It’s normal to feel a little uneasy or unsure about a new romantic interest or new friend. But if you find yourself overly concerned about being dumped and left behind by others, then you might have a fear of abandonment.
“Fear of abandonment is an all-consuming fear that people close to you might leave you,” says Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, a certified psychiatrist. “You are in a state of constant anxiety that people around you are going away or you will be left alone, or isolated in a social structure.”
For example, says Gonzalez-Berrios, you may feel someone you love deeply will leave you and never come back. You might experience feelings of isolation and inability to connect with others emotionally because you are always overwhelmed with fear of being left alone, or you may feel emotionally neglected and not heard by people who matter the most in your life.
Fear of abandonment also symbolizes insecurity, poor self-image, and feelings of worthlessness, Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios says. While the condition isn’t classified as an official phobia, she notes the “worry seems to worsen over time” when left untreated.
So where does fear of abandonment come from, what are the signs, and what you can do about it?
Where does fear of abandonment come from?
Fear of abandonment is often rooted in some sort of attachment trauma that has made it difficult for you to trust others.
“[Fear of abandonment stems from] when someone you’re attached to, usually a parent during your early childhood, but not always, abandons you in some way,” says Brianna Sanders, a licensed professional counselor. “Whether they physically abandon you, emotionally neglect you, are present but harmful in some way that betrays your safety, or even if they die unexpectedly—these can all be forms of attachment trauma. From this traumatic event, your nervous system rewrites itself in a way that will allow you to minimize harm from future potential abandonment.”
These traumatic events can develop from losing a parent or partner through death or divorce, or suffering from a sort of betrayal from someone you trusted, resulting in a fear of being left.
How does fear of abandonment manifest?
Fear of abandonment can take on a variety of forms, and is usually linked to your attachment style in relationships. Sanders says this fear typically manifests itself in one of three ways: Anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and fearful attachment.
Anxious attachers “are preoccupied with ensuring that their attachment needs will be met,” explains Sanders. “This looks like constantly checking to make sure someone still likes you, easily noticing if someone’s communication patterns change or decrease, and feeling as though it is your responsibility to make sure that others do not leave at any cost. Without doing these things, you experience a lot of anxiety. The goal of anxious attachers is to maintain closeness, because closeness [equals] safety.”
Those with an avoidant attachment, “avoid becoming attached to others due to fear of abandonment,” says Sanders. “This looks like distancing yourself from people when you start to feel closer with them, avoiding vulnerability and keeping things surface-level, and needing a lot of space, especially in romantic relationships. The goal for avoidant attachers is to maintain independence because independence equals safety.”
People with a fearful attachment, “want to experience closeness and maintain their independence but are afraid of both,” Sanders says. “Usually fearful attachers’ caregivers were very unpredictable, so it is hard for them to feel safe in close relationships, but they also feel anxious without close relationships. Their actions may seem very confusing from the outside because they are unsure how to alleviate their fear of abandonment on the inside.”
According to Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios other signs of fear of abandonment include:
- tries to connect quickly with unknown people
- attention-seeking tendencies
- no long term healthy relationships
- nitpicky, blaming tendencies
- never takes the responsibility for wrong behavior
- feels hurt and distressed if left alone
- feels jealous if anyone else talks to their loved ones
- lack of trust in others
- searches for hidden meaning in the behavior of their loved ones
- lack of emotional control
- constantly doubts relationship status
- constant anxiety over potentially losing a partner, parent, friend, or a child
How to deal with a fear of abandonment
Because fear of abandonment usually stems from deep-seated insecurities and childhood trauma, Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios says it’s key to try to understand the roots of your trauma, preferably with the help of a therapist or counselor. Consider “why…you feel distressed, or what will happen if people leave you?” she says. “When you are able to identify the worst-case scenarios, you’ll be able to face your fears boldly.”
Sanders says it’s also important to recognize that the things that you’re doing once kept you safe. “Extend gratitude to your defense mechanisms, and give them permission to leave you as you begin to create safety within.”
Another exercise to consider: Connect with the part of yourself that is afraid. “Notice how you speak to yourself now,” Sanders says. “Notice how it ingrains your current patterns and fear of abandonment. Notice where it comes from and how old you were when you learned to fear people leaving or emotionally neglecting you.”
And finally, it’s crucial to create safety within. “Create an inner voice of the person you needed as a child to not abandon you,” Sanders says. “Speak to yourself as that person whenever you’re experiencing abandonment fears. Once you’re able to securely attach to yourself, [you can] heals the abandonment fear with consistency over time.”
The best way to do all of these things, according to Sanders, is through a regular meditation practice. “Just starting at five minutes a day and increasing to 15 minutes a day. If you’re a meditation beginner, there is no shame in using guided meditation. In fact I recommend it.”