Overcoming fears of abandonment
Tools for coping with the end of a relationship
In the background of some of my earliest childhood memories, there’s an overriding feeling that nags at me: I’m different. Unlike the neighbour boy or the kids I meet in daycare, I don’t have a Dad. The thought weighs on my young mind, but I feel secure enough in my mother’s love that I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything.
When I’m about three years old, that all changes. My Mom tells me there’s going to be a wedding where I’ll get to wear a pretty dress. By the time the wedding ends, I’ll have a Dad.
I stare at my bedroom fan go around and around the night before the wedding. I can’t fall asleep. I’m too preoccupied wondering what kind of Dad I’ll have. Will he be tall and trim? Will he have shiny black shoes and a matching briefcase he’ll take to work on weekday mornings? Will he be kind and understanding like the anthropomorphic fathers in my cartoons? I feel like I’m preparing to meet a unicorn.
When I enter the church the next day in my floral dress and silver shoes, clutching my grandmother’s hand, I see a familiar face at the altar. It’s that fat grubby guy who has been hanging around our townhome for the past few months. This guy is going to be my Dad?
Though I try to accept my new circumstances, I’m stubborn in my determination that this gruff man-child isn’t good enough for my gorgeous mother. My suspicions are realized during my first trip to the Bad Girls’ School.
At four, I’m a wilful child who doesn’t appreciate that the 29-year-old man responsible for my full-time care while my mother works has never parented before (my younger brother arrived just months after the wedding), is grappling with substance-use disorder, and has an incredibly short fuse.
I’m in trouble for picking my nose. My Dad, this strong terrifying stranger who has invaded my home and stolen my mother’s attention, yanks me into his big black truck after chasing me through the house. I’m shaking, crying, and petrified about what comes next. My Mom has spanked me and given me timeouts before, but this is a level of punishment I’m not prepared for.
“You wouldn’t listen,” he snarls and shifts the truck into gear. “Now you’re going to the Bad Girls’ School.”
I sob in the passenger seat. We drive through identical suburban neighbourhoods. He tells me the Bad Girls’ School is a place where rotten girls go to live. They aren’t allowed to see their families, they’re hit with belts and sticks, and only eat gruel. We pull up to a desolate school and my stepdad shifts into park.
In reality, it’s just a local elementary school emptied out for the afternoon. But, in that moment, I truly believe this is the Bad Girls’ School.
“Get out,” he says.
I scream and beg to be allowed to stay in the pick-up. I’ll be a good girl. I’ll do whatever he tells me from now on. I’ll never disobey him again. This time, my pleas keep me safely inside the vehicle. On subsequent trips (I never manage to live up to my desperate promises), I won’t be so lucky. I’ll watch him drive away. He always comes back, but those moments of the deepest loneliness I’ve ever felt seem to stretch on for an eternity.
Eventually, I outgrow the trips to the Bad Girls’ School and my Dad’s abuse takes new and frightening forms. I track down my biological father at 15 and email him about what I’ve been living through, which leads to a confrontation with my mother. I give her an ultimatum: the man she married or me. I leave home forever.
Needless to say, I come by my fear of abandonment pretty honestly. Some of the lowest, darkest moments of my life happen when an important relationship ends, even if I’ve initiated the ending. The emotions I experience after the figurative loss of a friend or loved one are so intense, they’re physically painful.
No relationship lasts forever though. Learning to navigate these endings is crucial to self-esteem, healthy functioning, and overall wellness. In this edition of the newsletter, I’ll share coping strategies and therapeutic techniques I’ve used to alleviate my fear of abandonment, which is triggered when relationships end.
Managing Crisis Reactions
When my first long-term relationship ended, the loss was so terrifying and annihilating that I became a danger to myself and ended up in an inpatient psychiatric care unit. Now, I use dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) skills to cope with crisis reactions. DBT was developed by Marsha Linehan to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD). Since a fear of abandonment is a symptom of the illness, I believe DBT skills can be helpful to anyone who has trouble coping with the end of a relationship.
I use distress tolerance skills when I’m a risk to myself. These skills help me tolerate painful events, urges, and sensations when I can’t make things better right away. In previous editions of the newsletter, I’ve outlined how the TIPP skill, Wise Mind ACCEPTS, and Self Soothing can help head off crisis reactions.
