10 Game-Changing Discoveries About Having An Anxious Attachment Style That I Wish I’d Had Going Into My 20’s

Brian Falduto
14 min readJun 22

--

As my thirties have begun, I’ve noticed that, in some ways, dating is as difficult and scary as it ever was in my twenties. The challenges are certainly the same except it feels like I had a blindfold on while trying to tackle them for the past decade. Now that the blindfold is off, I wanted to share what’s been helpful for me because I know how it feels to navigate life without an example of how to cope.

  1. Anxiety? It’s totally normal and it’s not your fault.

The biggest turning point in understanding anxiety for me was in realizing how normal it is. Literally everyone has a stress response, so everyone is capable of experiencing anxiety. The primary function of a stress response is to keep us safe. Anxiety is often triggered unconsciously through either neuroception or through our limbic (unconscious) brain. Once a threat is detected, our nervous system gets activated and it begins sending panicked messages to our cognitive (conscious) brain, which waltzes onto the scene about 150 milliseconds after we’re already in an anxious state, confused and irritated about the anxiety we’re experiencing. This often critical response we have from a conscious state of mind is silly if you think about it. By saying you shouldn’t be anxious, you are essentially trying to change the past since your body/mind system already decided to dysregulate you in an effort to protect you 150 milliseconds ago. It doesn’t matter how often you feel anxious — it is still not your fault. It legitimately stems from outside of your conscious control and is typically the result of years of feeling unsafe, as well as protective conditioning that you need to understand, not fix. And of course relational triggers are going to be a troubling area for most people! In fact, unresolved trauma or attachment wounding reveals itself most in romantic relationships. Relationships are inherently vulnerable. We are opening ourselves up to someone and letting them in in a way where they might have the potential to hurt us or reject us. We are giving them access to the wounds from our childhood, which our entire personality is built around protecting. Until I started coaching more regularly and began to see the amount and the intensity with which many beautifully sane, talented, and intelligent people suffer from this completely normal biological response, I felt extremely alone in it, as if there was something very wrong with me because of the way I would react in dating scenarios. Trust me — you are not alone. This is very common and it’s explainable by science.

2. It’s not his fault either. Take responsibility for your triggers and don’t blame him.

It’s not that he’s not texting you back. You have other people in your life who aren’t answering your texts either and you are just fine. His lack of response is triggering a response in you for which context is needed. If it’s hysterical, it’s historical. If we immediately pass blame onto the other person, we miss the opportunity to take a look at our own stuff in a way that we can understand it. Relationships are, more than anything else, a unique opportunity to learn about ourselves because, as I like to say, it’s rarely the thing, it’s your relationship to the thing. So often, we mistake common human messiness (feeling neglected, abandoned, criticized) as unlovability. This feeds shame. What is familiar about what you’re feeling? What’s the history there? And how do you tend to respond when you’re triggered in this way? With this awareness, you can begin to identify what you need and communicate it in a way that allows your partner to meet that need. And no, they shouldn’t just inherently know what you need. No one will prioritize your needs unless you advocate for them. It’s in vulnerably and courageously sharing what your triggers are and what works for you in resolving them that you remove the guessing game for your partner.

3. Communicate often but pick your battles.

Everything I just described relates to communication and no, there isn’t necessarily a limit on how much is too much when it comes to communicating needs. It’s okay to be needy. It’s okay to be clingy. It’s okay to get attached. These are all actually relational strengths. If you’re too much for someone and they’re scared off by you, it may just be a compatibility issue. At the same time, we do need to pick our battles. You can’t go toe-to-toe with someone every time you feel uncomfortable in a relational dynamic. If we understand that what’s being triggered within us is ours (It can’t be anyone else’s — it’s happening inside of you!), there is something to be said for being able to tolerate the discomfort by holding yourself with loving care and compassion in those moments. Sometimes this is necessary in order to reparent your inner child and contribute to internal healing; we can’t constantly be externalizing every bit of discomfort that comes up for us, especially if we consider that much of it has little to do with our partner in the present reality. So, it’s a balance — as most things are — and it’s one I still struggle with. Know yourself and communicate your needs, but also know when it’s your turn to comfort yourself.

4. Do not chase someone unavailable. You should not have to convince someone to understand or value you.

There was the guy in LA who, while in an exclusive relationship, continued to pursue me to a point that was confusing while simultaneously behaving in contradictory ways that made me feel wanted. There was also my college boyfriend, who was sexually manipulative to a point that was controlling while also offering me doses of validation that I’d been longing for. There was even a recent recreational kickball season crush where a teammate and I clearly had a connection but he was always too hot or cold for me to keep track of. The similar relational dynamics in these relationships have resulted in several years of self-curiosity because they’ve all been anxiously challenging. I’ve since begun to come to know myself in a way that is useful. However, I find that all of this self-knowledge goes out the window once you get stuck in the adrenaline cycle of chasing someone who is unavailable. So just stop, right? Unfortunately, stopping the pursuit might not appear as the clear solution. In fact, our brains will try to convince us that the solution can be found in the pursuit, in the overthinking and the obsessing. This is often because when we’re raised in homes that are chaotic and unpredictable, our bodies become dependent on stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Because these high emotional states were often accompanied by attention or connection in the past, over time, we become attuned to that cycle. It can therefore be difficult to settle into more predictable, safe, and stable relationships later on in life. Plus, it’s not unusual that your awareness would contract while in a chronically stressful situation. That’s what happens during a stress response. Our attention narrows so that it can focus on the problem when, in reality, stepping back and expanding our awareness is more likely to offer solutions.

