Panic, darkness, survival, fear. I was born by emergency c-section to a 22-year-old, alcoholic mother struggling with depression. My first exposure to the world was scary and unsafe.
I grew up in and out of other people’s homes while my mother battled with her mental illness. We’d spend a few years together before unpredictable chaos would turn our happy home upside down and once again, I’d find myself living in the home of strangers. Staring up at a foreign ceiling on sleepless nights, I yearned for control over my own life. Security was a foreign concept to me. Something that belonged to the other kids I went to school with, but not me. In the eyes of many parents and teachers, being a foster kid meant I was a “bad apple”.
At the tender age of 12, as an angry and aggressive pre-teen, I became a ward of the government. My mother lost custody and a government body became my legal guardian. I couldn’t do things a normal kid would do, like go on a field trip or get my drivers license at 16 without a government ministry signing for me.
I grew weary of people. My wounds with my mother and an absent father embedded a deep distrust in me. I navigated the world as though I was always under attack. I hated sleep-overs and any experience that resembled that first traumatic night when, at just 3 years old, I was handed off kicking-and-screaming into the arms of foster parents.
It didn’t matter that my mother loved me or that she was just a 22-year-old fumbling her way through her own deeply traumatized life. I was a little girl with an impressionable mind and the imprint of abandonment on my psyche was immense.
As a child, anger became my coping mechanism. Later in life as a teenager, trouble was my middle name. Shielding myself from any possible threat or danger, the walls around my heart were thick and unmovable. No one could get through to me, for I was unlovable. My outside environment reinforced the belief that I wasn’t good enough. That belief was the evidence I needed to keep my walls up and protect myself from future pain and abandonment.
Despite the ways life challenged me, I always knew I was meant for something. People saw potential in me, I knew my mom loved me even though she couldn’t properly care for me, and I was exposed to enough diversity to recognize that I had a choice how my life would turn out. This foresight alone made me one of the lucky ones.
I went on to explore life the messy way. From abusive relationships to opting for a vow of celibacy to “find myself” at 21. Then I met a man who seemed different than all of those other assholes, and we got married. Rather reluctantly I might add, but that’s a story for another day.
Most people carry some sort of an abandonment wound. The story might be different, but the wound is the same.
On the journey to healing my own abandonment issues, I learned that it doesn’t always take a catastrophic event to form an abandonment wound. In the book “The Journey from Abandonment to Healing”, author Susan Anderson explains how a seemingly minor event such as being dropped off at summer camp can cause a small child to learn the world is unsafe and feel their security is under threat.
Our culture doesn’t take trauma very seriously, and this has resulted in multi-generational wounding. Low to high-grade trauma is passed down from parents to their children and the cycle repeats itself. For the most part, we’re a society with low-emotional intelligence and an inability to mindfully work through conflict. Many of us have been taught that anger or sadness aren’t acceptable emotions. We were sent to our rooms when we acted out, shamed for having big feelings, and sometimes even bullied at school for being the sensitive kid. Little hurts and stresses, all the way to low-grade trauma are generally brushed off as “not a big deal”, but that doesn’t mean these experiences don’t leave a mark.
Gabor Mate, Author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, speaks to the root of addiction:
Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.
When you ignore a screaming child, they generally get louder for a while and eventually give up. But the child who constantly gets ignored by their parents will often act out more and more until finally, they explode. This is how trauma works. If we ignore it for too long, we either explode or shrink to nothing. Often, a stressful life event will be the trigger to bring up our unfinished business from the past.
An abandonment wound can be formed in a variety of unsuspecting and more obvious ways:
- Birth trauma (separation at birth, c-section birth, incubators)
- Being dropped off at summer camp
- Being dropped off at Grandma’s house for a night when you’re little
- Boarding school
- Divorced parents
- An absent parent
- A sick parent
- Death of a parent
- A close family member dying
- Growing up in an emotionally cold environment where it wasn’t safe to express yourself
- Childhood abuse, sexual abuse or verbal insults
- Emotionally aloof or distant parents
All of these experiences can form beliefs in a child’s brain: I’m not lovable, I’ve been abandoned, something must be wrong with me, the world isn’t safe, I can’t trust love, I have to do everything alone, I’m only lovable if I behave a certain way and so on.
