Have you found a relationship but abandoned yourself?
Samantha Boesch
Illustration: Nicole Rifkin
July 5, 2021

See if any of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • You’ve hidden a desire because you were worried about what your partner might think.
  • You’ve toned down parts of your personality to get the person you like to reciprocate your feelings.
  • You’ve avoided confrontation because you didn’t want to risk a relationship.

These are all examples of what is known as self-abandonment and, well, I’ve done all three. Multiple times. But I know I’m not alone in these experiences, as these and similar situations are extremely common for people in relationships.“Self-abandonment occurs when a person rejects, suppresses, or ignores a part of his/her/their self,” says Lindsey Horvatich, a licensed mental health counselor and certified clinical anxiety treatment professional. And while self-abandonment can show up in any type of relationship, it is its impact on dating and romantic relationships that I have personally felt the most.We may abandon certain parts of ourselves in romantic relationships for a variety of reasons. For a recovering people-pleaser like myself, it has often been a fear of rejection that has kept me from truly speaking my mind. According to relationship and sex therapist Tom Murray, Ph.D., this fear of being abandoned by another person is a common driving force in ultimately abandoning ourselves. “We want to be wanted and desired, we want to feel like we belong. Evolutionarily speaking, abandonment is dangerous,” says Murray.

Tracing the Roots of Self-Abandonment

A habit of self-abandonment may stem from our upbringing, especially for those who experienced a tumultuous childhood or were raised in an emotionally unsafe environment. If you grew up with loving caregivers but still find yourself abandoning your needs, it’s important to understand that even the most stable home situations can affect us long-term. Kelly Elizabeth, empowerment and self-confidence coach, says that many of us learn to abandon ourselves at an early age. “When we experience love out of being ‘good’ or doing what our parents wanted us to do, it can perpetuate a belief that in order to be loved and accepted by others, we have to do what will make them happy, even if it is not what we want deep down,” says Elizabeth.The good news is that if you’re someone (like me!) who finds themselves in patterns of self-abandonment in your relationships, you can always find a path of healing. Consider these five tips for finding yourself again.

Get acquainted with how self-abandonment is impacting your life.

The first thing we can do in this process is to stop, listen, and take notice. Elizabeth says it’s important to notice your physical reaction when tempted to self-abandon. “Feel what is happening in your body when your partner asks you to do something,” says Elizabeth. “For example, how is your body responding? Do you have a desire one way or the other?” You don’t have to do anything else in that moment except take note of where your mind goes and how your body feels. Even this simple step can connect you back to yourself.When you feel ready, take a deeper look at how these self-abandonment patterns are affecting you. “If someone is self-abandoning, they need to identify how it is impacting their life and work back to the source,” says Horvatich. This awareness can help effect change as we begin to visualize what a life without self-abandonment might look like.

Rebuild trust with yourself.

Over time, self-abandonment can erode the bond of trust that we have with ourselves. I spent many years of my life ignoring my own needs to go along with what my partner wanted, and through that process, I forgot what it was like to trust my intuition.Regardless of where you are in your journey, you can begin the process of rebuilding trust with yourself. A good place to start is to identify some negative core beliefs that may be perpetuating these cycles, possibly through going to therapy. Horvatich has worked with many clients who have identified a core belief at the center of their self-abandonment. “If I believe that I am not worthy of love or inherently flawed in some way, I am going to find a way to self-destruct or sabotage my relationships,” says Horvatich. “In therapy, we can identify faulty or untrue beliefs and replace them with true beliefs, healthy boundaries, self-awareness, and emotional resilience.” Somewhere along the line, these core beliefs have made us feel as though we are not good enough, that we need someone else’s opinions in order to feel safe or at peace. We then learn to cling to our partner’s wants and needs, sometimes at the expense of our own desires. Start rebuilding that self-trust by becoming aware of your core beliefs, working with a therapist, asking yourself what you want, and actually listening to the answer.

Reconnect to your sense of pleasure.

When we self-abandon, we choose a relationship over ourselves. By doing this, we are essentially signaling that our partner’s pleasure and happiness matter more than our own. Reclaiming our wants and needs means reconnecting to the things that we find pleasurable. In this process, we are also helping rebuild the self-trust we may have lost by saying to ourselves, “I care enough about you to put you first.” Murray refers to this goal as “aiming for self-fullness.” Go to the movies on your own, eat a comforting meal you cooked for yourself, splurge on a massage, masturbate with a brand-new sex toy—the list of possibilities is endless. “Reclaim a sense of self through pursuing meaningful experiences, even when they exclude your partner,” suggests Murray. You may even find that focusing on yourself—and the self-confidence that comes with that focus—brings you and your partner closer together.

Let people down.

If we are going to lean into trusting ourselves more and choosing to listen to our own desires, we’ll have to get comfortable with the possibility of disappointing people. “We need to learn to sit in the tension of letting people down,” says Elizabeth, “because sometimes in life, we are going to disappoint people with our decisions to be true to what feels right for us.” I know how it may feel to consider this, because the weight of these words for a people-pleaser like me is enough to make me want to crawl into a hole. But this goes back to one of the main reasons many of us abandon ourselves, and that is the fear of someone else abandoning us. But if we continue to make decisions based on how we think other people will react, we will continue to let fear run our lives.

Talk with your partner.

If you’re currently self-abandoning in a relationship, it may be helpful to open the lines of communication between you. While it’s always important to find additional support outside of a partnership, sharing some of these struggles with your partner can also make a difference. This not only helps build more trust and intimacy, but also gives your loved one a bit more insight into why you do the things you do. This hasn’t always been easy for me. There have been plenty of moments where sharing something with my partner turned into putting too much responsibility on them to fix me. I looked to them for validation that everything was okay instead of looking inward, which goes back to a lack of trust in myself. This unfortunately placed an unfair burden on both them and our relationship. Now I’m learning how to process things on my own or with my therapist before bringing them to my partner. This doesn’t mean that I can’t lean on them or that I’ll never be able to process anything with them ever again, but I recognize that right now is the time for me to learn how to trust that I’m okay on my own. What is wonderful about this work of looking inwards is that it can’t help but bring you more satisfaction and closeness in your relationships. As your ability to identify what aligns with your needs gets stronger, you will naturally seek out relationships that are right for you. We call that a win-win!