You enter the world needing to be seen. Children and infants don’t yet have an ability to have a relationship with themselves so they look desperately and with incredible intensity, (UP) to their parents for approval.
What they hope (need) to receive is mirroring, a positive reaction from their parents that reflects back to them all the joy and love they feel about themselves and towards their parents. When this doesn’t happen for whatever reason, the child feels rejected, unseen and ultimately abandoned.
Remember that children don’t have the mental capability to assess the situation as it really is, nor do they have any experience in the world yet. They’ve been here a whole 2 years or so, spending most of that time sleeping and growing so they quite rightly look up to their caregivers who have been here for 20-40 years, and, who are much bigger and more capable of navigating the world than they are. They seek validation and answers from them, and accept without question what is mirrored back to them, or, more accurately, what they PERCEIVE is being reflected back to them.
What they desperately want is a loving gaze and an approving and joyous tone of voice. If what they get instead is negative attention like anger, disapproval and irritation, or no attention (i.e. neglect) then they feel pain and rejection to such a degree that it is almost intolerable. The reason they feel it at such a level of intensity is that children are wide open and vulnerable, and haven’t yet built up sufficient defenses against these perceived assaults. After just a few though, they are diligently working at them.
The child needs approval almost as much as they need air and so they need to take risks in order to get it. They do this by opening up their hearts, becoming vulnerable and reaching out to their parents. They’re looking for eye contact and connection and for their parents to tell them that they are “Good” and wanted and lovable and feel that they are SEEN this way. If, time and time again they instead get the negative responses and reactions in the above paragraph, they believe that they are “bad”.
Now whether or not the parents meant to hurt and reject their children is of no consequence because the children will take this data they have and incorporate it into their self image. The data in this case reveals that something is wrong with them, and that they are not good enough to be worthy of receiving love and really, proper care.
Unfortunately, their self image and difficult-to-access implicit memory are formed at this time and their brains are imprinted with this view of themselves. Take the quote below from a noted neuro-psychiatrist:
” … certain experiences are needed. Those experiences are embedded in the relationship between the caretaker and the infant … there’s something necessary … that the human brain needs in terms of other human contact, for it to grow. It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. Cells that fire together, wire together. Cells that do not, die together. “
– Allan Schore, a member of the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCLA
Basically your brain will develop more cells in certain areas that map onto your sense of self. This will happen if you receive those positive early experiences you needed when you were young. If you didn’t, you’ll have fewer of these neurons and you’ll be impacted somewhat for the rest of your life. Early, unconditional love shapes your brain at a biological level.
For the child that doesn’t get that love, they now inherit an assortment of negative consequences, with one of them being a feeling of being abandoned. This is internalized and felt at a deep level.
The very first illustration above shows nicely what it must feel like for him/her. Small, alone and isolated with nobody around. This experience is much too much for them to handle so they develop defenses and coping strategies.
The defenses would be behaviors like; shutting down emotionally, avoiding “feeling” situations, not seeking approval anymore, distancing from others or withdrawal, tensing up, zoning out, etc…
The coping strategies would be behaviors that help someone distract or “cope” with the abandonment pain and shove it aside. Things like; Overeating, using screens like TV and video games, acting out to get attention, pleasing to win approval, performing to win love (sports, grades in school) etc…
These defenses and coping strategies have to hold until the child is grown up and has the ability to take care of that inner pain themself.
How to Heal the Abandonment Pain as an Adult
The first step is to become aware that you even have pain and feelings that are still a part of you from so long ago. By the time one is old enough, usually in their late 20’s or older, they have spent decades building up defenses and ways of not only avoiding the pain, but of pushing it out of awareness. Some people though, have no outward symptoms and go their whole lives without ever having to confront their past or trapped pain. Their defenses hold up for life and I’m not sure if I’d consider that to be a fortunate or unfortunate situation for them.
For those who do have symptoms like anxiety, depression, despair, overeating, smoking, shopping etc. they will need to confront their past, and will likely require the help of a skilled therapist to get in touch with it.
