In fact, we crave privacy. “Avoidants experience intense emotions, including deep, all-consuming love,” Iris*, 26, who identifies as being attached through avoidance, tells SELF. We just need to feel that our independence is intact before we can tear down our walls and connect. Dr. Levine, in his practice with clients and in his forthcoming book, draws a similarity between winning the trust of avoidant riggers and winning outdoor cats: Leave the food out and they will come, he says. In other words, give us time and space to build trust, as long as it works for you, and we’ll end up feeling safe with you.
We feel many. Avoidantly attached adults feel a lot more than we let on. When we feel emotionally distressed, instead of reaching outward, we tend to dive inward. If we close our doors, it’s probably a sign that we are so overwhelmed with emotions that we feel overwhelmed. “Big emotions can be overwhelming and hard to sort into words,” Iris says. “And I tend to stay quiet about them for that reason.” It may take longer than you feel comfortable for us to process our feelings and express them clearly. We may need to stop conversations when we feel out of control and come back to them later. It is our responsibility to communicate this and to keep the promise to resume the discussion. It’s useful, however, if you don’t push us to talk when we’re activated.
We need help to be vulnerable. “When an avoidant person experiences their human vulnerability, it can be really uncomfortable and even downright terrifying,” Chen says. “Their story has convinced them that those needs won’t be met, so they really want to get away from that feeling.” But, of course, vulnerability is a key part of intimacy. For our part, we must work to unlearn that vulnerability is frightening. On your end, creating a safe atmosphere for us to practice vulnerability, as long as it is also safe for you, can help us learn this new skill set.
Yes, we need time and space alone, but that’s about us, not you. The way avoiders regain a sense of safety is usually through self-regulation. Giving ourselves time and space alone can help build the trust we need to connect. Given enough alone time to build security, says Dr. Levine, avoidant attachers can (and become) more comfortable in relationships and desire more intimacy — taking care of ourselves allows us to be more present. and healthier in our relationships. Communicating early on about expectations for time together and apart can help manage each other’s needs or let you know if a potential romantic partnership is a mismatch.
We are incredibly sensitive to criticism, real and perceived. Many avoidants have a deep-seated fear of being “wrong,” of doing their best, and somehow failing. Chen explains that while “being sensitive to criticism is healthy,” people attached to avoidance may be “more sensitive to criticism when they don’t believe they are lovable even when imperfect.” She suggests that if someone wants to give feedback to someone who is avoiding, they should “find non-threatening contexts for conversation,” like sitting side by side or walking around. It’s about voicing your concerns, using “I” statements and finding common ground can keep the conversation from becoming contentious.
It bears repeating: ultimately, we avoidant people are responsible for our own growth.
A supportive relationship can, as I mentioned, go a long way in helping avoidants feel more confident and comfortable with intimacy, but the real work is up to us. And, like most self-improvement activities, Dr. Levine says the first step to healing our attachment is accepting ourselves. “It’s really, really important for avoidant people to understand that, yes, it might be necessary to have a little more distance from people, but that’s okay,” he says. “You don’t have to fight for it.”
This is how I work with my attachment: allowing it to be the ground it is, while learning new ways to respond in relationships – through many of practice. And feeling more deeply understood and receiving compassion from others goes a long way in creating the security for me to do just that.
*Name has been changed.