Abandonment depression

Pete Walker, author of “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving,” has eloquently put into words what many clients with complex trauma feel deeply but can’t always put words to.

Emotional flashbacks to abandonment

Someone I’ve worked with used to call this abandonment depression “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 “why even try.” She needed connection. But her body and her mind were already preparing for prolonged shut down.  She was in a flashback to early childhood or to babyhood, when care from the people around her was not at all certain.

Unfortunately, that flashback colored her communication, so that when she did reach out to people who were available for her, they couldn’t tell if she wanted their help or not! She was giving up before she’d 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, anger at others for not being there for her. It was a mess!

More powerful than you’d think

Often, clients are startled to be experiencing extreme distress when they feel that “other people have been through so much worse than me.” But being abandoned or ignored in times of distress, to our young selves, constitutes a big trauma.

This video of “the still-face experiment” shows what happens with a baby whose mom is usually present and attuned, but who goes still and unresponsive for just a minute. As you watch baby’s reactions you’ll see what I mean about trauma. Notice that the mom came back to the baby, and all is well. If you struggle with abandonment depression, there’s a place in you that got the feeling that no one would come to help you with these terrible emotions, the feeling that no one would take delight in you.

If you experience abandonment flashbacks, then you know these debilitating feelings of hopelessness, despair, and shame. I suspect that some people with social anxiety are actually anticipating abandonment or rejection, and experiencing panic to keep them from nearing what feels like the tortuous zone of potential rejection.

There’s no denying it

“So why does this hurt so much?” you may ask. “I’m an adult, right?” One client reasons, “It’s fine for me if not everyone likes me.” But her emotions tell her differently.

When she sees that look of indifference in a coworker’s eyes, she sinks so deeply into herself that she feels tranced for the rest of the day. Or she asks a friend out to eat, the friend isn’t available, and she wilts, despairing that 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 like a part of us freezes, gets stopped in time. This part shuts down. 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 video, 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 ultimately means 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, no help.

Two stages of abandonment depression, and becoming stuck between the two.

When we anticipate that our needs may not be met:

  1. First we protest.
  2. Then we give up.

The “protest” stage

A person in protest may be called “needy” by others, and may hate herself for being so. Or she may be extremely demanding and perfectionistic, demanding that other people meet her needs just right.

One person I worked with was so demanding that his wife do everything just right that the wife was fed up. He acted as if he had a huge sense of entitlement. What turned out to be beneath this imperious surface was a child part that was terrified of the smallest hint of abandonment. So he protested loudly, repeatedly.

Unfortunately, if you’re stuck in protest, it’s like other people can’t do enough. Why is that? Because in this state, the sense of distress, or perhaps of imminent loss, is overwhelming. You get time with someone, you are given attention—but a part of you is afraid that they have to maintain their engagement through constant, active, ongoing, moment-by-moment management. If the crisis settles, the other person will begin to behave normally! Thus reducing the level of contact, and causing the panic to flare up again.

A part of you has taken up the role of fighting for your needs, and that has been very necessary. Unfortunately, this “fight part” keeps you from a true sense of safety in connection, a true sense of being able to settle down and relax when things are okay. This “fight part” can push people away from true connection with you as they scramble to meet your needs.

This is a tough place to be!

The good news is that, as you work through your abandonment fears with a caring-enough other person, your sense of panic and urgency will diminish, and you’ll find yourself more relaxed in your relationships.

The “shutdown” stage

If you’re protested and tried very hard to enlist people to be there for you, and you haven’t had your needs met adequately (or haven’t been able to notice they have), you go into a terrible shutdown place. There’s suppressed longing, and despair, maybe a bit of rage. The protest has stopped, and now you’re mostly numb. You may sleep a lot, or do escape activities. There’s a giving up on others and on yourself.

For some people, thoughts of suicide start hitting at this phase, or a sense of just overall despair.

Both phases at once

So in protest, we protest, sometimes furiously! In shut-down, we give up.

What happens if you get stuck between the two phases?

Well, you get passive-aggressive! Or you reach out in ways that are less than effective. The near certainty of abandonment that you feel makes you feel futile in reaching out, but a part of you is also telling you that you must try to get help.

When these two strategies duel, you end up asking for help in exasperating ways that preclude the possibility of someone else truly helping. (This is what I think might be often happening for people labeled with “borderline personality disorder,” displaying, as Marsha Linehan calls it, “active passivity.” They state their issues, but they also seem to refuse to move on their own behalf, to ask clearly and concisely for the help they need, or demand that their help take an outlandish or impossible form.

Well, why not? If you’re convinced nothing will help you anyway, why would you (and how could you) be precise in your request?

