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How can you recognize a secure person if you’re insecure?
July 20, 2014 11:05 PM   Subscribe

Am I ruining a great relationship with my anxiety or am I anxious because my relationship is not great? Is there a way to tell the difference between irrational anxiety and alarm bells?

I have recently discovered that in terms of attachment theory I am fearful-avoidant. A history of sexual abuse, family issues, and two damaging previous relationships (one year with an emotional sadist, seven years with a compulsive cheater and liar) mean I have pretty much zero self-esteem and zero trust in others. In a relationship, I tend to completely idolize the other person, while at the same time being deadly afraid of them, so I go through exhausting anxiety-avoidance cycles.

I am now in a LTR with someone whom I love very much, and with whom I am closer than with anyone before (let’s call them Y). I have been with Y for 3,5 years, living together for a year. However, what worries me is that the longer we are together, the more insecure I get. In the last year, I have become very, unreasonably jealous and my anxiety is off the charts. I am worried that this is eventually going to seriously affect my life and my relationship in a very negative way.

I’ve recently read the book ‘Attached’. It made me look past my own issues and for the first time ask the question of where Y fits in all this, and I realized I'm unable to judge that. I know that the main reason why I stayed way too long in the previous, bad relationships was because I was so focused on my own inadequacies that I couldn’t even see my then-partners’ behavior clearly. I love Y and I want to be with them, but I feel that if I am to work on this, it’s really important for me to be able to look into _our dynamic_, rather than just _my own insecurity_. Unfortunately, my insecurity is making it impossible.

I have been working very hard on communication with Y and they know about my past and my issues. In general, I feel I get mixed responses ranging from “I see how hard it is for you and I will do anything to help” to “This is all in your head and I will not engage with your insecurities”. Because I oscillate between seeing Y as perfect (idolizing) and seeing them as a cold, dismissive monster (fear), because I know it must be difficult to deal with someone else’s issues, and because I have no previous experience of a good relationship, I honestly cannot tell to what extent what I perceive is real.

Of course, I don’t expect you to be able to tell either, as I can’t give you a complete picture. My question is just: How do you recognize someone secure and loving if you have no experience of people like that in your romantic history, and if your insecurity is going off the charts?

Note: Unfortunately, therapy is currently not an option (no time and no money.) I have had therapy in the past, so I am trying to do some self-help CBT and ACT/mindfulness.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
How do you recognize someone secure and loving if you have no experience of people like that in your romantic history,

The book How to Be an Adult in Relationships was exceedingly helpful for me in developing exactly the skills you're trying to develop. (The author has recently published a follow-up that I haven't read.) I can't find my copy right now, but somewhere in it he literally gives a list of specific behaviors, attitudes, etc. that signal when someone has the potential to be a healthy, supportive partner.
posted by scody at 11:26 PM on July 20 [14 favorites]


Sounds to me like you are on the right track in noticing you need to make changes within yourself. You don't project your problems onto others rather than blame others, and from my understanding, it's much easier to make changes to oneself than believing you can change others to make you happy. So this in and of itself puts you in a better place than many people.

What helps me when I am conversing with my partner when I am feeling insecure is to view the interaction with curiosity rather than fear. Curiosity is possible in those moments, while patients and compassion are not. I don't try to make the jump to inner peace anymore, it's just too far of an emotion from fear, going to a level that is closer to fear, like curiosity, is definitely possible. Curiosity helps me feel less attached to my feelings so the interaction becomes more meaningful rather than adversarial and self-defeating. Feelings are not reality, they are imaginary. Feeling bad about oneself is not reality, it's a story one has created to make sense of a painful history. You are on the right path to change, don't get in your own way, try to be curious and detached from your fear.
posted by waving at 5:55 AM on July 21 [4 favorites]


Do you have a clear idea of what would need to be different in order for you to feel more secure? Is there a pattern to the situations that bring about the anxiety, and/or a pattern to what makes it subside?
posted by alphanerd at 6:07 AM on July 21


Echoing the above, good for you for giving this the thought it deserves.

One thing I would like to add, is the importance of both listening carefully to your partner's reactions to your behaviour and then noting your gut response to it.

