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Why Fear of Abandonment Is a Core Theme for Borderline Personality Disorder


“Frantic attempts to avoid abandonment.”

This trait from the DSM seems to sum up the popular view of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

The melange of emotions and drives motivating those living with BPD often leads to challenging and unpredictable behaviors which can cause consternation, confusion and impatience in those around them.

And on the inside, it doesn’t feel great either!

Whilst being alone can make people with BPD feel anxious, bored, lonely and empty, abandonment by those they love can bring into motion an almost concrete disintegration of the self.

It can end up feeling like you don’t exist.

That’s how intense it is.

Because these extremely strong feelings associated with abandonment were embedded in early infancy and childhood, they aren’t available to conscious awareness as an adult. They were just too intense for the infant’s developing self and so were (and are) split off from awareness. These distressing experiences in childhood left them feeling abandoned, and people with BPD have usually internalized a deep sense of shame through this process. The intense feeling-states associated with abandonment are re-experienced when they feel abandoned or where their hypervigilance tells them abandonment is likely.

It can feel like there’s no escape.

Because of these walled off parts of the self, people with BPD and other personality disorders don’t have enough of a sense of self to be able to tolerate themselves “as they are” without the stabilizing presence of an empathetic other. It’s as if they need another person to create, define and hold them. For the person with BPD, love, attention and commitment from those they care about helps to keep them centered and stable.

It’s not just a question of enjoyment and reward, but a desperate fight for their very survival.

Even in a seemingly committed partnership, people with BPD can double-think or imagine themselves into insecurity and a spiral of self-doubt. Their behavior can be puzzling to those around them, sometimes leading to misunderstandings, exasperation and in the worst cases, actual abandonment.

When we look at attachment styles (see my recent article on attachment and BPD), we find that people with BPD will normally have an insecure attachment style, often “anxious/ambivalent.” They expect to be abandoned, and their seemingly erratic behavior may bring on what they fear most.

Knowing the reason behind your (or your loved one’s) behavior helps to give you choices. If you are aware of your tendency to interpret events in terms of their “abandonment score,” then you might be able to step aside from catastrophizing and rumination and perhaps talk to yourself in a different way.

I understand how hard this is.

The feelings of panic and physical distress are very hard to live with. You want a resolution to save yourself. But it is almost impossible to think logically when these feelings overwhelm us. We are just stuck in them without a means to think “outside the box” and move on.

Becoming familiar with these feelings, getting to know and understand them through therapy, is the only way to really resolve the trauma.

Photo by Makenna Entrikin on Unsplash