, it can be a pain in the ass, but it’s seldom ever challenging. After this breakup, I felt like my whole digestive system (and all of my internal organs, including my heart for that matter) had been removed from my body. Like I wasn’t even a biological organism anymore. I was a ghost.
I just so happened to be doing a test trial on a continuous glucose monitor that week. So instead of testing my blood sugar with finger sticks eight times a day, I could simply look at this pager device and see exactly what my blood was doing in real-time. And it was not good, y’all. I’m talking off the charts, and no amount of insulin could right that ship.
Struggling to eat, hydrate, breathe, sleep, or achieve homeostasis, I couldn’t even put together a respectable turd for a week or so. I was a fucking mess. Friends had to escort me out of my house, supervise me, buy me meals and whatnot. It was wild.
When “Self-Improvement” Reinforces Self-Rejection
One would think that after doing all this work on myself that breakups would get easier, not harder. But I think the counterintuitive progression of my pathetic meltdowns was actually a result of really trying extra hard to be a better person.
This is the plight of the anxiously attached — the unyielding drive to somehow become more lovable through performance, sacrifice, education, or achievement. An insatiable craving for unconditional positive regard. We are the super-boyfriends and super-girlfriends of the galaxy!
I’ve been tap-dancing for snuggles and hustling for worthiness all my life. So when I found out I could do therapy, read self-help books, and join support groups to improve my relationship skills, I was like “Can I mainline recovery straight to the jugular?” If I do ONE MILLION THERAPIES, surely I’ll become so healthy and wonderful that I never have to experience rejection or abandonment ever again!
The only hitch is that, in harboring such a belief, I’m inherently rejecting and abandoning the SHIT out of myself. And, as it turns out, all rejection stems from self-rejection; all abandonment stems from self-abandonment. I literally cannot experience rejection from another person unless I myself have already rejected me. And conversely, when I reject myself, it’s pretty damn hard to feel accepted anywhere.
Self-Abandonment Amplifies Painful Experiences
Here is the point I’d like to make about breaking up while anxiously attached…
The primary mechanism of connection for those with an anxious attachment style seems to be self-abandonment. We are uniquely skilled at sweeping our wants, needs, thoughts, preferences, and whole ass sense of self under the rug in order to maintain closeness with our partner or emotional messiah (po-TAY-toe, po-TAH-toe).
We’ll do or not do damn near anything to preserve the holy grail of attachment. Typically, our partner’s feelings and needs therefore take precedence over our own. And we become whatever we think they need us to be. We act or dress differently. Do things they like. Amputate friends, hobbies, or pieces of our lives we once cherished. Tippy-toe around their feelings and avoid setting any boundaries of our own.
We push all our chips into the center of the table, including the ones that read “dignity” and “self-respect.” So when the relationship doesn’t work out (like 99% of all relationships) we are left with fucking NOTHING. We risked it all — every bit of our heart and soul — put it all on the table, and it still wasn’t good enough.
Can you see how this is the ultimate existential throat-punch of unworthiness and terminal unlovability? And losing a partner wouldn’t be so damn excruciating if we didn’t also lose ourselves in the process. It’s complete emotional bankruptcy.
The Truth About Healthy Relating
Self-abandonment doesn’t work. I know it feels like doing a whole buncha stuff for your partner at your own expense should somehow garner their favor. And maybe it does in a very short-term, immediate gratification kinda way. But that it’s not sustainable. It’s the emotional crack-cocaine on the dingy street of lonely hearts.
Securely attached, healthy, adult relationships require boundaries. They demand authenticity and frequently uncomfortable as shit conversations with your partner that you would much rather not have. Conflict, confrontation, and disagreement are vital ingredients to genuine vulnerability. Self-care, self-respect, autonomy, and individuation are essential to healthy relating. All things that anxiously attached people are not well-equipped to handle.
Anxious attachers were usually abandoned (physically or emotionally) as children and felt inherently unlovable because of the unhealthy distance (withholding or withdrawal) of others. We learn, this person makes me feel like crap. So we start hustling for attention — through perfectionism, over-functioning, achievement, or performance. And we soon discover, I can make this person feel proud of me, notice me, or love me if I abandon my feelings, wants, needs, and authentic self and do a bunch of shit for them.
The result is that we form a profoundly dysfunctional core belief that other people “make us feel” and we “make other people feel.” That they are responsible for our feelings and we are responsible for theirs. And there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that any healthy relationship can stand on such a foundation. In fact, I wouldn’t even use the word “relationship” to describe such an emotional entanglement.
What To Do About Your Anxious Attachment Style
While anxious attachment is not a death sentence, it’s definitely something you gotta learn to deal with. Because no one wants to manage your maladaptive childhood coping mechanisms for you, and it’s not their job to.
Like I said, I have diabetes. In a relationship, I inform my partner of my illness, what it means, how it might affect them, and how I will take care of it. I’m clear on what is and is not acceptable for me in terms of diet, exercise, travel plans, etc. When I take responsibility for my own self-care, my relationship is largely unaffected by my condition.
This is exactly what you gotta do with your attachment style. Know what it is, what you need to do to manage it, and follow through on self-care. Granted, insecure attachment is a trauma response and the treatment is typically a lot more intense than counting carbs and taking insulin. But the analogy paints the right picture.
Treatment for anxious attachment will look different for different people. But generally speaking, anxious patterns stem from abandonment which inevitably leads to some form of self-abandonment. People-pleasing, codependency, perfectionism, shame, low self-esteem, poor boundaries, etc. You can tackle these challenges through therapy, coaching, 12-step recovery, self-help books, workshops, YouTube videos — whatever blows your hair back.
But remember, the ultimate goal is self-acceptance, not “trying to make yourself more lovable.”
I’ve written quite a few articles about attachment, trauma, and healing that you can check out (free blog subscription here). A friend and colleague recently published a terrific resource, The Anxious Hearts Guide, and agreed to share coupon code FIXYOURPICKER with my readers for free shipping! Her book contains lots of helpful information, exercises, resources, and stories for those who are waking up to the impacts of anxious attachment.
Everyone’s journey of self-discovery looks a bit different, so it doesn’t really matter how you decide to participate in your healing. Just do it.
Because hope is not a plan of action, Tinder is not a relationship skill, and self-abandonment is not a strategy for success.