I had a parent walk out.
It does not matter why or how. Simply that he did. “Daddy Issues” was a joke I made often. Nonchalantly squeezing it into conversations to alleviate myself from the pressure of relaying the whole story.
Sometimes I jokingly say, “I hate you, please don’t leave me” to my husband. Oof. I scoffed for years as multiple therapists repeatedly asked me about this. I had no longing or sad songs to sing about it, and it irritated me when it was mentioned as a problem source. I did not find it relevant. Except, it was. It so was.
I never felt like I had “missed out.” I had a dad who adopted me. To me, I had a dad and didn’t have much use for the other one. You can’t miss someone you never had, you know? I didn’t cry or spend hours lamenting why this had happened. I never tried to run away. I did not seek out lovers to fill some void.
After spending this past summer in trauma-informed and C-PTSD therapy, I can look back now and pinpoint behaviors that I genuinely believed were just part of who I am. My concept of abandonment issues was all wrong.
Abandonment is emotional trauma, see? It should go without saying that we are not born with fully developed nervous systems nor an innate ability to regulate them, but this was mind-blowing to me. Meaning that it imprinted on my nervous system because that little sucker was developing with me. Turns out, it is a fear of abandonment—anxiety, a phobia of sorts.
Here are six traits of emotionally abandoned adults:
1. Inability to trust.
Anyone or anything for any reason. And even if you do always hold back a little piece of yourself, just in case, they leave too. This also extends to trusting systems of any kind. Always assuming whatever or whoever it is will fail or leave.
My husband and I have been together for a decade. We grew up together and married young. A hometown, high school sweetheart turned Army love story I guess you could say. That man has never ever, not one time, given me any reason not to trust him. And still, I struggle to. No, I don’t mean “I think he’s going to go out and have an affair” trust either. Simple, mundane things. Like telling me he filled my car up with gas. I have no reason to question this, but I’ll still check when I get in the driver’s seat, just in case.
2. People pleasing.
Emotionally abandoned children become “adult pleasers,” and when those children grow up to be adults, we can struggle with saying no to others. When we believe someone left because we did something wrong, our autonomic nervous system can get stuck in a fawn response. In other words, we let people walk all over us because we believe, subconsciously, that making this person happy will mean they will love us. That they will stay. Sometimes we allow it to happen so much and for so long, that a big blowup happens, and a friendship ends in a torrent of angry text messages because we could no longer deal with it.
For the most part, I do my own thing, consequences be damned. I used to describe it as a cool “rebel streak” I had. I never thought of myself as a people pleaser. Truth is, I am in the strangest of ways. This summer, a neighborhood kid asked me if he could mow my lawn. I did not need or want him to, but I said yes anyway. I did not even take a second to process this. Saying no did not feel like an option in the moment.
3. Staying in unhealthy relationships.
Because we believe that we are inherently flawed in some way, we can continue in situationships that are not good for us. This often looks like being the person who does all the emotional work and makes all the effort. Our subconscious need to not fail again keeps us trapped in an unhealthy cycle. Many of us laugh this off because we are “fixers,” and fixers stay.
Stomach in knots, heart rate elevated, we squeak out a dissenting sentence only to end it with “But, it’s whatever you want to do.” Sound familiar?
4. Seeking approval.
Emotional abandonment leaves a void, and because of it we seek out ways in which to fill it. We can struggle to feel “good enough” and therefore look for people and sometimes substances to feel whole.
I never believed this about myself. I also never told anyone else about the hours of being stuck in my own head, torturing myself with what ifs, what abouts, what could, and what should I be doing. Forever lamenting that nearly everything was my fault. That I was just “failing at life” in every conceivable way. That is not true, nor has it ever been true. I can look back now and clearly see patterns of behavior in which I was looking for any kind of validation. This has manifested in every job I have ever held, too.
This played out for me professionally because I subconsciously believed I had to do everything perfect to be accepted and loved. That is what happens when you have been emotionally abandoned. Love, acceptance, and friendship all become conditional.
Perfectionism and my tendency to give up everything to achieve it has ruined aspects of my life before. I don’t even tend to do this. That may sound ludicrous but hear me out. As a military spouse who moves every two years or so, I have had a variety of jobs. For each one, I overdress for the interview. Then I am that coworker who shows up early and stays late. The one volunteering for extra stuff. It has made me the resident ass kisser before. Eventually, I am so burnt out that I can barely stomach the job. My goal is never to be the favorite, nor am I money driven. Instead, at the root, it is always my incessant need to be perfect so no one else will leave.
6. Composing an exit strategy.
Those exchanges you practice in your head on the drive home from work? That rehearsal of a conversation with your spouse? A practice text you type up on the notepad of your phone. Those are all exit strategies.
When we cannot trust, struggle to say no, stay in places we should not, continually look for approval, and do it so perfectly that we destroy ourselves, you would think it would be enough. Alas, it is not. The fear of being abandoned is so deeply ingrained that even in the most secure environments, we anticipate the proverbial “shoe drop.”
We can struggle to feel content and secure because the anxiety of a spouse or a friend leaving you, or a job falling through, is crippling. So, we compose an exist strategy as a defense mechanism. It cannot hurt, and it cannot be a surprise if we just assume, accept, and anticipate it.
This is my reddest of red flags.
I always have an exit strategy for everything and every situation. For many early years of my marriage, I refused to close my separate bank account. Many will argue that this is a smart financial move, but it felt strange to me. Eventually, I did close that account. We have a joint account now, but I maintain a separate one, still. Though we each have access to all our accounts, and it would make no difference, I still cannot bring myself to close it because deep down, what if he leaves, too?
Upon first learning and dissecting these behaviors in myself, I spent too much time in deep shame. It has given me the ability to operate with so much healing self-compassion and self-love I am overwhelmed by it.
Understanding all of this has also allowed me to view others (like my walk-away parent) with distant compassion, too. Perhaps, he struggled with emotional abandonment. I don’t know and I never will. But I know that his choices were not a reflection of me or anything I ever did wrong. People who love me will choose to stay, or leave, based on their capacity, not mine.
These traits have defined every corner of my life. Most recently, I was accused of doing something I did not do. I knew I did not do it when I was confronted about it. Instead of defending myself, I folded. The person who pointed the finger (I’ll call her Sally) is an acquaintance of a good friend. I messaged my good friend the next day, but she took a long time to respond. After a while, I was so convinced that Sally had told my friend that I had done this “wrong” thing and now my friend was going to end our relationship. I planned a whole speech that went like “I am deeply hurt that you believe Sally. I thought you knew me better than that.”
I always wait for the other shoe to drop even when I have no reason to. I always second guess myself and assume that, eventually, my relationships will fall apart. As silly as it may sound, I am also proud of myself for this scenario because I can identify what I am doing and why I’m doing it. I may not have handled it perfectly in the moment, but I am learning.
And that is freedom. Emotional abandonment identification has given me freedom, and I want you to know that if you read any of yourself here that you can have this freedom, too.