On Healing 3/6/2006: Security comes best from within

Hi Dr. Dan:
My most immediate problem is the recent breakup with the love of my life. We had been dating for several months. He is just beginning his career and works sometimes 70 to 80 hours a week.

We began to have problems in the first couple of months. I tried, in constructive and destructive ways, to make him understand that my emotional needs were not being met.

Well, it all came to a head and we broke up last week.

All of this has made me extremely depressed. I have my own abandonment issues, as an adopted child with divorced parents and a history of family abuse and neglect, etc. The fact that he has left me does not help.

What I want most is for us to reconnect.

Any advice would help.
– Barbara

Dear Barbara:
Your analysis of the problem is no doubt correct. You, like most people, have “abandonment issues.” But what does this mean?

All of us want to be known for who we really are and be fully accepted. And almost everyone is afraid of being fully known for fear of rejection.

So we work very hard to create an image that is acceptable, even lovable. Yet we live with that nagging anxiety that says: “if they knew my darkest secrets, they might reject me.”

For people who have experienced trauma or abandonment in childhood, the anxiety is greater, because as children they felt their lives were in danger.

This terror precedes the child’s ability to express emotion. My guess is that you may have felt abandoned by your biological parents, you may have felt it again when your adoptive parents divorced, and certainly when you were abused. And from your description, you live in fear of being abandoned again.

Yet you got involved with a man who works 80 hours a week and, not surprisingly, you feel neglected. A perfect setup to experience abandonment.

I would imagine this is not the first time you “fell in love” with a person who couldn’t meet your needs and left. Why would someone repeat a childhood trauma over and over?

There are many mental-health professionals who believe that when a child is so traumatized, part of his or her personality stops developing. You wind up doing what is most familiar. This is called “repetition compulsion” and could become dangerous. Girls who have been physically or sexually abused are at higher risk for being abused as adults. Boys who endured abuse have increased risk of being abusers in adulthood.

So what to do? You can never get enough love and security today to repair the pain you experienced in childhood.

The task is to learn to tolerate your hunger without panic. So instead of feeding the beast, try to tame it.

Ultimately, you will find the kind of security you need only when you are able to tolerate that frightening sense of emptiness.

I strongly suggest you seek therapy from someone who can teach you to give yourself what you’ve always longed for: compassion, tolerance and, ultimately, unflinching love.

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