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Borderline Personality Disorder and Projected Abandonment

Managing fears without disrupting relationships.

Key points

  • Individuals with symptoms of BPD often experience significant fear of abandonment in intimate relationships.
  • Efforts to cope with fear of abandonment through manipulation or lashing out damages relationships.
  • Some or all of the fear of abandonment experienced by individuals with symptoms of BPD is projected by them.
  • The acknowledgement of projected abandonment and the ability to differentiate it from real abandonment can be useful tools.
Image by Myléne from Pixabay
How to identify projected abandonment.
Source: Image by Myléne from Pixabay

A pronounced fear of abandonment is very often found in individuals who suffer from symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD). This frequently results in frantic efforts to avoid abandonment—which may include manipulative behaviors or lashing out, which damages relationships and paradoxically increases the chance of abandonment.

Why? It pushes their loved ones away. Loved ones often feel wrongly accused of abandoning them and become defensive. The tendency for individuals with symptoms of BPD to project their feelings onto others may account for some or all of their experience with abandonment. Understanding how to identify projected abandonment from actual abandonment offers tools to improve relationships.

Projected Abandonment

In intimate relationships, individuals with symptoms of BPD often project their feelings onto the target of their affection. The projection of the fear of abandonment onto the loved one causes them to suspect their loved one of planning to abandon them at any time.

This causes the BPD symptom sufferer to scrutinize every interaction looking for evidence that abandonment is imminent. They often react by either trying to manipulate the loved one to pay more attention to them or by lashing out in anger at the anticipated rejection. This often results in the loved one feeling attacked and getting defensive, which makes the BPD symptom sufferer more fearful of abandonment.

In the following dialogue Dee Dee, who has symptoms of BPD, tries to manipulate her father, to reassure her that he will not abandon her.

Dee Dee: Dad, I need to call you every night before I go to sleep.

Dad: Why do you need to do that?

Dee Dee: Oh! So it’s a problem for you?

Dad: I didn’t say that. I was just wondering why you're asking for this now.

Dee Dee: Forget it. You don’t want to do it.

Dad: I'm just trying to understand what you want me to do.

Dee Dee: I get scared about being alone—especially at night.

Dad: And it makes you feel better to talk to me?

Dee Dee: Yes. Anyone. I'm just afraid to be alone.

Dad: I can’t promise to be available every night, but I'll take the call whenever I can.

Dee Dee: Forget it! I need someone who actually cares about me. Guess I'll have to look elsewhere.

Dad: That’s not a nice thing to say.

Dee Dee: You deserve it! You're the worst father ever.

At this point, Dad hung up the phone to stop her from lashing out. Dee Dee felt that her father hanging up was a confirmation of her fear that he would abandon her like everyone else.

She projected her fear of abandonment onto her father, which caused her to try to manipulate him to speak to her every night. When he would not agree to be available every night, she lashed out at him. This caused him to disconnect from her, which became a real abandonment. A fait accompli.

The ability to distinguish between projected abandonment and real abandonment offers tools both to Dee Dee and her father.

Tools for the Person with BPD

The emotional dysregulation associated with BPD causes sufferers to experience emotions very strongly, making them more difficult to regulate. As part of the difficulty with dysregulation, their emotions become disconnected from the source and attached to other people. This is what causes projection.

For individuals with symptoms of BPD, the feelings that cause them to fear abandonment or fear being alone are sometimes unrelated to their relationships with others. These feelings can come from within but are projected onto others, causing conflict and confusion.

Tool 1: Differentiate projected abandonment from real abandonment.

Dee Dee can learn to examine feelings of abandonment for possible projection before acting on these feelings. In the above example, she can review the exchange with her father and recognize that he is trying to offer some of what she needs, rather than rejecting her altogether.

Tool 2: Negotiate needs instead of making demands on others.

Once Dee Dee can recognize that her fear of abandonment was not from her father’s behavior, but rather from her own insecurity, then she can take advantage of Dad’s offer of partial gratification. She can find someone else to call on nights when Dad is unable to take her call. Or she can learn to comfort herself when feeling afraid and become more tolerant of those feelings knowing that they are transient.

Tools for Loved Ones

Tool 1: Don’t take it personally.

To use this tool, Dad will also have to learn how to differentiate projected from real abandonment. One way he can do this is to review his transactions with her to see if he inadvertently acted in a way that might be taken as abandonment. Dad can also see if Dee Dee has similar issues with abandonment with others, such as her brother or her boyfriend.

Tool 2: Return the projection.

Once Dad has identified projected abandonment, he can return the projection by validating her feeling. It might sound like this:

Dad: Dee Dee, I understand that you're afraid to be alone and I will try to be available whenever I can. I love you and I want to help you.

The best outcomes occur when individuals with symptoms of BPD and their loved ones both work towards defeating the destructive force of the illness and band together in healing and growth.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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