The fear of abandonment is one of our most primal fears, and deservedly so. Its pain is often overwhelming, and can leave its mark on the rest of your life. In the midst of the hurt, it’s hard to see an end to your feelings of rejection, shame, and betrayal.
In this updated edition of the groundbreaking book, Susan Anderson, a therapist who has specialized in helping people with loss, heartbreak, and abandonment for more than thirty years, shares recent discoveries in neuroscience that help put your pain in perspective. It is designed to help all victims of emotional breakups—whether you are suffering from a recent loss, or a lingering wound from the past; whether you are caught up in patterns that sabotage your own relationships, or you’re in a relationship in which you no longer feel loved. From the first stunning blow to starting over, it provides a complete program for abandonment recovery.
Going beyond comforting words to promote real change, this healing process will help you work through the five universal stages of abandonment—shattering, withdrawal, internalizing, rage, lifting—by understanding their biochemical and behavioral origins and implications. New hands-on exercises for improving your life will teach you how to manage the inevitable pain, then go on to build a whole new concept of self, increase your capacity for love, and find new love on a deeper and richer level than ever before.
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Susan Anderson has devoted more than thirty years of clinical experience and groundbreaking research to helping people overcome abandonment and its aftermath of self-sabotaging patterns. A pioneer in the Abandonment Recovery movement, she is author of Black Swan, The Journey from Heartbreak to Connection, and Taming Your Outer Child. In addition to conducting lectures and leading workshops, she continues private practice in Manhattan and on Long Island.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ONE day, leafing through a Japanese dictionary, I came upon a word that caused me to marvel because it had so many different meanings—and ALL of them pertained to abandonment. The word is akeru. It means “to pierce, to open, to end, to make a hole in, to start, to expire, to unwrap, to turn over.” When someone leaves, akeru refers to the empty space that is created, the opening in which a new beginning can take place. I was amazed at the power of a single word that could suggest that to begin and to end are the same—part of one never-ending cycle of renewal and healing. I was excited to discover this concept and began to use it immediately in my work in abandonment recovery, delighted to see how readily people responded to its wisdom.
I am not trying to cash in on Eastern philosophy or establish a new martial art. I am grateful to be able to borrow the wonderfully fluid, many-faceted meaning of a single word plucked out of its context from an enlightened tradition.
“WHAT is abandonment?” people ask. “Is it about people in search of their mothers? Or people left on someone else’s doorstep as children?”
I answer: Every day there are people who feel as if life itself has left them on a doorstep or thrown them away. Abandonment is about loss of love itself, that crucial loss of connectedness. It often involves breakup, betrayal, aloneness—something people can experience all at once, or one after another over a period of months, or even years later as an aftershock.
Abandonment means different things to different people. It is an extremely personal and individual experience. Sometimes it is lingering grief caused by old losses. Sometimes it is fear. Sometimes it can be an invisible barrier holding us back from forming relationships, from reaching our true potential. It can take the form of self-sabotage. We get caught up in patterns of abandonment.
This book provides real help for those who have searched but found nothing to ease the pain of abandonment or hasten the speed of recovery. It guides you through what I’ve observed in years of practice as five universal stages of abandonment. As you continue along this journey, you will perhaps be surprised to discover that the pain you feel when a loved one has left is not an end but the beginning of a time of personal growth.
I may refer to a breakup but the effects of abandonment apply to all types of loss and disconnection, whether it’s loss of a job, a dream, or a friend. It may be a loss of one’s home, health, or sense of purpose. Abandonment is a psychobiological process. I’ll share with you recent findings from the field of brain science that shed new light on the biological and chemical processes that underlie our emotional response to loss and the most effective path to restoring our emotional balance.
People going through the anguish of love loss often feel that their lives have been permanently altered, that they will never be the same, will never love again. I’m writing to assure you that as devastated as you may be right now, your feelings of despair and hopelessness are in fact temporary, and they are a normal part of grieving over a relationship. In fact, only by grappling with the feeling that your life is over can you cleanse your deepest wounds from past and present losses and build anew.
Those of you who have been left to pick up the pieces may wonder about your lost partners, who have already replaced you with new lives and new relationships. You’ve been left to do the soul-searching. You are a part of the chosen group able to undertake this journey. As you continue with the book, you will discover that the pain you are feeling is real, it is part of life, and it is necessary.
