Most of us continue to be acutely aware of how this ongoing pandemic is impacting us emotionally and relationally. We can feel discouraged, frustrated, and disappointed that we haven’t yet come to the end of it, with no end in sight. We can feel depressed and unmotivated. Relationally, while we do have the ability to speak on the phone, meet outside as long as we are masked, go on Zoom or connect through social media, for many of us there is a pervasive sense of isolation.
Isolation is often used as a powerful weapon to force people into submission. Prisoners of war talk about their despair when they were separated from their units. Likewise, the prison system uses isolation as a punishment to control future negative behaviors. Sometimes parents send children to their rooms for extended periods of time as a punishment for misbehavior. Separation can produce not only feelings of sadness and loneliness but also anxiety and desperation. We are social creatures and to be separated from our tribe puts us in great danger. Connections with others is not a luxury, it is a necessity for emotional and relational health.
One of the potent messages we need to hear and need to be intentional about conveying to those we care about is “You matter.” When someone feels that they do not matter, that no one would miss them if they were gone, that no one really wants to hang out and share some experiences together, all the many feelings associated with being isolated can descend on them. Not experiencing “You matter” messages can be a form of abandonment.
In 2018 I shared the following: Abandonment is our first fear. It is a primal fear—a fear universal to the human experience. As infants we lay screaming in our cribs, terrified that when our mothers left the room, they were never coming back. Abandonment is a fear that we will be left alone forever with no one to protect us, to see to our most urgent needs. For the infant, maintaining attachment to its primary caretaker is necessary for its survival. Any threat or disruption to that relationship arouses this primal fear, a fear that is embedded in the hardware of our brains, a fear we carry into adult hood.”
When I think about people who have experienced significant abandonment both emotionally and physically during childhood, especially during the early years, a deep wound exists within them associated with abandonment, creating a deep-seated sense that they are not valued or important. Remember that trauma is stored in our sensory memory systems, so it is important to appreciate that when someone has a sense of being abandoned, unwanted, or even despised, it is much more than a feeling or a conscious belief. It is stored deep in their unconscious memories and is sensory in nature.
If you are someone who experienced early childhood issues around rejection and abandonment, you may carry some of the sensory wounds that create a kind of terror when no one seems to care about you because as a child, being abandoned meant you were at risk of dying.
Often adults wonder why they are having such extreme reactions to isolation, whether it is the result of the pandemic or is more about friends and family members not reaching out to invite connection. If you believe you are unimportant or undesirable in the eyes of others, it is very hard to ask someone to tell you that you matter. It becomes a kind of downward spiral of having the beliefs trigger the feelings and sensations that then prevent a person from being able to ask for connection. That person may assume no one has interest in sharing time with them, catching up or in other ways showing a desire to be in relationship. Unfortunately fears of abandonment can make some individuals clingy and overly needy, which can be off-putting to others and further increases the probability that they will not be invited to join in activities or conversations. Throw in all the feelings associated with living in a pandemic and we have a perfect storm for profound depression, withdrawal, hopelessness, desperation, and despair.
By becoming more aware of how friends and family members might have much stronger reactions to the isolation of the pandemic because of their childhood experiences around abandonment, we each can be more intentional about verbally reminding those we care about that they truly matter to us, that we like being with them, that they contribute something to our lives. The “You matter” affirmation, especially communicated frequently, can lessen some of the pain and suffering of someone with deep-seated issues connected with early childhood experiences of neglect, isolation and abandonment. If you have extremely strong needs around hearing that you matter, it is okay to let those in your world know that you need them to affirm you and reassure you that you matter.
Now more than ever we need to access the power we have to affirm those we care about, to communicate that they matter to us and to appreciate that we matter to others, even when it is necessary for us to practice physical distancing. Simply stating to another person that they matter can be a powerful antidote to loneliness and isolation.
Invitation for Reflection
- If you are aware that you experienced any form of abandonment during your childhood and adolescence, how much does this information about hearing “You matter” resonate with you? Does it help you better understand why you can feel almost terrified by all the isolation we are experiencing in this pandemic?
- Think about friends and family members with whom you have connections. Consider that some of them may have deep-seated abandonment issues from some of their childhood experiences. Who might you communicate a “You matter” message to help alleviate some of their pain?
Diane Wagenhals, Director Lakeside Global Institute