Many of us felt abandoned as children. Maybe because of divorce, addiction, death, or mental health problems. One or both parents worked too much or were preoccupied with other things. We were the youngest of many kids. A sibling with special needs got all the attention. Perhaps we were diagnosed with an illness and spent a few months in the hospital. We moved from town to town every year because of military service.
And maybe we were just born into a dysfunctional-ass family full of badly broken human beings who had no business procreating.
There are countless reasons for parental misattunement. Many children don’t get their fundamental attachment needs met — feeling safe, seen, soothed, and secure — and this inevitably feels like being abandoned. But what you will find is that no matter the reason or the circumstances, childhood abandonment always leads to self-abandonment.
What I Gotta Do To Get Some Love Around Here?
When children have unmet needs, they adapt. They become hypervigilant codependents, walking on eggshells or taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. Overachieving perfectionists. Self-deprecating under-performers. Anxiety addled. They go wantless and needless or become pathologically accommodating. They turn into chameleons and social butterflies trying to fit in anywhere they can.
Again, the various maladaptive patterns are difficult to innumerate, but every single one of them is some kind of self-abandonment. You can bet your sweet ass.
And because it’s impossible to get enough of something that almost works, our survival strategies become unyielding drives. They feel like our best option during the helplessness of our formative years. Unfortunately, the terrifying experience of abandonment wires our nervous system with these feelings of helplessness and the core conviction that self-abandonment will always be the answer.
The Most Diabolical Thing About Self-Abandonment
Those of us with festering abandonment wounds have a truly compulsive tendency to throw ourselves under the bus for the sake of connection. It’s a trauma response rooted in chronically unmet attachment needs. Straight up lizard brain, amygdala hijack that no amount of self-will or self-knowledge can avert.
But the most baffling feature of this coping mechanism is that self-abandonment makes genuine human connection literally fucking impossible. What exactly is someone supposed to connect with after you jettison your authentic self, sweep your needs under the rug, and chum the waters with mutilated scraps of your own self-respect?
Connection requires two whole human beings. Not unlike a phone call which requires two fully functional telephones. Self-abandonment is like throwing your phone in the trash to make it easier for someone to reach you. It doesn’t make any damn sense if you don’t understand the psychological impacts of childhood trauma.
Self-Abandonment In Relationships
Self-abandonment is governed by a belief that your needs are more important than mine. It’s patently unsustainable and obviously not a satisfying way to live… but logic never got in the way of a good trauma response.
Romantic courtship is generally magnificent in the early days. But after the honeymoon phase of mutual rapture wears off, one partner may emerge as the chronically compliant, accommodating, booty-kisser. They’re willing to go to any length to keep their partner happy because that’s a surefire way to keep them from abandoning your ass, ain’t it?
Remember, for someone like this, getting dumped isn’t about being rejected by one person. Such rejection will open the floodgates to a whole fucking childhood of unbearable feelings and unmet needs. A hellish reenactment that must be avoided at all costs.
However, as you may be learning, self-abandonment can never bring you closer to another person. As such, it is the ticking time bomb inside every anxiously attached relationship.
Self-Abandonment Is Dissociation
Operating under the assumption that the other partner’s needs are more important, the “nice guy” or “nice gal” slowly begins to suffer from emotional malnutrition. Through their own self-neglect, they recreate an environment where they once again do not feel safe, seen, soothed, or secure.
They rarely speak up for themselves or openly express how they feel in any direct or effective way. This is because trauma trains us to fear and suppress our emotions instead of allowing ourselves to experience them, which would immediately threaten our so-called “relationship” (although that word implies actual relating of two people — something that isn’t fully occurring here).
Remember, at its core, trauma is a dissociative process designed to carry you through overwhelming experiences you are ill-equipped to navigate. Thus, self-abandonment is the trauma response of choice when we lack the requisite skillset for healthy relating. And to reemphasize this point, yes, self-abandonment is a form of dissociation, although often overlooked as such.
Self-Abandonment Becomes Other-Abandonment
When you can no longer tolerate a lopsided emotional entanglement with someone because you’ve run clean out of satisfactory self-medicating techniques, the house of cards comes tumbling down. By this time you may have amassed plenty of “evidence,” saturated in resentment, disdain, and contempt against a partner who never got a fair shot at tending to all your unspoken desires.
And when the agony of your withering soul finally pierces the veil of quiet desperation, the pendulum swings to the other side of the wound, and Fuck you! My needs are more important than yours!
This thought mobilizes you like an involuntary, psychological immune response that burns your relationship to the ground in the name of self-preservation. I.e., we go from self-abandonment to other-abandonment. Kind of a trauma response to save you from the traumatic consequences of your other trauma response.
If you’ve ever switched from habitual compliance to uncontrollable anger, you were likely caught in the grips of such a lively game of trauma response ping-pong.
How Do I Heal This Awful Shit?!
First of all, if you can relate to any part of this article, you’re most likely suffering from relational trauma that can only be healed relationally. And since it’s definitely not your romantic partner’s job to heal your childhood trauma (despite that being the most popular fantasy), a healing relationship must be established with a trauma-informed therapist, coach, mentor, or professional who is equipped to guide you along this journey.
