The fear of abandonment is real. It’s human nature, really. As social creatures, we are wired for connection – in fact, our very survival depends on it. It’s common to feel a little nervous when we perceive even a hint of rejection from someone we’re attracted to, but for some, that feeling goes from nervousness to downright panic. It’s as if our date acting aloof, or our partner being preoccupied, is a threat to our very existence. Even if we logically know it’s not the end of our world, our body and mind might respond as if it were all crashing down. In that very moment we feel an overwhelming sense of danger.
As a survival instinct, fear of abandonment is not something that will just go away, and we wouldn’t want to do away with it entirely – it’s a protective measure for us social animals. For some of us, the fear can be disruptive to our mental health, our well-being, and our relationships. Our very fear that prompts us to maintain connections with other humans can actually get in the way of establishing those connections.
Think back to some of your dating and relationship experiences. Do you notice a pattern of any of these behaviors?
- Unrealistic expectations
- Wanting too much too soon
- Placing emotional responsibility on your date/partner to make you feel secure
- Ignoring your own feelings of uncertainty and fear
- Pushing the other person away so they can’t reject you
- Asking for constant reassurance that they won’t leave you
- Settling for someone you don’t really want to be with because it feels secure
- Dating several different people so you don’t get too attached
These are just some patterns people experience when they’re dealing with an unresolved fear of abandonment; your behaviors and responses may look different. The good news is, we can change our response to our fear, and even reduce it to a healthy level that serves as a signal, instead of a disruption to our relationships.
The first step is to recognize and become aware of our thought patterns that precede, prolong, and reinforce the fear. One way to do this is to catch yourself immediately after the triggering event. In the brief moment between the trigger and our response, lies our primal fear. If we can catch ourselves in this state, before we pass judgement, attach meaning to, and assess our value in the current situation – we can begin to deconstruct our conditioned response to the threat, whether perceived or real.
The goal here is not to eliminate the fear, but rather to recognize it and become aware. Even a slight disruption in our automatic thought process can start to wiggle loose the pillars that sustain our fear. Try these tips next time you feel the fear starting to rise:
Look Inside For the Solution
Often, when we’re afraid of being abandoned, we look to our partner to make us feel better. If only our partner did or said something different, we would feel more secure. Chances are however, if you look back, you’ll recognize these patterns precede your current relationship, meaning that neither the problem, nor the solution, are attached to this relationship or this partner. If this sounds familiar, it might be worth a look inside to see where the intense fear is coming from and some possible solutions that you can introduce to feel more secure.
Try Sitting With the Fear
Instead of trying to get rid of it, or jumping in with coping mechanisms, try to sit with it and listen to what it’s trying to tell you. Let judgmental thoughts and value-based assessments come and go and, without attaching meaning to whatever comes up for you, just feel. You can ask the fear questions – How long has it been with you? What triggered it? What is the real fear (it’s not usually what comes up at first-pass)? What do you need in this moment to restore your sense of security? The key here is to practice mindfulness, and not avoid the fear. You can learn a lot about it if you just let it be present with you.
Eliminate or Reduce Expectations
Many of us have preconceived notions about how relationships should and do work. Our security relies on our relationship meeting our expectations, and, because expectations are rarely, if ever, consistently met, we may never feel secure. In the moment between trigger and response, ask yourself if your partner’s behavior is somehow violating your expectations. If the answer is yes, take a mental note (or write it down if you can) of the behavior, the expectation, and how you feel. The intention is not to solve it in the moment, but to become aware of your thinking pattern and take note so you can address it later.
Evaluate Your Sense of Self-esteem and the Messages You Tell Yourself
Maybe the fear was triggered by the behavior of another person, but how we make sense of the fear is up to us. For example, if your date seems aloof, how do you make sense of that? Do you automatically start to question whether you did something that made them lose interest? If your long-time partner seems distracted lately, do you start worrying that maybe they are planning an exit from the relationship? Do messages of, “I did something wrong,” or “I’m not good enough for this person,” or, “Nobody could really love me,” start to creep in? If so, it might be worthwhile to evaluate you sense of self-worth. Of course, nothing is guaranteed to last forever, but internalizing someone’s behavior and attaching meaning to their behavior that says somehow, you’re just not good enough, indicates possible low self-esteem. Often, low self-esteem and heightened fear of abandonment go hand in hand.
Try a Different Message
If you notice that your reflexive messages break you down, try messages that build you up. For example, if an aloof date or partner is triggering your fear, ask yourself if there could be other reasons, unrelated to you, that your date is behaving that way. You can also try to recall three nice things people have said to you recently, or the last time you were proud of yourself. When we struggle with negative messages it can be difficult to drum up some positivity that we believe, but pick a positive message that you think is at least plausibly true, and go with that. It’s a start, and it’s more helpful than negative messaging. Remember, even baby steps are huge when we are changing core beliefs about ourselves.
Using our fear to help us grow can feel daunting, but living with the fear is emotionally draining and keeps us from the very connection we so strongly desire. If we can meet the fear in the moment between event and reaction, we can listen to what it’s trying to tell us, and keep it from hijacking our response to the threat.
If you or a loved one are struggling with fear of abandonment, a relationship coach can help you reconnect with your innate self-worth and create space for authentic connection with others.