I find myself in a new situation where I’m experiencing extreme anxiety, ruminating and overwhelming distorted thoughts. What situation is this? Dating.
Something I have recently learned about myself is how much my Anxious Attachment interferes when I begin to bond to someone in a romantic relationship.
What is anxious attachment? It is also known as an attachment disorder or a preoccupied attachment disorder. “When people have this attachment style, their inner world and the world with the people closest to them feel uncertain,” clinical psychologist, Bobbi Wegner.
My biggest trigger: lack of communication, not checking in, going a day without calling or texting, leaving out information when telling me things about your day/week or decisions you have made.
Why are these behaviors so triggering? Because my 21 year old self lived through the WORST intimate attachment wounds when she married an abusive sex-addict. She was neglected, ignored, demeaned, controlled, dehumanized, and physically abused for 11 years. Being married was the LONELIEST I have ever felt in my entire life. I was alone, and emotionally abandoned but on paper, I was “married”. Literally, I was single – but literally married. I did everything alone, made decisions, completed all house work and, processed things alone. ALONE. ALONE. ALONE. Essentially, it was a repeated abandonment, my dad being the first source of this type of wounding.
In my recent relationship I realize that when communication begins to wane, my 21 year old self starts to freak out. Rumination, interrupted sleep, binge eating, obsession and preoccupation evaluating all the possible things that he could be doing to hurt me, teeth grinding, and an overactive mind. This type of response affects my work, relationships and datily routines.
What is my response in the romantic relationship when I begin to feel communication decrease, or I start to notice red flags, and/or an emotional injury has taken place? I fawn.
What’s fawning? In my own words, I describe fawning as doing whatever you can to CONVINCE someone to stay, act the way you want them to act, meet your needs, or stop their addiction. Why do I do this? To avoid pain. Fawning is a safety seeking behavior it can look like; bringing lunch to your boyfriend after he verbally abused you the night before. Having a conflict with your dad and then making him chips and cheese (my dads fave) while he watches TV after work. I realize I learned to fawn at a very young age. After being reamed out and criticized by my mom all day, what do I do when her and my dad are out for the night? I clean the entire house for her. What do I do after I heard another explosive argument at night between my mom and dad? I make them breakfast in bed.
You see, the safety impulse for me in childhood was to smooth out all the tension in the house to care take of the adults so that they would love me, and I wouldn’t feel the emotional pain of the abuse. I wanted to be be seen and attuned to. I was a scared little girl. If I could make it stop – then I wouldn’t be scared and experience the discomfort of emotional neglect, screaming, physical violence, doors slamming and the pain of silent treatment.
Here’s an example from my past romantic relationship: My boyfriend verbally assaults me. He has a level 10 reaction to a level 1 problem (I asked him to wash his hands when he came over after work). He used sacred information I shared with him to shame me in that moment. What do I do the next day? I invite him and his daughters over to watch a movie together. I make popcorn, buy $40.00 worth of snacks and rent the movie – I made everything perfect for them. He says nothing about the abuse only, “I’m sorry”. What did my little Fawn do there? She placated him – she smoothed out all the ruffles in the relationship – she made everything go back to the “way it was” so that she wouldn’t have to feel the discomfort of fear, abuse, and not getting her needs met. She’s actually protecting me – the FAWN response is there to avoid PAIN at all costs. The brain is doing her God-designed job to protect me!
So, as I explore this new relationship, with a very kind man who forgets to call; I realize how much my 21 year old self likes to take over. She is SO SCARED history will repeat itself and she will be neglected and emotionally abandoned again. If she could just CONVINCE this man to act the way she wants him to, she would not have to endure another repeat of the loneliest time in her life. So, Fawny, as I like to call her, wants to come out and do her job to protect (at this point she doesn’t need to because there is no real threat). So far, fawning with this man, it sounds like a lot of ego stroking. Like in a text, “Good Morning! Here are three things I appreciate about you today…”
Now, that text SOUNDS healthy – but it is not coming from a healthy place. Number one: I haven’t been with him for very long – so the tendency is to take 1 green flag that I have seen and throw that over his ENTIRE personality in a dangerous idealizing way. It doesn’t leave room for him to be human. I’m not shaming myself for this behavior because I’m an amazingly awesome partner!! However, I can slow down and wait to give all that goodness. Number two: He is not investing the same. I’m OVER INVESTING so he won’t change his mind, neglect me, or leave. If I haven’t heard from him for a day or so… my Fawny goes right into stroking his ego so he will pay attention to me. She is saying , “SEE ME! LOOK AT ME!!! LIKE ME, NOTICE ME”
My Fawny is a behavioral response – a triggered PTSD response to a perceived threat to my value. The 21 year old is telling me, “This is about to get REAL dangerous. I am about to be neglected, abused or abandoned. I have to prove my worth and value to this man – just like I tried to with my parents.
