How do I overcome abandonment issues?

My father left us from a young age, I didn’t realize how bad it affected me until I got older and got into relationships. I’d always assume they’d leave
Asked by Augie

Hello Augie! Thank you for your message. I will do my best to give you some general information that will hopefully provide some understanding.

We are all greatly affected as children by the manner in which our parents interact with us. As children, we are helpless to take care of ourselves and we know instinctively that we need caregivers. Babies cry because that is the only method they have for communicating that they need something. We run to one of our parents when we are scared or hurt because that is who we believe is going to help us feel better.

A parent is not supposed to leave us. In the mind of a child, this can be one of the most frightening experiences he or she might ever have. When that happens, though, the child records this experience as a wound. Sometimes, other people step in to help that wound heal. But if nothing is done to promote healing, then that wound remains unhealed in the body and in the mind of that child who was abandoned. If you like to read, there is a book called "The Body Keeps the Score" which explains how our bodies hold on to trauma.

Some years ago -- I think it was the 1970s -- a large medical facility in California did a long-range study on the effects of abuse and neglect on children under the age of 18. The results were astounding. They discovered that those children who experienced what they called adverse childhood experiences were at greater risk to grow up to be adults with medical, social, psychological, emotional, substance abuse, relationship and other kinds of problems.

Something else that happens in childhood is the development of what I call core beliefs. These are beliefs that we embrace as children about ourselves, others, and the world at large. Since we are not born with beliefs, the only way we come to believe things is by being fed beliefs from others -- our caretakers, our teachers, our older relatives, neighbors, etc. Sometimes, those core beliefs are communicated verbally (in our conversations) and sometimes they are communicated non-verbally (though the way people interact with us). So let's say there is a parent who, for whatever reason, has no ability to care for their child. Perhaps they are exhausted or ill or simply do not have the patience needed for children. This parent might actually say something like, "I should have never had children," or "I wish I would never have had children," or worse yet "I wish you had never been born." Those statements could also be communicated by that parent's behavior by ignoring the child, leaving the child to fend for him or herself, or by abandoning that child. However it is done, the child is left with the message that they are not worthy of that parent's love and attention. While this child has done nothing to deserve that message, the message becomes a core belief that they will carry with them into adulthood unless there are some intentional efforts to change that message.

Can you see how it is not surprising that you came to believe that people cannot be trusted in general not to mention trusted to hang around? These are patterns of thinking that came from a core belief that you probably developed as a youngster when your father left. While you might not have been aware of how this was affecting you, there was probably a part of you that was wondering, "Why did my father leave me?" "What did I do that made my father leave me?" Of course, you did nothing wrong. This was your father's choice and it was a choice that impacted how you would grow up to interact with people. You may have heard of attachment styles. You can Google attachment styles and get all kinds of information and YouTube videos on this subject. This theory is based on the idea that we interact with others as adults in a fashion that resembles how our caregivers interacted with us as children. It is certainly possible that you learned as a child that it is so painful to be abandoned by someone you love that you went into any relationship with that expectation -- almost like you were bracing yourself for what you thought would be inevitable so it wouldn't hurt so much. Unfortunately, this behavior of putting up walls and keeping one's distance from potential partners becomes the reason that the other person leaves. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy in effect.

Healing might involve doing some work with a trained therapist who can help your inner child heal. You might want to learn how to change the core beliefs and the narrative in your mind. All of us have a narrative -- a story -- that explains our lives at least to ourselves. The story is an interpretation of events in our lives and that interpretation is affected by the core beliefs that we developed as kids. So if we start with a very negative, self-scathing core belief about ourselves and others, the narrative is going to be very negative and sad. We need to learn how to examine our core beliefs and thinking patterns, and decide if these thoughts are helpful or hurtful. And if they are not helpful, we need to learn how to change them to something more realistic and healthy. There is another book called "You Are Not Your Brain" that discusses how your negative thoughts can be changed to something more helpful.

You might need to learn how to love and trust yourself so that you can have trust in others. You could look up Kristin Neff on the internet for information about self-compassion.  

Thoughts are not facts. They come and they go. But our thoughts can have a very powerful influence on our feelings. So understanding that our thoughts can change and our feelings can be tolerated is an important part of healing. Don't run from your feelings. Let them be a guide to helping you know what you need to heal. A great resource for understanding feelings and vulnerability is Brene' Brown. You can find all of her work on the internet as well.

I hope some of this information will be helpful to you. Thank you for taking the time to read my response.