When an Abandonment Wound Has Been Deeply Triggered, It Can Feel Terrifying
Some of us go our whole lives with deep wounds from childhood that never get resolved. I managed to make it all the way to 26 before a divorce ripped the rug out from under me and put all of my wounds up on a 3D display.
Somehow, I’d managed to convince myself, like many of us, that “I was fine”. But there was no escaping this time. My husband drove off in another woman’s red SUV while I stood there in the road, shaking, without shoes on – panic-stricken, helpless and terrified. Childhood memories flooded back to me and suddenly I felt 3 years old. It was then, that I recognized my own wound for what it was. I felt a sense of liberation. Realizing the pain I was in was actually from my past gave me the freedom to heal without needing someone else to do, be, or say anything. It meant people could stay exactly the same, and I still had the power to change my life.
My abandonment wound was activated to such a degree that in my first month of separation I wanted nothing more than to find myself safely back in a lifeless marriage. A marriage I had fantasized regularly about ending. But now, I wanted to cling on for dear life. At least I wouldn’t be alone. Who else would want me anyhow!?
How an abandonment wound plays out in real life:
- Oversensitivity to criticism or feedback
- Overreacting to conflict
- Extremist tendencies (ghosting at the first sign of conflict, extreme outbursts)
- Anxiety and fear of the other person leaving
- Ending relationships early before the other person has a chance to leave
- Jealousy or suspicion that your partner will hurt, cheat, or leave even when there’s no sign of malicious behavior
- Self-doubt, insecurity, and lack of self-worth
- Staying in an abusive relationship (or as I call it, dumpster diving for love aka taking what you can get)
- In more extreme cases of being deeply triggered during events such as break-ups, a divorce, or a loss: one might feel a total loss of control over their emotions, hyper-reactivity, anxiety attacks, fear, insomnia, weight loss or gain, and obsessive thoughts or behavior.
An abandonment wound is invisible to the eye, but it leaves telltale signs in how we relate to the external world, how we feel internally and how we behave in our relationships. It can have us spend our whole lives running from perceived danger. To test someone’s love like a straw that inevitably breaks, then using their resignation as evidence we’re living in an unsafe world. It can cause us to blindly accept the bad behavior of others, ignoring our own needs and prevent us from having a strong, powerful voice.
What it’s like for someone living with an abandonment wound
One of the most obvious signs of an abandonment wound is the way a person responds to criticism or conflict. For them, even a minor criticism or perceived conflict can trigger all of the alarm bells to go off in the mind. A person living with an abandonment wound is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Whenever love is extended to them, their first instinct might be to run away or become anxious. Their fears that they’re being tricked, betrayed, lied to, or deceived surface when they’re triggered by someone’s extension or withdrawal of love. A person with an abandonment wound has a very hard time trusting and receiving love and identifying what healthy love looks like.
Someone who’s living from their wound may find themselves stuck in abusive relationships, putting up with bullying from partners, friends or family members, avoiding relationships altogether, or chasing people who don’t share the same interest in developing a relationship as they do. For someone with an abandonment wound, it’s often very difficult to enter into a relationship where love is flowing freely and equally between partners. There’s generally an anxious-avoidant attachment pattern that needs to be addressed first, in order for them to function well in a mutually loving and respectful partnership.
How to Heal An Abandonment Wound
1. Acknowledge Your Past Hurt
You may have been told by parents or other important figures in your life that when life gets hard you just keep moving forward and leave the past in the past. Your first step in healing an abandonment wound is to forget all of that and acknowledge what’s left to be felt.
Our culture teaches us to swallow our pain and mask it with a smile. We learn to stuff all of our grief, shame, hurt and pain from the past into a box with sharp edges and swallow it down. Throughout our relationships, however, trauma remains alive in our bodies even though we’ve made it invisible to the outside world.
We have to work at letting go of the pride and humiliation attached to owning all of the hurt from our past. It’s not your fault. You’re not a bad person, a weak person or unworthy person because you have this wound.
