Abandonment is a catchy word. In the therapy world, you’ll often time see it preceding such words as: issues, problems, trauma, anxiety, ect. The basic story is: I had experiences of abandonment when I was young (some of these experiences may have even been preconscious) and now I live in constant fear of it happening again and so I am forever vigilant in my efforts to avoid it.
There is irony here. The very fact that I have already been through it once (and likely many, many more times) should be proof enough that I can survive it.
Unfortunately, logic loses its luster when confronted with the foggy, powerful world of the unconscious.
On a nervous system level, and deep in the recesses of my mind, those experiences of abandonment as a child FELT like the end. When my parents went to the car to grab groceries, leaving me alone in the house, I had no way of knowing that they would be back in 3 minutes. In my little mind I was convinced that they would be gone forever and indeed it FELT like forever.
If you’ve ever watched a dog when his owner leaves him, you’ll have witnessed this firsthand. The dog is visibly anxious, and rightfully so. The dog relies on his owner for his livelihood (just as a baby relies on his parents). The dog doesn’t understand that the owner is only leaving for the night and will be back tomorrow morning. To the dog, it FEELS like the end.
On a minor level, we have all had experiences of abandonment. They are impossible to avoid as a helpless, dependent little being.
Some people get to adulthood very much aware of the fact that they desperately want to avoid a reenactment of the initial abandonment. This is a slippery slope. They invest energy in their lives towards this end. This means, at times, compromising oneself and one’s integrity in effort to not upset the person who could do the abandoning. It means anticipating potential abandonment and preemptively trying to avoid that possibility. This is exhausting. Furthermore, it oftentimes creates the very conditions that make abandonment likely. As I exhaust myself trying to please my partner and reassure myself that my partner loves me, I inevitably end up pushing my partner away, thus activating the very pain that I am attempting to avoid.
Here are 4 strategies I employ with my clients to help them work with their abandonment narratives:
1. Try a different word
Abandonment is a powerful word. It puts the one leaving in the superior position and renders the one being left a victim. Not only is the victim unable to change the situation, but the victim is forced to feel his or her ‘victimness’. His ‘woe is me’. Implicit in the word is the assumption that my well-being is ultimately in the hands of she who is leaving me. This is not helpful.
One might say, instead, that they are afraid of feeling alone. This brings up legitimate sadness, but maybe we can learn how to function within the sadness.
2 – Give yourself permission to feel like an abandoned person
You already do. It hasn’t killed you yet, why should it now? Exhausting yourself trying to avoid a conscious experience of what is already true is increasing your suffering.
3 – Treat yourself with the respect that an adult deserves
Even if she leaves you, it doesn’t mean it’s the end. You are not a helpless, powerless, dependent child. You do not need your partner the way you needed your parents.
You love you partner, perhaps, but maybe you don’t need your partner.
4. Drop the claim that you are an “abandoned person” or that you have “abandonment issues”
If you look for a feeling of abandonment in your body, you are unlikely to find one. Instead, you are likely to find grief, fear, sadness, rage, anger, etc. These are difficult emotions, but you surprise yourself by how well you can handle them in their raw expression.
Admittedly, these suggestions are much easier said than done. Doing this work involves going directly into the places in your psyche that you have spent your life avoiding (and for good reason).
It can be helpful to have a therapist guide you in this journey. I am happy to offer my support.