Understanding Abandoment Trauma and its relationship to depression


It is difficult to accept and even understand that we have suffered abandonment trauma.  That trauma and the reality of our emotional abandonment in childhood and even in the current day can be masked by addictions and negative inner voices.  The work of healing requires the unearthing of the reality of our felt experience which is often expressed somatically in ways which are difficult to understand, at least that has been my experience.  Add to this the fact that recovery is made harder still by the harsh or dismissive inner voices which themselves are a symptom and indicator of the lack of understanding and empathy our younger self was shown in childhood by the parent and which many of us are shown by a society that lacks insight and depth.

This has certainly been the case in my own life. Now that I am in the process of recovering and undergoing my own therapy which is helping me to make sense of the painful body symptoms I have experienced for the past 10 years I feel the imperative need to write about what is occurring.  I have always been aware that there was a harshly punitive voice inside me, a remorseless inner critic which has made life painful and difficult and also attracted to me partners who can be critical.  Yesterday in my blog on my sisters death I referred to Syvlia Bretton Perreras book The Scapegoat Complex.  In this book she speaks of an inner character or complex with she names the accuser.  This accuser voice is composed of the voices of parent, teachers, carers and others in childhood which caused us to split of from our deepest needs and feelings which could not be attuned to by the parent or had to be harshly dismissed.

It has been explained to me today by my therapist that in the face of childhood neglect the complex needs and hungers which we have to deny in the face of parental nonresponsiveness or a lack of nurture, attunement and empathy accumulate around them a host of painful feelings, grief, helplessness, anger and rage, a sense of powerlessness and so on.  Feeling and freeing these trapped feeling which often drop to a somatic level is necessary in order to find freedom, to make sense of our feelings, to understand the truth of what happened to us in childhood and to break the power of the accusing and at times demonic voice that arises out of the pain of the abandonment, leading us to further depression and self abandonment, vulnerability to relationships with narcissists and so on.

I just came across the following on the website : http://www.pete-walker.com in undertaking a google search on managing abandonment trauma. I had deeply painful session today where I experienced the abandonment pain deep in my heart and gut, following on a week from the funeral of my eldest sister, Judith. There are so many layers of grief, anger and sadness around my relationship with her which although close, was at times deeply traumatising and non supportive especially where validation of feelings was concerned.

What Pete Wakler writes helped me to understand my own struggle


Chronic emotional abandonment is one of the worst things that can happen to a child. It naturally makes her feel and appear deadened and depressed. Functional parents respond to a child’s depression with concern and comfort; abandoning parents respond to it with anger, disgust and further abandonment, which in turn create the fear, shame and despair that become characteristic of the abandonment depression. A child who is never comforted when she is depressed has no model for developing a self-comforting response to her own depression. Without a nurturing connection with a caretaker, she may flounder for long periods of time in a depression that can devolve into The Failure to Thrive Syndrome.

In my experience failure to thrive is not an all-or-none phenomenon, but rather a continuum that begins with excessive depression and ends in the most severe cases with death. Many PTSD survivors “thrived” very poorly, and perhaps at times lingered near the end of the continuum where they were close to death, if not physically, then psychologically.

When a child is consistently abandoned, her developing superego eventually assumes totalitarian control of her psyche and carcinogenically morphs into a toxic Inner Critic. She is then driven to desperately seek connection and acceptance through the numerous processes of perfectionism and endangerment described in my article “Shrinking The Inner Critic in Complex PTSD” (see link for this article: Shrinking the Inner Critic).

Her inner critic also typically becomes emotional perfectionistic, as it imitates her parent’s contempt of her emotional pain about abandonment. The child learns to judge her dysphoric feelings as the cause of her abandonment. Over time her affects are repressed, but not without contaminating her thinking processes. Unfelt fear, shame and depression are transmuted into thoughts and images so frightening, humiliating and despairing that they instantly trigger escapist 4F acting out.

Eventually even the mildest hint of fear or depression, no matter how functional or appropriate, is automatically deemed as danger-ridden and overwhelming as the original abandonment. The capacity to self-nurturingly weather any experience of depression, no matter how mild, remains unrealized. The original experience of parental abandonment devolves into self-abandonment. The ability to stay supportively present to all of one’s own inner experience gradually disappear.

