IN A NUTSHELL
The Abandonment schema is the feeling that the people you love will leave you, and you will end up emotionally isolated.
This might result in a part of you that feels anyone close to you will die or abandon you because they prefer someone else. Or if not in this way, then somehow or other you will be left alone to fend for yourself.
Because of this belief, you may cling to people close to you. Ironically, you could also end up pushing them away. You may get very upset or angry about even normal separations.
I would normally refer to this part of us as one of our Exiles, in that often we too, sadly, push it away, sequester, or exile it from the rest of our experience. Perhaps because of the pain and discomfort it generates in us, or the shame we feel about it.
When this Abandoned Exile is activated, it might have some of the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings and behaviours expressed below:
- I find myself clinging to people I’m close to, because I’m afraid they’ll leave me.
- I feel that I lack a stable base of emotional support.
- I don’t feel that important relationships will last; I expect them to end.
- I feel addicted to partners who can’t be there for me in a committed way.
- In the end, I will be alone.
- When I feel someone I care for pulling away from me, I get desperate.
- Sometimes I am so worried about people leaving me that I drive them away.
- I become upset when someone leaves me alone, even for a short period of time.
- I can’t count on people who support me to be there on a regular basis.
- I can’t let myself get really close to other people, because I can’t be sure they’ll always be there.
- I worry a lot that the people I love will find someone else they prefer and leave me.
- I need other people so much that I worry about losing them.
- I can’t be myself or express what I really feel, or people will leave me.
HOW IT DEVELOPS
Abandonment is usually a preverbal part: it begins in the first years of life, before the child knows language. In most cases, the abandonment starts early, before we have the words to describe what is happening. For this reason, even in adulthood there may be no thoughts connected to the experience of our early abandonment.
However, if you try to talk about the experience, the words are something like, “I’m all alone,” “No one is there for me.” Because the part is often formed at such an early age, it has tremendous emotional force. A person with a strong Abandoned part responds to even brief separations with the feelings of a small child who has been abandoned.
The Abandoned part/schema is triggered primarily by intimate relationships. It may not be apparent in groups or in casual relationships. Separations from a loved one are the most powerful triggers. However, separations do not have to be real to activate the part, nor do they have to occur on a physical level. If you this part as one of your “inner family”, you might recognise yourself as overly sensitive and often read the intent to abandon you into innocent remarks. The most powerful triggers are real loss or separation—divorce, someone moving or going away, death—but often triggers are much more subtle events.
Perhaps your spouse or lover acts bored, distant, momentarily distracted, or more attentive to another person. Or perhaps your spouse or lover suggests a plan that involves spending a brief time apart. Anything that feels disconnected can trigger the part, even if it has nothing to do with real loss or abandonment.
TWO TYPES OF ABANDONMENT
There are two types of abandonment, and they come from two types of early childhood environments. The first type comes from an environment that is too secure and overprotected. This type represents a combination of the Abandonment and Dependence schema. The second type comes from an environment that is emotionally unstable. No one is consistently there for the child.
Many people who have a heavily Dependent part also have the Abandoned Exile. However some have a strong Abandoned part and do not have an issue with dependence. They belong to the second type, whose Exile arose from the instability of our emotional connections to the people who we were most intimate with—our mother, father, sisters and brothers, and close friends. We might have a dependence of sorts on our partners, but it is an emotional, rather than a functional, dependence.
Sometimes this part arises from instability, which is to say that we had an emotional connection, and then it was lost. So now we cannot bear to be apart from the people we love because of the way we feel without them. It is a matter of feeling connected to the rest of humanity. When the connection is lost, we are thrown into nothingness.
We need other people to feel soothed. This differs from abandonment based upon dependence, in which we need someone to take care of us as a child needs a parent. In one case, we are looking for guidance, direction, and help; and in the other case, we are looking for nurturance, love, and a sense of emotional connection.
There is another difference: Dependent people often have a number of people lined up as backups in case their main person leaves. We have someone immediately available to take the person’s place, or we find someone new, and quickly form another dependent relationship. Few lonely people have dependence underneath. Dependent people do not tolerate the loneliness. As dependent people we can be quite talented at finding someone to take care of us. We go from one person to another, with rarely more than a month between.
