talk to me about abandonment issues
July 8, 2021 4:47 PM   Subscribe

No therapist has ever come close to explaining this to me in a way that makes sense. Can you?

I have anxiety and bipolar 2. I also have C-PTSD and/or borderline personality disorder - official diagnosis murky due to symptom overlap. But the biggest symptom that I have that lines up with BPD is a crippling fear of abandonment, a firmly held belief that I am secretly a deeply horrible person, and that no one I love actually could love me back because I am so awful - and I do the miserable thing where I behave badly towards loved ones to "test" their love for me, or I cry and beg for reassurance that they don't hate me. Through DBT I have learned to mostly curb these latter two behaviors, outwardly, but inwardly I still am constantly terrified that people will leave me because I'm just too much of a mess, I'm a downer, I'm too hard to live with.

Every therapist I've had says this is because my mother passed away when I was 12. That this is the "original abandonment" to which all my fear is linked. But this makes NO SENSE to me at all. My mother died after an 8 year battle with cancer. She didn't leave me intentionally. She didn't want to die. She didn't get terminally ill because I was a bad daughter and she needed to escape me. She died of a disease that kills many, many people.

But my fear is that people will leave me with INTENTION, because I am horrible and awful and a bad friend and shitty girlfriend and terrible employee and hack musician and [insert other mean words of self hatred here].

What the fuck does my self-hatred have to do with my mom's death? Why am I supposed to accept that I am afraid that people don't love me because my mother died of cancer? It doesn't make sense to me. It's like saying I'm afraid of spiders because one time my cousin dumped me in the pool. Seriously, that's how nonsensical the connection feels to me. No therapist has ever been able to articulate the connection to me but treats it like a given and I'm like what?

If I could understand this better I feel like I'd be making more headway in therapy. But my self hatred is like a fucking snake eating it's own tail, and I don't know how to understand and evolve when the therapeutic concensus is "dead mommy issues".

Can someone give me some insight? I just got out of therapy and we were discussing this and it's been like over a decade in therapy talking about THIS and it still makes no sense to me.
posted by nayantara to Human Relations (22 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Children have very little control over their lives, and human brains are not perfectly logical- they come with built in magical thinking, which children are especially prone too. Children tend to blame themselves for bad things happening as a defense mechanism, whether fully conscious or not, because it is simply too terrifying to conceive of a totally indifferent and sometimes cruel universe that is entirely random. Human brains strongly, strongly resist randomness even when randomness is objectively true. Our ancestors who had magical thinking brains were more motivated to survive in the past wilderness environment, and that is why we still have this ativism. It allows us to believe that by changing ourselves we can change outcomes. The downside of the false positives evidently is usually outweighed by the motivating/soothing aspect of this magical thinking. So think of it as a strong survival mechanism that is potentially overtuned/overactive in your current environment.
posted by stockpuppet at 4:54 PM on July 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This kind of trauma isn't a process of your rational mind, but your subconscious and your limbic system. Your subconscious mind does not interpret intent, and so the interpretation is slower than the reaction. Your *conscious* mind assigns narratives and mental models and predictions, but the trauma is a flinch reaction - it doesn't make sense to flinch at a moving shadow, but I do sometimes. In that metaphor, your mother's death casts a shadow over your relationships, and you flinch at it, no matter what the relationship is doing.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:56 PM on July 8, 2021 [28 favorites]

Best answer: I'm just wondering if the felt abandonment happened much younger than 12. Maybe your mother was ill in a way that made her unavailable to you. Or, just as bad, inconsistently available.

I would take another look at your early childhood and the ways that both your mother and father were either able to be available, responsive and loving or not. If there were issues happening when you were little and least able to understand it and then you add in child who might been more emotionally sensitive and then her mother leaves her complete (through death) at age 12, that might add up to enough to explain why your fears are so intense.

