Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person with an insecure attachment style looking at their partner who is looking away.

What Happens When an HSP Grows Up With Insecure Attachment?

If you’re a perfectionist who reacts strongly to people’s comments, it might be time to learn about your attachment style as an HSP. 

As we navigate life, we form a variety of relationships along the way with our friends, coworkers, neighbors, romantic partners, and biological or chosen family. Sometimes those relationships are blissful and comforting, while others are ripe with chaos. 

Have you ever wondered why some relationships flow effortlessly while others seem doomed from the beginning, despite all your effort? Does tension and conflict often appear as a common and unwelcomed theme? 

Repeating the same relationship pattern over and over again can be frustrating, hurtful, exhausting, and confusing, comparable to pouring salt in a wound. And if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), your emotions will likely be even more magnified since we feel things on a deeper level than non-HSPs. 

If you find yourself repeatedly in the same type of negative relationship, it’s worth exploring if an insecure attachment style is the root cause.

What Is Attachment?     

We collect and store information regarding our relationships in our unconscious mind (also known as our piggy bank of past experiences). These memories are like a shadow that follows us without our awareness. It’s not until we intentionally look back that we see the shadow and confront our past.

During our first 2-3 years of life, our relationship style — specifically, how we relate to others — is formed based on our relationships with our primary caregiver. Dr. John Bowlby, a British psychologist, first studied attachment patterns and believed we have a “biological” drive to be in relationships. 

Developmental psychologist Dr. Mary Ainsworth further expanded on Bowlby’s work by studying how babies form attachments with their parents. It is from Ainsworth’s work that the insecure styles emerged: insecure anxious and insecure avoidant. The secure attachment pattern is a part of the attachment triad, too.

  • Insecure anxious: Having an insecure anxious style means we need consistent and tangible reassurance that we are loved and cared for. If we don’t feel that assurance, we can become utterly consumed and frightened when someone we care about pulls away. 
  • Insecure avoidant: If we are insecure avoidant, we are the opposite of anxious. At the first sign of affection, we run in the opposite direction. It’s hard for us to embrace vulnerability, feelings, and intimacy in adulthood.  

At the heart of each insecure type is a deep-rooted fear of abandonment. Now that we know the basics, here is what happens when an HSP grows up with insecure attachment.

How an Insecure Attachment Style Affects HSPs

1. Insecure attachments are developed over time.

Being an HSP is considered a genetic trait which is independent of the type of attachment style one might develop as they grow older. In her research findings, Dr. Elaine N. Aron explains that adult HSPs tend to rate slightly higher in developing insecure attachments in comparison to non-HSPs. In her book, she suggests that, as sensitive children, it’s easier to observe and pick up the slightest “relationship cues” from our caregiver(s) and family. So, our environmental circumstances inform our attachment.

It’s important to note, however, that despite recognizing those external cues, as children we were unable to understand the meaning behind the messaging of our caregivers. Growing up, we might have had caregivers who were emotionally unavailable, depressed, stressed, abusive, and/or not healed from their own childhood trauma

This lack of access to our caregivers in childhood creates a latent belief that others can’t meet our needs of safety and love as adults. So overstimulated and unattended HSP children learn to depend on themselves and implement coping mechanisms to self-soothe, which carries into adulthood. For instance, coping as children will manifest as withdrawal, staying quiet, and even becoming agitated.

2. We repeat insecure relationships, like familiar patterns from childhood.

Children who didn’t feel safe often repeat the same relationships as adults. Rarely do we realize that we are enacting the same relationship behaviors that we observed in our families, as it’s all unconscious. 

The trauma of our childhood can manifest in the most unexpected times and places as adults. We may overreact to a comment from a coworker, lash out at a loved one, have a shift in mood for no apparent reason, and practice perfectionistic tendencies. Our reactions to these scenarios can trigger our abandonment wound. 

Ironically, when we operate from our internal wounds, we simultaneously self-sabotage ourselves from building caring and loving relationships. How? Though we may deeply desire loving and secure relationships, we don’t know how — we haven’t learned how to regulate and rewire our emotions. And HSPs may really be affected by this since our emotions are already in overdrive.

