Dr Perpetua Neo

You Are More Than Your (Anxious) Attachment Style

[This DrP article was first published on MindBodyGreen]

A client slowly enunciates something she’s never dared to articulate before, “I am alot of hard work because of my anxious attachment, and must make up by letting someone else have their way all the time”.

We’d been talking about why she’d not articulate the fact that she’s vegetarian, and would go to a steakhouse and order French fries only.

And once again, this inspired me to write a piece on a disturbing phenomenon I have observed— when people define themselves solely by their attachment style, and see themselves as less because of that.

What are attachment styles?

Mammals evolved attachment systems so that we can receive food, care and sustenance from our caregivers. Unlike the antelope that walks within hours of its birth, human babies are helpless, and have a long period of socioemotional development, during which the attachment system is fundamental. Like a thermostat, when there are cues of danger or survival needs like hunger to be met, the attachment system activates so that we can stay close to our caregivers and feel safe.

At the heart of it all, our attachment is the intimate bond that forms with our caregivers when we are infants. Depending on this attachment bond and genetics, we develop a particular attachment style that helps us best survive and adapt to the environment which we are born into, and this influences the way our later relationships play out.

How does attachment continue to play out as adults daily?

As adults, our everyday experiences of relationships continue to mirror what happens in our attachment bond as children. We have needs that others can or cannot meet, and we may or may not be able to express them. We are interdependent on others for both material resources, and for warmth and affection.

Having interdependent, healthy and strong relationships help us feel safe enough to express our needs, and to create stable futures. However, in relationships where our needs are consistently not met— whether or not we express them— then we may experience anxiety, avoidance, ambivalence and other distressing feelings. This doesn’t just happen in our mental health. Great relationships are great for our physical health too, for instance, happily married people have lower blood pressure than social singles; however, toxic and ambivalent relationships can be harmful for our cardiovascular health and increase the risk of chronic disease. As it is, the people we are in close proximity to can affect our brain waves, heart rates and blood pressures, driving home the importance of how we are shaped by the way we experience our relationships.

In their book Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller identify three predominant adult attachment styles:—

  • Securely-attached types can give people space and also support others when they need it; they are open to disclosing intimate details and introducing them to their circle, good at communication, and can ask for what they need including communicating their concerns and affection. They are good at showing up and keeping their promises, and also involve others in joint decisions.
  • Anxiously-attached types desire intimacy but their internal threat detector is off-the-charts. As such, they are preoccupied about relationships because they are worried that it may blow up, or insecure about how they may measure up. Even then, they are highly attuned and affectionate.
  • Avoidantly-attached types seek connection but feel suffocated easily; as such they give off mixed signals that vacillate between overly-intense and completely detached. Asking for too much commitment or intimacy from the start leads them to withdraw.
    According to the authors, 50% of people are secure attachers, 20% anxious, and about 25% are avoidant. The remaining 5% are a blend of anxious and avoidant.

According to the authors, 50% of people are secure attachers, 20% anxious, and about 25% are avoidant. The remaining 5% are a blend of anxious and avoidant.

What we’re getting wrong about attachment styles.

The problem with this obsession about attachment styles lies twofold.

First, people dismiss themselves and define themselves solely based on having a ‘bad’ attachment style, and therefore they say this means they have to work harder and overgive in relationships. They incinerate energy and self-esteem by telling themselves they are a mess or difficult people, and the shame can be crippling. This can also make you delicious prey for toxic dark personality types, who have a keenly-attuned radar for people who work too hard in relationships and feel deficient about themselves— the perfect partners to exploit, abuse and gaslight.

Second, people also obsess about attachment style as the be-all-and-end-all. I see this in how some people similarly obsess over their personality types or neural wiring, justifying that this is why they have to behave in a certain way, as though the die has been cast, and there is no other way out. You may have seen similar memes on the internet, such as ‘your introversion is not an excuse to be an asshole’, or when you run into people who are hellbent on competing as to whose ADHD makes them a bigger mess today. And for the record, I am an introvert and I have ADHD, so this is no diss on either.

Instead, learning about our attachment styles is useful because we learn about how we automatically react to people. For example, someone anxiously-attached may learn that they obsess over relationships way too early, and that may cause them to do or say things that they regret later. Or, an avoidantly-attached person may realise that their patterns of oscillating wildly between disappearing and intense closeness.

As with all forms of self-awareness, this is about learning that we are not resigned to our patterns of behaviours. Even if something feels very much on autopilot, we learn to observe and break the cycle faster, so that instead of feeling like this behaviour revs up like a supercar from 0-200 mph in seconds, we feel more in-control.

And in that process, instead of feeling intense shame and shutting down due to our actions, we learn to accept that this is currently our default wiring, and that we can do something about it instead of feeling helpless and creating more messes in our relationships. For instance, acknowledging what’s going on, and then regulating our brains with three deep proper breaths can help us regain control. From there, we can learn to ask for our needs to be met, or even to script how to say that.

Reframing the way we think about attachment.

Just because you have certain needs for closeness or space— or both at different times or with certain people— doesn’t make you less of a person, emotionally unhealthy or difficult.

