One of the nine symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is “frantic attempts to avoid real or perceived abandonment.”
You only need five of the nine symptoms to be diagnosed with BPD. This means it is entirely possible that someone with BPD may not experience this particular symptom. However, it’s come to be known as the cornerstone of BPD. And for many people, including me, abandonment fears are at the core of their BPD and affect most of the other symptoms.
Note that it’s not enough to simply fear abandonment. If you have this trait of BPD, you will need to be actively doing things to avoid abandonment. “Frantic” things. What does that mean? Well, it can be different for different people. Two people with BPD may react in entirely opposite ways. One might keep everything to themselves, panicking that if they tell people how they’re feeling, people will leave them. Others might think they need to go around telling everyone how sick they are so people feel sorry for them and don’t leave them.
This latter one applies to me. I’m getting better now, but I went through a long phase of wanting to be ill so I could get people’s sympathy. I would tell people constantly how sick I was and worry them because I thought this was a way for them to stay with me.
Other people will make sure not to make friends with people and will isolate themselves so that there is no one to abandon them in the first place. Or they will be the one to leave. If I leave you first then you can never abandon me, right?
I mentioned that abandonment fears are often tied in with most of the other symptoms of BPD. Let’s examine the remaining eight:
1. Unstable relationships
I have unstable relationships with friends and sometimes with my wife because I am terrified they’ll abandon me. I lost my best friend as I was so worried she would leave me that I had to constantly tell her about my illnesses until it became too much for her and she left me.
2. Very changeable emotions
I can be having a good day; everything seems fine. And then my wife makes a comment that I haven’t put something in the dishwasher properly. Suddenly everything is terrible because she’s criticized me. What if this means she’s going off me and is going to leave me?
Similar to the above. I can get very angry if I think people don’t care about me and are going to leave me. Really, the anger is directed at myself, but I can sometimes project it on to other people, particularly my wife. I can be in the supermarket and embarrass my wife because I snap at her because she made a suggestion about something I have interpreted as her thinking I’m stupid. And surely if she thinks I’m stupid she might leave me?
4. Impulsive behavior
I don’t have the impulsive behavior many people with BPD display. But I can see how that can also tie in with abandonment. Someone might go and get drunk or take drugs because they are worried about being abandoned and this is the only way they know how to deal with those thoughts.
5. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts
Similar to the above. I can hurt myself because I’m thinking bad things about myself and if the bad things are true, it surely means people might leave me. Or I sometimes do it because I want the attention. I’m not proud of this, but at times I’ve felt like the only way to keep people around is to hurt myself and make them worry about me and therefore maybe they’ll stay with me.
6. Paranoid thoughts/disassociation
This one is kind of obvious. If a friend says she’s too busy to talk to me today, I’ll have paranoid thoughts that she might suddenly be mad at me and perhaps this means she will leave me. Maybe someone acts a bit distant. There could be many reasons, perhaps they’re having a bad day themselves. But I panic that the only reason must be that the person is sick of me and is going to leave me.
7. Feelings of emptiness
These can occur when I am in full-on self-hatred mode. And why do I hate myself? Because I think I’m a terrible person and that no one likes me and that everyone is going to leave me.
8. Identity issues
This one is less clear to me, partly because I don’t experience it to a dramatic degree. However, my identity has been based around me being ill because, as mentioned before, I think this will make people stay with me.
So what causes these abandonment fears? Well, in my case, it’s something that happened to me during childhood. My brother died when I was 2 years old. He was 3 months old. My parents were obviously grieving and probably withdrew. None of this is their fault, but it has left me with these deep-seated fears of being abandoned.
As I go through more therapy, I hope I will start to believe in myself more, realize I am a good person with things to offer and not think everyone is going to abandon me.