“I always burn my support people out after just a few months.”
Different stories, but with some similar feelings and undercurrents.
“I always burn my support people out after just a few months.”
Different stories, but with some similar feelings and undercurrents.
Pete Walker has eloquently put into words what many clients with abandonement fears feel deeply but can’t always put words to.
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!
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: 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. For those of us where our caregiver couldn’t quite come back to us, we can end up feeling pretty scared and pretty stuck.
If you experience abandonment flashbacks, then you know these debilitating feelings of hopelessness, despair, and shame. I suspect that some people with strong fears of getting to know people are actually anticipating abandonment or rejection, and experiencing panic to keep them from nearing what feels like the tortuous zone of the “still face” seen above.
“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.
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.
When we anticipate that our needs may not be met:
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 can’t seem to trust it or take it in. This takes time and gentleness to work through, taking in nourishment one little bit at a time. It’s hard when you haven’t had a lot of care or consistency to trust that people can be here for you now. It can also be hard to tell the difference sometimes between the fear of “child you” and the real yearnings of “adult you.”
Also, 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.
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.
So in protest, we protest, sometimes furiously! In shut-down, we give up.
What happens if we get stuck between the two phases?
Well, we get passive-aggressive! Or we 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 may end up asking for help in exasperating ways that preclude the possibility of someone else truly helping.
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.
Yes. This fear and anguish around abandonment and the fear of it is all about not really believing that help is possible, of course. So from the heart of these feelings, 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.
Finding a counselor who can map your emotions to unmet young needs can be a big help. Certainly, finding someone with empathy who understands that your feelings make sense will help too.
A client walks into my office. She sits down, hunched over. Her face is pale. Her hands shake.
I say hi, and she says hello robotically almost, a fake smile covering her face. Then she looks down, away. Then stares at me, trying to keep eye contact. She’s heard, after all, that it’s only polite.
Her issues? They vary. People with the “connection survival style,” a phrase coined by Laurence Heller, often talk about a feeling of emptiness, and say, “I want to find out who I am.” Sometimes, they pride themselves on not needing anyone, but they are starting to feel twinges of longing, or they’re starting to develop a close relationship. But as their connection grows, so does their fear. Of being too much. Of losing their independence. Often, it’s a fear too old, too primal, to put into words.
She may have very well-rehearsed social skills. Or she may be huddled in her home most of the time, maybe spending most of her time with animals, or on nature trails. Whether she presents as sophisticated and poised or she presents as ill-at-ease, she’s likely dealing with the most fundamental of our emotional needs as an infant:
She didn’t get the level of connection she needed to really feel like she could be herself. She may not feel that she has a real self. She has been trying like mad to mirror others, in hopes that, by approximating the moves of connection, she’ll find her way in, find her way to being welcome.
At the same time, she’s terrified to reach out. Terrified to want. Terrified to connect.
Longing mingles with dread. Possibility and hope mingle with fear and despair.
She has a deep yearning for connection. But she fears connection too. Because it wasn’t dependable when she was young. Maybe her parents were ill, or preoccupied. Maybe they weren’t nice to her. Maybe they communicated to her, with their hurried way of tending to her young needs, that she was a burden. Maybe her birth had complications, leading to a less-than-warm and welcoming vibe in those very first moments, or she was ill as an infant.
Are you struggling with the connection survival style? Here are some indicators that you may be:
2 Subtypes of the connection style — or, in other ways, two common ways people escape the pain of their unmet connection needs:
Here’s the good news:
We all have a fundamental need to connect, and we have the ability. You do too! The struggles you have just indicate that the need hasn’t been met for you. The ways it’s getting met now may still feel too “loud,” too “wordy.” Because in our first few months, we need softness, welcome. It’s possible you didn’t get enough nurturing for you to quite land within your own body and your own experience.
Your shame isn’t based on a badness in you, even though it feels so deeply that way. It’s based on very young stuff. When we’re too young for words, we can have these very scary, big, feelings. But in that time of our lives, we don’t have the ability to differentiate those bad feelings from us. Those feelings feel like the whole world!
As we get older, we start coming up with reasons we feel awful. One reason we can come up with is, “I must feel awful because I am awful!”
Also, if we feel unwelcome or unable to deeply connect for long enough, we can start to give up hope, without being able to give up the need. If we give up the need, we start feeling that our need is bad. That we are unwelcome, unwanted, unlovable.
But that’s not the case. The case is that, for whatever reason, you missed out on something we all need when we’re young. (This can happen for all kinds of reasons, even in really good families, by the way!)
This can change. It takes time, it takes gentleness, and it takes patience. It takes a safe relationship. Some people find this through a pet, and then later on, they find a partner.
Some people find this first in therapy or coaching that focuses on connection to their bodies and their emotions and to another person, safely, incrementally, step by step.
The connection survival style is a set of ways you learned to adapt, to survive, when your needs weren’t being met.
