Understanding the Pain of Abandonment
Living with repeated abandonment experiences can create toxic shame.
Posted Jun 04, 2010
When children are raised with chronic loss, without the psychological or physical protection they need—and certainly deserve—it is most natural for them to internalize incredible fear. Not receiving the necessary psychological or physical protection equals abandonment, and living with repeated abandonment experiences creates toxic shame. Shame arises from the painful message implied in abandonment: "You are not important. You are not of value." This is the pain from which people need to heal.
For some children, abandonment is primarily physical. Physical abandonment occurs when the physical conditions necessary for thriving have been replaced by:
- Lack of appropriate supervision
- Inadequate provision of nutrition and meals
- Inadequate clothing, housing, heat, or shelter
- Physical and/or sexual abuse
Children are totally dependent on caretakers to provide safety in their environment. When caretakers don't do this, the child grows up believing that the world is an unsafe place, that people are not to be trusted, and that they do not deserve positive attention and adequate care.
Emotional abandonment occurs when parents do not provide the emotional conditions and the emotional environment necessary for healthy development. I like to define emotional abandonment as "occurring when a child has to hide a part of who he or she is in order to be accepted, or to not be rejected."
Having to hide a part of yourself means:
- It is not okay to make a mistake.
- It is not okay to show feelings, being told the way you feel is not true. "You have nothing to cry about and if you don't stop crying I will really give you something to cry about." "That really didn't hurt." "You have nothing to be angry about."
- It is not okay to have needs. Everyone else's needs appear to be more important than yours.
- It is not okay to have successes. Accomplishments are not acknowledged, and are many times discounted.
Other acts of abandonment occur when:
- Children cannot live up to the expectations of their parents. These expectations are often unrealistic and not age-appropriate.
- Children are held responsible for other people's behavior. They may be consistently blamed for the actions and feelings of their parents.
- Disapproval toward children is aimed at their entire beings or identity rather than a particular behavior, such as telling a child he is worthless when he does not do his homework or she is never going to be a good athlete because she missed the final catch of the game.
Many times abandonment issues are fused with distorted, confused, or undefined boundaries such as:
- When parents do not view children as separate beings with distinct boundaries
- When parents expect children to be extensions of themselves
- When parents are not willing to take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, but expect children to take responsibility for them
- When parents' self-esteem is derived through their child's behavior
- When children are treated as peers with no parent/child distinction
Abandonment combined with distorted boundaries, at a time when children are developing their sense of worth, is the foundation for the belief in their own inadequacy and the central cause of their shame.
Abandonment experiences and boundary violations are in no way indictments of a child's innate goodness and value. Instead, they reveal the flawed thinking, false beliefs, and impaired behaviors of those who hurt them.
Still, the wounds are struck deep in their young hearts and minds, and the very real pain can still be felt today. The causes of emotional injury need to be understood and accepted so they can heal. Until that occurs, the pain will stay with them, becoming a driving force in their adult lives.
Excerpted from Changing Course