Abandoned and Afraid

By Ken Wells - 03/24/2022


Series Three: Blog Fifteen

Most addicts fear abandonment. Triggered by mistaken beliefs, addicts will cajole, lie and do most anything to avoid the experience of desertion. Addicts think if you know what I know about me you will reject me. There is a host of other mistaken beliefs like “I am not enough”, “I don’t measure up” and “life is overwhelming and I cannot cope” that fuel the fear of being rejected and abandoned. They become self-fulfilling prophecies. Transactional analysis refers this dynamic as a “racket” which is a self-reinforcing, distorted system of feelings, thoughts and actions maintained by script-bound individuals. The script is what has been imprinted by things said and impressions made during early childhood. This script is extremely difficult to escape or destroy. It takes an act of heroism.

Joseph Campbell, author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, defined a hero as someone who has found or achieved something beyond the normal experience. Someone who has given his life to something other or bigger than himself. Some heroes risk and do great physical acts of heroism; others are spiritual heroes. Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, and Joseph Smith are a few of many examples of heroism. There is a cycle of going away, experiencing fulfillment and then returning and sharing the transformation.

Heroism includes initiation rituals. For example, the Bar Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish boys and girls when they reach the age of 12 or 13. The ceremony marks the time when a boy or girl becomes a Jewish adult. It means that they are now responsible for their own actions and can decide for themselves how they would like to practice Judaism. Many such rituals throughout the world mark a point in time that a child must give up h/her childhood and become an adult.  H/she must die to childish ways and live as an adult, letting go of old ways and customs and accepting new ways. It’s a scary transition and triggers fears of abandonment.

As a child we are dependent upon caregivers. As an adult we must learn to become responsible human beings. Most addicts get stuck in this transformation and never make the emotional passage from child to adult. In recovery from addiction we often refer to this process as “growing yourself up emotionally”.

A kind of a death and resurrection experience must transpire. Addicts must fire their parents as their emotional mom or dad. The parents need to let go and a child needs to take responsibility. This can only be achieved over time. It needs to take place during the days of maturation from child to adulthood. However, it is common for this process to be incomplete or aborted for a myriad of reasons.  I liken this experience through the metaphor of a relay race. From my observation, this passing of the baton of responsibility from parent to child occurs somewhere between the ages of 13 and 26. Certainly, it is incomplete by age 18 when children are considered legal adults.

Through this process a child learns to take responsibility for their emotional well-being and no longer depend upon their parents as their primary source of support. They learn to rely upon themselves and others as a first-line support through community. Parents take a secondary position of direct support for their child’s physical, spiritual, emotional and economic well-being. Many children achieve this self-dependency physically and economically by their mid-twenties. However, many remain stymied in their emotional dependence on their parents. Many addicts never learn to become psychological responsible human beings, even after they learn to stop acting out with their addiction. Fear of abandonment dominates their relationships.

In Campbell’s words we must all personally take the journey of becoming our own hero in this area of development. It is heroic to find your source, your nature, or your career. To not be tethered to what your parents want you to be.  Ultimately, it is courageous to find your bliss! As you learn to champion yourself you learn to be a champion for others.

Here are a few considerations toward addressing the fear of abandonment.

  • You won’t let go of who or what you cannot control until the pain of hanging on is greater than the pain of letting go.  Therapeutic intervention will be stymied, even ineffective until you reach this place in your life. The process or route is often circuitous. No one can force you or talk you into it. Only the intense pain of hanging on to what you cannot control can make you say “Uncle”. Some people never let go.
  • Letting go means you will sit in the reality of being alone. This is a terrifying experience. It is a universal rite of passage. It is required to grow up emotionally. There is no way to sugar coat the experience. That said, those who heroically accept the reality of aloneness experience it as a stabilizing force.
  • Facing abandonment means you must grieve. You will grieve what could’ve and should’ve been. You will grieve not only for the here and now but for the absence of significant care in your childhood. The wound of never knowing that you mattered. Knowing you were loved is not the same as knowing that you mattered. You deserve to be loved for who you are. Yet, you learned that what mattered was what you did, not who you are. As an adult, you will need to grieve this loss in order to address your fear of abandonment. This grief is not a one and done experience. In order for it to not dominate you, you will embrace the grief throughout your life time.
  • Working through abandonment requires that you experience the emotional sensation of free falling. This suggestion is not popular. In fact, it is counterintuitive. It is what every parachutist experiences. Once you plunge out of the aircraft, you are forced to engage the free falling experience. All you can do is depend upon your training and do one right thing at a time. There is no back up. Only by faith do you depend upon the training of doing the next right thing. In the fear of abandonment, letting go means h/she may not be in your life. Escaping the fear by running to someone or something is not an option. You must learn that in letting go, you can survive and thrive without dependence upon the presence of that person and do life just fine! You can talk about it, and read about it, but the only way through it is to free fall!
  • Free falling creates unconditional confidence. It is not the relationship results that you control. It is only your response to the challenge that you control. Being willing to free fall develops the confidence that no matter what happens or regardless of what others do, you can go down and know that you will come up again. Your unconditional confidence is that no matter what happens you can face it. This reality will anchor the emotional maturity necessary in developing a strong foundation for relational intimacy.

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