Post Traumatic Stress is actually a result of this type of emotional abandonment, but once someone displays these PTSD symptoms rest assured that the majority of people, ignorant of the true cause of the rage, fear and shame displayed will further abandon the sufferer and thus the depth of his or her trauma is deepened.  At least until he or she can understand why these symptoms exist and that they are a necessary expression of and legitimate response to the pain suffered rather than a source of further shame or fear,  Such understanding and insight is hardly possible in the face of lack of empathy,

Here is an example of the layered processes of an emotional flashback. A complex PTSD sufferer wakes up feeling depressed. Because childhood experience has conditioned her to believe that she is unworthy and unacceptable in this state, she quickly becomes anxious and ashamed. This in turn activates her Inner Critic to goad her with perfectionistic and endangering messages.

The critic clamors: “No wonder no one likes you. Get your lazy, worthless ass going or you’ll end up as a wretched bag lady on the street”!

Retraumatized by her own inner voice, she then launches into her most habitual flight, fight, freeze or fawn (4F)  behaviours. . She lashes out at the nearest person as she becomes irritable, controlling and pushy (Fight/ Narcissistic) – or she launches into busy productivity driven by negative, perfectionistic and catastrophic thinking (Flight/Obsessive-Compulsive)- or she flips on the TV and becomes dissociated, spaced out and sleepy (Freeze/ Dissociative)- or she focuses immediately on solving someone’s else’s problem and becomes servile, self-abnegating and ingratiating (Fawn/Co-dependent).

Unfortunately this dynamic also commonly operates in reverse, creating perpetual motion cycles of internal trauma as 4F acting out also gives the critic endless material for self-hating criticism, which in turn amps up fear and shame and finally compounds the abandonment depression with a non-stop experience of self-abandonment.  Especially noteworthy here is how the inner critic can interact with fear and shame in a particular vicious and escalating cycle.

Furthermore the entrenched cultural and social responses to fear and shame contribute to many of us being blocked from recovery.  Walker continues:

We live in a culture that judges fear as despicable, and depression as an unpatriotic violation of the “pursuit of happiness”. Taboos about depression even emanate from the psychological establishment, where some schools strip it of its status as a legitimate emotion – dismissing it simplistically as mere negative thinking, or as a dysfunctional state that results from the repression of less taboo emotions like sadness and anger.

I believe we must learn to distinguish depressed thinking – which can be eliminated – from depressed feelings – which must sometimes be felt. Occasional feelings of enervation and anhedonia are normal and existential – part of the admission price to life.

Moreover, depression is sometimes an invaluable harbinger of the need to slow down, to drop interiorly into a place that at least allows us to restore and recharge, and at best unfolds into our deepest intuitiveness.

One recurring gift that typically comes cloaked in depression is an invitation to grow that necessitates relinquishing a formerly treasured job or relationship that has now become obsolete or moribund. Overreaction to depression essentially reinforces learned toxic shame. It reinforces the individual’s notion that, when depressed, he is unworthy, defective and unlovable. Sadly this typically drives him deeper into abandonment-exacerbating isolation.

Deep level recovery from childhood trauma requires a normalization of depression, a renunciation of the habit of reflexively reacting to it. Central to this is the development of a capacity to stay in one’s body, to stay fully present to all internal experience, to stay acceptingly open to one’s emotional, visceral and somatic experiences without 4F acting out.

Renouncing this kind of self-abandonment is a journey that often feels frustratingly Sisyphean. It is a labor of self-love and a self-nurturing process of the highest order, but it can feel like an ordeal replete with unspectacular redundancy – with countless, menial experiences of noticing, naming and dis-identifying from the unhelpful internal overreactions that depression triggers in us.

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It seems to me after having witnessed my own painful journey as well as those of two siblings, such a shame that there is sometimes such a lack of understanding, insight, awareness and empathy to the deep level of childhood abandonment issues which replay across generations.  Such concerns are especially prominent in my mind presently as Saturn in Scorpio retrogrades back in my own chart towards natal Neptune and over significant points in the charts of so many of my family members.  We are struggling with the loss of a sibling and daughter whose abandonment issues and unresolved grief led to a lung condition.  I struggle with similar symptoms while another sister has been removed to hospital, which is a source of even deeper angst, mirroring as it does so many elements of my eldest sister’s journey.  Saturn is place in Scorpio in both my Mother and my surviving sisters’ charts.  Opening up to deep feelings doesn’t come easily to either. And it has at times been a very hard journey to have two significant relatives Saturn smack bang on my own natal Neptune.  It leads me often into the deep and painful territory of powerlessness over the things I cannot change.  The choices of other people.  But I will pursue my own recovery and continue to reach out and communicate about it