How your most important relationships can get damaged because of a fear of being abandoned
In today’s episode, you can learn more about the fear of abandonment. This fear can form a life-trap where you get stuck in repeating unhelpful ways of relating to other people. It can wreck relationships and leave you feeling fearful, sad and angry.
Using the self-help book Reinventing Your Life, you’ll be able to identify the features of an abandonment life-trap, learn about where it comes from and the problems it causes. You’ll be introduced to some ideas about what to do to tackle it and break free from the negative behaviours that prevent you from developing secure attachments.
Hi and welcome to episode number 6 of Self-Help Sat Nav.
Today we are continuing with the Reinventing your Life mini-series. This is a 6 part series focusing on the self-help book by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko titled Reinventing your life – the breakthrough program to end negative behaviour.
In episode number 5, I covered an overview of life-traps and coping styles. Today, I am going to be looking more closely at the problem of abandonment.
So, if you haven’t yet listened to episode number 5, you may want to hit pause on this episode and go back to that one. It will be a better starting place for moving forwards on this subject.
Ok. So let’s get started.
Fear of Abandonment
What is the fear of abandonment? Well as you might guess, it is a strong and persistent fear that whoever you get close to will at some point step off and leave you. And this might be intentional on the other person’s part or it might not be. For example, it might be that you expect people will get ill and die. Thus, leaving you alone to survive in the world.
For the person whose life is effected by fears of abandonment, they are often on the look-out for signs that other people are intending to leave them. They become hyper-vigilant to these threats.
So last time I also spoke about coping styles that people use as a way of coping with life-traps. And the kind of coping behaviours you’d expect to see are things like this:
- Being really clingy with others to keep them close
- Being possessive and controlling, again to try and keep them close
- Accusing others of having abandoned them
- Showing signs of feeling jealous
- Getting competitive with people you see as being a rival
- Or avoiding intimate relationships altogether
- And, finally, you might get into a pattern of choosing partners and friends who aren’t able to give you some stability. They’ll likely be people who will abandon you. But the chemistry you feel with these people will probably be very strong and intense for a limited period. It’s a bit like a spark that burns bright, but burns out quickly over a matter of weeks or months. You might get infatuated with them or obsessed. Instead of existing together, you become too intertwined.
So, these are some of the signs that you might be struggling with the abandonment life-trap.
In Chapter 6 of Reinventing your life, the authors talk in more detail about abandonment. There is a questionnaire you can complete that helps you identify if this is a life-trap you fall into. Let’s take some of the questions.
- Have people often come and gone in your life?
- Do you not have a stable base of support?
- Do you get desperate when someone pulls away?
- Do you need other people too much?
- Do you expect that in the end, you will be alone?
Ok. So you’ve identified whether this is something you struggle with. Let’s now look at some ideas about where this comes from?
The Roots of a Fear of Being Abandoned
First of all, before we do that. I want to say something about human psychological needs. You can also call them you core emotional needs that you have as a child and as an adult. These needs are universal regardless of your gender, ethnicity, culture, class or nationality. These needs are there from the moment you are born to the day that you die. They vary at different times in your life and in necessity or importance between individuals, but they are innate.
And one need I want to highlight here is the need for Safety, stability, nurturance and acceptance.
Stability is about having safety and a basic level of predictability or routine in your life. If your life is chaotic and occurs in extremes, then the lack of stability is likely to cause much fear. This is different to having some variety. Even within the most varied and exciting life there is some stability, which allows a person to take on new adventures and challenges.
Nurturance is about feeling protected, cared for and guided by others. This is important in childhood and adulthood. Without sufficient nurturing from others, you have to rely too heavily on yourself and this doesn’t often lead to long-term stability. For example, a person who is overly self-reliant may develop bouts of low mood and depression.
And finally, to be accepted by others is to feel as though you are likeable, lovable and worthwhile as a person. Feedback from people is important in feeling accepted, because when you are ignored then you are likely to develop a sense of not being liked or feeling unimportant.
Now as you might be already thinking, these human emotional needs are affected a lot by the type of attachments you had with care givers in the early stages of your life. Most of the time this is a Mum and a Dad. But for others it might be grandparents, aunts, uncles or foster parents.
Secure attachments between children and care givers are formed when the care giver is able to make the child feel safe and ensures that home-life is stable. If parents have been absent or there is a lot of chaos at home, moving about, changing homes, changing schools then life and the world can seem to anxiety-provoking. Children then form more anxious attachments.
This also happens when parents have been ill a lot growing up. This could be with physical illness or mental illness. Either way, parents weren’t able to provide the stability and nurturance that you needed. It may not have been their fault. People don’t ask to be unwell.
Now, if you got some of this from one parent, but not the other, then this life-trap can be avoided. You may not struggle with it at all despite having an absent parent. It may pop up in milder forms for you.
Ok. So, lets summarise what we’ve said so far.
