Emotional Anorexia and Abandonment


In working with the victims of abandonment trauma, I keep coming across folks who are emotionally anorexic.  When people attempt to give them love, they can’t seem to take it in.  They rather remain in a state of emotional starvation rather than risk abandonment – their greatest fear.

As with almost all conditions, emotional anorexia can be seen on a spectrum.  Most of us have moments when we can’t take something in – praise, acknowledgement, empathy, admiration, affection.  But let’s see what this condition looks like in its extreme.  To clarify it, let’s suggest what it is not:

It’s not just that you haven’t yet found anyone who creates that spark of connection.

It’s not just that you’ve been searching for your tribe and can’t seem to find “your type of people.”

It’s not just that you’re lacking an appetite for a love-connection because you’re currently too satisfied with the peace and calm of being on your own.

It’s not just that you’re enjoying a period of separation from your well-meaning friends and family so you can incubate emotional self reliance and discover new aspects of yourself.

It’s not just that you are overthrowing your old pattern of behaving as if:  “it’s better to be in a bad relationship than no relationship at all” – to prove to yourself that “no relationship feels better than the chronic heartache of a bad one.”

It’s ALL of these things and more combined into an entrenched pattern whose reactions and behaviors have become involuntary. They operate unconsciously to isolate you.

Fear of abandonment

Underlying emotional anorexia is fear of abandonment, a universal, primal fear that can become powerful enough to cause your primitive emotional brain to erect involuntary defenses aimed at protecting you from emotional harm.  For emotional anorexics, this means avoiding closeness.

When someone comes along toward whom you feel that spark, it triggers one of two things or both happen:

You feel so vulnerable that you can’t tolerate the anxiety, so you split.

Or you feel so engulfed that you can only push them away.

Emotional anorexia can extend into your social world, walling you off from friends, family, and anyone else who tries to get close or express love.  Hackles of fear go up.  The very thing you need most creates the greatest fear and necessitates building the thickest walls to avoid the risk of abandonment.

Fear of engulfment 

The flipside of fear of abandonment is fear of engulfment.  The expectations of the other person begin to close in on you. You fear having to abandonment yourself.

When you try a relationship, your emotional pendulum swings wildly between fear of engulfment and fear of abandonment, never resting in the middle long enough to give you peaceful moments with the other person, thus thwarting the process of developing trust and forming a relationship.

You simply can’t take in nourishment offered by a love relationship because your hyper-alert defense system has been primed to elicit avoidant behaviors that work to prevent emotional penetration at all costs.  To protect you from the danger of attachment, you build a fortress surrounded by a mote filled with crocodiles.  When someone is able to scale the walls and get close to you, you become agitated and volatile.  You freak out.


Fear or abandonment can be extreme enough to constitute a phobia.  Abandophobics may appear to be seeking relationships, but on closer examination, they are chasing after people who are so out of reach that it eliminates the risk of a real relationship.  Their unconscious defense mechanisms get them to avoid intimate relationships altogether to avoid any chance of getting hurt.

Emotional bulimia 

Some people’s pattern is best described as emotional bulimia. Initially you are able to intake someone’s love, but as it starts to metabolize, you expel it.  The vomiting is involuntary. Try as you might to keep it down, you can’t help spitting it back up, sending their love and attention, along with your hopes of a relationship down the drain once again.

You are most likely fully aware of the anxiety at the heart of this – your panicky insecurity – the fear of impending emotional annihilation – but it’s more difficult to remain fully conscious of the origin of the defense mechanisms that prevent you from getting close– the automatic mechanism behind all of your fault-finding and barrier-building.

Let’s look at the case of Janet:

Janet felt revulsion every time she tried to be with her boyfriend.  She suspected that her hyper-criticalness of him was motivated by her primal fear of abandonment, but once the laundry list of his faults began to formulate in her mind, she simply could not block them out.  They seemed real.  When he texted her, she found it annoying; she’d judge him as needy.  When they went out on a date, she found some of his habits repellant. She’d start noticing things like specs of dandruff on his shoulder, an oily smell to his hair, or how he kept licking his bottom lip.  These things loomed large and helped her justify her revulsion. But she wondered if she was just imagining them.  Which came first, the revulsion or the dandruff? 

Many people have experienced quandaries similar to these when trying to be in a new relationship, but for emotional anorexics and bulimics, feeling repelled is a preset unconscious mechanism.


