Fearful Attachment in Friendships

Julia Roberts as a bride with a fearful attachment style in Runaway Bride.

There are four relationship attachment styles:

Anxious, Avoidant, Fearful, and Secure.

In my last two posts, I discussed anxious attachment and avoidant attachment styles in friendship.

In today’s post, I’ll discuss the fearful attachment style and how it show up within the context of friendship.

Fearful Attachment in Friendship:

Have you ever been told you “send mixed signals”, are “hot and cold” or that you behave in ways that others find confusing?

Friends with a fearful attachment style yearn for quality relationships, but fear them at the same time. They understand the value of relationships, but also feel threatened by interpersonal closeness, perceiving it as unsafe.

In short, having a fearful attachment style means that you want relationships with people, but are also afraid of relationships with people.

This type of attachment style makes it difficult for people to get close to the fearfully attached person, even if closeness is something they consciously desire.

How Does a Fearful Attachment Develop?

The concept of attachment styles comes from Attachment Theory, originated by psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Attachment Theory examines the relationship between a child and their parent or primary caregiver, and explains how a child’s attachment to their parent or caregiver impacts the child’s behavior in other relationships in life, such as with partners or friends.

A person may develop a fearful attachment relationship style if they experienced fear caused by the outside environment (as is to be expected) and sought soothing or comfort from a parent who themselves responded in a manner that also produced fear in the child.

The parent in question may have yelled at, abused, or otherwise frightened the child seeking soothing, making the parent – the needed source of comfort and reassurance – as scary if not scarier than the original fear-producing stimulus.

As a result, a fearfully attached child has nowhere to turn: they cannot escape the fears produced by their environment, and they cannot depend on their caregiver to soothe them. In fact, the parent’s frightening response to the child’s need for soothing may in fact exacerbate the child’s fears and anxieties. With nowhere else to turn, however, the child in this scenario may attempt again and again to seek comfort from their frightening parent, trapping them in a painful cycle of anxiety and unmet needs.

A fearfully attached person tends to view both themselves and others negatively. They may consciously desire and seek out close relationships, but become overwhelmed and uncomfortable when those relationships start to become a reality. At this point, they may push others away, fearing, on some primal level, for their safety. They tend to be on edge at all times, waiting for threats in the relationship to surface or for “the other shoe to drop.” Others may perceive their behavior as “hot and cold” ” and express confusion when the person who initially pursued closeness with them suddenly withdraws, rejects and needs space.

If this sounds familiar, and you are ready to work on shifting your fearful attachment style, here are some suggestions for next steps:

  • Get honest with yourself about your needs in a friendship. Try to accept these needs and yourself with compassion and non-judgement.
  • Use mindfulness to recognize your tendency to view yourself negatively. Use thought records to challenge these negative views of yourself.
  • Similarly, use mindfulness and thought records to recognize and challenge your tendency to interpret others’ behavior negatively. Unless your friends provide you with concrete evidence to the contrary, practice assuming that have positive intentions.
  • Make a list of the things you like and love about yourself. Remind yourself on a consistent basis of the reasons why someone would want you as their friend.
  • Learn how to recognize when someone is safe a safe person to be vulnerable with. This infographic provides some basic tips.
  • Additionally, learn how to recognize when someone may NOT be a safe person to be vulnerable with. This article provides some of the signs to look out for.
  • Explore what healthy activities help you self-soothe when you’re emotionally triggered. Here is a list with some self-soothing activity suggestions. It is important to practice these self-care activities when you aren’t triggered, so you can more easily access them when you are triggered.
  • Try to focus on mutual collaboration and meeting each other’s needs in your friendships. Reflect on how you can give support to your friends, and how you would like to receive support from them.
  • When you feel a relationship getting closer and start to experience the desire to pull away, name this impulse as an expected part of your pattern in interpersonal relationships, and challenge yourself to sit with the discomfort of increasing closeness instead of immediately acting on it by withdrawing from the relationship.

Do you have personal experience with a fearful attachment style in friendships or other relationships? Feel free to share in the comments.

In my next post, I will discuss the secure attachment style and how it manifests in friendships.

What’s YOUR friendship attachment style? Take the quiz and find out!

Sources:

Levine, A. & Heller, R. Attached (2010). New York, NY: Penguin.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-freedom-change/201505/come-here-go-away-the-dynamics-fearful-attachment

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© 2020 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

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