Abandonment and Toxic Shame

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When a child experiences repeated loss throughout adolescence, it is common for this child to begin internalizing immense amounts of fear. Children require (and deserve) a certain amount of psychological and physical protection, and when they do not receive this protection they undergo what is known as ‘abandonment’. Repeated abandonment will, more often than not, result in deep-seated feelings of toxic shame. Children learn through the actions of others and this detrimental lack of protection that they are not important – that they do not matter. While these statements are far from true, children readily internalize and adopt them, carrying them throughout their young adulthoods and later years unless they are adequately addressed and resolved. Many individuals who undergo recurring abandonment early on in life will turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with the overwhelming shame they feel. It is not until these ingrained beliefs are completely annihilated that long-term addiction recovery is possible.

Abandonment – Physical and Emotional

There are two predominant types of abandonment – physical abandonment and emotional abandonment. Physical abandonment occurs when suitable physical conditions lack severely, and rather than receiving deserved physical protection, children are met with:

  • A lack of adequate nutrition and sufficient meals
  • A lack of parental or appropriate supervision
  • A lack of shelter, heat, or clothing
  • Physical or sexual abuse

When children grow up in environments in which they do not feel safe or cared for, they will likely adopt the mentality that the world is, in general, an unsafe place. They will also internalize the belief that they are not worthy of adequate care or positive attention, and that people are not to be trusted. Such overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing frequently lead to substance abuse, seeing as the skills necessary to successfully coping with such profound pain have never been instilled. These core views are often quite difficult to break through, but with intensive therapeutic care and the development of healthy and supportive relationships, recovery is entirely possible – and toxic shame will eventually be replaced with self-love and acceptance.

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Abandonment

Emotional abandonment occurs when parents or caretakers fail to provide children with the emotional attention and supportive environment crucial to healthy and timely development. It has been suggested that emotional abandonment occurs when a child feels he or she needs to hide a part of him or herself in order to be accepted. When a child feels the need to hide a part of himself, he may feel that:

  • It is unacceptable to make a mistake.
  • It is unacceptable to express (or even have) personal needs – the needs of others consistently come first.
  • It is unacceptable to express personal accomplishment – successes are discounted repeatedly, and certainly never acknowledged.
  • It is unacceptable to express feelings or emotions – emotions are often verbally discounted with statements like, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Abandonment can occur through the repetition of numerous other detrimental behavioral patterns. Parents may set unrealistic expectations for their children, and shame their children verbally and emotionally when those expectations are not met. Often, this verbal disapproval and disappointment will be geared towards the entire identity of a child, rather than at a specific action. For example, a child who does not score well on an exam might be called ‘stupid’ and ‘worthless’, further embedding feelings of toxic shame. Children may be blamed for the actions of others – this is especially common when addiction runs in the family. For example, a young boy might be blamed by his mother for the excessive drinking patterns his father exhibits. “Your father only drinks so much because you are such a disappointment.” “If it wasn’t your you, your father wouldn’t spend so much time at the bar.”

Recovery is Possible – Learn to Love Yourself

In the vast majority of cases, abandonment is bolstered by undefined or harshly compromised boundaries. Parents may not consider the fact that their children are distinct and autonomous entities, and they may rely on their children for their own sense of self-esteem and self-worth. They may continuously blame their children for their own actions and behaviors, unable to take responsibility for their personal internal conflicts and inadequacies. A combination of abandonment and compromised boundaries during a vital time of personal development will often leave children feeling deeply insufficient and full of crippling shame. It is important to remember that the beliefs developed throughout early childhood are in no way a reflection of innate goodness or intrinsic value. Even the deepest and longest-standing wounds can be healed with an intensive program of emotional recuperation and continued understanding of the origin of such deep pain.

We at Next Chapter have ample experience working with young adults and older adults who have experienced damaging abandonment early on in life, and we believe that even deeply instilled core beliefs can be reversed with adequate therapeutic care. Feelings of toxic shame that stem from abandonment and neglect early on can be uprooted and resolved – and we are here to help our clients through the process of comprehensive recovery. For more information, please contact us today.