Holiday Season: Lesson #3 – Abandonment & Emotional Dependency
Women have made tremendous progress gaining some financial equality with men, but they still have much more to accomplish in order to become more emotionally independent from men. Even financially self-sufficient women stay in emotionally and/or physically abusive relationships because they are terrified of letting go! Many women would rather continue to cling on to a man who beats, humiliates, rejects, or repeatedly cheats on them than to go through the fear of being alone.
In lesson #1, this author made the claim that life is ultimately about relationships and people vary in their ability to engage in mutually beneficial relationships. Last time, in lesson #2, this author declared that even with kind and caring parents who were capable role models of good communication and life/stress-coping skills, it may not be enough to aid us down the line to cope with the deep and wide range of problems that often confront us in life.
A key concept is that we cannot give what we have not experienced and possess. Thus, a child raised without love and respect is unlikely to be able to give authentic love and respect to others. And even more, once the unloved child grows up to become an adult, it is difficult for him to develop successful relationships, not just because he is unable to love, but also because he is not able to be receptive of love. This adult is often condemned to a lifetime of failed, poor and unfulfilled relationships, leading to the experience of numerous unhealthy emotions, such as depression, anger, self-hatred, and apathy. A pattern of repeated relationship failures typically represents a symptom of much deeper psychological and emotional disorders, and spiritual disconnection.
This author has also defined an authentic spiritual guide as someone who helps others to understand and cope better with the paradoxes and mysteries of life. However, in a paradoxical way, most people perceive him as a mystery because his presence and skills are outside of most people’s own life experiences. Few people have ever encountered an authentic spiritual guide and thus have difficulty understanding him, and in fact, many people may not even be able to recognize him for who he is – a spiritual guide, who has deep, profound understanding and mastery of both spiritual issues and a wide range of practical life experiences, and thus has the uncanny capacity to mysteriously guide a derailed person back onto the spiritual path.
Lesson #3: Abandonment is among one of our most basic, primal fears. To be abandoned when we are a child is akin to dying inside, or at the very least to stall in our emotional, moral, and spiritual development. The fear of abandonment then remains within us, even as adults!
Here are 12 Key Points about abandonment and emotional dependency:
1) Recent and current neuroscientific research identified 5 major childhood risk factors for excessive emotional dependency on intimate partners when we grow up to become adults. The 5 childhood risk factors are: sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, alcoholism and/or illegal drug use in a primary caretaker(s), and physical abandonment. However, at the fundamental root of all these risk factors may actually be emotional abandonment! For instance, when an entrusted adult mistreats a child through sexual or physical abuse, or through neglect by focusing his life on getting the drug he is addicted to or by physically abandoning a child, the child is basically abandoned on an emotional basis.
2) Neuroscience research has shown that early intervention, as soon as possible after the traumatic event(s), with a trained child psychiatrist can minimize the long-term neurological, psychological, and emotional trauma, with sexual and physical abuse as the traumatic events that will most likely result in proper early intervention, but emotional abandonment is the least likely trauma to be recognized and treated because of the lack of physical evidence of the trauma. Thus, neurological memory tracks may be laid down so solidly that it is for all purposes irreversible by the time a child grows up to be an adult.
3) A child is not emotionally mature enough to deal with the abandonment and thus must develop various immature defense mechanisms to cope with the emotional trauma in order to survive. The emotionally abandoned child is insufficiently mature enough to recognize it is not her fault. Thus, she often blames herself for the abandonment. One child may focus on her inadequate physical beauty, another child may spotlight her intellectual flaws, while another child may put the center of attention on her “bad” behavior as the primary reason as to why she was abandoned.
4) Inside each and every one of us is our true, authentic spirit. It’s something we were born with; it is ours and ours alone, and it can’t be really taught or learned, but regrettably it can be taken away. Traumatic life events can derail us off the spiritual path at any point in our lives and take away our authentic spirit. Unfortunately, nothing may be as traumatic to a child than emotional abandonment, and a child is prone to being derailed early in life with little chance of finding her inborn authentic spirit or spiritual path, whereas an adult has at least a fighting chance of making partial recovery of her authentic spirit. In other words, an adult may be consciously aware of the spiritual derailment, while a young child is usually unconscious of her derailment and loss of her authentic spirit, and is thus unlikely to make conscious effort to find her authentic spirit.
