Emotional Flashbacks to Abandonment
When you feel let down now, it evokes deep memories of times you were left and there was nowhere to turn.
Sometimes the worst flashbacks are to times when we couldn’t use words. So, if something big happened when you were a baby, for example, your feelings of being let down as an adult might lead to feelings much more abject than those that usually go with routine disappointment.
It’s a flashback, but it can feel as though the world is ending—as if all hope is lost.
Someone I’ve worked with used to call this abandonment despair “psychic death.” She described a place she went inside where no one was there for her. When she reached out for help, it was tinged with hopelessness and a feeling of “Why even try?”
She needed connection.
But, unfortunately, that flashback colored her communication, so when she reached out to people who were available to her, they couldn’t tell if she wanted their help or not!
She was giving up before she even started. And that makes sense, because her abandonment flashback told her to just give up and expect the worst.
It’s no wonder her requests were tinged with both passivity and anger—anger at herself for wanting something she was sure she couldn’t get… and anger at others for not being there for her.
Flashbacks and abandonment despair often create a mess!
The “Still Face Experiment”
Being abandoned or ignored in times of distress, to our young selves, constitutes a big trauma.
The “Still Face Experiment,” conducted by Dr. Edward Tronick and published by the University of Massachusetts Boston, shows what happens with a baby whose mom is usually present and attuned… but goes still and unresponsive for just a minute.
Watch the baby’s reactions in this brief video of the experiment <link to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0> (<3 minutes), and you’ll see what I mean…
Mom’s inattention here is a big deal for this baby. Mom comes back to full engagement in this video, so this has a happy ending. But for those of us whose caregiver couldn’t quite come back to us, we can end up feeling scared and stuck.
I suspect that some people with strong fears of getting to know people are actually anticipating abandonment, rejection, or panic to keep them from feeling the torturous zone of the “still face” seen above.
If you experience abandonment flashbacks, then you know these debilitating feelings of hopelessness, despair, and shame.
The Adult Pain of Abandonment Despair
“So why does this hurt so much?” you may ask. “I’m an adult, right?”
One client reasons, “It’s fine if not everyone likes me.” But her emotions tell a different story.
When she sees that look of indifference in a coworker’s eyes, she sinks so deeply into herself and feels tranced for the rest of the day.
Or, she asks a friend out to eat and the friend isn’t available, she wilts, despairing over the question of whether anyone will ever want to spend time with her.
Attachment is as necessary as oxygen.
When we’re little, proximity to our caretakers is life. We need to be attended to. We need our cries to be met with love and reassurance.
We need people. It’s how we’re wired. It’s good that we need people.
When we have caretakers who, for whatever reason, weren’t around to adequately meet our needs, we skid into despair. It’s as though a part of us freezes… gets stopped in time. This part shuts down.
As a result, they can’t get their needs met. They can’t stop the sense of need. They panic. They shut down, because their needs for soothing aren’t being met and they don’t yet have the capacity to self-soothe.
How could they? We learn how to soothe ourselves through being soothed by others.
As you saw in the “Still Face Experiment,” when we need soothing and we can’t self-soothe, we protest. As babies, we cry and maybe scream. After protest, if no one still comes, we shut down. It’s like a part of us gives in to the inevitability of no help.
No help can ultimately mean death. Our bodies are hard-wired to know this… to feel this… and to shut us down if they anticipate no end to the need, no comfort, and no help.
Stages of Abandonment Depression
When we anticipate that our needs may not be met or that someone is again turning away, we can do three basic things—sometimes all in rapid sequence like the baby above:
We work harder to connect. We reach, we talk, and we try to find the other person. “Come back to me,” we say!
We protest the other person’s absence. This can look like anger or sulking… or often comes out in “passive-aggressive” ways because part of us is giving up while part of us continues to protest.
We give up. Maybe we turn to food or sleep or exercise or achievements… or we fold in on ourselves and lose our interest in relationships.
All of this is the manifestation of the memory of “nobody there.”
Is there help for this?
Part of the fear and anguish around abandonment lies in not believing that help is possible, of course. So from these feelings, you might not believe me. And that’s okay.
There really is help, though. This really can change.
But it’s hard to change this all by yourself. The antidote to abandonment isn’t self-help. The antidote to abandonment isn’t to do something in lonely isolation.
The antidote to abandonment is connection.
Connecting… When Connecting Is the Problem
Finding a counselor who can map your emotions to unmet young needs can be a big help.
Together, we’ll focus on moment-by-moment connection.
Together, we’ll empathically put words to your struggles and help you to stop abandoning yourself.
Together, we’ll connect you to others who can be there for you.
In time, connection begins to feel like a delightful choice rather than a terrible need that leads to more abandonment.
Don’t be alone… I’m here for you.
This work always involves grief for the experience of solid connection that somehow got disrupted when you were young…
… but it also involves a sense of freedom, of connection, and also of you.
The last thing you need when working with these feelings of aloneness is to feel all alone.
Let me be present with you.
Stop feeling alone… and experience the joy of showing up for yourself in new ways.
Your aloneness can end now. Schedule your consultation on my work with me page.