How to Know Your Attachment Style as a Highly Sensitive Person

A highly sensitive person’s secure attachment style

By knowing our attachment style, we can begin to understand how — and why — we relate to people the way we do. 

Adulting is hard: Whether you’re 18 or 78, single or partnered, a parent or child-free, employed or unemployed. As 2021 continues to steamroll its way into our lives, we are forced to adapt and navigate our way around this new world order. This may mean creating healthier habits, accepting where you’re at, embracing self-compassion, and figuring out better ways to relate to yourself and others. And for us highly sensitive types, all the new stimuli coming at us can be even more intense.

No matter what, one of the most important relationships that we will have is with ourselves. Yep, the person in the mirror who is looking back at us every day. How we treat and interact with our inner being will profoundly influence every relationship we have. Through the lens of knowing our attachment style, we can begin to understand how — and why — we relate to people the way we do. Such knowledge will equip us to improve our internal and external relational dynamics. 

Your attachment style is based on how you are raised and bond with (or not) your first primary caregiver. This profoundly impacts your arousal response and trust capabilities, and whether you’ll have a secure (or insecure) base. Your attachment style then continues on into adulthood and impacts how you find, maintain, and end relationships.   

In Dr. Elaine N. Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You, she states:

“Being a secure or insecure type has nothing to do with being an HSP or not; about the same percentage of HSPs and non-HSPs are secure. Our experience of our caretakers, not our temperament, gives us our working model of the kind of help we can count on when we explore our world and encounter danger. But our attachment style impacts us more because we are HSPs.”

However, in her research, Dr. Aron did find that adult HSPs tend to rate slightly higher in developing insecure attachments in comparison to non-HSPs. In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, she noted that, as sensitive children, it’s easier for one to observe and pick up the slightest “relationship cues” from their caregiver(s) and family. In other words, your environmental circumstances inform your attachment.

Here are the four types of attachment styles adults most frequently fall into.   

4 Common Types of Attachment Styles

1. Secure Attachment: You feel safe to explore the world around you without fear that someone will abandon you. 

Secure adults often feel connected, loved, and seen in their relationships. As a child, this group felt they could trust their parents to provide for their emotional, mental, physical, and practical day-to-day needs. They felt safe to explore the world around them without fear of reprimand from their parents. This sense of exploration cultivated a sense of independence that they are their own person who can return to their parents to receive love and care. 

Research shows that, in adulthood, securely attached individuals emulate this behavior with loved ones, friends, and coworkers. They allow others the freedom to “play” and seek their own path, without fear that the person will abandon them, because a secure base has been formed.   

In relationships, secure adults will comfortably offer support to a friend or lover when they are suffering — this empathic quality comes naturally to HSPs — while feeling safe enough to seek help when they are distressed. They spend time making investments in their relationships, often with other securely attached adults. These relationships are not codependent; rather, they are sheltered by vulnerability, trust, mutual respect, honesty, and deep love. Secure adults feel safe in creating boundaries with others while not carrying the weight of other’s disdain with their boundary. They seek peace and harmony in their relationships and are simultaneously assertive enough to articulate their needs when they feel unseen or disrespected.

2. Anxious Preoccupied Attachment: You don’t feel a sense of security within your relationships; instead, there is a sense of emotional deprivation. 

Anxiously attached adults feel a deep need to create a fast connection with others. They don’t feel a sense of security within their relationships; rather, there is a sense of emotional deprivation

In relationships, they will continually seek out validation to affirm their worth and safety. This can come across as needy, clingy, jealous, and mentally consumed by their fear of distance in their relationships. If a friend or partner seeks independence in the dynamic, the anxious individual will deem this act as a slight and a disregard toward them personally. Relationships can become enmeshed, as boundaries are amiss. If you are an HSP, you may already have a tendency to be codependent and look to others for validation. So if you have an anxious preoccupied attachment style, it’s helpful to be cognizant of codependency patterns and boundary-setting.

Often, due to the forms of insecurity above, it’s usually a matter of time in which interpersonal relationships will dissolve, as others will feel exhausted by the rollercoaster of emotions. Anxious individuals will utilize this as proof to validate their deep-rooted fear of abandonment and concern for not feeling loved by others. Ultimately, anxiously attached individuals don’t truly love themselves.   

3. Dismissive Avoidant Attachment: The closer people attempt to get to you, the further you’ll run. 

Avoidant adults are the opposite of the anxious adult. Individuals in this camp are those who are emotionally unavailable: distant in a relationship. They often have a charisma about them, are enjoyable in social situations, fun to be around, and appear to be independent… yet have a sense of rigidity when it comes to their routines. And when you attempt to get closer or dig deeper into who they are at their core, they will flee via not returning calls or texts, or not wanting to hang out. The closer you attempt to get to them, the further they’ll run. 

It isn’t uncommon to see relationships in which one person is anxious and the other is avoidant. The anxious type will chase the avoidant, causing the avoidant to flee even more and, consequently, causing significant anxiety for both individuals, as neither of their core needs of safety are being addressed. 

Upon further exploration, the avoidant is petrified of being vulnerable and is often detached from their emotional center. They’ve not learned how to connect with their emotions and will be emotionally stunted as adults. They may desire connectivity and come off as “together.” But without making the investment in being vulnerable with others, they will remain emotionally aloof and distant. Although HSPs generally have an overload of emotions, they can still have a dismissive avoidant attachment style.

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4. Fearful Avoidant Attachment: Your emotions are on a seesaw; you fluctuate between wanting closeness and distance at the same time.

The fearful avoidant type is not as common; this style wasn’t included in the basic three styles, which have been around longer. An individual with this style fluctuates between wanting closeness and distance at the same time. Their emotions are on a seesaw in which they never truly find inner balance. 

If overwhelmed by a flood of emotions — which is common among HSPs, too — they can spiral into a dark void of depression and/or anxiety. Individuals in this style are cognizant that others can meet their needs while also not trusting those others in full; there is an unwavering concern that others are not fully reliable. This split creates deep inner and external conflict, as they don’t know how to respond to, or act toward, this self-perceived double standard in relationships.  

In adulthood, this style swings from one extreme to the other in relationships, as the individual is hypervigilant regarding rejection. In one moment, they will hold onto their relationships dearly; a split second later, they’ll feel a strong desire to run away, due to feeling suffocated. They will unknowingly look for “clues” that their friends, family, or partners are attempting to abandon them. Such a strain will cause fatigue and inaccurate interpretations of a loved one’s behaviors. Like other insecure attachment styles, eventually, others will create a safe distance from this person or discontinue the relationship. 

According to Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love:

  • just over 50 percent of the population is secure
  • 20 percent is anxious
  • 25 percent is avoidant
  • 5 percent is fearful

Do any of these attachment styles resonate with you? Or are you unsure which most describes you? That’s OK! You can take this attachment style quiz to find out, as well as speak to a therapist to figure out how to best proceed regarding your interpersonal relationships.

Want to get one-on-one help from a trained therapist? We’ve personally used and recommend BetterHelp for therapy with real benefits for HSPs. It’s private, affordable, and takes place online. BONUS: As a Sensitive Refuge reader, you get 10% off your first month. Click here to learn more.

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