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If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. At least that was the case for me. For years, I lived with a kind of anxiety that made me almost physically sick at the idea of disappointing or upsetting someone. I couldn’t stand the idea that anyone didn’t like me or felt like something was not acceptable about me. This is probably because, growing up, I believed that my value was dependent on the way my mother felt about me. This would continue well into my adult life, and if I’m being honest, that was a pretty dangerous place to base my self-worth since my mother was not super fond of the person I’d turn out to be, to put it mildly.
I wonder if you can relate. Have you found yourself dealing with a narcissist or toxic person who actively tore down your self-esteem or devalued you in some way? Did you find yourself struggling with anxiety and feeling not good enough? Rejected even? If so, you’re going to want to stick around, because today, I’m going to explain to you exactly why you feel this way, and how it relates to your relationships with narcissists. See, there a theory that could explain narcissists and the way they behave in relationships, as well as how you fit into all of this. It’s called attachment theory.
What is attachment theory?
Let’s start with a brief overview of attachment theory. Attachment is defined as a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space. Attachment theory basically helps us understand that our relationships with our mothers can affect us and our lifelong development (and even our relationships with others) in profound ways.
In psychology, attachment theory as we know it today first originated in 1958, when child psychiatrist John Bolby recognized the importance of a child’s relationship with their mother. It turns out, he realized, that our emotional, social, and cognitive development are directly affected by our attachment to our mothers.
Along with fellow researcher James Robertson, Bolby found that children who were separated from their mothers experienced extreme distress, which led to anxiety. This, they assumed, could have been related to the idea that their mothers fed and cared for them, but they noticed that the separation anxiety would not diminish even when the kids were fed and cared for by other caregivers.
Before this, other researchers had underestimated the bond between a child and its mother and had assumed that it was the feeding of the infant that bonded a mother and child.
Bowlby was the first to propose that attachment could be an evolutionary thing – the child’s caregiver obviously is the person who provides safety, security and food. So, he reckoned, being attached to the mother would increase a baby’s chance of survival. Makes sense right?
What are the four attachment styles?
There are four primary attachment styles, including secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant, though many sub-types have also been identified. For today, we’re going to focus just on the four main attachment styles, which, for the record sort of explain why families tend to see generations of healthy – or unhealthy – relationships and why it’s so important for those of us who have grown up with toxic parents need to intentionally change our own lives so that our kids, if we have them, can do better than we did in the future.
Secure Attachment Style
A secure attachment style is probably the most desirable – it’s where you feel comfortable and connected to the person, and where you trust them and the integrity of the relationship. You feel secure in the relationship.
People who have this style of attachment had healthy relationships with their parents and also felt secure enough in those relationships to explore the world and other people in it. They felt loved and supported in childhood. This helped them to grow up feeling safe in to grow and involve themselves a variety of situations and activities, knowing they could always still get support and love from their parents. And their parents were likely also securely attached to their own parents, so this healthy pattern would continue through to the next generation.
Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style
If you’ve ever met a hopeless romantic, you may have met someone with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style. This person desperately wants to be connected to others, and craves the emotional intimacy that comes along with it. The only problem is that this person also tends to want to jump ahead in the game, even if their partner isn’t ready for it. So, they’re likely to say, “I love you” too quickly and to push ahead even when the red flags are everywhere.
They need constant approval and reassurance from their partner, and they feel anxious if they don’t it. They doubt their self-worth, probably because they need others to validate them – and when their clingy behavior pushes away their partners, they feel like they were right all along – they might really be worthless. They have a positive opinion of their peers, but not so much of themselves.
Their parents may have intermittently met their needs – they were loved and cared for, but not on a consistent, predictable basis. Interestingly, this kind of person develops when their parent seems to need the child to meet their own emotional needs. Their mother might have been the type to think to herself, “Well, if I have a baby, then I’ll have someone to love me.” Once again, you can see how this would carry on throughout the generations.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style
This is where you might find your narcissist. Someone with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style appears to be emotionally independent and is often likely to be afraid to commit to a single person in a long-term relationship.
This person would have had parents who were either not around a lot, or who were negligent in their care in other ways. They may have been ignored or undervalued in childhood. They felt rejected, not good enough or unwanted. One or both parents might have been completely absent for this person. Their needs may have been partially served, but not fully. For example, they may have received enough food and were bathed regularly, but they weren’t held often enough.
They may have been rejected by peers as they got older and may have lived their lives feeling not good enough entirely. This would leave them afraid to trust people and, as a result, likely to be really dismissive of others. They tend to cover up their insecurity with a sort of false sense of self-confidence. But when someone is dismissive-avoidant and manages to find a secure, loving relationship and works through their own issues, they can manage healthy relationships. Unfortunately for most narcissists, they don’t develop the emotional maturity to do that and stay stuck here.
Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style
This person might always date the “wrong” people for them, and on the flip side, they might also end up rejecting those who would be good for them. They might find themselves feeling “normal” in unhealthy relationships where they feel the need to earn the other person’s approval and feel scared or threatened when something seems “too good to be true,” or when things are going toward a bigger commitment such as marriage.
Their attachment style might lead them to actually sabotage a really good relationship, maybe because they are afraid it will end and leave them feeling devastated. They struggle with jealousy and distrust in relationships, even when it isn’t warranted. This person grew up with parents who made it clear they were unwanted or maybe that they were not acceptable as they were.
They are a walking conundrum – they desperately want emotional intimacy, but they also push it away. They want to be in a committed relationship with the right person, but actively seek out the opposite or avoid relationships completely out of fear of rejection. Psychologists say that this kind of attachment style is sort of a combination of the dismissive-avoidant and the anxious-preoccupied attachment style and that it is a result of dealing with a lot of trauma or loss in childhood.
