The Abandonment Schema
We are all on a quest for happiness. Yet, given the rapidly increasing rates of depression and suicide, it would seem that happiness is somehow eluding us.
We tend to think the things that make us happy are; more money, a better body, status, an exotic holiday, a new car, a bigger house.
But if these things really did make us happy, then there would be no miserable millionaires or addicted celebrities. In fact, statistics show that the wealthier a nation is – the higher the rates of depression are.
So, what does make us happy?
Well, according to the longest study on human happiness
“… the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
The Grant Study, starting in 1938, followed the lives of 250 men for over 75 years to determine what factors predicted happiness and health over the life span.
Over and above everything else, money, fame, status etc, it was the QUALITY of their relationships that predicted whether the men would be healthy and happy.
And given what we know now from recent neuroscience research – this makes total sense.
Feeling seen, understood, accepted and that we belong is not just a wish for some of us – it's a biological necessity for us all.
When our emotional needs are not met, we are programmed to experience feelings that result from this – sadness, loneliness, shame and often, a deep sense of unworthiness.
Much as we probably don’t like to admit it – we do indeed need other people to feel happy.
So why is it so hard for some of us to find good quality relationships?
George Valiant – Director of the Grant study, noted that the men who were unable to maintain healthy relationships – the ones also likely to succumb to addictions and mental health issues – had one thing in common. They had developed ‘defenses’ against love.
He had this to say:
“Happiness Is Love. Full Stop. But In Order To Permit Love To Make You Fulfilled, You Have To Be Able To Take It In, Which Means That You Have To Feel Inside That You Are Loved”.
One of the biggest obstacles to ‘taking in love’ is the Abandonment schema.
This is one of the earliest schemas to develop in life – sometimes as early as a few months old. Many people think it occurs when we are literally abandoned – when a parent leaves or dies. And while this can definitely be one of the causes – other causes are actually much more subtle.
One of the most common reasons the Abandonment schema develops is when our emotional needs are not met for a prolonged period of time. When we are ‘emotionally’ abandoned.
This can happen when we have care-givers who are addicted, sick, over-worked, stressed or emotionally unstable. Or even if we are hospitalised for a while.
The key factor in the development of abandonment is the unpredictability of the care-givers responses.
Sometimes they tend to our needs and other times they don’t. Sometimes they are warm and loving, and sometimes they are cold, distant or overtly hostile and abusive.
This lack of consistency plays havoc with our brains. We are constantly in a state of stress. The amygdala – the brains danger scanner, is constantly on alert – looking for signs that the care-giver is going to switch off the love and attention - even when they ARE attentive. It becomes stuck at a higher baseline than average, a condition that can persist throughout life.
The video below shows just how distressed a child becomes when the mother is unresponsive.
If you experienced this kind of parenting, you are likely to have developed a pattern of ‘hyper-vigilance’ which has become deeply wired into the brain and is activated in close relationships.
You will have developed automatic thoughts and beliefs that people are not reliable, not to be trusted, that they could pull away and abandon you at anytime. You're probably very sensitive tothe slightest change in another person's moods and feelings, which causes a surge of anxiety and insecurity.
When we get surges of intense stress and other emotions, our rational logical brain goes off line, leaving us at the mercy of our more reactive often irrational emotional brain.
If you have this schema, you might recognise yourself in some of the following signs;'
- Hyper-sensitive to other people's feelings
- Constant scanning for signs that your partner is losing interest or going to leave you
- Obsessive thinking about your partner to the point that you can’t focus on anything else
- Constant worrying that they might leave you get sick or die.
- Pervasive feelings of anxiety, insecurity while in the relationship
- A sense that you are ‘losing’ yourself
- Clinging, possessive or controlling behavior
- Needing constant reassurance
- Difficulty with partners silence
- Outbursts of anger and rage
- Avoidance of close relationships altogether
As with all schemas, the abandonment schema is self-perpetuating. It brings about the very thing that you fear; the loss of the relationship.
For other people, it can be very difficult to tolerate the intensity that the schema causes – the conflict, the monitoring, the control, the depth of the need, the outbursts. It can feel very suffocating to be on the receiving end of an abandonment schema and eventually pushes people away.
Each time you enter a relationship, the schema gets stronger as it has more ‘evidence’ that people will leave. In the end, some people with this schema avoid relationships all together because they are just too painful.
The abandonment schema isn’t triggered in all relationships. It generally emerges when you are in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable or unpredictable
Unfortunately, if you have this schema, you will be biologically wired to be attracted to emotionally unstable or unavailable people. Their unpredictability or distance will activate the stress response – feeling like excitement when it is often in fact anxiety.
But the good news is, you CAN heal this schema. It takes time and effort but if it means you will live a healthier, happier life, it’s worth it.
If you resonate with information in this article - why not consider joining my free face book group 'Breaking the patterns from the past'. Or check out our online programme, which will be launching mid-may.
This is a amazing article. This hit every single point of how mybrain reacts to abandonment. I realize iz started from childhood. I want t0 make sure I dont do that with my children. This is such a powerful moment for me to realize where this stems from. Its self torture in a way. I need help and will do everything I can to help me. I have 7 children Im putting my anxieties on possibly. Dont want them to pick up my habits
Hi Patrice – I’m happy that the article was helpful for you. It is often such a relief when we can understand why we think and act the way we do. There is more on the site about abandonment that should help you to understand a little more