Dear Caitlin No. 5: I’d like to have a healthy relationship, but it disrupts my life, so I avoid it.
Updated: Sep 7, 2022
As a person with mostly anxious attachment (although my actions are to avoid showing this and avoid relationships in general, bc they trigger this), how do you recommend dealing with the trigger when (not if) it happens? The nervous system has a life of its own and activates a trauma response of looping images and thoughts of the person, making me feel obsessive, and trying not to think about it is worse. I know it’s just a “tape” playing in my head, but it’s crazy-making to have your brain loop on the person (actually your brain’s projected idea of the person). I’d like to have a healthy relationship, but it disrupts my life, so I avoid it.
~Anonymous No. 5
Dear Anonymous No. 5,
It sucks when dating feels so disruptive and destabilizing. I hear in your letter how hard it is to feel so anxious, obsessed, and distracted. This is clearly so painful that you avoid dating altogether because you haven’t yet found any other way forward. I hope I can provide some suggestions to help you put yourself out there again! Keep in mind, change takes time and practice, and the only way forward is through--through the struggle, through the uncertainty, through the doubt, etc. This means you’ll have to date to learn to do things differently, and as you’re learning, there may be some tough growing pains. But, ultimately, going through the process of change, learning new skills, and feeling better will be worth the work!! Hopefully some of the advice below will help you move forward in a way that feels better!
Stop choosing to date emotionally unavailable people . This is the most important tip of all. You may feel anxious because you’re choosing people who make you feel anxious for good reason, not just because you have an anxious attachment style. Hear me out: many people assume they feel anxious, obsessive, unable to concentrate, and generally unsafe while dating because of their attachment issues & past traumas. While those play a part, more often than not, that awful anxiety comes mostly from (unknowingly) choosing emotionally unavailable partners. Some part of them knows deep down that the people they’re choosing aren’t safe (i.e. they aren’t looking for a relationship or aren’t capable of having one). In that case, feeling anxious is appropriate. You should feel anxious with people who aren’t safe, aka, people who are emotionally unavailable. However, when blame is placed only on attachment issues, you set yourself up for a losing battle. Assuming you’re anxious because something is wrong with you (attachment issues) means you’ll continue to choose the same type of person, and try to be less anxious with them. It’s not reasonable to expect yourself to feel comfortable with someone who isn’t emotionally available, attachment issues or not. You can try, but you’ll fail and continue to think something is wrong with you. The fact is, you’d probably be far less anxious if you were choosing emotionally available partners who didn’t do things to make you question whether they were into you, or what they want with you (yes, that’s a possibility!), attachment issues or not. Until you’re with someone who is emotionally available, you won’t know how you’ll feel. So, before you blame yourself entirely for how awful you feel while dating, make sure you’re not choosing people who would make anyone looking for a relationship anxious.
Take care of your nervous system every day. Take time to do brief guided meditations, take intentional deep breaths in and out throughout the day, and move your body. Personally, I think yoga is key to emotion regulation, healing from trauma, and strengthening your mind-body connection.
Learn how to manage uncertainty. We tend to make up stories when we don’t know the future or what the other person is thinking or feeling. It’s one way people manage uncertainty. The problem is, we don’t realize that all those anxious thoughts are actually just stories we’ve made up, and have nothing to do with reality or the actual future. Usually our stories don’t serve us, and actually make us feel more anxious. Start recognizing the difference between a story and a fact, and work to make up fewer stories. Instead, recognize you don’t know the future, but when it’s possible to have answers you will. For now, take a breath and repeat to yourself: “I’ll know when it’s possible to know. For now, I’m ok not knowing.” You have to learn to be ok not knowing the future because you’ll never know it until you get there.
Practice getting present. When you notice yourself starting to obsess, shift your focus and attention to your body. Do a scan of each area of your body from toes to the top of your head. Notice what sensations you feel in each area. Label the sensations, ie, tightness, pain, pulsing, hot, wet, dry, etc. Notice your breath. Start to observe it going in and going out. Each time your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your body. This is how you can get off the obsessive thinking train and on to the calming and grounding train. Over time this skill gets stronger.
Work on healing old wounds that have left you feeling insecure about yourself. The more you love yourself, the less anxious you’ll be about whether or not someone else likes you or wants you. It never feels good to be rejected, but it feels WAY less bad when you know your own worth regardless of whether someone else wants you or not.
Take back your power. Stop giving others power to determine your worth. You’re anxious because whether this person is right for you or not, or into you or not, means way more than it should, especially in the early stages of meeting someone. Until you know them, why are you making them matter so much? For all you know, they’re a person you don’t respect and don’t like. Wait until you know someone, like them and respect them before you care what they think of you. But never give someone the power to determine your worth. Whether they like you or don’t has more to do with them than you. Your worth isn’t up for debate.
Practice letting go of control. Whatever unfolds will unfold, and you can sit back and allow it to happen at it's own pace. Stop making up stories about the future. Stop trying to know the future before it happens. Be where you are, and trust that you will deal with the future when it comes. Take a deep breath and choose to allow things to unfold on their own again and again.
Choose one or two of the above tips to practice and strengthen. And remember, sometimes your anxiety is warning you because there’s danger, not because you have attachment issues. Be sure you’re checking in about that!
Need advice on dating, relationships, self-worth, boundaries, break-ups, or mental health? Send your questions anonymously and Caitlin will answer in an upcoming Dear Caitlin column! Fill out the application below!