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Fear of abandonment is a lingering feeling of insecurity, contributing to intrusive thoughts, emptiness, unstable sense of self, clinginess, neediness, extreme mood fluctuations, and frequent relationship conflicts. On the flip side, someone with a fear of abandonment might cope by cutting off completely and becoming emotionally numb.
Fear of abandonment is a very real and powerful emotion. It is an emotional response to the fear of being rejected, ignored, or abandoned by those close to us.
The fear of abandonment is real. It can be incredibly debilitating and cause significant emotional distress for those affected. For some, the fear of abandonment may manifest in various signs and symptoms such as feelings of intense anxiety, frequent panic attacks, exaggerated worries about being alone or isolated, difficulty trusting others, extreme loneliness even when surrounded by people, thoughts of self-harm or suicide due to low self-esteem, persistent neediness or clinginess with friends and family members, and difficulty sleeping.
Fear of abandonment is often rooted in childhood experiences where we were neglected or felt emotionally abandoned by our parents or caregivers or if we had very unstable parents.
Anxiety is a normal part of being in an intimate relationship. It usually comes in two forms- the fear of abandonment and the fear of engulfment. If our previous experience in life or childhood was unstable or if we had unreliable caregivers, we may fear we will be abandoned in relationships. If our parents were controlling or we grew up in an enmeshed household environment, we may fear that when people come too close, we will be swamped, lose our sense of self or independence.
People with anxious-preoccupied attachment tend to experience a lot of fear of abandonment and rejection. While people with other attachment styles also have the same fears, people with this attachment pattern tend to feel them more consciously and develop persistent emotional and behavioral patterns around these fears. In contrast to avoidant people who are excessively independent, anxiously-preoccupied people may seek constant assurance, approval from their partners and become overly dependent.
Fear of Abandonment Signs and Symptoms
Here is a list of emotional experience/behavioral characteristics that may come with severe fear of abandonment:
With the fear of abandonment, you are hypervigilant and always watch out for signs that your partner is losing interest in you. You are constantly second-guessing your relationship, becoming suspicious when your partner is not around, responding to you, or replying to your messages. You are upset by or become jealous of their contact with others. You may become needy and clingy or challenge them and make them frustrated that you do not trust them more.
When your partner is not ‘in sight’, you may become overwhelmed by clinginess and a sense of ‘helplessness rage’ that you cannot express. You find it difficult to sense that others hold you in mind when they are away, but you also don’t want to come across as jealous and possessive.
Your fear of abandonment causes you to feel a deep sadness and hollowness when the people you are attached to are not physically by your side. You may have an unexplainable fear that someone important to you will be hurt, killed, or disappear suddenly.
You feel triggered by even the subtlest signs of criticism. You experience ‘flashbacks’— visual or emotional — of the humiliation you had in childhood. When others don’t explicitly express praise or affection, you feel rejected and abandoned; but when they compliment you or express love for you, you are not able to trust them.
You attach easily and sometimes trust people who are not ready for intimacy to begin with. You may also overstay in relationships that you know are unhealthy for you. When the relationship breaks down, you blame yourself and believe it was because you were not good enough.
Sometimes, you feel like you are re-creating the psychodynamic with parents who were inconsistent in their love. Your parents were nice one day and cruel the other; warm one day and cold the other. Their contradictory communication created confusion. As a child, you could not relax into the safety net of parental embrace; even when love was given, you feared it would go away. You were always watching out for the subsequent sudden withdrawal of affection or anger blow-out.
Your fear of abandonment causes you to compare yourself to others often and feel like you are less desirable or lovable. You have a harsh inner critic that continuously criticizes or threatens you. You may seek constant validation and reassurance from your partner to the point where it gets tiring for both of you.
You are always watching out for the subtle signs of another person pulling away. Your fear of abandonment saps energy that could otherwise have been available for productive work.