FEEL IT FULLY
The second step is to feel whatever was buried deep down, fully. This is the HARD part. It can take up to a decade to get here as this process has many steps and layers.
– 1st, you’ll need to establish safety. People generally feel terrified of what lurks below. This causes a lot of anxiety understandably which stops people from trying to access the inner depths of their psyche.
– 2nd, your resistance kicks in and stops you. All those years of building, maintaining and improving on your early created defenses are still there and can be like a fortress! They won’t just relinquish their roles because you ask nicely. Your defenses have to be acknowledged and taken down a bit at a time.
– 3rd, you’ll need to know how to properly navigate this therapeutic process. It is not an easy nor a straightforward one, so having someone experienced at the helm to help guide you will go a long way to lesson the your time spent and suffering experienced. This is why people recommend skilled and experienced therapists. They can help with all three of these points and save you tons of time and unnecessary pain. I also highly, highly recommend this BOOK LIST which list books that cost a mere fraction compared to what they are worth in terms of helpful content.
CONNECT WITH YOUR INNER PARENT
The final task is to connect with your inner parent, the competent adult in you that, now that you are an adult, KNOWS. When you were a child you didn’t know anything. You do now and you need to connect to this inner parent and access their wisdom and use their cognitive set of tools.
What you’ll be doing basically is re-parenting your inner child and re-framing their earlier experiences.
The most important thing to do is LISTEN what your inner child is saying and be COMPASSIONATE towards their feelings. Feel what they feel with them, correct their frame, meaning their view of what happened in the past and validate them.
SEE THEM. Give them what they never received when they were young, but needed so badly.
Doing all of this will result in your child NOT BEING ABANDONED ANYMORE. They will have the inner parent and the therapist to see them, approve of them and offer mature guidance and encouragement, something the inner child has never had before, but needed in order to develop properly.
Painting Portrayal – A child alone in a thick forest with seemingly nobody else around. It is dark, and aside from his/her candle (we can’t tell if the child is a boy or girl, and I guess that’s the point), it’s difficult to know what, or who else is around. The forest is composed of trees that are close together and that have no leaves on them. The child is sitting on what looks like a green plant.
Painting Impressions …
The forest is just as likely to be the main character in this illustration as the child is. It takes up most of the painting’s space and provides it with its primary mood which is somber, gloomy and dark really. I wouldn’t say it portrays evil since it doesn’t seem as if it’s out to get the child or to be threatening to them in any way. It seems as if there is simply a “lack of life.” There are no leaves, birds, squirrels, nests or even human/animal tracks that would indicate that life was once there. Aside from the plant the child is sitting on, the whole area looks barren.
The objects in the illustration (ground, trees) all fade out to black around the edges. This gives one the feeling that the child is cut off from any outside world, or, that one perhaps doesn’t even exist. Where does one go from this point? Since we are an interdependent species and have an inbuilt need for connecting with others, you can’t help but wonder what the poor child is going to do. An adult may be able to walk through it and try to navigate to some point of reference and get themselves out, but to this child the darkness all around may as well be infinite.
The child is sitting down, almost defeated. With an opponent so considerable, there’s not much that can be done. All directions look alike with no clear choice or option for preferring one. Perhaps he/she will be found if they wait long enough. That hope is something to grasp onto and create a fantasy to keep them going day after day. They are also looking up helpless, being used to having grown ups come pick them up whenever they were in situations that were too overwhelming to deal with. Again, more hope. The only light though is the candle, which to me represents the child’s spirit and very essence. Keeping it lit is a priority and a “task” which they must now tend to alone.
The fact that the child looks to be physically in good shape, and is sitting on the only other thing that is alive in the image, has me believing that he/she is taken care of in the material sense adequately, and that the darkness and paucity all around represents the child’s emotional world. Even with enough food, shelter and clothing, the child still lives in isolation and their entire experience is pretty much desolate. The notion of “lack” will permeate their psyche and dominate their worldview until they are old enough and strong enough to take it on. .
For this child at the moment, SURVIVAL is all that matters.
***I’d love to hear your impressions! Please leave a comment below.
Helpful Resources – Abandonment & Grief
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