Published on July 30, 2021 Updated on February 19, 2022
Understanding how to self regulate your emotions and actions is an essential skill. However, adults with an avoidant attachment style may struggle with this.
Each of us goes through a range of positive and negative emotions every day, especially when it comes to relationships. Whether they’re healthy and flourishing or slightly struggling, relationships can be emotional roller-coasters. Sometimes the ride is wonderful and your insides lurch in that butterflies-in-your-stomach way, but on other occasions, your emotions can feel overwhelming like the roller-coaster has lost control…
Emotions can be like a compass guiding us in the right direction and towards the right choices in life. Other times they can become so entirely overpowering that we end up responding in unhealthy ways. Understanding how to self regulate your emotions and actions is an essential skill. However, your attachment style may influence your ability to do so.
Self-regulation is the ability to control your emotions and the actions that you take in response to them according to what is appropriate for the situation at hand. This ability is the key to successfully maintaining healthy relationships, problem-solving when there’s a conflict, and having a stable sense of self-confidence.
What not many people know is that our ability to control our emotions, as well as how we respond to them, is influenced by our attachment style. Therefore, whereas it’s important to understand when to trust our emotions, it’s equally important to know when our attachment style is influencing how we self regulate.
Having a secure attachment doesn’t mean that you’re in total control of your emotions. Though securely attached people can self regulate healthily. Meaning that they’re probably empathetic and sensitive to other people’s emotions and can set appropriate boundaries.
This makes securely attached people more likely to feel emotionally secure and satisfied in their intimate relationships. They’re comfortable being in a couple, but also secure enough to be by themselves.
However, the way that someone with an avoidant / dismissive attachment style self-regulates might look quite different…
*Just bear in mind that attachment styles are often incorrectly seen as rigid. Even though they do have stable traits, it doesn’t mean that you will automatically fill every criterion because you have this attachment style – just keep an open mind that some elements might apply to you, but others might not.*
People with an avoidant attachment style might have grown up in an environment where their needs weren’t met by their caregiver – or they didn’t meet them in the way that the child wanted. Although they likely did not purposefully do so, they might have been emotionally unavailable to their child, avoiding emotion and intimacy and potentially backing off when their child reaches out to them.
The caregiver might also have discouraged the child from expressing emotion, both positive and negative ones. This might have been because they felt overwhelmed by their child’s emotions and closed themselves off to them. Because the child has a deep inner need to be close to their caregiver, they might respond to the lack of warmth by stopping seeking closeness or expressing their emotions.
As a result, these children end up managing their emotions by relying on self-soothing techniques and suppressing their emotions so that they don’t appear distressed on the outside. Through not crying or outwardly expressing their feelings, they are at least satisfying one of their needs – that of being physically close to their caregiver.
Avoidant / dismissive adults still self regulate in unhealthy ways; they might feel threatened by triggering relationship situations, such as a partner trying to get emotionally close, and they might shut down their emotions in an attempt to feel safe and avoid feeling vulnerable.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t love their partner, but as a child, they were taught that expressing their emotions was a bad thing, so they respond to circumstances out of their comfort zone by retreating or pulling away.
What’s more, if a relationship becomes too emotionally challenging, they may use pre-emptive strategies, such as breaking up with their partner, to cope with their feelings.
Behavior such as this is highly damaging to an intimate relationship, so it’s clear that if an individual with an avoidant attachment style wants to establish and maintain healthy relationships, then they need to learn how to self regulate more healthily.
Fortunately, with some practice, it is relatively easy to gain control over our emotions. Being open to communication, challenging your inner-critic, and considering therapy can help you to manage your emotions healthily and constructively.
Self-regulation means that you manage your emotions and actions concerning what you want in the long-run. Basically, it means think before you act. This means understanding what triggers you in your relationships, as well as how you typically emotionally respond.
Any of these triggers could cause the avoidant attachment style to withdraw from the relationship. They will also distract themselves from unpleasant emotions with work or hobbies. Or repress their feelings and pretend that they don’t exist.
One thing that probably won’t change for an avoidant attacher is their need for personal space – and that’s OK. Taking emotional space in a relationship when a conflict is starting to escalate is probably the constructive thing to do, and it may even help the relationship to grow.
“Look, things are getting a little heated at the moment. Can we take a break for a couple of minutes and talk about things after that?”
“I am grateful that you’re always there for me, and when I feel ready, I promise that I’ll talk to you about this.”
“I understand that it’s really important for us to discuss this, but I feel like I need a couple of minutes to clear my head. Can we talk about this then? I promise I’ll be able to open up about it with some time.”
“There are so many positives about us as a couple. Let’s take a breather and come back together to talk about them.”
Try to be mindful that whereas these scripts would be effective with a securely attached person. Someone with an anxious attachment style might find them triggering to their emotions because they desire closeness to another person, so expressing a need for space is a cause of fear for them.
At their core, someone with avoidant attachment has a fear of expressing strong emotions or appearing out of control. Therefore, being able to discuss things in a relationship openly and honestly is the key to co-regulating emotions. Both partners should aim for clear communication so that they can safely raise concerns without judgement. In time, adults with avoidant attachment will learn that talking about their feelings is better than bottling them up.
Distrust of others and feeling like loved ones will judge or reject you for expressing emotions is compounded by the way an avoidant attacher thinks – their inner critic. Someone with an avoidant / dismissive attachment style may self regulate with critical thoughts around expressing emotions. Or they worry how others might respond to them for expressing their emotions. In contrast, they may have overly positive thoughts about themselves which may be covering up for self-deprecating feelings.
First of all, it may be helpful to learn to identify these thoughts, as they may be only partly conscious. This guide on recognizing negative automatic thoughts from Harvard University may help. Then you challenge them by learning to agree to disagree with them. Think of times when there was evidence to prove the opposite of the thought.
For example, if you think “I can’t get too involved with someone. They’ll just disappoint me”, try to think of a time when someone that you cared about was really there for you. This can help you to realize that your inner critic isn’t always right.
Therapy is a great way for you to figure out your unhealthy ways of self-regulating as well as why you’re doing it. Together with a therapist, you can work through your attachment triggers and brainstorm some healthy ways of dealing with your emotions that won’t damage you or your relationship.
Are you wondering what type of therapy would work best for you and your attachment style? Then this guide from the American Psychological Association can help you to choose.
If you prefer to go the route of a workbook, we recently released our first series of attachment style digital workbooks.
If you feel distant and disconnected in your relationships and often withdraw from contact, this book might just be the step you need to take to begin your journey to positive change!
Our new avoidant attachment digital workbook includes: