Request an Appointment Button FAQ Registered Psychologist Counsellor Button

Relational Anxiety

Have you ever considered how culture and upbringing affect how we act and react in our daily interactions with people?  That is exactly what Karen Horney, a famous Freudian psychoanalyst, did.  Her work provides an example of how human beings are formed, and sometimes malformed, by their relationships.  She believed in the principle idea that who we are is a construction of how others have related to us.  We are made in relationship!

Horney suggested that adverse childhood experiences with parents shape our personality and form our template for subsequent relationships.  When parents have many of their own issues and challenges, it is difficult to meet the needs of love and affection for their children, and as a result their children develop feelings of basic anxiety.  In her model, children with basic anxiety (feelings of loneliness and helplessness) experience caregivers as hostile.  In order to have their needs meant in some way, they have to repress their anger toward their parents and respond to their anxiety by developing an unhealthy coping style of relating.  Horney theorized that children combat basic anxiety by adopting one of the three fundamental styles of relating to others:

  • Moving toward people – become compliant
  • Moving away from people – become detached
  • Moving against people – become aggressive

After using a copying style over and over, Horney suggests that it can become adopted as a fixed interpersonal style of relating, both to reduce anxiety (associated with having unacceptable needs and feelings) and also to find a sense of value or self-worth.  Later on in life, they play out unconsciously in terms of interpersonal conflicts.

Although the coping style may have been necessary in youth, it is no longer working in adulthood.  The ideal is to be able to move in any of these directions when needed rather than overly using one style of relating.

More specifically, the three coping styles in response to relational anxiety include:

  1.  Moving toward People

People with this interpersonal style have learned that the best way to earn needed approval, and diminish the threat of further rejection and criticism is to comply and be good (always helpful,nice and perfect in their behavior).  They have an intense need to be liked, involved, important and appreciated.  The individual moves towards those perceived as a threat to avoid getting hurt.

Unhealthy Moving Towards

  • Self-image established through affiliation
  • Have lost their ability to have their own voice and mind
  • Subordinate themselves to avoid conflict
  • People pleaser
  • Weak boundaries
  • Find it difficult to make decisions
  • Unaware of how their demands on others are excessive and egocentric
  • Ignore their own needs by focusing on others. Often known to be caretakers
  • Desire more connection than others want or need since quiet moments make them feel uneasy.

Healthy Moving Toward

  • Caring and able to empathize with others
  • Motivated by love, rather than fear or guilt, to care for another
  • Able to be vulnerable and share their feelings for another
  • Able to give and care for another without having strings attached
  • Is open to be challenged by another to grow
  1.  Moving Away From People

In this interpersonal style, people have learned that the best way to reduce threats that they have grown up with and create some safety for themselves is by moving away from others (i.e. through physical avoidance, emotional withdrawal, and self-sufficiency).  The underlying fear is engulfment and the coping strategy is to manage anxiety through remaining detached from others.

Unhealthy Moving Away

  • Emotional distance between self and others
  • Numb to emotional experiences
  • Suppress feelings
  • Conditional self-regard
  • Perfectionism covers up residual sense of guilt and shame
  • Superficial with others
  • High need for privacy
  • Need to feel superior
  • Poor inner life
  • Want change without a change in themselves
  • Value intelligence over emotion

Healthy Moving Away

  • Take responsibility for their own self- care (take time for solitude and introspection)
  • Able to allow others to work through issues, rather than rescue and enable others
  • Able to contain their strong emotional responses and express them in an appropriate manner
  • Able to bealone and enjoy times of being on their own.
  • Independent, self-sufficient and make decisions easily
  1. Moving Against People

Another response to anxiety and insecurities is to try and force your power onto others in hopes of feeling good about yourself.  Individuals using this style have learned that aggressiveness and resistance, if pursued long enough, will ward off pain or insecurity.  Individuals using this style attempt to be in complete control of themselves and their emotions at all times.  Their underlying fear is powerlessness and helplessness.

Unhealthy Moving Against

  • Approach relationships competively
  • Bossy and domineering
  • Exploits and outsmart others
  • Lack consideration for others
  • See themselves as right and others as wrong
  • Emotionally sterile
  • Easily put others under obligation
  • Put up a polite front to put others off
  • Hate to admit fear or powerlessness
  • Always ready to fight and want to win in every situation

Healthy Moving Against

  • Able to respectfully challenge ideas, practices, and processes
  • Able to set healthy boundaries with others
  • Able to communicate succinctly and relate to others without pretense

Questions to ask yourself:

What is your primary self-protection style of relating?  What mode do you struggle with most?


Debbie Will is an Associate Professional Counsellor and specializes in the areas of anxiety, relationship issues and personal growth as well as many others. For more information on Debbie and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.