Is Separation Anxiety Related to Abandonment?

Susan Anderson
4 min readAug 23, 2021


Someone wrote in and asked, “Is separation anxiety related to abandonment?”

“Oh yes,” I resounded. Separation anxiety is the basis for all emotional distress — anxiety, depression, insecurity-in-relationships, fear-of-loss. Abandonment feelings trigger separation anxiety and separation anxiety trigger abandonment feelings.

Let’s say you walk into a restaurant with your friends and you suddenly see your husband sitting at a table with another woman. Your heart starts to pound as if you had just seen a bear! This “panic” is separation anxiety. Or let’s say that you’re alone because you just can’t seem to find someone to love. You’re beginning to give up hope. You feel this constant malaise, an energy-drain, sometimes jittery in the morning, on-edge during the day, maybe even downright unhappy. This “depression” is separation anxiety.

Or maybe there are layoffs at work. You’re worried you’re next. You’ve become very sensitive to any nuance of rejection or criticism from the higher-ups. These “paranoid” feelings are separation anxiety.

The antidote: Use these experiences to practice becoming a “separate person.” Once you find the internal switch (an adult switch) that regulates your separation anxiety, you can strengthen your emotional self-reliance. You gain personal power over feeling abandoned, alone, afraid, even under stressful circumstances.

To be human is to feel these things. But to be an adult is to accept your humanness while at the same time accepting that you are in fact SEPARATE. The old adage about “coming into the world alone and going out alone” may sound obvious, but it attempts to break our denial and therefore is extremely meaningful. The adage reflects that many adults have made this discovery before us and have made a special point of sharing this wisdom — because they know that we are in denial — that we protest its simple reality. They know the acceptance of our separateness is the basis for becoming a true adult.

Separation anxiety is a throwback to childhood when we knew we’d die unless someone nurtured our needs. This life-and-death fear gets triggered by any perception of abandonment within our adult relationships. But once triggered, this fear challenges us to find the adult switch — the reality switch — the one that reminds us that we can stand on our own two feet. We learn to manage the fear by facing rather than fighting our separateness. Protesting our separateness keeps us in panic and anxiety. The task is to face the “worst-case scenario” (the realization that we are each emotionally alone) and then to realize that we can take care of ourselves. This acceptance must be made, not begrudgingly, but wholeheartedly.

Once we realize that as adults we are responsible for meeting our own emotional needs and not the person we are obsessing about, we begin to take back control of our lives. Incidentally, this newfound power also dramatically changes the dynamic in our relationship, often turning the tables to our advantage. We lose our neediness and become mysteriously self-sufficient.

An essential point here is that separation anxiety is a form of protest. It is a reaction to not accepting the existential reality of our separateness. Any threat to our primary relationship makes us anxious the same way little children feel anxious when they can’t find their mommies: the world looms lonely and scary.

The abandonment feelings triggered when our jobs, our lives, or our plans go awry — are just feelings, not facts. The reality is that adults cannot be abandoned, because they are capable of taking care of themselves. The only real abandonment in adulthood is self-abandonment. Believing ourselves to be helplessly dependent upon someone contributes to abandoning ourselves. Self-abandonment occurs when we momentarily forget that we are capable of self-care.

Self-abandonment occurs when we as adults blame ourselves for being left by someone we love, and then we compound it by blaming ourselves for becoming so emotional– for feeling so desperate. All of this leads to self-abandonment. And it is this self-abandonment that leads to the loss of self-esteem which is the cornerstone of abandonment’s severe depression.

Let’s say that we stay busy, have a million routines, and sustain close relationships with our loved ones. These are not bad things. In fact, they are good things, even though an underlying motive is to stave off separation anxiety. When things are going smoothly there’s no incentive to find that adult switch and learn to practice becoming a separate person. So we can become complacent…and dependent…even on our routines!

Those of us whose separation anxiety has been triggered by loss or disappointment are the lucky ones — because we get to develop emotional self-reliance — and we’re better for it.

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Susan Anderson

Psychotherapist, Author, Abandonment Expert w/ 30+ years of clinical experience & dedicated research of #abandonment victims. Contact me: