Betrayal Trauma Can Lead to Feelings of Abandonment and Rejection
The sting of rejection is real. It hurts and sometimes even scars. A deep fear of rejection can be so intense that it affects a person’s relationships, work, and the way they approach the world. Often the fear of rejection intensifies as we experience life’s challenges and brokenness. So, it’s essential to uncover the key factors that are fueling it. Early experiences can often set the stage for a fear of rejection. Underneath that is the fear of abandonment, self-criticism and often deep shame.
Childhood Abandonment Should be Addressed as an Adult
Very few resources are available to an infant or child except their caretaker and if an infant or child experiences chronic abandonment that does not get repaired, the loss often shows up later in life if the adult experiences betrayal trauma. The unloved and uncared for feelings that originated in childhood reappear in adulthood messages of unworthiness, shame and self-blame.
For example, recently a mentee talked a little about her childhood. She explained, "There was never anyone there for me. I just tried to make people want me and tried to make people want to take care of me." “But” she said, "they just didn't. They didn't want me."
When she later experienced betrayal and felt unwanted by her partner, she tried doing things to get his affection and approval. She tried to be more beautiful. She tried to be funnier, more interesting. She tried to give her husband what he wanted so he would want her. This is not uncommon. Most of us have been there.
The problem with that is she'd lost herself and her sense of herself. By responding to him with the hope of him not rejecting her, she was really rejecting herself. Together we began to work on this very important point. In time she realized she had left herself in the dust, just like her parents had left her during her childhood years by not giving her the love she needed.
This is an example of why it is important to spend some time talking about abandonment that occurred in a mentee’s childhood. We work together to shift the mindset from a deep sense of rejection to one of acceptance and healthy self-love rooted in truth found in scripture.
Research shows by talking about deep pain, little by little it is disrupted and its grip on us weakens.
Fear of Rejection is Felt in the Body
What’s important to realize is these fears have direct bodily components and for many it’s not the fear of rejection per se, but it's the fear of the accompanying, very difficult sensations such as:
emptiness, a queasiness or even a tightness
the body responds to let out an “Ugh” and then to feel it pendulate through the body, it gets worse as you touch into it and then it opens a little bit. Then it gets tight again, and then it opens a little bit more.
feeling trembly and shaky with energy that is mobilized upward
These normal physiological responses result in a person unable to function well so they should not be ignored. The good news is it can be addressed by working to get a person grounded in her body, her legs and her core. I encourage my mentees to follow simple strategies like:
stamping your feet can bring the energy down into your legs
putting your hands on your legs and squeezing
visualizing energy draining down instead of coming up like it does in a panic state
Reaching out and connecting with the environment, and “safe” others while keeping your awareness with the core of yourself so you don’t reject yourself is also an effective strategy.
So, again, it's about asking yourself, “Okay, when I feel this rejection, what's underneath it? What does it feel like physically? Is there a way that I can contact it physically?” This takes the venom out of the experience. It lessens and becomes an uncomfortable sensation that I know and I trust will pass.
How to Handle Criticism
For betrayed spouses, rejection feels very similar to the pain of judgment or criticism. For a woman who is unfairly rejected, the pain, humiliation and embarrassment is overwhelming often causing her to react defensively rather than assertively. Understandably!! When someone rejects or criticizes us, we generally default to one of three responses: aggression, hurt/shut down, or in the middle of the two, assertion.
What is assertion? Assertion accepts that another person has the right to their opinion, but at the same time, you're going to stand up for yourself.
Responding to rejection and criticism with an Assertive Defense of Self approach allows a person to experience rejection a little less personally.
For example if someone comes to me and says, “Karen, you're too boring. I don't want to spend time with you.” If I feel I have been boring in that conversation, I might say to them, "Yeah, I guess I was kind of boring today. But, it's too bad you don't want to get to know me because I can come across as more interesting when I'm talking about other things." Or, "A lot of people find once they get to know me, I'm a pretty okay person. You're missing out on a good friend." As I’m living out the Assertive Defense of Self approach, I'm accepting that maybe I was boring, but I'm also standing up for myself. The results: Most likely, if I said that to someone he or she would probably just walk away and talk to someone else. Nothing lost.