Just guessing here - if it doesn't fit, please feel free to ignore it.
posted by metahawk at 5:08 PM on July 8, 2021 [17 favorites]

I feel like if this theory was true it would make sense to you. If it doesn't make sense to you perhaps it's just not true. Maybe there's some other reason. Or maybe it's true that by not having your mom around to help you understand the other people around you, you had a hard time understanding/recognizing the signals of love they were sending. Do you ever spend time sitting quietly & just kind of listening to the universe? When I do that by letting my thoughts go quiet & giving my brain a chance to rest it's easier to think about this stuff & often eventually ideas occur to me that suddenly makes things make sense.
posted by bleep at 5:25 PM on July 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe this will help you, I'm not sure, but the best way for me to understand this particularly confusing perspective is that it is about control.

So this is how I see it. I'm not a therapist or doctor and I'm certainly not in your shoes or life so it may all read as hogwash to you:

Your mother didn't leave you intentionally, no. Nothing you did or didn't do could have changed the outcome. And it was awful, an absolutely terrible thing to have happened - at the age you were at, the loss you experienced was so profound that your psyche had to find a way to try to protect you from ever feeling it again.

So you tell yourself, somewhere deep down in your animal brain, that you DO have control over people leaving (be good! perfect! wonderful, even!). But also your animal brain knows that there is an ultimate leaving - that either you or someone else will do one day - and it cannot square this circle. So it looks sort of like:

You: I don't have control over the universe or people leaving me. This is too painful to accept. I do not know what to do I think I might explode.
Your psyche (also you), trying to help you: Wait! Have you considered that you can be perfect and nobody will ever leave you? I saw it in a movie. It won an Oscar. It's true. No need to explode.
You: Wait, that's not entirely true... I don't have control over the universe. Random things will happen that might cause people to leave me through no fault of my own. Ugh. This reality is so painful. I am full of grief. It's too painful to tolerate... what should I do?
Your psyche, trying to help: Have you considered being perfect? I think it might help. Are you having a hard time finding ways to be perfect? I could point out everything you've ever done that might not have been perfect.

Anyway. This subconscious conversation happens so often and so deep in your lizard brain that you never notice. You stop fighting it. You just keep... trying to be perfect. Because "being perfect" is a project you can work on. It's a fully self-contained Sisyphean task that never ends that can distract you from the pain that is too much to tolerate.

In other words, it's the rational fact that you can't emotionally accept that is leading to your cycle of self-abuse. And that's actually your psyche trying to help you. There's a whole lot of hogwash about how somehow you've done something bad for struggling to accept a vulnerability and reality that is OBJECTIVELY TERRIBLE. Nobody can fully accept this reality and you were put in a position where you had to face it before most.

At least, this is how I've come to learn how my own struggles with perfectionism, abandonment issues and fear relate back to my own trauma. It may not resonate with you, but if it does, I hope it helps.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:30 PM on July 8, 2021 [56 favorites]

Honestly, I think abandonment is abandonment. Even if it's "no fault" abandonment like death, it still might set off trigger issues somehow. Like I go on a giant hate parade in my head whenever anything goes wrong at work, no matter what just went wrong (like "oops, I made a typo and sent the document out with one"), even if it was something minor, because it sets off dominoes and all of that shit is next to each other.

But if your mom had cancer for 8 years and she died when you were 12, you spent ages 5-12 living with the anvil of your mom's possible/upcoming death hanging over your head. Knowing that at some point she was going to leave you, whether she wanted to or not. I had ten years of that hell with my dad and that just started when I was 18. Knowing you're going to lose somebody is triggery shit too.

I have been watching videos on rejection sensitive dysphoria of late (might want to try that yourself) and one video I saw pointed out that people with ADHD are told how awful they are, or shamed, or hear bad shit about themselves, a lot more than other folks. Well, no wonder you're sensitive on the topic when it comes up so often. If you have all these issues, you probably have been "the bad person" a lot and other people have left, so of course you have abandonment issues. Honestly, I'd suspect "people leave me because I'm exhausting to deal with" is probably more of an issue for you than your mom's death, but I think it's all related. At least cousin-level related if not straight up sibling-ish related.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:33 PM on July 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Dysregulation doesn't just come from abuse. It also comes from chronic misattunement— being in an environment where, for whatever reason, your needs aren't being met.