You don’t believe you are good enough, so you overcompensate by being compliant and agreeable, sometimes disowning your needs. Resentment builds in the background, and you may suddenly have an anger outburst and surprise yourself and those around you. You later regret your reactions because your anger makes them distance themselves from you even more.
When overcome by the fear of abandonment, you may oscillate between being pushy and angry and being helpless and needy. You are defiant one day and people-pleasing another, creating identity confusion for yourself and those around you.
Your feelings towards another person tend to swing between extremes, one day, they are the love of your life, and the next day you decide to withdraw your trust completely. On some days, complete dependence feels like the only option; on other days, you do not want to invest any hope.
You can become obsessed with people. You go through phases of becoming wildly addicted to someone. When you were younger, you fell in love with your teachers or classmates; mostly, these romances were one-way only; deep down, you do not believe you can have a genuine relationship with those you idealize.
You long for affection, but when it is given, it seems you cannot take in the soothing because you panic about losing the love you have and focus your energy on getting the next ‘fix’.
You hold grievances for longer than you would like and ruminate over events in which you feel you have been wronged.
You make intense efforts to please others but feel resentful later when your efforts are not reciprocated. Sometimes, you are deeply hurt by other people’s thoughtlessness.
You seek advice or reassurance but remain unconvinced when help is given.
When there is a conflict, you may storm off, but on the assumption that you can return whenever you are ready. You might underestimate the strain this puts on the relationship until your partner protests by leaving you.
You get distracted by your fear of abandonment and relationship stress to the point that you have a hard time focusing on work which holds you back in your career.
Fear of Abandonment Explained: ‘Object Constancy’
How do psychologists and neuroscientists explain and understand the fear of abandonment? They do so through the lens of attachment theories.
Object relations theory proposes that a person’s ability to engage in meaningful relationships with others is based in part on their capacity to develop a sense of ‘whole object relations’. This refers to the individual’s capacity to form cohesive and integrated representations of objects, including themselves, other people and objects in the environment.
Neuroscientists have found that our parents’ response to our attachment-seeking behaviors, especially during the first two years of our lives, encode our model of the world. If, as infants, we have healthy attachment interactions with an attuned, available, and nurturing caregiver, we will be able to develop a sense of safety and trust. If our parents could respond to our calls for feeding and comfort most of the time, we would internalize the positive message that the world is a friendly place; when we are in need, someone will come and help us. We would also learn to calm ourselves in times of distress, forming our resilience as adults. If, in contrast, the message that we were given as an infant was that the world is unsafe and that people cannot be relied upon, it would affect our ability to withstand uncertainty, disappointment, and the ups and downs of relationships.
Most people can withstand some degree of relational ambiguity and not be entirely consumed by worrying about potential rejection. When we argue with loved ones, we can later bounce back from the adverse event; When they are not physically by our side, we have an underlying trust that we are on their mind. All of this involves something called Object Constancy– the ability to maintain an emotional bond with others, even where there is distance and conflict.
Object Constancy originates from the concept of Object Permanence— a cognitive skill we acquire at around two to three years old. It is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, touched, or sensed in some way. This is why babies love peekaboo- when you hide your face, they think it has ceased to exist. According to the psychologist Piaget, who founded the idea, achieving Object Constancy is a developmental milestone. To learn more, there are plenty of YouTube videos with babies demonstrating this behavior.
Object Constancy is a psychodynamic concept, and we could think of it as the emotional equivalent of Object Permanence. To develop this skill, we mature into understanding that our caregiver is simultaneously a loving presence and a separate individual who could walk away. Rather than constantly needing to be with them, we have an ‘internalized image’ of our parents’ love and care. So even when they are temporarily out of sight, we still know we are loved and supported. In other words, with Object Constancy we are able to experience things and people as reliable and constant.
