Fear of Abandonment and Borderline Personality Disorder

Fear of Abandonment and Borderline Personality Disorder

My biological mother abandoned me when I was about six months. At least that’s the way the story goes. No one really knows for sure. The doctor who worked at the orphanage where I was dropped off assessed me to be about six months old.  But since I was abandoned with no identifying information it was impossible for anyone to know for sure.

I was left in the garden of an orphanage in Seoul, Korea. I’ve always thought it to be very strange that my birth certificate says that I was born in Inchon but the orphanage was in Seoul. How did I get from Incheon to Seoul? A mystery that will never be solved, I think.

This event set me up a lifetime of fear of abandonment, one of the classic symptoms associated with Borderline Personality Disorder. I think that BPD is founded in learned behavior and so I think I was primed for it from a very early age. My entire life I was always afraid that I would be abandoned by another person someone I cared about and it terrified me. My adoptive parents told me that they wanted a child more than anything in the world and that they spent weeks poring over the photos which had been sent to them of babies from the orphanage where I was. My mom says that when they saw my picture they knew that I was the one they have been searching for. So, that’s the external narrative I grew up with but the voice inside me said something very different. It said, “You may have been wanted by them but your real mother didn’t want you!” So I constructed a fantasy about why she abandoned me. It went like this: She was a married woman who lived in a village who had so many children already so that when I came along she didn’t know what to do. That’s why she got rid of me. I was one too many mouths to feed. Notice that I added a whole bunch of other siblings to the story.

The stark reality of the situation though was that I was a child born to a Korean woman and a Caucasian father so I was a halfling. And in Korea in the late 1950s children of that nature were anathema. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that had I remained in Korea I would have been nothing more than a second-class citizen. I would have been denied education, employment and even marriage because Korean culture places such high value on bloodlines and blood purity.

The second biggest problem for me as a child was in my world there was absolutely no one who looked like me. Yes, my  my adoptive father was Japanese and so he was Asian but Japanese people and Korean people have very different kinds of facial features. In the community where I grew up there were no other Asian children or Asian families, so I lived in a world of cultural isolation. My best friend from my early childhood was a little girl named Sandy who had the most beautiful blonde hair and piercing blue eyes and I wanted nothing more than to look like her.  I came to despise my Asian eyes and straight black hair.

As I grew into my teenage years, I spent a lot of time thinking that I would love nothing more than to do search for my my biological mother but eventually the reality of the situation set in and I became distraught knowing that it was not something that would ever happen. I was abandoned in the garden of an orphanage with no clothes, no name tag and, no identifying information about me, so the chances of being able to trace her were virtually nonexistent. As I began to research that time in Korean history, I came to think that perhaps the story of my abandonment centered around my biological mother being killed in an honor killing by my biological grandfather and that it may have been my biological grandmother who took me to the orphanage and left me there as a way of saving me from his wrath. Why did I think that? Because I am Eurasian and so it was obvious that she  had had some kind of sexual encounter not just with a man outside of marriage but with a Caucasian man. He would have been absolutely furious at the loss of face this caused him. All these factors led me to realize that I felt profound despair because of the circumstances surrounding my early life, my abandonment was actually the best thing that could have happened to me.

Still, that the initial abandonment set up a lifetime of anxiety for me. As I grew up into a teenager I became very angry and belligerent and adopted my policy of a basically “get them before they get me” or “the best defense is a good offense” I had a chip on my shoulder the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.  and it was impossible for anybody to really get close to me.

I drifted from one boyfriend to the next never achieving any kind of real emotional intimacy with any of them. Eventually I married my husband. I chose him because I knew he would never leave me. Until he finally did.

Fear of abandonment for people with BPD is a terrible double-edged sword because it is the one thing that terrifies us and drives us yet it is the one thing that we often force the people in our lives to do because of our raging anger.


About the Author: Dee Chan

Dee Chan was diagnosed with BPD more than 35 years ago back when the diagnosis was still fairly new and not very well understood. She has been living with it and coping with it ever since and finding ways to thrive despite it. She has been able to put it into complete remission and turned her life around completely through the practices of gratitude, forgiveness and accountability. Find out more about Dee’s work on her website bpdnomore.com.

3 Comments

Pat

Our youngest son was 2 yrs old when I was in an accident & hospitalized for 5 mos, returning in a wheelchair & finally a cane & a limp until 5 yrs later when I had knee replacement.
I have always wondered why Jeff had so much anger. He flared up at the least thing as a child. He was rude & ugly at times to me. He is much better now as a 40 yr old, but still can be roused to shouting & cannot tolerate confrontation. He has never married & has problems with long term friendships. He works in sales & is successful now but went through many jobs earlier in life. Could his anger relate to feeling abandoned at an early age? I have always wondered why he was angry & he could never explain why.

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Deni

I live with a family member who exhibits BPD—sometimes slight, sometimes extreme depending on her current romantic relationship. We have felt so alone in this situation, but reading about personal experiences of triumph is very encouraging. Despite my questions about the cause of BPD, I have never heard anyone comment that it may be “founded in learned behavior.” Thank you for giving this challenge a face and hopefulness!

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Amy

How about more on adopted children in the US? I was adopted. My father loves me and my mother loathed me. She still does. I gave the fact that without my father in my life (he passed), I might not have a family anymore. My mother treats me as if I do not belong. I do t see my brothers too much unless I push to bring my kids to their house, etc…. it is a lonely place and I try to rationalize it away by telling myself that I could have been an abortion….. in which case, I would not be here. I would like to know if other adoptees feel this same way or if it is simply my relationship with my mother that causes my unrest

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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