This is not necessarily true of people who fear emotional abandonment. We can be alone for long periods of time. We might withdraw from close relationships out of hurt and out of fear of being hurt again. We have already faced the loneliness as children, and we know we can survive. That is not the issue. It is the process of loss that is devastating.
It is having that connection, and then losing it, and being thrown back into the loneliness one more time.
THE ORIGINS OF THE ABANDONED PART
When we talk about the origins of the schema or part, we focus primarily on features of the child’s environment. We know quite a bit about the dysfunctional family environments—such as abuse, neglect, and alcoholism—that seem to promote individual schema. We downplay the contribution of heredity, perhaps because researchers know so little about the role of biology in determining our long-term personality patterns. We assume that heredity must make its mark in terms of our temperament, which in turn influences how we are treated as children and how we respond to that treatment. But we rarely have any way of guessing how a child’s temperament influences the development of specific schema.
Abandonment is an exception to this general rule. Researchers who study infants have observed that some babies react far more intensely to separation than do others. This suggests that some people may be biologically predisposed to develop an Abandonment pattern or part of their psyche.
The way we respond to separation from a person who takes care of us seems at least partly innate. Separation from the mother is a vital issue in a newborn’s life. Throughout the animal world, infants are totally dependent on their mothers for survival, and if an infant loses its mother, it usually dies. Infants are bom prepared to behave in ways designed to end separations from their mothers. They cry and show signs of distress. They “protest,” as John Bowlby called it in his classic book, Separation.
Bowlby wrote about infants and young children who were temporarily separated from their mothers. The babies were placed in nurseries along with other children. Observation of these children revealed three phases of the separation process, displayed by all the babies.
First the babies “protested,” as we have noted, and exhibited great anxiety. They searched for their mothers. If another person tried to comfort them, they were inconsolable. They showed flashes of anger at their mothers. But as time passed and their mothers did not come, they grew resigned and settled into a period of depression. In this phase they were apathetic and withdrawn. They were indifferent to attempts to connect with them emotionally by the staff. If enough time passed, however, the babies came out of this depression and formed other attachments.
If the mother then returned, a baby entered the third phase, detachment. The baby was cold to the mother and did not approach or show interest in her. As time passed, however, the baby’s detachment broke, and the baby became attached to the mother once again. This baby was likely to be clingy and anxious when the mother was out of sight—to have what Bowlby calls “anxious attachment” to the mother.
Bowlby says this pattern of anxiety, despair, and detachment is universal. It is the response that all young children have to separation from their mothers. Furthermore, the response occurs across the animal kingdom. Not only human infants but infants of all animal species generally display the same pattern. Such universality of behavior strongly suggests a biological predisposition.
You might recognize the similarity between Bowlby’s separation process and what we have called the cycle of abandonment: anxiety, grief, and anger. For some people, when a separation occurs, the anxiety, grief, and anger that they feel are so intense that they are unable to soothe themselves, and they feel totally disconnected and desperate. They can distract themselves from the feeling for only a short time. Without the person there, they cannot make themselves feel calm and secure. Such people are extremely sensitive to losing the ones they love. They connect deeply to other people—this is one of their gifts— but they cannot tolerate being alone.
People who are born with a tendency to respond to separation so intensely and who are unable to soothe themselves in the absence of a loved person are probably more likely to develop the Abandonment schema. But this does not mean that everyone who has the biological predisposition develops this Exiled part. It really depends on our early childhood environment.
If you had stable emotional connections as an infant, particularly to your mother but also to other important people, then even if you are biologically predisposed you may not develop the schema. And certain environments are so unstable or filled with such loss that even if you are not at all predisposed you may develop the schema.
Nevertheless, it is likely that the more a person has the biological predisposition, the less trauma is needed to activate the part, and we might look in vain through the past for the reasons that justify its intensity.
Summary: The Origins of the Abandonment Schema
- You may have a biological predisposition to separation anxiety – difficulty being alone.
- A parent died or left home when you were young.
- Your mother was hospitalized or separated from you for a prolonged period of time when you were a child.
- You were raised by nannies or in an institution by a succession of mother figures, or you were sent away to boarding school at a very young age.
- Your mother was unstable. She became depressed, angry, drunk, or in some other way withdrew from you on a regular basis.
- Your parents divorced when you were young or fought so much that you worried the family would fall apart.
- You lost the attention of a parent in a significant way. For example, a brother or sister was born or your parent remarried.
