One day, you’re going through your life just fine; then, without warning, your world turns dark. Suddenly, you feel a need to protect yourself from those you once trusted, and you feel a sense of anger, hurt, and rejection. You feel lost, alone, and bereft. Your regular coping mechanisms have stopped helping, and you’re feeling utterly alone.
Why the change? What probably happened was that you’re experiencing abandonment or emotional abandonment. You encountered a surprise trigger you didn’t expect or see, and now your mental health is reeling. This can be a painful situation — one you likely want to stop and ensure it never happens again.
But how can you learn how to heal abandonment issues when you don’t even know what caused them to begin with?
To know this, it’s important to ask yourself, “What are the signs of abandonment issues?” Individuals with abandonment issues may not realize they have them, and not everyone has the risk factors in developing this trait, even if they suffer a trauma. But abandonment issues can be recurring over a long-term period, can happen in healthy relationships or even between close friends.
What is fear of abandonment, its symptoms, and how does it show up in your life?
To put it simply, abandonment issues come from being wounded when an important person in your life unexpectedly leaves or disassociates with you. A significant abandonment at any time in your life can leave you with an abandonment wound — not just those that occur when you’re young.
“(Abandonment) often leads to a deep-seated sense of unworthiness within us, which can manifest as over-reliant and toxic relationships, insecurity, neediness, lack of self-determination, and ultimately a lack of progress and commitment in one’s life,” says Dr. Rana Al-Falaki, author, speaker, and life coach.
You could develop these issues when, as a child, your parent suddenly became less available (or left or passed away). Or perhaps, in adulthood, your spouse or partner unexpectedly left you.
According to Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychoanalyst, author, and counselor who works with people suffering from abandonment issues, “Children need secure love. If you were abandoned as a child, you likely have some common reactions: You don’t trust love. You’re tough and figure things out alone. You can’t need anything or turn to anyone for help. You keep your feelings bottled up.”
Your abandonment wound must be acknowledged and addressed, or it will sit beneath the surface of your life, waiting to be triggered. You may not even recognize the symptoms of abandonment issues until you’re already experiencing them.
Even without medical advice, a diagnosis, or any professional help, you can work at recognizing the signs of abandonment issues in your life and taking charge of your emotional health.
4 Steps to Help You Heal Your Abandonment Issues
1. Start by identifying where your abandonment issues began.
What causes abandonment issues? Start by identifying your first wounding abandonment. Even if it seems unimportant, accept that it was actually mighty for you and that you have simply been ignoring it. These issues can usually be triggered whenever you believe that a person you rely on, love, and need, may leave you or appears not to care about you any longer.
What is abandonment in a relationship? It can be several things. Maybe someone important to you may say or do something that feels to you like they no longer care may leave — maybe they are only going on vacation, or canceling a lunch date — but those feelings of abandonment, of being walked away from or left, get set off.
Your buried, unacknowledged wound sits under the surface of your life, roiling with unaddressed feelings. Like the lava sitting in an inactive volcano, your wound waits for something to set it off.
2. Talk through your original abandonment experience with someone you trust.
A friend or a therapist will be a good choice for this. Try to recall how you felt when it happened. Try to understand that original event in a new way, applying the wisdom of your adult brain. Can you recall a time in your life, as a child or an adult, where someone’s sudden absence left you emotionally devastated? You’re going to need to address this issue to begin to heal from it.
Not everyone abandoned ends up being vulnerable to abandonment triggers. Some people are more vulnerable than others. And what makes you more vulnerable is this: Being unaware of the full importance and impact of your abandonment wound.
If you are someone who pays little attention to your own feelings, in general, you are likely to minimize the emotional impact of painful events, such as your original abandonment. And being unaware of an event’s true effect on you (the wound) leaves that effect, and all its power, in its place as you move forward in your life.
3. Recognize where you may have experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Says psychotherapist and licensed social worker Christine Vargo, “We’re born with a need to be witnessed by our caregivers, offered love and a consistent message that our needs matter and our life is cherished by those who brought us into the world.” Pay more attention to your emotions all the time, and start to notice and put words to what you’re feeling.
As a child, did your parents notice and respond to what you were feeling? Did they use emotion words very often? Did they support you when you felt hurt, sad, or angry? Any answer less than “all of the above” means that you did not receive enough emotional attention and support when you were growing up. Your parents raised you with some amount of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
“When we don’t experience this inherent sense of belonging in our childhood, we feel abandoned by those closest to us and internalize the subconscious belief that our experiences and the emotions attached to them do not matter,” Vargo adds. By not responding to your feelings enough, your parents sent you a powerful, subliminal message every day: Your feelings don’t matter.
As you grew into adulthood, you were set up to overlook your own emotions.
You were set up to under-attend to your emotional wound. “Healing means letting friends in — friends who don’t judge, listen, and offer unconditional support. If you can’t, therapy with a childhood trauma specialist gives you a place for all your feelings. It helps you build trust, and to learn it’s OK to need help,” Dr. Cohen suggests.
Since your feelings, even ancient ones, do not go away until they are at least accepted and acknowledged, they dwell there under the surface, waiting for a trigger. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t overcome them, even years later!
4. Come up with a plan to address your abandonment wound.
That pool of pain lies within you, waiting to be accepted, and treated as if it matters. What do you say to someone with abandonment issues? Start by reassuring yourself that the pain is there, it’s valid, and it deserved to be healed. Simply acknowledging and accepting that pain will make you so much stronger.
When you accept your pain and treat it as if it matters, you are doing an amazing thing. You are healing your abandonment wound, making yourself less vulnerable. But you’re also doing much more. You’re treating the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are (your emotions) as if they matter, and you’re treating yourself as if you matter.
You’re taking strides in healing your childhood emotional neglect by making yourself emotionally aware. You are taking your power back and moving forward, gradually leaving your abandonment issues behind you.