ABANDONMENT vs. BORDERLINE: 12 Helping Tasks for Coping with Emotional Hijacking

Abandonment creates an emotional crisis of such intensity and duration that it mimics a full blown borderline episode. This has caused many a therapist to diagnose borderline personality disorder (BPD) in many a client in the throes of a painful separation. When a client presents with an emotional volcano of abandonment, it is easy to misinterpret it as evidence of serious psychiatric disorder.

Being left by someone you love has the power to bring the strongest and most independent among us to our knees. No matter how stable, self reliant, and mature we are, we can collapse into symbiotic regression where we believe we can’t live without the person. We feel overwhelmed by separation anxiety and demoralized by a complete loss of emotional control. We succumb to primal rage and fear. The panic, severe depression, and other excessive emotions cause us to doubt our own strength. Depending on circumstances, losing a job, a friend, a goal, the love of a child or mate can have similar impact.

Abandonment is a cumulative wound. It contains all of the disappointment, disconnection, rejection, heartache, self-doubt, self-frustration, and shame that our emotional brain has been accumulating since childhood. Feeling rejected and cast off can thrust us into an emotional time warp, unleashing a torrent of primal emotion that seems all out of proportion to the actual event. These primal feelings form the basis of the molten lava that spews from the rock bottom of our emotional core to the freshly opened wound, volcanically consuming us in their power to entirely interrupt our lives, at least during the initial stages of the abandonment grief cycle.

In borderline personality disorder (BPD), it takes a lesser event to trigger an equally painful emotional response, through no fault of the person suffering from this syndrome of emotional dysregulation. This hyper-reactivity is also a cornerstone of PTSD of Abandonment (a category which offers overlapping, alternative etiology and terminology). Neither borderline nor post truamtic reactions are voluntary, yet the sufferer wears guilt and shame for their emotional excesses. Those who’ve been through a painful breakup can truly appreciate the pain both a borderline and trauma victim must deal with on a chronic basis.

Both borderline and trauma are considered, at least in part, a so called “disease” of the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, the part of the brain responsible for the Fight Flee Freeze response. The amygdala is set on overdrive, primed for a state of emergency, creating chronic hyper-vigilance and emotional hijacking. In spite of overlapping areas, The two conditions, in spite of overlapping features, are not identical. People can have heightened emotional reactivity to abandonment triggers (as part of the post traumatic symptoms) without evincing some of the significant features of borderline such as cutting, reality distortion around emotional events.

But whether your emotional crisis is precipitated by the ending of a relationship, or triggered by the perception (possibly distorted) of being slighted or excluded, or whether it is evidence of an aftershock of post traumatic stress disorder stemming from past or recent losses, the steps to take, beyond seeking outside help (psychiatric, therapeutic, and/or recovery) and support, remains the same:

1) Recognize the emotional hijacking.
2) Know that your emotionally heightened state may warp your perceptions and adversely affect your relationships.
3) Contain your volcanic lava. Cease and desist all destructive actions toward self and others; instead take stock of SELF.
4) Address your inner core. Identify your emotions as you feel them in your body. Know they are but feelings, they are temporary – fleeting as all life is fleeting – and they belong to you in this moment.
5) Actively apply your self-healing tools, i.e. practice mindfulness meditation techniques that help to lower your respiration rate, create calm, and allow your spinning emotional compass to reset.
6) To short-circuit future hijacks, mindfulness needs to become habit-of-mind. Daily practice strengthens the muscle of this health-supporting part of your brain.
7) Use the Big-Little tool to connect with your abandoned inner child. The Abandonment Recovery Workbook can help you facilitate this process step by step. Learn how to administer directly to your inner child’s primal needs so you won’t act them out toward other people, won’t displace your primal rage and fear on them. Commit to practice the Big-Little (one of the five abandonment recovery tools) regularly to make it a habit of mind.
8) Keep tabs on your Outer Child – your self saboteur. During an amygdala hijack, the brain can’t learn new things, so it relies on over-learned (Outer Child) patterns. Now is the time to stay on top of your Outer Child with the aim of curbing its cyclical behavior.
10) Avoid alcohol since it lowers our inhibitions and makes it more difficult to contain the overflow of emotional lava. Alcohol instigates your Outer Child to act out.
9) Chose constructive behaviors. Commit to practice positive daily steps regularly. This helps to create healthy habit formation. The books and workbook are there to guide you. Eventually you replace Outer Child’s self defeating patterns with healthy new ones. Make them habit-of-mind and well as embedding them in your muscle memory.
11) Practice LovingKindness meditation. Scientific evidence shows that when practiced regularly, this type of mediation tool can create permanent beneficial changes in the brain (i.e. changing the right/left ratio in frontal lobe activation) to elevate mood, promote positive thoughts, and increase initiative, and improve stability.
12) Imagine feeling grateful to your emotional crisis for giving you ideal conditions in which to best practice the abandonment recovery tools that help you strengthen your emotional self reliance and increase your capacity for love and connection. Cultivate gratitude. incorporate it into your LovingKindness meditation techniques.

