Understanding your shut-down & distancing patterns.
A brief explainer:
It's known that the avoidant attachment style begins in early childhood, at a time when the brain is literally being wired for relationships. The avoidant style stems from a disruption in the attunement, or lack of attunement, from the parent. Healthy attunement basically means the parent's demeanor toward the child is: curious about who the child is, mirrors back to the infant what the infant is feeling, and does their best to understand the kid and make sure he/she consistently feels accepted.
In the 'Strange Situation' (a study done to assess attachment styles), when Mom left the avoidant child with a stranger (a safe therapist), the child showed no signs of distress when Mom was leaving, played normally with the (safe) stranger during Mom's absence, and when Mom returned, the child showed very little interest in her return. Basically the child related to the mother and the stranger equally. This is fascinating stuff, and this avoidantly attached child's reactions differ greatly from securely attached (and anxiously attached) children. A securely attached child would show a bit of distress when Mom leaves, be a bit apprehensive to engage with the stranger, and welcome the Mom upon her return with happiness. Again, the avoidant child was aloof and disengaged when Mom left and when she returned.
This lack of attunement in childhood may have looked like parents who were dismissive or emotionally abusive, or neglectful. The caregiver may be emotionally unavailable and even unresponsive to the child. The parent is much more concerned about their own needs. In fact, when the child expresses a need, the parent might shame or even punish them. So, this indeed can look like a child getting punished for doing what a child naturally does when their needs aren't being met, which is crying, or showing emotion. This is obviously quite sad because the child is being ignored, and their needs are being determined as unimportant. How can this NOT have lasting consequences later on down the line?
So, growing up, the child/teenager will have learned to avoid the primary caregiver (Mom and/or Dad). When the child does feel that impulse to seek connection or comfort, even when hurt or sick, that urge will get suppressed. The child has learned to disconnect from that impulse to reach out and ask for help, or seek comfort, because they've learned that Mom/Dad are not able to fulfill that need. It's no wonder than that the child feels equally as comfortable with a stranger as they would with their parent. In fact, if the parent was abusive or neglectful, the child has adapted to actively avoid them, and began learning how to cope without seeking comfort. If this resonates with you, perhaps you were told you're an 'old soul' or 'so mature for your age,' because you were hardened by having to take care of yourself and grow up to quickly. Anyway, all of this is how the Avoidant Attachment Style begins.
As adults and especially as children, we have core needs. These needs are basically:
1) The need to feel emotionally safe (reliable and consistent attunement from the parent).
2) The need to feel seen (the felt experience of being understood by parents, including the child's full range of authenticity and feelings being tolerated and accepted).
3) The need to feel soothed (a gentle touch by the parent when the child is upset, settling the kid's nervous system).
4) the need to feel appreciated (the parents celebrate in the child's small wins and are there in an understanding way when it wasn't a win).
As a little boy or girl, if you're avoidantly attached, you learned to ignore your own needs and feelings. Of course you did, since you were all too often sent the message that your needs and feelings aren't important. You began to believe that. That message became a core belief: My needs/feelings aren't important, and in fact it's not even safe to have them, much less express them, therefore I must suppress these feelings and needs. Of course, we don't think with this verbiage at that age, but it's a felt experience that gets wired in. That poor little you just became avoidantly attached, and intimacy and connection just became something to be feared.
This why, now, as an adult, in moments of intimacy or conflict, your primary survival response it to shut down. Emotions are to be avoided. Those feelings in the body that signal us as to how we feel? Forget about it. The avoidant has successfully disconnected from the body, and from feelings, as a coping skill and a way to survive.
Because of your parent's own trauma, or stress, they often dismissed or invalidated your feelings or needs. If this happened consistently enough, the message you internalized is that having needs and feelings is certainly not safe. Peeling away the onion layer even further, you may have an over-developed sense of independence, autonomy, and even confidence. After all, you've made it this far, surviving on your own, and look at what you've accomplished and achieved. You may feel the urge to pull away during conflict, & feel suffocated with intimacy and closeness. You might think emotions are unhelpful and judge people for having needs. You may mistake self-reliance and independence as superior to connection, and you might experience space and distance as more comfortable. You prefer 'logic over emotions.' There may be nothing wrong as you see it (except you're sitting here on the couple's therapy sofa with your partner).
