We’re continuing our discussion about borderline personality traits with author Debbie Corso of DBT Path. In these posts, Debbie will give us insight into self-sabotaging behaviors as well as valuable, practical skills that can help us move forward.
What is the root of the BPD trait of fear of abandonment and rejection?
Based on my personal experience as well as observations and interactions with my blog readers and students, the fear of abandonment and rejection often stems from a deep emotional wound created in childhood.
Many of us have experienced abandonment and rejection by someone who we trusted. We expected this person to care for and protect us—sometimes it was a parent, but it could have been another adult. Many who have the fear of abandonment have also experienced trauma related to this issue.
As a coping mechanism, we become hyper-alert to any nuance, gesture, word, or, in fact, anything at all that might suggest that a person we love is going to abandon or reject us. This fear becomes an emotional prison.
It’s easy to believe our thoughts and the stories we tell ourselves; it’s not unusual to project our fears based on pains from the past onto relationships that we enter into in the present. Unfortunately, this may sabotage our relationships in the process and also create the self-fulfilled prophecy of our worst fear—that of being abandoned.
If we have this trait, we misinterpret insignificant gestures or actions. A sigh, for example, can be seen as a clue that tells us: Our worst fears are going to come true. For example, if someone yawns, our fear tells us that “This person is bored with me and is going to leave me.” When we are emotionally activated, our perceptions aren’t accurate and are often distorted. We are unable to discern what is factual and what is not.
Fact Checking is a component of DBT. We practice it when we are engaging what is called our “Wise Mind”. We use the skills of our Wise Mind, such as Fact Checking, in order to respond to a crisis that comes from our Emotional (irrational) mind.
While in the Wise Mind mode, we look for evidence to support anything that we believe should be categorized as a “fact.” If we can’t find anything, we consider whether what we are experiencing may be a distorted thought or a feeling, and not based in present reality.
Can you share more details of the personal example you mentioned?
Sure! In the example given here, the emotionally sensitive person, notices that a loved one yawns while listening to her story. She has an assumption or interpretation about what this yawn means. This might take the form of an automatic thought, something like this: “This person is bored with me and is going to leave me.”
She becomes distressed, imagining that her thought must be true. Then, she acts out in some way, either lashing out at her loved one or hurting herself.
If she were to fact check instead, it would look something like this:
1. Tells a loved one an account of her day
2. Notices loved one yawns while listening
3. Has the thought, “He’s bored with me and is going to leave me.”
4. Notices the anxiety the thought provokes.
5. Reminds self that a thought is just a thought.
6. Instead of assuming, asks her loved one, “I’m feeling really sensitive and insecure right now. Are you bored or disinterested in what I’m saying? I’m really worried.”
7. Loved one responds that he is not bored or disinterested, but was yawning because he hadn’t slept well the night before, and had a long day at work.
8. Fear was unfounded after checking the facts. Feels better.
Without Fact Checking, the person with a fear of abandonment or rejection may simply believe thoughts like this, no matter how irrational, are facts. I know I did for many years before I learned DBT skills.
Behaviors that often emerge with the fear of abandonment and rejection are perceived as manipulative. I prefer the term “maladaptive,” because manipulative has such a sinister connotation, and the person with this trait often has limited consciousness around this pattern and is not acting out intentionally.
Other people can really be put off by these behaviors. It can be difficult for the sufferer to form and maintain deep and significant connections because of this. Alicia and I are often the very first point of non-judgmental contact that our students with this particular trait may encounter.
You mention that you prefer the term maladaptive, rather than manipulative. It’s easy for people on the “receiving end” of these behaviors to feel like they are being manipulated, but it can be helpful for them to remind themselves that when someone who has an extreme fear of abandonment or rejection exhibits what seems like manipulative behavior, it is usually coming from a place of fear, if not terror.
More on the Fear of Abandonment and Rejection with Debbie Corso, soon.
Debbie Corso, is a pioneering mental-health blogger, author, and teacher who has blogged about living with borderline personality disorder. Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) she has overcome the symptoms of BPD. Together with therapist Alicia Paz, she helps others with BPD and BPD traits in her online program, DBT Path. She’s the author of two books about BPD. Today, Debbie no longer meets the criteria for a BPD diagnosis.