Learn why abandonment can leave long-lasting and insidious wounds that impact every facet of our lives.
Abandonment is an extraordinarily painful experience. It can have substantial and, for many, long-lasting impacts on our perceptions of ourselves and others. An experience of abandonment and the lingering fear it instills in us can negatively affect how we engage with our friends, family, co-workers, and romantic partners. It can leave us feeling sensitive and irritable or flattened and numb.
Though the idea of being abandoned seems to imply being physically left on your own, we can feel abandoned by someone who is still physically present yet emotionally unavailable. Abandonment wounds are often, though not always, inflicted during childhood and can become complexly intertwined with our personalities and conceptions of self, making them particularly challenging to heal. However, these are wounds that we can tend to, no matter when they occurred. Let’s talk more about what abandonment is, what it feels like, and how we can begin to recover from it.
What Is Abandonment?
Abandonment is the state of being left helpless and without protection. When we feel abandoned, we feel undesired, unimportant, and discarded. Abandonment often comes with the sense of betrayal as well, that we’ve been left by someone who was supposed to support us. One common example is parental divorce during our childhood. The departure of one of our parents can leave us feeling betrayed and unworthy of love. The lasting emotional impact of abandonment centers on this sense of betrayal and unworthiness. The experience can leave us feeling as though we can’t trust those that are closest to us or that we are simply not worth their love and commitment.
Abandonment is a traumatic experience and requires the development of different psychological and behavioral strategies for protecting ourselves in the future. These strategies can be helpful as we navigate the immediate aftermath of being abandoned, but they become maladaptive if they persist in the long run, thus they become “issues.” Abandonment issues are commonly characterized by anxiety and fear of losing loved ones which results in a hypersensitivity to perceived distancing in a relationship (Smith, 2018).
Abandonment wounds typically result in fear and anxiety marked by hypervigilance regarding signs that you are about to be abandoned again (Smith, 2018). We respond to our fear and anxiety by trying to predict when we are going to be left so that we can avoid it or at least prepare ourselves for the impact. Our attempts to manage these feelings manifest in a variety of ways—ways that we might refer to as symptoms of abandonment issues.
Below are just some examples of the many symptoms we might observe if we suffer from abandonment wounds.
- Difficulty forming close, healthy relationships
- Patterns of choosing partners who are abusive, controlling, needy, emotionally unstable, or emotionally unavailable
- Patterns of unhealthy interpersonal communication with partners and friends
- Consistent feedback from others that you are too needy
- Losing yourself in relationships
- Inability to trust others
- Pushing others away to avoid rejection
- Always wanting to please others
- Feeling insecure in relationships
- Developing codependency
- Need for constant reassurance that others will not leave
- Maintaining unhealthy relationships
- Hypersensitivity to criticism
- Tendency to dissociate
- Social anxiety
- Addictions, eating disorders, and self-harm
Why Do People Get Abandonment Issues?
Abandonment issues are commonly the result of adverse childhood experiences which result in what is known as an insecure attachment style (Conradi et al., 2016). According to attachment theory, our relationship with our parents or caregivers provides a framework or working model for what we can expect from others, which we rely on throughout our lives (Bowlby, 1988).
This theory asserts that as children when our caregivers are present and reliably responsive to our needs, we develop a working model of ourselves as worthy and loveable and of others as caring and reliable, known as a secure attachment style. When our caregivers were absent, neglectful, abusive, emotionally unavailable, or otherwise inconsistently responsive to our critical needs, we develop an insecure attachment style or a model in which we are inept or worthless and/or in which others are cold and untrustworthy (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999).
Though insecure attachment styles are commonly observed in people who had adverse childhood experiences (such as neglect or abuse), insecure attachment styles can be developed throughout the lifespan in response to traumatic losses of attachment figures, such as the death of a parent, friend, sibling, or spouse (Daly & Mallinkrodt, 2009).
How To Deal With Abandonment
Healing from abandonment issues can be a long and challenging process. It forces us to confront uncomfortable and often traumatic experiences and requires that we fundamentally reshape our perceptions of ourselves and those around us. Letting go of any kind of deeply held belief is difficult, but allowing ourselves to let go of a deeply held belief that we have been using to protect ourselves from harm can feel nearly impossible. Fortunately, as impossible as it might feel, we can recover from experiences of abandonment. Let’s get into just a few strategies recommended by mental health professionals and other experts.
- Support groups
The experience of being abandoned can shape our entire worldview. It can make us feel as though we aren’t worthy of the same love, care, and compassion that others are and that the people we care about the most cannot be trusted to protect and comfort us when we need it most. These perceptions can have significant negative impacts on our relationships with our family, friends, co-workers, romantic partners, and even with ourselves. We can, however, recover from these deep and painful wounds by offering ourselves self-compassion, care, and self-forgiveness as we explore the source of our pain and our responses to it.
- Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Routledge, London.
- Bretherton, I., Munholland, K.A. (1999). Internal working models in attachment relationships: a construct revisited. In: Cassidy, J., Shaver, P.R. (Eds.), Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications second ed. Guildford press, New York, 102–127.
- Conradi, H. J., Boertien, S. D., Cavus, H., & Verschuere, B. (2016). Examining psychopathy from an attachment perspective: The role of fear of rejection and abandonment. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 27(1), 92-109.
- Daly, K. D., & Mallinckrodt, B. (2009). Experienced therapists’ approach to psychotherapy for adults with attachment avoidance or attachment anxiety. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56(4), 549.
- Smith, M. E. (2018). Managing abandonment issues through recovery. Family Tree Counseling Associates.