Dear New Shrink,
I have a problem. When I get extremely close to certain people, I am sometimes overcome with a sense of fear that something awful has happened to them if I have not heard from them when expected. This happened sometimes with my mom when I was younger, and now it is happening again with my boyfriend. I know this might stem from some attachment issues from my childhood, but even with this awareness, the problem still remains. I try to rationalize that everything is most likely OK, but I feel worried until I hear from him. This only happens once in a while, and I always wonder, “Is he OK? Did something happen to him?” I have figured out ways to deal with this on a surface level, such as giving myself a certain amount of time to not worry, or staying distracted. But on a deeper level, how can I get rid of these unhealthy feelings of uncontrollable loss? It has nothing to do with trust; it’s a fear of losing him due to uncontrollable and inevitable events. How do I get these thoughts out of my head?
I am not sure where to start. This sounds very uncomfortable and you are right, not necessarily healthy. In a sense it could be a somewhat healthy defense that you have constructed in that when we are mentally prepared for something, we handle it much better than if we are caught completely off guard. I don’t know if you meant to use the word, but you did end by saying it’s a fear of uncontrollable “inevitable” events. What is it that you anticipate?
It is said that there are only two things that are certain in life — death and taxes. We can’t control either one but the first is something we can avoid, like taking care of ourselves. Are you close to the end of life? Any reason to believe death is close? Since you talk about your mom and your boyfriend, I imagine that you are young. You also say this only happens with certain people. Are these people engaging in high-risk behaviors or are you imagining that something totally random will take them from you?
You sound as if you have developed some good coping strategies and at the same time have the awareness that you have a deeper problem. You also sound as if you think this rather vague awareness should stop the problem, but with all due respect, it doesn’t sound like much awareness at all. Knowing about something is not the same as truly knowing it. That only comes when feelings and thoughts connect on an issue.
Attachment has been well studied and it is a natural instinct that we as humans have. Actually, most animals have it as well. This is because it is necessary for our survival. Attachment anxiety or problems forming attachments generally arise from the pain of loss. Unresolved grief almost guarantees attachment/relationship problems and emotional problems as well.
You may have noticed that over the last few decades we have had debriefing counselors that rush into the schools and talk with students after a school shooting or some big trauma. If we are able to work through our shock and grief soon after a loss, i.e. debrief with someone who cares, we are far less likely to carry it with us or have it go underground into our psyches.
Without knowing you, it sounds like you have had some type of traumatic loss and this is probably what you mean by attachment issues from your childhood. You may not have realized it as such but as a child, worrying about your own safety and survival is very troubling and not something we would wish on any child. Sometimes as children we pick up on, share and internalize the worries of a parent.
The big question is, where did your attachment anxiety come from? To work it out requires specificity and narrative. What I mean by this is that you would need to get very honest, specific and talk it out with someone. Usually this happens with a psychotherapist, in a grief group or for some people, with a religious leader at their church or temple.
Lastly, I think it is perfectly reasonable to talk to the people you are close to and ask them to be cognizant of your tendency to worry while you work on it. Ask that they try to check in as expected or when they say they will.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Visit her online at www.drbarge.com or e-mail your anonymous and confidential questions and responses to email@example.com. Got something on your mind? Let us help you with your life matters.