Humans have emotions, and emotions are real.
One way to understand our emotions is to view them as answers to one of two questions: Am I safe? and Do I belong? When we experience loss or abandonment (like divorce, neglect, job loss, infidelity), it’s easy to feel unsafe, unloved, or like we don’t fit in. There may not be an official medical label to put on abandonment issues, but the reality is that millions of people battle with these feelings every day. If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to create meaningful relationships, it’s probably the result of a wound you suffered in the past—but you don’t have to feel paralyzed by shame because of it. Let’s take a closer look at what abandonment issues are and how to overcome them.
What are abandonment issues?
Abandonment issues make it hard to trust people, form life-giving relationships, and develop intimacy with people. At the heart of abandonment issues is a persistent and debilitating anxiety that you’ll be left alone. You’re afraid that the people you care about will just up and leave.
The way we cope with fear of abandonment looks different for each person. One approach is to push people away and maintain fierce independence. This is about retaining control where you can. You wall yourself off and try to control everything in your ecosystem so no one can hurt you. Signs of this type of coping include mistrust, fear of intimacy, a need to feel in control, unhealthy independence, difficulty forming deep relationships, conflicting feelings about relationships and intimacy.
Another approach might be to cling to the relationships in your life so desperately that separation isn’t possible. You do everything in your power to keep people close so you don’t ever feel the pain of being abandoned again. Those relationships are characterized by intense jealousy, peacekeeping, people-pleasing, idealizing and worshipping others, toxic relationships, separation anxiety, pathological need for affirmation, codependency (an unhealthy dependence on a partner), and constantly needing reassurance in relationships
Whether you push people away or hold them too tightly, the problem is that these coping strategies don’t allow you to develop autonomy and connect with others. To truly be well, we must embrace relationships based on trust — not fear and manipulation.
What causes fear of abandonment?
Fear of abandonment often stems from a traumatic event. Sometimes those triggering events happen in childhood, and sometimes they happen to us as adults. The main thing here is that no matter when the event was, trauma is the physical reaction your body has to something it now perceives as a threat.
Keep in mind that there are two main types of abandonment trauma. Acute trauma includes big and memorable events — such as a death, a child being left by a parent, divorce (your parents’ or your own), abuse or infidelity. The other type is cumulative trauma, which adds up little by little over time — like a string of hurtful breakups, parents who were present physically but absent emotionally, or even caregivers who didn’t pay attention to your basic needs.
Whether it’s acute or cumulative, trauma plants the fear of abandonment deep in our hearts, and we must go on a search to uproot it. It’s a lifelong process beginning with these simple steps:
Examine your story
Look back over your life and ask yourself where your fear of abandonment comes from. What events set it into motion? Was it when your mom walked out on you? Or when your friend stabbed you in the back? Did your spouse leave you?
As we move through our lives, we all experience trauma and hurt in a variety of ways. I think about it like carrying bricks in a backpack. Did your dad fail to show up for your games again and again? That’s a brick. Did your fiancé call off the wedding at the last minute? That’s another brick. Spend some time looking over your life and pulling out the metaphorical bricks in your backpack that have led you to believe you weren’t worth being with.
Challenge your stories
Now that you have all the bricks out on the table, you have a choice to make: Do you want to keep carrying them?
If we’re not careful, we allow our trauma to become part of our identity. For example, let’s say your parents went through a painful divorce when you were young. During the divorce, you probably started to believe your parents’ divorce was somehow your fault. And deep-seated lies began to form as you told yourself a story to make sense of it all: It’s my fault. If only I had been a better kid. Or If I can’t trust my parents, how can I trust anyone?
You have a choice to make: Will you keep believing the story you’re telling yourself — that you’re not worthy of love? Or will you choose to write a new story?
Commit to telling new stories
Once you have a grasp on the stories and trauma that are forming the narrative in your head, you can decide how you want to move forward. Yes, you’ve been hurt and rejected and walked out on. What now?
You get to choose. You get to decide to lean on people who accept you and love you — people who are committed to sticking around for the long haul. It’s time to replace the old stories with the truth.
Work with a professional
The first three steps seem simple, but they are difficult. As you work through stories from your past, I encourage you to find a therapist who can help you navigate and make sense of it all. Therapy is a gift. It’s a valuable way to heal, learn new skills, and replace old stories with new ones.
All relationships begin with risk. When you sign up to love someone for life — or even to just be friends — you’re putting yourself in a vulnerable position. They might leave. They might hurt you.
But then again, they might not. Yes, you might get hurt by choosing to be vulnerable and close to others. But loneliness is far more dangerous. You were made for connection and community. And part of the deal is that you sign up for risk.
Serve and show up for others
At the end of the day, there are only two things on planet Earth you can control: your thoughts and your actions. If you want to enjoy thriving, stable relationships, you must commit to being the kind of person who cultivates those relationships. Don’t run for the hills when things get scary. Don’t cling to and suffocate your partner, friends or family.
Treat others the way you want to be treated. Show up for them. Learn to serve them out of love, not fear or obligation.
Hear me on this: Emotions are real, but so is hope — and hope is always within reach. These steps are actual choices you can make today to change your future reality. And remember, saying no to your fear of abandonment means saying yes to the lasting, meaningful connections that you need.
Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with PhDs in Counselor Education and Supervision and Higher Education Administration from Texas Tech University. Prior to joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, Follow John on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube or online at www.ramseysolutions.com/john-delony.