Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level

Avoidant Brain

Avoidant Brain

Avoidants are known to be viscerally effected by events that would normally trigger conscious emotions — such events are often reflected in a racing heart, disturbed digestion, and poor sleep even when the Dismissive-Avoidant consciously feels nothing — and will tell you he or she doesn’t really mind that their partner is gone since it’s such a great opportunity to get more work done away from the partner’s demands for attention.

This blockade on attachment-related emotions is a defense mechanism; it was necessary in childhood to survive a caregiver’s inattention or abuse. The feelings of being unloved and unwanted that might otherwise have destroyed the child’s will to live are shunted aside and never reach a conscious level; avoidants tend to have poor memories of emotional events and report unreliably when asked about their childhoods.

An interesting post on the blog StopTheStorm discusses this phenomenon:

When it comes to thinking about, describing and feeling emotions, I always have a sideline running in the background concerning my father. I think about the dismissive-avoidant insecure attachment disorder patterns as researchers are now being able to actually see them operate through visually watching the brains of such people.

Researchers can watch how some brains create in effect a firewall that leaves actual emotions as they ARE triggered in the body completely out of conscious awareness. Researchers can see the emotion being experienced in the brain AND at the same time be screened from a person so that they do not know they are even there — AT ALL. The brain is consuming massive amounts of energy during this screening process, and these ‘brain-holders’ never know it.

There are specific early caregiver-to-infant interactions that create these brains from birth to age one. These changed brains are intimately connected to the changed nervous system and body of their ‘holders’. Being cared for by unresponsive, unemotional, cold, depressed and ‘blank-faced’ caregivers are some of the ways these dismissive-avoidant brains are created in infants from the beginning.

These same infants, had they been interacted with by securely attached and appropriate-adequate early caregivers would have developed entirely different brains. My father was an unwanted infant born to an unwilling and depressed mother, raised by his teenage sister primarily who was not caring or nurturing. In the end, my father’s dismissive-avoidant insecurely attached brain worked very well on his behalf as he could NOT FEEL — did not HAVE to feel — and hence could ignore what he NEEDED to pay attention to and react to appropriately.

I have an important person I care deeply about who I believe also has a dismissive-avoidant insecure attachment disorder, and I can see how easily this pattern fits with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Very nicely indeed. The fact is that people who fit into this range can most often manage to get along just fine — but have extremely limited (if any) ability to FEEL and therefore to CARE how others feel, either. It would be easy to call them ‘intimacy disabled’.

One of the better studies of brain activation in avoidants concluded:

As a whole, these brain imaging data support but also extend the notion put forward by AT (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007) that attachment avoidance is associated with a preferential use of emotion suppression in interpersonal/social contexts. Furthermore, they reveal that reappraisal may not work for these individuals, leading to impaired down-regulation of amygdala reactivity. This pattern may help understand why avoidantly attached individuals tend to become highly emotional when their preferred regulation strategies fail or cannot be employed.

Translated, when deactivating strategies (intended to reduce the importance of an attachment relationship to the avoidant) fail to work or can’t be used, the avoidant can be overwhelmed by unprocessed feelings that are normally blocked or avoided. The avoidant strategy is to never be put into a position where deep feelings of loss might break out by distancing anyone who gets too close and minimizing the importance of attached others.

[Note: If you’re looking for information on your dismissive or fearful-avoidant spouse or lover, I’ve published a book on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner.]

Other posts on this topic:

Dismissive-Avoidants as Parents
Subconscious Positivity Predicts Marriage Success…
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
“Bad Boyfriends” – Useful for Improving Current Relationships
Asian Culture and Avoidant Attachment
“The Science of Happily Ever After” – Couples Communications
Attachment Type Combinations in Relationships
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Type: Fearful-Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Type: Dismissive-Avoidant