As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time longing for my biological father to return. It was a hope rooted in an absurd fantasy—we had never met and he signed away his rights to me while I was in utero—but I used to sit up at night in my darkened bedroom, watch each car pass, and pray one would slow down. That car would be my real father’s. It would stop, the door would swing open, and I’d climb out my window onto the garage roof like I’d always planned. I’d leap into his open arms and he’d take me away from my pain. Though the fantasy never materialized, this hope got me through my hardest times.
Unfortunately, longing or pining once a relationship ends is still a dynamic I slip into naturally. It served me so well when I was a child, but now pining feels a lot more like fighting reality. To head this off, I track my urges using a model I learned through a DBT skills group.
Above is an example of a DBT diary card, which can be used to track any impulsive urge or harmful coping mechanism—the urge to use, the urge to shop, the urge to self-harm, or, in this case, the urge to fight reality. The user is meant to track their urges to act on their impulses (0= no urge, where 5= the strongest urge), how many times they engaged in the behaviour, and whether they used coping skills to help with their urges.
Personally, I don’t find this the most accessible, practical, or user-friendly format to track urges. It’s simply not always convenient to whip out a diary card. I do find the practice of noticing my urges, recognizing their strength, and tracking how often I indulge in them to be helpful because it builds a mindfulness around unhealthy coping mechanisms so deeply ingrained that they can seem subconscious.
I typically keep track of my urges to fight reality in the Notes section of my phone, and don’t rank them with numbers but words. An example of acting on an urge that fights the reality of a relationship ending might be reaching out to the person or checking their social media (much more likely in my case—when I made contact with my biological father as a teenager, I found him through a Google search). I note when I’ve acted on an urge, and also write down the coping skills that have been helpful. Over time, I find I act on my urges less and less. My interpretation of this skill won’t necessarily work for everyone, so I encourage others to adapt this skill (or any others I write about) in a way that’s accessible to them.
Practicing Radical Acceptance
Regular readers might recall me bitching about how difficult a skill radical acceptance is to practice; however, it’s very effective for coming to terms with the end of an important relationship. Unlike crisis skills, reality acceptance skills, like radical acceptance, are helpful for living a life that isn’t necessarily the one you want. I’ve summarized how to use radical acceptance to reduce emotional vulnerability in an earlier edition of the newsletter, and I apply those same steps to situations where I need to challenge deeply-held assumptions or ground my perspective.
I practice radical acceptance by writing out (again, in the Notes section of my phone) exactly what I’m trying to accept. When I find myself fighting to accept the end of a relationship, I can realign my skewed perspectives by re-reading my radical acceptance note. To radically accept with my body as well as my mind (I know, it’s a little “woo-woo,”) I practice repeating mantras I’ve crafted through the skill while moving through yin yoga classes. Some examples of mantras I use include:
“You deserve people who stick by you.”
“You’re a whole person with many positive strengths and qualities. When a person leaves, it does not reflect poorly on you or make you a lesser person.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You can’t control what others do. You can only control how you react.”
Checking the Facts
Checking the facts is another reality acceptance skill that helps with emotional regulation and changing emotional responses. The goal of this skill is to determine if an emotional reaction fits the facts of a situation, and how to cope accordingly. I’ve outlined how to practice checking the facts in the edition of the newsletter about reducing emotional vulnerability.
I find this DBT skill to be helpful in coping with the end of recent relationships and shedding tightly-held fears around childhood abandonment. When I take the time to challenge notions, like if I had somehow behaved better or differently the person I cared for might have stuck by me, I often realize the neglect and abandonment I experienced had very little to do with my behaviour. Likely, it had a lot more to do with the individual’s personal struggles and there wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it. By changing my beliefs and assumptions to more accurately reflect the facts of a situation, I can let go of catastrophic thinking patterns.
To determine if my emotion (in this case, sadness) fits the facts, I remind myself that being sad about losing someone permanently is justified; however, I occasionally find that the intensity of the sadness doesn’t align with the situation or fails to serve me in the present. If my emotions don’t fit the facts, I problem solve. I can reel in the intensity of the sadness I’m experiencing by asking for help from people I trust, accumulating positive experiences, and by building mastery through doing things that make me feel competent and self-confident. When my emotions fit the facts, I use opposite action. I stop avoiding sadness and grieve, I increase the number of pleasant events in my life, focus on staying in the moment, and participate in activities that make me feel competent.
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
The DBT skills I mentioned are very useful for coping with feelings and urges that arise due to the end of a relationship; however, they don’t always address the root causes of my fears of abandonment. To help myself relieve and unburden the internal suffering that comes from my experiences, I use IFS.