Like the dismissive-avoidant, their parents may have been unable to fully meet their needs in infancy – they might have been fed enough and always wearing a clean diaper, but they might not have been held or interacted with enough, for example. They may have really difficult relationships with their parents or they may even become completely estranged from them in adulthood. Their parents may have been alcoholics or addicts – or narcissists – and they may have been physically and/or emotionally abused.
Which Attachment Style is Yours?
You might have any of these attachment styles and end up dealing with a narcissist, but those of us who end up in longer-term relationships with a toxic person are most likely to fall into either the anxious-preoccupied or the fearful-avoidant attachment style categories.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you’ll find yourself completely bowled over by a narcissist. That is because you might tend to have high anxiety responses to their behavior. Think about it.
If you have the anxious-attachment style, then you have a tendency to be sort of emotionally hungry. You might find yourself holding on to the idea of being deeply bonded with someone else, even when it’s just a fantasy and not reality in your relationships. What I mean is that you might sort of self-invent a bond that your partner isn’t feeling at the same time. That is due to the history of how you were not nurtured enough as you probably had at least one parent who did not give you the love and nurturing you need. You’ve dealt with a lot of turbulence in your life and felt unloved and unwanted, so you might have a tendency to latch on and hold on for dear life.
Narcissists see this and sense this, which is why you are vulnerable to them. They know how anxious you become and that alone gives them the narcissistic supply they need – which is why they see you as the perfect prey. Since narcissists are known to have the avoidant attachment style, they can be abusive and will always find faults with you. They will place blame on you as well because since anyone with the avoidant attachment style will not take responsibility at all. The more they do this, the more you become anxiety-ridden that your bond with them will disappear and the vicious cycle keeps going.
Which Attachment Style Does the Narcissist Represent?
As I mentioned earlier, while technically a narcissist might classify themselves under any of these categories, they are most typically identified as the dismissive-avoidant attachment style. That is why they maintain a certain distance when it comes to their relationships and why they make you feel like you’re unwanted or unneeded – even if they do clearly depend on you completely for narcissistic supply, among other things.
The dismissive-avoidant style leads to being overly self-reliant and downplaying the importance of relationships. However, they are quite vulnerable when there is a big crisis as they don’t handle crises well. They may have a super-inflated opinion of themselves and be very critical and suspicious of others, making their relationships miserable for their partners.
This is where you’re likely to find the overt narcissist, anyway. But the covert narcissist can fall into the avoidant-fearful style – which seems counterintuitive since their victims can also fall into this category.
The Wild-Card Attachment Style: Fearful-Avoidant
Many people who could be classified as codependent might fall into the fearful-avoidant attachment style. As adults, fearful-avoidant types might become overly dependent on their relationships. While they may have had similar experiences in childhood, the difference in whether they become a narcissist or a more empathic kind of codependent depends on how they deal with their childhood experience.
In either case, those who could be classified as fearful-avoidant are terrified of rejection, and they are constantly dealing with inner conflict. They sometimes thrive on drama and they nearly always suffer from low self-esteem. They show anxiety when it comes to relationships as well, whether they’re super-clingy or constantly avoiding intimacy.
So how could codependent, people-pleasers potentially fall in the same category as a covert narcissist? Well, it is the codependency factor – both narcissists and their victims could be considered codependent. At its most basic level, codependency represents someone who has sort of “lost themselves,” or never found it in the first place.
The ‘Lost Self’ Disorder
In other words, a codependent person has no connection to their innate self. Rather, probably due to being raised by toxic parents, they have learned to base their lives – as in, their thinking and their behavior – around someone or something else outside of themselves. This could be a person, or a process or even a substance.
For narcissists, the lack of connection to their true self can lead to a connection with a made-up or ideal self- the mask we often discuss. In contrast, a people-pleaser might find their identity in the approval of others instead, or at least find value in themselves this way.
Interestingly, narcissists in general are also thought to be emotionally immature. Like I’ve said before, they are emotional toddlers. See, when an infant is cared for by its mother, it does not think about the mother’s needs at all. Most people begin to develop this awareness of the needs or feelings of others on a really basic by the age of two or three. Narcissists never develop it fully – so in some cases, even people who had really attentive parents can become narcissists, especially when their parents did not actively teach empathy.
So what does all of this mean? Are you doomed to a life of miserable relationships if you do not have the secure attachment style?
Hope for Narcissistic Abuse Victims: Earned Secure Attachment
Good news! There’s hope for you yet. I’ve been telling you for years that it is possible to heal from narcissistic abuse and to create the life you want. And studies confirm this, telling us that with intentional healing and focus on creating the life you want, you can actually develop something called “Earned Secure Attachment.”
At its most basic level, it means you can sort of build a new attachment style that is healthier and better for you on every level. This just means that you’ve done the work and managed to deal with and heal from any dysfunctional parenting you had growing up. Even better, you can do this at any age. It’s about taking the time to understand where you came from and working to sort of rewrite your story in the process. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can do this, take a look at the video I’m going to leave for you right here.
Question of the Day: Have you looked into attachment theory before? Where do you think you fall into these categories, and where do you see the narcissist in your life among them? Share your thoughts, share your ideas, share your experiences in the comments section below this video, and let’s talk about it!
Angela Atkinson is a Certified Life Coach and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic relationships since 2006, Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed coaching and has certifications in life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves.
Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. In her life coaching practice, Atkinson’s clients enjoy her personalized approach that allows and encourages them to become the best possible versions of themselves and to succeed in doing what they love most. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online and NarcissismSupportCoach.com.