Further, we might observe that our family, friends, and coworkers may limit their exposure to us in order to avoid conflict. Until we unlearn familial patterns, sometimes we will seek unhealthy outlets to mask our internal void for love. Such outlets can be in the form of addictions, emotional eating, and/or being split off from ourselves.

3. We have repressed feelings — if we don’t feel safe, we may subdue our emotions.

As children, we were often unable to be our authentic selves because our behavior and feelings were viewed as “problematic,” “peculiar,” or “difficult.” So if we didn’t have a safe ability to express our emotions, we typically subdued them, keeping our insights and observations bottled up. 

In adulthood, this translates to feeling invisible, a lower sense of self-worth, the need for validation, and being distrustful of others’ intentions. Our trust in people fluctuates in what Dr. Aron calls the “never again” response — in order to avoid wrestling with our deeply buried pain. Practically speaking, this sense of otherness projected onto you as a child can make you feel like an imposter in the workforce, with partners, and within certain social circles. 

According to Dr. Aron, if feelings remain unattended to as adult HSPs, we have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and shyness in comparison to HSPs who had a non-traumatic upbringing.

4. We struggle with identity — should we follow our parent’s lead or follow our gut?

As HSPs, we have uncanny intuition that signals danger or calm in our day-to-day lives. While intuition is a marvelous attribute, if we didn’t embrace it as a child, confusion develops towards our caregiver’s spoken or unspoken expectations of us, Dr. Aron talks about in her book. For example, in our youth, we might have struggled in knowing if we should follow our parent’s lead or follow our gut. They are family, yet something feels off and you may feel scared. 

This feeling of ambiguity transfers into adulthood and cultivates a partially formed identity. We never had the opportunity to parcel out our own voice, needs, and desires. Rather, we ingested the identity of our caregivers.

Dr. Aron suggested that, as children, we needed to survive, so we conformed when needed and went with the flow without questions. As a result, in adulthood, we might find ourselves constantly questioning ourselves and our decisions, coupled with questioning those in our inner circle. This second-guessing can create conflict in our relationships, as we might misinterpret input, become angry, stressed, anxious, or withdrawn — despite having intuition and intellect as our guide.  

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From Insecure to Secure Attachment

While having an insecure attachment sounds daunting, it’s not the end of the story. Rather, it can be a new beginning. The reality is, trauma preceded the insecure attachment. While we can’t undo our past, we have the ability to amend our present and future selves, albeit with significant work. This is where finding a good therapist comes into play. Dr. Aron, too, suggests that long-term therapy can be beneficial, as the relationship can model a secure and validating environment for us as adults.

If we don’t do this work, the relationship with ourselves and others will remain fraught with significant internal and interpersonal conflict. We will feel “stuck” and repeat the behavioral patterns we learned in our youth. In addition, as Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., says in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, our adult bodies store trauma through physical symptoms, such as increased cortisol levels (also known as the stress hormone), headaches, disrupted sleep/appetite, fatigue, and a sensitive digestive system.

There are other micro-movements that can be done, as well. 

  • Give yourself permission to feel the emotions you were not allowed to express as a child (hurt, fear, anger, happiness, and/or joy, to name a few). This will help you get more peace in your life as an HSP.
  • Seek out secure, loving, and kind relationships with other securely-focused people. 
  • Exercise self-compassion. Dr. Kristen Neff, the psychologist of the groundbreaking research on self-compassion and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, explains that the antidote to the shame and fear of your past is engaging in self-compassionate acts. For example, speak kind and loving words to yourself — like “You are safe, you are loved, and you have value” — journal your feelings, or give yourself a hug while repeating a calming phrase during fearful moments, such as, “Right now, I am safe.”

While being a highly sensitive person with an insecure attachment style can be a challenge, luckily, there are steps you can take to better the relationship you have with yourself and others. 

Fellow HSP, can you relate?

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