Abandonment: A Hardwired Fear

I have been slowly reading a book called “When the Past is Always Present: Emotional Traumatization, Causes, and Cures” by Ronald A. Ruden. My social worker and I have been trying to understand where my emotional traumas have come from so I thought it would be important for me to learn more about emotional trauma. I am on the part of the book that is explaining the importance of emotions and what causes emotions. This particular little section is taking about fear and how many fear responses are hardwired. The one fear that is mentioned in the book that stood out to me is abandonment. I do not think I realized that fearing abandonment is something that could be hardwired into the majority of us.

Hardwired, in this case, means: genetically determined or compelled (Google Dictionary). So, we are genetically compelled to fear people leaving and us being alone. Ruden states in his book.

For mammals, there is also the fear of abandonment. That is because mammals are so helpless at birth. Without a mother there is no food or safety; there is only certain death. This is dramatically illustrated by northern mallard ducklings. which, when separated from their mother, will follow a crude duck model, a walking person, or even a cardboard box that is moved slowly away from them. Even as an adult, fear of expulsion from your herd alters behavior, as chances for survival outside of the herd are diminished. This powerful fear of abandonment has been used throughout the ages in humans as well. For example, the Catholic Church uses ex-communication and the Amish use shunning to control behavor. Fear of abandonment is one of our primal fears. – Ruden, pg 81-82

I began to think about Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and it’s first listed symptom “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” (borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com). I have always felt that since fear of abandonment is listed as a symptom then it must be a silly fear, it must not be common. It took reading the above passage for it to really sink into my brain that fear of abandonment is an everyday occurrence for the majority of people. Whether it be at work, school or home the majority of us do not want to lose things that can lead to a change in our perceived safety. You may stay late a work even though you do not want to because you do not want to run the risk of losing your job which could lead to financial troubles. You may hand in a plagiarized essay at school for fear of failing the class and not graduating on time with your peers. You may delay telling your children about why their other parent has moved out of the house because you are worried about their reaction and view of yourself.  When the fear of abandonment arises we are motivated to take action to cope with the fear. We are hardwired to do this (fight or flight). The majority of humans want to be accepted and want to feel safe.

So, what makes this fear of abandonment unique enough to BPD that it is listed a symptom? I can only guess the constant extreme lengths we’ll go to coupled with the other behaviours we exhibit and, I hope, the source that caused extreme reactions to abandonment to begin with. I can only speculate. It is my hope that through understanding how our brain and emotions work that we can accept emotional differences, see them as a part of human diversity and provide better support. We all want to be accepted and safe.


12 thoughts on “Abandonment: A Hardwired Fear

  1. I think the very last statement you made, “We all want to be accepted and safe” hits the mark to a proverbial T! As human beings, we have a social need in each of us, and I think it does little to assume we are “independent”, because we are not. Sure there are things that some of us are capable of doing “alone”, but it is simply a superficial thing…somewhere, somehow we are all connected in some way. So, there is an inherent comfort in knowing that fact, and when we think that is going to disappear, does it not stand to reason that it would scare us? I think the answer is obvious.
    The truth of the matter is that some of us need more reassurance than others.

    Great post and quite interesting for sure!

    • Ya! The whole idea of needing to always be independent is silly. Humans are born through a group activity (people can’t make themselves pregnant like some animals can do on their own) and need help to be raised. We need people! Some individuals do not like interactions with others and that’s fine.

      I work with children and I had a mother ask me a few days ago how she can get her child (who was maybe 1 years old) to play by herself. I explained that she was still young and that as her mother, she is her child’s protector and who she is comfortable with. By being with mom and feeling secure, that is how children become independent and learn that it is ok to step away and be alone or with friends. A secure attachment is needed to good independence. We need to know that we can go out into the world alone but come back to a safe place.

      Sorry, I got a little carried away 😛 I just really agree with what you said! Thanks!!!

  2. Another good article. I tried twice responding to your last message and it’s list being moderated. What do you mean by me moderating them? I tag and comment them all. What else is there to do?

  3. that is a painful thing to feel, abandonment. hard stuff. getting confidence has blossomed in me because i made the decision to not date until i feel complete. not that i feel closer to being complete, i no longer have that fear adn the desperation i used to. yes, i get scared, but now i talk about it to safe people. that has been the best thing for me.
    keep up the hard work; you are such wonderful person and you don’t deserve to feel like that! ❤

    • I heard recently that the only way we can let go of our pain is by being with compassionate people. It is only with compassionate people that we can feel safe enough to explore our pain. It is great to know that you have found these safe people 🙂

      Thanks for your comment Dee! (As always xoxoxo)

  4. Great topic and well presented. I know several people with BPD and from what I have experienced it is a very different manifestation of the abandonment issue we all have.
    I had a close friend who was quite likely to say things like “please don’t leave me”, “promise you won’t leave me”, “promise you will always take care of me”, etc. many times in any particular conversation. They almost seemed like throw away lines, but to her they were very serious. My wife also suffers with a degree of BPD and while not saying the same things, she gets really anxious if I am not with her, to the extent that if I decide to go to bed while she is watching a movie, she will turn the TV and come to bed, or if she wants to go to bed and I need to stay up to finish something, she will either stay up, pester me until I go to bed as well, or when I get to bed she will still be awake and a state of high anxiety.
    I think I could write a book of manifestations on this topic, but it is quite horrifying to listen to the pleading, begging, whimpering, of someone going through it… I am now very sensitive to it.
    Take care…

    • Abandonment is very difficult to deal with for those who are experiencing the abandonment and those who mighter be labeled as the “potential abandoners”. I have worked hard on this issue myself over the past few months as in the recent past my boyfriend going out with his friends led to very extreme anxiety would cause me to not be able to sleep, eat, cry a lot and in one case self-harm.

      What has helped is my boyfriend ensuring I have time with him before he goes out, providing me with enough time to get come to terms with the idea that he is going out, and making himself available for phone calls when he is out. I still say to him, “Don’t forget about me” when he leaves. I know why I do this though and I think those reasons need to be taken into account but not used as an excuse for the behaviour as it can become controlling, sometimes by accident.

      I can only imagine what it feels like to be on the other side of it like you are. I have been told that it feels horrible to have the person you love think that you’re always going to leave and it puts stress and limitations on what that person can do. I am glad you are sensitive to it and I hope you can also take care of yourself in those moments so you can still do what you need and want to do!

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

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