And once your helpers fail, and you’re all alone, then at least you’re on familiar ground.

Is abandonment depression a mental health diagnosis?

No, it is not. Depending on the details of how the person with abandonment depression behaves, it may look like:

  • A depressive disorder.
  • An anxiety disorder.
  • A dissociative disorder.
  • A personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.

The reason to be aware of abandonment depression is that more targeted therapy is likely to be more effective.

Is there help for abandonment depression?

Abandonment depression is all about not really believing that help is possible. So from the heart of the abandonment depression, you might not believe me. And that’s okay.

There really is help, though. This really can change.

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.

How do you connect when connecting is the whole problem?

By working with a therapist who does connection work or attachment work with people like you. This is a skill that some therapists have. Not most of them, but some.

Therapists who have been through these courses have received training in attachment/connection work:

  • Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, year 2
  • Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP)
  • Lawrence Heller (The Neuroaffective Relational Model)
  • And others, who have taken a deep interest in this work. (Like me!)

 

Toxic Shame, the Trance of Unworthiness

Toxic Shame: Tara Brach calls this shame a “Trance of unworthiness.” It’s increasingly being recognized as a legacy of relational trauma, and one that often isn’t identified as such. Toxic shame is an emotional flashback that feels like a truth. Not only is it a memory, it can get to feel like a necessary feeling, something that helps us avoid feeling devastated by rejection. It’s complicated, but it can be worked through. To make how it develops clear, let’s start by picturing a child, perhaps a little girl.

She, like all children, has a need to reach out to her parents. She has a need to express herself and to have people hear and accept her. She needs to be heard and met often enough that she gets the message over and over again, “Hey, you’re pretty cool! You are a member of our family. We love you. Your desires are acceptable. Your hugs are delightful. Your stories, your laughter, your tears, and your interests matter to us.” These messages are messages this little girl needs to get daily. No parent is perfect, and no child needs a parent who responds with 100 percent affection and attention all the time. But this little girl needs these to occur often enough that she really gets the message, “I am okay.”

Now, say that this little girl has parents who are busy, preoccupied with their jobs, or with another child. Or that one or both of her parents grew up in homes where they themselves weren’t validated and met. Something goes terribly, terribly wrong in this little girl’s environment. It happens on a daily basis, in little ways that make a huge hole in her heart over time. She says, “Hey, look what I can do!” And her mom says, “Can’t you see I’m busy right now?”

Later the same day, she comes to Mommy to give her a hug. And mom says, “You made a big mess in the living room, and you need to clean it up.”

This little girl is in a bind, big time. She needs her parents. When they push her away, or criticize her, her mind and body get messages that are unbearably painful. She learns:

  • I have to be perfect to be loved.
  • I am unlovable.
  • I am unworthy.
  • I’m not quite good enough.
  • My presence isn’t welcome.

Notice that none of the messages this girl takes in reflect on her parents’ inability or their issues. When we’re little, we are unable to reflect on the whole situation of those around us. If our reach isn’t reciprocated, we decide it’s about us.

Some children try desperately to be perfect, good enough, lovable enough.

Some children learn to pretend needlessness, having given up on getting care from those around them. Their shame endures underneath their facade of independence.

Some children alternate between reaching out and retreating deep inside into disconnection, distraction, escape.

Some children develop an inner critic that shames them and stops them from reaching out so that they won’t get hurt.

Children don’t have the option to leave. They don’t have the option to stop needing either, not really.

Children whose needs aren’t met, whatever their strategy is, grow up to be adults who still have a deep sense of shame and unlovability. They carry a deep feeling, a visceral one, that their reach cannot be met with love and acceptance. They carry a deep fear of being exiled.

This fear, this shame, carries different disguises. Some people who are mired in shame are very aware of their feeling of unworthiness. They have a fierce inner critic that reminds them, “Stay quiet. Stay small. Don’t reach out. You’re not good enough.”

Others carry the fear but aren’t consciously aware of it. They retreat from their feelings, or they blame others when things go wrong. They become masters at “prejection”: “I’ll reject you before you can reject me.”

Shame can be healed. It takes careful, gentle guidance to undo shame.

Shame lives in the body and the mind as a trauma. And an often unavowed one.

A person who is locked in this shame, this “Trance of unworthiness” (Thanks to Tara Brach for that phrase!), does not recognize that she is in a trance.

She has not identified the shame she feels as an imprint from long ago, from the heartache of a reach that went repeatedly unmet.

Further, shame is an emotion that exists within a childlike kind of tunnel vision. Shame is a sign, in other words, that we are still carrying the burden for people’s inability to meet our needs. And that we still have the childlike conception, “It’s all my fault, because I’m bad and worthless.”