How do I help the 21 year old? What is the root fear? Why is the Fawn ACTUALLY presenting itself?
I want to invite you into a coaching conversation I had with my 21 year old part. I ask you to look closely at what it is like to speak to and validate an anxious part of self. My 21 year old is very scared of this man and relationship, she only knows entrapment and powerlessness. My adult self knows that the data I have collected so far is very safe, kind and there is room for him to be human, so far my adult self feels good and safe. So, as my nurturing adult self – I need to reach out to my 21 year old, the Fawn is coming from her and it is no longer serving us well. Fawny, will hurt myself and this man that my adult self cares for.
Eventually, with her needs being met and validated – she will not need to protect, I will be able to redirect her to a different strategy in times of anxiousness and insecurity.
*Just a note: when I say ‘me’ in this dialogue I am referring to my adult self. Me in the present.
21 year old: I feel powerless. I tried to tell him over and over how I felt, and what was hurting me. I was so lonely. Please don’t make me go back there. Why don’t these men see me? If I didn’t matter to my husband – why would I matter to this new dude? I’m not love able, my dad didn’t see me, my husband didn’t, I was too shameful or not enough to bring into my ex-boyfriend’s family – he neglected me, pulled away, didn’t want to spend time together, wouldn’t touch me physically. After a while he just kept me in a closet when he wanted me and then put me back in the closet for all the parts of his life he didn’t want me in. I’m always so neglected. Nobody pays attention.
So why would I matter to any man? I screamed at the top of my lungs and my husband didn’t hear me, I begged, cried, isolated, threw things and he NEVER heard my cries for attention or love. I’m feeling it happen again… he’s not going to communicate, I won’t be a priority – he’s neglecting me.
I know I am ramping up for a fight, because I’ll have to convince, scream and explain over an over to be seen – and I’ll still be betrayed and ignored. Death by a THOUSAND paper cuts.
I scream and rage because I’m ready for the long fight, to beg for attention. I have to beg for a friend.
Me: You have every right to be angry. I’m so sorry, Rochelle you didn’t deserve that! You didn’t know there was another way. When you start to see less communication from your dude, how does that make you feel?
21year old: PISSED!!!! ANGRY!!!! You can’t take two seconds to call me?!! This is gonna be a whole relationship of being ALONE AGAIN and I already feel trapped.
Me: You feel trapped? How so?
21 year old: Because it’s happening, all over again and I’ll be so lonely it will be pointless to have a marriage.
Me: So you get angry?
21 year old: YES! And I start obsessing and predicting how horrible this is going to be and how he’s going to hurt me. I’m gearing up for the screaming and struggling – HE WON’T LISTEN TO ME!
Me: So it sounds like your ready for the fight – it kind of sounds like you are ready to protect Rochelle, to make sure she is heard and seen? If you try hard enough, maybe the person will change?
21 year old: YES! That’s it ! Nobody listens to me or takes me seriously!
ME: Nobody? Who is that?
21 year old: My family: mom, dad, brother, grandparents, uncle, aunt, and husband they all teased me and called me dramatic.
ME: That sounds SO IRRITATING and MADDENING!!!
21 year old: IT IS!!!!!! I’m angry!
Me: So, what did you do to survive all that?
21 year old: I screamed, I cried, I went to my room when no one would listen or when they made fun of me. I isolated with music and Netflix. I stopped talking when my mom and dad would interrupt me mid-sentence. I threw things at my husband and yelled and and wailed on the bathroom floor – but he just ignored me, walked past, and into his office. I was so trapped.
Me: You did a good job screaming – I’m glad you yelled! I’m glad you threw things – you were trying to protect Rochelle, she was being slowly abandoned over time and neglected. You weren’t valued. You were trying to get your needs met!
21 year old: Yes – I was in pain. So much hurting and loneliness
Me: You know, Rochelle has been working so hard to heal from the marriage. She’s spending a lot much time learning about herself, and how her parents and her husband harmed her for the long term. It’s amazing what she has learned. She is not trapped anymore. She actually loves her life!! What do you think about that?
21 year old: I will always be trapped.
Me: What do you mean by that?
21 year old: Trapped in myself
Me: You think you are trapped in yourself, in your own body?
21 year old: Yeah, because there’s self loathing – everyone else loathed her and now it’s in there
Me: What makes you say that?