© Susan Anderson June 4 2013

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  1. Annette says:

    Dear Susan,
    I have looked through your entire site, but have not been able to find Part II of your article on Borderline and Abandonment. Where can I download it, please?
    Best wishes,


  2. Admin says:

    Sorry to have sent you on a goose chase! Susan has not yet written part 2. Stay tuned!!

  3. Tristan says:

    Good post actually addresses the issue and directly helps as opposed to just discussing the topic; causes symptoms etc

  4. Find your own aim in life is the most important. Thats from Jung.

  5. Lisa says:

    Thank you; thank you so much for addressing the clinical error that stigmatizes those with post traumatic abandonment injury, creating hopelessness and further frustration for the client who is already suffering so much.

  6. SOnya says:

    Thank you for this article. Very informative and I am happy to see it addressed in the mental health field.

  7. Patty says:

    Thank you. In all the years I have spent in therapy, nothing has quite so succinctly described the anguish I have tried to convey. Somehow reading this post gives me a sense that my feelings are legitimate.

  8. Lucy says:

    Is the part two coming up yet?

  9. Admin says:

    Yes indeed!

  10. amsterdam says:

    Thank you for this piece, just what I needed (I have only very recently been labeled borderliner and meanwhile I’m struggling intensely with a break-up). But what is the Big-Little tool? Thank you in advance.

  11. Jen says:

    This totally blew me away. Thank you I am finally seeing a path and finding direction in my desperate search for answers and peace, once and for all. Looking forward to part 2.

  12. Sharon says:

    Excellent… SO informative.
    I am the wife of someone who has post traumatic abandonment. I love my husband but it’s exhausting to be patient through his flashbacks. Any advice for the spouse?
    Thank you

  13. Admin says:

    This takes a very long time to heal, and in meantime has to be accommodated and accepted as something beyond your partner’s control. It is not a sign of weakness; he needs extra reassurance and reminders about where his symptoms are coming from. He has to learn to own his own reactions rather that dumping them onto other people. He needs to take radical self responsibility. -Susan

  14. Sue says:

    Having just accidentally found these pages, right in the midst of yet another break up that matches everything outlined here, I feel desolate. All my life I have been an acute example of this monstrous behaviour. Not just in love relationships, it has destroyed and plagued my entire life. At age 53, on anti-depressants for 21 years, career wrecked, addiction problems and multiple suicide attempts. I read all of the above and recognise myself. I cannot see a way out. Have had CBT before and failed to change what feels like hardwired, innate behaviours, reactions and responses. I live in the UK and can find no workshops about abandonment disorder here. Where the heck do I start, please?

  15. Admin says:

    I will reply to you via e-mail, Sue!

  16. Ashley says:

    I would like to know more about the diferent options there is to cure or at least treat this condition? I on the other hand have my whole life ahead of me and refuse to let what other did to me from continuing to ruin my life. What have you described is also a reflection on me, but the self pitty burdens me. Thanks! -Ashley

  17. lisa says:

    i found this website out of desparation of wanting to help myself i am actively going through a crisis right now i feel extremely exhausted but yet still highly emotional. i have not started counseling yet i do have an appointment date how ever i am not familar with know of the techniques that you suggest. i consider my self a spiritual minded person. how ever this condition at times really drains me to the point of want to feel something other than this. i know self mutilation is not the way. i just wanted to say this is an aweful and hard to describe condition and i wish that i knew how to cope and wonder often what happen to me that triggered this in me

  18. Debra says:

    My estranged husband and father of my two youngest children (then 10 and 11) committed suicide. My son was the 10-year old.
    He is now almost 20, and after reading your articles, I feel quite sure my son is displaying characteristics from PTSD of Abandonment.

