Why we fear abandonment and engulfment : David Richo

We fear abandonment rightly because it means the loss of mirroring, and that is necessary for the survival of our very identity. We also fear the grief we feel when someone leaves. The fear of abandonment may be the fear of grief.

We abandon ourselves at times, e.g., abandoning our body or our integrity or our boundaries to hold onto someone. We may abdicated some part of ourselves when we cling to another for dear life. Freedom from this fear means restoring the disenfranchised psychic territories of ourselves.

Abandonment is terrifying also because we feel so powerless at the moment it occurs. This combination of fear and powerlessness is what made an original abandonment experience from childhood leave so indelible a mark on us.

We feel panic as the other withdraws, so we (often) pursue more intensely, and this makes a partner panic and push us away even more. Our way of taking care of ourselves is precisely what makes us the more abandoned It is a self defeat in the guise of self protection.

The fear of death is also about fear of abandonment, of the final isolation, of the loss of bonds that sustain us. Death is so scary because it SEEMS to be an abandonment of our body by our soul.

There is a cruel irony in the fact that the fear of intimacy is directly proportional to the fear of abandonment. The more afraid we are of being abandoned, the more afraid we are of getting close. Has my tenderness been bottled up with my fears?

When we fear engulfment, we may be afraid of letting in attention or intimacy. Focus on us in childhood may have felt like confinement or diminishment when attention meant scrutiny and invasion by overprotective parents. Later, an honest emotional communication may feel like an onslaught or invasiojn. Engulfment fear may thus be sparked by a partner simply sharing his or her feelings or enquiring about us with solicitude. Somehow, these innocent approaches of intimacy recreate the terrors of the past, and we automatically reenact our defences against them.

We may feel that the only way to protect our boundaries now is to remain at arm’s length. We then feel compelled to psuh people awya for safety’s sake. Closeness and commitment may seem like threats against or incursions into the tenuous integrity of our identity.

In the terror of being held too tightly, or loved too much is an impulse to run that becomes quite subtle in the many forms it may take : coldness, indifference, refusals to make commitments, need for more space, intolerance, rigid boundaries, embarrassment about affection in public. … We may even confuse a partner by seducing then withholding our parnter affection.

The partners who fear engulfment are less likely to leave because they have become successful at not being caught! When they themselves are left, they may discover their own abandonment fears for the first time. They becomes aware of how deeply bereft they are by the loss of their partners and they discover the deep well of neediness and loneliness in themselves. If they can admit these feelings to themselves and to future partner, they have a real chance for freedom from the fear of engulfment and true intimacy with someone who can respect their vulnerability.

Finally in fear of abandonment, we show fear and repress anger. In fear of engulfment, we show anger and repress fear!


Everyone feels the fear of abandonment and the fear of engulfment. Our task is not to stop feeling fears but to allow them and not be stopped by them. We seek the breadth of courage to let the other go without being consumed by a fear of abandonment and to let the other draw near without being panicked by the fear of engulfment.

Here is a programme that may help:

. Admit to your fears and admit them to your partner.

. Allow yourself to feel your fears fully, cradling them acceptingly.

. Act as if your fears were not obstacles to closeness or safety; if you fear engulfment, draw an inch closer than you can stand for one minute more than you can stand. If you fear abandonment, let the other go an inch further away than you can stand for a minute longer than you can stand. Repeat this over and over adding more time and more space on each occasion.

. Bust yourself on despair :

This is how I am /or how he or she is.

This is how I always was/or how he or she always was.

This is how my family is / or how his or her family is.

Say this to your partner : I may not shield you from the fear of abandonment or engulfment, and I do not ask you to shield me. I accept such fears as conditions of human existence, as givens of relating. I choose to acknowledge fear of abandonment or engulfment and work through it . I go on living rather than evading my fear and thereby go on fearing.

Extract from : Chapter Four, When Love Meets Fear : How to Become Defence-less and Resource-full, by David Richo

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