Toxic shame like this leaves people frozen in a childlike state. Shame is an emotional memory of being rejected. But it doesn’t feel like a memory. It feels like the truth of who we are.

So let’s say that, in some way, you were this little girl. You now carry a sense of shame.

So how do we work with shame?

Here is a set of steps we can take:

  1. We calm our bodies and help counter the trauma response somatically. Here’s a tool to do that: Place one hand over your heart and another on your belly. This triggers a calming response in your body. As your hand is on your heart, call to your memory one experience of love and connection. Could be with a pet, or with a close friend, or a teacher. Pick one that’s solid, and let your body really sense into that feeling of love, safety, validation. Once those feelings are strong, breathe them in and out, with your hand over your heart. Let your body and mind take it in for 30 seconds. Linda Graham says,  “Doing the one-minute Hand on Heart exercise 5 times a day will actually begin to heal the heart and re-wire the brain.”
  2. We get mindful — Noticing body sensations (Start with positive or neutral ones!), emotions, thoughts. Name a thought as just a thought, a feeling as just a feeling. This will help you to get some distance from your shame.
  3. We get in touch with a sense of compassion. Self compassion can be a tough one when you’re dealing with a sense of shame. So don’t start with yourself. Start with a sense of compassion toward someone else in your life. And experiment with turning that sense of compassion inward. If you can do this even a little bit, it will help
  4. Let that feeling of shame within you meet the feeling of compassion. When you let the experience of love touch that experience of shame, the experience of shame will begin to transform.

These are simple steps, but that doesn’t make them easy! Shame is a sense of disconnect from relationships, and hence from ourselves.

Hence, one of the most powerful ways to transform shame is in an accepting relationship.

If you have people in your life who support you, you may start bringing this sense of support into your heart with the hand on heart exercise, and bringing that feeling back to the part of you that feels that shame.

If the feeling of shame tends to keep taking over and making it difficult to take in loving feelings, from yourself or from others, it may be time to get help. No matter what your shame tells you, there is truly no shame in seeking support for yourself. With the right kind of support, you’ll feel and know for yourself very soon what I already know:

You are lovable.

You are worthy of connection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are your Worst Feelings Actually Emotional Flashbacks? [Video]

What is an emotional flashback?

Emotional flashbacks are feelings in the moment that go back to times in childhood where you felt defective, helpless, abandoned, or despairing. They can be tricky to identify, because unlike a specific flashback with specific images, you experience very strong feelings of self-hatred, shame, abandonment, invisibility, or rage. And they’re not linked to any one specific memory.

Here’s a video I’ve made on feelings like hopelessness and the feeling that you’re unlovable, and identifying the possibility that you’re having a flashback. Or if you’re looking for strategies to try right now, scroll further down and find my video that gives you three ways to work with an emotional flashback right now.

Times that you felt despair, shame, rage, futility, a sense of being abandoned or unworthy may be signaling a powerful feeling memory of what it was like for you when you were small.  Because these flashbacks often seem to be related to the present moment, identifying the intensity of your feelings as an emotional flashback is an important piece to healing.

When People Are Having Emotional Flashbacks…

Here are some things people tend to feel and do when experiencing emotional flashbacks:

They Feel Toxic Shame

You get this sense that you are not okay. Everything about you starts to feel pathetic, or worthless, or simply not good enough. Shame is a sense that there’s something wrong with you, something wrong with who you are. It makes sense that a sense of being so worthless would propel this next step:

They criticize themselves, Viciously!

This part of you, this inner critic, says you’re not worth it, you’re not good enough, that you never should have tried, or that you have no right to your feelings and thoughts. This critic often echoes the contempt people received in childhood. This critic demolishes your sense of self-esteem. This leads to the next issue:

They Abandon Themselves, Recreating Early Abandonments

You give in to your inner critic, and you give up on yourself. Some folks abandon themselves through “spacing out”, taking care of other people compulsively (without regard for their own needs), getting into destructive or dependent relationships, turning to food or sleep to dull their feelings, or turning to addictions. Giving up on yourself can be accompanied by suicidal ideation, compulsion/addiction, depression, and giving into the wishes of others to the exclusion of your own needs.

Fear of relationships/social situations

This fear of interaction with other people makes sense when you never developed the sense that you were okay, that people liked you, and that you were worth people’s time and attention.

Emotional Flashbacks Can be Stopped, and You Can Heal!

