I don’t know when I realised that the way I cling to relationships was unhealthy. I don’t think there was a moment of realisation, but rather the effects of it slowly gathering strength over me. I don’t just mean romantic relationships, as my fear and self-loathing kept me from anything serious until the age of nineteen. I mean friendships, acquaintances, family and everyone else in my life. I was consistently trapped by the devastating fear that they would tire and leave me, contradicted by the self-sabotaging desire that they would.
I was pushing them away with my actions and words, yet clinging to them desperately. I wanted to test them, to see if they would leave me, with the knowledge that if they did, it would utterly destroy me. I was like a textbook definition of Borderline Personality Disorder, something I’d discover years later when appropriately diagnosed.
An extreme fear of abandonment is primarily categorised by Borderline Personality Disorder. Approximately 1.4% of adults aged 18 and over struggle with BPD, and it’s classified mainly by a struggle to maintain healthy relationships. Here are the nine symptoms of BPD:
1. Fear of abandonment. Individuals with BPD are scared of being left alone or abandoned. This could be triggered by something minor, like a loved one arriving home late from work or going out with friends. They’re prompted into frantic efforts to keep the other person close to them, including begging, arguing, clinging, or physically stopping them. And in the most painful irony, it serves only to drive others further away.
2. Impulsive and self-destructive behaviours. You may engage in sensation-seeking behaviours, particularly ones harmful to you. For me, this was self-harm, purging and drinking too much. For others, it may be driving recklessly, shoplifting, risky sex or drugs. They work to help you feel better in the moment, never in the long term.
3. Unstable relationships. Your relationships are intense and over quickly. You fall in love hastily, believing that they’ll make you feel whole. Everyone is perfect or awful, and there is nothing in between your idealisation and hatred.
4. Explosive anger. Intense anger is a familiar sensation; you have a short temper and struggle to control yourself once it is sparked. For me, this anger was primarily directed inwards, and I would beat myself up over every tiny thing, consuming more than my share of the blame.
5. Chronic feelings of emptiness. Those impulsive behaviours I mentioned? They’re often used to fill this gaping void. I feel empty almost every day, and it’s easy to turn to alcohol, food or a person to fill this hole. You often feel like ‘nothing’ or ‘nobody’, and it’s a jarring sensation.
6. Extreme emotional mood swings. One moment you’re struggling through that emptiness, and the next, you’re ecstatic. Emotions and moods are unstable in individuals with BPD; anything can trigger you. This is how it differs from depression or bipolar, as your mood swings are just as intense but pass in minute or hours, rather than days or weeks. It’s exhausting. I can wake up feeling on top of the world and be sobbing into my morning coffee an hour later.
7. Unstable self-image. Your idealisation and devaluation applies to yourself as well; you hate yourself and then feel good about yourself. You don’t have a clear concept of who you are and may frequently change your values, jobs, friends, and goals. It was only in treatment for BPD that I realised that I had no sense of identity, as I had spent years mirroring myself on others in an attempt to get them to like me.
8. Losing reality. Under stress, you may lose touch with reality and dissociate. You can feel foggy, spaced out or as if you’re watching yourself from outside your body. You may also struggle with suspicious thoughts and paranoia. For me, this is consistently feeling like I’m being followed or that someone is in my home. I also quickly feel as if others are plotting against me or deceiving me.
9. Self-harm. Individuals with BPD are likely to hurt themselves, with or without suicidal intent.
You can find more on BPD here, but for now, we’ll just focus on that fear of abandonment. I think that’s what is rooted at the core of my personality disorder, as most of my other symptoms stem from it. I feel empty and aim to fill myself with others, I feel paranoid that everyone is leaving me and my mood directly correlates to what I believe others think of me. I’m entirely at their mercy, and it is exhausting, to say the least.
Part of a fear of abandonment is the physical reality of being alone. If no one else is around to distract you, then you’re left with your thoughts. This can be terrifying when you struggle with a mental illness. Your thoughts may not feel like your own, and they can definitely feel out of your control. You may have thoughts of paranoia, self-harm or loneliness.
We may fear what we’ll do alone, whether that is substance abuse or hurting ourselves in another way. Having others around is almost a shield, a barrier between you and what you might do. It allows you to follow societal protocols and limit what you may do.
