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  • Writer's pictureHelen 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.

a boy looking sad and abandoned staring out of a window

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.

  • Writer's pictureHelen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Many folks have what I like to call a “people pleaser part” I have one too! Do you often say yes to things and then regret it later? Do you strive for perfection at work? Do you worry about the moods of the people around you more than your own? Do you let your own boundaries be violated so not to cause offence? Do you keep your opinions to yourself to avoid an argument or possible conflict? Then you should maybe keep reading (I mean if you want to… the people pleaser in me wants you to know it’s OK if you don’t).

Not sure if you might be a people pleaser? See if any of these feel familiar:

Things you might hear a people pleaser say and what they really mean:

  • Sure I’ll pick you up! (Damn, I was hoping for a night in with Grey’s)

  • You choose what to watch, I don’t mind. (Ummm Grey’s? Say Grey’s)

  • What take-out would you prefer? (I really want sushi)

  • I’m happy to drive! (I’m tired of driving)

  • Sure I’ll lend you money! (I guess I can cut back this week)

  • Sure I’ll make you dinner! (I wonder why it’s always me offering)

  • OK Mom, it’s no trouble (ugh why am I agreeing to this again)

Super Nice Person or People Pleaser?

Ain’t No Party Like a People Pleaser Party! (hey I miss the 90s). This is true, as people pleasers throw great parties, make amazing dinners, plan intricate birthdays, and make amazing friends. Well hang on, you might be thinking, doesn’t this just make me a super nice person and great person to be around? Well maybe, but if you’re reading this you might already have an inkling that there’s more going on. If you ever feel resentful or regretful for saying yes, or exhausted, or like you never get to choose what you want for yourself, or like all your friendships/relationships are unequal, then maybe keep reading.

People pleasing can leave us unable to set boundaries that are vitally important for our health and wellness and our relationships. People pleasing can leave us resentful, exhausted and with a feeling that we are not being true to ourselves. When we people please, we self-abandon.

This works in the short term because it feels safe, it feels that we are being loved, it feels that we are secure in our relationships and we feel liked. Our brains get stuck on these two basic ideas: “if people like us they are less likely to leave us” and “if people like us they are less likely to hurt us.”

OK, I hear you: I get it, I’m a people pleaser. But why?

What does the Inner Child have to do with it?

Often, people pleasing is a strategy we learned a long time ago. It has more to do with our history and attachment and less to do with the present. Perhaps the part of you that people pleases is just trying to avoid unpleasant or unsafe feelings.

Maybe you grew up with fighting parents or siblings; or an emotionally abusive caregiver; or an unresponsive caregiver; perhaps you experienced family separation; or a parent with mental health challenges; or maybe bullying from your peers. Whatever past hurt you experienced, this trauma often results in some parts being left over from a time that felt unsafe - strategies that we still use now. These parts want to fix problems before they become arguments, these parts want to keep everyone happy, these parts will say yes to avoid upsetting someone who might leave or might show anger, they want to avoid anyone being disappointed in us. They can also leave us exhausted, invalidated, unsatisfied and resentful. Abandonment is also a huge trigger for many of us and our brain thinks it has it all figured out: be nice to people = they won’t leave us. So it’s often a fear of abandonment that drives people pleasing behaviour. Unfortunately, one of the effects of people pleasing is abandoning ourselves.

So yes, you being a people pleaser was never the problem, the problem came in years ago when a part of you realised that you could protect yourself from being hurt or being alone or being in conflict by giving in to other people, keeping your opinions to yourself, and keeping others happy.

A quote about setting boundaries to keep our inner child safe.

Are Boundaries are the Antidote to People Pleasing?

So what do we do about it? Well first off, we get curious. We start to think about the times we people pleased or abandoned ourselves. What was really going on? Were we avoiding conflict? Were we trying to avoid someone being disappointed? Once you figure that out, we get go a little deeper and think further back – were there times when I was a kid, I maybe acted this way to feel safe or loved or wanted? No judgment; just curiosity. Speak to your counsellor about this if you have one.

We can also start to practice setting small boundaries, maybe it’s a boundary of your time, or it’s a physical boundary, or even not replying to a message right away. It might be speaking up about something you’d normally just go along with. Something that will cause a little bit of discomfort but will not be overwhelming. Start small.

Start to practice setting the boundaries for yourself now, that it wasn’t safe to set before, let your inner child feel safety with you. ❤️

Thanks for reading :)

Helen Whitehead

Registered Clinical Counsellor

North Vancouver

British Columbia

#innerchild #peoplepleasing #trauma #partswork

  • Writer's pictureHelen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

You might have heard about parts work through your own therapist or even through some amusing internet counselling memes (yes we have memes). Parts work is used in various ways by many counsellors, but is the centrepiece of an approach called Internal Family Systems that I often talk about with clients and use in my sessions.

