It was high school where I learned I have a fearful-avoidant attachment style.
Originally developed by John Bowlby, attachment theory is a psychological model that tries to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships.
Bowlby believed attachment was the result of evolutionary pressures — staying close to your mother when under stress or in close proximity to a threat was a way of increasing your chances of survival.
Mary Ainsworth further developed this theory in the 1960s, constructing a method to examine infant attachments. She identified three main attachment types (secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-resistant). Since then, her classification theory has been expanded to include four types (secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant).
The names vary slightly, but the definitions stand: Securely attached individuals feel comfortable trusting others; anxious individuals want to rely on others but doubt their self-worth; avoidant individuals are completely independent and feel uncomfortable relying on others.
And then there’s fearful-avoidant, the one I relate to most. It’s a mixture of avoidant and anxious, meaning I feel uncomfortable relying on others despite a desire for close relationships.
I didn’t have the best childhood by any measure. Growing up in a strict Christian household where there was no debate or discussion, I always felt suffocated. We simply did as we were told, and phrases like “I am not your friend!” and “Don’t you dare cry or I’ll give you something to cry about!” were commonly thrown around.
In my parents’ eyes, good children were obedient to a fault. We were nurtured not into discovering ourselves but into their image because, well, it was biblical. Emotional reactions were looked down on.
Before my borderline personality disorder (BPD) diagnosis, this meant I would remain as distant as possible to protect myself. I could never explain my feelings out of fear of bothering people or not being understood. I chose instead to bottle up my feelings and thoughts until it led to an inevitable explosion or the destruction of relationships.
Add all this to the fact that I’m an introvert with anxiety and depression, and it’s no surprise that I struggle with the maintenance and communication in all relationships — familial, personal, and friendly.
These days, however, I am managing better. Since my BPD diagnosis, I’m aware of my triggers and have started putting healthy boundaries in place. I’m lucky to have a group of supportive friends who understand me and my diagnosis as I work on healing my childhood traumas.
But friendships do still get destroyed due to my inability to express emotion.
I still feel anxious, at times even sick, at emotional remarks or when replying to compliments. There are people who are disgruntled because I seem like a bitch. I’m not a warm person to be around, and I’m a blunt texter — so, in the meantime, I’ve turned to GIFs.
A brief history of GIFs
Created by Steve Wilhite in 1987, GIFs are several images in a single file encoded in a graphics interchange format (GIF). They usually have a short runtime, looping when finished (though two Finnish artists recently created the longest GIF, which is projected to run for 1,000 years!).
Giphy, the first and largest GIF search engine, reportedly features about 7 billion GIFs and stickers being used by about 500 million people daily.
Widespread use of emojis might have sparked chatter around the idea that they’re a new language, but I believe short video clips and GIFs are more powerful because they can convey a very specific sense of intimacy.
Recently, technology has moved forward in a way that supports GIFs as the pinnacle of digital culture, shaping how we communicate, interact, and navigate this world. This further supports my efforts to become a warmer and more emotionally secure person.
Unlike still images, emojis, or text, GIFs add a depth of communication and layers of information into easily shareable pictures. People often use a single GIF to express a wide variety of emotions that can also reveal their beliefs, interests, identity, and mood. The fact that most of the clips come from pop culture makes them even more relatable.
Last year the most popular GIF was of Cardi B. During her guest appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” she let out a reactionary “okurrr” — a moment that has resonated with and been used by millions of people ever since.
The fact that GIFs have become so embedded in our culture has also supported the growth of TikTok, the 2017 social media video app used for creating and sharing short lip-sync, comedy, and talent videos.
Take, for example, the viral TikTok of the sad girl dancing, which has been turned into a meme people use to discuss a multitude of topics, including mental health, work, and money issues. Or kombucha girl, which people use to represent their thought processes when looking at themselves in the mirror or deciding whether to go out.
You likely have to spend only 5 seconds on Twitter before a GIF or viral TikTok crosses your screen.
Keke Palmer recently released merchandise based on a viral clip of herself from a “Vanity Fair” interview. In the clip, she looks at an image of America’s 46th vice president, to which she responds, “I hate to say it. I hope I don’t sound ridiculous. I don’t know who this man is… I mean, he could be walking down the street and I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.”
The clip has been making the rounds recently, with many people captioning it with various statements that change the context while still encapsulating the mood.
Because of the nature of GIFs, you can watch them once with the original audio and then watch them again on mute but still be able to understand what’s being said.
At times, when I want to open up, I worry about bringing the mood down. From there, guilt springs up that I’m not giving enough back to the people I care about. Thanks to GIFs and viral meme videos, this is no longer a problem.
Recently, a tweet of mine with a popular clip embedded in it made rounds.
The tweet touched on BPD and the relationships I had broken due to my inability to control my emotions at the time. Though BPD is a serious topic, one that sometimes brings me shame and frustration, this GIF allowed me to publicly share my feelings with a humorous spin, in a way other people with BPD could relate to.
Considering how stigmatized BPD is, both in the medical community and in society, it was nice to know I could share this moment in solidarity with other people I had never met. It was also cathartic to open up about something extremely personal without having to really open up.
There’s nothing more uplifting than a self-deprecating meme you can relate to, especially when it gets hundreds or thousands of likes. These numbers help me see that I’m not alone but rather a part of a wider community while also letting me laugh at a tough situation.
In one short clip, I can convey a lot more information than I could if I tried with just words.
Thanks to this new digital language, I’m not trying to express myself to the detriment of myself. I can open up and give the emotional intimacy necessary to maintain relationships, catering to the needs of others while also taking things slow.
GIFs settle the guilt without making me feel weird or fake, and for that, I feel lucky to have these tools at my disposal.
ZUVA is a freelance writer, editor, and award-winning poet. She writes from a queer Black perspective on topics such as mental health, culture, sexuality, and feminism. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram.