The fear of abandonment – the sense of being deserted, or without control – is certainly enough to make any person experience unease. Being left alone, abandoned – what desolate and unsettling feelings to experience! If you are thinking “I don’t know what that feeling is”, picture this to get a small sense:You are at the grocery store and you see a child with their grandmother. The child bounces along a few paces behind the cart, trying to only step on a certain color tile on the floor. They hop along, rarely looking up until they are in the candy aisle.
They are easily distracted by the sweets at eye level. One particular candy bar catches their eye and they become fixated on the shiny wrapping that holds what could be a delicious surge of sugar. Grandma continues to move forward with her shopping mission.
You continue to watch the child in a pre-sugar trance. When the child makes up their mind to grab the bar and present their case for acquiring the treat, the cart is no longer in sight. You see the fear rise. Their smile drops, eyes dart up and down the aisle, and their voice wavers when they yell “Grandmaaaaa?” They turn quickly to search for the person that represents safety and security and run around the corner.
This small story represents a powerful fear. Imagine the different emotional experience that a child might have if they find their grandmother around the corner versus searching up and down the aisle with no sign of her. We all have some sense of what it is like to lose what we once viewed as stable as steadfast. It is often distressing.
With this topic, I could write about attachment theory, secure parental figures, safety, and therapy – all from a clinical perspective, but for the purposes of this article I thought it would be helpful to bring you into the experience of someone who has named the presence and effects of fear of abandonment in their life.
I sought out an individual who is an adult, has actively been going to therapy, and has a strong desire to share their experience with others*. They share about their time in therapy, their personal journey with fear of abandonment, and how they have grown.
After thanking them for their time and chatting about the structure of the interview, we began:
How long have you been going to therapy?
About a year and a half. Wow, almost two years.
What prompted you to go?
I had been talking about it for a while. There were things that I wanted to address and process in my relationship with my Mom. But it was hard to go because I had never had a friend go to therapy to process something like that. I do have plenty of friends in therapy who have worked through a lot of stuff but nothing that felt like what I was going through.
The first time I remember thinking about going to therapy was after my Mom and I went on a trip together. It was a really difficult trip.
Tell me a little bit more about that relationship.
It’s a weird relationship for me to process. Kind of like grief. It’s a relationship that I want more of what it used to be but she’s still in my life. My mom has a bipolar diagnosis and struggles with depression and anxiety.
When I was in college she got meningitis, and has been really flat and has not had much energy to participate in life since then. With that, it felt like I had lost my best friend and best cheerleader. After that, I saw a big change in our relationship. It felt a bit like abandonment.
There was a bit of a parent-child role reversal and I was pretty terrified when I realized it for the first time. From that point on, when I when through life transitions I was faced with changes in our roles that caused me to pause. When I started to face that, I decided to go to therapy.
Do you remember what you thought therapy would be like?
[laughter] I used to do deep breathing in the hallway because I was nervous. The first appointment was really awkward. I remember stroking the arm of the couch. I was nervous laughing a lot. I also did not know how much to share.
I think I had this weird expectation that you should cry in front of your therapist or that you should share it all at the very beginning. But I learned it’s definitely your own relationship that you have to build and cultivate. And the silence felt so awkward.
What do you remember about your first session?
I remember connecting with my therapist. I remember her telling me that it was really about seeing if we could connect and to see if it was a space we could both be in. I remember feeling a really good warmth about it. I also remember thinking that this won’t take that long to process through… [laughter]… Here we are almost two years later.
Describe your therapist’s style of therapy as you have experienced it.
Very relational. I think her style fit well with the goal that I had. What I was grieving is that I no longer had a safety net underneath me or a person to catch me. What we were creating was a safety net so that I could experience emotions. With that safety net in therapy, came a deep relationship where I could experience what I needed to. I had more of the sense that when I stepped away I wasn’t going to collapse into nothing.
What does fear of abandonment mean to you?
I think it’s the scariest human emotion that you could experience. It ties into loneliness which I also think is awful. With abandonment, there’s a choice on the other side of the relationship. Abandonment seems a lot more purposeful or hurtful. It instills a lot more insecurities of not being worthy of someone’s attention or relationship with them.
How has that fear impacted your life?
I can cause me to hold back from getting into relationships or too deep into relationships. In the last year, I’ve noticed it more in friendships. Even though there may be longevity there’s still this risk that it’s a relationship that you are both choosing to be in. And that could change. It’s scary.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve been abandoned by any one person but I’ve definitely had some changes in relationships that have felt like abandonment. As I’ve worked on that fear, it’s been cool to see other relationships develop and see how adaptable we are. It’s painful. But we’re adaptable.
