Abandonment and Attachment Problems
Fear of Abandonment
Signs that someone may have a fear of abandonment can vary from person to person, but here are some common indicators to look out for:
Clingy or dependent behavior: An individual with a fear of abandonment may exhibit clingy or overly dependent behavior in relationships. They may have a constant need for reassurance, seek excessive closeness, or have difficulty being alone.
Intense fear of rejection: People with a fear of abandonment often have an intense fear of rejection or being left behind. They may be hypersensitive to any signs of perceived rejection, leading to heightened anxiety or emotional distress.
Constant need for validation: Individuals with a fear of abandonment may constantly seek validation and approval from others. They may have a strong desire for external validation to feel secure and may struggle with self-esteem issues.
Difficulty trusting others: Due to their fear, individuals with abandonment issues may have difficulty trusting others. They may be suspicious or have a heightened sense of vigilance, constantly on the lookout for signs that someone might leave or betray them.
Overwhelming jealousy: Fear of abandonment can manifest as intense jealousy or possessiveness in relationships. The individual may feel threatened by any perceived attention or affection given to others and may engage in controlling behaviors to maintain a sense of security.
Avoidance of relationships or intimacy: Some individuals with a fear of abandonment may avoid close relationships or intimacy altogether to protect themselves from potential rejection or abandonment. They may isolate themselves emotionally or physically as a defense mechanism.
Fear of being alone: People with a fear of abandonment often have a strong aversion to being alone. They may go to great lengths to avoid being by themselves, seeking constant companionship or engaging in activities to distract themselves from feelings of loneliness or abandonment.
Excessive people-pleasing: Individuals with a fear of abandonment may engage in people-pleasing behaviors in an attempt to avoid rejection or abandonment. They may prioritize others’ needs over their own, often sacrificing their own well-being to maintain relationships.
Emotional volatility: Fluctuating emotions and intense mood swings can be common in individuals with a fear of abandonment. They may experience heightened emotional reactivity, including feelings of anger, sadness, or anxiety, particularly in response to perceived threats of abandonment.
Self-sabotaging behaviors: Some individuals with a fear of abandonment may engage in self-sabotaging behaviors in relationships. They may push people away, create conflicts, or engage in self-destructive patterns as a way to test others’ loyalty or to preemptively end relationships before they can be abandoned.
It’s important to note that these signs are not definitive proof of a fear of abandonment, and a professional assessment is necessary. If you or someone you know is experiencing significant distress or impairment due to a fear of abandonment, it’s advisable to seek support from a mental health professional.
How to Cope with Abandonment fears
Self-awareness: Start by recognizing and acknowledging your fear of abandonment. Understanding the source of your fear can be an important step towards addressing it.
Therapy or counseling: Consider seeking support from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor. They can help you explore the root causes of your fear, develop coping mechanisms, and work towards overcoming it.
Build self-esteem: Cultivate a sense of self-worth and confidence. Engage in activities that you enjoy and that help you feel good about yourself. Developing a positive self-image can help reduce dependency on external validation.
Practice self-care: Prioritize self-care activities that promote emotional well-being. This might include exercise, meditation, journaling, spending time with loved ones, pursuing hobbies, or seeking out activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.
Challenge negative thoughts: Learn to identify and challenge negative thoughts related to abandonment. Practice reframing these thoughts by focusing on evidence that contradicts them. Replace irrational fears with more balanced and realistic perspectives.
Build a support network: Surround yourself with supportive and reliable people who can provide emotional support. Strengthening your social connections can help alleviate fears of abandonment by creating a sense of security and belonging.
Communicate openly: Express your fears and concerns to trusted friends or loved ones. Open and honest communication can foster understanding, deepen relationships, and help alleviate anxieties.
Address past traumas: If your fear of abandonment stems from past traumatic experiences, consider addressing them through therapy or counseling. Processing past traumas can be instrumental in healing and reducing fear-related symptoms.
Develop coping strategies: Learn and practice coping strategies that help manage anxiety and fear. This might include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, or engaging in activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction.
Patience and self-compassion: Overcoming a fear of abandonment takes time, and setbacks are normal. Be patient with yourself and practice self-compassion throughout the process. Remember that personal growth and healing are journeys, and progress may come in small steps.
Therapy Goals for Individuals with Fears of Abandonment
Goals in therapy include developing a more stable self-image, improving self-esteem, decreasing mood reactivity, and increasing stability in relationships.
These goals are accomplished by exploring various techniques and skills for managing intense emotions and feelings. When working with people who struggle with abandonment issues (or attachment issues), the process is slow and progresses in stages until a true working alliance develops.
People with a fear of abandonment wish to merge or be close to others but also feel uncomfortable and paranoid when doing so–which can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, the person fearing abandonment may behave in ways that ultimately lead to being abandoned. This might include fits of rage, micro-psychotic episodes, splitting behaviors, projection, or self-harm behaviors.
People who have abandonment fears often have atypical features of depression, cluster B personality traits (e.g., borderline personality disorder), somatic disorders (i.e., physical problems not explained by known medical causes), and obsessive-compulsive tendencies (eating disorders, perfectionistic traits, etc.).
Typical reactions that therapists or others close to someone with a fear of abandonment may have include feelings of helplessness, anger, guilt, frustration, “walking on eggshells”, feeling inadequate, and an impulse toward boundary crossing. This highlights the importance of maintain healthy boundaries.