In an incidence where you have expressed an insecurity to him, you say you get mixed responses between supportive and exasperated. It's quite possible that the answer to your question is hidden here in plain sight - that your insecurities are a mixture of reasonable (he can and should make efforts to accommodate them and help you with them) and unreasonable (your responsibility to deal with through therapy, mindfulness etc).

But it's ok to listen to your gut instinct too. I mean, if your anxiety tends to creep out of control, it's possible that your gut may lead you down the path of paranoia. But if you feel that you're not getting enough support from him then have that conversation with yourself, and then with him. It's ok to need more than what you're getting, and it's not the end of the world if he's not going to be the one to give it to you.
posted by greenish at 6:13 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


I think this may be the list scody mentions from How To Be an Adult in Relationships (and if it's not the list she meant, it's still a helpful list! I use it with therapy clients a lot):
A needy child says: End my loneliness.
A healthy adult says: Be my companion while both of us respect each other's need to be alone at time.

A needy child says: Make me feel good.
A healthy adult says: I take responsibility for my own feelings and don't expect or need to feel good all the time.

A needy child says: Give in to me.
A healthy adult says: Negotiate with me.

A needy child says: Never betray me, lie to me, or disappoint me.
A healthy adult says: I accept you as fallible and seek to address, process, and resolve issues with you.

A needy child says: Help me not to have fear.
A healthy adult says: Help me learn to love.

A needy child says: I depend on you.
A healthy adult says: We depend on each other.

A needy child says: Totally fulfill my needs.
A healthy adult says: Moderately fulfill my needs.

A needy child says: Help me repeat old, painful scenarios from childhood and former relationships.
A healthy adult says: I have mourned the past, learned from it, and now want something better.

A needy child says: Indulge my ego.
A healthy adult says: Confront and free my ego.
posted by jaguar at 6:33 AM on July 21 [43 favorites]


hey. disorganized attachment style here (this one isn't mentioned in the Attached book because it is for extreme cases of abuse. you may need to google that one; it could be you too).

I 100% completely understand your hot/cold "he's good for me" vs "he's manipulating me by negating my feelings" vascillations. In my case it is complex-PTSD kicking in (aka BPD borderline personality).

My boyfriend also has the response to me of “I see how hard it is for you and I will do anything to help” to “This is all in your head and I will not engage with your insecurities” so I understand that too. It feels weird because it is simultaneously close and far. The thing is life isn't black and white... he will help you but he won't contort himself to fill a void or insecurity inside you and that's totally healthy response on his part. It is validating and loving you while not tolerating the unhealthy bits and not trying to fix you for yourself either.

I consider my guy to be securely attached type because:

- he is consistent in his behavior towards me. Unless he's having a bad day due to work (or a fight), he is present and able to connect. He does not blow hot/cold like I can or rather like I used to.

- I always know where I stand with him. I might not like it (I want to be engaged now, he's wanting a several months from now) but it's never unclear to me where we stand.

- I am being integrated into his family in a healthy way. We are clearly a big part of each other's lives whereas with other guys I felt in the sideline.

- he does what he says he'll do. We live together now but even in dating, I was never puzzled as to where he was. He would call after work, if we planned a movie he would show up for the movie and so on. He answered his calls promptly. Just like the Attached book said, if I didn't hear back from him in a timely manner he'd call and say "oh hey sorry baby I got held up at work and couldn't call you back" instead of pretending that it didn't matter or that it didn't happen like my other boyfriends.

- he's the same way with his family as he is with me, he's relaxed around his family and feels like he can rely on them. He has a good relationship with both his parents and sees them as regular people with flaws and strengths.

I could go on and on but the biggest clue is that we, the couple, have become much more stable and relaxed as time goes on. In my case I had to do a huge amount of mindfulness and flooding and all that therapy stuff in order to get there. I agree it is absolutely terrifying to sit in the bad feelings of anxiety because your whole body is trying to tell you that this man is a mortal terror to you. It's confusing because you love him and also see him as the source of your pain. (that is disorganized attachment) Well that's not your partner, that's the past kicking in.

It could be that you are falling in love with this person. The stakes feel higher. You are perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nothing obviously bad has happened yet but you are convinced that it will. You feel even more anxious waiting for the inevitable. I know this feeling too well. I've had to work on it with my partner and I'm not over it yet. It is hard. So maybe the anxiety has gotten worse because you're expecting the shoe drop.

Also remember that some amount of closeness/withdrawal is totally normal in a relationship. Everyone has days where they want to be alone, would rather hang out with their friends etc. I found these "micro-withdrawals" hard to tolerate and I'm working on those bad feelings there too.

I've been in therapy >5 years and in a happy relaxed relationship for 2 years. (The first year was anything but relaxed as I worked through a great number of issues that you describe. It took me a long time to calm down. I had to commit to myself and owning my shit and it did feel horrible but it does get better. Also my partner loves me a great deal and is in touch with his feelings and can express and mirror very well and that is a huge help.)

Anyways I relate so much, you can memail me if you need more.

Oh crap I just realized I assumed you're a woman dating a man, sorry. You were gender neutral so please for give any typos I tried to clear them up.
posted by serenity soonish at 7:38 AM on July 21 [9 favorites]


I have recently discovered that in terms of attachment theory I am fearful-avoidant. A history of sexual abuse, family issues, and two damaging previous relationships (one year with an emotional sadist, seven years with a compulsive cheater and liar) mean I have pretty much zero self-esteem and zero trust in others. In a relationship, I tend to completely idolize the other person, while at the same time being deadly afraid of them, so I go through exhausting anxiety-avoidance cycles.

Unless you've been diagnosed by a professional, I'd be skeptical about this.

I think you can just work on the issues as you are now. With CBT, the more you do, the better it works. I'd focus on getting comfortable with the anxiety and letting it go once you acknowledge it. It may take a lot of acknowledgement, letting go, one minute later doing it again, but eventually, you do have a reduction.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:36 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I get this completely. I'm not sure if what I'm about to say will really add much, but I hope it's at least a little bit helpful.

I spent a long time with a guy who was depressed and insecure. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety too, and I’m naturally conflict-avoidant, so being with him blinded me to the fact that what we had wasn’t healthy or normal. We avoided talking about anything serious because we were afraid of losing the comfort and security of a static relationship.

I was guilty too – instead of building my own life and forcing eachother to confront our fears, his friends became my friends, and his interests became my interests. I resented him for taking over my life and most of the time I felt like a caretaker instead of his lover, which I hated.

What I learned is that a codependent relationship isn’t real love. Staying in place out of fear just makes you feel lonely and hollow and hungry for genuine affection.

Like you, I recently started a relationship with someone I’d describe as “secure”, and at first I was really thrown off and worried by his reactions to my overbearing neediness. Sometimes he reassures me, other times he says exactly what your partner did - “This is all in your head and I will not engage with your insecurities”.
What I realized was that instead of indulging me and comforting me to avoid conflict (like I had learned to expect with my ex), he was telling me what I needed to hear and forcing me to deal with my issues. I also realized he's got his own shit to deal with and it's unfair of me to expect him to be emotionally available 24/7 - I have to step up and be supportive of him too.

It sounds like your partner is doing the same thing, which can be extremely distressing - it triggers your fears of inadequacy and rejection, and makes you want to withdraw to protect yourself. It’s something I struggle with too - your instinctive desire is for your partner to bury the issue under a mountain of reassurances and “I love yous”.
But the fact that your partner is calling you out on your anxieties is a GOOD sign for your relationship and your mutual sanity. I think you have a solid relationship but you just aren’t equipped to deal with it because all you’re used to is dysfunction.

Basically it’s like this: Being with someone who is insecure can feel like love, because your neediness fits together, and you feel like you understand each other. And when you meet someone who’s secure in who they are it’s scary because you don't understand that, and it feels like they might not love you as much, and you look at them and feel this mix of envy and inadequacy and fear that it’ll all turn to shit. So you interpret that envy and inadequacy and fear as signs that your relationship is doomed, and the longer the relationship lasts, the more convinced you are that it’s going to blow up in your face.

