self-parenting

Facing Abandonment

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Addicts have many anxieties and fears. They grew up with holes in their souls with unmet childhood developmental needs from parents who failed to provide the fundamental emotional needs necessary. Some addicts suffered woeful negligence from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. For many their parents failed to provide necessary support because they didn’t know how. Their parents loved them but were unable to give to their children that which was not given to them.  

Children learn that their parents loved them when they provide clothing, food, shelter, education, and other material possessions. However, children comprehend that they matter when a parent spends sufficient amounts of time with them on their terms, not the parents. Children develop a hole in their soul when this doesn’t happen. Subconsciously they conclude they don’t matter. They don’t consider that something is wrong with their parents. Instead, they embrace the misbelief that they must not be worthy or important enough for the attention desired.  

Developmentally they become like a chunk of Swiss cheese with holes. Each hole represents an unmet childhood need. Kids learn to compensate by trying to fill the hole from the outside with a cocktail of relational experience. They learn to please and gain approval through performance or get attention with negative social behavior. It doesn’t work because the depth of emotional need that must be met will ultimately only be fulfilled from within. They become like the little kid who can’t get enough sugar. Their emotional neediness becomes insatiable. Eventually, they organize a dependency upon an addictive substance or process that delivers what it promises. For many, it involves a collection of addictions that are depended upon to assuage their fears and anxieties and to numb out what hurts. 

One of the greatest fears that an addict faces is that of abandonment, physically, emotionally, or both. Abandonment is like the metaphor of a pack of wolves that chase you through the woods. The pack pursues you relentlessly even though you create diversionary tactics of avoidance. Eventually, the pack corners you. Either the pack wins and consumes you with addictive behavior or you turn around and face the gnashing teeth of abandonment.  In doing so you begin to realize that it is not the terrorizing force that its growl suggests. 

Addicts become pleasers, workaholics, and deniers to avoid conflict. Behind their behavior is a pernicious fear of abandonment. They will do anything to avoid feeling deserted. Addiction becomes a lifelong affair to avoid abandonment. Some addicts have described their relationship to their drug of choice as a warm blanket that offers consistent comfort from fear and anxiety. What lurks behind every addictive high is the fear of abandonment. How to address abandonment is critical to the long-term sobriety from addiction. Here are a few steps to consider:

1. Embrace the fact that the fear of abandonment is universal. Abandonment is not just a fear that afflicts addicts. It impacts partners of addicts and the world at large. It is a common thread of life experience. Recognizing that everyone experiences this fear helps to avoid isolation or the conclusion that you are particularly flawed and different from those around you. You are not! We all must face our fear of abandonment. 

2. Others may desert you but the key is to learn not to desert yourself. This may seem obvious. Yet, simple things are not easy. It’s an automatic response for a child to subconsciously attempt to capture a parents’ attention when neglected.  When children lack recognition for who they are, they try to compensate with what they can do. If the inattentiveness is chronic the child will participate in behaviors that will get their parent’s recognition in order to avoid abandonment. Over time they learn that who they are matters less than how they act or what they do. Essentially, they learn to abandon themselves. Overcoming the fear of abandonment requires that you learn to reclaim the importance of being and parent yourself in healthy ways. You must learn to pay attention to your genuine needs and not abandon yourself through pleasing others.

3. Listen to your triggers, don’t just run from them.  Triggered with fear or lust for your drug of choice can be a gift! This is true for both addicts and partners. When triggered, put yourself out of harm’s way and take time to let the trigger talk to you about your unmet needs that must be met in a healthy way. Some addicts spend much of their recovery reporting about triggers and chronic high risk behaviors, thinking that telling another addict when they have been tempted is enough. However, it is a beginning. When tempted think about the legitimate need that is represented in the trigger and then endeavor to self-parent by meeting the need in a healthy way through adult choice and interaction. Rather than abandon yourself by only running away from the trigger, allow the trigger to speak its truth and transform the trigger from a curse to a blessing. Practicing this skill set which takes a lot of hard work is a major step that avoids abandonment of self.

4. Take the people with you who abandon you. People hurt each other and abandon one another. People die. Relationships end through the passage of time, betrayal, and a myriad of other reasons. It sucks to feel abandoned. Yet, it is a broken experience that is common to all. It requires skills to grieve the loss of what once was. Some people live life longing for yesterday’s experiences in order to avoid feeling abandoned. The end result is that they wallow in the abandonment.  I suggest that you take the lost person or experience with you. Keep it with you in your heart. It is not necessary to live in the past. Yet, you can bring those experiences with others with you in the here and now through treasured memory. Even in the face of betrayal, you can embrace your truth and the closeness that once was, and the pure intent you generated when others were invested in ulterior motives. Precious memories need not be abandoned. Loved ones who are now deceased can be alive in your heart. We all live in a nanosecond of present time and then it too becomes historical. So we hold precious experience by treasuring its memory in our hearts. Learn to address abandonment by taking your precious personal intents and initiatives with you in your heart. The good in all the relationships you have ever experienced can dwell inside of you no matter what others choose to do. When you consider the power and potential that exists within, you never need to be dominated by abandonment again.

