Own the Inner Child: Breaking Free of Anxious Attachment

Standing child looks out of window, hands on glass“It’s like a mother: when the baby is crying,
she picks up the baby and she holds the baby tenderly in her arms.
Your pain, your anxiety is your baby.
You have to take care of it.
You have to go back to yourself,
to recognize the suffering in you.
Embrace the suffering, and you get a relief.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh

There’s some part in all of us that yearns to belong. This is our safety, our security. It means we can relax, that others are there to hold us, cherish us, praise us, and keep guard when we cannot. It means we matter.

When we’ve experienced a single relational disconnection, we generally recover. When it becomes a pattern—when someone who is “supposed to be there” for us finds ways to disengage or disappear on a daily basis—recovery feels intangible and unattainable. We make decisions about the self, saying, “I’m not wanted. I must be flawed.”

Anxious Attachment Says: ‘You’re Not Giving Me Enough’

Those landing on the anxious side of attachment are often aware they are seeking others as a way to regulate their overwhelm. They may feel “clingy.” When living in this mode, many feel easily rejected or abandoned, becoming angry when partners fail to live up to perceived expectations. On guard, attuned to signs of others leaving, they easily fall into internal panic, exhibiting protest behaviors in often futile attempts to elicit caring responses. They may guilt or blame partners into submission, choosing to argue (and continue arguing) because it feels better than no connection at all, because preoccupation allows no other choice.

Many in this mode give up their own desires in attempts to win their partner’s approval, placing survival needs over authenticity. The “real” identity of their partner is often less relevant than the fact the partner presents as available just often enough for the preoccupied one to maintain an illusion of love. This can leave their partners feeling like disposable place-keepers, while for the anxious one, self-justification creates a paradoxical argument: “I would not put this much effort into someone who was not ‘the one.’ ”

Some have referred to this as “fantasy bonding”—in love with the idea of the person, often ignoring uncomfortable parts.

Many anxiously attached individuals recognize—in calmer moments, after the fact—they’ve been so involved with their own discomfort and dysregulation that they failed to catch unspoken emotional cues from partners that might have led to feelings of mutual connection and intimacy.

Anxious Relationship with the Self

Sometimes the panic itself becomes the enemy, and the anxious person develops strategies to hide or contain it, saying, “If others see this panic, they will leave me.” This message itself perpetuates internal conflict—self against self—amplifying pain as internal parts polarize.

While many, trapped in anxiety, function excessively in the presence of others (which can be perceived by others as demanding), when alone they may find tasks difficult to complete. Sometimes, in the absence of constant reassurance, they find their motivation dissolved. They may recognize an absence of perceived selfhood when not in the presence of another.

As familiar as the relational desperation becomes, they may find that when real intimacy is offered, they do not know how to be with it. It may fall flat. They may tell themselves they are just bored. They might distract themselves from it or sabotage it. It invokes too much shame, bringing to awareness parts of the self that they do not know how to meet.

Origins of Anxious Attachment

Many theories describe the creation of anxious attachment, citing both nature and nurture. One of the foremost frames the caregiver as someone overwhelmed by their child’s emotion. It might be a parent who appreciates or loves the baby while also feeling out of sync, helpless, as if there is no way to calm the baby. This is an unfortunate misattunement or inaccurate empathy. The baby, of course, gets more attention when crying, thus training it to use tantrums as a primary way to elicit attention and meet its security needs.

Another theory, one that could work in conjunction with the above: the caregiver who carries abandonment wounds actively (even subconsciously) creates dependence in their child, ensuring the child will need them and remain with them. The child of this parenting strategy is thus trained to remain a child, to take a dependent role in intimate relationships in order to get needs met.

Anxious Attachment in Conflict

Those on the anxious side of attachment fight in and for relationship, feeling incapable of calming until another person meets their needs for assurance. This often leads to long-term deterioration of the relationship as their partners learn to distance, placate, and resent rather than pursue seemingly endless conflict. This withdrawal by partners may perpetuate negative beliefs: “They are trying to leave me. I am not lovable. I have to make my emotion bigger to get a response.”