Helping my mentees learn how to assertively defend themselves from criticism and rejection is a priority in our sessions. Because if you're no longer afraid of those things, there's an endless number of things you might be able to do in your life that you’re avoiding because of fear of rejection. What do you think? If this skill is something you’d like to develop, please click here and fill out the form. Let’s talk!
I’m Afraid to Set Boundaries. Help!
Sometimes betrayed spouses tolerate emotionally harmful behavior, even when they know they shouldn’t. The unacceptable behavior can be chronic gaslighting, lying, manipulation and reality-distortion. Most women know intellectually where they should draw the line and they know what boundaries are. But when under pressure, they’re quick to dismiss those boundaries because they fear being rejected.
So how do I draw the line? Well, first, by working with your “parts”.
What does that mean? I'll explain. So, you're in this situation where you're being mistreated and you need to set a boundary. The part of you that needs to be activated is your confident, courageous part. But there's this other part of you that can be pretty powerful that shows up and says, “But if I set a boundary, they'll reject me. So, forget the boundaries because we can't be rejected.” Then that fearful part becomes prominent.
It's important to understand that sometimes the different parts of ourselves can be at odds, cross-purposes, especially when it comes to protecting yourself against the pain of rejection.
Second, a person should have clear, concrete language to use to set a boundary – even as they might still be feeling that fear of rejection. In some very simple situations you may find yourself in, not those resulting from betrayal, the language can be as simple as "That doesn't work for me," and then stop talking.
Please note doing this does not ease the fear of rejection. Your fear of rejection will still feel very powerful. But we are also activating our "courageous part" and allowing it to strengthen and flex and eventually become more powerful than the fear. We still feel fear but it's now counteracted with courage. It's a balancing act. And for some, it’s necessary to work with the ability to tolerate feeling judged.
Helping my clients become more comfortable setting boundaries is a critical step in easing the fear of rejection. It takes practice and requires support through the process. For more information about the 5 steps to follow to establish healthy boundaries, please check out my 3-part blog series on boundaries.
Now let’s shift slightly to the Pain from Abandonment
Why is The Pain from Abandonment so Powerful?
At the core of abandonment are the issues of a lack of safety and a fear of isolation. Abandonment is literally a primal fear embedded in humans and it has a very, very strong physiological component. As humans our primary quest is for safety and safety is possible through our capacity and ability to connect with others, to be in contact with others. Not connecting or communicating and the fear of being abandoned triggers all kinds of complex fear reactions.
I like to describe it as a chain of connections. If we’re isolated, we can’t communicate. If we can’t communicate, we can’t co-regulate. If we can’t co-regulate, we can’t feel safe.
The Pain from Abandonment Gets Stored in Your Nervous System
After everything you’ll read here about the fear and pain from abandonment, you will easily see why the mere hint of being abandoned triggers the nervous system into a threat response. What’s important to consider is that response can depend greatly on how much experience the person has had with being “left out”. Early life abandonment can take a heavy toll on someone’s nervous system and the reason why it can be so damaging is because of the deep tracing it leaves behind.
Being in connection, being safely connected to another person is a biological imperative for humans. We need to be safely connected to one another to survive and our nervous system is longing to be in connection with another nervous system. And when that need isn’t met early in childhood, the fear of being alone is held in the nervous system.
Is Your Pain from Abandonment Causing You to Lower Your Standards?
Something I see often is a pain from abandonment that can lead a person to lower their standards. This problem can quickly snowball and before they know it, the person has compromised the personal boundaries they’ve worked so hard to create. Please be aware this is a slippery slope.
As you have probably heard me say boundaries give a person a sense of self. So, the real questions to consider are:
Who are you?
