Holiday Season: Lesson #4 – Abandonment & Emotional Dependency – Part II
Last time, in lesson #3, this author explained the relationship between excessive emotional dependency on a romantic partner as an adult and prior history of childhood abandonment, with predominant focus on women’s perspective rather than men’s viewpoint. Although women have made tremendous progress gaining some financial equality with men, they still have much more to accomplish in order to become more emotionally independent from men. Even many financially self-sufficient women stay in emotionally, physically, and/or financially abusive relationships because they are scared to death of letting go! Many women would rather continue to cling on to a man who beats, humiliates, rejects, abuses, and/or repeatedly cheats on them than to face up to the fear of being alone.
This author explained that abandonment is among one of our most basic, primal fears. For a young child, to be abandoned is akin to dying inside spiritually and emotionally, or at the very least stalling in her emotional, moral, and spiritual development. Unfortunately, the fear of abandonment then remains within us, even as adults and leads to many self-destructive decisions, especially in relationship choices!
A child is not emotionally mature enough to deal with abandonment and thus must develop various immature and pathological defense mechanisms to cope with the emotional trauma in order to survive. The emotionally abandoned child is simply insufficiently mature enough to recognize the abandonment is not her fault. Thus, she often blames herself for being abandoned. For example, a 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. Sadly, this childhood focus often becomes a lifelong pathological adult obsession/compulsion.
Inside each and every one of us is our true, authentic spirit. It’s something we were born with, but traumatic life events can derail us off the spiritual path at any point in our lives and take away or lessen our authentic spirit. An adult may be consciously aware of the spiritual derailment and thus have a fighting chance at partial recovery, while a young child is usually unconscious of her derailment and loss of her authentic spirit, and is thus less likely to make conscious effort to develop or kick-start her stalled authentic spirit.
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 and generates an intense anxiety and panic response! We then focus on our irrational emotional fears instead of relying on our ability to reason rationally. Therefore, we can do some really stupid and self-destructive things over and over again.
A woman with abandonment issues may cling onto an abusive relationship so desperately that she resorts to humiliating and self-degrading behavior to the point of extreme self-disrespect. All that matters to her is her strong belief that she can’t survive or live without him. Her belief leads to a paradox where the more he distances himself, the more she clings on! No matter how degrading it is to herself and her self-esteem, she feels tremendous discomfort if she fails to carry out the various self-destructive compulsive acts.
An effective path to emotional freedom and initial step to finding her authentic spirit is to feel the pain of his absence and work through the pain by herself or with the “right” support system. The trick is to allow herself to feel her emotions, without acting out on them – a process known as containing your feelings. 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 harsh 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. 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 and kinder spirit). When you accept grief and experience it fully, then you will have the opportunity to finally discover the fact that grief will not go on forever.
Lesson #4: There are 4 traditional stages of loss: with the acronym of DADA, to represent denial, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. An appropriate support system may be vital to your success, whereas an inappropriate support system may doom you to failure.
This lesson’s 9 Key Points:
1) The first stage of loss that you will go through is typically denial. You do not want to face the reality that he’s no longer present, that he did something really wrong and terrible to hurt you, or that he provoked you to break up with him. You are probably in emotional shock and you may feel numb at this initial stage. However, if you deceive yourself to believe that (almost) everything in your relationship is actually okay, you may end up pursuing him to come back. Therefore, a good support system is vital at this stage to help you to face the truth and accept the reality of your situation, or you may succumb to the power of self-deception!
2) Anger is the classic second stage. You are now facing reality and feeling enraged at him for betraying you, hurting you, mistreating you, and abandoning you. Unresolved anger at others who hurt you in the past (e.g., parents, ex-boyfriends) may re-emerge at this point in time. Nevertheless, it’s important to work through your anger without having any contact with him. Do not use your anger to confront him, tell him off, or tell him how much he hurt you and the children, as an excuse to make contact with him.
Acting out your anger with him will not help the situation, albeit you may feel better for the moment. However, his response to your anger could result in your feeling more hurt, misunderstood, abandoned, or angry. Remember the paradoxical vicious cycle: his failure to provide the response you want will prompt you to seek him out even more! Instead, you are much better off by sharing your feelings with your support system and/or by working out your anger through other positive actions, such as exercise, reading, writing, or other creative activities.
3) Depression and despair is the popular third stage. This and the next stage are usually the most difficult. The excitement and the drama of the breakup are over, and you’re left with the emptiness of … loss! Any past history of abandonments could magnify, leading to more sadness. This could be a very painful time, but it is very important to experience and go through before moving on to a new relationship. If you stay in denial instead of progressing through the stages of loss, the past will usually continue to haunt you.
However, if the depression is so severe it interferes significantly with your daily function (such as stop working, eating, sleeping), you may have clinical depression and may benefit from seeing a psychiatrist and temporarily using an anti-depressant. The key point is: do not contact that man because it may enhance the sense of abandonment, making it impossible to go to the next stage of recovery. Once again, the “right” support system is key. Also, remember that time heals all wounds, and the feelings of sadness and despair will eventually lift and you will move on the final stage.
