Attachment theory has helped many people better understand how their past influences their relationships and how they perceive themselves and others. The ideas from attachment theory are widely-cited because many find them useful in gaining insights into how we relate to others, particularly in romantic relationships. But what if we apply these same ideas to understand how you relate to yourself?
Your relationship with yourself may predict how you relate to others more than you realize. As a quick review of attachment theory first, we have an innate drive to seek proximity and tender contact with a caregiver, especially when we feel threatened or afraid. Based on early experiences in seeking attachment, we may develop expectations of how we believe others will respond to us in adulthood. (It's important to note, however, that the association between a person’s attachment characteristics early in life and in adulthood are far from perfect.)
Those with a secure attachment style tend to be comfortable relying on others and having others depend on them. They have a basic sense of trust and confidence that others will respond to them in a kind matter and that being close to others is safe and rewarding. You’re likely to have a secure attachment style if you recall the majority of your childhood experiences as those that your parents met your security needs, and they comforted you and allowed you to be close to them, especially when you felt distressed, uncertain, or afraid.
There are two kinds of insecure attachment: avoidant and anxious. Here I discuss avoidant self-attachment. If you have an avoidant attachment style, you generally avoid being close to others because you just don’t see the benefits. You may worry that others might hurt you or let you down. So you don’t make an effort to connect with them. You may come across as a bit aloof.
An avoidant adult may have had childhood experiences in which they needed help or comfort and do not receive it. They may have had a parent who was physically or emotionally absent, been in a family where they were shamed for needing comfort, or been taken advantage of for showing vulnerability, to name a few.
Over time the natural instinct to reach out for help and comfort from others shuts down because the act of reaching out gets either no response or negative results. It becomes too painful to keep relying on others who simply aren’t there or cannot respond in a comforting way. So you tend to distance yourself from others generally—and especially when you are stressed. If you’re avoidant, you may worry about getting too close to others and not want them to see you vulnerable; and you may instinctively pull away from those close to you when you feel upset.
In the avoidant attachment pattern, you generally avoid being close to others. Another word for avoidant attachment is dismissive—you don’t see relationships as that important. Because of early attachment experiences, you might come to believe that it’s better to avoid other people—especially when you’re stressed because they are likely to make things worse somehow.
In terms of self-relating, avoidant people tend to be dismissive of themselves. They may have a habit of ignoring their feelings of distress—distracting themselves through work, videos, food, shopping, or whatever their favorite habit is of keeping their attention away from themselves. This automatic reflex developed to avoid the pain of feeling vulnerable and alone.
In my work with reflections, detailed in my recent book on mirror meditation, I discuss how to work with and transform avoidant self-attachment. For example, Tamara came for mirror meditation instruction because she felt something was missing in her life. She spent a lot of time alone and was generally comfortable with that.
Yet she felt that something was missing when she sat with herself in front of the mirror. Her attention drifted to her to-do list, organizing her closet, what she wanted to eat that day, the urge to shop for something online—anything but herself! Though this was not a huge problem for her in day-to-day life, she noticed that she automatically avoided looking at herself and could not reach out to others when she felt stressed.
As a child, she was teased or ignored for being vulnerable. As an adult, she thought it was only acceptable to reach out to others when she felt totally together. She admitted her relationships weren’t very deep or satisfying for her.
Our work involved helping Tamara stay with herself, not dismissing or avoiding herself—no matter how she was feeling. At first, Tamara felt nothing. Her attention was like a cork in water—it kept coming up to the surface instead of dropping deeper into her feelings. She had learned to keep everything on the surface. “I don’t feel anything.” She would say. I said, “It’s OK. Stay with yourself and simply watch yourself.”
It was hard for her to let me see her. She worried I might force her to feel something or interpret her feelings in inaccurate, wrong, or simply annoying ways. I assured her that she was the authority on how she felt and that I had no expectations about it. Merely holding space for her to have a new experience with herself—whatever that might be. I encouraged her to do mirror meditation alone and pointed out that it was also vital for her to let others she trusted see her vulnerability a bit. In the avoidant pattern, you disregard your feelings when under stress and disconnect further from others who might provide valuable reflection and support. Letting go of this habit would help Tamara develop deeper friendships.
As she was able to stay with herself and watch herself, she eventually started to feel. She began to worry that she might start to feel too much and become too overwhelmed or so involved in her feelings that she wouldn’t be able to get things done. I suggested that she do mirror meditation for 10 minutes a day and practice staying with herself and letting herself feel. After the 10 minutes, do whatever else she wanted or had to do—just commit to being with yourself every day for the 10 minutes no matter what. She also agreed to make a 10-minute video journal every day and talk about her feelings—even if she felt nothing.
By committing to give herself this attention daily, she built a stronger relationship with herself over time. She discovered some deep emotions that she’d been avoiding. Eventually, self-compassion began to upwell in her when she realized just how much she actually felt and how she’d been avoiding herself and her true feelings for so long.
Try it for yourself.
Next time you are in a state of not feeling much, watch yourself in the mirror. See if you can tolerate being with yourself without feeling much. Notice when you feel the urge to snack, scroll, shop, or whatever your favorite distraction and see if you can check yourself out in the mirror instead—even if it’s just a passing glance to interrupt the habit. See if you can get in the habit of checking in with yourself when you’re feeling stressed instead of abandoning or avoiding yourself. Know that you can simply sit with yourself—you don’t have to fix yourself and change your feelings. Be there for yourself.