Many of us have either heard of, or identify with having a fear of abandonment. To fear abandonment is to fear being left by others. This can show up in partnerships, friendships, and even at work. But many of us are less familiar with the concept of self-abandonment. Self-abandonment shows up in one of two ways.

What is Self-Abandonment

  1. We put ourselves into situations, or spaces that put our physical or emotional well-being at risk.
  2. We minimize our feelings, pain, needs, or intuition.

Now you might be asking “Why?” Why would someone ignore their feelings, or put themselves into high risk situations? The reason is two-fold.

Why We Self-Abandon

  1. We don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings, make them uncomfortable, or disagree with their opinion.
  2. And this one is the kicker… We can’t tolerate our own discomfort. We can’t tolerate our own discomfort of someone else’s negative feeling, or experience of us. In other words, we placate, or people-please to avoid feeling bad.

Self-abandonment speaks to patterns of Codependency. Simply put, codependency says: “When you feel bad, I feel bad. When you feel good, I feel good.” We can’t separate ourselves from the feelings of others. We don’t have the psychic skin, or tolerance to withstand someone else’s negative emotions without getting sucked in.

An important piece of understanding self-abandonment and codependency is Co-Regulation. We’re constantly regulating our emotions through others, and this is a healthy and helpful process. For example, Chris out with his best friend Sally and enjoying a fun day together. Chris is taking in Sally’s cues of enjoyment. Her smile, posture, and tone of voice tells his brain that she is happy and that it’s safe for him to be relaxed and happy too.

This is co-regulation.

CW: Verbal Abuse

To use another example: Jenny is visiting her partner, and he’s yelling at her because she got home late after work. His brows are furrowed, his upper lip curled, and eyes darting. Jenny’s brain is taking in her partner’s cues of anger. Jenny picks up on this emotion, but she responds based on past experiences. Jenny’s dad was verbally abusive as a child, and so Jenny’s posture shrinks and she begins apologizing incessantly, telling her partner she’ll never do it again.

Now what happened here? In example #1 Chris took in Sally’s cues of happiness and began to feel relaxed and happy as well. Why didn’t Jenny respond back with anger?

Regulation is shaped by past experiences. And for adults who grew up without regulating caregivers who demonstrated safe, successful co-regulation, they learn to self-regulate through patterns of protection.

“Without explicitly stated information, we are more likely to sense unsafety and move into a pattern of protection”

— Deb Dana from Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory

Because Jenny has a history of verbal abuse, she responds to her partner through the lens of past experience. She uses the pattern of protection that likely kept her safe as a child. Now this is important, because patterns of protection — also known as coping strategies — can prevent Jenny from responding to her angry partner in a helpful way.

In Jenny’s example, her partner was in the wrong, and likely responding from a place of his own personal pain, dysregulation, or protection patterning. From this perspective, it would be more helpful for Jenny to say “you can’t talk to me like that. I’m going to take the dog for a walk while you calm down.”

However, Jenny didn’t respond that way. She shrunk in her body and began apologizing incessantly to try and get her partner to stop yelling. As it often does, self-abandonment is showing up in both ways here: Normalizing a potentially emotionally unsafe relationship, and minimizing her feelings to placate her partner. Through the lens of compassion, self-abandonment makes sense given Jenny’s history. She is protecting herself with a pattern learned at a young age.

This is why I’m so passionate about helping women stop cycles of self-abandonment — so they can experience true internal and external safety, engage in supportive relationships, and access and honour more of themselves. Instead of diminishing their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires in an effort to keep others content and happy.

What is Self-Abandonment and Why is it Important to Stop?