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The impact Of Childhood Abandonment On The Mind Of The Adult

All of us, when we were children will have gone through experiences of feeling momentarily forgotten and left by our parents.

Why is it then that only some of us develop traumatic experiences out of those moments?

Why doesn’t everybody suffer the same kind of traumatic disorientation?

One answer to this as Winnicott suggested in Playing and Reality (1971) is that there may be a time factor that turns the experience of being left alone from something ordinary into something more traumatic.

What do we mean by a traumatic sense of abandonment?

If we take our understanding on the experience that adult clients present in psychotherapy, what we find is that when certain events happen in the present, for example:

  • being disappointed on a night out, or
  • feeling your friends are talking behind your back, or
  • your girlfriend isn’t replying to your calls quickly enough

Any of these experiences can go onto become the basis of an anxious, perhaps paranoid response

We go from experiencing things as ordinary and benign, and we cross into a different place in which we are in the grip of anxieties, and suddenly we are in something nightmarish.

You cannot snap your fingers and be free of it

When we are caught in these kinds of nightmarish moments we may become increasingly anxious and paranoid.  We become increasingly disturbed and we do not have the ordinary route back into a kind of logical thinking which would help us to settle our minds and relax.

Instead the experience becomes more difficult and extreme.  We are more and more caught up in it, like someone who is caught in some kind of trap and the more they struggle the more the snare tightens its hold.

Carl Jung referred to this kind of phenomena as a complex.  For Jung a complex is an autonomous part of our minds which have become split off and operate in an autonomous manner.

When we are caught up in these nightmarish senses of betrayal and abandonment, of not feeling safe, in Jung’s model we are caught in a complex.

What can you do if this is your experience?

  • Firstly, you have to try to remember that you do not have a magic wand, you can’t just stop the experience.  You are caught up in something powerful.

There is little we can do when we are in the grip of the experience.  But, when we come out of it we might be able to work on it then.  These kinds of experiences pass.  When it is over, then we can we notice more, reflect more, think more about what happened to us.

We might find that somewhere in our story (the memory) of going from an innocent benign moment to a traumatic moment, something occurred that changed the direction of our thinking and experience.

So, for example we might have felt that a colleague or friend or lover gave us a funny look or did something we did not like. And that that experience changed everything that followed.

  • We need to try to be kind to ourselves.  This is very difficult work to do, and it may be that you need a psychotherapist to do it, but, it might be possible to follow through the story of what happened to trip you up and send you into this nightmarish experience by yourself.

By doing so you might be able to develop greater continuity about your own mind, about your memory.

You might be able to follow the paths of your mind into the complexes that tend to get hold of you. And by doing so come to limit their power and hold over you.

This is the kind of work that Marcel Proust could carry out in his explorations of Marcel’s mind in Remembrance Of Things Past.

We aren’t Proust, so the rest of us will have to do with patiently following the links that happen in our thinking, remembering and experience.

When we have had a traumatic experience of being abandoned, it is easy to internalise the sense of being rejected.  And, so we learn to reject ourselves.  This is part of our unhelpful experience and only reinforces the nightmarish complex when it grips us.

  • One way to start recovery from this kind of traumatic experience is to begin by developing a kind and non-rejecting attitude to yourself.

Try to remember: you would not put yourself into this frame of mind.

You have been put into it by a chance event that has occurred in the present which has set off the repetition of something traumatic from your past.

You need to be kind to yourself now to find a way to live through these moments

The impact Of Childhood Abandonment On The Mind Of The Adult

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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, . (2018). The impact Of Childhood Abandonment On The Mind Of The Adult. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Aug 2018
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