Emotional anorexia can be a feature of post traumatic stress disorder of abandonment, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobic reactions, and other diagnostic categories.  Regardless, the message is the same:  Don’t give up; remain hopeful.   Making even a small change in overcoming avoidance can get you over the hump and into a fulfilling, trusting connection.  Yes, abandonment fear is primal, but it doesn’t have to rule our lives.  We have tools to identify and heal our underlying abandonment wounds.  As we gain awareness into our defense mechanisms, we learn to dismantle the ones in our way.  We realize that we can risk getting close to someone and if it doesn’t work out, we can risk trying again.  In the meantime, we will be okay.

To overcome this condition, we need to go beyond awareness and undertake a comprehensive program of incremental change.  We have effective hands-on exercises that help us sooth, calm, and nurture ourselves and build emotional resilience.  To overcome the phobic patterns of avoidance, progressive desensitization is a component.  Through therapeutic counseling, group support, and coaching from friends, sponsors and professionals, you can overcome your self sabotage, build emotional self reliance, and form loving connections.

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By Susan Anderson © 2015


  1. Angie Hilson says:

    I have self analyzed my abandonment issues and I know the base of them stem from my mother. She always worked two jobs after my parents divorced when I was 4. So for about 4 years we lived in about 10 different places and I probably had twice as many sitters in that time period. Some were relatives but it was always leaving me somewhere so she could work. I remember being scared in a lot of places, not really knowing who I was with. She would always pick me up, but it was a lot of juggling. When I turned 8 I was then able to get up with an alarm clock and phone call in the morning for school, and spent my evenings with the neighborhood kids and their families or sometimes just alone at home. As an adult I have been OCD and a control freak. After my mom passed 4 years ago I lost my inhibitions, my drive to do anything for myself and I entered into an unhealthy relationship. We spent everyday together for 11 months, minus maybe about a week or two at the most. He said from the beginning he would continue to look and I accepted that, but had thought that there was such a connection that maybe in the long run he’d change his mind. Then one night he just didn’t want or couldn’t do “this” anymore. We had a very mental connection, I was hook, line and sinker, and what I consider brain washed. We had just weathered his son’s suicide together and I thought we connected even more, but the thought of him leaving me after we added in a dom/sub relationship, along with a vanilla relationship, meeting everyone in his life (which we originally said we wouldn’t do) and building a relationship with not only him but his son, then the suicide and then him wanting to leave me behind… I lost it and tried to overdose. While I was in the hospital still hooked up to bed monitors in the ICU he came to see me. He smiled, he hugged me, he cried, he brought me pizza, he sat with me for a while and then he said he was going to go have a drink and process then come back….. I never saw or heard from him again. After two days in the ICU it was then a 24 hour mental hospital stay. I was so scared. But I never contacted him. But I lived my life in fear of ever seeing him again. We worked in the same town and I drove by where he worked. For months it was like that. Then while visiting friends I met another guy. I knew I wasn’t ready for a relationship because I was broken, but he was so charming, good looking, sweet and he came to see me. He wanted to be with me, he pursued me, he wanted to have a future with me. After a month it was love. After a few months he wanted to marry me, but I held off because I had my first grandchild on the way and I needed to be here for that. Then as we came to know one another he struggled with my past. He struggled with who I really was. He wanted me to know everything about me but while he was learning it, he started thinking less of a person of me because of my past. He wanted to make me more innocent but couldn’t. And I bent to try to please him. All the while he loved me, we held hands, we laughed, we were us, we had incredible sex, he wanted to marry me……. Then one day, a phone call, “I can’t do this anymore”. Jaw drop. I am 2 1/2 hours away and I have my granddaughter. I can’t fight for it. While I left the house, he showed up with all of my stuff and dropped it off and left. The distance was too far to try to fight. I had to walk away, again….. He married 189 days later and is now expecting a baby. At the time the second abandonment happened I found out that the first ex had given up his life, business and friends here to move a couple hours away to be with a woman. I have been single for a year. I have no desire to seek a relationship, but find comfort in FWB to a certain degree. I secretly long to be loved, to have a future with someone but I cannot put myself out there. I do not have anything else to give as far as love. I cannot risk losing another piece of my heart again. The thought almost brings me to tears and causes an anxiety rush. I am so lost. I just with I could find someone who can help me through this. I have tried counseling, but no one gets it. No one understands the abandonment issues. I have lost friends, my whole life has shifted. I feel I’m a ship at sea with no land in sight.

  2. Ken says:

    Big hugs Angie. I would write something hopeful and optimistic but I’m feeling more like what you writing my whole adult life. Aum. Peace. Love. Life.

  3. Marie says:

    I guess we need to learn to love ourselves.

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