My natural interest in psychology and philosophy drives me to read quite a lot about the subjects. Recently I came across a paper on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of Abandonment. Fear of abandonment is something I knew of, yet have never delved enough to fully understand it. So I began researching.
In an Article by Susan Anderson, a psychotherapist and author of various self-help books, there was a 30-point list of characteristics of the disorder. By number 10, I suddenly felt a light bulb pop above my head. My eyes widened and proceeded to change positions to get closer to the screen. Aha.
I was familiar with many of those symptoms. Only that they are not mine, but belong to some of the people I knew throughout my life.
What I found even more fascinating is the significant number of comments from readers thanking the writer because she made them realize that whatever they were, and/or still are, suffering from is precisely related to their fear of abandonment — a moment of epiphany for most; it truly hit home for them. They identified with the symptoms and shared their own stories, which were educational and, as usual, enlightening and full of insights.
As I kept skimming through the comments the light bulb got bigger and brighter. Splendid. It all makes sense now. How can one not love psychology. More personal examples reminded me by more people who, according to my new findings as well as some previous observations, must have unresolved abandonment issues.
As a fierce proponent of The Significance of Letting Go, I have written before about our attachment to others in Codependency: What Being Addicted to Someone Means. Also The Parable of the Cow: You Are Not Your Thoughts, which is a more philosophical one, discussing our attachment to thoughts in particular and the process of letting go of them.
After this enticing introduction, I felt drawn to shed some light on the topic of fear of abandonment, in hope to help more people identify the dire effects of clinging to pain caused by past memories. So I plugged the light bulb and turned it on.
What Is It?
Before getting to the causes and symptoms, we must first acknowledge the existence of a core, primal fear called fear of abandonment. It is widely proposed that the first taste of the feeling of abandonment begins when we were expelled from our warm mother's womb towards the cold outside world.
Family ties are fundamental to our well-being. Depending on how we are brought up and how functional these ties are, one way or another we all grow up having some sort of fear of being abandoned — whether we are conscious of it or not. We all seem to worry that we’ll be left alone in the world to deal with life and its difficulties. How we react to that universal driving force depends from one person to another.
So fear of abandonment is a natural fear. But, if for some reason it reaches a certain intense degree that it begins affecting our judgment and behaviour, then it could turn problematic and become crippling.
In psychology, fear of abandonment is described as the irrational belief that one is in imminent danger of being personally rejected, discarded, or replaced. Abandoned Child Syndrome is one of the terms explaining the condition.
Fear, all kinds of fears, are detrimental to our health. Whether it’s from the unknown, or people, or situations, it is a fierce foe and a slayer of meaning, purpose, courage, and fulfilment. Naturally, living with fear can be so devastating that it often affects us on a biological level — activating the physical pain centres in the brain and leaving an emotional imprint in its warning system.
Fear of abandonment is no different; and it leads people to go through an emotional trauma characterised by a wide variety of symptoms, which cause harm to them and/or their loved ones.
During my research, I mainly came across two psychological terms related to fear of abandonment: Abandonment Child Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of Abandonment.
Let me first clarify a general difference.
A syndrome is the association of several clinically recognisable features, signs, symptoms, phenomena, or characteristics which often occur together, so that the presence of one feature alerts to the presence of the others. For example, Codependency or Borderline Personality Disorder going hand in hand with Abandonment Child Syndrome.
A disorder, on the other hand, is an abnormal physical or mental condition.
A disease remains a different thing altogether.
However, from reading about both, syndrome and disorder, I can see more similarities than differences. In our example here, the abandoned child syndrome is what could result from childhood issues with abandonment. Despite the fact that it is not recognised as a mental disorder, it has the future potential to turn into a PTSD of Abandonment.
For the sake of simplicity, I will keep referring to what we’re talking about here less formally as “Fear of Abandonment”, which could lead to a ACS and/or PTSD of Abandonment.
Now, the issues related to fear of abandonment typically begins during childhood through the loss of one or both parents or a caregiver due to death or divorce. The abandonment may be literal, as in physical — when the parent is not present in the child's life (neglected or deserted), or when physically or sexually abused; it could be emotional — when the parent withholds love, nurturing, stimulation, or in the case of verbal and emotional abuse; or it could even be financial.
For children, any of these different degrees of early traumas can be one of the most anxiety-provoking situations in their lives. They could all cause deep-seated, lasting damage. Children tend to live in a black-and-white reality, so they carry the pain with them forever. Fortunately, the damage is reversible. Always, “There's still time to change the road you're on”, as Led Zeppelin remind us. And we’ll get to that later.
When the children grow up with an absent parent and/or inadequate physical or emotional care they often develop feelings of grief and blame themselves for their parent’s absence. In many cases, the trauma stays well into adulthood. The sufferer continues to believe and fear that every significant person in their life is going to abandon them in a similar way.
