The fear of abandonment: Why am I trying so hard?

Does the fear of abandonment push you to act in undesirable ways? How often do you jump through hoops to suit another person? Do you feel a constant pressure to do more and be more so that others are not upset with you?

To cope with these fears, you may have learned to keep your guard up. Rather than acknowledge your humanness, you may try and hide inabilities or flaws. By demonstrating only these “acceptable behaviours”, you have managed to stay safe. This way, others will not walk away, be upset or disappointed with you.

Sound familiar?

The need for connection

I hope the above words do not cause shame or embarrassment. I am writing them to emphasize the commonality of this experience. Many of us fear being alone. This is normal. In its own complicated way, the fear of abandonment is meant to be helpful. To be human is to want connection. From an evolutionary standpoint, those who had community, had more resources and support.

“We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.

Dalai Lama

Understanding the roots of our fear:

The fear of abandonment does not come out of nowhere. It is a learned survival mechanism that comes after experiencing some form of hardship. I want you to consider how your own history. How did your experiences influence having this fear? The following questions can help you explore further:

  • Grief and Loss: Have you lost an important person in your life growing up? Did this experience cause you to worry about others leaving you?
  • Learned messages from parents: What were the rules growing up? What did your parents require of you? What behaviours did they praise and what did they reprimand? How did your parents respond to your successes versus failures? Did your parents’ love feel unconditional?
  • Learned messages from culture and society: What was idealized in the media? What were the rules that your parents followed, and then, asked as of you? If you witnessed others rebel outside of these standards, how were they treated?
  • Friendships: What messages did you pick up from your friends about fitting in? What caused fights? Did you experience rejection from peer groups? How did this come about? What did you do to “repair” the relationships?
  • Romantic relationships: How did your romantic partners treat you? What did your partner expect in a relationship? How did you handle things when the relationship ended? What happened when you set boundaries? Were your words respected or were they questioned?

Managing the fear of abandonment:

If you’ve ever struggled with the above scenarios, chances are that your system learned to protect itself with some careful strategies. There are two common protective patterns that show up to manage this fear of abandonment. The first strategy is to work incredibly hard to meet the expectations of others. These folks tend to:

  • Predict what will make others happy
  • Be hyper-alert about verbal and non-verbal cues (tone of voice, facial expressions, comments, etc)
  • Feel triggered by negative feedback because they fear it means others no longer like you.
  • Focus on people-pleasing tendencies to maintain peace
  • Say “yes” often (despite it feeling uncomfortable with their boundaries)

The second protective pattern that arises is the urge to stop trying all together. After all, if something scares you, why put yourself in that situation? These folks often appear dismissive. They may spend a lot of time alone. They prefer not to rely on others, or avoid getting close to someone. They fear that these actions will put them in a vulnerable place where they get attached to another person, and this person could have the power to hurt them.

What do I do?

fear of abandonment. Fear of being alone. How to address.

Working hard to meet others’ expectations is a form of coping. You don’t have to face the fear of abandonment so long as you follow these expectations. Staying isolated or avoiding any close relationship is a form of coping. You will not deal with rejection so long as you never get to a place of vulnerability.
At the end of the day, coping strategies are meant for short-term relief. They address the anxiety in that moment, but they do actually fix the core issue. Unfortunately, the fear is still there. So what else can you do? The following options can lead you to more long-lasting relief:

1. Seeking therapy to address the underlying wound.

If you have survived hardships like the loss of a parent, bullying, or abusive relationships, these are not small issues. Your system has experienced rejection and loneliness. It learned to cope in the safest way it knew at the time. Trauma approaches like EMDR and Internal Family Systems Therapy are wonderful strategies to help address the root causes for the fear of abandonment. Your system can feel less fearful once these underlying wounds have been healed.

2. Assess if your relationships are healthy.

This is obviously easier said than done. There is a lot of grief and stress in acknowledging unhealthy relationships. However, I want you to consider what may happen if you did not comply with someone else’s expectations. Will they abandon you? Is their love truly unconditional? Sometimes we need to break away from our unhealthy attachments to make space for new healthy relationships.

3. Is there truth to your fears?

Sometimes are our thoughts are just thoughts. They don’t have a lot of evidence behind them, but the fear alone drives us to stay complacent. If it is safe, talk to the other person and ask how they’re feeling. Clarify what you’re seeing or hearing, and ask about the other’s intentions. You may perceive a look or comment to mean abandonment, whereas the other person has zero intention of ending the relationship.

4. Take small steps to trust.

For those who are fearful of committing to a relationship, consider what feels like a safe starting place. You may not be ready to let your colleagues know about your deepest secrets, but you may feel more comfortable sharing how your weekend went, or discussing a difficult work project. In this situation, exposure therapy may be helpful in creating a shift.

5. Slow down

In similarity with exposure therapy, I encourage you to take a step back from the “do more, be more” approach. What happens when you don’t work so hard? What happens when you make small mistakes? I know this option isn’t easy, and I suggest you take the smallest step manageable in creating this change. It’s important for your system to be cautious and monitor how change is perceived. You may surprise yourself in seeing that a) others do not leave when you show your human side, or b) you start to step away from these difficult relationships.

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about your own system, or you’d like to address fears of abandonment, reach out.

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