In adulthood, Object Constancy allows us to trust that our bond with those who are close to us remains whole even when they are not physically present, picking up the phone, replying to our texts, or have become frustrated with us. With Object Constancy, absence does not mean disappearance or abandonment, only temporary distance. People with a secure early attachment can locate a sense of trust from within themselves, rather than relying on constant reassurances from others. Yet people plagued with an intense fear of abandonment are the opposite.
For all of us, the fear of abandonment began when we were thrown into the cold, alien world from our mother’s womb. Since no parent could be available and attuned 100% of the time, we all suffer at least some minor bruises in learning to separate and individuate. However, if we experienced more severe early or preverbal attachment trauma, have extremely inconsistent or emotionally unavailable caregivers, or have a chaotic upbringing, our emotional development might have been stunted at a delicate age, and we never had the opportunity to develop Object Constancy.
“Since the earliest period of our life was preverbal, everything depended on emotional interaction. Without someone to reflect our emotions, we had no way of knowing who we were.”
– John Bradshaw
Object constancy is a concept in psychology and cognitive development that refers to an individual’s ability to recognize objects or people across different circumstances. This includes the recognition of an object despite changes in size, color, shape, location, or other properties. It also involves being able to remember someone even when apart for a period of time. In addition to recognizing objects and people, it can also apply to emotions and memories.
Object constancy develops during early childhood and continues throughout adulthood. Generally speaking, it is seen as a sign of maturity with age since it requires an understanding of relationships between objects over long periods of time.
Object constancy is an integral component of attachment theory that posits the capacity for an individual to maintain a feeling of security and mental stability even when confronted with significant moments of separation or disruption in interpersonal relationships. This concept of secure attachment allows for individuals to preserve an emotional connection with another person during times of distress, often enabling them to persistently recognize the worth and value of their relationship despite the potential for conflicts or disagreements.
If we have an insecure attachment, any distance, even a brief and benign one, can trigger us to re-experience the original pain of being left alone, dismissed, or disdained. Our fear of abandonment could trigger survival strategies such as denial, clinging, avoidance and dismissing others, lashing out in relationships, or the pattern of sabotaging relationships to avoid rejection.
Object constancy may also be related to a phenomenon called Splitting. Without Object Constancy, we relate to others as ‘parts’ rather than as a ‘whole.’ Just like a child who struggles to comprehend the mother as a complete person who sometimes rewards and sometimes frustrates, we struggle to hold the mental idea that both thems and ourselves have both good and bad aspects. When we split, we reduce the complexities of life and relationships into two opposing forces—good or bad, loved or hated—and disregard any nuance in between. We develop an all-or-nothing mentality that leads us to jump from one extreme emotion to another quickly and unexpectedly. The result is a rollercoaster experience where emotions feel intense yet fleeting; love becomes hate overnight; trust turns into suspicion without warning.
We may then experience relationships as unreliable, vulnerable, and heavily dependent on the mood of the moment; There seems to be no continuity in how we view our partner- it shifts from moment to moment and is either good or bad. This can cause and intensify the fear of abandonment.
Without the ability to see people as whole and constant, it becomes difficult to evoke the sense of the presence of a loved one when they are not physically there. The fear of abandonment and feeling of being left on our own can become so powerful and overwhelming that it evokes raw, intense, and sometimes child-like reactions.
When our fear of abandonment is triggered, shame and self-blame closely follow, further destabilizing us. Because the origins of these intense reactions are not always conscious, it would seem as though we are ‘unreasonable’ and ‘immature.’ In truth, if we think of ourselves as acting from a place of repressed or dissociated trauma; and consider what it was like for a two-year-old to be left alone or be with an inconsistent caregiver, the intense fear, rage, and despair would all make sense.
“She held herself until the sobs of the child inside subsided entirely. I love you, she told herself. It will all be okay.”
― H. Raven Rose
Using Transitional Object
Here is a trick psychologists use for children, but it can be applied to adults too. That is to use a ‘transitional object’ to help. A transitional object is an item that provides comfort and security to a child, usually during times of change or separation. The most common type of transitional object is a teddy bear or blanket, but it can also include other items such as a toy car or doll.