As mentioned, fearing abandonment is therefore often coupled with an exaggerated sense of dependency on another individual(s). People feel at a loss without the presence of a parent or a partner, which drives them to rush into relationships just so they are not alone.
This irrational fright of being abandoned causes our mammalian brain to perceive it as an attack on our personal being. As a way to protect us it reacts with fear. And when we feel trapped in a situation in which we have no control over for too long we tend to carry the dreadful weight over our shoulders throughout our lives. Even after the situation is over the fear remains. Just like all traumas, it could range from mild to severe, and we can always heal from it.
My interest, however, was not in the abused type, which I had formerly covered in the MK-Ultra piece. But rather, I was more into those less severe cases of people who have never acknowledged the existence of the wound. Or perhaps they did, but have never taken a step towards healing from the loss or rejection, possibly due to them blocking the pain. That was what my aha-moment about. Because it reminded by those I knew, old and young.
Fear of abandonment manifests itself through the choices and responses to rejection, loss, and disconnection. When the past pain caused by early childhood experiences is not acknowledged or “dealt with” it internalizes fear, conditioning the sufferer to act in certain ways; first, towards themselves, leaving them feeling insecure and unworthy of love — which explains their tendency to blame future rejections on themselves. And second, towards their partners — which explains their insecurities and anxieties around relationships. Again, this is mainly triggered by the false belief that every significant person in their life is going to abandon them.
The insecure attachments sufferers had in the past make them prone to having difficulties in forming secure relationships in adulthood. Trusting to have a bond with a partner is hard because of the fear of losing them. In fear that the abandonment reoccurs, the psychological challenges cause them to display compulsive behaviours and destructive thought patterns. Their inner child is still feeling unsafe and insecure, which is an inward defence mechanism that impairs their ability to develop healthy, intimate, lasting relationships. Eventually, their toxic behaviour leads them to ruining their relationships and to, you guessed it, abandonment.
Understandably, the insecurity and lack of self-esteem also make them anxious towards uncertainty. This was something I have repeatedly noticed about some people, and it made me question how come I am so fine with uncertainty, thinking that maybe I'm just different like that.
When another trauma occurs later in life to people who had suffered from abandonment issues as children — and it often happens — it can lead to PTSD of abandonment. Whether it’s because of their own divorce or a new loss, the reoccurrence invades their thought patterns, reminding them of their older wounds. The new trauma leads them to consistently reenact their abandonment scenarios through repetitive patterns. One way is by being attracted to emotionally unavailable partners and “pursuing the unattainable”, also known as Abandoholism.
Because every life has its ups and downs and is full of uncertainty, the sufferer ends up by being trapped in cycles of abandonment which repeat themselves. The symptoms follow through, making it almost impossible for them to lead a happy or peaceful life. Relationships are a two-way thing, so naturally the issues are projected onto the partner(s), making it equally hard for them to sustain a healthy relationship with the sufferer.
After more research I found another related term: Autophobia; also called Monophobia, Isolophobia, or Eremophobia, this is the fear of being alone or of loneliness, because solitude, even in a safe place like home, can cause extreme anxiety.
One more ‘ism’ is Abandophobism, which is the tendency to avoid close relationships altogether to avoid risk of abandonment; conversely, it comes with a tendency to rush into relationships and clamp on too quickly. This is something that has always baffled me with some people. Now we know what is probably the reason.
The following is a shorter list of some symptoms of PTSD of Abandonment articulated by Susan Anderson.
- Extreme sensitivity to perceived rejections, exclusions, or criticisms.
- People pleasing — excessive need for acceptance or approval.
- Difficulties feeling emotionally connected to people when they are physically present.
Intolerance of being alone as well as irrational jealousy.
- Emotional pendulum swing between fear of engulfment and fear of abandonment; you alternate between ‘feeling the walls close in’ if someone gets too close and feeling on a precipice of abandonment if you are not sure of the person.
- Difficulty withstanding (and overreacting to) the customary emotional ups and downs of adult relationships.
- Difficulty working through the ordinary levels of conflict and disappointment within adult relationships.
- Tendency to have unrealistic expectations and heightened reactivity toward others such that it creates conflict and burns bridges to your social connections.
- Tendency to ‘get turned off’ and ‘lose the connection’ by involuntarily shutting down romantically and/or sexually on a willing partner; conversely, tendency to feel hopelessly hooked on a partner who is emotionally distancing.
I suggest you check the rest of the List, there is so much truth and wisdom in there.
Another common symptom of trauma or depression due to abandonment which caught my eyes is that the person seeks self-compassion attention. This usually masquerades as physiological sensations. It can be in the form of feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired; hence the acronym HALT often used in recovery programs.