Look at your experiences with loving eyes and give space for the darkness to emerge. Unfinished business will always find a way, usually inside our most intimate relationships to be seen and seek healing. Recognize your own innocence and acknowledge that you were wounded in a time where you felt helpless. Since you cannot escape the pain of the past, your only option, if you wish to heal, is to feel all of the grief, sadness, anger, and eventually forgiveness that accompanies these hurts.
2. Feel Your Feelings
We spend much of our lives living in our heads, so when triggers occur the sheer experience of being fully in the body can come as a shock. What does it mean to truly “feel our feelings”? Let go, into the sensations of pain, sadness, grief, and anger while observing any desire to escape into your mind – feelings aren’t thoughts. You cannot think your way out of a wound, you have to feel your way through it.
Give yourself as much time as you need to cry, shout, scream into pillows, run through the woods with tears streaming down your face, lay on the ground and thrash. Of course, you must do this processing and catharsis work in a safe, contained setting where neither you or another person will be hurt. But do the work, feel the hard things, there is no way out but through.
Darker emotions are thought of by many folks who call themselves spiritual as bad or negative. But anger, rage, and sadness are just as useful as happiness or joy, perhaps at times, even more so. Feeling your darker emotions is the therapeutic mode of transport to becoming whole again. You can’t spiritually bypass and skip feeling your anger, rage or grief and all of a sudden find yourself in the land of love and forgiveness. Don’t rush forgiveness, take time to lean into the anger. In this phase of your healing journey, you’re learning to give space to all of your emotions, especially the unfelt dark ones that may have been ignored for far too long. No longer rejecting the pain inside of you, feeling it allows you to integrate the lost parts of yourself and function in a new, healthier way in the world.
3. Remember You’re Not Alone
You are one in a sea of billions of people who have past hurts, traumas, and chains from the past. People whose spirits have been broken, hearts have been mistreated, those who have lost love and felt the pain of abandonment.
While you’re not so different from the rest of the world in your pain, your story is unique to you, and it’s important for you to remember your feelings are valid. Comparing your pain to others is a hopeless pursuit, but so is isolating yourself and holding the belief that your pain is greater than the rest of the worlds – both of these thoughts distance you from your own ability to transform. You deserve the time and space to be held in your healing. While seeking support may be terrifying, it’s an act of self-love and a show of commitment on your part to do the hard work that will be required to heal.
Romantic partners aren’t the best choice for a primary support system while sorting through past hurts. For your sake and for theirs, it’s beneficial to find ways to share your journey with them without expecting them to be your everything. A romantic partner can hold space for you to their own capacity, so don’t be afraid to share with them, just remember they are not your therapist and also have their own needs in the relationship. Friends and family members may be able to offer support to a certain extent depending on your situation, but again, it may be too challenging or downright impossible for them to hold space for you during this process.
Most often, it’s the healthiest choice to reach out for counseling, therapy or coaching. Having a supportive ally who can witness you in your journey, offer you tools to navigate your feelings and help you feel safe and grounded during the heavy moments is very important. Especially for someone who has a wound around being unwanted or unworthy, having a support person is also a chance to break patterns around living as a “survivor” who has to do it all themselves. It’s an opportunity to let someone in and allow yourself to be fully seen.
4. Let Love In
In our “Heal Your Relationships Program”, I work with people to explore their minds and the beliefs they may have hidden surrounding their own worthiness and lovability. If you’ve been taught that you’re only lovable in a certain emotional state: most likely happy, content and agreeable, then your growing edge will be to bring your sadness, fears and your vulnerability to a partner or close friend. When I say “bring your sadness” to someone, I don’t mean dump on someone without permission and expect them to save you from your pain. Bringing your emotions to another person is an act of revealing yourself in a vulnerable way, without expectation. This is an open invitation for a loved one to hold space for you and remind you that you don’t have to do everything alone. You let love in by accepting compliments, hugs, gifts that may be offered to you, or invitations extended to you. One of the hardest things to do for someone with an abandonment wound is to let love in. You expose yourself to the risk of being hurt or betrayed or worse, abandoned all over again. Learning how to trust others is intrinsically linked to learning how to trust that you’re worthy of receiving love and support. Be gentle with yourself throughout the process, there’s no race to the finish line!