It is important to remember that in pursuing someone who is unavailable we are essentially pursuing our own unworthiness. In moments like these, I find it’s best to just trust your nervous system. Stop the battle in your brain and ask yourself: does this person make you feel safe or unsafe in your body? If they make you feel unsafe, that may be reason enough to walk away. When we’re stuck, we spend so much time focusing on the irrationality of the way we’re reacting until we convince ourselves that we’re crazy. But we’re not crazy. Very often, anxiety is based in truth. You are likely picking up on something. Maybe the person is unavailable, maybe they’re a bit avoidant, maybe they’re a fuckboi. I’m not saying that the thoughts generated by your anxiety are true. No, the text you sent isn’t the reason you’re unlovable. But the fact that you’re anxious in the first place might be based in truth and maybe when you meet someone available (thoughtful, responsive, and communicative), it won’t be as challenging for you. Sometimes this distinction won’t be possible to make and in those cases, it’s okay to ride the adrenaline wave. Don’t judge yourself for it; eventually it will settle and you’ll find yourself grounded again.

5. Leave conflict unresolved. Let your partner be in a bad mood.

This one is tough, but as I currently navigate the first healthy partnership I’ve been a part of in years, I find it essential. Your partner is a human. All the anxieties, emotions, insecurities, and reactive behaviors that you experience? Yeah, your partner has the capacity to experience all of that too. They will sometimes need space for their humanity to play itself out. You will experience conflict, your partner will annoy you, and yes, you will annoy your partner. Expect disappointment and develop the capacity to work through it. Ditch the fairytale concept of love that we’ve been taught and adopt an attitude toward relationships that is more truthful: they’re hard work. The reason tolerating conflict is difficult for you could be because you grew up in a household where there was a lot of it and so you went into survival mode out of the fear that your caregivers would abandon you…but you can’t be abandoned as an adult. You are your own caregiver now. Let this empower you.

6. Self-love is not the answer like we’ve been sold but self-compassion, on the other hand, IS the answer.

The issue with the self-love solution we’ve been taught is that it’s often pitched as an arrival point: “Once you love yourself, you’ll be secure enough to withstand the insecurity that arises in relationships.” No. Loving yourself is a practice and this idea that we need to get to some final destination with it is likely to lead to frustration with ourselves on days when we’re not quite there. A fellow coach gave me a metaphor once that I’ve stolen and I use all the time. The emotional pain we experience in our developmental years — whether it’s a break-up, an inattentive caregiver, losing a loved one, whatever it may be — is like a ball that forms inside of us that’s bouncing around hitting pain points. When it hits a pain point, it hurts. Over time, perspective will allow this ball to shrink, but no matter how small the ball gets, if it hits a pain point, it’s going to hurt. And who isn’t carrying some sort of emotional pain around? I’d love to meet them if they exist. We are all capable of having this internal pain get reactivated.

Something my partner and I are considering for the long term is some degree of an open relationship. Logically, I’m ready, but when we discuss potential steps in that direction, a ton of insecurities get triggered for me. I’ve learned that this is a common occurrence as monogamy can often serve as a stand-in for secure attachment. However, I try to remember the cultural definition of love I’ve been taught, as well as the often dysfunctional exchanges of love I grew up with. Does the insecurity that comes up for me at the idea of being open have to do with whether I actually trust in my partner’s love, or can it be contextualized with the emotional pain I carry from having feared that love was conditional for so long? Likely the latter. I’m not emotionally ready for an open relationship but I want to be. Getting there will require me to notice how the pain of my past is informing my present and when that happens, find ways to work through what comes up for me. Luckily, self-compassion is my new favorite mental health tool.

If a child tripped, fell, and was crying, you wouldn’t tell the kid to get up and stop crying. You’d likely kneel down to the child’s height level and offer some understanding, some love, some compassion — maybe a hug? Maybe some words of comfort? Maybe, “I know, I know, I know it hurts. I’m here with you.” The parts of us that experience emotional pain in relationships were formed when we were children. They are therefore still quite young — our inner children, if you will. Stop talking to your inner kid in ways you’d never talk to a kid that fell. The beautiful thing about self-compassion is that studies show we always have access to it, even on days where we may not have access to self-love. Compassion, translated, means “to suffer with.” You may not feel all that lovable sometimes but you can always acknowledge how human it is to feel less than lovable and in that acknowledgment, you can meet yourself with the acceptance and understanding you crave. When we do this, we’re working with ourselves rather than against ourselves.

