“When loneliness is a constant state of being, it harkens back to a childhood wherein neglect and abandonment were the landscape of life.”
― Alexandra Katehaki
A friend and I once got into an argument after a misunderstanding. Instead of giving her the benefit of doubt and taking the time to understand why the conversation had spiraled into a completely different direction, I did what I knew to do best – I assumed her intentions to be the worst and tried to push her away by being mean to her. My friend is this amazingly mature human being who despite being hurt and possibly angry with me, started to cheer me up as soon as she realized that I was feeling hurt. I, on the other hand, resorted to self-pity and accusations. While she was hurt too, instead of reacting to that hurt, she kept trying to understand my side of the story. Later during the conversation, she told me a truth about myself that I was not ready to accept – I had a tendency to show passive-aggressiveness without being direct about my feelings and wants. This passive-aggressiveness had impacted her many times. She told me that while she recognized that I didn’t intentionally try to hurt her, the behavior was getting too much for her to deal with. Fortunately for us, we valued each other too much to let a misunderstanding and my pettiness come between us. Eventually, we talked through what happened and were able to come back stronger. The incident, however, taught me something about myself that day – I had a big fear of abandonment which is why I tend to push people away before they could reject me. Instead of vocalizing my thoughts and feelings, I used to resort to passive-aggressiveness or defensiveness to push the other person away.
A few years back, a very close friend was about to move to a different city for work. She informed me about her potential move as soon as she heard about it from her manager. I was very happy for her. Yet, after she told me about the move, I didn’t speak to her for a week. It was only when she scolded me (literally) and after we had a deep conversation about my abandonment issues stemming from my past, that I realized the reason behind my behavior. For me, her moving away would have meant that our relationship would change, she would not value me anymore as a friend and we would drift apart. Since I had accepted this final result before it could even happen, I had started sabotaging the relationship from the get-go so that I could prepare myself for what was about to come. Again, fortunately for me, my friend was nothing but understanding. While she was scolding me, she also opened up to me about the impact of my actions on her and helped me realize my behavior pattern without judging me.
These are only two examples of my life where my fear of abandonment could have resulted in another loss which I would have been the driver of, and I know that there have been more where I have ended up ruining a beautiful relationship due to this fear. Don’t even get me started on my relationships with my romantic partners! I mentioned these two experiences, however, because both these experiences have helped me become aware of a behavior pattern in my life that I had been following to “protect” myself by pushing the potential cause of future pain away before that pain could even be inflicted.
What Are Abandonment Issues?
Abandonment issues stem from a fear of loneliness, which can be a phobia or a form of anxiety. These issues can affect our relationships and often stem from a loss. Other factors that turn a loss into abandonment issues include environmental and medical factors, genetics, and brain chemistry.
(Source: Identifying and Managing Abandonment Issues and Abandonment Issues: Symptoms and Signs)
Signs of Abandonment Issues
Abandonment Issues can show up at any time in our lives, depending on the circumstances which led to the fear of abandonment, and the trigger points. Fear of abandonment presents itself in people who seem like “people pleasers” or need continuous reassurance in their relationships or have a pattern of sabotaging close relationships. Some common signs of abandonment issues include:
- People pleaser – Giving too much or being overly eager to please even if the other person is not close to us. We don’t want to take any chances that someone/anyone won’t like us enough to stick around so we hide our needs/wants to meet their expectations of us.
