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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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