Social relationships can bring a sense of connection, happiness, and meaning to our lives. Unfortunately, for many people, they bring anxiety and worry. They have what psychologists call a preoccupied
style of attachment, or connection with others. For them, even an inkling that something is not exactly right in their relationships can send them into intense anxiety. More than anything, they want to feel safe, secure, and close to others; but instead they are hyper aware of the possibilities that they are not.
Although the difficulties from this style of connection are often heightened in romantic relationships, they can also characterize friendships. People with this style of connecting often:
- Feel preoccupied with pleasing others
- Feel an overwhelming need to be close to others
- Need a lot of validation and approval from others
- Are concerned that others don't value them
- Are fearful of being rejected
- Are so concerned about making others happy that they don't consider their own happiness
- Have expectations of themselves in relationships that are much higher than their expectations for others
- Question their own worthiness
If this describes you, then you know first-hand that feeling secure in your relationships is almost impossible to maintain. You are always gauging others' responses to you and are keenly aware of any changes in their emotional expressions. Such constant worrying leaves you emotionally off balance. When you perceive even just a potential threat to a relationship, you are likely to assume the worst and react quickly.
The possibility of losing connection with someone - of them rejecting you - is likely to feel deeply upsetting. So, you are likely to react with distress. This might come out as either clinging or anger. You might "cling" by repeatedly calling, texting, or looking to "run into" the person. And, you might express anger by trying to ignore the person (i.e. physically turning your back to them, not taking their phone calls), or by acting it out (i.e. putting the person down, rejecting the person by saying you never really like them).
So, how do you fix this?
Acknowledge The Pattern
The best way to address this problem is to acknowledge the pattern. Look back over your life to see how this pattern has played out. See how your anxieties and fears have crept into various relationships and even sabotaged them sometimes.
Once you are aware of the pattern, you might be able to see it play out in current relationships. When you find yourself saying this or that person might reject you for some reason, stop yourself before the feelings spin emotionally out of control. Ask yourself if this fear is part of a larger pattern. You might even talk with a trusted friend to get their perspective. Consider questions, such as: Is there some way in which your current worrying might be creating distance in your relationship? Is it possible that you have misread the cues and that there is nothing wrong in the relationship (that the person is responding to something outside of your relationship)?
This won't immediately turn your anxiety to a sense of security, but it might put doubt into beliefs you previous accepted as true. It might give you a chance to respond differently to someone's behavior. For instance, rather than writing off a friend who has not responded to some calls or emails, you might reach out and address this issue directly. The result might be what you fear. But, instead, your friend might explain their silence with an apology for upsetting you.
Spend Time With People Who Value You
To learn to feel secure in relationships, you must also choose to spend time with people who value you. When you do, you would benefit from the following:
- Notice how you discount what they appreciate about you, or how you discount them entirely.
- Question the tendency to discount when others view you positively.
- Challenge yourself to stay with the awareness of being valued by someone; and to even accept it, especially when some part of you wants to reject it
- Be aware that you are likely to worry and be preoccupied about your relationships; acknowledge it when it happens, be compassionate to your concerns, and then turn your attention to more positive experiences
This may be hard for you to accept, but it is okay to want, and even expect, some reciprocity in most relationships. You need and deserve to feel valued. When you reject this way of thinking, gently prompt yourself - as you would a friend - to reconsider. And be patient with yourself; you are trying to make a large and important change. In the end, the effort will pay off - feeling secure in yourself and with others will lead to happier relationships and a happier life.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.
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