September 26, 2017
Intimacy can be difficult as an adult, it’s something we can easily become afraid of due to failed relationships and difficulties such as anger, jealousy and co-dependency. Without intimacy, it’s difficult to maintain a relationship, but when that relationship comes to an end, feelings of loss and abandonment are often triggered.
It’s these unconscious feelings of abandonment that can cause our problems with intimacy, low self-esteem and hopelessness – a vicious cycle that often stems back to our childhood.
Healthy childhood development relies on adequate physical and emotional care. Without that continuing love and attention, a child may feel unsafe, even unwanted. Emotional neglect can be deliberate or simply caused by parents being unable to look after their children effectively. Sometimes, tragic events such as the loss of a parent through death, or even divorce, can have a negative impact on that child’s ability to relate to others.
It’s not unusual for non-traumatic events to have the same effect on us child, and the adult we become, but without any obvious signs or symptoms – making it even harder to understand why we might be the way we are. Whereas we can see how the loss of a parent could affect us emotionally as adults, or how childhood neglect or abuse can have an impact – what happens when we thought our childhood was ok?
Let’s take a fairly common scenario, we’ll name our hypothetical client Andrew. Andrew didn’t have any particular trauma as a child, his parents are still married and alive, living just a few miles down the road. Andrew recalls that growing up was hard though, both his parents worked long hours and were out of the house a lot. Andrew had to take care of his younger brother when they got home from school, make sure he wasn’t hungry and that their homework got done. Andrew’s father had high expectations that Andrew found difficult to live up to and there was very little praise or emotional support. Working such long hours left his parents feeling stressed and Andrew often felt that he wasn’t good enough as the eldest son.
When a child doesn’t get the emotional support and warmth they need from a parent, that child may not develop healthy self-esteem as they grow older.
Andrew’s experiences were common for many children growing up in the last few decades. Andrew doesn’t recognise it as neglectful – he says his parents were simply doing their best under difficult circumstances. But they were absent from his childhood, Andrew can’t recall many intimate moments or shared memories, and he has a difficult relationship with them today.
Andrew suffers significantly with his self-esteem as an adult and admits that he pushes people away before they can find out he’s not ‘good enough’ for them and leave. He’s aware that his behaviour alienates his friends and potential partners, and that he’s not going to get the intimacy he craves until he can deal with his mood swings and anger.
Andrew’s situation is not uncommon, and I’ve had many clients like him seek help from me as a counsellor. Sadly, many have found themselves in abusive relationships because they are desperately trying to avoid the feelings of abandonment once again. An abusive relationship doesn’t necessarily mean domestic violence. Partners might be controlling, demanding more than we can give, manipulative and always making you feel second best – sometimes, without an awareness they are doing it.
The need to feel loved and the fear of the being abandoned can lead to these toxic relationships lasting far longer than they should.
It can be difficult to trust people when you’ve been let down in the past, even when that let down was accidental or non-intentional, the feelings that result are the same. A level of co-dependence can develop with a partner, or even a close friend that provides the emotional support sought for. Though this can quickly turn to jealousy when they try to foster new friendships and relationships of their own.
So, let’s consider how counselling can help people like Andrew, who are struggling on a day to day basis with feelings of low confidence and self-esteem as a result of childhood abandonment or neglect.
When you are able to recognise that your fears are rooted in your past you can begin to develop coping mechanisms that restrict the way fear controls your emotional responses now. This, in turn, enables healing from those experiences in the past, and be able to enjoy the experiences of today without those negative thoughts constantly playing in the background.
Counselling can help a person distinguish and separate the fears of the past from the reality of today.
Counselling or psychotherapy where abandonment features involves the client learning how to be self-compassionate, especially to the inner-child that still dwells within us. We were all children once and metaphorically the child is at the core of our unconscious thinking, driving our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. By holding on to or suppressing negative feelings and memories from childhood, that inner-child can effect our emotional balance and cause relationship difficulties in the present.
One of the key tools that therapy can give the client, is the ability to communicate their needs successfully within an intimate relationship. As we saw with Andrew, he had to learn to put his needs aside as a child to look after his younger brother whilst his parents were at work. Despite forsaking his own needs to meet those of his brother, he still didn’t feel that he could live up to his father’s exacting standards. Subsequently, every relationship as an adult, he’s put his own needs aside for his partner’s, believing that would prevent them from leaving him. Clearly, without his needs being addressed there was an imbalance of power in the relationship and that led to continued feelings of low self-worth, esteem and anger. Exploring and identifying the unresolved feelings are the first step to understanding the impact they have had and making changes in current relationships.
It can be difficult learning to trust again when we’ve been let down in the past, and continued difficult relationships can lead to a lack of resilience, depression and anger. Counselling can help you discover the root cause of your fear of abandonment and relationship difficulties, enabling you to care for that inner child and move on to enjoy intimacy, trust, and respect as an adult.
If any of this resonates with you and you would like to arrange counselling, get in contact by email at email@example.com or use the contact form on this website.
Due to the Covid19 pandemic, Claire is currently working online. If you are curious about online therapy, take a look at the Online Therapy blog here.