- Your family was excessively close and you were overprotected.
- You never learned to deal with life’s difficulties as a child.
Aside from the loss of a parent, another origin for Abandonment is the absence of one person who consistently serves as a maternal figure for the child. Children whose parents have no time for them, who are raised by a succession of nannies or in a succession of day-care centers, or who are raised in institutions where the staff constantly changes are examples of this origin. Particularly during the first years, the child needs the stable presence of one caretaker. The caretaker does not necessarily have to be the parent. However, if there is constant turnover in who serves as that person, it creates disruption. To the child, it can seem like living in a world of strangers.
The next origin is more subtle. You may have a stable mother figure, but there may be instability in the way she relates to you. For example, an alcoholic mother could be very loving and connected one moment, and then totally indifferent within a matter of a few hours. Another may be subject to intense mood swings. She may be physically there, but the way she relates to you is unpredictable.
There are other childhood situations that foster the development of the Abandoned part. Perhaps your parents were continually fighting, and you felt the family was unstable and might dissolve. Or perhaps your parents divorced and one or both remarried into families with other children. You may have experienced your parent’s involvement with the new family members as an abandonment. Or perhaps your parent withdrew attention and nurturing from you to give it to a younger sibling. Of course, not all new births in a family are traumatic for the older child. These events do not always create the schema. It depends upon the degree of disconnection. To create the Exile, the events must trigger powerful feelings of abandonment.
Often, a child who feels abandoned by a parent will follow that parent around. The child will shadow the parent, watch the parent, stay near the parent at all times. To an outside observer, it might seem as though the parent and child have a strong connection. In fact, the connection is not strong enough, so the child must always keep the parent in view to make sure the connection is still there. Maintaining the connection with the parent can become the most important thing in the child’s life and can sap the attention the child has for other people in the world.
Finally, as we noted before, the Abandoned part can arise from an overprotective environment and become mixed with Dependence. The dependent child fears abandonment. She is not free to explore the world and develop confidence in her ability to take care of herself. She stays dependent on her mother for guidance and direction.
Other children respond to the loss of a parent by becoming more autonomous. Since no one is taking care of them, they leam how to take care of themselves.
ABANDONMENT AND INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS
If you have the Abandonment schema, your romantic relationships are seldom calm and steady. Rather, they often feel like roller coaster rides. This is because you experience the relationship as perpetually on the brink of catastrophe.
If your schema is severe, even minor disruptions in your relationship can feel catastrophic. You feel that if your connection to the loved person were lost, you would be plunged into utter aloneness.
Some people who have the Abandonment schema cope by avoiding intimate relationships altogether. They would rather remain alone than go through the process of loss again.
If you are in a relationship, you may have difficulty tolerating any withdrawal. You worry about even relatively small changes, exaggerating the probability the relationship will end. Jealousy and possessiveness are common themes. Sometimes, as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, relationships are marked by frequent breakups and tumultuous reconciliations.
Early in your relationships, you may become excessively clingy. Clinging reinforces your schema because it reinforces the idea that you are going to lose the person. It keeps the possibility of abandonment alive in the relationship.
DANGER SIGNALS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF DATING
You probably feel drawn to lovers who hold some potential for abandoning you. Here are some early warning signs. They are signs that your relationship is triggering your Abandonment lifetrap.
Danger Signals in Potential Partners
- Your partner is unlikely to make a long-term commitment because he/she is married or involved in another relationship.
- Your partner is not consistently available for you to spend time together (e.g., he/she travels a lot, lives far away, is a workaholic).
- Your partner is emotionally unstable (e.g., he/she drinks, uses drugs, is depressed, cannot hold down a regular job) and cannot be there for you emotionally on a consistent basis.
- Your partner is a Peter Pan, who insists on his/her freedom to come and go, does not want to settle down, or wants the freedom to have many lovers.
- Your partner is ambivalent about you—he/she wants you but holds back emotionally; or one moment acts deeply in love with you and the next moment acts as though you do not exist.
You are not looking for partners who present no hope of a stable relationship, rather you are attracted to partners who present some hope for stability, but not complete hope—who present a mixture of hope and doubt. You feel as if there is a possibility that you might win the person permanently, or at least get the person to relate to you in a more stable fashion.
You are attracted most to partners who show some degree of commitment and connection, but not so much that you are absolutely sure that they will stay. Living in an unstable love relationship feels comfortable and familiar to you. It is what you have always known. And the instability keeps activating your lifetrap, generating a steady flow of chemistry. You stay passionately in love. Choosing partners who are not really there for you ensures that you will continue to reenact your childhood abandonment.
UNDERMINING GOOD RELATIONSHIPS
Even if you choose a partner who is stable, there are still pitfalls to avoid. There are still ways for you to reinforce your Abandonment schema.
Abandonment Schema in a Relationship
- You avoid intimate relationships even with appropriate partners because you are afraid of losing the person or getting too close and being hurt.
- You worry excessively about the possibility that your partner will die or otherwise be lost, betray you, and what you would do. .
- You overreact to minor things your partner says or does, and interpret them as signs that he/she wants to leave you.
- You are excessively jealous and possessive.
- You cling to your partner. Your whole life becomes obsessed with keeping him/her.
- You cannot stand to be away from your partner, even for a few hours.
- You are never fully convinced that your partner will stay with you.
- You get angry and accuse your partner of not being loyal or you sometimes detach, leave, or withdraw to punish your partnerfor leaving you alone.
It is possible that you are in a stable, healthy relationship, yet continue to feel that the relationship is unstable.
You might also fall into another Abandonment lifetrap—behaving in ways that tend to drive your partner away. Maybe blowing up even in minor arguments to such proportions that they threaten to end the relationship. You may exaggerate the meaning of fights or separations, as when your partner goes on a business trip. The dynamic is often one of pushing the people you love away with one hand, while clinging desperately to them with the other.
Whenever the relationship feels threatened in any way, you have a strong emotional reaction. It could be anything that breaks the connection with your partner—a momentary separation, the mention of someone who incites your jealousy, an argument, or a change in your partner’s mood. Your partner almost invariably feels you are overreacting, and might well express bewilderment. It seems like such a drastic response to a minor disruption. It feels like a tremendous overreaction to a partner who does not share the lifetrap.
You usually do not feel good when you are alone: you probably feel anxious, depressed, or detached. You need the feeling of connection to your partner. As soon as your partner leaves, you feel disconnected. Usually this feeling of abandonment does not go away until your partner returns. You can distract yourself from it, but the feeling of being disconnected is always there. It lurks in the background waiting to engulf you. Almost everyone who has the lifetrap has a limit to the amount of time they can distract themselves, and then they cannot do it anymore.
The better you are at distraction, the longer you can be alone. The worse you are at distraction, the quicker you experience the wanting, the sense of loss, and the need to reconnect.
A real loss, such as the breakup of a relationship, is devastating to you. It confirms your sense that no matter where you turn, you will never find a stable connection. You might feel ambivalent about starting new relationships. Part of you wants to connect, and another part anticipates abandonment. Part of you wants the closeness, and another part is angry, usually before anything has happened to warrant it. The relationship may be just beginning, and at times you feel like the person is already gone.
If your Abandoned Exile is not being looked after, it probably affects other intimate relationships such as close friendships. The same issues come up in a close friendship as in a romantic relationship, although not as intensely.
You have an underlying view of friendships as unstable. You cannot count on them to last. People come and go in your life. You are hypersensitive to anything that might threaten the connection with a friend—the person moving away, separations, the person not returning phone calls or invitations, disagreements, or the person developing other interests or preferring someone else.
CHANGING YOUR ABANDONMENT SCHEMA/LIFETRAP
Here are some of the steps to changing your Abandonment schema (usually these would be worked through with your therapist):
- Understand your childhood abandonment.
- Monitor your feelings of abandonment. Identify your hypersensitivity to losing close people; your desperate fears of being alone; your need to cling to people.
- Review past relationships, and clarify the patterns that recur. List the pitfalls of abandonment.
- Avoid uncommitted, unstable, or ambivalent partners even though they generate high chemistry.
- When you find a partner who is stable and committed, trust him/her. Believe that he/she is there for you, and will not leave.
- Do not cling, become jealous, or overreact to the normal separations of a healthy relationship.
Understand Your Childhood Abandonment
First, consider whether you have a biological predisposition to develop the lifetrap. Have you always been an emotional person? Did you have difficulty as a child separating from the people you love? Was it hard for you to start school or sleep at a friend’s house? Did you become overly upset when your parents went out for the evening or away for short trips? Did you cling to your mother in new places more than the other children? Do you still have a lot of trouble coping with the intensity of your feelings?
If you answered “yes” to many of these questions, it may be that you can be helped by medication. We have seen many patients helped to contain their feelings through the use of medication. If you have a therapist, you might speak to him or her about this possibility, or make an appointment with a psychiatrist to be evaluated.
Whether or not you have a biological predisposition, it is important to understand the situations in your childhood that contributed to your lifetrap. One of the things your therapist might ask you do in a session is to get at these situations, is to let images of your childhood float to the top of your mind. When you first start, do not force your images in any direction. Let images emerge undisturbed. Quite often, given the time and space, we can get shards of scenes, or pictures that help us to understand better our lifetrap.
The best place to start is with a feeling of abandonment in your current life. When something happens now in your life that triggers your feelings of abandonment, close your eyes and remember when you felt that way before.
A therapist trained to work with these different parts (particularly Schema Therapists and Internal Family Systems therapists – I have training in both these modalities) will help you to forge these links between the present and the past.
Monitor Your Feelings of Abandonment.
Become aware of your feelings of abandonment now in your life. Hone your ability to recognize when your schema is triggered. Perhaps you are undergoing a loss somewhere in your life. You may have a parent who is ill, a spouse who is going away, a relationship that is ending, a lover who is unsteady—who keeps jerking you around—or you may be so sealed off from the possibility of loss that you are totally alone.
See if you can recognize the cycle of abandonment in your life.
It is important for you to start spending time alone if you are not doing so. Choose to spend time alone instead of running away. You can start a little at a time. Spend time alone. Make it special. Do things you enjoy. Your fears will pass. If you do it often enough, you can pass through the fears into a space of peace.
Review Past Romantic Relationships and Clarify the Patterns That Recur.
List the Pitfalls of Abandonment Make a list of the romantic relationships in your life. What went wrong with each one? Was the person overprotective, and did you hold on at all costs? Was the person unstable? Did you leave each person because you were too afraid the person would leave you? Do you keep picking people who are likely to leave you? Were you so jealous and possessive that you drove the person away? What pattern emerges? What are the pitfalls for you to avoid?
Avoid Uncommitted, Unstable, or Ambivalent Partners Even Though They Generate High Chemistry.
Try to form relationships with stable people. Avoid people who are going to take you on a roller coaster ride, even though these are the exact people to whom you are most attracted. Remember that we are not saying that you should go out with people you find unattractive, but an intense sexual attraction may be a sign that your partner is triggering your Abandonment lifetrap. If this is so, the relationship means trouble, and you should probably think twice about pursuing it.
Do Not Cling, Become Jealous, or Overreact to the Normal Separations of a Healthy Relationship.
If you are in a good relationship with a stable, committed partner, learn to control your tendency to overreact to emotional slights. The best way is by working on yourself. Explore your own resources, and learn that you can be alone and flourish. To get by day-to-day, remember that you can make flashcards. Using a flashcard each time your lifetrap is triggered chips away at the lifetrap, weakening it.
Here is a flashcard that a client used to help her deal better with feelings of abandonment in her relationship. She used it to stop clinging and making accusations, and to reaffirm her trust in him and in herself whenever that trust felt shaken.Right now I feel devastated because Richard is withdrawing from me, and I am about to become angry and needy. However, I know that this is my Abandonment schema, and that this schema is triggered by just the slightest evidence of withdrawal. I need to remember that people in good relationships withdraw, and that withdrawal is part of the natural rhythm of good relationships. If I start behaving in an angry and clingy way, I will push Richard even further away. Richard has a right to pull away at times. What I should do instead is work with my thoughts to try to take a longer view of the relationship as a whole. My feelings are way out of proportion to reality. I can tolerate my feelings and remember that in the big picture Richard and I are still connected, and the relationship is good. To best help myself, I should turn my attention to my own life, and ways of developing myself. The better able I am to be on my own, the better I will be in relationships.
If you are struggling with this part of yourself and would like to find out more about how to cope better with it, please feel free to get in touch with me to discuss this matter further.
There are powerful and reliables ways in which your Abandoned Part/Exile can be helped, and your schema healed. However, not all therapeutic modalities (e.g. CBT) will be able to get to the roots of this part, so it is important to find a therapist and a modality which has the means to do so.