For people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), abandonment is often a terrifying thought, leading to intense emotional reactions and repeated attempts to avoid it. These include frantic efforts to maintain relationships, making unrealistic sacrifices to keep others close, excessive dependence on others for support, and engaging in impulsive behaviors such as reckless spending or substance abuse. While these attempts may provide temporary relief from feelings of abandonment, they often end up driving away the very people whom they are seeking intimacy with. In order to overcome and work through the problems associated with fears of abandonment, it’s important to understand why people with BPD have a fear of abandonment in the first place.
Sometimes the fear of abandonment is due to early life experiences of loss, neglect, or rejection. Often, people have experienced frequent changes in their primary caregivers growing up or have been subjected to inconsistent or unreliable caregiving, which can result in feelings of instability and uncertainty. Even those who have had parents who provided food, clothing, and shelter in every practical way may still feel as though they were emotionally neglected. This might surface when a child experiences trauma but was chronically invalidated or dismissed by people close in their life. Perhaps what the child needed was to feel that their emotions were being taken seriously, but because the environment did not allow much room for emotional expression, the individual may have grown up desperately seeking spaces to feel validated. As an adult, when they are faced with a situation that reminds them of those past dismissive experiences, they may become anxious and panicked, fearing that the same thing will happen again. Even a small event, such as a partner being late for a date, can trigger intense feelings of dismissiveness, leading to distressing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors stemming from a core fear of abandonment.
Another reason why people with BPD fear abandonment is that they struggle with regulating their emotions without external support. They often look for external sources of support to help regulate their intense feelings, which can include seeking constant reassurance and attention from their loved ones. Again, this can stem from past traumas and emotional neglect, where they didn’t receive proper validation from people close to them, but it also goes beyond the need for validation and encompasses a real need for help in managing their intense feelings that consume them. Imagine having hyper-intense emotions that disrupt your thoughts and ability to carry out your day. It’s very difficult for people with BPD to manage these feelings and they often benefit from other people helping to breakdown complex thoughts and feelings. Seeking external support to achieve a greater sense of calm and gain control of their emotional intensity becomes their coping mechanism. However, when people are busy or less available than they were before, people with BPD experience feelings of rejection and abandonment. They can become defensive and feel like they are being abandoned or rejected by the people who – in their mind – are supposed to love them and provide them with emotional regulation support at all times.
Similarly, people BPD may also struggle to be alone due to lacking the skills and resources needed to independently manage their condition effectively. Beyond being able to manage intense emotions independently, they may also have difficulty recognizing and expressing their thoughts and ideas, setting boundaries, keeping up with responsibilities, making healthy decisions, and communicating in healthy ways with others. They may also struggle with self-care, such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle or engaging in activities that bring them joy and fulfillment. They may rely on others to meet their practical needs and may struggle to take care of themselves when they are alone. All of these things can contribute to a fear of abandonment.
People with BPD also typically struggle with their self-worth and identity. They may feel that they are inherently flawed or unlovable, leading to intense feelings of shame and guilt. As a result, they may believe that they deserve to be abandoned, making it even more challenging to form healthy relationships. They may even try to sabotage their relationships or test the limits of their partner’s love, which can lead to conflicts and breakups. Sometimes a person with borderline personality rationally understands that they have positive traits and qualities that make them a good person, but they still struggle with an intense level of confusion around their personal identity and place in the world. While most people without BPD are able to feel a sense of connection with themselves, those living with borderline personality disorder experience chronic emptiness and have great difficulty understanding themselves in relation to the rest of the world around them. The shame, guilt, confusion, and sense of being unworthy or unlovable gets tangled up with fears about being a burden to others. When this escalates, it can cause people with BPD to feel like abandonment from others is inevitable, which causes them significant pain and it becomes a core fear.
The fear of abandonment in BPD is complicated and multifaceted, rooted in early childhood experiences of neglect or loss, difficulty regulating emotions and maintaining stable relationships, issues with self-worth, and struggles to independently manage their symptoms. Understanding the root causes of this fear is crucial in developing effective treatment strategies for those with BPD. Through therapy, people are able to learn skills for managing their intense emotions, improving their self-worth, and strengthening their capacity to form healthy relationships. With the right support and resources, people with BPD can overcome their fears of abandonment and lead strong, healthy, fulfilling lives.
Written by Lauren Presutti