Let's say you have a parent who loves their kid. They have good intentions, but they're very busy and preoccupied by something else. Work, sickness, their own trauma history. But they really care about you! They're kind, they provide materially, they rarely yell or withhold. When they accidentally hurt your feelings they try to make it right. You know what to expect when they're around. But— they're just not present very much.

Now let's say you're the kid. You see that parent has Big Adult Concerns so you try to take care of yourself so they don't have to. Maybe on top of that, the world is extra loud, or you don't learn the same way other people do, or you're sensitive and have really big feelings, or you're prone to anxiety, or the thing you love most about yourself is that you're super creative but in your culture that is frivolous, a waste of time. And for all these reasons the core of who you are goes unseen.

When you need help, or you just want someone to really get you, nobody is there. Maybe they physically aren't in the room so you can't ask. Maybe your kid brain picked up on your parent's burdens and thought "I don't want to add to that, so I just won't share at all."

That's enough to feel abandoned. Is it on purpose? Is your guardian trying to harm you or ignore you? No. But you're still being neglected. And your nervous system grows to reflect that. Each child needs different types and levels of support. If you have a guardian who is only providing some of those, sporadically, it may not be enough to meet the child's needs— even if the quality of what is provided is good. Trauma is not about logic, it's somatic. Any time a situation reminds you of what was missing before, even unconsciously, you'll find yourself back in that old bad loop.
posted by lloquat at 5:59 PM on July 8, 2021 [77 favorites]

Best answer: One thing to consider is that what is supposed to happen in the teenage years is that the child begins to separate from the family. The loving insistence of the parents resists and slows but guides and enables and does not prevent that separation. The abandonment is the child abandoning the parent. The teenager feels some self-critique, some self-loathing but also a lot of critique and loathing of the parents, in order to achieve separation and independence.

In your circumstance, a lot of those cycles are interrupted and misdirected, so it seems like the self-critique and self-loathing that arises in the teen years may be amplified and unfortunately deeply associated with the trauma of losing your mother, experienced as an abandonment. It feels to me like the BPD cycles are unfinished teenager cycles.

I’m sorry you’re going through this trauma. It seems very hard.
posted by vunder at 6:03 PM on July 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

I’m not a therapist, but have been reading about some encouraging results with therapy-assisted (that part is important!) psychedelic/hallucinogenic substances for trauma. You might investigate and see if someone is available in your area. Good luck, and hugs.
posted by cyndigo at 6:09 PM on July 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wonder if the word "abandonment" is making this hard to think about. To say someone abandoned you does imply intention on their part. But what if you substitute in the word "loss"? You suffered a tremendous loss when your mother died and it was undoubtedly very painful. Naturally you would do everything in your power to avoid suffering another loss like that, to avoid ever feeling that kind of pain again. The actions (dying vs leaving intentionally) might be very different, but the effect on you (loss) would be the same.
posted by Mender at 6:12 PM on July 8, 2021 [11 favorites]

Just wondering, how did your father treat you? I know so many people with terrible, awful fathers who made them feel like they had to earn their place in the family through some combination of achievement and subservience or else they'd be somehow "out". Masculinity is basically all about that. Also like every woman I've ever known is dealing with serious trauma from just living in patriarchy and being subject to male abuse for their entire lives. That's sufficient to explain C-PTSD - being captive in a hostile environment. I'm actually kind of rolling my eyes that your therapists are blaming your mother here, it's like so typical to blame women when something goes wrong and just ignore the fact that men are, collectively as a political class, out there fucking everything up all day every day.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:13 PM on July 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

Your rational brain knows your mother didn’t abandon you, but your lizard brain says she did.
Grown men still sometimes cry for mommy when they’re terrified (even if mommy is dead) because the mommy relationship is so incredibly deep, it goes beyond just loving someone - mommy is your sole source of food, comfort, and protection when you’re an infant. Mommy is who rescues you from trouble, whether that’s a scraped knee, or a bear attack. (Yes, nurturing fathers exist, but mammals are mostly hardwired to expect it from mommy.) So when your mother died, something deep in your brain was utterly panicked at the idea of no longer having that protector. Your panicked brain decided it must be your fault, because mommy would NEVER leave you of her own volition - mommies just don’t do that. The concept is inconceivable to a child. So the only possible explanation is that you did something bad to cause her to leave.