Anyone who feels this pain is in a legitimate emotional crisis. Many feel as if they have been stabbed in the heart so many times that they don’t know which hole to plug up first. But these overwhelming feelings do not in any way imply that you are weak, dependent, or undeserving. In spite of the intensity of your feelings, you are still the competent, responsible person you thought you were. Your breakup, with all of its emotional excess, has not diminished you. In fact, being able to feel so deeply is a testament to your strength and tenacity. People are strongest where the breaks are. Only by giving yourself over to your feelings can you find your way out of them.
This is a time of personal reckoning, but this soul-searching can also lead to extreme self-doubt and scathing self-recrimination. When someone we love rejects us we often turn the anger we feel toward that person against ourselves and blame ourselves for the loss. In this way, abandonment acts like quicksand, miring us in feelings of worthlessness and despair. No matter how hurtful or demoralizing the circumstances may have been, you are not a victim or undeserving of love. The fact that someone has chosen not to be with you says as much about your ex as it does about you and how well you functioned in the relationship. You may be humbled for the moment, but you have not been vanquished.
Facing these issues and putting what you have experienced into perspective prevents you from turning your anger inward. As you learn to resist the gravitational pull on your self-esteem, you gain strength and emotional endurance. Rather than feeling defeated by your experience, you emerge from it wiser, more self-reliant, and more capable of love.
Without guidance, many people don’t completely recover from the loss of a love. Their fears and doubts remain unresolved. True recovery means confronting uncomfortable feelings, understanding what they are, and, most importantly, learning how to deal with them.
There are some feelings no one wants to talk about because they involve fear, despair, and self-doubt so intense that you’re naturally humiliated and ashamed by them. This shame is not just about the embarrassment you may feel over having been rejected; it is about feelings that bewilder you with their potency, induce panic, and have you believing you are weak, dependent, unlovable, even repulsive.
Until these intense feelings are addressed, people tend to suffer them in silence or try to deny them. Eventually, these forgotten, deeply buried feelings are transformed into an elusive grief. Many seek therapy for this grief but can’t seem to overcome that undifferentiated emptiness so often misdiagnosed and treated as depression. (For some people, this persistent grief can involve chemical imbalances that, in some cases, respond to medication.)
Abandonment is a complex issue, and its wound can be deeply entrenched. It is important to realize that your feelings, no matter how intense, do not signify a lack of will or frailty of character. They are normal and part of a process that leads to renewal and change.
The healing process I’ll describe doesn’t limit itself to your current loss. It gets to the heart of your cumulative wound—the one that contains all of your disappointments and heartbreaks that have been bubbling beneath the surface of your life, perhaps since childhood.
Unresolved abandonment may be the underlying issue responsible for most of the ailments you have been struggling with all along: the insecurity that plagues your relationships, depression and anxiety, obsessive and compulsive behaviors, low energy levels, and the loss of self-esteem that have been holding you back. Yet often people who have been abandoned can’t name what they are going through. They may have grown up with an alcoholic parent or felt excluded from their peer group at crucial moments, just as their sense of self was beginning to develop. However detached they may be from the root of their distress, they spend their life energy bargaining with fear and fighting insecurity.
Having lost touch with the source of their wounds, many resort to quick fixes and gratify themselves with food, alcohol, shopping, or other people. Or they become addicted to self-help lectures, books, and tapes. But all of the self-medicating and soothing words in the world will not erase the distress. In order to do that, you must embark upon a journey that addresses the underlying cause—the abandonment wound itself. This is a journey from which all people can benefit.
Through my own experience and through my years of work with others, I have seen how helpful it is to come out of isolation and commune with others as we learn about the grief process that has gripped our lives. For this reason, in addition to running abandonment recovery workshops, I developed an easy format and help to set up ongoing abandonment support groups throughout the country so that you can join together in your local communities and enhance one another’s recovery. (See my note section for information.)
Wherever you are in the five stages this book describes, you are not alone. It is a revelation to discover that the pain debilitates the strongest, smartest, most self-sufficient among us; that it cuts across all ages, cultures, and status levels; and that it ultimately is a universal human experience.
This book is designed to serve as your companion and guide, addressing your most difficult feelings, validating your experience with research from related scientific fields, and giving you the tools you’ll need on your journey toward a new outlook and new love.
What Is Abandonment?