  1. Hi Jeb,

    I just ordered your book though Amazon! I have just began familiarizing myself with attachment disorders. I think my boyfriend is avoidant/dismissive. Everything will be going perfectly for about a month and then he pulls away by acting like a complete a**hole… insulting me, trying to put me down, etc. I don’t put up with it and completely ignore him and leave. Then suddenly he plans all this stuff he wants to do with me, like he is scared he’ll loose me, and then everything goes back to normal until the next month when it happens all over again. Also, I feel, he has unrealistically high expectations of me. “Nothing is ever good enough” and he acts like he expects me to do things for him like, cook him dinner, wash his laundry, clean up after him, run random errands, etc. I work more then he does but I enjoy being able to help him/show I care by doing things like that. But I completely stopped doing any of that because the more I did, the more he expected and the more he would act like a jerk. When I stopped doing things for him he got upset at first, but he stopped acting as entitled. He is also very controlling. He shows up when I’m out with my friends, gets mad when I am going to go out, even if it is to go to brunch with his sister or dinner with my mother. I have to turn my phone off or else I get 40 (I am not exaggerating) missed calls and text messages accusing me of cheating. He complains that my boss likes me, goes through my phone, and accuses me of cheating on him even though he knows I am not, never have, and never would. I am very good at communicating and I always tell him where I am going and who I am with or what I did that day when he asks, but if I ask him, he doesn’t want to tell me what he did. It may be some sort of power thing for him to withhold information for no good reason, but I am not sure. I do not have a problem ignoring him when he acts like that but it is annoying and I would like to find a way to put an end to it. He only says I love you when he has been drinking, or he knows I am mad at him. Also, it’s like he needs attention but once he gets it he gets mad that me got it. In the mornings occasionally he pulls me up to him and cuddles, but doesn’t say anything. Then after about 10 minutes he pushes me away and says something like, “Ew, get off of me!” Or “Why are you smothering me, I can’t breathe!” and then will push me or something one more time. It’s weird. The other day he I was working on my laptop and he came and layer on top of me (to be annoying) but I knew he wanted attention so I gave him a little hug and told him I loved him and he turned around and looked at me and said, “Why, I’m not special, you can’t actually love me.” Then I told him I did again and he didn’t do anything for a few seconds and just looked at me and then started laughing and said that there’s something wrong with me and got up and walked away. I am very independent myself and his true colors did not begin to show and create problems in out relationship until further along, after we found out I was pregnant. He is incapable of talking about his feelings or any problems that arise in our relationship. Since we have a baby on the way, which he is very excited for, it gives me reason to try my best to make this work and provide a healthy environment for a child to grow up in. I would like to go to counseling with him but he has refuses when I bring it up. First he said it was a waste of money and I told him my insurance would cover it, then he said there is nothing wrong so there is no point to go which he knows we both know is not true. Do you have any advice you could offer me for dealing with him and getting help or any insite so I can better understand him?

    I can’t wait until your book arrives, thank you!

    1. Hannah —

      Your boyfriend sounds not only dismissive (which is a normal if not ideal attachment type) but borderline abusive. His insecurity leads him to treat you badly. Don’t let him make you doubt your sense that he’s behaving badly — he is. I think you will find the book eye-opening, and it should help you decide whether there’s any chance of making this work. Best of luck.

      — jeb

  2. Hi Jeb,
    I appreciate all the effort you put into this site. You have listed many resources for those in a relationship with an Avoidant however, I have a Dismissive-Avoidant attachment style and in fact, I’m “AVOIDANT: EMOTIONS REPRESSED BENEATH CONSCIOUS LEVEL” All of the attributes you list in the above article are about me. So far, I’ve seen nothing on your site regarding how I might might deal with or improve on my disorder. Also, in searching the web, I find little regarding how to proceed from the Avoidant’s perspective, only about those in relationships with an Avoidant. If you have any advice or resources I’ve missed, I would very much appreciate learning about them.

    1. The short answer is that there’s no proven therapy, though awareness and talk therapy over years can help. In “Avoidant” I have some suggestions, primarily self-talk and “fake it til you make it”-style conscious effort to pretend you are experiencing positive feelings of care and affection even when you’re not aware, a habit that can help unbury some of your true feelings. This is a long-term effort, and will be appreciated by those around you even if it’s only partly effective.

      There is some interesting work being done using MDMA and other psychoactive drugs to open up repressed feelings, but few therapists have permission to use such experimental techniques, and getting into the very few studies is hard. I would say it’s worth trying if you can find a therapist doing that kind of work; it either helps after a few long sessions or it doesn’t, so you haven’t wasted too much time if it doesn’t. Here’s an article on the topic: http://reset.me/story/qa-with-an-underground-healer-breaking-the-law-to-provide-mdma-therapy/ — I can’t advise you, of course, only a professional seeing you could do that.

      1. Jeb,
        Thank you for your quick and detailed response, I wanted to follow-up if you don’t mind. Judging by the number of posts on this particular subject, {none by an Avoidant}, I’m guessing that you’ve not communicated with an “Avoidant with his emotions repressed below the conscious level.” It’s not in our nature to seek or accept help. We have ideal childhoods and cool, unruffled emotions, just some annoying “relationship issues.” It’s taken me a long journey to the point of realization of how I was created and to see the brainscan of the Avoidant in the article above is both eye opening and rationally devastating. I’m an engineer and it’s crystal clear — I have a box of magnificent treasures, {emotions} residing inside me. At birth, my brain formed around the concept that the box is not to opened and the key was discarded as the contents of the box are dangerous and unnecessary.

        I wanted to comment on your suggestions, not so much for you but towards other Avoidants who might stumble onto our conversation;

        Self talk — as I live life in my rational brain, self talk is all I have. I’ve been using this technique since day one as a child as we don’t have friends or mates in the traditional sense. We can’t confide in ours as we have no emotional basis for such communications. The only one we have to confide in is ourselves and it leads nowhere, the “box” is still locked.

