We all fear abandonment to a certain degree. No-one wants to be left without support, connection or protection. But what if you feel like, no matter what you do, everyone will leave you in the end? If these thoughts and feelings sound familiar to you, you might have the abandonment schema.
To answer any questions you may have regarding the abandonment schema, this article will cover the following topics:
The abandonment schema is one of 18 early maladaptive schemas (EMS). Having the abandonment schema means you expect others will not give you consistent support, connection, or protection. You likely indiscriminately view relationships as unstable, unreliable, and unpredictable. Furthermore, if you do engage in relationships, you may be consistently vigilant that others can leave or abandon you at any time.
The abandonment schema is one example of an early maladaptive schema (EMS). If you wish to learn more about this maladaptive schema, as well as the 17 others, check out our article, “The Ultimate Guide to Early Maladaptive Schemas.”
The abandonment schema develops in childhood due to an unmet need for consistent support, connection, and protection. However, why this need is left unmet can be due to a variety of reasons. For example, it can happen when the primary caregiver is not attuned to the needs of their child, either by missing them or misinterpreting them as a cue for something else.
A child’s need for consistent support and protection can also be left unmet if their caregiver(s) did not have the internal resources to satisfy it – for reasons as varied as chronic stress, anger issues, mental illness, or maladaptive schemas of their own.
Alternatively, this schema can develop due to actual abandonment, or through long periods of separation – for example, working abroad or hospitalization. The abandonment schema can also develop due to the death of a caregiver.
Typically, people with the abandonment schema will be concerned that others will leave them – either unintentionally or through choice. Similar to people with an anxious attachment style, someone with the abandonment schema may be hypervigilant to signs of desertion. This form of vigilance involves devoting a lot of energy to monitoring both their surroundings and their loved ones for any signals of the withdrawal of support or connection. In addition to hypervigilance, someone with this schema may spend a great deal of time worrying about the possibility of others leaving, often catastrophizing about worst case scenarios instead of focusing on what is actually happening.
The signs of the abandonment schema specifically in childhood and adulthood are as follows:
Children are less skilled at regulating their emotions than adults. With that in mind, when a child’s abandonment schema is triggered, they may try to receive the care they need through forms of “desperate” behavior. Such examples of this are acting out or becoming clingy and distressed, particularly when their caregiver needs to leave. Children with the abandonment schema may also have difficulty concentrating in school and have increased illnesses due to chronic stress and anxiety.
Despite adults being typically more skilled at emotion regulation than children, adults with the abandonment schema can be clingy, jealous, or controlling. They may need a lot of reassurance within relationships from others that they do not intend to leave. Indeed, someone with this schema may even become obsessive within a relationship and find it difficult to focus on anything else.
Moreover, individuals with the abandonment schema may deal with low self-worth. As their needs for consistent support, connection, and protection were not met during their formative years, they often believe it was due to some inherent defect that made them unworthy. This belief may result in a need to please others or feeling like they have to work hard for their approval.
Understandably, individuals with the abandonment schema may feel a great deal of stress and anxiety. In turn, they may develop unhealthy coping strategies in order to cope, such as negative self-talk, and using addictive substances or food for comfort and relief.
Having a healthy relationship can be difficult if you believe that everyone eventually leaves. People with the abandonment schema tend to react in one of three ways – avoidance, overcompensation, or surrendering.
Typically individuals with the abandonment schema avoid intimate relationships. This is to reduce the possibility of getting hurt, as these relationships, in their opinion, will inevitably end. For the same reason they may sabotage blossoming relationships in order to prevent further intimacy developing.
Alternatively, a person with the abandonment schema may decide to embark upon a relationship, but in a bid to prevent the other person from leaving, they overcompensate for their belief through their behavior. They may act clingy, jealous, or controlling. They may also test the other person to check their commitment. This type of behavior usually inadvertently pushes people away and brings about the end of the relationship. Thus, the belief that others will always leave is reinforced.
Others may cope with their abandonment schema by surrendering to it. They give in to the belief that their need for consistent support, connection, or protection will not be met. Combining the abandonment schema and a low self-worth, such individuals may have a tendency to attract, and be attracted to, others who are likely to leave them. The relationship then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing the idea that others will always leave in the end.
The abandonment schema is known to be one of the more difficult schemas to work with as it is often linked to other maladaptive schemas, specifically the subjugation, dependency, and defectiveness/shame schemas. This may make the need for therapy even more pressing.
Schema Therapy addresses maladaptive schemas by focusing on early childhood experiences and the therapeutic relationship itself. You can learn more about Schema Therapy here. While maladaptive schemas are difficult to change, with commitment, consistency, and appropriate treatment, it is entirely possible to achieve positive change.
Be mindful of the company you keep
“Chasing unavailable people is self-abandonment.”
– Sheleana Aiyana
Ask yourself if the people closest to you are reinforcing your schema, and make changes if necessary. Try to surround yourself with people who understand you and help you feel safe.
Be aware of your tendency to catastrophize
It is natural to explain the behavior of others to ourselves using “stories” or “hypotheticals,” especially when we are worried. However, it is important to notice if you have a tendency to jump to the worst case scenario and give these stories too much credence. Try to give your loved ones the benefit of the doubt when they act differently to how you would like. It does not necessarily mean they are planning to leave you. Alternatively, if you are worried that others will leave you through illness or death, try to rationalize how likely it is to happen in the moment and find evidence to contradict your fear.
Develop a mindful practice
People with the abandonment schema may experience a great deal of anxiety around their relationships. Additionally they may catastrophize about others leaving them through illness and death. It is beneficial to sit with these feelings and thoughts and accept them for what they are. It is also important to recognize that they are not facts or representative of the present situation. If you experience high levels of anxiety related to the abandonment schema, try meditation and mindfulness. These practices train the brain to focus attention on the present and let other thoughts and feelings go.
If you have the abandonment schema, you may have a lot of unresolved anger, disappointment, and sadness about how past relationships have gone. You may also have a great deal of anxiety about your current relationships. Additionally, you may need to develop healthy expectations and boundaries for others and your own behavior. A therapeutic relationship is the ideal circumstance in which to explore all these factors.
Padesky C. A. (1994) Schema change processes in cognitive therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 1(5), 267–278.
Schmidt, N. B., Joiner, Jr., T. E., Young, J. E., & Telch, M. J. (1995). The schema questionnaire: Investigation of psychometric properties and the hierarchical structure of a measure of maladaptive schemas. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 19(3), 295-321.
Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy. Guilford Press.