Anyway, that’s my two cents.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:21 PM on July 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

The subconscious is just weird. I am doing EMDR about perfectionism, and in my last session, I just wanted to cry about how much I miss being 7 (or thereabouts). As far as I know, nothing specific happened that year. But I feel a little better and lighter now, so... we'll see. I've decided to just go along with how non-rational it is and see if it helps. (My perfectionism sure isn't rational!)
posted by slidell at 6:42 PM on July 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: oh boy. lloquat, I literally teared up reading your comment. I think you've cottoned on to something here that I need to look into.

Mender, the word "loss" also feels more accurate.

Thank you all for your insight. It's giving me more to think about tonight than a decade of therapy. If anyone has more they would like to share I'd be grateful to hear it.
posted by nayantara at 6:44 PM on July 8, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: just about nobody comes out of childhood with only one big trauma. therapists know this, but they don't often act like they know it. Sometimes they ask you perceptive questions only until they find the first big loud answer, and then they stop looking. It's like the joke about why the guy is looking for his lost keys under the streetlight--is that really where he thinks they are? No, he says, it's just the light is best over here.

You have this one big attention-getting awful trauma that can be a great relief for a therapist to identify because it is, as you say, an equation that can be simple, perfect, and wrong. An example of what I mean: Were you part of a family of two, just you and your mother and nobody else? If yes, the trauma of whatever happened to you after she died is probably huge; you would have been sent to a new place to live. But if no -- and usually the answer is no -- then if I were a therapist, I would talk to you about everyone else in your childhood family life besides your mother: how they were with you before, during, and after her illness, how they spoke to you, how they treated you, how they connected or didn't connect you with your mother, how you think they felt about you. And then if that didn't seem to go anywhere, I'd start exploring outside the family. But chances are, it would go somewhere. It might not go somewhere as loud and violent as a parent's death, but any good therapist should know that the biggest, brightest, loudest, simplest trauma, the one everybody can understand and sympathize about, is not always the one at the root of the strangest adult emotions.

Everyone can either remember or imagine a parent dying, so it's easy to pin everything there. and sometimes, that is where the pin belongs, as others have already theorized. but a therapist should take your early life more seriously and respectfully than this; they should be following the threads in all directions and not stopping at the borders of the big, neat, well-defined illumination from the streetlight.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:37 PM on July 8, 2021 [13 favorites]

I have the exact same diagnoses as you as well as the same abandonment issue (which accompanies the negative self perception but maybe not quite as strongly). Neither of my parents died nor left me as a child. My childhood up until age 11 or so was loving, stable, secure, all my needs met.

I experienced bullying as a preteen and teen, and then a series of abusive romantic relationships as a young adult. I believe my abandonment stuff may stem from that, as well as a general predisposition (perhaps genetic/chemical based) to being anxious. But I also struggle to know precisely why I'm like this. So maybe look at whether anything happened in your adolescence? And also just know psychology can be more speculative than scientific.
posted by CancerSucks at 7:51 PM on July 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

Mmm. What sort of personality did your mother have? What about your other caregivers, both before and after yoru mother passed? Any of them with cluster B traits? Especially those that trend toward narcissistic?

Because that's what you are describing feels like to me - like the C-PTSD or BPD that often results from narcissistic abuse, not something as cut-and-dried as abandonment issues.

But then - I'm no expert in this - I've just dealt with way more than my fair share of people with all of the above in my personal life. The patterns get sort of obvious after a while.
posted by stormyteal at 12:39 AM on July 9, 2021

Best answer: I'm sorry you're suffering. I gotta say, I laughed so hard when I read "insert other mean words of self hatred here" , so thanks for that.

Yeah, it may help to look at things medically, to see your behavior as clinical signs of a disease you're suffering from. Not to say you're a victim, but to recognize you have brain abnormalities that cause you pain and limitations that you've evidently been strong enough to overcome. I mean, just the fact that you're seeking advice shows how much you care. Good on ya.