Angry, lonely, and tired are self-explanatory when it comes to trauma and depression. But hunger, this type of hunger, is not the common one associated with food. Rather, it’s an emotional hunger — rooted in our emotional and psychological make-up. It could be hunger for comfort, attention, understanding, companionship, or simply Love.
It’s “an emotional longing for safe, nurturing connection, and for the satiation of abandonment,” as expressed by another psychotherapist, Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map For Recovering From Childhood Trauma, as well as The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness Out of Blame.
It is no wonder that people resort to comfort food and drug and alcohol use when they are traumatised or depressed. These self destructive modes of behaviour can cause more episodes of vulnerability and self-loathing.
I actually do know multiple adults who consider their daily meals to be a source of security. If anything happens to their feeding time, they get disoriented and lose their temper, which often translates into physical discomfort. I knew it’s a psychological thing, but now I understand its origin.
As you can probably notice, the ‘symptoms’— or characteristics more likely — are seemingly illusive. They could be brushed off as normal and natural adult life issues one faces in a relationship with an overreacting partner. And in a way they are. The trouble is, these characteristics can be hidden, which means healing may never take place and they will keep reoccurring.
The trick here with fear of abandonment is that oftentimes some or all the above transpires on the subconscious level, without the person realizing that they are living their lives as a sort of reaction to that which had happened in the past. It simply keeps reoccurring as an unconscious pattern and it becomes their reality. Just like some of the people who commented on the PTSD article, “They never put their finger on it”…until they read about it.
Another trick is that the initial trigger could be looked upon as normal by the person. Consider the case of unplanned “mistake children” who come later in life when the parents are busy and not present much, as an example. To the young one, this is just one setting of a family in which they were born into. In some cases, they can seamlessly carry on with their lives, while in others this is how the fear of abandonment seed is first planted. This is when the self-defeating notions of “I do not matter” and “I am unimportant” begin to be instilled in their young minds.
That said, I thought it would be useful for everyone to get acquainted with the topic. A main reason why psychology, and learning about ourselves in general, are beneficial.
I have found that another benefit of knowing enough psychology is that it’s incredibly hard to ever get upset from anyone, since you understand their reasons for doing whatever they do. Besides, the more you know yourself, the more you know you are not much different than anyone else.
Still, it’s worth remembering that people are wired differently, therefore their reactions to traumas are unique. Again, some can brush off whatever happened to them and carry on leading normal lives, even use it as a driving force to propel them forward; while others are not able to move past their experience of pain —whether they are conscious of it or not. And since we cannot grow without letting go, the latter group are bound to develop a psychological reaction, which negatively reflects on them and their future relationships. If the issues are not recognised and “dealt with,” their relationships are most likely bound to fail.
Some people cope with trauma by suppressing their emotional reaction to it. Either by thinking that it’s not a big deal; in this way, denying that there had been any pain or any feelings of insecurity or guilt they have had, despite the fear being ingrained in their psyche. Or, because they have blocked the pain for too long and therefore haven’t really had the chance to consciously think about it.
However, the fear of abandonment remains embedded in the subconscious. Once triggered — consciously or subconsciously — it causes emotional flashbacks that flood them with repressed feelings, ranging from mild anxiety to extreme panic.
Other sufferers will do everything in their power — often unconsciously — to push their partners away, sabotaging the relationship and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of abandonment. They tend to seek to reinforce the abandonment and prove themselves right about feeling unworthy of love and having low self-esteem. They can seriously become trapped in a self-imposed vicious circle.
Then there is another group who will seek relationships where they will play the role of the abandoner. In fact, some children with abandonment issues grow up rejecting a parent because they perceive that they have committed an unforgivable act against them. So by playing the role of the abandoner you get to feel better about having been abandoned when younger. The same as when the abused becomes the abuser.
Initially, most psychological issues and complexes adults suffer from stem from things which had happened to them in their past as children or teenagers — things they could not let go of. Fear of abandonment is caused by our attachment. And because the seed is usually rooted in youth, it brings upon all the painful memories of loss and detachment which one has gone though in their early life.
The pain caused by abandonment is a cumulative pain, and not just a one-time thing like, say, a car accident. Sometimes the source is not a single event, but the culmination of a series of behaviours throughout a period of time which finally breaks the parent-child bond.
As traumatized children grow up, they keep on replaying the pain in their head like a broken record, making it challenging to ever get a chance to forget it. Without proper healing, abandonment could be relatively hard to get over. Eventually people with untreated abandonment issues likely become defeated by their own insecurities and fear of loss and rejection, leading to complex trauma and devastation. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Remember that it's never too late to be a happy child.
Overcoming Your Fear of Abandonment
Let us agree that every painful experience we have endured has helped form the person we are today. Let us also agree that we cannot get past anything if we do not acknowledge it first.