- Jealousy – In our relationships or of others. Constantly comparing ourselves to others. Thinking we are less or better than those around us
- Difficulty being vulnerable – Difficulty expressing your wants/emotions in front of your loved ones (friends/family/partners) even in a loving open environment. Not being able to cry or communicate our feelings. The fear of rejection is so significant that we don’t allow ourselves to get close enough to anyone to let that happen. We may think, “No attachment, no abandonment.” And if someone gets close to us, we run in the opposite direction
- Trust issues – Doubting the intentions of those close to us, and difficulty accepting that someone could love/want to support us without expectations
- Insecurity – Constantly feeling insecure about our relationships. Feeling like no one understands us or knows us
- Control – Need to control or be controlled by those around you
- Cycling through relationships – Engaging in numerous shallow romantic relationships and/or friendships, stemming from fear of intimacy and finding a reason to leave the relationships before the other person can. This includes getting close to people too early too quick
- Sabotaging relationships – Acting irrationally to get out of relationships. For example, pushing away a partner/friend so you won’t feel hurt if they leave. If they shower you with love, you may react by finding a reason to hurt them to avoid feeling vulnerable
- Clinging to unhealthy relationships – Staying in relationships despite a desire to leave. The fear of being alone is more powerful. Going after and staying with people who don’t show the same level of love, understanding, commitment, or respect to reinforce the belief of not being good enough, and suppress emotions/needs to meet other people’s demands
- Codependency – Constantly seeking out a friend or a partner for meeting emotional needs and demanding emotional guarantees. Urging friends or partners to make broad statements, such as “I’ll always be here,” but not believing them anyway
- Oversensitive to criticism – Worrying obsessively about our perceived faults and what others may think of us. Being absolutely crushed when someone offers a bit of criticism or gets upset with us in any way. Overreacting when we feel slighted
- Low Self-esteem – Feeling inadequate and unappealing. Believing that we’re not good enough for any relationship and don’t deserve to be happy
- Showing anger or getting emotionally numb – When a conversation or a situation leads to vulnerability/closeness or if there is too much fear of rejection, people may respond with anger, invalidating the feelings of others or going emotionally numb. All these are learned protection behaviors aimed to stop the conversation, pause a situation, or push away the individual
- Health issues – Panic attacks, anxiety, unexplainable physical health issues, and/or body aches
Reasons for developing the fear of abandonment
Many individuals with abandonment issues may not recognize how destructive their behaviors are. They may purposefully endanger relationships as a way of avoiding hurt. These behaviors can lead to long-term relationship problems in personal and professional settings, further leading to re-enforcement of being abandoned and lowering our self-esteem.
Healthy human development requires knowing that our physical and emotional needs are met. The incident leading to abandonment issues can happen at any time of our lives and through our thought patterns and behaviors, manifest themselves in multiple forms. Some of these incidents include:
- Death – Losing a loved one unexpectedly can create an emotional void that can be filled by fear of abandonment. If during/after the incident, our emotional needs were not met, it can lead to fear of being vulnerable and learned behavior of closing off anytime the emotional intimacy kicks in
- Abuse – Physical, mental, or sexual abuse can create lingering mental health issues, including a fear of abandonment
- Relationship loss – For some individuals, the end of a relationship can be too painful. It may lead to lingering fears. Loss due to death, divorce, cheating, or experiencing prolonged illness of a loved one can further increase the pain
- Neglect – People who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned, especially during childhood/teenage years, are more likely to develop this issue. If their parents did not promote healthy expression of emotions or were constantly fighting, this could further add to fear of not being good enough stemming from the fear of their parents leaving them
- Stress – High levels of stress may make naturally occurring anxiety worse. This can worsen fears and lead to new anxieties
- Bullying – Being neglected by peers or being made to feel unworthy or unloveable as a child may decrease self-esteem and show up as abandonment issues
What to do if you have abandonment issues?
The first step towards healing from any kind of issue is accepting that we have an issue while being kind to ourselves. Recognizing and acknowledging our thought patterns and behaviors without being harsh on ourselves is the first milestone to cross on our journey to healing.
- Talking to a loved one about our fear of abandonment and how it came to be can help let out our emotions. Speaking to someone who we know won’t judge us and is emotionally mature enough to not take it personally or make it their responsibility to fix us can offer a pillar of support. In the process, communicate your expectations to the person openly, letting them know that you recognize that they can’t solve this problem for you otherwise if the conversation does not meet your expectations, you’ll end up reinforcing the fear of abandonment. Instead, approach and ask the person if they can only listen without judgments or as you deem fit
- Maintaining strong friendships and building a support network can boost our self-worth and sense of belonging. It lets us know that there is nothing wrong with us and that the right people will accept us just the way we are
- Self-care is the ultimate form of self-love that can help with abandonment and low self-esteem issues. By making sure our emotional needs are met and we don’t need to rely on external validation is important for friendships and relationships. This way, we can better provide and can stop the pattern of self-sabotaging our relationships
- Therapy can help us identify the various triggers that bring up the fear of abandonment, help us recognize our thought patterns and behaviors, and provide us with tools to process the unresolved emotions while transforming our ways to build and maintain healthy relationships that are good for us
- Journaling can help put our thoughts and emotions to words and help let out everything and anything that a specific incident triggered in us. It can help us identify patterns and look at our history without fearing being judged by another person. It can act as a good first step to introspect and recognize these triggers ourselves and then come up with a plan to ask for help
Helping someone with abandonment issues
I was lucky enough to find people around me who didn’t just help me recognize these behaviors but also provided me with their support and love to help me deal with my issues. Now, if some conflict arises between me and someone I love, I make efforts to have a heart-to-heart conversation with them to hear their side of the story and communicate mine. If someone moves or I move, I let the people I love know that I am going to miss them in every way I can to let them know that they would be missed. I am also getting better at expressing my love to people close to me so that they know their value in my life. While I am still working on better expressing myself, the following points might help you help your loved one who shows any of these patterns in their relationships:
- Don’t react – Most of the time, people with abandonment issues react out of fear and can do/say something truly hurtful to provoke a response that will validate their fears of abandonment and rejection. The best response in such cases is to take a pause, and not take the bait. Empathize with them and leave the conversation for some time, if needed, so that you both can come back after processing your emotions. Let them know that you won’t abandon them and that you will continue to love them
- Validate their feelings – Often the person with abandonment issues lacks a support network that can help him/her validate their feelings. It starts with having no one to turn to because of a lack of understanding from those around them and eventually through self-sabotaging behaviors results in consciously not allowing anyone in. Listen attentively to what they are saying, empathize with their emotions, understand their history, reflect and speak what you heard, normalize their fears by recognizing that anyone with your loved one’s history could develop this fear, and share your experiences if any when you felt neglected to let them know that they’re not alone.