They say people with BPD have larger amygdalas, which apparently regulate fear. So you just scientifically, objectively feel more fear and it's not your fault. I'd guess you have an imbalance of neurotransmitters, too, I think most mental health problems have some sort of chemical imbalance, but the amygdala thing is structural. It's a way of taking blame out of the equation and looking at things without too much emotion.

Hope that helps. You're valuable! If they leave, their loss. I'd say enjoy the moment- I know, easier said than done. Good luck to you :)
posted by jumanjinight at 12:41 AM on July 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm CPTSD but not BPD so some of this may not apply.

I grew up with a sick, disabled parent (who did not pass when I was a child but I thought she would for reasons mostly related to my other caregiver).

When one is a kid, there is lots of missing information and context. It doesn't feel like it (because how does a three year old know what they don't know? How does a five year old? An adult?) Most people don't. Most pretty feel pretty smart and like their world is complete and their perspectives true, even if there's missing pieces and there always is because one cannot know anything. Imperfect brains be imperfect and that's true for everyone which is hard to wrap ones head around when it doesn't feel that way.

Anyway, my little brain definately personalized a ton of my mothers disability, her not feeling good so she didn't want to talk, or when we couldn't get good food because she couldn't cook , or when she was in too much pain she couldn't give hugs, of the fact she used a wheelchair and my school wasn't handicap accessible so she couldn't go to specific activities.
Or,or,or. She also didn't have lots of emotional space for like parenting. She is a good loving parent and in many ways she was there, but my kid brain picked up on the illness piece and went with if I was quieter, if I didn't need things, if I made sure to xyz or whatever then my mom would magically be more available and... That doesn't cure illness at all. It didn't make her more available, or give me more or less care, lots of that was out of my control. She may have been greatful when I was quiet when she took a nap or whatever, but while I thought that was giving me what I needed, it wasn't the thing i did which was a mother affirming that being an imperfect kid who acts like a kid is actually just fine even when she didn't feel good. I also thought I that some of my actions were way more impactful on my mothers life than they actually were, and that my actions took on significant importance on other people moods and feelings about me even when they were just... Going to get medical care. (Full disclosure, there was tons of other abuse stuff going on with my other parent but that's not really relevant to this question, but there was the this clear my mother wasn't there for me).

For me, I grew up with extra watchful feelings of people mood and affect and trying to make sure that things were just right, and often when they were I had huge fears around what could or possibly might happen . I didn't have a bucket of affirming interactions I could hold on to in my brain to know that things were okay, because they really weren't.

Building a bucket of thoughts to hold about oneself that is affirming is hard. Things like that people can just like you for you as an imperfect human being. Things like someone who maybe wants to watch TV when someone wants a nap and that's totally okay to have individual wants and that doesn't mean shit about the relationship as a whole. Things like opinions and disagreements are integral parts of relationships. Having those things in my bucket kind of broke my foundational childhood ideals.It removed lots of control and magical context of children's thinking that isn't easy to let go of. To go back and look at my childhood that my mother was an imperfect human being who just didn't give me what i needed because she couldn't is painful and gives an uncertainty to my childhood. It also emphasizes that people might randomly be unvailable in ways i can't perdict, which is an awful feeling to live with.

And my brain really really likes the reinforcement of someone right in front of me, because then I can assess their mood, and know where I stand. If they aren't there, how am I to know? Insert all kinds of anxiety here.

So, anyway, i think with those contexts of course it is easy to really want so much extra reimfircement to the point where it is too big, to need to test, to be super unsure. To have anxiety and fear about abandonment.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:47 AM on July 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

Terms used to describe psychology are often the same words we use in communication, but they have specific meaning that is not the same as we use in non-psychological communication. The death of a loved one feels like abandonment, even though it is an involuntary departure. The emotion is a logical response to events, but it's the logic of feelings (and the limbic system is an excellent mention) and response to experiences. One can come to acceptance by really learning that what feels like abandonment is a crappy deal that happened to you, and is tragic event that left a scar.