4) Acceptance is the fourth and final stage. You begin to pull your life back again, and you’re not so preoccupied with your ex anymore. You start to have positive thoughts about your future. However, it is still a dangerous time period because of the temptation to contact that man, which may trigger your old feelings for him (a setback in your recovery), and you’ll have to start mourning him all over again.
You don’t have to feel ashamed of having loving, romantic feelings toward him although he hurt you quite badly because it is natural to do so. There are always qualities about him that you love or enjoy, or you wouldn’t have gotten involved and fallen in love with him in the first place. It’s okay to allow yourself to feel these feelings of longing (and don’t deny having these feelings), but just do not act them out!
5) You’re finally at the acceptance stage, but you may feel the need to express feelings of gratitude toward him for something he did for you in the past. However, you should express it indirectly to your support system and not directly to him. You may experience feelings of envy toward him, e.g. his new beautiful, intelligent, and rich girlfriend, or he may have some quality that you really admire and wish you had yourself, such as the facile ability to socialize with strangers or in large groups.
Once again, the key is not to contact him when you’re feeling such powerful emotions toward him. Instead you must use this valuable time to emotionally distance and disconnect from him. Your support system is important for you to rely on, but they can take you only so far: you can’t call them repeatedly late at night when your powerful feelings emerge. Therefore, you must develop the skills to soothe and nurture yourself!
6) Here are some common techniques you may want to use to remain in the acceptance stage. First, learn to assert yourself, such as telling him not to call you anymore when he initiates the contact, because it can help speed up the recovery process by making you feel less like a helpless victim. Talk to your support system about the good times you’ve shared together with your ex, the yearning you still have to be with him, etc, but despite the good feelings toward him, be able to contain these feelings within your support system.
Physical exercise can discharge tension from your body, relieve anger and other negative emotions, and release natural endorphins to help you feel better. Express your feelings through creative endeavors, such as writing poetry, painting, learning to play a musical instrument, and taking dance classes, or be outdoors in nature, such as gardening, biking, hiking, and walking on trails. Don’t forget to continue to verbalize your feelings out loud (within your support system) in order to minimize the feelings of loneliness and isolation. Another common exercise is to write a good-bye letter to your relationship (and say everything you need to be said), but do not send it to your ex.
7) Do not do it – Don’t use drugs or drink alcohol, which may temporarily numb the pain, but delays the inevitable pain of loss that you must eventually face. You need to stay clear-minded, sober, and “centered” at the shaky early acceptance stage because you can easily fall off your recovery path by making the common mistake of contacting your ex, only to peel your wound open and having to restart the healing process all over again.
Remember the key: do not call that man. Otherwise, it’s like pulling the scab off your wound, re-injuring yourself and ruining all your hard work. Do not be ashamed if you temporarily need to use anti-depressant medication and/or seek professional help from a counselor, therapist, or life coach. The feelings of loss and rejection can bring up trauma from your past, which you may require the help from a qualified and skilled professional in order to resolve satisfactorily and move on.
8) It is critical for you to be very selective in choosing your support system. You need friends to talk with when you have an urge to speak with your ex or when you’re feeling depressed, but some people are better than others to include in your support system. Some of the qualities you want to look for include sensitivity, genuine kindness, altruism (selflessness), good-natured, nurturing, honesty, sincerity, compassion, emotional availability, validating, and trustworthiness.
Your support system may include friends, co-workers, professionals, clergy, or whoever else you feel comfortable and safe with. In essence, you want to seek out individuals who are low in neurosis and if possible authentic spiritual guides (please see lesson #2 – why we need spiritual guides). A support system full of neurotic individuals and unauthentic spiritual guides could be useless, or even worse, contribute to the sabotage of your recovery. The preferable number of people is around three because it could be too draining on just one person, while on the other hand, too many could hamper your working through the healing process yourself.
9) Knowing that there are people other than your ex who care about you (and not just another relationship focused primarily on sex) makes you feel emotionally connected to others, which can diminish your feelings of loneliness, depression, and desperation. Persons with insufficient or the “wrong” kind of support system tend to struggle with the task of leaving an emotionally abusive relationship. Unfortunately, many individuals with a childhood history of abandonment fit into this category: of having the “wrong” support system because they are “naturally” attracted to and surrounded by highly neurotic friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, and thus they do not have any authentic spiritual guides low in neurosis to choose from.
At the very least, if you are a heterosexual woman with abandonment issues, you will likely have a tendency to be surrounded by sexually neurotic male friends, and thus choose from the female gender to be your central support system. At least, you will have a higher chance of avoiding getting romantically involved with one or often multiple sexually neurotic men, which is the last thing you need – to be distracted during a very vulnerable time period of your life, when you are trying to get out of an abusive relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner, just to get mixed up with other or even more messed up and unhealthy men than your ex. If you must keep neurotic male friends in your life for company or to adore you, keep them in the peripheral, and not as key members of your central support system.
Happy Holidays, and I hope today’s tips will guide you to successfully leave an abusive relationship and future lessons may guide you to steer clear of repeatedly getting involved on a romantic level with abusive and emotionally unavailable men! And in the long run, I wish you success in attaining emotional freedom and reclaiming your inner beautiful, authentic spirit!
Tobey Leung, MD