Think about this just like how some people drink three espresso shots and others want an iced mocha latte with extra whipped cream and almond syrup, whilst another may go straight for the matcha.

Needing intimacy and space is not a marker of strength or weakness, it just is what it is. We simply have to ask for it in a healthy way. Because the truth is, human beings are interdependent creatures who co-create our realities. Being doggedly overly-independent or believing we have to always be very close to someone else— especially if this is based on some cultural idea and not based on what you actually need— are not healthy ways to live.

Because when we have our needs met, we co-regulate our heart rates and brain waves, and we feel safe. As I always say in corporate culture training, no amount of communications, relationship or personality workshops are going to bear fruit if we do not feel psychologically safe.

Other things you could think about:—

  • Your attachment style isn’t just the reflection of your earliest relationships as an infant, because some people feel that not being securely attached reflects badly on their family-of-origin. Your attachment style could also be repeatedly shaped and reinforced by other relationships along-the-way, especially one that has caused you trauma. In this case, the brain does this thing called ‘repetition compulsion’ where we are drawn into similar situations unconsciously that repeats the same storyline, and these types of relationships (and the way we react) starts feeling like destiny.
    You get triggered by different people— consider how amongst your most intimate relationships, you may have different ways of relating to them. Then consider, why is this the case. A classic case is when someone anxiously-attached seeks closeness to the avoidantly-attached who disappears, leaving the former to start a fight and threaten to leave, following which the latter leans in for a temporary reconciliation. And, anxiously-attached and avoidantly-attached types have a knack for finding each other, with the intensity and drama misinterpreted by the nervous system as love and passion. Beyond that dynamic, what if some people deliberately trigger you?
  • What if you dismiss the securely-attached as boring? Especially in the case of someone who’s had a difficult childhood and traumatic experiences, the nervous system becomes blunted most of the time and only wakes up during times of chaos and danger, during which it misinterprets it as passion. I have also observed my clients with ADHD who tend to be more impulsive and wired towards seeking curiosity and novelty, to dismiss the securely-attached. Except that, the research shows that being with a securely-attached person is likeliest to help you regulate your nervous system and feel psychologically safe. Here, you can learn to differentiate between (1) the bland kind of boring you have absolutely no interest in, and (2) stable, peaceful people whom your nervous system hasn’t learnt to appreciate yet. Some effective ways are to spend more time around the second group of people, reflecting what you enjoy with them, and to train your nervous system to like supposedly-boring activities instead of simply seeking out stimulation all the time.
  • What if your pattern of obsessing over relationships or needing space are telling you that you have needs that are unmet in your current relationship? Notably, when anxiously-attached people are reassured about their worries and are given consistency and reliability, they become more securely-attached. Or, what if this is your body telling you that you have a skill such as learning to articulate to picked up, or it’s time to change the mindset that you don’t deserve them? Or, what if these needs are telling you that someone is consistently shortchanging you or gaslighting you?

Playing on the above, here are other questions to mull upon, because our relationships are a house of mirrors:—

  • When I hang out with [people], I like myself a lot more or a lot less. Why? How does that feel in my body?
  • Who do I not like being around? Why?
  • Who am I trying to be a ‘hero’ when I persist in spending time with them. What are the stories I tell myself that keep me there? E.g. I need to be nice and not judge, because I don’t like people to judge me; X has a difficult time/life, so I need to excuse their behaviour.
  • Who do I call myself needy/difficult around? Why?
  • From whom do I always feel like keeping distance from. Why?
  • When I feel uncomfortable in my autopilot reactions to people based on my attachment style, what is my safe word to pause and regulate my nervous system?
  • Based on the above, what kinds of people should I hang out more with?

And more importantly, you are more than just your attachment style because you are a complex ever-changing work of art. In order to learn how to define yourself more broadly, some questions include:—

  • How am I wired? Think in terms of neural wiring (especially if you are neurodiverse like having ADHD or autism) and personality type (Big Five; Types ABCD).
  • How do I take/spend energy? Think in terms of introversion/extroversion/ambiversion.
  • What are my hobbies and my interests?
  • What do I spend most of my days doing? This can include your work, your primary relationships and your dreams.
  • How was I raised? Think about your upbringing, and the different defining chapters in your life.
  • How have I raised myself? Think about the habits, disciplines and interests you pursued along the way; the beliefs and value systems you both discarded and acquired consciously.


The truth is, our attachment styles can change with conscious awareness and effort, especially if we choose the relationships that are healthiest for us.

When it comes to any kind of growth, I always advocate taking matters into your own hands. Because time does not heal, and if we let our habits and mindsets stay passive, we calcify into a worse version of ourselves. In contrast, we can always rig our brain pathways to our benefit, what neuroscience calls neuroplasticity. With enough practise, things will turn in your favour.

It starts with defining yourself beyond your attachment style.

Ready to heal from current or past trauma, and define yourself beyond your attachment style? Book your free Chemistry Call here to chat about a signature 8-week program that’s tailored to your lifestyle, values and personality.