Open Letter from the Avoidant to the Anxiously Attached

I see your panic. I hear it in your breathing, your sighs, your many signs and gestures—the ones meant to elicit attention from me. I resent you in this mood because it means I lose a partner and gain a child. I become the parent. I become your “fix.” In your panic, my existence is no longer mine. I’m no longer free, whole, separate from you. With nobody in you to meet me, I am trapped and alone.

Your dependence becomes a weight for me to carry. It’s like a child in you with nowhere to go. Sometimes it feels like an insatiable bully, entitled, demanding I care for it. But it has no sense of time, and I could meet it for hours, resenting you each minute. And nothing changes.

I want to be loved, not needed.

Part of me also yearns to be taken care of.

Therapy for the Anxious: Bonding with the Self

In moments of interpersonal conflict, many of us switch to younger states. We disconnect from present-day resources, reacting not to partners but to parents. Even with adult partners, we return to perceptions, expectations, and strategies learned at an early age. We become the child in the empty room, feeling ourselves empty until it fills once again. Or we become the child playing in our room, safe, away from the needs or threats of others throughout the house, hoping no one comes to the door.

Invariably, in order to heal and decrease dependence on others, those on the anxious end of the spectrum will find themselves exploring ways to build an internal support structure—some part of the self that remains strong, dependable, unthreatened by intense emotion. This might be framed as “self-validation” or as an “internal parent.”

In the beginning, though, they naturally seek others—friends, partners, and therapists—to provide this support, validation, and witnessing. “This isn’t the way life is supposed to be,” they may say. “We are supposed to be able to depend on others.”

Some may recognize a resentment of the therapy work, even a shame in it. They may view self-sufficiency or self-soothing as a secondary strategy, only used when one fails to belong in the world. They may feel conflict internally and with their therapist, feeling blamed while also feeling victimized in relationship: “I’m the one who feels so devastated when people leave me. Yet you’re saying I play a part in that.”

Another Way to Frame Anxious Attachment

If we reframe “preoccupation” as the ongoing abandonment feelings of an inner child, we begin to differentiate from the part feeling the pain. This is important for the present-day adult who feels hijacked by emotions. It is also vitally important for the hurting child (or the old neural network that takes over) to have a compassionate internal witness.

If we reframe “preoccupation” as the ongoing abandonment feelings of an inner child, we begin to differentiate from the part feeling the pain. This is important for the present-day adult who feels hijacked by emotions. It is also vitally important for the hurting child (or the old neural network that takes over) to have a compassionate internal witness.

It’s hard to take ownership of the child inside, noticing that it reaches out to make demands of others—a natural next step when it finds no internal caregiver available.

There’s a message often internalized in childhood: the unspoken message from a parent saying, “I can’t handle this child! Let someone else take care of it.” It’s a message repeated internally when emotion is high, when the old state is triggered. Many in therapy eventually realize they actually hate the child in them. They hand this emotional part of the self out to others, saying to friends, families, and partners: “I can’t handle this child in me! It’s too much! You take care of it.”

It’s important to begin separating parts in this way, to speak of each in third person, to gradually hear the dialogue already occurring between them. This is differentiation, and it is a necessary component of self-soothing. We cannot witness a part when we are that part. It requires some distance. Effective witnessing requires the development of an internal “other.”

Developing internal parts is something most of us have already done many times throughout life. We’ve developed internal guards and gatekeepers—judges, parents. These are the parts that judge and contain us today.

We can also develop an internal witness—one that does not judge, is not threatened by any emotion, does not attack, pull away, pity, analyze, or try to fix. One that meets us with empathy and compassion to witness our pains and joys in the ways we always wished an other would.

An intentionally developed part is just as valid as the parts that developed automatically in life. The compassion and affirmation we can give ourselves is just as real and valid as the internal abuse we already trust. It’s all internal dialogue between parts of the self. In therapy, we are just making that dialogue more conscious and intentional.

Certain therapeutic approaches, such as Hakomi and Internal Family Systems, work precisely to create an internal environment of acceptance and unity, facilitating integration through differentiation of parts.

