Sonja comes to me stating that she feels stuck in her life. She goes on to further state that she feels like nobody is there for her, that her life is filled with people who are narcissists and sociopaths, and laments a world that is filled with harmful individuals.
She deeply desires connection with others but questions their motives and finds herself wondering why other people more readily have friendships and relationships while it is difficult for her to find and maintain connections, especially connections of some depth. She very much wants a healer or teacher/mentor to work with her, but tells herself that she doesn’t need one, and that it is better if she takes care of everything herself.
In working with her, it is evident that she feels “bad” or “wrong” and how gently trust needs to be built with her. The slightest comment that could be perceived as criticism or rejection causes for her to shrink away, to shut down, to retreat, or to become condescending and rejecting. She is unwilling to accept or absorb any praise for how hard she is working on herself, or what she has achieved in sessions– she is always looking towards what is wrong in her life and what still needs to be accomplished.
This case study is not one single individual– it is a composite of many individuals who are living with the abandonment wound; who live out this pattern to significant detriment to their lives in a loop (repeatedly).
The abandonment wound is present in many individuals who have been abandoned in the ways we know all too well in our culture: adoption, divorce, and literal abandonment.
It may be present in single parent households in which abandonment by one parent has occurred. It also may be a result of perceived abandonment, or the child not understanding that a parental divorce and splitting of a household is in no way a rejection or reflection of them.
It can also occur in households where there was amicable divorce or separation, or occur in individuals who had a parent or parents who were present for them.
For example, a perceived abandonment can occur in a household where one spouse needs to work long hours and cannot spend time with the child.
The abandonment wound occurs in households where the needs of the child are not being met on one or many levels. As children we have such a desire to connect and bond and acrimony in the household or the parents not being in a place of being able to connect (give and receive love and attention to cause for the child to feel safe, nurtured, and empowered) can create this wound.
Parents can be perfect on paper but be emotionally repressed or dealing with their own wounding to the extent that they cannot connect in a way that ensures that the child feels safety and healthy connection (attachment) to be able to thrive or to feel wanted.
For us to feel fully nurtured and safe, as children our parental figures need to connect to us in a healthy way spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically.
Physically there needs to be a safe and loving environment where the child feels as if the home, and the parents, are a safe haven. Emotionally the child requires being seen and heard, having their emotions taken seriously, and being appropriately disciplined (offered boundaries).
Mentally the child needs to be acknowledged and it confirmed that they are worthwhile and special. Healthy self-esteem develops from the parents regarding the child and what they have to say as being worthwhile, and their efforts as being worthy of acknowledgment. Most importantly, the child should know that they are loved even in their failures and do not require achievement to feel approval and acceptance.
Spiritually, a household creates a web of relating. For most people new to spiritual work, considering the household to be a “person” would be a good place to start. The household and all of the people living in the household could be considered as a single entity/person. For that “person” to be healthy, all of the individual “parts” (people who live in the household) must work together towards health.
In households where one member is chosen as the scapegoat (the “problem child”, or the object of all of the disowned emotions and struggles of the household), where one member is out of balance or struggling, or even where one child is the “golden child” (offered all of the attention, focus, and praise) to heal on a spiritual level is to consider it a household difficulty, not just the difficulty of one member of the household.
To heal an individual member of the household is to rebalance the entire web of relating of the household as a whole, including all of the people who live in that household.
There are several parts to feeling healthy connection to our caregivers. We can consider healthy attachment to be comprised of: security, connection, and empowerment. Connection is being seen, understood, and accepted.
The abandonment wound commonly arises as a cultural factor: in households where children are to be seen and not heard, in which parents treat children like they do not have a voice that is important (are dismissive or consider that adult voices are the only ones who have significance), or where emotions are significantly repressed, this type of healthy connection does not occur and the child will not feel nurtured or appreciated.
The abandonment wound develops because on some level the child was abandoned. They were not taken care of to the extent that they needed to be physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually. While we can consider the abandonment wound most noticeably in cases where there was literal physical abandonment, many of the individuals who I have worked with who have suffered from this wound have done so because of parents who were absent emotionally, repressed emotionally, or who were suffering from trauma or their own issues to the extent that they could not care for their child in a way where the child felt seen, heard, and cared for.
