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How Do I Stop Being “Clingy?”

Hi! -- I did some research on attachment styles and I realized I fell into the preoccupied quadrant. Something associated with preoccupied people that I realized I do myself is become more clingy as I feel the other person drawing away. Is there anyway to stop this?

-"Preoccupied Lady"

Dear “Preoccupied Lady,”

I should start with a disclaimer: there is currently no established “cure” for either type of insecure attachment. What psychologists currently have to offer are explanations for how attachment security works and evidence for how attachment styles can change over time.

In general, patterns of insecure behavior (like “clinginess”) come from past negative experiences in relationships, usually with parents but also with siblings, former romantic partners, or close friends.1 Although psychologists disagree on how much attachment styles fluctuate (see this post for more), change does happen, with the most common form of change being from insecure to secure.2 When an individual is able to overcome his/her insecurities and behave the way secure people do, psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “earned security.”3 Just as you may have “learned” to be clingy as a result of people who mistreated or neglected you in the past, you can “learn” secure attachment by having positive experiences with others in the future. So there is hope for anyone, and acknowledging your own insecurity is a big step in the right direction!

Some of the top researchers in this area, led by Mario Mikulincer and Phil Shaver, have studied what they call “security priming,” which refers to the basic process of “activating” secure attachment in people’s minds.4,5 This priming is accomplished in a few different ways: 1) having people close their eyes and visualize the experience of being loved and cared for; 2) having people read stories that include characters supporting and caring for each other; and 3) having people view images of others in warm and comforting embraces (especially mothers with infants). When people think about secure attachment in this way they experience a variety of positive psychological changes, including less insecurity, even after they leave the laboratory.6 “…those repeatedly primed with attachment security reported more positive relationship expectations, more positive self-views, and less attachment anxiety.”7

Here is the bottom line, and what many psychologists would advise: immerse yourself in secure attachment. Focus your mind on the experience of feeling supported and loved. Spend time around people (family, close friends, and others) who you have observed to be “secure,” and pay attention to how they think, feel, and behave.  Their secure tendencies are likely to rub off on you. Keep close by whatever images, proverbs, music (“Stand by Me” by Ben E. King is a great example), or stories that remind you of the experience of feeling secure. It may take some time and patience to overcome “clinginess,” but heed Freud’s words of wisdom (paraphrased from the original): You should not strive to eliminate your complexes but to get into accord with them.

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1Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

2Davila, J., & Cobb, R. (2004). Predictors of change in attachment security during adulthood. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Adult attachment: New directions and emerging issues (pp. 133-156). NY: Guilford.

3Roisman, G., Padron, E., Sroufe, A., & Egeland, B. (2002). Earned-secure attachment status in retrospect and prospect. Child Development, 73(4), 1204-1219.

4Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. (2007). Boosting attachment security to promote mental health, prosocial values, and inter-group tolerance. Psychological Inquiry, 18(3), 139-156.

5Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. (2007). Reflections on security dynamics: Core constructs, psychological mechanisms, relational contexts, and the need for an integrative theory. Psychological Inquiry, 18(3), 197-209.

6Carnelley, K., & Rowe, A. C. (2010). Priming a sense of security: What goes through people’s minds?. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 27(2), 253-261.

7Carnelley, K., & Rowe, A. (2007). Repeated priming of attachment security influences later views of self and relationships. Personal Relationships, 14, 307-320.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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