I also think it depends on how much the fear rules someone. If the fear of abandonment is dictating all of your moves and relationships, there’s a lot more fear of losing that relationship. It puts a lot of stress and frustration on the relationship. Insecurity also comes out in a more manipulative way. For me, when I’m afraid to lose the relationship then I want more control. I try to get them to stay.
What have you learned about yourself by experiencing those moments of abandonment?
I’ve learned that it’s a really dark and scary place for me. One thing that I’ve held onto is that it’s a dark shape, but the more I’m near it, the more it changes color and shape.
How does fear of abandonment play out with your family dynamics?
I think it’s about how obligated you feel to your family – like how much obligation there is to remain connected. The hardest thing for me is with my mom but it’s hard for me to put into words. I wasn’t necessarily abandoned by my mom but my child-self was.
I’ve realized that I also abandoned that small child that needed so much more attention. Years later, what I’ve been grieving is that no one was paying attention and taking care of me as a child. I’ve really connected to this poem as I’ve processed through some of that:
Love Sorrow, By Mary Oliver
Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing the street. For, think,
what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so
utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment
by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,
as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.
– Mary Oliver
This poem really helped me realize that I needed someone to take care of me – like the simple things in the poem like brushing hair and crossing the street. There was no one there to soothe.
How did you learn to nurture and soothe yourself?[laughter] Very slowly. And I’m still learning. I’m in a retreat zone right now in a lot of my relationships. What I want from others is to be pursued but I also want to stiff-arm them. I’m still learning how to break that cycle by reaching out into relationships and share emotions without playing this game of pursue me but don’t. I’ve learned a lot about conflict resolution and communication in therapy that has also helped.
What’s that been like?
Terrifying. And proud. Really to see the change. I’ve seen that I’ve tried to make other people be the person that nurtures me. I had that same dynamic with a few people. And I haven’t been able to fully move past that but I’m working on it. The biggest thing is for me to be able to communicate that to others and bring about awareness. I’ve continued to break that cycle of wanting people to care about me while I treat them poorly.
What’s keeping you motivated?
I’ve never thought my parent’s communication was healthy. I’ve always been scared of communication but I don’t want the household that I grew up in. I want a better household than what I grew up in and I know that communication is healthy.
How do you think society portrays fear of abandonment?
There an emphasis on social media and to never be left out. The attachment to your device connects you to others. There are also social norms that you have to meet so you not this rejected, abandoned person – you have to have a best friend, a husband or wife, and close work people. All of those are great things but when it becomes this thing that you if don’t have then you’re not a whole person, it adds to the fear. Not being chosen is a similar experience of being abandoned.
What have you noticed about your faith and fear of abandonment?
I think if there’s not space for fluctuation or change as you think about your faith that it can be a huge risk of abandonment. Going from this structure that has supported you then having it feel as if its collapsing would be really scary and devastating.
I’m thinking of a person that I know that is experiencing a crisis of faith around tragedy in their own life. Within their framework, there isn’t space for anything shy of a miracle for what they want. I don’t know how you do not feel abandoned in that.
I’ve widened my lens in lots of ways. I’ve experienced a lot of closeness to God in the midst of what I thought would be shameful. In experiences where I think I should fear abandonment from God, I’ve actually felt more like a whole person and more connected to God by pushing into it. Where I thought there would be holes for fear of abandonment it hasn’t been so. I’ve also been experiencing grace through risking the fear.
How do you describe your overall experience in therapy?
I love it. I feel like I refer everyone to therapy. It’s such a sweet sacred space for you. A person rooting you to become a healthier you. When I couldn’t experience my own emotions, my therapist sat with me. I wasn’t alone in any of that.
It took me a long time to trust because I was afraid of losing that relationship. The fear of abandonment stalled the beginning of even my relationship with her. It took a lot of relationship building between the two of us – trusting that I would be okay and that I will have a safety net.
How would you sum up your experience with fear of abandonment?
It started with me acknowledging that I had a fear of abandonment. And also maybe acknowledging that it may never leave me. Then knowing how to engage and interact with it within relationships. Even when I do feel abandoned within one relationship, now I’m more there to catch me. I know that I’m ok.
I also acknowledge that I’ve already experienced the feeling. I’ve hit the bottom. There is nothing to fear. I am here. I know what it’s like to be abandoned and for me, it’s the worst experience. I can push into new relationships or mend past relationships.
Although this is a topic that we likely could continue discussing at great length, I was grateful to hear this person’s thoughtful reflection. I gained some insight into the fear of abandonment by hearing their words, I hope you did too.
*This person is not a client but in order to protect their privacy, all identifying information will be kept confidential. They have read the entirety of this article and consent to its publication.
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