There are many signs of having this wound. The first is an inability to trust nurturing or that others will care for you. There will be a push-pull of rejection and stonewalling. Put simply, this wound will cause for people to deeply desire connection and nurturing but to continually push away others. Sometimes the person will be aware of this push-pull, but other times the person will simply be aware that they feel like they need to take care of everything themselves because they do not trust the support around them.
A manifestation of this wound is a mistrust or active avoidance (or hatred) of authority figures, including teachers/gurus and mentors, doctors, therapists/counselors, and other figures in an “authority” role.
A typical sign of this wound is deep beliefs around being disliked, wrong, or “other”. A manifestation of this belief is believing that we are not supposed to be here (be alive or present in this world, or mythologies regarding being from elsewhere). When we are children we lack the consciousness to understand that there may be something wrong with our parents or our household. We have a deep biological need for our parents to be good individuals who can provide safety, security, and nurturing to us.
So instead of seeing that there is something wrong with the parents, or the household, the child will take on the belief that there is something wrong with themselves or that they are “other” or separate from humanity (instead of seeing that they have separated themselves instinctively and protectively from their household) instead.
It is common to create mythologies and beliefs regarding “otherness” out of this wounding that allow for division and feelings of otherness/being “wrong” to persist.
It should be noted that there is a vast difference between knowing that your brain works differently, or that you are slightly different from the “norms” of society and feeling the abandonment wound. The abandonment wound causes for individuals to feel bad or wrong and separate from humanity, and emotionally fixates us at the age of abandonment.
We can be conscious adults and still recognize that we differ from cultural and societal norms. In fact, most individuals who come to me who feel really sensitive and wish to be normal are helped by really reconciling that cultural norms mean being not terribly conscious and being in a state of unhelpful emotional repression. Being “outside” of this way of being is healthy (or can be healthy), and can allow for someone to truly live their lives, instead of just existing within approved parameters.
Another sign of this wound is living in a defended state of being– perpetually pointing outwards to a dangerous universe, filled with dangerous individuals. This is typically utilizing the language of the day. Right now it is considering everyone a narcissist, but prior to that it was sociopath. Othering those who are on the opposite side of the political or social spectrum (different way of being or ideology) is an easy way to express this sort of divisiveness and self-hatred outwards.
It is basic shadow work to look at any fixation regarding others (othering and dehumanizing them) and to see it as a form of divisiveness and ignorance within the self. If we work through our own self-hatred, we can reclaim the parts of self we so vehemently deny and fixate on in others.
Along with living in this rejecting, defended way of being is the deep wounding of criticism. Any criticism is taken on as a deep wound. Any perceived rejection or dismissal by others is similarly felt deeply and in such a raw place because it touches on this deep abandonment wound.
It is typical for individuals stuck in this pattern to either defend themselves by becoming invisible– shutting down, disassociating (zoning out, compartmentalizing so part of themselves feels present but another feels “in a box” within or elsewhere, or going into a complete parasympathetic state of shut down, like a computer shutting down suddenly)– or by going into sympathetic distress and response.
Basically, fighting or fleeing. Or in energetic and emotional terms, having a large emotional response to someone that is frequently out of proportion to what the person has said to them. Like a small criticism resulting in an outpouring of rage, a feeling of rejection leading to someone feeling worthless and suicidal, or a small rejection leading to a doubling down on beliefs that the world is filled with horrible or predatory individuals.
The fleeing response would be an actual leaving of the situation, or a “flaccid” response within the self– withdrawing but still being physically present or having an internal dialogue but avoiding any type of response or confrontation.
There are a few ways to begin to heal the abandonment wound. It does typically take individuals quite a bit of time– it is a deeply ingrained response that requires reconciliation on a number of levels. We often heal in steps, and each step becomes cumulative, beneficial result.
The first is to recognize the wound. Recognition of the wound and how we individually react is always the first thing to do.
Maybe your response is to flee, to retreat. Maybe it is to fight. Perhaps it is to engage in parasympathetic disassociation– putting a part of yourself elsewhere or so deeply within so that the world cannot see your distress.
By noticing how you react and naming it you can begin to come to terms with what you are doing, as well as to understand that this is a totally normal defense mechanism that has emerged as a result of a lack of nurturing.
Normalizing and understanding the clear cause and effect is a recognition that on some or many levels, you were not cared for in a way that gave you healthy self-worth, self-esteem, and allowed for you to feel wanted and seen by this world.
