Published on August 8, 2021 Updated on October 25, 2021
Understanding how to self regulate your emotions and actions is an essential skill. However, adults with a disorganized attachment style may find self-regulation difficult.
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.
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 a disorganized 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.*
A child might develop a disorganized attachment style (referred to as fearful-avoidant attachment in childhood) if their parent repeatedly doesn’t meet their needs, such as responding appropriately to their child’s feelings or expressions of distress. This doesn’t just happen every once in a while, but instead it’s their go-to pattern of behavior.
For example, on the first day of Kindergarten, a child might react fearfully to being left alone with unfamiliar people. Instead of soothing the child, their caregiver might shout at them or punish them to get them to stop crying. As a result, the child might not feel safe expressing their emotions.
They may crave their caregiver’s attention but then respond fearfully towards them.
Depending on the person’s individual circumstances, the situations that trigger them can be aligned with either the anxious-preoccupied or avoidant-dismissive attachment styles.
Behavior such as this is highly damaging to an intimate relationship, so it’s clear that if an avoidant attacher wants to establish and maintain healthy relationships, then they need to learn a healthier way of self-regulation.
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 in a healthy and constructive way.
Self-regulation means that you manage your emotions and actions in regard to 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.
Have a think about these triggers – do you find that you identify more the anxious triggers or the avoidant ones? If you’re anxiously triggered, then you might try to self-soothe by attempting to grow closer to your partner.
However, if you identify more with the avoidant triggers, then you might self-soothe by taking space away from them.
A functional way to control anger would be to deal with it more constructively because this would help your relationship strengthen and grow.
Instead of holding your anger in and directing it towards yourself, or else allowing it to explode at your partner, you recognize that you’re starting to feel angry and clearly communicate it to your partner.
“I’m upset, and here’s why___________. You might struggle to understand, but for some reason, it really bothers me.”
“I feel hurt. I know that you probably didn’t intend that, but I’m worried about our relationship because of ___________.”
“Would you mind staying in more frequent contact with me so that this doesn’t happen again?”
It might be useful to be aware that whereas these scripts would be effective with a securely attached partner, an avoidant attacher might find them triggering because they fear closeness to another person.
A securely attached person might be the ideal match for someone with an anxious attachment as they’re able to understand their partner’s needs and therefore can help to regulate their emotions.
If you find that you align more with the traits of an avoidant attacher, then you might find that you will still need to take personal space in order to manage your emotions.
And that’s perfectly fine. Taking emotional space in a relationship when a conflict is starting to escalate is probably the constructive thing to do. It may even help the relationship to grow.
If you sense that an argument is building, you could say to your partner;
“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?”
Here are some more things that someone with disorganized attachment could say in a relationship if they need space, but don’t want to create friction:
“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, an anxious attacher 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.
Distrust of others and feeling like loved ones will judge or reject you for expressing emotions is compounded by the way someone with a disorganized attachment style thinks – their inner critic. Someone with this attachment style may self regulate with critical thoughts around expressing emotions or how others might respond to them for doing so, so they repress their 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 hurt 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.
Someone with disorganized attachment might have difficulty expressing their needs to their loved ones because they fear a negative response. Communicating your needs clearly and effectively takes some practice, so be gentle and kind to yourself.
Take some time to think about what your needs are and how best to express them to your partner (it might be worth noting their attachment style for this).
Using “I” statements and keeping a calm tone of voice will prevent your partner from feeling offended. Be gentle towards them and yourself during this process. In time, you will learn that talking about your feelings is better than bottling them up.
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 your relationships often take you on an emotional rollercoaster, this book might just be the step you need to take to begin your journey to positive change!
Our new disorganized attachment digital workbook includes: