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Healing the Abandonment Wound: An Everyday Snapshot

Healing the Abandonment Wound: An Everyday Snapshot

It's my third and last week in Polignano a Mare, Italy, and in many ways I feel like "home" having settled into this slow-moving town with its stunning view of the sea.

I've also had several moments where my abandonment wound has been triggered and those familiar feelings of unbelonging and aloneness colour my experience of this place and its people.

In this post, I share about how ...

I also share what I might do for self-care in these challenging moments. Please take care of yourself as you read on, in case this is also a tender topic for you.

How the Abandonment Wound and Hypervigilance Develop

Abandonment is not always about being physically left by someone. I first learned from Carmen Spagnola that the abandonment wound can develop due to a range of experiences, oftentimes starting in childhood:

Abandonment is the gap between what you need and what you get.

Abandonment arouses the primal fear of infancy and childhood, that of being left alone to fend for ourselves.

This kind of wound is cumulative: every loss, betrayal, disappointment, rejection (perceived or real), break-up or death can trigger the primal Abandonment Wound. Rather than dissipate, feelings incubate.

– "Healing the Abandonment Wound {Special Mini-Series Part 1 of 3}" (Carmen Spagnola, The Numinous Podcast, Episode 61)

For me, some of the things that caused my abandonment wound (e.g., growing up too quickly as a young person, inconsistent parenting, a lack of emotional attunement) also led to me adopting a state of hypervigilance as my primary way of orienting to the world.

As I mentioned in my podcast episode "Healing Trauma (Part 3): Getting Triggered (Why Can’t We Just Leave the Past in the Past?)," our natural way of relating to our environment is through an exploratory-orienting response, where we are open, curious, and able to be in connection with others.

When reacting to threat (or the potential of threat), we automatically go into a defensive-orienting response. This is all well and good, since we should react to danger if danger is actually present.

But "when individuals are stuck in an unresolved, persistent, defensive-orienting response, they continue to scan the environment for danger even when the external threat is no longer present" (1). This is called "hypervigilance" and it is what I've defaulted to for much of my life.

How does this show up in my everyday life? For one, because my body tends to be primed for danger (at an unconscious level), I often avoid making eye contact with people who walk past me on the street, whether I'm traveling in a foreign place or walking around my home city.

To stay open and curious to others and my environment can feel too vulnerable. I have perfected the "fuck off" face and body language that expresses: "I am not the easy target you think I am."

When the story you've learned is that you don't belong and that opening up to others will put you at risk of being hurt (physically, emotionally, or otherwise), then authentic connection can feel elusive and easier to put on the shelf.

The Fear and Desire to Connect

One thing I have learned in my trauma-healing journey is that we all desire connection with others – it is a hardwired developmental need in all humans. But when we have been through certain traumas, connection can also become our biggest fear.

Most people who know me would be surprised to learn that I have a deep fear of connection. I'm usually quite warm and friendly. I can be very engaging and interested in others in conversation. And I'm an open book about myself in many ways.

But to allow someone into my everyday life, to trust them with my ongoing time and energy (never mind my heart), can feel daunting. Going at it alone and relying on my dependable self seems easier – and less likely to end in disappointment.

(There are times when I seem to go in the opposite direction – like when I get romantically attached to someone – but that's for another post or podcast episode.)

Since learning that my long-standing sense of unbelonging, my default state of hypervigilance, and my "apathy for life" (a recurring feeling of dread that "shit, I have to keep doing this [i.e., life]?" – not in a suicidal way, but in a tired of being kind of way) developed from my abandonment and other traumas, I have been slowly working on healing and unlearning these things to allow for the connection I truly desire in my life.

Sometimes these steps in my healing journey are big, and sometimes they are super small. For example, I might:

  • Practice moving from my default state of hypervigilance to an exploratory-orienting response through somatic practices – because allowing genuine connection into my life takes vulnerability, and I can't be vulnerable if my guard is up all the time.
  • Reach out to a friend when I'm feeling down instead of trying to self-care or heal on my own.
  • Take the initiative to plan a bonfire hangout on the farm.
  • Smile at a stranger on the street and saying, "Buon giorno!"
  • Heal the hurt parts of me through therapy and my own inner work outside of sessions. 
  • While in Polignano, go out in the evening for a gelato just to be around the energy of others.  

At the end of the day, what makes us feel alive, seen, and safe is to be in genuine connection with others.

No matter how withdrawn and isolated we have become or how serious the trauma we have experienced...there is in each of us an impulse moving toward connection and healing.

– Healing Developmental Trauma (Laurence Heller & Aline LaPierre)

When the Abandonment Wound Gets Activated: An Everyday Snapshot

Knowing our triggers can be helpful for proactively caring for our mental health. But sometimes we can be activated seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly find ourselves overwhelmed with anxiety, sadness, or some other hard-to-hold feeling.

That was me yesterday. This is a snapshot of the struggle I sometimes go through when trying to connect with people and a place, to pursue things that are pleasurable to me, and to relax into my experience of life – because my body has learned over decades that to come down from its post atop the alarm bell tower might result in me missing any oncoming signs of danger.

Yesterday morning, I walked two minutes down the street from my Airbnb to my favourite view of the sea.

I've gone there almost every day for the past two weeks. Many older folks, couples, and families walk along this lungomare (or sea front) to admire the panoramic view of the emerald-blue Adriatic Sea and white-washed buildings standing gloriously atop the cliffs on which Polignano a Mare sits.

Men throw their fishing lines down into the waters many feet below for their daily catch. And tuk tuks blasting Italian pop music zoom through the parking area to see if any tourists will engage them for a tour of the town.

It was mostly grey skies, forecasted to rain, but people were still strolling about. A couple of older men stood by one of the railings a few feet away, a long fishing rod leaning against the wall as they chatted in Italian. 

I walked up to another railing and stared out into the water to soak in the view. A soft ripple of waves spread across the sea. The scenery was beautiful, as always, but that morning I was having trouble switching off my thoughts and staying present. I could sense that my body was distracted by the people around me as it assessed the situation.

Then I noticed the two fishermen gazing in my direction. For all I know, they might not have been looking at me. But my body automatically tensed. I immediately looked away. 

I sensed my hypervigilance kicking into gear. I sensed myself signaling to them (and inadvertently to the rest of the world): "I am not inviting you in." I sensed that familiar feeling of wanting to go away, to disappear. 

I looked out at the blue waters again and reminded myself: I'm okay. I'm safe.

I practiced staying present a little while longer. A little while later, a couple of raindrops fell. I had to get to the grocery store before it started pouring. But first, a cappuccino was in order!

When I arrived at my favourite cafe, the espresso bar was crowded with people. In particular, I noticed a group of men standing at the counter. One looked in my direction. My body went into alert mode again and I immediately continued down the street to another cafe.

(As you may have deduced by now, my body has consciously and unconsciously learned to associate the presence of certain men as a potential threat.)

The next cafe was packed too. I gave up and started walking back.

Now what? To have the cappuccino or to not have the cappuccino? It was one of my pleasures of the trip. And I didn't want to implicitly teach myself to run away from fear when I knew I really had nothing to be scared of. So I put on my mask and went inside the first cafe.

As I waited in the haphazard line of people standing in front of the espresso bar, others moved up to order. But the server behind the counter had noted that I was next.

"Prego," he said. 

"Un cappuccino, per favore," I said.

I paid and sat outside, both happy that I got my cappuccino and humbled at how challenging this journey of healing and uncovering self-empowerment can sometimes be. 

During my walk to the grocery store – perhaps because I wasn't around such a big crowd anymore – I more easily noticed the feeling that had been percolating within me earlier. It was a sense of unease, a little twist in my stomach, a subtle but uncomfortable buzz in my chest.

I tossed various items into my grocery basket, but could tell I was getting slightly overwhelmed toward the end of it. Decisions – like which brand of prosciutto to get 🤔 – were feeling harder to make.

I talked to myself (in my head): "Come on, Janice. Pick one. Let's go."

I had danced along my edges long enough this morning. It was time to go home and breathe a little easier.

Healing the Abandonment Wound

Back at my Airbnb, I noticed my body relax right away. My safety was certain here. I could finally shut off my alarm system.

I decided to be proactive with my self-care so that this "off" feeling I had all morning didn't snowball into something bigger.

So I tapped into what I needed on various levels – relational, body, environmental, mind, emotional/spiritual:

  • I sent a message to a friend I trusted could hold space for me and said I was reaching out for a virtual hug. I know not to do this alone if I don't have to.
  • I drank water (and kept drinking water throughout the day).
  • I took a hot shower and put on some comfy clothes to physically feel more relaxed.
  • I let some fresh air into my Airbnb, turned on an extra lamp, and cleaned up a bit. (I know my environment and lighting really affects my mood.)
  • I took some Vitamin D, as per my nutrition coach's recommendation, to help boost my mood.
  • I fixed myself a nice meal that included a salad instead of eating leftover pizza.
  • I wrote in my gratitude app to help shift my perspective about being alone and disconnected, and was reminded of the people who care about me and the wonderful things about being on this trip.
  • I did a work task that I needed to get done, so I could feel productive and like I was taking action. 
  • I noticed at this point that a low-level nervous system activation was simmering within me. This was obviously not going away, and I knew I wouldn't be able to concentrate on doing more work, so I did some Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy. This brought up what was really at the core of my emotional morning. I cried. I released. I healed.
  • I listened to some calming music and took a nap. As much as I wanted to push forward and continue being productive, my body said, "Nope, I'm too tired." (I'm grateful for the privilege I had to be able to rest when I needed to.)

The rest of my day went by as usual. I had a great work meeting, ate dinner, wrote this blog post, and worked on an editing job. It was a reminder that sometimes I just need to feel into the emotions to then have the focused, productive day I want.

Some days none of this feels like "an issue." Other days, I probably go through a similar experience but am on autopilot and not noticing what's really happening in my body. And other days still, attempting connection with the world around me feels like the hardest thing.

Healing and self-growth are not sprints to the finish line. Sometimes we feel like we're moving backward or stuck in one, never-ending place we don't want to dwell in. But one of the most reassuring things I've learned is that we are...

Before I had gained this kind of self-awareness and picked up these various self-care tools, I would have likely continued to shut down internally, avoid situations that triggered that discomfort (even if it meant forgoing that cappuccino 😩), and been more convinced that the world wasn't a welcoming place and I didn't belong in it. And if I was still drinking, I'd definitely be nursing a glass of wine after that. 

This work can be so nuanced, subtle, and very unsexy. Sometimes healing the abandonment wound 

 

I want to make one thing clear. Even if a specific situation in which my hypervigilance is activated is not in actuality a threat to me, but my body interprets it as such because it triggers my internalized fear of what identifying as a woman or Asian can mean in this world, I don't put all the responsibility on myself for "correcting" my misinterpretation. As long as we continue to live in a patriarchal, racist culture, that fear will always have some validity to it (imo). 

And also, I recognize the importance of developing a more accurate internal compass of which situations may actually be harmful to me – physically, emotionally, or otherwise. Because even though by putting up my guard I may succeed in protecting myself from being harmed, I will also inadvertently succeed in blocking off potential connection with those around me, or even a connection with the place I am immersed in. 

 

At first glance, my fear of going into a cafe to order a cappuccino might seem completely irrational. (Although I think many can relate to the intimidating feeling of engaging with locals in a foreign country where you are not well-versed in the language – that was part of my discomfort in this situation.)

But I think fear drives us in many subtle ways, for example, where we might easily interpret our avoidance of something as simply acting on our personality and/or preferences (e.g., "I'm an introvert and I don't like crowds). Or where we assume we won't be welcomed, treated kindly, etc. because the present situation triggers deep memories where we are reminded of less-than-desirable outcomes.

I also think that sustained change is built through unlearning the decisions we often make in the "small" moments that continue taking us down the path that requires the least resistance but further reinforces our trauma patterns. (Those "decisions" can be made subconsciously, and so unlearning them involves self-awareness.)

And along with that, change happens when we learn to make different decisions that can feel uncomfortable as fuck in the moment, but that present to us the possibility of a more promising path.

But this isn't just an intellectual exercise. Because no matter how much self-awareness we attain, we will still largely continue to operate from a subconscious place.

And of course, this is all with the understanding that this is not only about individual responsibility, period. We as a collective also have a responsibility to cultivate a world that is in actuality safe for our fellow humans to let go, be brave, and thrive in.

 

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P.S. Today I went back out on the town and enjoyed a gelato. I walked to a couple of sea views, one with lots of people, another that was very isolated. I made a reservation to dine alone at an awesome restaurant I wanted to try again. It was a great day, and ...

Besides feeling genuinely connected to nature, I believe I'm so drawn to living amongst the trees because my body can relax so much more in that environment. Even then, I can find myself in hypervigilant mode, but it's easier to practice shifting to an exploratory-orienting response because not only do I usually find nature beautiful to look at, but the grass and birds don't feel threatening to me. 😊

But throw in loud noises, a certain type of figure, a crowd of people, a car rolling down an empty street, and my alert system snaps to attention, however subtly. It might not necessarily be about a threat against my physical safety but perhaps the threat of not belonging, being treated unkindly, and so on.

References:

(1) Healing Developmental Trauma, Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre