Abandonment trauma refers to the behaviors and emotional distress that come about as a result of experiences that made you feel unsafe, insecure, isolated, and/or alone as a child. It is an unhealthy fear of loss or rejection, rooted in anxiety, and may include deep emotional and psychological pain associated with memories of being left behind, physically or emotionally neglected, and/or abandoned.
While abandonment trauma most commonly begins in early childhood, it can happen at any time of life. Adults may, for example, experience abandonment trauma as the result of the sudden, untimely death of a loved one, or an unwanted divorce.
Common symptoms of abandonment trauma.
Fear of intimacy. You may engage in numerous shallow relationships, always finding a reason to end them before the other person does. You try to protect yourself from being hurt by pushing the other person away before he or she has a chance to push you away first.
Anxiety. You may be plagued by constant thoughts and fears of the significant people in your life leaving, dying, or rejecting you.
Needing constant reassurance. You tend to second guess your relationships and have a need for constant attention and validation. You expect people to be available at all times, and when they can’t be, you tend to misinterpret it as rejection.
Difficulty trusting others. You have a hard time trusting others to be there for you and worry that your partner will cheat on you or leave you.
Being drawn to people who will treat you poorly. You may find yourself drawn to people who are emotionally unavailable, or who will treat you poorly and then leave you. This reinforces your fears of being abandoned and your distrust of others.
Staying in unhealthy relationships. You may enter into and stay in an abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationship, because your fear of being alone is greater than your desire to leave.
Trying to bond too quickly. Your fear of being alone may lead you to rush into relationships too quickly, and seek to please the other person at all costs, in the hope of keeping him or her in your life for as long as possible.
Self-sabotaging behavior. You may purposely sabotage relationships by acting unreasonably or by making a big deal about something petty so that the relationship falls apart, and your fears of being abandoned and/or that you are not worthy of being loved are confirmed.
Low self-esteem. You tend to feel insecure and wonder what was wrong with you that made your parents not want you as a child? You assume it was your fault they abandoned you.
Negative self-image. You have a negative view of yourself and see yourself as flawed. You think you aren’t worth people’s time, nobody would want to be with you, you don’t matter to anyone, and/or you are unworthy of being loved.
Eating disorders and/or substance abuse. You may turn to food, drugs, and/or alcohol to self-medicate and try to suppress the painful feelings of your abandonment trauma. This may gradually lead to substance abuse or an eating disorder.
Tips for coping with abandonment trauma.
Know where your feelings are coming from. Recognize and name what happened to you and try to identify everything you feel about it. Understanding where your feelings are coming from will help you gain awareness and understanding of your behavioral attachment patterns, as well as what triggers you.
Do things that bring you joy. Activities such as working on a hobby, playing music, painting, and spending time outdoors can all provide healthy outlets for channeling your feelings into something positive that will make you feel better.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can help ground you and keep you centered on the present moment. It can also help you become aware of your thoughts and feelings in a realistic way that enables you to analyze them and reflect on them rather than being driven by them.
Reach out. Join a Bible study, support or special interest group, serve in your church, and/or reach out to your church body, family, friends, or a counselor. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Journal. Journaling through your thoughts and feelings can help you externalize and see them in a more constructive, objective way. It can also help you track your progress and record victories. It can also make you aware of your behavior patterns and triggers.
Know the difference between feelings and facts. Learn how to discern the difference between feelings and facts. Emotions may feel overwhelming, but they are usually only temporary. Checking the facts can help center you and calm you.
Consider counseling. A trained mental health counselor can help you unpack your abandonment trauma, dig into what’s beneath all the hurt, become aware of what triggers it, and equip you with coping skills so you can deal with it in a healthy way.
Remember your value as a child of God. Your sense of self-worth comes from your identity as a child of God, rather than from the affirmation or rejection of others.
Memorize Scripture. Arm yourself with the Word of God! In Ephesians 6:10-18 we are told that we are to arm ourselves with the Word of God so that we can resist the lies and deception of the devil. This is where Scripture memorization can be so powerful. When we begin to have thoughts of fear and anxiety related to our abandonment trauma, we can combat those more readily when we are steeped in the truths of Scripture.
Try this: Pick two or three of the verses below to memorize and speak truth to yourself when you are feeling triggered related to your abandonment trauma:
Nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:39, ESV
Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me. – Psalm 27:10, NIV
For he (God) has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” – Hebrews 13:5b, ESV
The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you, Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. – Deuteronomy 31:8, NIV
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:10, NIV
What does the Bible say about abandonment trauma?
Let’s turn to a theme from the Bible that is woven throughout Scripture: God’s faithfulness to His people. Throughout the entirety of the Bible, we see people abandoning God, His wisdom, and His commands. How does God respond to this human abandonment? With analogous and reciprocating actions? No! He responds by continuing to pursue His people, forgive them, and remind them of the truth.
He promises to never leave or forsake us. When working with clients, I often see people projecting their abandonment by humans onto God so that they end up living off the belief that they are alone and God has abandoned them, just like other humans in their life.
This is one of the moments when we have to remember that God Himself displays perfect, loyal love. Our understanding of love is shown perfectly in how He loves us. However, we often reverse that and project how we learned love from fallen, imperfect people onto God. Hold fast to the truth that God’s promises are true and stay true no matter how we feel or what we think.
After God delivered His people from Egypt (as seen in the book of Exodus), they came to the Red Sea and, with the Egyptians approaching steadily to capture them once more, the Israelites turned from God’s promises and accused God of abandoning them.
What happens next? God shows up, parts the Red Sea, and rescues His people. Shortly after this occurs, the Israelites run out of water in the desert and quickly accuse God again that He has abandoned them and that they will surely die of thirst. What actually happens? God commands Moses to strike a rock (a symbol and foreshadowing of Christ), and water flows from it.
God never leaves His people. Not then, not now. And because as believers we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, remember that you are never alone – even when you can’t see Him or feel His presence. He will never abandon you. God created you and loves you deeply. Nothing can separate you from His love. He will never leave you nor forsake you!
Christian counseling for abandonment trauma.
Abandonment trauma is a deeply rooted issue. A trained mental health professional can help you deal with the heart of your abandonment trauma and identify core issues and triggers, as well as equip you with coping skills to manage the challenges you are facing, and walk you through the healing process.
“Admiring the View”, Courtesy of Noah Silliman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Journaling”, Courtesy of Ashlyn Ciara, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Scripture”, Courtesy of Aaron Burden, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Cross”, Courtesy of Aaron Burden, Unsplash.com, CC0 License