Anxiety

Overcome Anxious Attachment by Becoming Dismissing

One way to go from being anxious to secure is through learning to be dismissing.

Posted Sep 06, 2019

It is common for me to hear someone with a preoccupied attachment style painfully recount an experience of interpersonal conflict, being rejected or shunned, or ruminating over what other people think of them.

They are struggling for a way to fix the situation and calm their minds. But the more they think about it and search for a solution, the more emotionally activated they become. Sometimes the solution is the opposite of what the person thinks is called for.

My reply is often: What would a dismissing person do?

I typically engage my clients (therapy and executive coaching) in an assessment of their attachment styles. I also educate them on attachment theory and how people with other styles perceive the world, think, feel, and behave in relationships.

In this regard, people with anxious/preoccupied styles have usually viewed the dismissing people in their lives as invalidating tormenters who routinely withhold love and care. They have learned to cope with and understand these people by learning all about the dismissing style. This helps them to not take the behavior as personally, but they still greatly dislike it. So, the thought of trying to act like a dismissing person might at first seem preposterous...

But the thought of having a dismissing reaction can be calming to the preoccupied mind.

Imagine that you are the person with a preoccupied style. You have an interpersonal conflict at work where you get frustrated and speak in a harsh tone to someone. You can tell that they are offended. You try to apologize, but that just makes things worse, and the person seems even angrier at you.

You go home worried about the repercussions. What if this person stays mad at you forever and tells everyone what a schmuck you are? Your reputation at work will suffer.

And what if they quit because of you? You could lose your job, and you won’t be able to pay your bills. Your family will be mad at you for making such a mess of things. And you really like the person you insulted, and they will never like you again. . . STOP. There is really no need to toss and turn about this all night and be consumed about it for days. 

At this point, the real dismissing readers are laughing.

The dismissing person would say:

  • Oh well, then maybe the other person won’t like me.
  • What I did wasn’t really that bad.
  • The other person will get over it.
  • It’s only a job.
  • It really doesn’t matter.
  • I already apologized, so it is over. There is nothing else to be done.

The dismissing person would combine this thinking with some dismissing emotion-regulation tools: 

  • Suppress any additional unwanted thoughts.
  • Deny things are really that bad.
  • Detach and ignore their body and any physical discomfort or anxiety sensations.

Then the dismissing person might:

  • Distract themselves and get busy on a new project or hobby.
  • Go out and do something fun.
  • Forget about it and go to sleep.

Anyone who really has an anxious/preoccupied attachment style will recognize that all of these thoughts and behaviors are the opposite of what they would typically do, and that is exactly the point. The net effect for a preoccupied person doing this for a night or two is that they might just feel better and function better at work and in their relationships.

And no, I am not glamorizing everything about the dismissing style. What I listed here were the adaptive parts that, if used as tools when called for in specific anxiety-provoking situations, could be quite effective.

There are negative aspects to that style, as with all attachment styles, that we would not want to engage in. These might include derogating the person we wronged because they dared to be mad at us, not apologizing or attempting to make things right, or keeping this behavior up for an extended period of time and across multiple contexts.

But when used sparingly, it is nice to know that you have this tool in your toolbox.

So, for those of you with anxious/preoccupied styles, put on your dismissing cloak when you need it.

There is an added bonus: People with dismissing styles do not typically like it when someone who was anxious/preoccupied starts disengaging, doing their own thing, and acting like they don’t care. It makes them anxious.

And the only thing I have seen that can make a dismissing person change is being allowed to feel anxious about losing a relationship. (There are some people who are so dismissing that they really won’t care no matter what you do. However, those are not the norm.)

I fully realize that most anxious/preoccupied people pride themselves on being authentic and true to their emotions. And some of them might say that this all amounts to manipulation and game playing. But when you apply cognitive reframing and intentional emotion regulation strategies in a way that helps you step out of an emotional spiral, that is called coping.

And don’t worry: You are not going to overcorrect and go from being anxious/preoccupied to being dismissing in relation to your attachment style. But some theorists, including me, believe that the way for a preoccupied person to move toward a secure style is to go through being dismissing.

Try it for a night: Put on your dismissing cloak and see if you feel better.