How to Heal From Abandonment Issues

December 8, 2022   •  Posted in: 

Many people have experienced a form of abandonment in their lives, which can lead to issues around trust, belonging, and connectedness. You’re not alone if this is your experience. According to the American Psychiatric Association, abandonment means:

Desertion or substantial leave-taking by a parent or primary caregiver of his or her custodial and other responsibilities to a dependent. Dependents are usually children but may also be adult individuals who are ill.

Attachment theory[1] tells us that growing up with a reliable, sensitive, and responsive caregiver in childhood is directly related to how well we develop, and improves our experiences later in life. Abandonment can cause deep attachment wounds, significantly affecting many aspects of life including our subsequent relationships. Studies[2]  also show that experiences of abandonment, particularly in childhood, are correlated with poor mental health later in life.

But it is possible to heal from abandonment issues.

 

Different forms of abandonment trauma

In childhood:

  • Literal abandonment through periods of separation, frequent changes in caregivers, foster care, adoption, boarding school or a parent dying or leaving the family
  • Emotional abandonment by caregivers who were emotionally immature, living with addiction, workaholism, mental illness, or who were caring for unwell or disabled siblings

In adulthood:

  • Death of a loved one or pet
  • Romantic relationship breakdown, separation, divorce, or desertion
  • Friendships ending
  • Estrangement of family members

Effects of abandonment

The wounds we feel when we’re abandoned can be significant. Here are some examples of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you might notice in your own life as a result of abandonment issues.

1. Shame and guilt

Described by Dr. Brené Brown as ‘two of the places we go when we fall short,’ shame and guilt are difficult, but common, emotions to experience.

Dr. Brown differentiates the two as follows:

Shame – I am bad. The focus is on self, not behavior. The result is feeling flawed and unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. Shame is not a driver of positive change.

Guilt – I did something bad. The focus is on behavior. Guilt is the discomfort we feel when we evaluate what we’ve done or failed to do against our values. It can drive positive change and behavior.

— From her book Atlas of the Heart (2021)

One of the reasons we might often experience shame and guilt as a result of being abandoned has its roots in how we attempt to make sense of what happened to us.

When children don’t understand something, they try to find their own reasons. Often, this can result in them feeling responsible for the behavior of the adults in their life.

With abandonment, children may believe they did something bad or that they are bad which led them to be abandoned. The residual feelings of shame and guilt remain, and can appear regularly as themes in adulthood.

2. Self blame

A strong, loud inner critic voice that points out all your flaws can be an indicator of abandonment trauma. As with shame, believing that we are ‘bad’ may be a result of being abandoned.

But this type of inner critic voice may also be an attempt to avoid getting close to others through self sabotage. This is a protective strategy, designed to remove any possibility of being abandoned again.

Or, it may be indicating you don’t feel secure in your relationships with others because, deep down, you believe they might also abandon you.

3. Insecurity

As mentioned, abandonment can cause a huge ripple effect that lasts well into adulthood and affects every relationship.

For some, this might mean a search for connection and security through others. Placing all of your self worth in the hands of another can have a devastating impact if the relationship fails.

For others, it might mean being hyper aware of what we believe are our weaknesses and being overly critical of our work, our beliefs, our body, our intelligence, or our instincts.

At the root of many of these experiences is a lack of belonging to ourselves, which is essential before we’re able to truly connect with others.

4. Abandoning ourselves

One of the most common ways in which we respond to being abandoned is to abandon ourselves in turn.

When we feel we were not enough to make our loved one stay, it can leave us with a deep sense of unworthiness.

It’s therefore unsurprising that we go on to continue to abandon ourselves throughout life.

What this looks like in practice:

  • Lack of boundaries – feeling unworthy can make us deprioritize ourselves in relationship to others, leaving us feeling violated or used.
  • Lack of self-compassion – we may judge ourselves overly harshly, feel anger towards the world and other people when things go wrong, or believe we are somehow deserving of suffering.
  • Disconnection from our feelings – being abandoned was likely the most painful thing you will have experienced. When we are left alone with the impact of abandonment, we are unable to process these feelings. Instead, we disconnect from them as a way of protecting ourselves. Remaining disconnected into later life is an inevitable result of this coping strategy.
  • Difficulty with self care – as a result of being abandoned, we may internalize the notion that we are unworthy of care. Self care is a term to describe all the ways in which we look after ourselves, such as brushing our teeth or taking medication when we’re ill, to spending time with friends or enjoying our hobbies.

5. Suicidal thoughts

Research[3] tells us that abandonment leads to greatly increased suicidality later in life. Of the participants who lost a parent either by death or by separation/divorce, 16% had attempted suicide (compared with 4% of those whose family remained intact).