Internal Family Systems (or IFS) was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz and it’s based around the notion that we all have these different parts inside us (like a family) that have developed over time. All of these parts developed with good intentions and usually to protect us from something our brain has learned might be harmful for us because something similar caused us hurt and pain in the past, often when we were young. They are all just parts that we have needed at some point in our life and now they might be working a little too hard and it can feel like they are in the driving seat.

Examples of Parts

The anxiety part is there to protect us from doing something that might cause us distress or pain. That part of us has developed as a survival mechanism and is constantly trying to keep us safe even though whatever was deemed as a threat to our emotional or physical safety is probably long gone.

The depressed part is often there because at some point in our lives someone caused us pain. Maybe as a small child, maybe an adolescent, maybe as an adult. Whenever it happened, the pain and hurt was so bad your brain decided that this must never happen again. The way your depressed part can achieve that is by emotionally and physically holding you down (or depressing you) so you aren’t meeting new people, trying new things, or being out in the world where you could be hurt again.

The inner critic part is there to motivate us and protect us from making a fool of ourselves, or in the case of a particularly harsh inner critic, the intention is to crush our confidence completely so we don’t put ourselves in any situations where we might be judged or rejected.

The control part is there to help us to feel safe in the world, because if we can control our environments and how people behave in them, then there will less chance of unpleasant surprises and therefore less chance of harm.

The getting on with life part is the part that makes us focus on things like work, school, chores, socializing, and other aspects of our everyday life. However it does this by blocking out any connection to our true feelings as this seems like an easier and safer way for us to go through life.

The people pleaser part often develops when people have grown up in environments with conflict and perhaps separation of caregivers/parents. This part is basically trying to keep everyone together, avoid negative feelings and hostility because that part remembers how painful this was as a child. These parts will say yes to avoid upsetting another person. They can also leave us feeling exhausted, not getting our own needs met and perhaps having our boundaries violated.

woman and question marks. She is trying to figure out her emotional parts.

Who is Running the Show?

Managers: these are the parts that run the everyday stuff. Managers try to keep us in control and protected from any possible hurt distress or pain. Here you would have for example your anxiety part, your getting on with life part and your people pleaser part.

Firefighters: these are the upper-level managers that step in when our exiles are triggered to put out emotional fires. Firefighters will drive behaviours such as alcohol use, self harm, food binges, acting out sexually, and compulsive exercise. They want to extinguish the pain or discomfort quickly, they swoop in and take us out so we are protected from being emotionally overwhelmed by our trauma.

Exiles: these are the younger parts of ourselves that have experienced hurt. Often these parts have been suppressed or “exiled” to allow us to get on with life. Many years might have passed since we experienced hurt or pain or emotional rejection and a part of us might have tried to create separation between our present and our younger selves. That younger part of us is still there, it’s the one reacting when situations become unsafe, situations that somehow remind our brain of the past. This is what our brain does to keep us safe, it stores all of our painful experiences in this timeless, suspended state so we can avoid being hurt again by avoiding anything vaguely resembling what caused that pain.

Self: we all have a self or inner self and this is never lost. Our true self is never lost, it’s always there inside us, but it can seem hidden by all the other protective parts that have had to come in and make sure we are safe. You can recognize your self as being those moments of calmness, compassion, or clarity, moments you feel connected and real. Though it might feel challenging to connect to, or even be aware of a sense of self, know that it’s always been there.

So What’s the Goal?

Well the first goal would be to start identifying your parts. Notice what comes up for you, especially in moments when you feel emotionally triggered in some way – which parts are coming up for you? The next step would be trying to connect with those parts, being curious about them. Asking questions such as how long they’ve been doing their job for and what are they scared of might happen if they stop? What points in your life, maybe when you were younger did you need these parts?

Most importantly, we learn to develop compassion for these parts, appreciation for the work that they’ve been doing to keep you safe. This might seem like an unusual approach because we are so used to trying to push away negative feelings or sadness or anxiety, but pushing parts away never really works. What works is embracing what lies in your way. What works is bringing those parts closer so we understand them, we can appreciate what they’ve been trying to do for us, and we can help those exiles (the trauma of our younger selves) to feel safe and therefore not triggered by situations in the present that remind them of pain in the past.

By identifying the parts that come up for you, being curious about what their good intentions are and thanking them for the job they’re trying to do, can be incredibly healing and can let those parts know they can step back a little.

Check in with your parts today. Be curious. Be compassionate. All parts are welcome.

Thanks for reading :)

Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Registered Clinical Counsellor

North Vancouver, B.C.

#partswork #trauma #InternalFamilySystems #innerself #selfcompassion

thoughts from a north vancouver counsellor

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