Some Final Points and Considerations

  • Our own perceptions are less accurate when the body is in fight-or-flight mode. We easily catastrophize when activated. Mindfulness practice can increase present-moment awareness of our bodily activation level. When it gets too high, it’s okay to take a break, to step away from the argument, and to connect with resources to help your body calm. Life looks different on the other side of the nervous system.
  • Another way to tell if you are activated: Can you hear someone’s “no” and not take it personally?
  • It’s important to begin recognizing the elements of fantasy in your relationships. Do you want an equal partner? Are there moments you really do want to be taken care of? Most of us experience both.
  • This struggle is common. It is human.
  • Do you give up your own interests, ideas, ideals, and pursuits in order to keep a relationship?
  • It’s okay to grieve the fantasy.

References:

  1. Karen, R. (1998). Becoming attached: First relationships and how they shape our capacity to love. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Kinnison, J. (2014). Type: Anxious-Preoccupied. Retrieved from https://jebkinnison.com/bad-boyfriends-the-book/type-anxious-preoccupied
  3. Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find- and keep -love. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 15 comments
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  • Delilah

    Delilah

    June 13th, 2016 at 9:42 AM

    so this is like not being able to self soothe?

  • Greta

    Greta

    June 13th, 2016 at 3:31 PM

    There is a part of me that is worried that I created this in my own children, this need to have them need me but at the same time I want them to feel independent and confident too. I have too many of my friends who have made their own kids so dependent on them that the child can’t do anything without seeking permission or approval. Yes, it can be a good way to keep an eye on them but doing it leaves no independence for the child to feel. I think that I want more than this for my own children, and more for me too. I think that you feel good about yourself as a parent when you see that they can make smart choices on their own, and it feels so good knowing that you played a huge part of that.

  • sully

    sully

    June 14th, 2016 at 11:25 AM

    The purpose of being a parent is to of course love and take care of your children but eventually you wnat to let them spread their wings and fly. I think that this is where so many parents fail, this is the thing that they forget to teach them and so they wind up having whiny and helpless adult children.

  • Scarlet

    Scarlet

    June 17th, 2016 at 10:45 AM

    Reading this I think gives me the courage that I have needed to finally admit that I can use a little bit of help dealing with this very issue in myself. I think that I have known it for a while now, just seeing it here in black and white, to know that I am not the only one, that’s a pretty big thing to me.

  • rhea d

    rhea d

    June 20th, 2016 at 8:17 AM

    I am constantly anxious, second guessing my next move and e=decision even though there is a part of me I think that always knows for certain whether I am making the right choice.
    It could be that I am such a people pleaser that it scares me to think that I will let someone else down.

  • Owen

    Owen

    January 22nd, 2018 at 12:39 PM

    I’ve read this article after a therapist asked me to consider that my up bringing was not unlike being bought up in a care environment, i clicked through various links to get here. I’m glad I did, it has explained a great deal to me. The open letter is almost exactly the unspoken words of a therapist wanted me as a lover when my reaction was like a child to a mother…….

  • Even

    Even

    April 20th, 2018 at 2:18 AM

    Thank you for this article!

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    April 20th, 2018 at 9:30 AM

    You’re welcome. Thank you for your feedback.

  • LV

    LV

    September 17th, 2018 at 2:26 PM

    Have you written a similar article about avoidant attachment?

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    June 23rd, 2018 at 1:21 PM

    Very good article. Concise, well written and informative. I appreciate this very much! Life Saver. Best,

  • Sara

    Sara

    July 12th, 2018 at 6:03 AM

    Hi Jeremy, I was wondering if there are some more articles or resources about breaking free from this “trap”? Thanks!

  • Heidi

    Heidi

    November 18th, 2018 at 9:54 PM

    This is the best explanation of this attachment style i’ve read. Thank you.