Individuals with BPD struggle with their sense of identity and this also occurs in other mental health struggles. By having other people around, you have the opportunity to mirror their identity and use them as a basis for how you should act. Alternatively, you may focus on just pleasing them and being what they may want from you.
Aside from the physical act of being alone, there is also the fear of emotional abandonment. This can be triggered by someone going out or moving away, but it can also be initiated by emotional abandonment. You may feel abandoned by a friend growing closer to someone else, or reduced communication due to another reason. Individuals with a fear of abandonment may attribute any distance to their own faults, igniting their self-hatred and self-harming behaviours. Alternatively, they may grow paranoid and suspicious of the individual, believing that more is going on and that people are pitted against them. I felt abandoned by my friends moving to another country or city. I was happy for them, and wished them the best, but couldn’t shake this deep-rooted sadness. A loneliness that hung over me, and reminded me of something I couldn’t quite pinpoint.
One of the primary issues with fear of abandonment is the lengths it will drive you to. Individuals may be so scared of being left that they’ll accept being treated poorly and even hurt. They’ll use erratic and overly intense behaviours to keep the person and cut off anyone they think is a threat to the relationship. This leads to a cycle of unstable relationships, ultimately making them feel even more alone and ‘proving’ their fear to be confirmed.
When studying Psychology, we often speak of the nature versus nurture debate. Are we born a certain way, or are we raised to be like this? Criminality, developmental issues and mental illness can all be questioned in light of this debate. And the short answer is that everything is a mixture of both. Our DNA and heritage make up a large part of who we are, but it takes specific situations to release them. Through twin studies, we see how one child can turn out fine whilst the other doesn’t. It’s a matter of the right ingredients and the right conditions to cook them in.
Some people will go through the following events and never develop a fear of abandonment, others will, and we can’t know precisely why. It could be their genes, their resilience factors or something else out of our control. Nevertheless, a fear of abandonment is often shown to stem from childhood loss. But the critical factor is to remember that whilst a loss can be the death of a parent or divorce; it can also be an emotional loss.
Children are like plasticine, so easily moulded by their surroundings. Things that may seem minor to us can have a drastic effect on how they are shaped and learn to function. When we hear the term ‘neglect’, our mind usually goes to poverty or abuse, but we have to consider the impact of emotional abandonment on children. Examples of emotional abandonment include:
Many of these behaviours will stem from the parent’s stress or internalised emotional abandonment, causing them to repeat the cycle with their own offspring. But whatever the cause, the importance is not in finding blame, but instead finding the roots and addressing them, so that you can move forward and break the cycle of emotional abandonment.
This is such a subjective matter, as everyone has their own triggers and mindset regarding fear of abandonment. For some, it could be someone arriving late or cancelling last minute. For others, it may be being left on read or not being included in plans. It depends on the individual, and so the best approach is to discuss it with them and create an open line of communication.
It’s important to realise that it won’t always make sense to you, whether or not you struggle with your own abandonment triggers. Everyone is so unique formed, tainted by experiences, values and traumas, and so we all have our own reactions and justifications. My partner summed this up well after learning more about my personality disorder. He told me this:
“Just because it doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it. Even if I tell you that you shouldn’t feel that way, that won’t stop you from feeling like this.”
Telling someone that they shouldn’t feel scared is not enough. Just like telling someone that they have no reason to be sad won’t cure their depression, and saying that something isn’t scary to a person with anxiety. Instead, you need to work to understand why they feel this way. Why do they feel abandoned by this action? What is their worst-case scenario? By learning their triggers, you also learn how to handle them. This doesn’t mean that you can’t live your own life, but rather that you learn how to navigate situations. I used to struggle when my partner went to parties, to the extent that I’d be curled up sobbing and imagining every worst scenario to the extent that I couldn’t grasp what was reality. Getting treatment helped a lot, as well as having him message me just once during his night out. He could put his phone away entirely, but just at one point, send a message to confirm he thought of me. That was all I needed to quieten the bad thoughts.
When dealing with a fear of abandonment, talking to a professional is vital and often necessary. Dismiss the notion that you don’t need therapy, or don’t deserve it, and allow them to help you work through this. A trained professional can help you to recognise your triggers and work out accurate responses for them. It isn’t your fault for feeling this way, and you don’t deserve to live your life trapped in this state of fear.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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