5) As adults, present abandonment or threat of abandonment by someone to whom we look for love and support, such as a spouse, boyfriend, or lover, triggers our childhood fear of abandonment. Even the mere threat of abandonment activates our childhood fear, which is coupled with the real or perceived present threat of abandonment, and it can generate an intense anxiety and panic response! We then focus on our irrational emotional fears instead of relying on our ability to reason rationally. In essence, we can do some really stupid and self-destructive things over and over again all because of our childhood fear of abandonment.
6) The feeling of abandonment leads to our experience of panic from suddenly being alone, which in conjunction with the feeling of rejection, can be extremely painful and leads to clinging behavior. Clinging is any behavior that demonstrates holding on, instead of letting go. A woman in a state of clinging can be so desperate that she will resort to behavior that is humiliating and self-degrading to the point of total lack of self-respect. She basically does not care about pride or self-respect, and instead all that matters to her is her strong belief that she can’t survive or live without him.
7) Desperate clinging can lead to a vicious cycle: the more he distances himself, the more you cling! Even with the insight of and knowledge about the vicious cycle, the urge to cling can be irresistible. The rational mind knows your behavior is inappropriate, but the irrational emotional side drives you; a compulsion that you feel you can’t control. No matter how degrading to yourself and your self-esteem, you feel tremendous discomfort if you fail to carry out the compulsive act.
8) The effective path to emotional freedom and initial step to finding your authentic spirit is to feel the pain of his absence and work through the pain by yourself or with the “right” support system. The first step is to give yourself the permission to experience the tension and acknowledge your feelings. It is imperative for you to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings until they pass (and they will almost always eventually pass), but many women with abandonment issues cannot tolerate the fear and anxiety long enough for them to pass.
9) A key point to remember is that feelings are just temporary. The trick then is to allow yourself to feel your feelings, but do not act them out – this process is known as containing your feelings. It’s often easier to give in to your feelings and act out instead of experiencing the feelings and not act them out, but the easier path of acting out on negative emotions is typically the “wrong” thing to do in the long run: it’s a sign of poor discipline and self-control.
10) Warning: you will predictably feel inner tension when you are in the process of containing your feelings. You will experience strong urges to relieve the tension by acting on them. You will probably want to call or contact him. You will want him to call you. You will feel your life is on hold until he calls you, apologizes, and work things out (again). Remember: what you are actually seeking is immediate gratification from the tension release at the sacrifice of potential long-term rewards that come along with exercising discipline to contain your feelings until the discomforting feeling of abandonment has passed.
11) An appropriate support system may be important to your success. Contain your feelings by not acting on them, but do not confuse that concept with the idea that you should not express your feelings to the “right” people in your support system. You may be able to wing it alone, but a “selective” group of people to support you during this timeframe of vulnerability can make the vital difference between success and failure.
12) You must feel the pain of loss before you can heal adequately! When a relationship has ended, or when you see your man distancing or pulling away from you, it is a loss (although it may be a temporary loss). Whenever there is a loss, you have to feel the pain of the loss. The reality is that you have to feel the pain in order to get better and move on with your life in a positive direction; otherwise you remain stuck in limbo and ambivalence. The only way to get better is to free yourself from, instead of remaining imprisoned by your love, and allow yourself to feel all of your emotions. The process of going through a loss is called mourning, which is a complicated course that involves all sorts of feelings like grief, longing and yearning, desperation, anger, hopelessness, sadness, and despair.
Grief is a painful, agonizing feeling, but a very necessary process to acknowledge the pain of loss. To deny the existence of emotional pain may lead you to call him compulsively, or to yearn for him to call you, and thus results in your inability to move on and love somebody else (hopefully someone emotionally healthier and with a more authentic spirit). The grief may involve the loss of: his presence and company, making love with him, enjoying his touch and comfort, the fantasy of a fairy tail ending, the fantasy of his good fatherhood for the children, and the pleasure and happiness you experienced together over the years. However, you have to accept the grief, embrace it, experience it fully, and then you will discover that the feeling of grief will naturally subside in due time and that grief will not go on forever.
Happy Holidays and I hope to see you soon as I share more about childhood abandonment and its impact on adult relationships, and explain what we must do to work through our past negative experiences in order to attain emotional freedom and reclaim our lost authentic spirit!
Tobey Leung, MD