Attachment Styles and the Art of Self-Control
Research shows that self-control is diminished by suppressing negative thoughts.
Posted Nov 08, 2020
Self-control is fundamental to social life and underlies the ability to interact effectively with others. But efforts at self-control deplete the mental energy needed to keep your impulses, negative thoughts, and emotions in check. Psychological researchers call this loss of energy ego-depletion.
Each attachment style experiences ego-depletion from different sources and in different ways. Secure attachment is associated with being able to get emotional needs met directly by seeking closeness to others who are available to act as secure bases. Insecure attachment styles, on the other hand, are defensive adaptations that develop when secure bases are inconsistent, not available, or downright scary. When secure bases (e.g., parents in childhood or romantic partners in adulthood) respond inconsistently (sometimes warm and embracing; sometimes cold or rejecting), people develop anxious/preoccupied attachment styles and manage their emotions through hyperactivation of their attachment systems. Hyperactivation corresponds with high sensitivity to social cues, strong emotional reactions, and attempting to manage social perceptions.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, those with avoidant/dismissing attachment styles control their emotions through deactivation of their attachment system. Deactivation corresponds with low sensitivity to social cues, blunted emotions, and ignoring or suppressing negative social perceptions. Suppressing unwanted thoughts and memories is one of the hallmarks of dismissing attachment. If you ask a dismissing person about memories of their early childhood, for example, they will give you a very general and very positive statement (e.g., my childhood was fantastic!) devoid of specifics or actual examples. If you press them for specific memories, they are likely to respond with a statement that they have very little memory of their earlier childhoods.
They use preemptive (ignoring) defenses and postemptive (suppression) defenses. With preemptive defenses, they never perceive or pay attention to negative social information. For example, they might not notice that they hurt their spouse’s feelings or said something cruel to a neighbor. With postemptive defenses, they suppress negative social information after the fact in an attempt to push it out of conscious awareness. For example, they may not be able to recall negative interactions with parents from childhood.
In their 2012 research, Jamie Kohn, Steven Rholes, and Brandon Schmeichel found that under normal circumstances, those with dismissing attachment are adept at suppressing negative memories of attachment figures (from before age 12). But this effort takes a great deal of energy. When their mental energy gets depleted, negative memories cannot be suppressed and break through into conscious awareness.
In contrast, those with secure attachment styles, who are not defended, have no difficulty accessing painful childhood memories. Because they aren’t expending energy suppressing things, they don’t experience energy depletion or struggle on subsequent activities that require self-control.
The practical implication is that when under stress or confronted with negative social information those with dismissing attachment will first try to ignore and then try to suppress the negative content. But they are not likely to be able to keep this up for long as their energy stores go down. Then, they are not likely to be able to cope with the negative feelings that arise from the negative thoughts and memories. At this point, the dismissing person may escalate and attempt to remove whatever or whoever is evoking the negative thoughts. They may resort to fleeing physically from the room or house. Or, they may become loud and aggressive in efforts to make the offending person back down or go away.
I am theorizing here because I don’t think the research has been done yet, but I predict that the stronger the suppression efforts in a dismissing person are, the stronger and more aggressive their reaction will be when their ego strength gets depleted and the negative content can no longer be suppressed.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, those with anxious/preoccupied attachment styles do not rely on suppression to regulate emotions. Rather, they actively engage in ruminative worry in efforts to figure things out, come to conclusions, or otherwise solve the problems. But, being consumed with anxiety-related thoughts can sap a person of mental energy just as much as suppression can, especially when the person is trying to control the worry (see Chris Englert and Alex Bertrams, 2016).
People with preoccupied attachment typically know that they engage in too much worry/rumination and may not want to look neurotic to others. So, they may try to control the worry. But this is likely to take so much mental energy that it is not likely to work for long. And when the worry does break back through, the person is likely to be depleted of mental energy and could lose their verbal filter. In other words, they may unleash a verbal onslaught that, while seeming to be based in truth at the moment, is likely to be regretted later when they have to pay the social cost.
So, what is to be done about all of this?
Exposure and Practice
Exposure. I frequently have dismissing clients ask me, “How do I fix this?” (referring to their intolerance of others’ dependency needs). My answer is that we expose you to thoughts of your own childhood, which includes surfacing (bringing into awareness) the negative ones. So, now you know why therapists want to talk about your childhood: This enables you to face your negative memories and bring this content into conscious awareness. With negative memories accessible to your conscious awareness, you should not have to rely as much on memory blocking suppression. When you get to a point that you don’t have to suppress, you won’t have to worry about the material intruding into your awareness or have to distance from the people who are stimulating the thoughts. So, you won’t have to get in your car and run away or angrily go off on someone in order to back them off. In short, you will be able to keep your relationships.
Practice: I always tell people that it took years of practice and skill development to learn to suppress negative thoughts and feelings. And your parents helped you do this in childhood. So, what makes you think you would be able to overcome this in adulthood in a period of months on your own with no help? That just doesn’t make sense. So, start small with mini-exposures, like telling a friend or loved one about a not so great childhood memory, or about a feeling of insecurity or vulnerability—and then don’t run away. Just sit with that uncomfortable feeling. Or, go out to lunch with your more emotional/talkative friend and practice listening and not running away (even in your mind). My experience is that most dismissing people have plenty of secure or anxious friends around who are willing to participate and help them through this process.
If you have a preoccupied or fearful attachment style, you should work out and practice building your muscles. In other words, build up your ego strength and ability to sustain your mental energy. Your mind is probably always thinking, but it is likely undisciplined.
Exposure. Allow yourself to experience some feelings of rejection or marginalization and try not to fight it. Just say to yourself, “This sucks” and sit with it. Attempting to talk others out of rejecting you or giving you reassurance rarely works anyway… and you know it. So, practice not fixing it through verbally arguing or acting out (i.e., having sex).
Practice. Start small. Try going out with friends or coworkers, having something to say, and feeling the pressure to let yourself be known, but then not saying anything and practicing just being an active listener. Practice talking with people about the weather without always going into deep topics or talking about relationships. My guess is that this will be tough and cause some discomfort.
Suppressing your worry and desires to share will probably deplete your mental resources. But keep it up. Over time, you will build up your mental muscle to the point where you will not have to block your worry. It just won’t matter as much and you will have the mental energy needed to really do what you want with your life.
* For those of you with fearful attachment styles, the balance of deactivating and hyperactivating coping strategies that you use is likely to be specific to you. You are likely to use a mix of these strategies and should judge which approach will work best for you.
Kohn, J. L., Rholes, W. S., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). Self-regulatory depletion and attachment avoidance: Increasing the accessibility of negative attachment-related memories. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 375–378. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.06.020