If these symptoms sound familiar to you, there’s hope for you! Pete Walker coined the term, “emotional flashback,” and he says:

First, the good news about CPTSD [complex PTSD]: It is a learned set of responses, and a failure to complete numerous important developmental tasks. This means that it is environmentally, not genetically, caused. In other words, unlike most of the diagnoses it is confused with, it is neither inborn nor characterlogical. As such, it is learned. It is not inscribed in your DNA. It is a disorder caused by nurture (or rather the lack of it), not nature.

Pete Walker, from Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.

Here’s a video I did on ways you can work with an emotional flashback right in the moment you’re experiencing it. You might want to bookmark this page or favorite the video on Youtube so you can find it at a moment’s notice!

 

I work with clients from around the world via Skype video, and locally here in Oregon. Clients suffering from emotional flashbacks express great relief once they understand that they’re not bad or crazy, and that their troubled emotions and relationships make sense. Once you know that you’re NOT crazy or defective, you can start the work of healing.  Healing is deeply rewarding, because as you learn to let go of toxic shame, to challenge your inner critic, to notice when you’re in an emotional flashback (and find your way out), you get to feel at home with yourself.  Life looks different. Your anxiety diminishes, your energy increases, and you gain a sense of love, belonging, and safety.

Healing can begin to occur in a safe relationship, often with a good therapist. Read my article about feeling safe in therapy.  People recover from complex trauma every day. To recover, you’ll need to develop self-compassion, challenge your inner critic, and learn to care for the child you once were. As you recover, you develop a sense that you’re okay, that you can be safe, and that you’re worth it. You stop abandoning yourself and learn to embrace who you are. Healing happens one step at a time.

 Examples of Emotional Flashbacks

Here are examples of emotional flashbacks I’ve seen:

  • Mary comes to a session convinced that I won’t like her, that no one can like her. When we talk about these feelings, it becomes apparent that, even though I and many other people like her, there’s a part of her that keeps remembering the feelings of helplessness and shame and replaying the voices of her parents saying, “No one will ever want to be your friend.”
  • Thomas tells me he “freaks out” every time his fiance looks at him a certain way. When he remembers what “that look” reminds him of, he recalls the sense of impending doom he had as a child when his stepfather gave him a certain look before beating him.
  • Rose can’t stand for someone on the phone to say it’s time for them to go. It brings her back to a time in her childhood where she felt all alone.
  • When Harry hears that his boss wants to talk to him, he immediately panics and believes that he’s going to be reprimanded. When we talk it through, he realizes that he’s flashing back to a time that his mother saying, “Let’s have a talk” could only mean bad things.

Dealing with Emotional Flashbacks

How do you resolve an emotional flashback? First, you recognize the likelihood that it is a flashback.

  1. Recognizing your emotional flashbacks for what they are can save your sense of sanity. By recognizing these feelings as coming from the past, you can begin to let go of the fear or anguish now, and to be compassionate with yourself as you deal with the feelings from then.
  2. Recognize that you are safe now. When you were young, these experiences could feel life-threatening. But now, you’re in an adult body with adult resources. You’re safe now. You might check out my flashback halting protocol video for a format for noticing safety in the here and now.
  3. Understand your flashback as a message from a child part of yourself. This part still needs care and attention and validation, and didn’t get it when you were young. Now is the time to hear that child’s message. Rather than fixating on the current situation, focus on the feeling and tend to that child within.
  4. Recognize that this flashback will pass, and life will look different then. When you’re in the midst of one of these flashbacks, they can feel eternal. Worse, a part of you may criticize you or shame you, and these criticisms can feel like utter truth when you feel this way. They’re not truth. I promise! Right now, take care of you.
  5. Become an expert in emotional flashbacks. The more you know, the more empowered you’ll feel, and having the words to put to what’s going on will to keep you from getting stuck in a feeling. You can find stuff on my website and youtube channel, of course! 🙂
  6. And you can look at stuff that the guy who coined the term “Emotional Flashback” has written. His name is Pete Walker, and he offers a lot of useful information, written very compassionately. Here’s a link to his website, with articles that might interest you right on the left column.
  7. Realize that you can heal from this stuff. A relationship with someone who has compassion and a clue will help a lot, especially if the inner critic or feelings of shame keep taking over your thoughts and feelings, despite your best efforts. So consider seeking help from someone familiar with this stuff. If you already have a support network (Lots of people struggling with this stuff don’t yet have that, and that can change over time!), find someone safe to start sharing a little bit of this stuff with. And if you don’t yet have that, you might seek help from a counselor. One with compassion, and hopefully one who knows some of this stuff and can help guide you to a sense of self-compassion and curiosity. One you can connect with over time. One who can offer you a bit of a roadmap to where you are and where you can go. One who can, most importantly, offer genuineness and compassion in a way that will help you feel those things toward yourself more and more.