Relationships are one of the most important parts of life. When you have healthy relationships, you tend to experience greater meaning and hope. When you’ve experienced abandonment trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder, you may suffer from depression, anxiety, and other ailments. Untreated abandonment trauma can lead to severe loneliness (Yanguas, Pinazo-Henandis, & Tarazona-Santabalbina, 2018).
To cope with the pain of unhealthy or absent relationships, you may develop coping strategies to alleviate your pain. The more you are suffering, the more you look for immediate relief. This can lead you to engage in behaviors such as those involved in eating disorders.
And, there is hope. Recovery is possible.
Abandonment Trauma: How It Develops
Abandonment trauma occurs as the result of neglect and abuse. When you’ve experienced neglect and abuse, your needs were not met, and you were in a state of survival. Abandonment trauma can occur in childhood or adulthood. If you’ve experienced abandonment trauma in childhood, you are at a greater risk of experiencing it in your adult life (van der Kolk, 2007).
Children need love, guidance, and stability to learn how to navigate life. They need a parent or caregiver to provide for their physical needs (safety, shelter, food, and hygiene). Additionally, they need a parent or caregiver to teach them how to make decisions, learn life skills, learn about choices and consequences, and develop their identity.
Abandonment can be direct or indirect. Direct abandonment occurs when the parent or caregiver was physically absent from the child’s life. Indirect abandonment, also known as engulfment, is a result of having a parent or caregiver physically present, but the relationship was marked by power and control.
If your parent or caregiver was not physically present, you had to learn about life on your own. You had to provide for your physical needs at an age that was not developmentally appropriate to do so.
Physical neglect or abandonment may occur because:
- Your parent walked away, and you were directly, physically abandoned.
- Your parent had an addiction that led them to be physically absent more often than not. This may have been a substance addiction or a behavioral addiction such as gambling or workaholism.
- You grew up in poverty or in a single-parent household. Your parent(s) had to work more than one job to provide for your physical needs. Their physical absence, although understandable, did not meet your psychological needs.
- Your parent had an illness that required them to spend extended periods in treatment.
- Your parent passed away.
Emotional Abandonment & Neglect
As a child, you may have had your parents or caregivers physically present in your home. However, if they struggled with addictions or mental illness, they may not have been available to parent you. You may have been parentified as a child, living a reversed role in which you were responsible for meeting the physical and/or emotional needs of your parents or caregivers.
Physical abuse is driven by control. Control is about satisfying the needs of the person engaging in the abuse at the expense of your needs. Physical abuse sends you the message that you must do what the abusing person wants, or else there is a painful and potentially life-threatening consequence. Physical abuse leads to abandonment trauma because it teaches you that your worth and your safety are related to your compliance.
Emotional abuse is also about control. Emotional abuse can be direct in which your parent or caregiver calls you painful, degrading names. Alternately, emotional abuse can be indirect through cycles in which you are idealized and devalued. If your parent or caregiver emotionally abused you, you received the following indirect and inaccurate messages about your worth:
- Your value depends on how you meet another’s needs.
- Your needs are only convenient and acceptable if they align with the other.
- If your needs do not align with the other, they are inconvenient, and you need to change them.
- You are good and desirable when you do what the other wants. You are bad and a nuisance when you do not do what the other wants.
- It is not acceptable for you to have a sense of self.
- If you have a sense of self or have set a boundary, you’ve betrayed the other.
These messages are rarely communicated as directly as noted above. They are communicated through behavior and manipulation, and they are usually denied when addressed. This type of denial is called gaslighting. Emotional abuse leads to abandonment trauma due to the confusion it causes, the low sense of self-worth it creates, and the hindrance to gaining your sense of identity (Klein, Wood, Li, 2022).
Signs & Symptoms of PTSD of Abandonment
You may have abandonment trauma if you experience the following:
- You feel that connecting with others is not safe. You have a fear of abandonment, even despite evidence to the contrary. On the flip side, you feel as though connecting with others means you must give up yourself, and therefore you tend to avoid relationships.
- You are uncomfortable with people who have the most direct impact on your needs, such as a spouse, a boss, and other authority figures.