Entitlement and the Special Worm

There is a story about the subtle snag of grandiosity in The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum: A past president of the Hazledon Foundation, a leading treatment resource for alcohol and drug addiction, was approached by a young researcher asking, “Why is it that even intelligent alcoholics can get so trapped in denial of their alcoholism? Is it because of grandiosity—they think that they can do anything to their bodies and survive, they think that they are ‘too smart’ to be alcoholic? Or is it because of self-loathing—they despise themselves and feel they deserve to die, if they are alcoholics?” The past president sighed and replied, “The alcoholic’s problem is not that he thinks he is very special. Nor is the alcoholic’s problem that he thinks he is a worm. The alcoholic’s problem is that he is convinced “I am a very special worm!”

Entitlement is an overlooked component in the life of a recovering addict. Clearly, it is a major contribution to the demise and derail of many addicts dominated by their narcissistic wound. It can show up in recovery like a blind spot undetected or can be as obvious as a swollen black eye. It is fueled by deprivation, usually a deficit from emotional needs not being met. Most addicts have never learned how to meet their emotional needs in a healthy way.

Too impatient to learn, many addicts ignore deprivation and try to will their way into stopping the acting out. It is common for an addict to vacillate between feeling like a piece of shit for their behavior to overconfidence that they have this thing called recovery down! Whenever I do an autopsy on relapse, I always discover grandiose entitlement that traces back to underestimated deprivation. Twelve step shares around relapse are replete with addicts who share the mentality of thinking of themselves as a “special worm”. It’s a dynamic that all too often destroys sobriety and defeats attempts toward recovery.

The following recovery interventions should be understood in managing the “special worm” syndrome:

1. Condition yourself to recognize unmet emotional needs. Craving is a conditioned response to a legitimate emotional or physical need. The rut of response that leads to acting out must be redirected. It is helpful to slow things down and reflect about the emotional/physical need that can be met in a healthy way without acting out. As an addict, you can figure that you can blow right past your emotional needs and focus on whatever pursuit that is in front of you in the moment. That’s usually a fatal mistake and a contribution to chronic relapse. Recognition of emotional needs requires that you pay attention to what you feel. Sounds simple and it is. Yet, simple in recovery is difficult. Sitting with your feelings can be unbelievably uncomfortable. Yet, the secret is to recognize what you feel and to determine what need the emotion is identifying that must be met in a healthy way. Then it requires that you creatively brainstorm how you might meet that need in a non-destructive self-affirming way. This represents self-parenting. With addiction, the goal like so many other aspects in life is to emotionally grow yourself up. This strategy can all sound good and clear. Yet, these actions toward sobriety require step by step conditioning and daily practice. One day at a time is never more true than learning this skill set in recovery. In the presence of intense impatience and the temptation to yield to an “I don’t get it mentality”, slow your thoughts down in order to recognize unmet emotional needs and work toward meeting them in a healthy way. Don’t be harsh with yourself if you botch it up or find this strategy difficult and awkward.

2. Go the distance in recovery. I recall reading in M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled a metaphor described by Peck that the journey in life for many is likened to traveling through the desert. In their journey, many people make it to the first or second oasis and then stop rather than using the oasis for renewal of strength for the travel to the other side of the desert to lush green terrain of personal and relational intimacy. This can be true in recovery. For many addicts, the goal of achieved sobriety is enough. The remainder of life hovers around appreciation and celebration of overcoming being dominated by addiction. Twelve step meetings can become a kind of oasis in the desert where recovering addicts appreciate one another for their recovery. Many times their intimacy and recovery becomes confined to group members and experiences with other addicts who understand and walked through the desert with them to find the oasis of 12-step recovery. Yet, for many the journey stops at a 12-step meeting. Personal growth in relationship intimacy with partners, family, and other relationships is stymied because of the temptation to hover around the oasis at a 12-step meeting. Some addicts are more emotionally intimate with fellow addicts than they are with their romantic partners. It can be tempting to rest on the laurels of sobriety in the secure confines of a 12-step fellowship. It has been my experience that this dynamic is a subtle lure to a “special worm” mentality. The need to push forward and deepen relational intimacy in everyday relationships can be substituted by the acceptance and comfort of the cocoon found in 12-step fellowship. Yet, those who utilize the support from a 12-step fellowship as a launching pad to dive into the vulnerability of opening their heart and becoming emotionally naked in their relationship journey with their world will avoid the perils of becoming a “special worm”. In recovery, sobriety is establishing a ground zero for personal growth. Living with an open heart and pushing for relational intimacy will require moving beyond the oasis into the depths of vulnerability in order to make it through the desert to the other side.

