Wednesday, July 22, 2009

That Abandonment Thing

A good friend of mine went on vacation recently and I'm pretty sure I'll never hear from her again. The time she will be away should just suffice for her to forget my existence. My friend will be surrounded by people vying for her attention, happy to see her and delighting in her company. She will not remember the discussions we had, the good moments shared, the friendship we built.

Actually, this is not true; my emotions are all astir, as a Brit would say, as the fearful me dreads being abandoned and the intellectual me knows (or wants to believe) that this will not happen. It's all about being left behind, watching the train leave the station, as it were, and not believing it will ever return. But what if it won't! What if I'm left standing at the Gare St. Lazare in Paris, waiting for the train to come back, not realizing it left for good.

Jeezy peezy! Where does this stuff come from? According to Susan Anderson, a psychotherapist and author of Journey from Abandonment to Healing, "abandonment is primal fear, the first fear that each of us experience as an infant. It is the fear that we will be left, literally abandoned, with no one to care for us. Abandonment's wound is cumulative. It contains all of our losses, disconnections and disappointments from early on, the death of a parent, a teenage breakup, being out-shown by a sibling..."

All this starts in infancy, because that's when life is the scariest. As infants, we are extremely sensitive to the nuances in the behaviour and reactions of our parents. After all, they already know about this world and we only just arrived. Our survival depends upon our connection with our parents and/or primary caretakers. As such, there are many ways abandonment fears can get triggered and imprinted in an infant, thus setting the pattern for how the grown-up will behave in the future.

The conditions that give rise to these patterns don't necessarily require that parents permanently leave the scene. For instance, they can be physically there but not emotionally present, a situation that is easily and painfully recognized by the infant.

Parents can also abandon emotionally if they find another interest that absorbs their time and energy, such as a new relationship, a new child, etc. This is why birth order or the time spacing between children can have such a strong impact on the growing child.

Indeed, research shows that an infant will show signs of clinical depression if the mother is absent for more than two weeks. These "depression" neuropathways develop at a time when early experiences have a crucial impact on the developing brain. Susceptibility gets imprinted, so that in adulthood we're at higher risk for depression.

The abandonment wound, stored deep within the limbic brain, is easily triggered. You feel its raw nerve twinge when you fail to get recognition at work, a friend forgets to invite you to a party, or a date you thought was special did not call back. When being left is the trigger, core abandonment fears erupt. Stress hormones course through our bodies, compelling even the strongest among us to feel desperate and dependent.

Being left also kicks up our control issues. The breakup wasn't our choice. Someone else cast us into this aloneness by choosing not to be with us. We feel at loss of our personal power to compel another person's love. We think, "I must be unlovable and unworthy to be discarded like that."

Abandonment is similar to other types of bereavement, but its grief is complicated by rejection and betrayal. We turn the rage against ourselves. We automatically think, “There must be something wrong with me that makes me not worth keeping.”

We emerge not only disconnected from self-love, but with a heightened fear of abandonment. If one person can discard us, we fear others will do the same to us in the future. Rather than dissipate, this fear tends to incubate. Its insecurity burrows deep within us where it sabotages our relationships. The fear of being left makes it more difficult to let go. The rejection creates nagging conflict. We feel unjustly dismissed and we long for an opportunity to vindicate the hurt. We are left alone to grapple with the broken pieces. The intense craving is confusing to our limbic brain. Stress hormones course through our bodies.

The paradox of abandonment is the tendency to idealize the abandoner who emerges in our imaginations as a powerful figure--how else could this person cause this much torment simply by being absent?

Abandonment issues, according to Susan Anderson, are resolvable but the process can take years even with counseling. Because our patterned responses are ingrained implicitly, they don't easily lend themselves to left-brained talk therapies alone. Anderson recommends right-brain-based strategies in your psychotherapy since right-brain-based interventions are experienced. And, it's through experience that you change the brain.

OK. That's all very helpful.

But what if the train doesn't come back! What if I'm left standing at the Gare St. Lazare in Paris not realizing it left for good?

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