- Your discomfort with authority figures leads you to compulsively comply or to compulsively rebel. In both instances, you are not responding from your true self; you are responding as a means to attain emotional safety.
- You have an unstable sense of identity. You may not believe you have a right to an opinion. As such, you may not know what you believe in or stand for.
- You believe that your worth is linked to how others perceive you. You may not be aware of your own needs, interests, or preferences.
- You take on too much responsibility. It may be very difficult to say no due to the high standards you hold for yourself.
- You believe that you are only acceptable when you attain perfection. So, you seek perfection at the cost of your well-being.
- You have confused “being a good person” with burnout, pain, and suffering. Therefore, you do not believe you are “good enough” unless you are suffering.
- You stay in abusive or toxic relationships. In your life, abuse was normalized to such an extent that power and control were confused with love. Or, you may believe that the presence of an abusive partner is better than being alone.
- You do not feel as though your life is within your control.
- You experience depression and anxiety.
- You struggle with an addiction or compulsive behavior, such as an eating disorder.
The Link Between Eating Disorders & Abandonment Trauma
We all share the need for connection, acceptance, safety, self-control, rest, and peace. Eating disorders initially develop as a strategy to meet our needs. There is a strong link between those who have experienced trauma and those who develop an eating disorder (Kong & Bernstein, 2009).
Restriction & Purging: Seeking Self-Worth, Connection, and Self-Control
If you desire connection, acceptance, and self-worth, and you believe these needs can be met through a particular type of body, you may engage in behaviors that can turn into an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by severe restriction of food, malnutrition, and low body weight. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by episodes of binging and purging through vomiting, laxatives, or compulsive exercise. (NIMA, 2023). Both of these disorders may have developed as an effort to have a particular type of body to experience a sense of worth and connection.
Additionally, both of these disorders may be a means to attain control of your environment. Abandonment trauma is marked by confusion about control. Through abandonment trauma, you learned the false message that you are responsible for others and that you are at fault for what happened to you. As a result, seeking control can become a preoccupation. Seeking control with food may compensate for feeling like you have control in other areas of life.
Binge Eating: Seeking Rest, Peace, & Freedom
Binge eating disorder is characterized by eating large amounts of food, even if you are not hungry. You may eat until you are uncomfortably full and feel embarrassed about your food intake. As a result, you may eat in isolation (NIMA, 2023).
If you struggle to rest, you may engage in binge eating behaviors as a means to distract from your anxiety. A binge may provide a temporary sense of freedom, and the pleasure of the food may distract you from the painful and unpleasant symptoms of abandonment trauma. However, the consequence of binge eating disorder may lead to social isolation and harm to your physical and psychological well-being.
There Is Hope
Abandonment trauma can impact the whole of your life, from your emotions, beliefs about yourself and others, and your behaviors. Abandonment trauma can lead to compulsive behaviors, such as an eating disorder, as a means to cope with wounds that you may not have realized you have.
And, there is hope. People are healing every day. At Virtue Recovery Center, we have a team of eating disorder specialists to compassionately support clarity and a path to healing. Contact us today to speak with a team member who can guide you along the path of recovery.
Klein, W., Wood, S., & Li, S. (2022). A Qualitative Analysis of Gaslighting in Romantic Relationships.
Kong, S., & Bernstein, K. (2009). Childhood trauma as a predictor of eating psychopathology and its mediating variables in patients with eating disorders. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18(13), 1897-1907.
National Institute of Mental Health (2023). Eating Disorders. DOI: https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders
van der Kolk, B. A. (2007). The Developmental Impact of Childhood Trauma. In L. J. Kirmayer, R. Lemelson, & M. Barad (Eds.), Understanding trauma: Integrating biological, clinical, and cultural perspectives (pp. 224–241). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511500008.016
Yanguas, J., Pinazo-Henandis, S., & Tarazona-Santabalbina, F. J. (2018). The complexity of loneliness. Acta bio-medica : Atenei Parmensis, 89(2), 302–314. https://doi.org/10.23750/abm.v89i2.7404