Excerpted from the book Changing Course by Claudia Black, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at The Meadows
Many times abandonment issues are fused with distorted, confused, or undefined personal boundaries. We experience abandonment when parents have a distorted sense of boundaries, their boundaries and ours. They want us to like what they like, dress like they dress, and feel as they do. If we in any way express differences from our parents, or make different choices than they would, we know we run the risk of rejection.
How many of us attended colleges that our parents chose for us? How many of us married who we did or when we did because that was expected or desired by our parents? Having done what our parents expected, wanted, or demanded does not mean that it was the wrong thing to do. It just means that the decision was never totally ours. Certainly, many people do exactly what their parents don’t want them to do. Often this is an attempt to be a separate person. We choose to marry the person they would like the least, or simply choose to not attend college at all. It is not the outcome that is the issue as much as it is the decision-making process. Instead of choosing freely, we make a reactive decision based in anger.
When parents hold children responsible for what should be their responsibility, they are expecting something impossible of a child. In effect, they are telling children that they have more power than they truly have, setting them up to experience futility and inadequacy. Many times parents develop relationships with their children in which they are their friends, their peers, their equals. In doing so, they share information that is not age-appropriate for a child. Inappropriate information often creates a sense of burden, or even guilt, for children. That is not fair.
When parents are disrespectful of their children’s boundaries and violate them, the message given is that they don’t value the child as a person. That message becomes internalized as “I am not of value. I am not worthy.” When parents don’t acknowledge children’s boundaries, the message they give is “You are here to meet my needs,” and/or “I am more important than you,” and/or “It is not okay to be your own person with individual feelings, desires, or needs.” When children experience chronic abandonment with distorted boundaries, they live in fear and doubt about their worth. The greater the clarity a child has around boundaries, understanding who is responsible for what, and the greater a child’s self-esteem, the more likely a child will be able to reject, rather than internalize, shameful behaviors and messages.
As children we cannot reject parents, because they are so desperately needed. Instead, we take on the burden of being wrong or bad. In doing this, we purge parents of being wrong or hurtful, which reinforces a sense of security. In essence, outer safety is purchased at the price of inner security.
What we must understand now is that our abandonment experiences and boundary violations were in no way indictments of our innate goodness and value. Instead, they revealed the flawed thinking, false beliefs, and impaired behaviors of those who hurt us. Still, the wounds were struck deep in our young hearts and minds, and the very real pain can still be felt today. The causes of our emotional injury need to be understood and accepted so we can heal. Until we do, the pain will stay with us, becoming a driving force in our adult lives.