Series 3: Blog 71
Addicts in recovery often struggle with knowing how to meet their needs in healthy ways. As a child, many developmental needs were left unmet because parents who never had their needs met fail to meet the child’s needs when they were young and vulnerable. They pass along to the addict the same dysfunctional patterns they learned from their parents. This is one way dysfunctional patterns of behavior are intergenerationally transferred.
As a child, they learn to compensate in order to survive. They become very good at improvising—doing what pleases their parents and gets their attention. They learn to do and perform because the value of being is de-emphasized. Children learn to do anything to avoid neglect and abandonment which are terrifying experiences. This is when a child loses a sense of identity. Children mistakenly believe that whatever they do to get noticed is who they are. So they lose themselves in family roles (hero, scapegoat, lost child, etc) or in taking care of others. Sometimes they act out with negative behavior or through personal accomplishments to get attention. They hope to be noticed by caregivers. The result is that they are never able to do enough outside behavior to fill the empty space inside. That is when they create a cocktail of life experience to avoid the feelings of neglect and abandonment.
The mistaken beliefs that come with abandonment are, I am not worthy, not enough, or don’t measure up to matter to those you most want to be noticed by. So they learn to numb out and avoid the extreme emotional pain and fear associated with neglect and abandonment. Addiction doesn’t take away the pain but it does give what it promises. It is like a warm blanket on a cold night that offers temporary relief and escape from the harsh reality of a world full of winter experiences.
Every addict must stop the run-away train going down the track in order to get at the root cause of their destructive behavior. They learn to identify and express their feelings, which they were disconnected from in addiction. They have to be taught how to recognize needs represented in personal affect. They must learn how to assert meeting the needs housed within the emotions expressed. This journey requires education and a lot of practice. Ultimately, they must face their fears of neglect and abandonment. Most people are afraid to express what they feel or need because they fear they will be abandoned. As children, they have been abandoned emotionally, physically or both. They learn to avoid this fear by the thoughts they embrace and the things they do. They compartmentalize what happened or did not happen as children. They protect those who have abandoned them with staunch family loyalty. They forgive prematurely, minimize results and deny the impact of abandonment. They do everything possible to avoid facing the fear of abandonment. They learn to regulate themselves emotionally by trying to regulate everyone around them.
In my book, Dare to Be Average—Finding Your Brilliance in the Commonplace, I told the story about a little boy who loved PBJ (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). He would go to the pantry, take the jar of peanut butter and spread it on his bread. Then he would slap the jelly and peanut butter together and enjoy his PBJ. When there was daylight at the bottom of the jar of peanut butter, he would pitch it in the trash and reach for a new jar. All was good until one day there was daylight and the bottom of the jar but no backup jar in the pantry. So with disappointment he resigned to do without. As he walked away, his father noticed and asked him to come back to the kitchen. He took the jar of peanut butter that was thrown in the trash, made sure there was no gunk on it, and then scraped the sides of the jar which provided for 1/2” thick of peanut butter rather than the normal 1” thickness. He then noted to his son that he was willing to go without when he could take what is and spread it around and make it enough.
This story points to a skillset that many addicts fail to incorporate in their recovery program. When faced with the fear of abandonment in a relationship, they panic. Some insist that their partner fix the fear. They focus on their partner’s shortcomings. This is a subtle way to make the partner the identified problem. Others run from the relationship through an approved replacement addiction like work etc. Many refuse to face their fear of abandonment and resolve the pain. They look outside themselves to medicate their fear. If not through acting out with their drug of choice, they utilize schemes of manipulation and over control, impression management or a myriad of caretaking strategies to avoid facing their fear of abandonment. They perceive their relationships through the view of a terrorized disempowered child. Consequently, they look for others to fix what they can only fix from within themselves. It renders them ineffective to take what is in a relationship and do their part to make it enough. Paralyzed in neediness, addicts look to others outside to fix their fear of abandonment.
Managing the fear of abandonment requires empowering an adult perspective in the following areas:
Don’t forget the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Always remember that as the adult in charge, you will have the power to take what is in a relationship and spread it around and make it enough. You do not have to be dominated by the fear of abandonment.
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