Likewise, those who had lost a parent indicated significantly greater serious suicidal ideation than those with fully intact families. This group expressed profound isolation, hopelessness, and self-hatred.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, the Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. Find more information about the Lifeline at suicidepreventionlifeline.org or dial 988.

 

How to heal from abandonment issues

While the void left by abandonment often leads us to experience some or all of the effects outlined above, there are ways to heal from abandonment issues.

While it may not be possible to go back and change the past, it is possible to acknowledge the damage and pain of what happened, to begin to change your mindset, and develop healthy coping strategies for the times when abandonment issues surface.

Change doesn’t happen as quickly as many would like, but committing to healing is the first step on the road ahead.

Get to know your inner child

The concept of the inner child is really just another way to acknowledge that the wounds we experience in childhood remain throughout our lives.

By imagining ourselves as a child, we can reconnect with the person we were at the time of the trauma. We can begin to come to terms with the impact of our abandonment. We can see through our adult eyes that what happened was not okay. We can offer ourselves the kind of love, care, and protection we missed out on as a result of being abandoned.

We can also listen to the part of us that is scared, sad, lonely, or angry. We can tell ourselves we are safe now, we didn’t do anything wrong, and we are loved. We can begin to accept our wounds and look for ways to backfill the things we didn’t receive, whether that’s learning, material goods, or emotional support.

Reconnecting with our feelings

After learning to cut off from our feelings as a protective coping strategy, reconnecting with our feelings can be an overwhelming prospect.

Emotions are the body’s way of keeping us out of danger, and of driving us to act. Good examples of this include anger telling us that something is unjust or requires protection. Fear keeps us safe by communicating when we should escape or hide. Sadness alerts us to the loss of something important.

The thing about emotions is we cannot pick and choose which ones to experience. We have to open ourselves up to the full range of emotions if we want to feel joy, love, and happiness.

If you have responded to abandonment trauma by disconnecting from your feelings, relearning is possible. This is known as emotional literacy.

The Feelings Wheel is a helpful tool for identifying what you might be feeling, and helping you to find the words to describe what you’re feeling. There is another version – the Emotion Sensation Feelings Wheel – designed to help describe what emotions feel like in the body.

It can be helpful to seek out a mental health professional to support you with this process.

Self care

According to Jonice Webb, PhD, author of ‘Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect’, there are several ways in which you might fall down when it comes to taking care of yourself and your own needs.

She says these are skills you can develop in adulthood, given time and conscious effort.

  1. Nurturing. This refers to helping yourself have a healthy, enjoyable life through putting yourself first (including saying no, asking for help, honoring your likes and dislikes, and prioritizing your own enjoyment) eating, exercise, and rest and relaxation.
  2. Self discipline. This is about making yourself do things you don’t want to do and stopping yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do, something those with abandonment issues may find difficult.
  3. Self soothing. Children whose emotions are accepted, tolerated, and soothed internalize this ability, and use it through life. List out the healthy self-soothing strategies that work for you in times of stress or distress.

Self compassion

Self compassion is another area in which you might fall down when it comes to taking care of yourself and your needs. Self compassion just means giving ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.

Dr. Kristin Neff is one of the world’s leading researchers on self compassion. She runs the Center for Mindful Self Compassion where she studies how we develop and practice self compassion.

Her research has identified three elements of self compassion:

Self kindness vs self judgment: Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.

Common humanity vs isolation: Recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.

Mindfulness vs over identification: Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore and feel compassion for our pain at the same time. Mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with our thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

Dr. Neff’s work includes developing guided practices and exercises designed to help you to develop your self compassion.

Shame in particular requires empathy, as well as self compassion, to heal. Shame is a social emotion. In other words, it happens between people which therefore means that it requires healing alongside others. Talking therapy is a particularly helpful method for healing shame as you work alongside a therapist who supports you from an empathic and supportive stance.

When you are struggling with abandonment trauma, it may feel as though you will never get your life back, and that things will never go back to usual. But there is HOPE – proven treatment is available to help you through each step of your journey towards wellness.

The Center • A Place of HOPE has experienced specialists who can help you. If you or any of your loved ones are suffering from past trauma, it is important that you ask for help.

Get Help Now. Call 1-888-771-5166 (9am-5pm PT), or complete our treatment form.


[1] Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.
[2] Kira, I. A., Fawzi, M. H., & Fawzi, M. M. (2013). The Dynamics of Cumulative Trauma and Trauma Types in Adults Patients With Psychiatric Disorders: Two Cross-Cultural Studies. Traumatology, 19(3), 179–195. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534765612459892
[3] Ledgerwood, D.M. Suicide and Attachment: Fear of Abandonment and Isolation from a Developmental Perspective. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 29, 65–73 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1022909326217

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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