    I was hoping you might be able to put me in touch with a professional in his area (it’s upstate NY; , Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, or Yates counties are closest to us) that you might know of through your network.

    Any informaiton you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,

  19. Debra says:

    My estranged husband and father of my two youngest children (then 10 and 11) committed suicide. My son was the 10-year old. He is now almost 20, and after reading your articles, I feel quite sure my son is displaying characteristics of PTSD of Abandonment. I want to contact a professional in our area. Should I email you directly?


  20. Admin says:

    Do e-mail, Debra, we’ll do our best to offer guidance.

  21. Admin says:

    Please reach out via e-mail and we’ll do our best to offer direction. For starters, look into Susan’s books and workshops- they are a GREAT place for an enormous jump start.

  22. Jacalyn Royce says:

    Thank you for this article. Right now, I need to read everything I can find to help me get through. I was finally diagnosed as BPD in January. I’m 61 and have been searching to get well my entire life. And now, after nearly 32 years, my husband has decided to leave. Now; while I am actively working on getting better by taking myself through DBT and seeing a therapist, a psychiatrist, and a neurologist. He even acknowledges that he can tell I’m better, yet refuses to learn anything about BPD or the neurological condition I developed as a child. He even says that I have lied to the doctors.
    I never knew I was so hard to live with before my diagnosis. I understand that he’s completely burnt out; besides, he has ‘issues’ too. I can’t get mad at him, but I’m heartbroken.
    And a good 95% of what I can find online is all about how BPDs ruin other people’s lives and that our partners NEED to leave us to protect themselves…
    It was nice to finally find something a little soothing. Thank You.

  23. Admin says:

    So glad you found the article useful!

  24. Ryan says:

    Inciting event
    I was about to turn 5 years old (in a month, back in 1983), when I witnessed my dad walk out on us; my 30 year old mother, 3 sisters & me. I was being held down on the washer machine as he was leaving for good. I ran after him, while he drove away in his red vw beetle. (I no longer like those cars!)

    Basic background
    I was raised by my mother (from that point onward) to hate my father & to fight to ever become like him at all. When I did see him again, I felt so betrayed & ruined. My own grand (maternal) parents threatened to beat me with a leaf of the dining room table if I ever hugged him again (after they saw me hug him goodbye once on their driveway) I was a very destructive boy that lied, stole & cheated constantly. I even played with fire, broke many toys, killed turtles, hurt family cats, pulled legs off of crickets & beat up neighborhood friends / kids, as an outlet to my frustration & pain. I would fight often as a kid, often un-provoked, and when asked why, I could never explain myself. I once tried to choke out a family friends child when it was time to go home from a sleep-over, tried to choke out a family dog & ultimately tried to hang my self at age 16 in my fathers shed; ALL because of this. I was told that I was on the path to becoming a murderer by my own mother. I had become the perfect hellion of a troubled kid. My own mother turned me into the police because she thought I murdered two missing kids. I was constantly yelling at my mother, grand mother & my sisters. I even chased my sisters with knives & hammers. I was also chased with hammers & knives, too and threatened repeatedly by my mother if I didn’t stop. I never was too far from chaos.

    More background
    Ive experienced a lot of the listed symptoms first hand. I had many very loud outburst that were unforseen by anyone around me. I even yelled defensively at my future mother in law when she was yelling at my future wife about not answering her cell phone in year 2000. I thought the list was very helpful in understanding what I had been fighting inside of me. I really believe that I have been living in a “survival-mode” for the last 31 years. I’ve been to therapist, they have no clue. Ive tried anti-depressants, cymbalta almost killed me. I still have problems with rules & authority. My driving record is riddled with 20+ mph speeding, wreck less driving, accidents, etc. I impulsively buy things that I know I do not need. I have NO friends, social life or self esteem. I’ve been suicidal over minor resolvable life issues. I’ve almost turned myself into a local state mental hospital twice because of exhaustion.

    My point here, is that I now have a point of reference to move forward in a positive direction. My story has been told in a gross overview to the world to help un-burden my mind & to potentially help another human to understand that this is beyond your control until you better understand it & doing the next right thing does become a great positive pattern to adopt.