It is understandable that rejection, defense mechanisms, and feelings of being disliked, not wanted, or “other” develop as a result of this lack of connection. You are simply mind, body, and spirit, defending yourself against the possibility of this trauma occurring again.
As an adult you have the ability to understand this and to begin to “reparent” yourself– to offer yourself the nurturing, connection, and care to your inner child that you did not receive when you were a child. Resources like my body deva book can allow for individuals to compassionately work with their inner children to begin to build trust and offer them the care and attention that they need.
I do think that therapy (with the right therapist) can be enormously beneficial to begin to rebuild trust in the self and others again. As I am a spiritual practitioner and mind-body-spirit practitioner I suggest that bodywork (when available) can be life-changing.
To have someone touch our bodies in a loving, compassionate, and nurturing way can restore so much connectivity to ourselves and to the world (and to people), help us process emotions through our physical form, and regain a sense of safety and empowerment again. Massage, craniosacral therapy, zero balancing, and other forms of safe touch can allow for us to begin to trust enough to receive nurturing again.
I particularly have a fondness for CranioSacral therapy because it works with polyvagal theory– basically, the nervous system and the physical manifestations of sympathetic and parasympathetic response. Trauma is stored in the body, and the vagal nerve (and the nervous system as a whole) stores traumatic response, continuing to trigger conditioned responses (how it was initially programmed to respond in childhood) until this system can learn to wire itself differently. A skilled practitioner can do wonders to assist you with this.
I do find loving, caring teachers and/or gurus to be incredibly helpful. So many with this wound turn away from the idea of any type of “authority” being worthwhile. There are many teachers still enacting this wound (and so they would not be the best resource to guide you through it), as well as other teachers caught up in this wound and so they step into a role of nurturing parent, infantilizing their students (and lacking significant boundaries). A teacher caught up in the latter will likewise be unable to guide students beyond being stuck in a helpless infant/small child role.
It is easy to look out and see the negativity, wounded individuals, and scam artists in the spiritual sphere because they are so pervasive. But there are also many wonderful teachers who can be a guide, support system, and mentor because they have walked the terrain before you. Their job is to support you so that you can likewise make it through that terrain. Any good spiritual teacher will gear you towards looking within, taking personal responsibility for yourself, and eventually (and hopefully) surpassing their knowledge/consciousness.
On a spiritual level, spending time in nature and grounding practices can be of enormous benefit, as can meditation. My meditation course offers the ability for you to establish safe space within yourself, to ground, and to learn to work with your emotions.
Turning towards our bodies and our lives with gentle questioning is really of significant benefit towards healing this wound. When the abandonment wound occurs, we go into self-hatred and self-rejection, leaving our bodies (and our lives) behind.
Learning self-compassion, to turn towards the body, to listen to the body, can allow for it to become a place of peace again, a place of trust. A place where we feel comforted, supported, and good about ourselves again. This does take time, but working with the body deva can allow for you to slowly turn towards yourself again, and to begin to reconcile this wounding pattern in a loving, healthy, and compassionate way.
A practice from the body deva (one of many) that is incredibly helpful for those with this wound is to question what age they are coming from. This may sound strange (for some of you), but when we are reacting to something, it likely is not from our current adult state: it is from a much younger age. So when we practice this method of self-inquiry (full instructions in the body deva) we can begin to determine that when we get angry, we feel as if we are five years old. Or when we feel defiant, or sad, we feel like a teenager.
Having that type of awareness can gear us towards parts of ourselves that need healing, as well as allow for us to consciously recognize and bring ourselves back to adult awareness and reaction.
Another practice would be to notice this wound in others. It is typical for us to need to see it without before we are willing to look at it within. When you are ready to look at it within, start by noticing who and what you “Other”– basically who or what you fixate on negatively. It takes an act of courage to see our own ignorance and self-hatred manifested onto a convenient figure, but it is a powerful act. It can allow for a reclaiming that creates an incredible amount of healing. If you are fixated on someone/something, begin by naming five good things about that person (figure, religion-spirituality, tradition, political persuasion, celebrity, teacher/guru).
See the humanity in that person, and by doing so, you will begin to heal the divisions within yourself. See the person as a mirror of something disowned or rejected within yourself, and you will begin to heal significant aspects of your self that you have split off from.
Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual teacher and author. You can find her book, The Body Deva, here, and her courses (including the meditation course) available here.