Now, the task is for you to connect to yourself, maybe for the first time. Sometimes, this starts with very simple things, like body awareness.
Often, we need a “safe enough other” in order to do this. A therapist who understands something about this survival style and how to work with your emotions, your body, your nervous system, and your spirituality — will have a good chance of helping you to navigate your way safely, gently, and gradually — into connection with yourself, and with others.
It’s beautiful work. Because the wounds of the connection survival style are preverbal, the therapy work we do around it is often difficult to put into words too.
But when people experience this work, they notice some things start to shift:
The transformation in therapy with folks with the connection survival style is profound, as you can likely tell from this list.
This kind of work goes way beyond teaching you strategies or relationship skills. Clients who go through this work, and stay with it, say that they feel like they’ve finally come home. They say they feel like they know and like who they are.
They sometimes have difficulty putting into words how profound the changes are. But they do say that they can feel the shift in their bodies, in their emotions. Their loved ones say they too notice a deep difference.
You can experience profound shifts if you’re struggling with this style.
*This style and 3 others are explained in depth in Laurence Heller’s book, “Healing Developmental Trauma.” Laurence has offered a training called “NARM”, a method that combines Somatic Experiencing and relational work. But there are lots of people who know how to work with this. You’ll want to look for someone gentle and who can help you to compassionately notice your present moment experience and who can help you to gently begin to get a sense of welcome, room for you to be, room for you to want things, room for you to know yourself.
Do you ever feel like you keep playing out the same old script and having the same old relationships, or the same relationship patterns?
Have you married some variant on the same person over and over again, and do you consistently shrink yourself or fight in the same old ways?
In therapy, you may also notice some of that “old stuff” seeping in. You may feel yourself withdrawing from me the way you withdraw from others, or find yourself talking lots and connecting little — or find yourself suppressing your own needs, or feeling overwhelmed by them.
The beauty of a therapy that works well is that you get to bring those patterns with you, and we get to both have a real curiosity about your experience in the relationship here.
We may make new discoveries together. And we may get to find options beyond that script you’ve played out in relationships a million times.
Pat Ogden, author of “Trauma and the Body”, calls these scripts “procedural memory.” Your body and your mind are used to going through a sequence of steps in relationships — much like how your body and mind just “know” how to drive a car without thinking through each move, your body and your mind also instinctively respond in old ways in relationships.
In counseling, we can actually be curious about these “memories” you relive together — and we can find gentle and compassionate ways for you to interrupt those “old scripts.”
Here are some examples:
-Every time a particular client feels misunderstood, she starts to withdraw, to “go into her own world” and to think about leaving the relationship. She feels misunderstood in my office, starts to “zone out.”
Something new happens when I ask her to take me with her, to help me to understand where the misunderstanding happened. I work with her with feeling her feet on the ground, being aware of her own experience, and with telling me where I “missed the boat.” We talk the misunderstanding over — and she feels herself come back to life. We both feel closer than we did before the misunderstanding — and her body and mind have also replaced an old script, as for a moment, she feels like her voice and her feelings matter, like she can share them instead of running away.
-Another client is used to talking…and talking…and talking. He often gets lost in his own words, talking faster and faster.
I ask him if it would be okay to notice the speed of his thoughts, to notice his breathing, and to take a moment to just sit with what’s happening within him. As he and I make eye contact and breathe together, he feels a release of some emotion, and is able to feel more connected than he did when he was “just talking.” He’s replaced, just for a moment, that old script of hiding himself behind a wall of words.
-A woman shares an important piece of her history with me, and then starts to talk about something else. I ask her to let the words she just spoke sit with both of us, and I ask her to take in my response to the depth of what she’s just said. I may even ask her to repeat her words and let herself feel them.
She realizes that she hasn’t felt safe to let herself share deeply with someone for some time, and that by letting herself register my response to her sharing, new possibilities emerge within her — for feeling the importance of her own words, for feeling that she can be heard. She’s let go, for a moment, of that old script of feeling like no one can understand her.
When clients can try, even for a moment, to play with a new way of being, of hearing, of speaking, of moving, they can start to identify their old scripts — and to learn ways to go outside their same old lines.
This builds the foundation for new types of relationsihps, new ways of sharing, new ways of being in the world.
No one should be confined by a script or two that they learned a long time ago. We all have the potential to learn new lines, to discard scripts that no longer work for us, and to try out new ways of being. Sometimes, it just takes the right support in being mindful of your old scripts and trying out new ways of being.
The old script will always be there if you need it. But you can develop more options. And that’s the point — to have a choice about how we respond. To get to see what maybe wasn’t there before: Safety. Caring, kind people who want to hear us. The ability to make room for ourselves and room for others.
I love helping people to discover their old scripts and to find their authentic voice outside all those old feelings and those “old lines.” If you’d like to talk about working together and you’d like some help to identify how your old scripts could be getting in the way of your current relationships, click here. I’ll be delighted to support you in having a new experience.