Tips for supporting someone with abandonment issues
OPEN AND HONEST COMMUNICATION
Secrets don’t go over well when you’re dealing with someone who has abandonment issues. Someone who fears abandonment usually has trouble trusting people. If they’re unsure of the way you feel, they may assume that you want to leave them, and they might take off or sabotage the relationship before you have a chance to hurt them.
Therefore, it helps if you’re clear and direct about how you feel. Setting up open communication from the beginning will allow you to create a connection that’s based on honesty instead of the insecurity that plagues people with abandonment issues.
DON’T ENGAGE IN THE CONTENT OF ARGUMENTS
Because someone with fear of abandonment may have so many false beliefs about their worth and their roles at work, in a family, or in relationships, they may try to manipulate you when you’re having an intense discussion or argument.
Someone with abandonment issues often wants to know that they’re not going to be left behind. They may try to sway the conversation so that you’re constantly affirming and comforting them.
For example, they may say things like, “I know you don’t care that much about me” or “I can tell you don’t like coming to visit me.” They don’t do this on purpose. It’s a reflex that they’ve learned from experience.
If they can get continual engagement from you, they don’t feel the abandonment. The problem is that if you play into these games, the moment you stop engaging, they experience abandonment again. The best way to deal with abandonment issues is to state clearly that you’re ready to listen ONLY when they are ready to say what they’re really feeling and thinking. Doing this prevents you from continually goading them to get them to express themselves and shows them that they’re important to you even if you’re not giving them constant attention.
VALIDATE FEELINGS, NOT THE CONTENT
Avoid telling someone with fear of abandonment that they’re wrong. Instead, validate their feelings before trying to get them to see things from a different perspective. Most of the time, when they feel seen and understood, their fight or flight response diminishes, and their reasoning mind can become more engaged.
Common accusation: “You don’t give a shit about me. It’s your birthday and all you care about is yourself! I’m struggling and need help!”
Common response from a well-intentioned loved one: “I do care about you. I didn’t know you were struggling like this…” blah blah blah explaining and rationalizing what you are doing in an attempt to reassure them.
What the person fearing abandonment hears: “Your feelings don’t matter. See how this explanation justifies and proves that your reaction is selfish and ridiculous?”
The worst thing a person could do is react by trying to gain power and authority through splitting or telling the individual others wouldn’t agree with them (common reaction). “I’m going to see what others think about this.” Or even worse “You’re so selfish and entitled. Grow up!”
Better response: “It sounds like you’re having a really difficult time and that you don’t feel heard or understood. I can see how attending my birthday may feel like I am leaving you behind. It hurts my feelings to see you this way.”
DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY
People with abandonment issues may act withdrawn or jealous. This could make you feel as though you’re doing something to hurt them. They may even try to blame you outright. But people with abandonment issues aren’t reacting to anything that you did. They are following patterns that were established when they experienced their trauma. They’re remembering what it felt like to be hurt, and they’re trying to avoid getting in that situation again.
After they blow up or act irrationally, people with abandonment issues will often feel ashamed of their behavior. That’s a great time to talk about it and reassure them that you’re there for them when they’re experiencing those intense emotions.
DON’T ENABLE UNHEALTHY BEHAVIORS
If you allow someone you care about to engage in the unhealthy behaviors that they’re used to (such as manipulation, blame, and isolation) you reinforce their abandonment issues. Setting your own boundaries makes it easier for them to learn to respect themselves. Being independent and firm in what you need from the relationship will make it more difficult for them to cling to you out of codependency. This is easier said than done.
When you care about someone, you want to coddle and comfort them. But that constant input bolsters their abandonment issues. They feel good when they’re getting your attention, but they disintegrate when you’re off doing your own thing, and the cycle repeats. Standing your ground and knowing what you want from the relationship will help you ask for what you want without hurting them. It also sets a good example. They can learn to set boundaries and be independent, too.
UNDERSTAND WHY THEY DO WHAT THEY DO
When you’re dealing with someone who has abandonment issues, one of the hardest things to deal with is their instinct to sabotage the relationship. Someone with abandonment issues is so afraid of being rejected that they often damage the connection on purpose. They don’t want to be alone, but it’s better to be rejected for a reason than to be left just because they’re not good enough.
If they exhibit negative behavior or damage the relationship, the people they care about have a reason to leave. If those people do abandon them, at least it’s for a reason and not just a reflection of the individual’s worth. Because of this, people with abandonment issues may pull away from you for no reason. They may try to pick fights. If they abandon you first, they’ll avoid the pain of being abandoned. Be prepared to prove yourself. You’ll need to consistently show them that even though other people have hurt them in the past, you aren’t going to.
YOU DO NOT NEED TO FIX THEM
You are not responsible for fixing a loved one’s abandonment issues. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep–you never know what the future holds. You can promise that you will always do your best to listen, but someone with abandonment issues believes that everyone will eventually leave them. They may never believe you no matter how many promises you make. In fact, making promises might drive them away. When they have a high expectation of a secure future, there’s more to lose.
SETTING AN EXAMPLE
You don’t have to engage with, or work with, someone who has abandonment issues. But if you care about them and want to make the relationship work, it helps to understand where they’re coming from. Remind them why you love them, but don’t indulge or overprotect them. By setting your own boundaries and living your life, you’ll show them that they can do the same.