Abandoned room full of empty beds

Fear of abandonment. What people-pleasers should know

Fear of abandonment consciously or unconsciously drives the actions of many people-pleasers.

The gist is if you’re worried someone may physically leave you or emotionally distance themselves, you’ll do whatever they ask to keep them happy, and you’ll do whatever you can to make them stay. You fall into the trap of being overly accommodating and excessively agreeable.

Since I wrote last month about fear of conflict and anger—the main drivers of my (fading!) disease to please—I’ve been mulling over the fear of abandonment, curious if it also fits into my puzzle. Here’s what I learned:

Having occasional anxiety-provoking thoughts about being abandoned is normal and even common. For example, I worry about how I’ll cope if I lose my beloved husband of almost 40 years. Many older people fear loneliness and social isolation (a form of abandonment) in their final years. We may worry about losing elderly parents, about the growing distance between us and our grown children, about loved ones moving away, about friendships losing zest.

And all children go through phases of separation anxiety when parents or caretakers walk out the door, even temporarily.

But for some, the fear persists and it may affect healthy coping and life choices.

Persistent fear of abandonment negatively affects healthy coping and life choices.

Often, this fear is rooted in childhood, especially for people-pleasers.

If a parent physically leaves the child through divorce, frequent prolonged or unpredictable absences, illness, or death, the child’s emotional and physical needs may go unmet. That discomfort leaves a lingering fear of being abandoned again.

Sometimes, parents are physically present but emotionally absent due to their own physical or mental health needs, addictions, bad choices, or cluelessness about meeting a child’s needs. Children then learn not to trust and may grow up expecting to be abandoned again. And again.

Not all children cope with these traumatic early life experiences by becoming obsequious–“obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree.” But many do.

How do you know if your fear has crossed from “everyone feels that way at times” to “Houston, we have a problem?” Here’s what to look for:

Signs you have an unhealthy fear of abandonment:

  • Are you often jealous of how your partner spends their time–with people or even in solitary activities–when away from you? Do you consequently demand unrealistic time and attention from your partner?
  • Do you give too much in the relationship (especially common for people-pleasers)?
  • Does your need to control your relationship cause conflict?
  • Do you mistrust your partner and constantly worry they’ll leave?
  • Do you hate not being in a relationship?
  • Do you stay unhealthy or abusive relationships because it’s better than being alone (also common among people-pleasers)?
  • Do you self-sabatoge relationships by cheating or unattaching too quickly?

If two or more of these signs ring true for you, check out a more comprehensive list here.

And, if you like graphics, here’s one for you.

If you’re still not sure that these signs fit your relationship patterns, dig into how you form attachments in the first place. Fear of abandonment tends to manifest through specific attachment types: disorganized attachment style, anxious attachment style, or avoidant attachment style.

After digging into this topic, I realize this is not my pattern of behavior. I’ve been truly privileged not to have experienced early losses, nor have I had traumatic separations later in life.

What I thought was fear of abandonment was actually my fear of losing someone’s positive opinion of me. In other words, I was afraid of rejection. (I’ll dig into this in a future post!) It’s a cornerstone of people-pleasing–feeling the need to be agreeable at all times to all people, hoping they’ll “like” us.

I’m glad to have retired those shoes I walked in.

But for many sufferers of the disease to please, the thought of being deserted, physically or emotionally, runs their life and steals their well-being.

What can you do if you fear being left high and dry?

First, believe in your intrinsic worth. Easier said than done, right? So write it down–“I AM WORTHY OF LOVE AND RESPECT,” post stickie notes around your house, repeat it aloud a gazillion times as you drive in your car, let it be the last thing you tell yourself before you go to sleep.

Second, practice forgiveness. (These steps don’t get any easier do they?) Forgiveness doesn’t make it OK that someone harmed you, but it reclaims your power to determine what you will think, how you will feel, and what behaviors you’ll choose.

Three, practice visualization. Here’s a good one to ease the fears of your inner child. I’m big on visualization because what we can see in our mind’s eye is the reality we can create in real life.

What we can see in our mind’s eye through visualization is the reality we can create in real life. Share on X

What’s important to remember is that you may not be able to overcome a fear of abandonment on your own, and that’s OK. You may need professional help from a therapist or life coach.

I readily admit to having a therapist. My people-pleasing was not rooted in childhood family dysfunction, so it “should” have been easier to overcome. But I wasn’t able to make any significant changes until I worked with a trained professional who gave me an objective perspective. If you are dealing with painful, longstanding trauma, you aren’t a failure if you can’t break free. You’re human.

You aren’t a failure if you can’t break free of toxic fears on your own. You’re human. By asking for help, you validate your self-worth. Share on X

Remember the first step above to overcoming your fear of abandonment–believing you are worthy of love and respect? One way to put that into practice is to reach out for help when you’re tackling big issues. Don’t abandon yourself! You are worthy of the time, energy, and resources it takes to rediscover your best self.

It’s a lesson all of us–people-pleasers or not–need never fear.

What about you? Does the thought of losing relationships send shivers up your spine? Have you taken steps to overcome your fear?


  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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