One of the most popular topics in meme psychology (the name I've given to that sector of social media focused, sometimes flippantly, on mental and relational wellness) is what it's like to be an introvert. Among the quotes and memes covering introvertedness you're likely to find helpful or at least interesting information, but you'll also come across a lot of attachment wounding masquerading as a personality type.
Attachment Psychology, to be super general, studies how we experience and engage with relationships. To experience Secure attachment in any relationship requires a few things: 1) Faith in the other's safeness and general goodwill toward us, and their ability to appropriately step up to the relationship 2) faith in our worthiness to be in the connection, and to reciprocate in the exchange of needs that fits the context (marriage, friendship, etc.), and 3) a connection that allows enough autonomy to feel fully accepted.
Our ability to sense and engage each piece of attachment begins building as soon as we're alive, and requires an adequate amount of safe, loving care. However, many things can contribute to attachment wounding, when one or more of those components missing from our experience of connection. Then we have what we call insecure attachment styles.
These are not the same as personality types; they are defensive postures we default to in relationship whenever we feel unsafe (whether we really are or not). They're also not how we actually desire and need to be in connection. This is why it's such a disservice to ourselves to mischaracterize wounded attachment as a personality type.
Avoidance as Introversion
When care is absent or inconsistent in our upbringing, or those sources of love and safety we depend on aren't so dependable, a person is likely to develop what we call an Avoidant attachment style. This is when that first ingredient of Security is missing. Our ability to have faith in others' capableness to meet our needs, or to even be safe and good toward us, is deficient. We are untrusting and so being open in hard. The normal hiccups and struggles of relationship can feel like deep betrayal or just too much work. We might quickly feel overwhelmed, violated, or stripped of our resources when someone gets close. We give up on people super easily.
So many of the memes and posts supposedly about being an introvert talk of deep disappointment in others, relational jadedness. Self-described introverts often take pride in their extreme independence, or describe the greater quality of connection they have with animals or even plants. These are, however, telltale signs of Avoidant attachment.
The meme psychology of the false introvert will tell you that you must understand their disengagement from relationship, their coldness toward you, their constant absence. I even saw a quote making the rounds that introverts need to be 'saved' by an extrovert that takes them under their wing and transposes their own social support.
True introversion is about a personal bent toward inner processing. It finds deep interpersonal intimacy free-flowing but has to work harder in unfamiliar or highly dynamic social connection (often mischaracterized as shallow). Introverts actually find closeness with others appealing and energy-giving.
When someone conceptualizes their avoidant patterns as their personality type, they're going to miss out on the relational healing they actually do want and need.
Healing for Avoiders
Relational trauma work is so important for attachment wounding. Relearning how to feel safe in relationships that are safe takes time, patience, and the participation of good people. But as with all personal growth and healing, nobody's contribution will mean much if you aren't engaged in the work yourself.
We also don't have to choose between either vilifying or bowing to our reactionary defenses. Self-compassion has space for knowing that our avoidance was absolutely necessary at one time--maybe for a long time. With practice and support we learn to let them know we're not going to abandon what they worked so hard to protect.
As we get the hang of patience and understanding for ourselves, we will find that flowing out into interpersonal relationships. We build our tolerance for working through the discomforts and hurdles innate to connecting with other people, knowing and really feeling that it is okay.
The Other Masks of Avoidance
This is not to say that loners and cat hoarders are the only Avoidants. This wounded attachment style can sometimes appear deceptively social. The untrusting and unavailable heart may find a useful disguise as the life of the party, the organizer, the serial boyfriend. But make no mistake, the first hint of connection or conflict will have them long gone. You find yourself left with your head spinning, wondering how you went from besties to strangers or even enemies overnight.
If you're trying to love an avoidant person, you're going to need a lot of patience and self-security. And remember that caring never means you can't tell the truth.
Mike Ensley, LPC is a professional counselor and the founder of Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, CO.