In addition to helping kids feel secure when separated from their parents, this object can also help them develop self-soothing skills and provide an emotional outlet for feelings such as fear, frustration, and sadness. But transitional objects are not just limited to children and babies; they can provide comfort and security for people of all ages. These objects allow the user to access memories of safety and familiarity during stress or change.
Transitional objects can take many forms; for children, they may be stuffed animals or blankets. For adults, it can be a piece of jewelry, a notecard, or a photograph. These items should be chosen based on personal preferences. They should ideally have some emotional significance attached to them – for example, a card that says ‘I love you’ from our partner can be helpful.
Fear of Abandonment: Healing Path
Fear of abandonment itself is not a pathology. It is a natural part of the human psyche and is hardwired into our survival mechanism. On the most primitive level, the idea of being abandoned and left entirely and forever alone fills us with terror. It signifies an existential death, an annihilation- a feeling that we would cease to exist.
However, to have mature, fulfilling relationships, we must learn to trust and love without being immobilized by excessive anxiety.
A big part of developing Object Constancy is to have the ability to hold paradoxes in our minds. We ought to embrace that both ourselves and others are complex beings finding our ways in a fluid and ever-changing dynamic dance. In the same way the caregiver who feeds us is also the one who fails us, we must come to grapple with the truth that no relationship or person is all good or all bad.
If we can hold both the faults and the virtues of ourselves and others, we would not have to resort to the primitive defense of ‘splitting’ or black-and-white thinking. We do not have to devalue our partners because they have disappointed us completely. We could also forgive ourselves- just because we are not perfect always does not mean we are, therefore, ‘bad,’ or unworthy of love.
Our partner could be both limited and good enough at the same time.
They could love and be angry at us at the same time.
They might need to distance themselves from us sometimes, but the foundation of the bond remains solid.
For a moment, tune into your breathing, and observe how like human relationships and everything else in nature, there is a natural ebb and flow. Gradations in life are numerous and varied. We need to breathe in to breathe out, contract to expand. A healthy relationship requires a dynamic flow between closeness and distance, ups, and downs, disappointment and fulfillment. No one or no relationship is static. If we think of our relationship as a dance or music— there is no closeness without distance, no music without intervals. If we fixate only on the times we are together and ignore the empty spaces, we stifle the pulsation and eventually squander the relationship.
The next critical step in healing abandonment fears cultivating self-reliance. Fear of abandonment is over-powering because it brings back the deep trauma we carry from when we were little children, being thrown into this world as helpless beings, utterly dependent on those around us. But we must acknowledge that some of our fears no longer reflect our current reality. Although there is never absolute certainty and safety in life, we are adults now and have different choices. We have strength; we have resilience, and we have autonomy, and freedom.
As adults, we can no longer be ‘abandoned’- if a relationship ends, it is the natural consequence of a mismatch in two people’s values, needs, and life paths.
We can no longer be ‘rejected’- for the value of our existence does not depend on the opinions of others.
We can no longer be engulfed or trapped- we can say no, set limits, and walk away.
As resilient adults, we can cradle the two-month-old inside of us that was terrified of being dropped; We learn to stay inside of our bodies even in fear without dissociating; and we can stay in relationships with others even amid uncertainty without running away into avoidance and defenses.
Rather than getting stuck in searching for the ‘missing piece,’ we recognize ourselves as a whole and integrated being.
The trauma of being dropped and left alone has passed, and we are given the opportunity for a new life.
We are now strong, vast, and resilient enough to surf the wave of human life.
If you identify with some of the above, I hope this piece is a source of hope. We are all a work in progress, and none of us has the perfect attachment, history, or relationship. It is never too late for insight and change.
“The sun loved me again when it saw that the stars would not abandon me.”
– Jenim Debie
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.