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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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