7. My thoughts and feelings are not always valid.

Thoughts just happen. Feelings just happen. Sensations just happen. If you’ve ever meditated, you’d notice that your internal life is constantly unfolding entirely on its own, just as the external life around you is as well. If I treated every thought and feeling I had as valid, I’d be sleeping in every day, smoking weed constantly, and eating french fries for most of my meals (and hey, sometimes that’s exactly what I should do). Otherwise, your internal life is only really valid in that it exists. Sure, if you’re feeling a certain way, there’s likely some great information there if you were to get curious about it and contextualize it in a way that’s useful. It can even be useful to feel the feeling because, as they say, the only way out is through. But that doesn’t mean that every feeling you experience needs to be acted upon. Sometimes you’re angry. Doesn’t mean you should punch someone. Sometimes you don’t feel like going to the gym but maybe it’s in your best interest to go anyway. Mindfulness involves allowing feelings to rise and subside, simply noticing them while they do. All thoughts can be questioned. Just as a song will start randomly playing in your head, so will the movie reel of thoughts. Experts estimate that the mind thinks about 60,000–80,000 thoughts a day. Of those, about 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive. In my opinion, that is all the reason you need right there to dismiss any thinking that’s causing you suffering. Robin Sharma says, “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” Don’t let your thoughts or your feelings dictate how you respond to your relationship. Return to the present moment. Take your partner at face value. Under-analyze the situation. Granted, this can be difficult and that’s where distractions come in hand.

8. Distractions are OKAY.

There seems to be a misconception in the wellness industry that we need to be constantly facing our shit and processing our feelings all the time. I don’t know about you but I never signed up to be a monk! It’s 100% okay — mindful even — to intentionally choose a distraction in response to a challenge. For example, if you’re home by yourself one evening and you know you’re feeling sad, there’s nothing wrong with putting on your favorite junk TV show and indulging in your favorite meal. This is you offering yourself comfort and pleasure, which is sort of like putting ointment on a wound. I do think the operative word here is intentionality. If someone has a stressful day at work and they compulsively fall into their social media feed afterward to numb out, that’s reactive and it’s not allowing the body/mind to complete its stress cycle and return to safety. Whereas, attentively noticing your body/mind state after a long day and intentionally choosing an activity that responds proactively to whatever your mental/emotional state is makes all the difference in the world.

9. Don’t play games. Don’t manipulate. Don’t try to control.

I used to treat the dating arena like I was on a season of Survivor, which is what we do if we grew up without examples of healthy love until we learn to love beyond survival mode. I had to notice destructive patterns and I had to have the courage to respond to my defensive urges in new ways. This meant no more waiting to text back, no more playing hard to get, no more avoiding conversations, no more playing it cool, no more giving the silent treatment, no more shutting down and withdrawing, and no more emotionally distancing myself in order to gain power. I had to lean into connection and intimacy by consistently communicating, showing all my cards, asking for clarity, talking about and defining the relationship, negotiating differences, establishing boundaries where needed, compromising where able, and forthcomingly discussing sexual kinks and interests. Oddly, I feel like these are the behaviors I’ve always wanted to lean into because they lend themselves to certainty. Uncertainty is difficult for those of us who struggle with anxiety, but I was too afraid of rejection to allow myself the gift of certainty. Besides, I needed to be patient because I needed to find someone who’d be emotionally available and competent enough to hold space for the vulnerability and authenticity I was bringing to the table.

10. It is worth it.

As I said, I’m a little over seven months into a relationship where I’ve practiced a lot of what I’m preaching here and I have to say, what I’m building with my partner is something I’m so incredibly proud of. It’s hard to describe exactly how what we share is different from what I’ve shared in past relationships, but I think the easiest way to put it is that it’s something we’re consciously creating. It didn’t just happen. It took a lot of learning, adjusting, communicating, and releasing the craving for perfection. I had to heal myself so I could love better. That was unavoidable, hard work that I had to do if I wanted to have a healthy relationship. I’m not healed, but I’ve found a safe space in which to continue healing. I had to put my usual weapons down long enough so that I could begin to understand my wounds. I had to reenter the dating arena calm, curious, connected, compassionate, confident, courageous, and open-hearted. It was one of the scariest things I’ve done but there is no greater feeling than recreating yourself. And the safety I’ve found in my partner? The freedom we give each other to be human? The support that brings out each other’s best? The silly moments and the moments of evolution? It is all so worth it.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

Not all of the steps above will happen easily or at once. Personally, while it would have been nice to have these discoveries at the start of my twenties, I don’t even know that many of the points made here would have made much sense to me back then. I was still a very long way away from becoming “the most authentic person” my partner’s ever met: my favorite compliment he’s given me only because it means a lot when I compare it to ten years ago, when I’d just come out of the closet and all of my self-definition was grounded in perception management. I’m grateful for the attachment difficulties of the past decade. They forced me to wake up in ways that allow me to relate more earnestly to my current partner and even more importantly, ways that allow me to relate more earnestly to myself.

TLDR; “Stay open. Don’t let your guard come up. Because two open, vulnerable people will always find a way to connect.” — a quote from AppleTV’s Shrinking.

--

--

Brian Falduto

Multi-hyphenate creative & @thegaylifecoach.