    I am not a doctor & the things that have worked for me will probably not make sense to anyone else, but I’ve become a (relatively) sane, average joe citizen as a result of all of it. I do not condone violence, nor any other action Ive done. (Violence actually scares me into a fight, flight, freeze corner in my mind; I never know how I’m going to handle it!)

  25. chloe says:

    I am trying to understand a loved one who has all of the characteristics of this disorder. I happened upon this site and believe it to be a life changer for me as reading all of your testimonies of your bravery and hardship gave me an eternal wealth of compassion for all of you and for my sweetie. It is not always easy to be in the path of the emotional rollercoaster and to have to get through the storms with my love as they come in quickly and they hurt and they are scary. But after reading and feeling deeply for all of you, and wanting nothing more than to be able to pray all of your pain away, I can tell you that I will never abandon my partner’s side and I pray that all of you have a Co pilot who will love you no matter what and help you heal completely. You are all wonderful and your stories are heroic! With God and the love of others, complete healing is possible! I healed from a rare disease of the bladder that every medical professional in the field said was incurable. They were wrong and I am completely healed now for 15 years. It’s the same with the mind. It can and will heal!!

  26. Michelle Lafferty says:

    This is so me. So desperate for help. I am getting too old to be go on this way. Please send part 2 & duplicate part 1

  27. Evan says:

    I did a search and found this site. I have PTSD diagnosed but it hasn’t quite made sense for it to be due to an exposure to violent traumatic episode(s). While that has happened to me many times, in part because of being in the US Army during the Viet era (a medic), my symptoms don’t seem quite right and especially my triggers are wrong. It is a long story but the short of it is that my now ex wife and I have been having problems for over a decade. I am 66, she is 63. Her libido basically vanished over time since menopause. Mine has not. I apparently am quite unusual because at the age of 66 my testosterone is still the same as a 20 year old man (803 ng/dL). It was just measured for the very first time a few weeks ago and I have been trying to find out how common it is. It isn’t, period.

    This has explained a great deal. As time has passed over the last decade or so I have been constantly facing rejection from her. Her love for me has drifted into the “compassionate” form (if there is any left) while mine has always been and still is the “passionate” form as is normal in young people.

    The level of rejection has continued to grow to the point that we stopped even sleeping in the same bed about six years ago. I have fibromyalgia and it is much easier for me to sleep in an inclined bed. Since being in bed together was only about sleeping I moved into a very much more comfortable recliner.

    However, when we married over 44 years ago I promised to never leave her “till death do us part”. I never break my promises and especially not that one. I also vowed to myself at age 16 to never harm another human being. I was violently and sexually abused as a child. Still, the PTSD just didn’t fit the usual type. I am still highly competitive and will fight but I fight in totally non violent ways such as fighting with the government for 4 1/2 years for a disability pension. In all those 44 years we were married I never touched my wife in anger, nor the children, or anyone else or even an animal.

    Then, last March something happened and I still do not know why. My ex told my doctor I was suicidal (I most certainly am not) and my doctor forced me into a psychiatric ward for examination. While I was there (total three weeks) she called me after a week and informed me “that when you come back I will not be here.”

    That pushed me over the edge immediately. I began having nightmares and startled extremely easily. Every and anything that reminds me of her or our marriage is a trigger for extremely hard crying that is uncontrollable much of the time. I was cleared of any psychiatric disorders (they seemed to miss the PTSD, it wouldn’t look good for it to start under their roof).

    In my case because of medical issues including two small hemorrhagic strokes in the last five years I was not able to drive at the time she informed me she was leaving. We lived in a remote area far from town and if she left me there without transportation it would fall under the act of “Criminal Abandonment” in Canada.

    Then I found this site a few days ago. Now so much is explained. My psychiatrist has diagnosed me with PTSD but not any specific type. What you explain here suddenly makes so much sense. I cry hard and long for so many things that have anything to do with just seeing her, our relationship, our children, the house I used to live in and anything at all related to us and family. It isn’t about violent episodes or attacks or death in any way. It is about her abandoning me and it is exactly that that I told here that she could not legally do. So I convinced her that I would move out instead of her to keep her from breaking the law. I also needed to be close to a hospital (no longer, I can now drive).