Your job now is to stop yourself from making any of that come true. This person’s stayed with you going on four years, and can see through your anxieties, and you’re taking steps to be more mindful, so take those as signs that you’re doing something right, and going in the right direction.
It can be done, you just have to decide every day that you want this and want to be better.
posted by azuresunday at 2:01 PM on July 21 [8 favorites]


I just wanted to pop back in here to make 1 additional comment:

I’ve recently read the book ‘Attached’. It made me look past my own issues and for the first time ask the question of where Y fits in all this, and I realized I'm unable to judge that.

I love Y and I want to be with them, but I feel that if I am to work on this, it’s really important for me to be able to look into _our dynamic_, rather than just _my own insecurity_. Unfortunately, my insecurity is making it impossible.

I honestly cannot tell to what extent what I perceive is real.


Personally I can find the book Attached a little triggering because it sends me into the Paranoid Suspicious PTSD mind - looking for ways that this person is secretly plotting to fuck me over, cheating on me, going to leave or conversely looking for clues that he is a Good Guy, a Safe Space and so on. I've read the book and then looked for clues in my boyfriend. It's not healthy. I'll start looking for The Answer to Us, the Final Dynamic that Explains our Relationship so that I can characterize it as Good or Bad. We are either a) healthy or b) he's the devil who gets off on my 'natural' submissiveness and enjoys maintaining he upper hand. Like you, I was exhausted by this inability to trust my own damned senses.

Remember that your senses are what you see, feel, hear, smell and taste. Don't put your layer of interpretation on it. What did you see? I saw Y turn their back to me. That's the fact. The interpretation is "Y is cutting me off" or "Y disapproves of me" which then sends you into alarm bells. Keep it to the facts. Say the facts. "You're turning your back to me? Is something wrong?" Listen to what Y says. Trust that it's the truth.

What I had to do was consider my boyfriend's character (what he said, what he did, just the facts) and decide once and for all if he was trustworthy. And if I deemed him trustworthy, that was my final decision. I acted "as though" he were trustworthy; I took him on his word and I took things at face value. I did not change this decision unless I had real evidence to the contrary. Real evidence. What did I see or hear. Not what did I think or imagine.

I'm trying to highlight the PTSD paranoia that can creep in and take over.

I'm also a little worried that by "look into our dynamic" you mean to pick apart every micro-emotion and micro-interaction and demand that he act the way you need him to act in order to not feel so rejected or afraid. Because now you have a Book that says you shouldn't have to be so triggered all the time. (Maybe I am projecting what I have done. I have learned that it is healthier to discuss discrete reasonable actions that I'd like of my boyfriend rather than get into crazy-making meta discussions of dynamics.)

You've been bad relationships before. If you're being hit, demeaned, controlled; if your dignity and independence is being disrespected, run.

If you're happy, things are ok and you can't obviously point to something and say "this is unhealthy" then don't look for unhealthy dynamics where they don't exist. It is exhausting. Your mind will never be satisfied, it will never feel safe, it will pick apart every detail constantly scanning for evidence either way. Even if Y did exactly everything you wanted, you would still feel afraid "maybe he's doing what I want in order to lull me into a false sense of security! gain my trust and then screw me over!!" The fearful mind will never be relaxed. It's hypervigilent.

If you haven't had it blow up in your face in 3.5 years, if you've met their family/friends and feel like a part of this person's life and are generally happy, if you are being honest and showing up as you are, not falsifying yourself, then chances are this is not a relationship to put under paranoid scrutiny. (If you are falsifying yourself in order maintain an illusion of security, stop.) If you have a friend you trust (who is not subject to this paranoia fixation) then ask their opinion of Y, what 'feel' they get. Tell them a 2 minute blurb about the fearful thoughts you're having and get it off your chest. That's called a reality check. I know my reality check friends and I rely on them when I need... a reality check. Which reality is real? The fearful one? The adoring one? Some grey area in between? I know my weakness, my tendency to think in black and white. My friends don't know I have BPD but when they reflect back to me that I'm sounding extreme, I listen to them and I trust their judgment.

Anyways I just wanted to add that. I know it feels like hell now but there is a way out. Please if you have the time for an anxiety-avoidance cycle, you have time for therapy; save your pennies, look for a sliding scale, go without a few things and invest in therapy. I've lived through nightmares-at-night, can't-hold-down-a-relationship PTSD hell and therapy is invaluable.
posted by serenity soonish at 8:45 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


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