Why and how fear of abandonment drives BPD

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For most of the so-called “normals”, the fear of abandonment doesn’t really play much of a part in their day to day lives but for people with BPD, this fear can be pathological and wreak havoc on every relationship they have. This fear is deeply rooted in our past and is carried into our future which contaminates almost every new relationship upon which we embark.

Anxiety fuels BPD

I believe that anxiety plays a huge part in BPD and that it is really what fuels it. We are anxious that no one will love us but more importantly that if we are lucky enough to find someone to love us that they will eventually abandon us. So, for a lot of people with BPD this kind of anxiety comes in two different flavors: the first is the genuine fear of abandonment and the second is our fear of being engulfed by the other person which entails becoming so enmeshed with the other person that they will eventually overpower and control us.

For many people with BPD fear of abandonment rears its ugly head as feelings of insecurity, feelings of emptiness, having an unstable sense of who we are, extremely volatile mood fluctuations and highly conflictual interpersonal relationships. Sometimes people exhibit this fear by becoming overly clingy or just shutting down and feeling numb and retreating from their relationship entirely.

Neuroscience has recently discovered that children’s brains encode based on their early attachments to their parents. Most of us would say that’s really much of a surprise but the scientific evidence lagged behind the anecdotal evidence.Their brains become programmed based on these relationships and those early attachments form the basis for how the child/adolescent/young person will interact with others for the rest of their life. So, this means that when you are a baby, if you have a healthy, nurturing attachment to your parents that your future interpersonal relationships will mostly likely be healthy and nurturing. This person will most likely experience the world as a friendly, welcoming place to be. These early relationships determine how much resiliency a person will develop. But if the flip side is experienced, the child will feel unsafe and live in a constant state of uncertainty.

So, what does the concept of object constancy have to do with all this?

Object constancy is a person’s ability to trust that just because something disappears from view for a short time that it will come back. Children learn this by playing “peek-a-boo” with their parents and by experiencing their parents going away and coming back. As adults, object constancy is the ability to maintain a connection to another person even when they are not present. People who have BPD have enormous difficulty with this concept. This concept arises from something called the concept of Object Permanence which is the ability to understand that an object continues to exist even though it can not be seen. Children learn this at about the age of 2 or 3. They learn it from their experiences of having their parent go away and return with predictability and regularity.

So, to further understand it, we have to realize that object constancy is developed through the process of being exposed to our parents as a loving individual who is separate from us who is capable of “walking away” but who also returns.

When we grow into adulthood, having object constancy helps us trust that our bonds with the people in our lives remain intact even when they are not physically present in our immediate sphere. When you have a good sense of object constancy you are able to understand that just because a person does not return your emails right away or respond to your text messages right away that they have not “left” you For the person with BPD this lack of object constancy is what drives us. It is what turns us around and around in circles and makes us sabotage one relationship after another.

How do you heal from this?

Learning how to deal with ambiguity is a big step in healing from this. This is why DBT plays such an important role in the recovery for people with BPD. DBT teaches us how to see the grey that exists in the world. Most of us with BPD see the world purely in black and white terms all the time even though we know the world is full of grey. Learning object constancy allows us to be able to contain paradoxes in our mind -- the concept that another person is not all  good or all bad, that relationships have their ups and downs.

For me, my fear of abandonment stems from having been abandoned as a baby. My therapist pointed to that event as the primary trauma which shaped me into who I became. It victimized me over and over again and brought me to my knees every single time. But through DBT, I have learned how to deal with the feelings which threaten to overwhelm me when they surface. They always seem to come out of nowhere but I now know and understand where they come from and I am prepared to deal with them so they don’t disrupt my life as badly when they arise.