        Fake it till you make it — This is what we have been doing our whole lives, it our primary way of dealing with people and relationships. Without emotions, we can only rationally guess what the other person wants and respond as we’ve seen other people respond, but in a fake manner. The second part of the statement, “make it” has no meaning in this context. There isn’t a magical treatment to find the key and open the “box’. I will continue my search for such a key but so far, I don’t find anything that leads me to believe we understand enough about my processes to offer hope of improvement.

        Use of MDMA to unlock hidden emotions — I would highly recommend against such an approach. From the article you quoted above about brain studies, “This pattern may help understand why avoidantly attached individuals tend to become highly emotional when their preferred regulation strategies fail or cannot be employed.” From the brain scan above, the individual’s amygdala is highly activated just from looking at social interaction pictures. If MDMA was able to unlock the “box” and allow a sudden flow of emotions to the conscious mind, which has never experienced any emotions, the results could range from miraculous to disastrous. There haven’t been enough, (any?) studies of people like us since we are, from superficial appearances, model citizens.

        Thanks for listening and if you have additional or future insights, I would be very grateful for your passing them along.


      2. I’m also an engineer by background, so I do understand the Mr. Spock point of view. And one can have a fine life as an unemotional being, the problem being when you have to deal with humans and your lack of feeling is detected and seen as making you an unreliable ally, someone who cannot fully bond. This limits success in many fields — admired for analysis, unable to climb to upper management because those critical bonds with others aren’t made.

        It’s like wishing you could not feel pain or suffering. While unpleasant, those are signals necessary for feedback, and if they are muffled or cut off, the organism will not learn or adapt as well to its environment.

        If someone of this type is just wanting to improve functioning enough to make some headway with personal relationships, I’dd add to the coping strategies the tactic of radical honesty for those critical relationships — making it clear to spouses, friends, and bosses that you are aware you have repressed your natural feelings and the you hope that your deficit will be understood and forgiven. An explanation for what might otherwise be seen as intentional coldness or erratic behavior can go a long way in smoothing relationships.

        But as you say, it’s risky to unlock that box. A lot of avoided pain and suffering would return, with limited practice in handling it. This is why any such strategy should be undertaken with an experienced partner — a therapist who can assist in developing the skills in handling those strong feelings. It shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, and only when there’s enough time and professional stability to do a lot of introspective work.

        But for many it has been worth it.

      3. Jeb,
        Being that you are such a prolific writer, I’m not sure how you get any rest. Perhaps your studies and interactions with us are your “flow” and relaxation. I appreciate your candor and the ability to speak to me directly, I’ve never met a therapist who had a clue about my condition. Their standard approach, “tell me your feelings.” When unable to do so, they believed I was either faking it or consciously suppressing my emotions due to unresolved issues. They acted as If we just talked long enough, I would finally bond with them and open up to my emotional pain. It hasn’t worked.

        Mr. Spock is a great analogy for me, my wife agrees with you 100%. I’ve always admired Spock and didn’t really know why until recently. We have our place in the world and until we Avoidants realize our limitations, we fumble through life inadvertently harming and stressing other people. Spock, being without relationship and known to his peers wasn’t loved but was deeply appreciated. We have no such world, I’m unknown to therapist and science is just becoming to be aware of our limitations through brain science. Until psychotherapy catches up with brain science, we Avoidants could at least let society know we exist and reduce stress for all involved. To acknowledge a “Spock syndrome”? Most likely, our society isn’t ready for that either.

        As for your suggestion of radical honesty, it’s absolutely spot on. Having recently discovered my limitations with help, (massive prodding) from my wife, I find it refreshing to not have to fake it so much and let out small snippets of things that bother me. I previously repressed such interactions, not trusting in my intuitions and to avoid conflicts of any kind.

        My last comment regards you last statement; “But for many it has been worth it.” I find nothing to substantiate that claim. I find no treatment nor mention of my condition in any website other than the ones on brain science. These brain scientist are accomplished in their tasks but seem to have no interest expanding into how such conditions might be mitigated. If you have examples of the “many” of my disability type who have been helped by psychotherapy, I’d be most interested in learning more.


      4. I was speaking of the more common therapies for PTSD and other “learned” emotional problems. Being alexithymic or unable to recognize feelings is not obvious enough to be seen as a problem requiring help — you look like you are functioning well! The primary focus of investigational treatments has been on PTSD, drug addiction, and other common and debilitating problems. So I can’t say there are any great success stories using MDMA or similar psychoactive drugs in therapy for exactly your problem, just that I would guess it might be useful there, too.

      5. Jeb,
        Thank you very much. I believe we understand each other as well as possible in this limited exchange. I don’t want to grasp at straws anymore that aren’t there and will continue to research my disorder. Please post any new insights you may have and I’ll do the same.
        Best Regards,

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