    Now that I have found this I see some light at the end of the very dark tunnel I have been in for six months. Now it finally makes some sense. Now I see the possibility of recovering my functionality emotionally enough to even just make some friends. I am looking forward to reading and studying all that is here. For the first time in half a year I am actually feeling better.

  28. Me says:

    Hello Susan, I just found your page today, and everything I read it has opened a door of opportunity to change my path, I was abandoned child, and it has affected me my entire life, now I look help because it is the first time that I actually want to live, I am married and I have a daughter, I am happy but my demons still following around, now I see hope. Thank you so much

  29. JoeInMidwest says:

    Somehow, I have survived to the age of 65.

    My parents divorced when I was about 12. Yes, abandonment hit so big. Especially since that was back when divorce was rare, especially in the midwest.

    Then ten years ago, my former wife left, giving me one day’s notice. Plus, I suffered a traumatic brain injury from a fall about four years before that. Now the divorce is long past, plus I have been dealing with childhood PTSD from emotional trauma. I did receive a LOT of help through the use of EMDR for some of my emotional trauma, but I sense that I have to go back as the feelings of abandonment keep recycling through my thoughts.

    Lately, I feel like there is no hope. My definition of wisdom now is jokingly attaining the insight into issues when I am too old and too powerless (lack of financial security) to do anything about it anyway. I had some self esteem issues outside of abandonment, but I can see that the abandonment itself is still bothering me.

    I am just tired of all of this. And of course I am alone.

  30. Jenny says:

    My parents divorced when I was 3 and my brother was 1. My father immediately started a new family and never looked back. As an adult, he told us that he left because my mother was being abusive… and he left us with her. We spent our childhoods being severely abused and neglected. There was a string of scary step-dads and we moved at least once a year. I escaped by reading and coped by being the nicest, smartest, most optimistic girl ever. I got married 2 months after graduating high school and started a family. The effects of being abandoned by both parents are such a big part me. I get depressive and imagine that my husband (of 20 years) doesn’t really love me and that he’s going to leave, too. I suffer from general anxiety and don’t handle stress well at all. I’m just starting to recognize it as PTSD. When I’m triggered, I just fall apart. My husband doesn’t understand and withdraws when I’m weepy… which triggers me worse. I’ve survived so many outside threats. Now that I’m “safe” I’m just torturing myself with depression. Anxiety makes it hard for me to handle stress. I don’t want to alienate my family. I’ve got some work to do to disrupt this feedback loop of triggers, depression and anxiety. Broken bodies are so much easier to heal.

  31. Help me says:

    I’m so tired. I have so much fear of losing every one especially people I’m close to please I don’t know how to deal with it. Please if there’s any help. So much of the article I didn’t understand or don’t know how to do.

  32. Rach says:

    I’ve recently been diagnosed with borderline Petsonality Disorder and I admit I react with a sense of hopelessness mess, feelings of abandonment and self harm but all this is triggered since finding out my husband of 20 years (3 kids) cheated on me. He says he’s been unable to communicate with me for years and this has led to him seeking the company and advice of other women whilst ignoring me to the point where he’s left me in my room for days waiting to see if I’d kill myself…I know I react abnormally but I really believe it’s his broken promises and abandonment of me now that I’ve had his three sons and an in my 40s that’s made things worse for me. Sometimes I don’t think it’s a mental illness or BPD to blame just a broken heart and the k owl edge you’ve been disposed of and replaced like a piece of rubbish.

  33. Rach says:

    I know I react badly but I react to what is essentially bad behaviour meted out to me in the first place I believe.

  34. Love says:

    I’m glad Susan is able to do all the things she mentioned during a full-blown onslaught Amygadala hijjack or being triggered when dealing with well-meaning therapists when you discover you were abused…

  35. Melissa Peck says:

    I was left alone at age 4 by my parents while they worked and my sister went to school. I was required to take care of myself for 8 hours a day. I remember following my sister to school but being pushed away. I would then go hide under my bed afraid terrified. I have vivid memories of these events. I have been diagnosed with PTSD and have been unable to connect with the world. I grew up disassociating and have night terrors. This article about abandonment is right on target. I suffer from all these symptoms. I’ve done EMDR and somatic work. I still, at 46 feel awkward and disconnected. Any advice? Thank you

  36. Matt says:

    Thank you soo much. you have solved my question as to what is wrong with me? I can now work on recovery.

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