“Finally, I decide I am my own case history, and if I don’t dig in to understand what I am doing, I will be spending the years ahead in a vexing pattern of intimacy and abandonment.”
Dominique Browning in “Slow Love”
Dig in is right. Dig in and root around is even more accurate. Of course, merely looking at the past will not excise it, as insight alone rarely leads to change. The intimacy and abandonment issues Ms. Browning refers to are some of the most deeply felt on earth, which gives them the greatest capacity to create suffering.
When do these issues of intimacy and abandonment get tangled together? In childhood. Everyone has some level of abandonment issues. Even a child brought up in the most loving, secure household still felt abandoned when his parents left the house. Babies have no concept of “I’ll be right back.” So, when Mom or Dad left the room they felt abandoned. Quickly, they learned parents will come back, but that primal experience of being left alone, perhaps eternally, is still part of their experience. If your parents divorced while you were still growing up, even if it was amicable, you will undoubtedly have some abandonment issues. Ditto if you were hospitalized as a child. Even more likely if you were outright neglected or abused. (Recent research into trauma has found that abuse by a family member has the potential to create just as much post-traumatic stress as living through a war.)
Though radically different, the capacity for intimacy also develops from birth. Did the baby get fed, held, changed, soothed, and spoken to? If so, there is an inner template for feeling safe. It is almost impossible to have intimacy without some sense of safety. That safety may be internal or external, but the greatest intimacy usually occurs when both coincide.
The ability to open to true intimacy with another is fraught with anxiety, while abandonment scares the wits out of most people. Yet, people seek intimacy even though it carries the specter of potential abandonment. The possibility to truly connect with another is wildly alluring to most humans. Who wouldn’t crave that sense of closeness, safety, and connection?
Trouble appears when your sense of relationship safety is jeopardized. It could be something minor, like your partner saying the wrong thing, forgetting your birthday, or simply misunderstanding you. It could also be something more threatening like finding out your mate is having an affair, emptied out your joint bank account, or really doesn’t want to retire early and spend 24/7 with you. For anyone with abandonment issues small or large events like these can trigger fears of being abandoned again. In relationships, these fears play out in an inability to commit to someone, a pattern of approach-avoidance behaviors, a penchant for starting fights to re-establish space, and any number of creative strategies that dance between the poles of engulfment and abandonment. To someone with these long-standing issues, neither feels safe. One again, the deepest sense of security can be found within.
When you know you can find refuge in yourself your “need” for someone else to be with you and pledge their undying troth is reduced. Of course, people couple up for many other reasons, and being in a relationship can be one of the greatest experiences on earth, as well as a conduit to self growth. However, if it is a hedge against existential anxiety it will probably be a Pyrrhic victory.
The potential for re-traumatization and more deeply embedding abandonment issues increases with each relationship in which you pin all your hopes and dreams on the other person, instead of yourself. Of course, the Disneyfication of society only exacerbates this dynamic, as it historically reinforced the notion that: ” One day my prince/princess will come,” implying that once that happens you will live happily ever after. What a damaging view, as it puts the controls for your emotional health in someone else’s hands.
Developing a compassionate, caring, patient, nurturing, inquisitive relationship with yourself is the holy grail of inner peace. While it is wonderful to have friends and family to depend on, you will always be with yourself. Every minute of every day. Wouldn’t it be incredible to feel safe with yourself?
No one feels 100% safe and sound. It’s impossible. Yet, if you regularly practice some of the following suggestions you will begin to notice a greater sense of inner peace and self-acceptance, as well as an increased tolerance for life’s challenges.
Everyone has different aspects of themselves. There may be a part of you that wishes everyone well, and another part that feels jealous of a friend’s success. You may notice a part that feels curious, and a part that judges or criticizes. Befriending all your parts and approaching them with curiosity and compassion is key to integrating them.
(If this idea interests you, you may want to learn about IFS, Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard Schwartz. Here is an animated video to get you started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsJOVs_e1v4. If you want a more detailed explanation check out this video with Richard Schwartz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99HuL_Bk-SU.)
Get therapy if you have been struggling with these issues and not making any headway.
Develop a sense of inner safety by responding to internal alarms of feeling threatened, anxious, angry, depressed, etc. with self-compassion. Kristin Neff’s short video explains them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11U0h0DPu7k.
Watch the ebb and flow of your emotions. Notice how no emotion lasts forever.
Keep current with your inner and outer life through journaling. This allows you to more slowly process thoughts, feelings, and events. It is also a wonderful way of watching yourself grow and change.
Understand your triggers. Triggers to what? To past trauma that has the capacity to flood you with unpleasant emotions. Once you know your triggers you can more easily avoid people and situations that press your buttons.
Listen to lectures on Buddhism. You can start with podcasts by Tara Brach and Jonathan Foust. Pema Chodron’s books and CDs are also marvelous.
Set healthy boundaries with people for what you will and won’t allow, even if it means cutting the toxic ones out of your life.
Create safe practices that help you feel empowered physically, mentally, and emotionally. When you feel stable and grounded in yourself you are less likely to continue any relationship that keeps you swinging between intimacy and abandonment. Some supportive behaviors include: yoga, meditation, journaling to acquaint you with your internal dialogue and repetitive thoughts, relaxing, getting enough sleep, eating well, spending time with the natural world (even if it’s simply looking at the clouds or smelling a flower), giving yourself what you want when you want it (within reason, of course), taking time for friends and family, creating a home that feels welcoming and safe, and consciously balancing work, family, solitude, exercise, and rest.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang