Abandonment refers to a traumatic feeling following a loss; usually stemming from childhood but sometimes in adulthood if one experiences the death of a loved one or goes through a divorce. Parents are responsible for their children’s physical needs – keeping them fed, clothed, and warm, as well as their emotional ones – being in tune with their feelings and responding to their fears and cares appropriately. Emotional abandonment takes place if these emotional needs are not met, such as when a parent passes away or leaves or if they are simply too busy or depleted to provide the input which is needed for a child to feel loved, secure, and listened to.While children may experience similar situations, one may suffer emotional abandonment while the other does not; ultimately this comes down to personality type, the availability of a support network, and other intangible factors.
Emotional abandonment can also occur when parents treat their children harshly, stifling their emotional expression or ridiculing them. Other patterns of behavior that lead to this outcome include holding children to standards that are too high, treating them as peers and capable of age-inappropriate duties, or relying too heavily on them for the adult’s sense of self-worth.
A child that feels emotionally abandoned may act in certain ways. They could be clingy and show separation anxiety, getting extremely anxious when dropped off at daycare or school, for instance. It could also manifest in worrying, fearing being alone, or difficulty in concentrating. If a parent recognizes any of these symptoms and can intervene, reassuring the child of their love for them and changing previous behaviors, a secure attachment can be reestablished.
All too often, however, the same negative pattern is entrenched over the years and carried through to adulthood. A person who has experienced emotional abandonment will be prone to mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and codependency. Low self-esteem is also quite common, which can give rise to addictions and an unhealthy pattern in relationships.
The Emotional Trap
People with abandonment issues have an underlying fear that they are going to be left again, and this shows itself through various symptoms in relationships. These can include doing anything to gain approval (thus becoming a people pleaser); an inability to trust others or feel secure with a partner, often pushing them away to avoid rejection; codependence and neediness; the need to control, and a lack of emotional intimacy.
All these behaviors sadly reinforce the likelihood of the person’s most feared outcome, and they end up sabotaging relationships and often moving quickly from one relationship to the next as the destructive pattern repeats itself. They also tend to attract people who will treat them badly, which is linked to a psychological process called reenactment, a subconscious effort to resolve trauma.
When a present-day circumstance triggers a memory, a visceral response to the memories stored in the body’s arousal system occurs and the person instinctively looks to the past for instructions on how to act. Typically, they will cast themselves into the victim role and position themselves to be abandoned again, making it difficult to direct a new path for their lives.
While it may be difficult to shed deeply ingrained beliefs and habits, the wonderful news is that with God, all things are possible. As Christians, we are made new in Christ; the old is gone (2 Corinthians 5:17). This does not, however, mean that our past traumas are always immediately erased.
Instead, we are empowered to work through our issues, knowing that God is with us and that the Holy Spirit will give us the strength we need to overcome past demons. As believers, we can take hold of the freedom – spiritual, physical, emotional – that has been won for us through Jesus’ death on the cross.
Five Ways to Overcome Emotional Abandonment
1. Unpack the past Sometimes childhood pain can be so deeply buried that it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how or where the sense of emotional abandonment stemmed from. A Biblical counselor can help you journey back to the past and unpack what happened, how the experience affected you, where the sense of loss came from and what you needed at the time that didn’t receive.
Regardless of whether the trauma was big or relatively insignificant, it influenced the adult you became, and it deserves acknowledgment. This process can be likened to a period of grief; recognizing the pain and preparing to move past it when you are ready.
2. Be aware of your triggers
Emotional abandonment can become wired into our DNA, and whenever a seemingly related feeling emerges, an alarm bell sounds. This is especially true in a close relationship, when a person who has no intention of leaving or deserting you, says something or shows some behavior that triggers memories.
Work through exactly what it is that triggers you. What behaviors do you adopt when this alarm sounds? Do you become aggressive and controlling, or helpless and withdrawn? Knowing how you respond is the first step to gain some victory over these triggers.
3. Break the pattern
This is the hardest part of overcoming emotional abandonment. We become so used to our default response, and even if we loathe it and see the destruction it brings, we fall back on it because it is familiar and comfortable. We also believe lies that we are not worthy of any better, and so the cycle repeats itself.
A Biblical counselor can work with you in rooting out lies and replacing them with God’s truth. Perhaps you need to forgive the person who made you feel emotionally abandoned, and perhaps you need to forgive yourself for unnecessarily carrying this heavy load all your life. Even if we cannot trust the people we wish were there for us, we can meditate on the truth that God is always there for us.
He did not abandon us, he has compassion for what we have been through, and He longs for us to be made whole and heal from the emotional pain. Cry out to him and ask him to show you where your heart is, and what actions you need to take to break the pattern of feeling like a powerless victim.
4. Challenge the feelings of shameThe tragic part of emotional abandonment is that it leaves a shadow of shame over the victim’s life, making them limp through life with a low self-image. Even if you feel like you are gaining victory over the negative cycle of being triggered by your past, you will likely need to battle daily against feelings of shame.
Meditate on scriptures that show you how beloved you are by God, and that, “even if my father and mother abandoned me, the Lord would take me in” (Psalm 27:10). Remember that feelings are not facts, and that, much as the devil would love you to believe the lies of shame, and be prevented from healing fully, you can detach yourself from your emotions. As you learn to observe, identify, and tolerate your emotions, you will see you that are less likely to feel overwhelmed.
5. Treat yourself kindly
As you work through these steps to overcome emotional abandonment, be aware of your inner voice. All too often it’s full of blame and shame, and this needn’t be so. Stop berating yourself for having this emotional wound, and rather recognize that your issues are complex, and the pain should not be minimized. Learn to treat yourself with kindness and compassion and invest in the self-care that you have probably been neglecting.
There is no easy way out of the emotional mess that abandonment leaves us in. It takes courage to decide to go back to the past and then diligently tackle one obstacle after another until you experience freedom. But, as you do, not only will you be blessed by being liberated from negative feelings and unhealthy relationship patterns, but you’ll experience ever-greater joy in knowing the God who will never abandon or forsake us.
Can a woman forget her baby who nurses at her breast? Can she withhold compassion from the child she has borne? Even if mothers were to forget, I could never forget you! Look, I have inscribed your name on my palms; your walls are constantly before me. – Isaiah 49:15-16
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