Self-abandonment can be understood as the rejection of your own thoughts, feelings and needs. Self-abandonment occurs when we experience an emotion that requires our attention, and we ignore it by reaching for an external distraction. Perhaps you drink when you feel lonely. Self-abandonment happens when we ignore our need for self-soothing by asking someone else to assume the responsibility for our difficult feelings. Maybe you want your partner to make you happy all the time and you neglect your individual interests and goals. Self-abandonment happens when we ignore a thought, feeling or observation that needs our attention. Perhaps we don’t feel right around our new lover, but we’d rather stick around than be alone. We divorce ourselves from the valuable knowledge of gut feelings in favor of soothing ourselves in the moment. Self-abandonment happens when we forget about our personal boundaries in order to make someone else happy, we discount our needs and comfort. Perhaps you’re saying “yes” to others when you really mean “NO”.
Self-abandonment keeps us from handling our inner-most experiences with care and integrity, and grades on our ability to know ourselves. We can get lost in self-abandonment because we are ignoring how we think and feel. Self-abandonment can lead to addictive behavior like over-using substances, or spending hours “zoning out” on social media. If we feel an unbearable emotion and we don’t have the resources to manage it, we might grab for something to dull the pain. Over time, we become estranged to our own emotions (we abandon ourselves), and we are absorbed more and more into the addiction or distraction behaviors.
Self-abandonment is often learned in childhood through emotional neglect, invalidation or abuse that impedes upon our ability to learn about our emotions and how to take care of ourselves in times of discomfort. Being emotionally abandoned in childhood prevents us from feeling like we have access to the skills needed to face discomfort and calm ourselves down.
Self-Abandonment Case Example
Jen was raised by parents struggling with alcohol addiction. She was often viewed as a burden and ridiculed for expressing emotion. Her parents were frequently intoxicated and unavailable to soothe Jen in times when she felt scared or sad. From a young age, Jen remembers crying alone in her room for long periods of time. Jen’s parents were kind to her when they were sober, but she had little to no ability to predict when the care would come. Jen spent the majority of her time trying to distance herself from her emotional needs, so that she could better survive a neglectful childhood. If Jen acknowledged all of her needs in childhood, it would have been that much more clear that her parents were unable to meet them. Jen’s survival as she understood it, depended on the ability to ignore her needs and feelings. If Jen turned away from her needs, she could avoid the grief of her parent’s inability to meet them. Because of Jen’s need to survive in an unhealthy parent-child dynamic, she never learned how to manage difficult feelings or soothe herself.
In adulthood, Jen struggles with close relationships. She often searches for the consistency she missed in childhood in potential lovers and friends, while remaining inconsistent in her own self-care. Jen wants others to care for her, but is not always able to care for herself. Jen carries a lot of self-judgment, rarely giving herself the gentleness she was deprived of in childhood. Instead of trying to heal some of her deeper insecurities, she berates herself and rejects her need for self-love. When a strong emotion arises in Jen, she is quick to find a distraction. If she feels needy in partnership, she asks her lover to change, to give her more attention. If Jen feels lonely, she finds the experience so intolerable that she will drink or use drugs to cope. Jen is missing the skills to self-soothe. Jen is trying to outsource the management of her emotions to avoid the responsibility for her inner-reality.
In childhood, we don’t have the resources to meet all of our own needs. We learn self-care skills gradually over time. When we experience emotional upset and our caretakers consistently respond with care, we learn that we are worthy of feeling better. We feel safe and cared for, and confident that we will receive the same care in the future. We learn that we can handle our thoughts and feelings. The attention and support we receive from adults teaches us how to begin caring for, and regulating ourselves emotionally. Children are not meant to experience huge feelings on their own, and they need to feel safe and supported to develop the skills and understanding to deal with their own emotions. If feeling safe and cared for was inconsistent, you may have felt intolerable feelings of dread and loneliness, and you may have never learned how to soothe yourself and move through an emotional experience. If your inner-experiences were ignored, you may have learned to ignore yourself.
Self-abandonment is a pattern of ignoring your thoughts, feelings and needs. Instead of facing our inner-experiences, we reach for an external distraction, something that takes us out of ourselves and out of the unwanted feelings. Self-abandonment is common in the world of addiction, but is not limited to abusing substances as a coping mechanism. Because of the culture we live in, it’s easy to find something to distract yourself with. We have the world at our fingertips, but often ignore the world inside of ourselves that needs caring for. Learning how to care for ourselves through turning towards our uncomfortable, or painful feelings requires that we develop self-soothing skills. It’s possible to develop the skills and understanding to deal with our emotions at any age. As adults, we have the power to re-parent ourselves from the inside out. We can develop the confidence and skills needed to turn towards difficult emotions and learn from them.