Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.
Updated: May 15
Have you ever wondered if you have abandonment issues? If so, you’re not alone! Fear of abandonment is a persistent concern or anxiety that often comes up in romantic relationships, work relationships, and friendships. It can mean that we often feel that our partners or friends are going to leave us or are perhaps cheating, or don’t care about us enough, and we can react really strongly to tiny little triggers that in reality don’t mean anything, but to our threat sensitive brain they mean life and death.
Signs of Fear of Abandonment
Hypervigilance when it comes to your partner’s feelings toward you.
Over-asking for reassurance from a partner/friend that they love you.
Feeling overwhelmed by the thought of disappointing a friend/boss/partner.
Often putting other’s needs above your own – people pleasing (self abandonment).
Feelings of distrust or jealousy around your partner/friends.
If someone is late or not responding to you – going to the worst case scenario.
You might be accused of being “needy”.
You might have outbursts of anger toward a loved one when you’ve felt unloved/uncared for.
There might be triggers around people being thoughtless.
An anxious attachment style.
Here's an example: you’ve told your partner a few times that you like to hear from them if they’re on a night out. If they happen to forget or maybe don’t text you a reassuring enough message: boom, your brain goes into full panic mode. Another example: your friend hasn’t messaged you on your birthday, maybe they forgot, maybe they’re having a bad day, doesn’t matter, your brain’s stopped listening, it’s in abandonment mode. Another example, your partner likes watching reality TV, you hate reality TV but you’ve been watching it for the past 6 months because you don’t want to tell them and now it’s gone on for so long it’s even worse! I know what you're thinking, hold on a minute Helen, aren’t we talking about people pleasing? Yep, people pleasing and conflict avoidance and perfectionism are just different people at the same abandonment party. We’re using strategies to avoid people being upset or disappointed in us because our brain tells us that this would make them more likely to leave us.
We basically self-abandon to avoid abandonment. Read that again and remember to ask yourself if that’s what might be happening for you.
Why do I have Fear of Abandonment?
So where does this come from? Fear of abandonment usually stems from our childhood, when we perhaps felt that one of our caregivers was not there for us either emotionally or physically or both.
Emotional abandonment: This can look like a parent not being able to emotionally respond fully to a child. So for instance, this can often take place in homes with high levels of conflict, or when a caregiver has some mental health or substance use challenges. Just because a parent is physically present it doesn’t mean they are emotionally present and because as children we are helpless without our caregivers, our brain sees this as a threat to our safety.
Physical abandonment: example, you might live with fear of abandonment today because one of your caregivers left when you were young due to divorce or working away for long periods. Even though they might not have been in reality abandoning you – it probably felt that way at the time, our little brains don’t have much room for context.
Brain stuff: Our brains encode the feeling of perceived abandonment as being a threat to our safety, as when we’re young we are completely reliant on our parents/caregivers so if we are actually abandoned it can be a threat to our life. Our brain encodes this feeling of abandonment as a feeling to avoid at all costs in the future. It does this by storing that feeling in our limbic system - where all the emotional memories/feelings are stored and suspended in time - and whenever anything comes close to a memory of that feeling, our brain translates that as a threat to our existence and activates our nervous system to react to it, when in actual fact, it's just an abandonment trigger. Also, because our limbic system has no concept of time, it doesn't realise that we're now grown-ass adults with resources and agency and supports - so it reacts really strongly, as if we are still children.
FOA can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in our adult relationships, as the more desperate for connection and reassurance we become, the more our relationships can suffer and trust can wear thin as no amount of reassurance becomes enough.
Strategies to Help Fear of Abandonment
So how do we fix it? OK well we don’t fix it, we can’t just erase the strategies we’ve learned over years and years but we can start to build an awareness up about FOA and turn the dial down on our reaction to it. We can start to train our brain to understand that we can look after ourselves, that even if a partner or a friend did leave, we’d actually be just fine. We could survive it. Here are some really helpful ways to turn the dial down on FOA:
Build up your tolerance to sitting with discomfort.
Don’t always ask for reassurance when you feel insecure with a friend or partner. Try to soothe yourself first.
Have multiple supports or anchors – such as pets, people, interests, communities.
Awareness in those moments when you are triggered – it’s my fear of abandonment, this is about the past, not the present.
Self soothing in those moments of being triggered. I’m ok, I’m safe.
Remind yourself that this trigger comes from a time you had no agency, no resources, no options. Now you’re an adult and you can survive a relationship or friendship ending.
Inner child work. Connect with those younger parts of you that felt abandoned. Show up for them as an adult.
Name it! Let your partner/friends know about this part of yourself.
Start to build an awareness of your own fear of abandonment, be curious about when it might have started and remind yourself that the trigger you are facing is about the past and not the present. Aim for more understanding and compassion towards the younger version of you that at some point felt terrified of being left alone in this world.
Thanks for reading :)
Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.
Registered Clinical Counsellor
North Vancouver, B.C.