- The fear of abandonment is about feeling anxious people will leave you alone
- With it you become hyper-vigilant to the signs that people are going to abandon you
- You might be clingy, controlling, competitive. You might avoid close relationships or you get keep attaching to people who don’t provide any stability for you.
- The roots of this fear are planted in childhood experiences where there was not enough stability or nurturance. Care givers didn’t or weren’t able to give you this
The Problems with Abandonment Fears
I think what might be useful now is to look at some of the problems this life-trap can cause. And the most obvious seems to me to be in relationships.
When you fear abandonment, it means that you get fixated on the future threat. So it means that you are rarely ever living in the here and now. It means that you can’t enjoy the contact you have with someone.
Strong, close, open and rewarding relationships require that you make choices about how you want to be in a relationship. What you want to give. Often when I’ve worked with clients who’ve struggled with this life-trap, they discover that they’ve never really thought about this. For example, you might want to be fun, adventurous, supportive or reliable. But, getting pre-occupied with fears of being left alone get in the way of you being able to connect with that other person in more meaningful and fulfilling ways.
Another problem with this life-trap is that you avoid close relationships altogether. So, you miss out on the experience of feeling connected. And as we are all social beings, it has a negative impact on us. You are more likely to feel sadness at being alone. Health and wellbeing research highlights the importance of connection. I talk more about this in the 5 Daily Helpers course, which is freely available at www.openforwards.com
And I just want to say that I’m not just talking about romantic relationships. I want to say that all relationships are important here. Your friendships and your workplace relationships. Do you have friends who are reliable? Are they in range or contactable? Do they get back to you and make an effort? Do you make an effort with them or do you avoid it because it feels safer to do so?
Another problem with abandonment is that relationships can go sour through the games that you play. For example, if you get competitive a lot then the other person can start to grow tired of this. They maybe reassure you a lot, but they have to keep giving it to help you feel calmer. The trouble is that it only lasts for a short amount of time before you ask for it again. And it gets exhausting for them. The sad and ironic thing is that they become more likely to leave you because of what you demand from them.
And one final problem can occur when you keep people in your life who aren’t able to give you stability. Your life then becomes this horrible film where you are reliving time and time again you worst fears. You have an almost constant state of anxiety. And the beliefs in your mind that people can’t be relied upon get reinforced over and over again. The only way to break this pattern is to start investing more in relationships that are different. Ones where people can and will be more available and supportive.
The Way Forward
So despite all the challenges and problems with this life-trap, there are some ways forward. There are some things you can do that will help you break free from this fear. On page 77 the authors give some suggestions. Here are a few:
- Understand your Childhood Abandonment. Identify if you have a biological disposition or temperament, which resulted in you being particularly anxious about separation. If you don’t know you could ask your parents. In addition, you could try to remember times that were difficult in your past growing up. Were there events that meant your parents weren’t or couldn’t be there with you?
- Monitor your feelings of abandonment. I would suggest that this can be achieved by using mindful awareness. I use this a lot in my therapy work and it helps people to slow down, bring about some increased calm and focus on the feelings that are difficult. It also helps you to make space for them rather than trying to run away from them or fix them.
- End being overly clingy and try to form new healthier responses to your fears. They suggest a flashcard, which I think can be helpful. I also help people to focus on their values and use this as a guide for what they want to do. For example, if it is about being supportive, commit to giving that instead of giving attention to the mental and emotional fears that show up.
Now, I really like this book. It’s been illuminating for many clients I’ve worked with over the years. It has some very good techniques and methods. One flaw of the book though is in the absence of some methods – namely mindful awareness and acceptance focused interventions. They talk about acceptance in places, but the methods on how to do it, how to be more open are missing. This can make overcoming the fear of abandonment a tough gig on your own. Seeking out a therapist to help you on this journey is likely to work in you making much more progress.
Therapy relationships give you the opportunity to experience the changes for real. Its not just a theoretical exercise. A good therapist will use techniques, but they’ll also use the connection you have with each other to help you move towards more workable responses. They can help you stop trying to avoid or get rid of the unwanted fears and instead learn to experience them in the safety of the therapy room.
Another aspect of abandonment that I’ve not focused on so much is anger. Anger at people who have left you. Learning to express anger in healthy ways can be tricky. You might be used to burying your anger or letting it come out sideways through sarcasm or criticism.
So there are some challenges, but things will never change unless you start to change them. This book is a great place to start. You can get yourself a copy and start reading it. See what you can do through the suggestions it offers. It is a well evidenced psychological approach. It might be enough to help you break free of the life-trap. But if it doesn’t, then you can get some more help. You can seek out a therapist to coach you through it. They’ll be there to support you through the steps and to work through the obstacles that will inevitably arise.
So. That is it for today’s episode. Hopefully, you now understand abandonment more clearly and you’ve got some ideas to begin tackling it. In the next episode I’m going to focus on another common life-trap. This one I see a lot, but the difference from abandonment is that people don’t often recognise that they have it. Its called the Emotional Deprivation life-trap.
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Bye for now.