Do you feel like you have to be perfect or you will be rejected? Do you tolerate criticism or other emotional abuse to avoid being alone? Do you hide your true self because you feel that you will be found not good enough? Do you panic when you don’t receive an immediate response to a text, email, or voicemail? Do you become clingy or demanding when you feel someone pulling away? Or do you leave before you can be left? Do you try to avoid your pro- found fear of abandonment by focusing on work or numbing out with food, alcohol, or drugs? Do others’ explained or unexplained absences send you into a tailspin? Do you stay in unhealthy relationships because it’s better than being alone? Or do you avoid relationships because you fear the ultimate outcome—you will be left?
Now, let’s look at the five major fears and associated behaviors that may be sabotaging your relationships.
People who love me will leave me or die. No one has ever been there for me. The people I’ve been closest to are unpredictable. In the end I will be alone.
Abandonment behavioral reactions:
- You may become clingy.
- You may start arguments consciously or unconsciously to test the relationship (this can turn into a self- fulfilling prophecy—you push others away so often that they do leave you).
- You get involved with people who are unavailable (e.g., they live in a different location, they are in another relationship, you have incompatible schedules, etc.).
- You avoid relationships so you can’t be abandoned.
I always get hurt by the people close to me. People will take advantage of me if I don’t protect myself. People I trusted have verbally, physically, or sexually abused me.
Mistrust and abuse behavioral reactions:
- You are hyper vigilant—constantly on guard for any sign of betrayal or abuse.
- When things are going well or you are on the receiving end of a kind gesture, you suspect an ulterior motive.
- You find it difficult if not impossible to be vulnerable.
- You are guarded.
- You are accommodating and compliant as a way to prevent the other person from getting angry.
- You may lash out at others as a way to protect yourself from the abuse you have come to expect.
- You may avoid getting close to others because you fear they will hurt you.
- You don’t share your vulnerabilities with others because you fear they will use it against you.
- You allow others to mistreat you because you feel you deserve it.
- You avoid relationships because you can’t trust anyone.
3. Emotional Deprivation:
I feel lonely. I don’t get the love that I need. I don’t have anyone in my life who really cares about me or meets my emotional needs. I don’t feel emotionally connected to anyone.
Emotional deprivation behavioral reactions:
- You become angry and demanding when you don’t get what you need.
- You avoid relationships because you feel like you will never get what you need.
- You are drawn to people who don’t express their emotions.
- You don’t share your vulnerabilities with others, anticipating that you will be disappointed by their response (e.g., lack of validation or interest).
- You withdraw because you aren’t getting what you need.
- You resent others because you aren’t getting the love and understanding that you need.
If people really knew me they would reject me. I am unworthy of love. I feel shame about my faults. I present a false self because if people saw the real me they wouldn’t like me.
Defectiveness behavioral reactions:
- You are drawn to people who are critical of you.
- You criticize others.
- You hide your true self.
- You demand reassurance.
- You have difficulty hearing criticism.
- You criticize yourself in front of others.
- You compare yourself unfavorably to others.
Most of my peers are more successful than I am. I am not as smart as other people in my life. I feel ashamed that I don’t measure up to others. I don’t possess any special talents.
Failure behavioral reactions:
- You avoid discussions or situations where comparisons to others would be made.
- You allow others to criticize you or minimize your accomplishments.
- You minimize your talents or potential.
- You hide your true self for fear of being found a failure.
- You avoid relationships.
- You judge and criticize others.
- You overachieve to avoid criticism of others.
The first step toward change is identifying and bringing increased awareness to your fears and their associated thoughts and behaviors. Stop yourself and bring yourself to the present moment. Recognize that your fears and the thoughts and feelings that get triggered are transporting you back to a past experience that has you viewing the present through a distorted lens. Don’t react immediately. Allow yourself time to get control over your thoughts and feelings. Once that emotional storm has passed, and you can recognize that this is a present-day situation that has nothing to do with your past, then you can respond in a way that is helpful — not harmful — to your current relationship.
Michelle Skeen, PsyD is a therapist and the author of LOVE ME, DON’T LEAVE ME: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment & Building Lasting, Loving Relationships (New Harbinger, 2014). For more information, go to www.lovemedontleaveme.com.