3. Don’t forget C.S. Lewis who said “A good egg stays ripe for so long—it will either hatch or become rotten.” Life is brief. The opportunity for personal growth in any relationship presents itself with finite time constraints. Relationship recovery is a blend of highs and lows, bitter and sweet. Recovery life is a tapestry that presents opportunities for connection with self and others that you cherish. It doesn’t last forever. The opportunity is a dynamic that will hatch into the richness of relational intimacy or become rotten in neglect and missed chances for closeness. Being seduced into complacency in the present will fuel a “special worm” mentality. Seductively, you can adopt an “I’ve been there, done that, no need to do more” mentality about your recovery work. This is a subtle form of “stinking thinking”. You tell yourself “I’ve done enough time to rest on the laurels of recovery work”. You begin to feel entitled that you now deserve to avoid the “hot seat” of recovery scrutiny now that you are sober. Soon you become the good egg that becomes rotten. It is crucial that you embrace the relational growth opportunities in front of you. To do this you must become hungry for personal growth around the next challenge in relationship and life dynamic. “Rotten eggs” are discarded relationship opportunities that carry wistful thoughts about what might have been had we only overcome the “special worm” syndrome.

Stuck and Stargazed

When I graduated from seminary in 1977 I committed to an intern position at a large church with 24 full-time pastors on staff. I worked 85+ hours a week without compensation for three years. I would work from 7 am till 10 pm each weekday and then help the janitorial staff clean the church from 10 pm to 2 am. Many nights, Eileen and I would sleep in the parlor of the church. We lived off Eileen’s salary which was $9k per year. Why did I do that? At the time, some said because I loved God and the church. But underneath, in my desire to be the best I could be, there was a desperate need to gain the smile of approval from the senior pastor. You might say I was stuck in stargaze. 

I came into my adulthood with a hole in my soul. My dad worked hard at three different jobs to meet the needs of our family of 12 kids. I believed that if I worked really hard then I would get the attention and acclaim that I missed from my dad because of his absence. I wanted this pastor to notice my hard work. Looking back I was stuck in desperation for approval. Yet, I could never get enough. After many years of workaholic ministry, the pastor promised that I would become his replacement. However, I later learned that he made the same promise to five other guys. I felt like a fool. 

In recovery, I was challenged to examine my tendency to reach out to destructive people and believe in their false promises. While demonstrating relationship savvy in most friendship connections, I had a pattern of unwarranted loyalty and allegiance to authority figures in my life. Repeated and unresolved childhood trauma created a pattern of trauma repetition that undermined my emotional health and had to be addressed.

Do you ever wonder why you tend to bond with people who hurt you in your life? Addicts have the propensity to bond with people who are emotionally unavailable. Blindly, they lose themselves in unhealthy relationships that trigger desires to meet their unmet needs. They lose themselves in the intensity of the relationship in hopes that this one special connection will replace what has been missing. It can be a strong affiliation with a person of power at work, an intense alliance with an organization leader, or becoming hooked on a romantic relationship. Individuals frequently marry with a deep-seated desire to work out with their marital partner what was unaddressed in their family of origin. It can be an inward repressed longing that must be recognized before authentic contact can occur in an intimate relationship. 

Trauma occurs during vulnerable and early developmental stages in life and is often unrecognized and invalidated. People become fastened to this nexus of early trauma. There is a tendency to repeat the trauma in later years of life. 

Every child has developmental needs to be addressed. Touch, mirroring value, predictability, knowing that you matter, etc. are just a few developmental needs that must be met in a healthy way. When these needs are satisfactorily met safe attachment is formed. There is an embodied sense of security and acceptance. There is an ability to self-regulate with the capacity to form close connections as well as have separation from those with whom you are most personal.

However, when these needs are not met then developmentally you resemble a chunk of Swiss cheese with holes. There is an intense desire to fill the needs (holes) from the outside by achieving power, position, and control with accomplishment and relational approval. This need is overwhelmingly intense but can only be addressed with healthy attachment on the inside. In the attempt to fill these needs from the outside, you can become like a child who cannot get enough sugar. There is never enough achievement or approval from others.

As an adult, the process of addressing this destructive dilemma is to grieve the losses of deficits suffered way back in childhood. Embracing sadness, anger, resentment, shame, hate, and other feelings associated with loss is both unpopular and uncomfortable. Recognizing these painful feelings as energy streams is important. Moving the energy of unwanted feelings from the original source person to the issue (lack of attachment) and then creating what you want in your life through boundaries and personal empowerment requires accessing the maturity of adult self-parenting. Most times, people need therapy to develop this skill set.

Fritz Perls, who is credited as the father of Gestalt therapy, once said that “nothing ever changes until it is real”. You must come to a place where you recognize that the relationship with a toxic person is an attempt to fulfill a psychological need that was never addressed as a child or grieved as an adult. This is the reason that you never get enough of what you really don’t want in a relationship with a toxic abusive person. The crazy-making experience is that you keep creating the same toxic relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable and abusive.

When these hurtful trauma-bonding experiences are not addressed, people become stuck in their own stargazing experience whether it be name-dropping, preferential treatment toward those perceived as important, or pedestalizing a partner subconsciously hoping they will meet a need within. 

Addicts struggle with looking outside to others to find answers for approval that can only be discovered within. There are no gurus to lead you. The late activist Grace Lee Boggs was right when she declared that “We are the leaders we are looking for”. Trauma bonding is a way of repeating an abusive relationship hoping for safety. Those who are willing to take the courageous steps toward addressing the pain of past trauma