Abandonment Issues: Symptoms Commonly Seen in Counseling
Orange County Christian Counseling
What is abandonment and how does it affect individuals as they develop throughout their lives? This article seeks to answer those questions and explain the most common emotional and relational effects of experiencing abandonment. If the content below resonates with you, please contact me so we can begin your journey toward healing.
What is Abandonment?
Humans are created for relationship. Attachment begins when infants connect with their caregivers, obtaining the necessary means of survival: food, warmth, and security. When those needs go unmet, the human brain initiates experiences anxiety, telling the person that they are not safe. When children continually experience this kind of acute apprehension through not being properly cared for, they develop a baseline fear that undergirds all subsequent human interaction.A child’s foremost fear is abandonment. Even when guardians are still physically present in the home, children will experience abandonment when their basic needs for survival are not met. True attachment to those guardians is never achieved and the relationship is marked by significant insecurity. Unless other adults become surrogate figures for attachment and connection (e.g. teachers, coaches, grandparents) – and occasionally even then – these insecure children become adults with impaired functioning and problems relating to others.
While fear of abandonment is universal – we all have felt alone and uncared for at one time or another – not everyone has experienced neglect to the extent that our ability to bond with others is impaired. Signs that an individual has abandonment issues include (among other things) a pervasive fear of losing relationships with the most cherished people in one’s life. Because early experiences of poor attachment with one’s caregivers in childhood lead to the belief that others cannot be counted on, deep insecurity marks all future relationships of those who have experienced abandonment.
Susan Anderson, an expert in abandonment research, claims that sufferers of abandonment feel cut off from “life-sustaining support”. Rather than being merely an issue from one’s past, however, Anderson believes that abandonment is a “cumulative wound” whereby all of a person’s disappointments, let-downs, and losses – from infancy to adulthood – are collectively pooled and recounted when triggered.
Abandonment does not necessarily have to be real to cause issues; perceived abandonment, as well as both emotional and physical forms of abandonment, are equally damaging. Examples of abandonment include:
- Feeling discarded as a result of parental divorce, death of a loved one, or placement in foster care or adoption.
- Feeling rejected due to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- Not having basic needs provided for by parents.
While some forms of abandonment are less obvious, they are by no means less damaging. Examples of less overt forms of abandonment include:
- Having parents whose mental health or substance abuse issues resulted in emotional distancing;
- Having a sibling who teased or bullied excessively;
- Feeling perpetually ignored and not having guidance in solving problems;
- Being criticized constantly or held to an impossible standard;
- Feeling increasing levels of anxiety when parents continually leave home or arrive late.
Experiencing chronic illness, the ending of a romantic relationship, extended singleness, or rejection from peers can all cause a sense of abandonment as well.
If any of the above resonates with you, it is likely that you have experienced some form of abandonment. The first step toward healing is acknowledging that you have been hurt.
Abandonment Issues: Symptoms Commonly Seen by Counselors
The following are seven of the most common ways that abandonment issues manifest in a person’s life.
1. Pervasive Insecurity
Abandonment destroys a person’s self-esteem. Individuals who have suffered neglect or abandonment often believe that they simply do not deserve another’s love or care. “If I had real worth or value,” this person might say, “my mom would not have given me up. I must not be loveable.” Children, in particular, are vulnerable to believing that everything they experience in life is directly connected to something they do or say. They are hardwired for egocentricity, so of course, they perceive abandonment as something they caused and something they deserved.
2. Recreating Trauma
Because abandonment impairs one’s sense of intrinsic worth, those who have experienced this neglect often perpetuate or reenact the trauma in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. These individuals, operating under the core belief that they will always be abandoned, unwittingly enter friendships or romantic relationships with individuals who are emotionally unavailable and just out of reach.
Subconsciously, the wounded person is seeking to resolve their earlier trauma by reenacting it in subsequent relationships. Hypervigilant, self-protecting, and sometimes clingy behaviors, which are aimed at proving that the other person is ready to flee the relationship, often create the very scenario that is most feared.
3. Fundamental Unworthiness
Children who experience abandonment believe they are worthless; they feel unwanted, rejected, and unlovable. These children eventually become adults who believe they are undeserving of happiness or healthy relationships. Shame and self-loathing perpetually reiterate the message that they are deeply flawed. Their thirst for connection both scares and motivates them, and their behaviors with others are often marked by this push-and-pull dance. When something inevitably goes awry in the relationship, it only proves their belief in their own worthlessness.
4. Emotional Hyper-Sensitivity
Abandonment (and the trauma it produces) changes how our brains regulate and respond to emotional stimuli. Those who have experienced this type of trauma become hyper-vigilant as a means of protecting the self from future pain.
Any emotional trigger such as feeling criticized, misunderstood, forgotten, or left out results in what David Goleman calls “emotional hijacking”. This phenomenon occurs when the emotional brain (the amygdala, which is responsible for the fight-flight-or-freeze response) takes over and causes the rational part of the brain (the frontal lobe) to go “offline.”
Children who have learned that their caregivers can’t always be counted on become well-acquainted with uncertainty. People they should have been able to trust let them down in significant ways, and as a result, they resolve to become self-sufficient. Unfortunately, this self-sufficiency – while enabling them to survive for the moment – creates a real difficulty in bonding with and trusting others later in life. The distrusting individual adopts a hardened façade and remains emotionally guarded and unavailable.
6. Volatile MoodDepression and anxiety often follow in the wake of abandonment. Coping with rejection often leads individuals to become emotionally detached. The pain of feeling alone, empty, and lost can appear to be too much to bear. In addition to the weight of loss already experienced, individuals become fearful that others will abandon them as well. Paranoia in the form of obsessive and intrusive negative thoughts leads to predominant negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, and fear.
7. Self-Sabotaging Relationships
Relationships characterized by secure attachment require trust and vulnerability – two commodities that people with abandonment issues have in short supply. These individuals struggle with two fundamental desires – safety and connection – which, for them, are diametrically opposed to one another because of earlier trauma. They fear both abandonment and intimacy, which results in a sort of dance between clinging to others and simultaneously remaining emotionally aloof. For some, this dance can be too overwhelming, and ultimately they abandon the relationship before they can be abandoned yet again.
Christian Counseling for Abandonment Issues Symptoms
Do you feel that your life can be characterized by the symptoms of abandonment listed here? Are you tired of feeling “less than” and want more out of relationships? Christian counseling can provide the help you need to heal and learn to develop trust in relationships again. Therapy provides a place to grieve, share your story, and find the strength to take the next steps toward growth.
“Cuddle time,” courtesy of Jordan Whitt, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “What Should I Do?” courtesy of Ethan Sykes, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Still in Your Arms,” courtesy of Toa Heftiba, unsplash.com, Public Domain; “Handsome Guy,” courtesy of Andy, CC0 Public Domain, ABSFreePic.com