Deconstructing “Abandonment”

A reader comments: Once a psychologist told me my mother abandoned me.  It had never occurred to me to think like that. I had never put expectations or demands on my mother like that and more, I thought it would be morally wrong to do so.  I simply am not the kind of person who demands others to take care of me, my mother or anyone.  That’s probably a huge contrast to other people and their attitudes about their parents.

It has become common ‘wisdom’ to assume that love in childhood is everything. But it’s actually not so simple.

There are people who were fully loved in childhood. I’m not knocking that. But it can create problems, as well. For example, when you’re treated in your family with love and benevolence, it can be a surprise when much of the rest of the world does not operate that way.

I’m not suggesting the answer is for loving, rational and benevolent parents to curb their virtue. However, efforts ought to be made to let children experience disappointment and letdown, so they’re not so shocked by it down the road.

It’s really not so difficult to do that. Children, even in loving homes, will encounter problems with other children at school, for example. Loving and benevolent parents often seek to shield the child from those problems, at all costs.

But what about using difficult childhood experiences as an opportunity to teach the child? ‘Not everyone is like us. Some people are not loving, reasonable and tolerant.’ It’s not fun, but it’s the truth. Let’s try to cope with it.

The reader raises a fascinating point. Do children necessarily expect their parents to love them? I don’t know that it’s an issue of expectation. Children need and yearn for guidance and leadership. They also, to some extent, wish to feel loved, held and cared for. But in the very early stages, children are not cognizant enough to expect much of anything.

When psychologists and others tell people, ‘You were abandoned by your mother and it ruined you,’ it’s probably more an instance of projection than anything else. ‘I can’t imagine not feeling that way. So you must have felt that way too.’

But, right or wrong, people are different and have different perceptions, beliefs and expectations. This is just as true of children as it is of adults. Some children are more independent than others. Some children resist being overly coddled or nurtured, while others cannot ever get enough, no matter how much might be given to them.

Psychologists oversimplify the matter when they assume that (1) all children want and need the same kind and amount of love and attention; and (2) that any absence of this attention—any at all—constitutes ‘abandonment.’

What is abandonment, anyway? I always thought of abandonment as leaving a child alone, to fend for itself in the forest and perhaps be raised by wolves. Or being left on a doorstep, for someone else to take. Those kinds of things rarely happen any more (not that foster care or state management of abandoned children is necessarily much better.)

At what point, along the way, did disappointment, occasional rejection, or unmet emotional needs (rational or exaggerated) all become the same thing: Abandonment?

It’s more than abandonment is a subjective term. The term is being used subjectively, but it’s also being used to describe anything and everything related to the most momentary setback (perceived or otherwise) in one’s infancy or childhood.

Psychotherapists usually take it for granted that emotions of abandonment are completely rational. But all emotions are based on ideas. Doesn’t it stand to reason that a feeling of abandonment might be based on unrealistic or impossible expectations? I can’t see that a therapist is really doing you any favors by essentially telling you, ‘If you felt abandoned, you were abandoned; and you’re right to feel that way.’ We’re already becoming a society of angry, bitter, resentful, and needy people as it is. Why are therapists adding to the problem?

To me, it seems much more realistic, logical and healthy to look at emotions like this as the result of expectations. How realistic are these expectations? And what are you doing in life now to meet those expectations, if they are plausible, instead of focusing on what didn’t happen in the past to meet your needs?


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