Carl Webster BScDAcGDPsy
Marriage counselling, psychologist.
For appointments call
0424 650 630

If we feel abandoned by a relationship break up, the first
reaction if often one of shock.  The one who leaves is likely to
have thought about it for some time and already done some
grieving.  However the one who is left may well feel
devastated.  For those in the latter category, looking after
oneself is paramount and they will need all the help they can
get.   Counselling can help to begin to make sense of the
grieving process and help deal with the shock, as can
journalling, exercise, planning small activities, milky drinks,
food and talking to others.  This article is meant as an overview
rather than a self-help guide though hopefully it may be useful
to some.

Rejection is a form of abandonment and to that extent all of us
experience it at times.  However when the experience of
abandonment occurs in childhood, (perhaps even as early as
in the womb), it can become like a wound which is difficult to
heal and can be reopened easily.
Abandonment can happen in various ways and to various
degrees – primarily physical and emotional, which is then likely
to have significant ramifications on one’s ability to experience
oneself and others physically and emotionally.  It is a form of
betrayal – being let down, hurt, abused or rejected, ignored or
neglected. This will generally also have corollaries in our
cognitive structuring, perceptions and beliefs about our self,
our environment and others.
Being abandoned as a child will also colour any later
abandonments such as loss of relationship or death of loved
ones, both in our perception of such events and also our ability
to withstand and cope with such events.
The opposite of the experience of abandonment could be said
to be the experience of self reliance coming out of attachment,
where there is a sense of strength, purpose, resiliance and
reliance within one’s self.  Such experience of what has been
called ‘secure’ attachment is formed during the first years of
life in relation to the primary carer(s).  The attachment
relationship(s) provides an experiential learning environment
which becomes part of ones experience, perception, thoughts,
feelings, actions and daily existence.    With a poor or
‘insecure’ level of attachment, the person is left with an
inadequate model of self and a generally poor level of ability in
self soothing and self regulation.

The self
After a profound experience of abandonment, the self is
experienced as in deficit.  Something is missing.  There is an
emptiness or hunger for love and touch.  The ego also has to
learn to hide feelings of inadequacy and may overcompensate
through such strategies as being ‘tough and unfeeling’,
avoiding intimacy, being more ‘entertaining’, becoming a
rescuer or reacting to life as a drama.  Emotionally the person
is likely to become dependent on others (as well as perhaps
being highly critical of them), highly sensitised to the feelings of
others and may be vulnerable to becoming a victim (or seek
escape by becoming a rescuer or persecutor).  Cognitively a
person may have a poor self image, be negative in their
thinking, cultivate a victim or blame mentality or seek to
suppress thoughts and feelings via addiction.
The self can only be restored through a process of relearning.  
Often this will necessitate entering into a therapeutic alliance
where issues of trust, emotional safety, conflict, vulnerability,
betrayal and avoidance can be explored and re-experienced.  
Rather than experiencing the confusion and pain of feeling
overwhelmed, unsupported, the grief of loss and the
internalisation of shame (ie making the self be at fault), a
therapeutic alliance can generate a holding environment, a
container for self expression, healing and experimentation
which can then allow a new, more secure model of self to be
internalised, one that is not so dependent on others, and one
that can care for itself when the chips are down.  While the
therapeutic alliance is often essential, the individual has much
work to do in promoting and practising their own relearning.

Self soothing
Learning strategies for self soothing are an essential part of
dealing with abandonment issues both to deal with old reactive
patterns and also to reinforce positive new experiences which
will often need topping up on a daily basis.  Soothing begins
with the body – learning to focus on awareness of bodily
sensations including the breath.  Exploring areas of tension or
no-feeling is important in order to include the whole body into
awareness (there is often subtle disassociation from the body
in order not to feel pain).  At the same time as gaining
awareness it is also important to begin these exercises slowly
and in a supported environment.  Including awareness of how
tension, physical sensations and breathing are connected to
emotions and a deeper sense of self can precipitate
unpleasant as well as pleasant feelings.  It is important that we
experience these feelings while feeling supported and have a
friend to hold and/or guide us if we begin to lose our way or
become overwhelmed.  
In the beginning self soothing is about being able to focus on
sensation, physical indicators of comfort and discomfort, and
then slowly becoming aware of feelings.  We may also need to
notice the existence of patterns of resistance, avoidance and
denial which are generally based on fear and a belief that we
may suffer annihilation.  Beginning to include breath
awareness as part of the focus allows a feeling of
connectedness to the body to arise and an experience of
touching, feeling, holding and letting go.
Focusing should then be expanded to allow in or expand the
field of awareness to include even more subtle levels of
feelings. There may be further tendencies to avoid or feel
conflicted around feelings and physical experience.  The
emphasis here is more on letting ‘in’ experiences and
emotions and slowly digesting and accepting them.
While maintaining focused awareness, thoughts can be
observed and the same process engaged in of gradually
experiencing them on more subtle levels.  Observations of
randomised thoughts can be followed by awareness of thought
‘chains’ or sequences which generally lead off into reflection
on past events or fantasies about future ones. Further thoughts
about thoughts (ie judgements), self criticisms, blame and
victim thoughts can be brought into awareness.  The emphasis
is also on noticing and accepting while maintaining an
awareness or ‘witnessing’ of them (akin to the technique of
Increasing connectedness and deepening intimate
relationships with both the natural world and others is also
highly desirable.  In connection there is support, strength,
resiliency and adaptability.   By becoming more aware and
grounded in ones own experience, one can then build and
nurture relationships and enjoy a sense of flexible, dynamic
and positive attachment.
Other self soothing strategies are drawn from a number of
disciplines including yoga, exercising, visualization,
meditation, sharing and increasing connectedness with others,
massage, having professional counselling etc.  The list of
activities and things that make one feel good is potentially
unlimited and experimentation and careful thinking,  planning
and preparation are recommended.