A feeling of isolation within a relationship
An intense feeling of devastation when a relationship ends
A primal fear—the raw element that makes going through heartbreak, divorce, separation, or bereavement cut so deep
An aloneness not by choice
An experience from childhood
A baby left on the doorstep
A woman left by her husband of twenty years for another woman
A man being left by his fiancée for someone “more successful”
A mother leaving her children
A father leaving his children
A friend feeling deserted by a friend
A child whose pet dies
A little girl grieving over the death of her mother
A little boy wanting his mommy to come pick him up from nursery school
A child who feels replaced by the birth of another sibling
A child feeling restless because of his parent’s emotional unavailability
A boy realizing that he is gay and anticipating the reaction of his parents and friends
A teenager feeling that her heart is actually broken
A teenage boy afraid to approach the girl he loves
A woman who has raised now-grown children feeling empty, as if she has been deserted
A child stricken with a serious illness watching his friends play while he must use a wheelchair or remain in bed
A woman who has lost her job and with it her professional identity, financial security, and status
A man who has been put out to pasture by his company, as if he is obsolete
A dying woman who fears being abandoned by loved ones as much as or more than she fears pain and death
Abandonment is all of this and more. Its wound is at the heart of human experience.
WHEN a relationship ends, it is painful for both people, but the pain is especially debilitating for the one left behind.
“In my case, it happened out of the blue,” said Marie. “One night, Lonny didn’t come home from work. When I didn’t hear from him after only an hour, I started jumping to the worst conclusions—car accident, heart attack. Never mind how much worse these visions got when he still wasn’t home six hours later. The last thing I imagined was that he was with someone else. Why would he want to be? We were lifelong companions and lovers, best friends, and happily married for over twenty years.
“Finally, I heard his footsteps crunching along the gravel driveway. I ran to meet him at the door. ‘What happened?’ I asked. My heart was in my throat.
“There was a pause.
“‘I’m not happy,’ he said flatly.
“He vaguely said something about how things were different between us.
“‘Different?’ I asked.
“‘Don’t interrupt me,’ he said. ‘That’s one of the problems. You always interrupt.’
“My face was suddenly hot and pulsating. This was not Lonny.
“Then he uttered the words that turned my stomach upside down and left my mouth dry.
“‘I’m leaving,’ he said.
“I stopped breathing. It was hard to collect a single coherent thought. The only logical explanation I could come up with was that he must have had a head injury sometime during the day. Why would he say what he was saying? I thought briefly but seriously about calling an ambulance.
“When I finally managed to speak, my voice came out deep and hollow, like it belonged to someone else.
“‘You don’t really mean this,’ was all I managed to say in my strange, unsteady new voice.
“‘I’m leaving this weekend.’
“I leaned on the kitchen table for support and tried to catch my breath from the dagger thrust into my gut. ‘Is there someone else?’ I asked, my voice coming in a whisper.
“He flatly and angrily denied this. But a month after he actually moved out, I was to learn that in fact there was someone else—another teacher from his school. It lessened the bewilderment but not the wrenching pain.
“I spent the first few weeks alone, trying to grapple with the immensity of it all. This was a man I’d loved with all my heart and soul. He’d always been so tender, his goodness always shining right through. For me, loving him had almost been a religious experience. I’d had such reverence for how he lived his life. He was a kind and caring father, both wise and sensitive.
“At night, I’d attempt to put the agony to rest and go to bed. But sleep was out of the question. I would be tortured by the empty space next to me in the bed. How I loved to hold Lonny, my beautiful, sensual Lonny. I hugged my pillow instead, weeping, sometimes screaminginto it, because the torment was so unbearable. I had every right to hate him for what he was doing, but all I could do was miss him and damn myself for letting this happen.”
Abandonment’s devastation can stem from many different circumstances, many different types of relationships. There are a variety of factors affecting the way we react to the loss: the nature and duration of our relationship, the intensity of the feelings, the circumstances of the breakup, and our previous history of losses. Being left by someone we love can open up old wounds, stirring up insecurities and doubts that had been part of our emotional baggage since childhood.
Almost all of us have experienced Marie’s feelings. Someone has chosen not to be with us, not to “keep us.” We feel suddenly cut off, alone, sent into emotional exile. Being alone isn’t bad when it is something we choose for ourselves. When someone decides to leave us, it is a different story. Bewildered, confused, outraged, we feel as if we’ve been handed a life sentence to which we’ve been unjustly condemned by virtue of some invisi...
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