Check Your Vibes: So You’ve Got Abandonment Issues…

Confession time: I hate abandonment. A lot. Nobody exactly likes being abandoned, but for a long time, I didn’t recognize that I was harboring a very deep fear of it that had more control over my life than I was okay with. I’m an independent person and am pretty good at remembering to create my own sense of validation, and apparently, I assumed these things were mutually exclusive with abandonment issues, which is far from the case. Self-reliance has always been extremely important to me, and that kept me from acknowledging the contradiction of my own personal experience.

A few years ago, a series of events exposed just how much of a sore spot this was for me. Moves, breakups, and other losses suddenly made my fears impossible to deny. It all culminated in my dad’s death about a year ago, which changed the state of my reality overnight. After his passing, I spent a lot of the past year in frequent fear of — you guessed it — abandonment. I’m still no expert on these fears, but naming them and beginning to understand my own patterns surrounding them has made a world of difference. I’ve realized that simply dwelling on this stuff (in my case, mentally playing out exactly what I’d do if this or that person I loved suddenly vanished from my life) never, ever just makes it go away, because these fears aren’t rooted in logic. Nothing you do externally to make yourself feel more worthy of love or more safe is going to make that nagging fear go away, because it was never just about facts in the first place.

Instead, this kind of thing is usually programmed into your mind from a very young age, sometimes even without you knowing until years later. It can ultimately make you feel convinced that everyone around you will eventually bail, which can spark lots of self-sabotaging behavior to somehow get a jump on the hurt you expect to feel if and when you do get ditched, which, of course, simply creates more hurt than you’d ever have experienced in the first place. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that I didn’t see clearly for a long time because I was too busy steeling myself for imaginary rejections and missing out on opportunities to spend time with the wonderful people who are around me right now, no matter where they may be in the future.

In my own life, I became so used to pushing fears of abandonment down inside over the years — or, more likely, had experienced it my whole life and thus didn’t even know it was out of the norm — that I always assumed moments of insecurity or sudden fear were isolated incidents and moved on with my day without focusing on the cause of the symptoms.

I say all this to point out that you don’t have to have experienced a moment of explicit abandonment in your childhood to end up with these kinds of fears, or even to be able to name them for what they are. Sometimes the catalyst sneaks up on you during childhood in less obvious ways — a distant parent who never literally bails on you, an unexpected move, the sudden loss of something you saw as secure. Sometimes they don’t manifest obviously until well into your adult life.

Fears of abandonment are incredibly common. Working with a pro on this stuff, or at the very least getting real about what you’re feeling, can save you from years of self-imposed misery and shutting yourself off from great experiences and people who care about you. Trying to predict and prepare for abandonment gives it constant control over your life and essentially allows you to isolate yourself — the very thing you’re afraid of! To delve into this a bit deeper and help us all break the cycle, I spoke with Charleen Lewis, LISW, a psychiatric counselor at the Ohio State University Medical Center, who offered up some advice.

The Frisky: What does “abandonment issues” really mean?

Charleen Lewis: When an individual’s fear of the loss of a significant person in their life is so emotionally powerful that they avoid getting healthy needs met in relationships with others, or their anxieties are so great that they sabotage the development of relationships.

What is the most common way for a woman to end up with abandonment issues?

Both women and men who have had childhood losses of parental figures at significant developmental stages of life may develop an anxious attachment to those they must rely on to take care of them. Children with parents who unfortunately may have their own emotional vulnerability and are unpredictable to their children or threaten to leave them or may be temporarily hospitalized for their emotional issues may also not experience a secure attachment that helps them feel “grounded” to navigate life.

How can she identify abandonment issues for what they are?

Usually it takes caring others’ observations to help an individual identify “abandonment issues,” or a woman experiences so many disappointing or emotionally dramatic relationship or losses that she is willing to begin to look at a personal pattern that may contribute to what a woman fears most, the “abandonment.”

How does this cause self-sabotage in everyday life?

Usually an individual is so hyper-vigilant to loss that she may perceive interactions in a distorted manner. She may have developed a basic mistrust of life and anticipate being rejected and act in such a way that most people would be rejecting of her so she has more control of the event and therefore, in theory, less emotional pain. She has then contributed to a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

How can women move past these issues to build healthy and happy relationships?

First, be willing to accept that they contribute to the process of the development of any relationship, then be willing to self-reflect about their behavior and take the risk of learning new ways of dealing with their anxieties about closeness and trust of others. Learn to trust themselves that they will survive even though someone could reject or abandon them, strengthen their own self-confidence, be willing to challenge their “cognitive distortions” about interpersonal interactions. This does not have to be in therapy, but therapy is an excellent option. I have found a good group therapy to be the best treatment option to artificially mimic life. We relate more as we would in real life in a group and therefore our patterns of relation can be more clear to ourselves and others who have committed to be a part of a positive change process.

If a person knows she struggles with these issues, how can she stay aware of them in everyday life so that they don’t wreak havoc?

We all do not have the ability to transcend our own experiences objectively, but we can begin to know our patterns of relating to others and try to be self-aware. Taking the risk to develop a supportive relationship with a trusted confidant can be priceless to process feelings and experiences.

Charleen Lewis, LISW, a Psychiatric Counselor at OSU Harding Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She does individual, family and outpatient group psychotherapy.