21 year old: I’m always the problem. My husband says I’m too controlling, nagging, lazy, he calls me a bitch. He only wants me for sex. My mom says I’m going to stop my husband from reaching his fullest potential if I don’t get it together. She calls me a hot mess, she said I’m an un-supportive wife – that I’m too bossy and I need to have more sex with him, because married men need lots of sex. She said that I was mean to my husband. I’m never doing anything right. When we get together with my uncle and aunt, my uncle and dad and husband tease me. It could be about anything. My opinions, beliefs, questioning, not understanding a card game we’re playing. The girls at church talk behind my back, they don’t like me and send me mean letters. I never know the truth. I am treated like shit. I WAS TREATED LIKE GUM on the bottom of a shoe. No actually, the gum gets more attention than me cuz it takes so long to look at and scrape it off.
I hate this part of myself. I don’t want a man to be disgusted by me again. I don’t want to be teased or criticized, or be alone in a relationship again. I’m scared. And I’m just getting ready with all the anxiety, I know it’s going to happen again.
ME: Deep breaths my love. Hearing this makes me cry I am so sad for this. You should NEVER have been treated like this from the people who claimed to love you. You know, behavior like this could happen again and this time you wouldn’t be powerless. Rochelle has learned so much. She knows how to live in freedom, peace, collect goodness, feel “filled”, and she loves her life! With the help of the Holy Spirit she has created this space for herself!
She knows she can make decisions and choices! Will you let her help you with this anxiety?
You are such a good protector – getting ready for the fight and the convincing. I totally get that. You’re protecting her and desperately trying to make it so she won’t feel pain or loneliness.
Do you think you’d let her show you another way to get your needs for attunment and intimacy met?
21 year old: okay….
Me: When your dude doesn’t reach out, tell Rochelle, “I don’t like this, I’m feeling scared that we’re going to be neglected and lonely and abandoned again. What should we do?” She will answer you!
She might say something like this: “Yes, 21 year old, I’m feeling the same way. I see you and feel what you are saying, I love that you are so in tuned with what feels scary AND with what you need. If you want to date – you need a person who is emotionally available to communicate in a healthy and mature way. No one should feel neglected in their relationships.
I’m here, let’s make a plan. First, we will ask directly for what we want and while we wait, we’re going to write about how this feels. And we will also talk to a safe counselor or friend, they always have insights that help soothe and bring clarity. We have choices okay? I will not allow us to ever be neglected and emotionally abandoned in a relationship again.
We will also ask the other person for information. We can’t mind read or predict the future so we will directly ask to find out facts about the circumstance – instead of making up a story in our heads, making him the villain.
We don’t have to stay with this man if we begin to feel threatened, lonely, neglected, abandoned, dismissed or alone. If you do not feel seen, valued, heard – then it is not for you. You have survived SO MUCH and I take your voice seriously – everything you have to say is worth listening to with my undivided attention.
I really do see you – and what you have to say is so important, because It’s always related to something so profound. I’m not going anywhere – I’m hanging on every word you say. You are very important – I love just being with you and listening to whatever is on you heart and mind.
You’re witty, deep, caring, empathetic, compassionate and loving. I love knowing you – you’re just amazing to be with.
If someone would rather ignore you than spend time with you and talk to you – it’s their loss.
You don’t have to do any convincing that person at all. You don’t have to convince them that you are good, kind, desirable, attractive. You do not have to beg for bread crumbs from this person. You do not have to beg for their time and attention. You do not have to stroke their ego so they will respond to you.
You can walk away, because you are important, simply because God made you in that secret place. He LITERALLY MADE THIS INCREDIBLE PERSON I’m spending time with and witnessing her mannerisms, her humor, personality and features.
You truly are this amazing Creation and I can’t wait to keep being with you – to spend time with you and listen to your heart – you are so worth it! You don’t have to convince me of anything! I ALREADY know you are PRECIOUS and VALUABLE and I WANT to spend time with you.
You are an AMAZING being filled with life, love, and laughter. And I want to be here for all of it! No fawning necessary. I know how to love and meet your needs. I am with you – and I am here whenever you want to spend time together. ‘
This is where the dialogue stopped for us. I felt that feeling of “fullness” , my “love cup was all filled up” I felt my anxiety decrease and I was back to focusing on self rather than the preoccupation. At this point I knew I had met the anxious part’s needs.
This will happen again when I am triggered. I’m learning to have self-compassion and coach myself through that part’s anxiousness. There is always a root fear and cause for our trigger. There is a state of mind that becomes stuck from the original attachment wound. The more I practice using my adult self to coach her the more a new state of mind will begin to wire together – creating healthy, secure attachment to self, God and whoever the romantic partner may be.
If you are interested in learning more about inner parts, attachment and recovery from childhood wounding, please contact me! I would love to partner with you in your healing journey.
(Thank you to my amazing counselor and mentor Megan Owen for teaching me to love all parts of myself. The core of who I am is continually emerging.)