Secondary to my firm recommendation that you reach out to another human being for help, the following are essential elements of transformation in no particular order. Notice they all center around personal responsibility, self-acceptance, and an unwavering commitment to self-care.
1. You have to cultivate a felt sense of being safe, seen, soothed, and secure in all areas of your life.
Your home, job, family, relationships, inside your own mind and body. Everywhere. And doing this through self-medication or using others as a crutch are flimsy substitutes that can fail at any moment. You have to actively engage in removing toxic people, places, and things from your environment. I’m talking about shitty family members, lifelong friends who haven’t grown up, destructive habits, negative self-talk, media exposure — anything and anyone that feels triggering or corrosive to your wellbeing.
If you don’t feel safe in your life, a compulsive shit storm will always be lurking just around the corner.
And because safety isn’t just the absence of threat but the presence of connection, you must fill your life with healthy, mature, nurturing relationships and activities. This whole task of weeding and replanting your garden will require a tremendous amount of boundary setting and healthy communication. Something you will definitely need help with if your current situation is a product of your finest efforts.
2. You must become competent and confident in your ability to get your needs met in healthy ways.
Most folks haven’t the foggiest notion of what their needs are, how to satisfy them appropriately, or all the dysfunctional shit they’re currently doing to get the job done. We always find a way to get our needs met, but when we’re oblivious to what these needs are, we tend to do it in unskilled and even harmful ways.
It’s also remarkably difficult to set a healthy boundary if you don’t know your needs from a hole in the ground.
What you will find is that your feelings (those icky things you learned to ignore in order to survive your upbringing) are your body alerting you of the quality of your self-care and the status of your unmet needs. For example, feeling resentful is indicative of a missing boundary. So this action item, in particular, requires that you become emotionally fluent. An undertaking that will for sure require guidance and support.
Cultivate your ability to identify, communicate, and fulfill your needs appropriately on a daily basis. You may discover that this is the highest form of freedom you will ever achieve. Creating an unshakeable foundation of self-care also contributes massively to feeling safe, seen, soothed, and secure.
3. You gotta eradicate toxic shame.
One hundred percent of trauma survivors harbor crippling levels of unhealthy shame. It’s another one of those self-traumatizing trauma responses. Even if you put it in a prom dress and call it “perfectionism,” shame is still a soul-eating emotion that must be dealt with if you wanna stop abandoning yourself.
Shame demands that you be better than human or convinces you that you’re less than human; either you shouldn’t have needs or you don’t deserve to have them. This is why shame makes setting boundaries virtually impossible. It’s an extremely isolating soul-sickness that metastasizes in the dark.
Let this be my strongest argument for why you absolutely cannot heal your trauma by yourself.
4. Radical authenticity all day every day.
The word authentic comes from the Latin words auto (self) and tenere (to have). So to be authentic quite literally means to have a self. Obviously, this is the antithesis of self-abandonment. But how does one even go about having a self after decades of reflexively tossing that shit in the gutter?
It will take lots of practice, to be certain, but authenticity demands mindfulness and presence. This in and of itself may require extensive training in grounding techniques, self-soothing, nervous system regulation, and understanding your triggers. All your other work on boundaries, needs, and shame-reduction will support this new sense of self as well.
But the ultimate goal of authenticity is to be able to tolerate your existence. Being human. Having feelings and needs. Making mistakes. Experiencing momentary ruptures in your relationships. Arguably every self-destructive addiction in the world is born from an inability or unwillingness to be with oneself. So radical authenticity is a staunch commitment to honoring your feelings, thoughts, wants, needs, preferences, likes, dislikes, etc., and being rigorously honest with both yourself and others about each of these.
But For Real, You Should Get Help
The Herculean tasks above are the four most salient features of resolving trauma and transforming your whole ass life. They are nuanced, multifaceted, and certainly not a definitive list of the full scope of healing required to overcome your specific trauma history. This is why hope is not a plan of action and “try harder” is not a strategy for success. Time does not “heal all wounds,” and love won’t heal that shit either.
Eliminating self-abandonment, codependency, compulsive habits, addictions, or any other trauma response is extremely challenging. And I’m gonna go on record right now as saying it’s literally impossible to do all by yourself.
So… for fuck’s sake, please find someone you can rely on to guide you through the healing process.
It may very well be the only reason I’m alive today to tell you about it.
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4 thoughts on “The Most Diabolical Thing About Self-Abandonment”
It points out the failure. And brings up the shame of all the things not good. It means that the positive attention can be taken away, replaced withhars critics. And the inner critic is jelling hard in side. And growing up there where not much. Close to none.
It’s tough bro. But you are not alone. I know this.
Boom! Right between my eyes Adam! I first heard your voice on the Adult Child podcast a few months ago. I’ve been reading your blog ever since. Your work is exactly where I’m at. Years and years of therapy, sobriety and 12 step programs. The loss of my 21 year relationship. I am ready for the deepening of this work. Thank you so much.
My pleasure! Happy to be trudging this road of recovery with you, Dana 🙂