You list several important diagnoses. I hope you are working on behavior,as well, learning ways to manage the behaviors prompted by these diagnoses. It sounds like you have volatile, intense emotion and anxiety. There are techniques to cope with both of these. The reasons you experience emotions are important, but also learning how to deal with the physical and emotional realities of the emotions. I have some similarities, and learning to deal with intense emotion and not allow it to overwhelm me has been useful.
posted by theora55 at 7:06 AM on July 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Part of this is you're looking at it with the brain of an adult, but you dealt with the trauma with the brain of a child. Children are not logical thinkers, and their choices very commonly make no sense. A lot of this was cleared up for me when I spent a significant amount of time with small children and this:

"It doesn't make sense to me. It's like saying I'm afraid of spiders because one time my cousin dumped me in the pool. Seriously, that's how nonsensical the connection feels to me."

could absolutely happen. No, I agree, it doesn't make sense! Kids are just like that.
posted by Dynex at 9:30 AM on July 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: DBT has been a life changer in terms of me restraining my temptations to "test" people's affection or beg for reassurance in manipulative ways. I hardly do that anymore - I think the last time I tried to "test" my boyfriend was over six months ago, and it may have just been because I was having a hard time because my new insurance company was being weird about filling a psych med that I take for my bipolar 2 that I've been on for 15 years, so I was a little "off" biochemically and was feeling raw.

But the impulse to do it is still very much there, though even the frequency of the impulses are reducing over time as well. I have gotten better at not vocalizing the fear, as that tends to escalate into a "testing"/"begging" spiral very rapidly and then once it passes I experience what almost feels like a hangover, but a shame hangover, not a booze hangover. At any rate, that's to answer your question theora55.

I have been searching for a proper explanation for this purported link between my mother's death (and her inability to be a full parent while sick) because I feel like if I understand it more I can more fully use my DBT techniques to let go of the self-hatred further, and maybe someday be completely free of the impulse to do The Bad Things to my loved ones. But because I didn't understand how it was related, I've just felt stuck, and confused, and mad at myself for not getting it and being able to use the knowledge to contextualize my self-hatred to overcome it. My father was also an absent parents because he was consumed with caretaking my mom while she was alive and then being a workaholic after she died. I'd call my childhood one of benign neglect. No room for my needs in the house. My dad (I've asked questions about him before here) is also a problematic figure in my life as he is a classic narcissist and when I lived with him he was prone to extreme rages and temper tantrums resulting in broken dishes and the like. So I know he is a factor as well, but I've never been afraid of HIM abandoning me, interestingly enough (though when he's really being a pill sometimes I wish he would LOL). I've been in a serious relationship for over a decade and the fear of losing my partner is the most overwhelming fear I have; I panic when we argue over mundane shit like keeping the kitchen clean or whose turn it is to vacuum the pet hair off the couch or other normal relationship squabbles - it's like I don't know how to do Adult Relationship, because in my mind those same arguments that all couples have make me feel like I am failing to be perfect (the comment above about trying to be perfect to avoid abandonment really resonated) and are tantamount to relationship-ending fights. It's like I still have the emotional maturity of a pre-teen or something. And again, therapist after therapist has said THIS IS BECAUSE OF YOUR MOM and I just haven't been able to square that circle. I know that a committed relationship is big stakes so the fear of abandonment by him makes sense in that regard, but I was still dubious about how my mother's unintentional death would be linked to a fear of my partner leaving of his own volition.

At any rate you have all given me such good food for thought and I am very appreciative. If anyone else wants to chime in, or add on, or whatever, I am very welcome to that. It's giving me concrete stuff to take to my next therapy appointment, and also makes me want to understand the science of brains like mine a bit more.

Also jumanjinight I'm glad the [insert mean words] made you chuckle - when I'm feeling good I can see how my self-hatred is irrational, not reality-based, and it kind of makes me laugh. But when I'm in the shit, I lose perspective. I think it's good that I have developed some distance from those feelings so that I can have a sense of humor about them - that was definitely not the case as recently as three years ago.
posted by nayantara at 10:57 AM on July 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

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