What are your needs to feel safe, to feel loved, to feel valuable?
How much are you willing to sacrifice to get the connection you long for?
Women often have a difficult time determining their needs. Do you? Schedule some time with me and I’ll help you understand the Ten Key Relational Needs. It’ll change your relationship with others.
How to Stop Sacrificing Your Boundaries to Avoid Being Abandoned
We may not realize it, but we negotiate boundaries with most of the people around us including those we work with, live with and even our children. One fundamental key to establishing effective boundaries is to operate out of your needs rather than your fear. This shifts the focus to yourself and away from the person who is causing you pain.
Do you find yourself operating under the narrative of “I’ve got to please everybody.” If your answer is yes, begin asking yourself, “What are my needs?” instead.
By identifying and expressing your needs, emotional self-regulation is possible resulting in an increased effectiveness when engaging with others. Said differently, YOUR needs matter. 1000%! Living with a sense of boundaries is critical if we are going to take agency in our own welfare. But, holding onto those boundaries in certain situations can be challenging if you suffer from a fear of abandonment.
For example, if a person has pervasive abandonment fears, often they will get stuck and stay in an uncomfortable situation even if they feel injured by the intrusiveness. One of the most effective antidotes is to be attentive to this pain. Once a person is sensitized to the pain, sees it, can identify and talk about it, the easier it is to notice when it comes up the next time. Eventually the person can say, “No” and not be so afraid of the abandonment occurring.
Soft Boundaries = Brief Relief
A vital part of the equation is becoming more attentive to what may be fueling your abandonment fears. I help my mentees explore: What are you getting from this soft boundary? How is it benefiting you to have this soft boundary line?
There is a trigger behavior and “reward”. There might be something that triggers them to move forward with a certain behavior that softens or opens up their boundaries or not hold on to them. Initially, this feels good because this soft boundary leads to a result or a reward that helps them feel more connected to their spouse. However, what’s important to consider is:
What are you getting at that moment?
How might it not actually be serving you, even now or in the future?
How long did the reward last?
Generally, it doesn’t last very long. So, we talk about it in terms of brief relief. The brief relief perpetuates the process where they’re softening more and more and generally leading to a place that’s not sustainable.
7 Ways I Help My Mentees Create Boundaries
So, you’ve probably realized by now, healthy boundaries take quite a bit of coaching. In my professional opinion, it’s almost impossible to effectively establish, initiate and hold healthy boundaries in place without the guidance of another. Here are some ways I help my mentees in this area:
Look at what your needs are in the situation so you can develop a stronger sense of self.
Be aware of your physiological reaction when the pain from abandonment comes up. With greater attention, you’ll be able to notice it and stay focused on your boundaries.
Introduce psychoeducation, to see the trigger-reward process that might be happening in your mind. This helps you recognize whether that brief relief you’re getting is worth sacrificing your boundaries in the long term.
Help you tune into the pain of your broken boundary. And then help you determine whether that pain is worse than when you weren’t in the relationship.
Rebuild your boundaries through an experiential approach. By working with bodily sensations, I can help you tolerate uncomfortable feelings like rejection.
Build up a sense of hope and self-worth through grounding and emotional tolerance strategies.
Use the power of a safe and strong therapeutic relationship to act as a model for you in other areas of your life. When you feel respected and heard, you’ll feel stronger about building boundaries in your relationships.
Abandonment leads to a lack of trust, but the fact that you are reading this article probably means you’re interested in working on getting past your fear and pain from abandonment. The relationship I build with my mentees is based on trust which gives my mentees opportunities to exercise connection and move out of fear.
First, we’ll map out how your nervous system is operating to understand how the past is affecting your sense of safety and how triggers lead to a fear response. When we combine that knowledge with a strong safe relationship and healthy boundaries, you will begin to shift the way you react to moments of connection and disruption.
Do you need to share your painful story with a SAFE person? Please don’t wait. Click here to schedule your Confidential Consultation.