- Communicate your feelings – Don’t judge your loved one for reacting out of fear. As hard as it may be to act out of love when you’re hurting by their actions/words, recognize that it’s a learned behavior stemming from their past experiences. Communicate to them how their actions/words affect you so that they start to understand the impact of their actions on those around them. Let them know how you’re going to be there for them and will continue to love them come what may.
- Validate their feelings and encourage them to open up often – Often people with abandonment issues never got an environment where they could feel safe enough to open up about their true desire and feelings. Maybe in the past, when they tried to open up, they were shut down or were not appreciated. They might have been told in multiple subtle/not so subtle ways that their feelings did not matter. Let your loved ones know that their feelings and emotions matter and that they can safely express those in front of you.
- Provide support – Probably the most important takeaway from this is that you cannot solve your loved one’s issue yourself. One reason is if you’re both already emotionally invested in each other, you might take the reasons and solutions to the problem as your responsibility which will further restrict the growth and journey of your loved ones by making them emotionally dependent on you. Another reason is that if you’re reading this article, you’re most probably not a clinical therapist and might not know the tools that can help your loved one grow. Finally, restricting them to only be dependent on you for their emotional needs can lead to co-dependency issues which will eventually start to affect your relationship. Instead, offer them your support in every way you can without taking it upon yourself to solve their problems. Believe in them that they have the strength and capacity to work on their issues themselves. If they ask for help, offer them encouragement and support to build a support network of friends and consider therapy.
- Don’t pressurize – Once you’ve recognized that your loved one might have a fear of abandonment, your love for them might motivate you to help them heal, even if they’re not ready to accept the fear themselves. By doing so, you might end up further pushing the person away and they might react by further closing themselves down.
- Finally don’t gaslight – If your loved one opens up to you about their feelings, don’t invalidate those feelings by saying any of the following, irrespective of whether you’re aware of their abandonment issues or not:
- “You’re overthinking”
- “Why are you making such a big deal out of nothing?”
- “It’s OK, just let it go.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “That didn’t really happen to you.”
- “Things could be a lot worse; you’re lucky.”
These gaslighting terms can further increase their fear of abandonment/rejection, and further lower their self-worth in their eyes. Everyone reacts to situations and experiences differently, and the best we can do is support and validate their feelings even if we don’t understand them completely. Empathy plays a major role in any relationship, personal or professional, and the presence/lack of it can mend/break relationships.
If you or someone you love is struggling with fear of abandonment, I ask you to first and foremost love yourself and provide love to the person you love. Don’t judge the past actions because you or your loved one didn’t know any better and recognize that this learned behavior can be transformed for a better life for the one dealing from this fear. Forgive yourself and your loved one for what the experiences have taught you. The unhealthy patterns stemming from abandonment issues are a result of our brains following a set of patterns to protect ourselves from getting hurt. While these patterns helped us once, they are not needed anymore because we are at a different part of our journeys and are capable of better managing, protecting, and expressing ourselves. The right kind of support, knowledge, and introspection can make a big difference in our lives and can help us break unhealthy patterns to build and maintain healthy relationships in the future. All it requires is courage, belief, and love.