So, if you happen to find yourself recognising some of these causes and symptoms, ask yourself if fear of abandonment has ever caused you challenges in your social life in general and relationships in particular. If you, too, get a light bulb above your head — whether it’s you who are struggling or a loved one — then that’s already a progression. Identifying the existence of the condition and its illusive characteristics is a significant step towards healing.
The next step would be researching the topic by reading articles and books to learn more. The few links I have added herein should be more than enough to get you started.
Then if you feel that help is needed, do not hesitate to seek professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy.
One relatively new option to consider in case of PTSD in particular is psychedelic therapy; it has been treating lots of people recently with significantly high success rates. In simpler cases, a few therapy sessions or some illuminating reading could be enough.
Whatever suitable option you may choose, there is always something to do if one is serious about recovery.
Now if you are in a relationship with someone who suffers from abandonment issues, and you care about their well-being, you should understand they they cannot control their irrational fear. You must remain patient and supportive, or at least try. Simply because as we have seen, for them, the fear, insecurities, and overreactions are real. Perhaps introducing them first to the subject of abandonment would be a good start. That’s in the case of those who never acknowledged or admitted that there are abandonment issues.
Other times, however, the relationship cannot carry on. The person cannot stop acting like a hurt child. I have been there myself several times, and I can tell you that it is not the most pleasant of situations. After a while, the insecurities take over. And then there is not much one can do. The fight they are fighting isn't with you, it's with themselves. So do not feel bad or guilty. All you can do is to wish them well and leave gracefully.
If, like some of us your choice is to do it yourself, you must follow a simple process.
First, acknowledging that a certain emotional/psychological injury has been done, in the past.
Many people keep their pain hidden in the subconscious, so it’s essential to bring the pain to the surface of our conscious awareness to be able to heal it, hopefully for good. For there is no moving forward without facing the darkness.
Second, accepting that which had happened.
Understanding and accepting go hand in hand as a key to the beginning of healing.
In case the abandonment has been by choice, choosing to forgive the abandoner can do wonders.
You see, letting go is essentially for our own peace of mind. Whether it’s an abusive parent or an unfaithful partner, we can forgive the person without excusing the act itself. Forgiveness does not mean we justify, or condone, or minimize their harmful behaviour; it means we choose not to have angry or resentment towards them. More about that in another earlier piece of mine, To Forgive Is Not To Reconcile.
If it was not by choice, due to death or other unforeseen reasons, then perhaps you should forgive your self for treating it so badly for all this time.
The next step comes naturally, and it’s drawing the line between the past and the present.
This is when the sufferer understands that whatever happened in the past has no control over the present. This is when they can finally let go and true healing is achieved.
Whether in psychotherapy or in Buddhism, there is no healing from any form of emotional baggage without these basic steps. If they are not achieved, the darkness will keep coming back and it will keep sabotaging your relationships and ruining your life.
Letting go is a recovery process. It may take days, weeks, sometimes even years, depending on the severity of the wound and depending on what you do throughout this process.
One natural thing to do to restore your health and regain your peace of mind is meditation. Meditation is primarily about letting go of clinging and attachment. Anyone can meditate, anywhere and anytime, too. It’s a sure way to learn about your thoughts and emotions and how essentially they are fleeting; that there is no good reason to cling or to get attached to them.
Meditation also keeps us in touch with that sacred space within us, teaching us a whole lot about ourselves.
Another way to help the healing process is through expressing ourselves. That’s why Art Therapy is a successful thing. Whether it’s writing, painting, drumming, or dancing, all forms of self-expression are therapeutic.
If you chose to write, do it freely. You don’t need to share your writing, or any other creation, with anyone if you do not wish. Just like reading about your pain can be healing, writing about it can have equal effects, if not better. Write about how you felt abandoned, or alone, or guilty.
All these are ways for you to get in touch with the wound of the inner child so that you mature and grow thicker skin. Then one day, it will all be gone and the pain will disappear. It will remain as a faint memory but also as a lesson.
To conclude, all the hardship we experience in life makes us stronger. It’s actually a healthy human experience. The pain and suffering add us with a new, and usually deeper, perspective on life, and on our overall existence. However, when the lesson is learned, it’s time to move on. Much like overthinking the future, dwelling on the past ― or on a specific incident ― never helps. Letting go, on the other hand, does.
When dealing with fear of abandonment, one must realise that the fear is rooted in the past and that it does not, and should not, control you or your relationships. Whether it’s therapy, meditation, or art, these mediums are through which the healing takes place. At the very end, only you can heal you. After some time and some practice, a distinction between the wounded, vulnerable child of the past and the strong, mature adult of the present is established. We can then finally let go of the fear and pain and free ourselves from their shackles. Now it’s time to embrace the reborn soul and lead it towards the Light.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
What Is Overcompensation?
The Significance of Letting Go
The Parable of the Cow: You Are Not Your Thoughts