  • anon

    anon

    December 31st, 2018 at 6:07 AM

    I’ve been looking for articles relating to the way I feel in relation to others and nothing quite fits my experience (of course, I realise that no one fits any ‘category’ exactly!) I wonder if you may be able to point me in the right direction, though.
    I experience the emotions of the anxiously attached – attachment panic etc. – but I take a self-protective ‘parent’ position to the world. I hate to feel like a victim so when I feel vulnerable my mind shifts to focus on the needs of others so I can feel more in control. An example would be that when I think that my (loving and consistent) partner would leave me, I don’t feel angry (which would be a more rational position given that it would mean he had been leading me on); I feel pain for myself but happiness for him because it would mean he would be able to have a better life (i.e. one without me). This is because by seeing others as ‘my children’ and myself as the parent (and this happens in all my relationships) I feel stronger and less vulnerable.
    As you might imagine, this leads to different behaviours. I don’t exhibit the stereotypical ‘protest behaviours’ that people seem to describe for anxious attachment, but instead when anxious become more motherly. I also find it very difficult to talk about my own pain without laughing. I guess again because I can’t stand to be in the ‘victim’ role and I would abhor sympathy, so instead I tend to encourage people to laugh along with me and how silly I’m being.
    It’s certainly an attachment difficulty, but all the descriptions of anxious attachment sound too unlike me. What would you suggest I read about instead?

  • sg

    sg

    January 15th, 2019 at 8:20 AM

    This sounds like your attachment style, only you may have learned to detach or dissociate from your anger by adopting what you call the ‘parent’ role. In the ego state model it sounds like you have a ‘parent’ part that jumps in to protect you from your feelings of anger, and that underneath there somewhere is the belief that you don’t feel deserving or ‘good enough’ for someone to love you. When your parent part jumps in, have an inner dialog with it and ask it what its role is and what it is trying to do for you in those instances.

  • anon

    anon

    February 28th, 2019 at 8:56 AM

    Thank you for your advice. Tbh, it has many roles. When alone – and especially when actually rejected – it focuses good will on the other person, ignoring my pain, which helps me to find a warm place inside of me that actually does have a soothing function for a while. I find it difficult (though I try) to “root” for myself but very easy to “root” for others – so if someone hurts me this ‘motherly’ part seeks to empathise with them so I can see them as a person who is struggling and feel genuine warmth and sympathy for them and (interally) wish them well. I guess you’re right that this prevents me from feeling anger – and to some extent, pain – at their not being around. If I don’t look at my own feelings and think about theirs then I only feel the warmth I have for them and don’t have to face pain. During conflict, I think it functions to keep them calm. I tend to think the best way for me not to feel in danger is to protect the other – create warm surroundings in which they feel safe. If they calm down, I calm down. So focusing on other people’s emotions and soothing them effectively helps me to feel that the connection is safe. And the other function it has is to remind me that I don’t really need other people. If I feel like the parent and they feel like the child – which is usually how I feel (or how I turn it around in my head, anyway) – then it is easier for me to feel that I am the ‘strong’ one and therefore able to cope. If I feel like a ‘victim’, or if I feel in a ‘child’ position, I panic. Because I don’t believe other people have the emotional capacity to care for me. So if I’m not strong enough to care for me, then who will?! I know the history of all this – where it came from etc. – my mother was quite mentally ill throughout my childhood and especially my adolescence so I was always a ‘little adult’, taking care of her and myself. My childhood nicknames from family and from teachers etc. always revolved around me being a caretaker and ‘older than my years’. Perhaps this became my identity because the idea now to me of being the ‘cared for’ person is abhorrent. Interestingly, although I do think I have an anxious attachment style, I could directly relate to the feelings of the person you said was avoidant up there – I start to get resentful after a time because why should I always take care of this other person and never have a chance to just fall apart like they can (my answer would be because they are too fragile to cope with this)? And I also often feel like I’m a placeholder and the person is far more interested in ‘having a girlfriend’ than being specifically with me. So I always feel unloved, but I guess in both ways described here.
    I feel like if I could do something about the shame that underlies all this I could step out of it, but I’m finding it very difficult to turn it around because I feel ashamed all the time. I feel like my very existence steals happiness from others (another reason why I focus on caring for others – I feel like I’m making up the debt I have wrought by being born).

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