- Individuals suffering from chronic fear of abandonment often demand constant access to loved ones.
- Often these individuals show anger, disappointment, and disapproval rather than gratitude when others show up.
- Understanding idealization and devaluation patterns will facilitate strategizing healthier interactions.
A defining symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is persistent frantic efforts to avoid abandonment (APA, 2013). Loved ones often respond to this need to not be alone by offering reassurance and access whenever possible. In many instances, it becomes harder to offer reassurance and access because rather than getting gratitude and affection, they get criticism and sometimes lashing out. Understanding this pattern will allow you to anticipate and mitigate hurtful responses with a preemptive strategy.
Individuals with symptoms of BPD often experience a chronic state of emptiness that can be painful and unrelenting. These feelings are associated with an instability of sense of self that most of these individuals experience. Their tendency to see themselves and others in black-and-white terms causes idealization and devaluation of the self and others. When things are going their way, which they largely define as others complying with their wishes, they see themselves and others in idealized terms as special or better than others. When they are disappointed with themselves or others—which they always are eventually because idealized standards are impossible for humans to sustain—they quickly shift to a devalued view of self and others. The best instantly becomes the worst, which causes instability in sense of self, mood, and relationships.
The huge disparity between the idealized view of the self and the devalued view of the self leaves a large crevasse that is experienced as chronic emptiness. They may attempt to cope with feeling empty by using frantic means to keep others around them in order to validate their desirability and support their idealized self-image.
Attempts to offer reassurance and access to those suffering from fear of abandonment set up idealized expectations of love and availability that are initially satisfying but impossible to sustain due to the unrealistic standard. Once they are disappointed by your efforts to reassure them, they devalue you and then treat you accordingly. This then pushes you away, which revives their fear of abandonment and restarts the cycle, which ultimately perpetuates the instability. This is illustrated in the following telephone dialogue between Holly, a 21-year-old college student living in a dormitory, and her father*.
Holly: Dad, I need to see you right now.
Dad: What’s going on?
Holly: My roommate is sleeping at her boyfriend’s fraternity, and I am having bad thoughts.
Dad: What do you mean by bad thoughts?
Holly: I am afraid to be alone.
Dad: What do you mean by bad thoughts?
Holly: I am panicky. I don’t feel safe.
Dad: Why don’t you call security?
Holly: I don’t feel safe with myself. I feel like hurting myself.
Dad: I am in a very important meeting.
Holly: I understand. Your work is more important than me.
Dad: That’s not true.
Holly: You won’t miss me when I am gone.
Dad: Okay. I will leave the meeting and be there in two hours.
When Dad arrived at his daughter’s dorm, he buzzed her to let him in, but there was no response. He buzzed her several times, but she did not answer. He called her cell phone, also with no answer.
He became extremely worried, as she had threatened to hurt herself, so he asked campus security to make a safety visit. They came and entered the dorm and found her asleep. They woke her to determine that she was alright, and then Dad had the following conversation with her.
Dad: Holly, I am worried about you.
Holly: If you really cared, you would have put me before your work.
Dad: I did do that.
Holly: You only came because I threatened to kill myself.
Dad: I had to cancel an important meeting.
Holly: Why don’t you just go back to your meetings and forget about me?
Dad: I am here.
Holly: Too little, too late. I am tired, and I need to sleep now.
Dad returned home only to get another call two days later from Holly, again claiming that she did not feel safe with herself. Dad learned from recent experience that when Holly claims to be feeling “not safe with herself,” what she is looking for is reassurance that Dad would be there rather than for him to actually be there. It is a test of her access to him and his willingness to drop other activities when she calls for him to do so. Knowing this, he attempted to separate her need to know that he would respond to urgent calls for help from being with him socially. This resulted in the following conversation:
Holly: Dad, I need to see you now. I am afraid of hurting myself.
Dad: It will take me at least 2 hours to get to you. I will call campus security right now.
Holly: You mean you are not coming out?
Dad: Your sister and I are going to visit with you this weekend.
Holly: I can’t count on you in an emergency.
Dad: If this is an emergency, I will call the ambulance instead of security.
Holly: I need you!
Dad: I am here and responding to you expediently. You need help right now.
Holly: Forget it. I don’t know why I bothered calling you.
Dad: Is this an emergency, or can you wait until Saturday to see me?
Understanding Holly’s fear of being alone and fear of abandonment and the resultant tendency to idealize her father as a rescuer, Dad can anticipate that she will test him until he fails and then devalue him. He will not take this personally. Instead, he will realize that Holly needs to learn to comfort and reassure herself rather than seeking out others for this function. He sets a boundary where he will mobilize appropriate emergency services if Holly is truly having an emergency. If not, waiting until Saturday to see him gives her the opportunity to develop independent ways of comforting herself.
* Examples are constructed from aspects of different transactions involving different individuals.
American Psychiatric Association (APA). 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.