Because your parents were emotionally unavailable, and because a child longs for connection, the absence of that connection can be traumatic. The child learns to dismiss their own feelings and needs (& disconnect from them), in order to accommodate the parent and whatever the parent is needing. Of course this adaption is a survival response! It makes complete sense! The child only has one set of parents, so it's basically interpreted as a life or death situation. The child must learn to do whatever it takes to earn the parent's love, approval, and attention.
The avoidant may have been parentified. What does this mean? It means that as a young person, they became the caretaker for their parents needs, and learned to set their own needs aside. This resulted in a safer, more calm household.
If you're avoidantly attached, you learned that the way to survive is to be invisible. Don't have feelings, don't have needs. Take care of yourself. This is what felt safe in childhood, and this belief has now carried over into adulthood, and into your adult relationships. The problem is humans do have feelings, and we do have needs, however disconnected from them you may be. And, it is in our most intimate relationships that the consequences of disconnection and avoidance arise.
An important reminder: IT MAKES SENSE. This is the a big first step toward healing: validating that inner child (that part of you now) who has learned to survive in this way.
Shutting down looks like:
1). Avoiding emotions.
2). Disconnecting from the body.
3). Immersing yourself into a hobby, career, or sport to avoid intimacy.
4). A strong ego or defenses to protect your identity and cover up any vulnerability.
5). Interpret your partner's attempts to connect/understand you as needy and clingy.
6). Tell your partner to 'grow up' and 'handle some of this on your own.'
7). Stonewalling during conflict. Freezing up. Gazing off into the distance. Feeling numb.
8). Validation comes from independence, external achievements, etc.
1). Avoiding intimacy or emotions is an subconscious attempt to protect yourself.
2). Vulnerability, intimacy, & felt experiences in the body don't feel safe.
3). Growing up, you learned: Nobody cares about you and your needs aren't important.
4). Growing up, you learned: It's not ok to ask for help, and you are alone in this world.
5). You may have learned that closeness with another = abandonment of yourself.
6). You learned that trusting another is difficult.
7). You may feel closer to someone when you're apart.
8). You have difficulty in asking for help coupled with a drive toward independence.
How to heal:
1). Reconnect with your body with mindfulness, meditation, and being curious about your felt experience in the body in any given moment.
2). Understand why you withdraw, freeze, or shutdown. What triggers it? Validate it (it makes sense).
3). Practice connecting to a feeling. Give it a name. Give it space to be here. Even scarier: express it.
4). Give yourself permission to have needs & feelings. Set the daily intention to connect with a need or a feeling.
5). Practice telling your inner child that your needs are valid, and you are safe in moments of intimacy and activation. Growing up, you learned to shut down during these moments.
6). Be compassionate with yourself as you acknowledge your painful childhood.
7). Be aware of shaming your partner for having too many feelings.
8). Grieve. That means willingly feel the pain of what happened, or what didn't happen, as a kid. Voluntarily turn toward those feelings of pain, give them space, and let them do what they need to do.
Things you can say to your partner:
1). 'What you say is important to me, but I can't hear you when I feel criticized or judged.'
2). 'Your feelings matter to me. I can see I've been trying to comfort you the same way I comfort myself: By trying to make the painful feelings go away. Let's make space for it all.'
3). 'Can I have some space to process this? I'll get back to you soon.'
4). 'Let's slow down and breathe together and try to come back into regulation.'
5). 'You show your emotions in a big way. I hold mine in. Let's move toward each other.'
I hope this was helpful!
I'm a licensed psychotherapist (similar to a psychologist) in California and Vietnam. If you need further help, you can contact me for a therapy session, online or in-person.
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Resources: @theholisticpsychologist @psychotherapycentral @thesecurerelationship