The fear of abandonment

The fear of abandonment typically originates in childhood and can manifest as a fear of physical abandonment or emotional abandonment. It can also develop later in life, for example, as a result of a traumatic or highly painful event, such as the death of a life partner, a difficult divorce, or the end of a significant relationship.

Individuals with a pronounced fear of abandonment often feel overwhelmed by it, experiencing anxiety, insecurity, or constant stress that intensifies when they perceive they are not receiving the attention, affection, and validation they need from others, whether it's a romantic partner, friends, family members, or other close people.

They live with a constant fear of rejection, abandonment, or being left behind. This fear can lead to:

Clinging to others - they tend to quickly become attached and dependent on others, feeling like they can’t cope on their own. They believe their survival, wellbeing, and happiness depend on others. They may remain in dysfunctional or toxic relationships, accepting behaviors that harm them and making various compromises and sacrifices, neglecting their own needs and desires to avoid losing that  person. They constantly need validation and reassurance that the other person will be there for them and provide what they need. They fear loneliness and panic at the thought of separating from their partner.

On the other hand, the fear of abandonment can also lead to an avoidant attitude, where individuals, to avoid being abandoned, distance themselves from others, either directly or indirectly through self-sabotaging behaviors. They withdraw when they feel they get to close to others (they leave in order to not be left).

Some individuals with the fear of abandonment may get close to others and allow others to get close to them but react aggressively or become angry when they perceive any possible threat.

Living with the fear of abandonment and rejection can be emotionally exhausting and may lead to anxiety and depression, affecting a person's overall quality of life.

People who fear abandonment may question their partner's motives, doubt them, suspect them, for example, that they might be cheating, having an excessive fear of being left. They ruminate (they repeatedly think about a relatively insignificant situation, interpreting it differently with each repetition) or they have various irrational thoughts. They feel insecure and have a strong need to exert control over various aspects of the relationship, such as trying to control all decisions.

What situations and events contribute to abandonment issues?

The loss or absence of a parent - the death of a parent can have a major emotional impact on a child, as can the absence of a parent, which may be felt as abandonment. For example, if parents divorce, and the child remains with his mother while his father forms a new family, if the father ignores the child, especially emotionally, the child may feel abandoned and even envy the new family. The key difference in these situations is the parent's attitude – a child may not develop fear, insecurity, or complexes if the parent continues to meet the child's needs and provides love and care. However, repeated harsh words said by his hurt mother (or the way around, his hurt father) or certain situations can influence the child's fragile psyche and make them feel abandoned, even if the parent is making all necessary efforts to support them.

Neglect – a healthy development requires parents to address a child's physical and emotional needs. Failure to meet these needs can lead to feelings of abandonment. The child may also feel emotionally abandoned when his parents are emotionally unavailable, cold, distant, when they fail to provide the necessary affection, ridicule them, belittle their opinions and feelings, do not allow them to express their emotions, treat them as an extension of themselves rather than as a separate, unique, independent being with their own needs and desires, or impose unreasonably high standards. In such cases, children may feel abandoned and unloved.

Constant insecurity in situations of physical, psychological, or emotional abuse - children may feel abandoned when one parent is abusive, and the other one does nothing to stop the abuse. The child may turn to the non-abusive parent, expecting help, but if that parent does not intervene to protect the child, they may feel abandoned and betrayed.

Anxious attachment style - children with an anxious attachment style are often fearful and dependent on a mother they can’t trust, perceive as unpredictable, and have difficulty understanding. The mother may oscillate between affection and rejection, causing the child to constantly try to guess her thoughts and intentions to adapt adequately. Such children feel insecure and lack the courage to explore their environment because they are preoccupied with the mother's often-unavailability, even when she is nearby. Like children with an avoidant attachment, they resort to a secondary strategy called hyperactivation, compulsively seeking the company of attachment figures and seeking their attention and support. In these cases, there is hypersensitivity to rejection and abandonment, and individuals focus excessively on potential relational threats or dangers and on their own perceived flaws, blaming them for rejection or abandonment. Individuals with this attachment style may feel both rejection and anger toward the person they are attached to because of their unavailability, while also experiencing an intense need to be close to them.