Regular readers will recall that IFS is an integrative approach to therapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s to treat trauma. I’ve gone in-depth on IFS before, but, as a refresher, fundamental to IFS is the understanding that our personality as a whole is made up of sub-personalities or “parts.” As we go through life acquiring trauma and attachment injuries, our parts can shift from valuable states into roles that, though necessary to survive our experiences, can be destructive to us in the long-term when these “parts” become frozen in survival mode. These “parts” tend to take the following forms:
Exiles: Our most powerful of parts, exiles are young, vulnerable parts we learned to bury a long time ago because our vulnerability or vitality bothered our caretakers or peers (for a multitude of reasons). Exiles are the parts of us that tend to carry extreme beliefs, hold fears of being worthless or unlovable, and influence our ability to be intimate. Exiles also have the power to pull us into their despair, until we become their pain.
Managers: Managers are our preemptive protectors. They govern the way we interact with the world around us to try to prevent the exiles from flooding our awareness with painful and traumatic feelings.
Firefighters: These parts rush in to protect us when our exiles try to break through. They do so by distracting us with impulsive behaviours such as drug use, promiscuity, overeating, or violence.
The goal of IFS is to help these parts transform through “unburdening” or a renegotiation of extreme beliefs that came into a person’s system as a result of trauma. When a part is unburdened, it transforms back into its naturally valuable state.
To address my fears of abandonment, I had my therapist guide me through an IFS session when that part was triggered. We found the exile responsible for carrying the burden of my childhood neglect and abandonment in the dark and desolate hallways of the Bad Girls’ School. Initially, my therapist just had me listen to the exile. The part, which took the form of a child, cried to me about her loneliness and fear. Once she had told me everything she needed to, my therapist had me bring my exile up-to-speed on my current age. As an adult, I was now in a position to care for that exile in ways the adults I was raised by never could. After my exile had calmed down, my therapist encouraged me to move my exile from the Bad Girls’ School and bring her to a safer place. I brought her to a plush bedroom filled with her favourite stuffed animals, cartoons, and snacks. I didn’t leave the IFS session until I was sure my exile felt safe and comfortable, and I continue to periodically check on that part so she doesn’t feel alone.
Coping with losing a loved one and fears of abandonment isn’t ever going to be straightforward, but these techniques have helped me improve my self-esteem, overcome chronic fears, and improved my overall quality of life.
This issue: Victor of Aveyron
Child abandonment, for a variety of motives, has been around for as long as humans have existed, but the first recorded psychological treatment of an abandoned child didn’t happen until the early 1800s. In the late 1700s, people in the Tarn district of France were accustomed to spotting an abandoned boy roaming the area. According to the Forbidden Experiment by Roger Shattuck, “during the day, [the boy] approached farms…and waited quietly and without fear to be given something to eat. The pity he aroused and the hospitable customs of the inhabitants of these mountains produced a kindly welcome… Then he went away and hid in the most isolated of spots.”
The boy was captured around 1799, and brought to France by the Minister of the Interior, where he was held in an orphanage. The boy couldn’t speak, kept trying to escape, and showed little interest in activities besides eating and sleeping. A committee of experts declared the boy, “an incurable idiot fit only for the asylum of an institution.” One of the students of these experts, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, challenged the diagnosis and offered to take care of the boy, who would come to be called Victor.
For the next six years, Itard attempted to train, socialize, and educate Victor. After six months, in a report to the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme, Itard documented a vast improvement in Victor’s behaviour and intelligence. Five years later; however, Victor’s progress had slowed. He had only managed to learn a few words (“lait,” “oh, Dieu,” and “lli,”) through Itard’s experiments, which included depriving Victor of water in an attempt to teach him the word, “eau.” Itard gave up his efforts to train the boy. Twenty years later, Victor died in obscurity, a charge of the state. Itard would go on to make a name for himself working with deaf and mentally and physically handicapped children.
Love Me, Don’t Leave Me: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment and Building Lasting and Loving Relationships
By: Michelle Skeen
Love Me, Don’t Leave Me approaches overcoming fears of abandonment through mindfulness, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), DBT, and communication skills. The book is accessible and incorporates exercises that are straightforward and engaging. Readers will learn how to identify and adapt reactions related to their core beliefs, navigate present relationships without relying on maladapted behaviours, and move forward in a way that aligns with their values.
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