A traumatic or highly painful event later in life, such as the death of a life partner, a difficult divorce, an unexpected betrayal, or the end of a significant relationship, can lead to the development of the fear of abandonment.

Certain personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, or dependent personality disorder.

Low self-esteem also contributes to the development of this fear. A person with low self-esteem, feeling unworthy, may hold an unconscious belief that they are not deserving of others' love and will inevitably be abandoned.

Can the fear of abandonment be overcome?

The fear of abandonment is neither a diagnosis nor a sentence condemning you to a lifetime of fear, anxiety, doubt, and turmoil. It is an aspect that you can work on and improve. How can you do that?

Firstly, becoming aware of why you feel the way you do is essential. You might discover that your fear of abandonment originated in childhood. Once you realize that it's your inner child feeling the fear, you understand that your current reactions are the ways your inner child used to respond. These reactions have been reinforced over time through repetition and have become patterns that can be changed when you gradually choose a different way of thinking and behaving.

As a child, your survival depended on the care and protection of others, and if they abandoned you, your life was at risk. Emotional abandonment is felt in the same way, as it concerns the same sense of danger. Besides their physical needs, a child also needs their emotional needs to be met. If they don't feel safe and loved, they develop mechanisms to adapt better (e.g., becoming overly attached to one parent, seeking their approval constantly, refusing to do things on their own, or frequently getting sick as a way to receive attention and affection). These mechanisms, although adaptive at the time, can later become maladaptive, not serving them and potentially causing harm.

What you can do now is to give your inner child all the safety and love they need – that is, to give yourself what you lacked in childhood. You are an adult, and your survival no longer depends on anyone but yourself. No one can abandon you. An adult can’t be abandoned; the feeling of abandonment is characteristic of a child. You now have all the resources to give your inner child exactly what they need to never feel abandoned again because they will always have you by their side.

Changing negative beliefs is another process that can help. Challenge your beliefs and ask yourself if they are rational or irrational, true or false, and consider what evidence supports those beliefs.

A belief like "I am not worthy of others’ love, so they will inevitably abandon me" can be a core belief, meaning a deeply held belief viewed as an absolute truth, formed in childhood as a result of life experiences, but it is an irrational and dysfunctional belief.

Take care of yourself and your needs – self-care, for instance, regarding relationships, means not accepting compromised relationships or those in which you are treated with disrespect, setting clear boundaries and limits of interaction (and if you notice a negative relationship pattern, becoming aware of what within you "guides" you toward such relationships – that is, initiating a process of self-awareness and personal development); on a physical level, it means eating healthily, getting enough sleep, engaging in physical exercise, and taking the necessary time for relaxation, among other things. Developing certain habits that prioritize your physical and emotional wellbeing can be especially helpful when dealing with anxiety or when you tend to place the responsibility for satisfying your own needs and desires on others, as often happens in codependent relationships.

Build your self-confidence and self-esteem – when you have self-confidence, when you possess a healthy self-esteem, when you love and value yourself, you will need much less external approval and validation, and you won't have the tendency to become dependent on another person.

Be present and focus your attention on what is happening right now in your mind and body – observe your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. By becoming aware of what you feel and why it's happening within you, you ground yourself in the present, in reality, and, in this way, you avoid getting caught up in the same cycles of assumptions/suppositions/worries/ruminations - negative emotions.

Don't hesitate to seek specialized help if you feel you need more support and guidance. Often, a therapist can assist you in the process of self-discovery, healing, and personal development, helping you explore your fears, insecurities, and understand their origins while supporting your personal growth.

The fear of abandonment can significantly influence a person's life and relationships, but through awareness, self-work, and therapy, this fear can be diminished and/or overcome, allowing the person to create healthier and more fulfilling relationships.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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