Self regulation
Self regulation is the ability to contain and exercise choice in
personally responding to both internal and external stimuli.  
Without a strong sense of self and an internalised model of self
as essentially sound, experientially grounded and self-
restorative, self regulation is highly limited and liable to lack
strength and authenticity.  Rather than self regulation around
preserving and managing ones integrity and appropriate
relationships, one may instead experience anxiety,
inadequacy, disassociation, anger, negative cognitions, a
range of personality distortions and dysfunctional relationships
To improve ones ability to self regulate involves increasing
awareness of our experience at every level, physical, sensual,
sexual, emotional, cognitive, intellectual as well as applying
behavioural and communication skills both personally and in
The ability to tolerate a greater awareness can be compared
to strengthening a new group of muscles.  At first it is difficult,
may seem impossible and be painful to administer treatment.  
Yet with practise the awareness muscles can become stronger
and increase our ability to both contain thoughts and feelings
and actively filter and choose how and which ones to respond
to.  In increasing the field of awareness we are also faced with
having to learn to penetrate our own patterns of resistance,
avoidance and denial.  We have to learn to acknowledge and
accept our own and others vulnerabilities (without being
engulfed by them) and begin to recognise the strength and
wisdom that comes from acceptance and understanding.  
Acceptance and understanding also involves the ability to
tolerate conflict and ambiguity without retreating into
defensiveness, judgement or denial.  Rather than seeing self
regulation as a somewhat one-dimensional ‘management
plan’, it may be likened to becoming a more skilful sailor
(being?) to navigate the boat (self) around, across and through
the ocean (of life).

C Webster 3/07

Mind-body approaches in therapy

As infants and young children we all have a biological and
emotional need to feel safe, close and connected with our
caregivers (usually parents).*   When we feel safe we can relax,
when we feel close we can be soothed and when we feel
connected we feel the bond of love.  We feel and experience
secure attachment to an ‘other’ and can begin to learn to feel
secure in ourselves. Yet some research suggests that up to
40% of children grow up where this feeling of safety, security,
closeness and connection is compromised and these 40% grow
up with a form of insecure attachment. (Usually with parents
who grew up feeling insecure themselves).  Many people will say
that they were loved as children, that they had everything  (note
‘thing’) that they needed and they don’t understand why they
have insecurity or chronic, psychological problems as an adult.  
However our attachment needs are not just physical, not just
about food on the table or having shoes on our feet.  We are
also emotional beings and need to feel secure as children
otherwise problems are sure to result in one form or another.  
Problems can emerge on any level: physically we may become
tense, hypervigilant, nervous, hyperactive, underweight or
overweight; emotionally we can become shy, shut down,
reserved, numb or angry, aggressive, or hostile; on a mental
level we can become plagued by negative thinking, critical
judgement of self and others, become paranoid, blaming,
sarcastic and cynical or detached, removed and stuck in
intellectuality.**  (And this is mentioning only a sample of
potential problems which can also include illness, self and other
abuse, mental illness and suicide).
For the children who do grow up with insecurity they are still
biologically, emotionally, socially and mentally forced to adapt to
the rigours of growing up including working out how to be a
person in the world, (what the rules are), who I am as a person
(what do I think of myself) and how do I communicate with
others (how do I get what I want).   Biologically and physically
the body can withstand a great deal of stress and survive
relatively well at least while young.  However our emotional
development is grounded but not limited to our body.  Our core
emotions such as fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, shock are
rooted in our physiology, we feel these emotions firstly on a
physical level.  For our emotional development to proceed we
need to be helped to identify what we are feeling (to label the
knot in our guts as fear) and then to learn the language of
communicating how we feel and what we need  (I feel afraid and
need you to stop shouting). If we don’t learn these skills then
usually we will suffer socially, at work and in our intimate
relationships.  If our parents are unable to support us to do this
(usually when they lack the same skills themselves) then we are
compromised and forced to PRETEND that we are more in
control, more grown up than we actually are.  As soon as we
have to pretend, we are living a lie and having to deny our
feelings, our deepest needs and our bodily experience.   We can
become very good at pretending, although if it becomes too
hard we may need to resort to alcohol or drugs, aggressiveness
or other ways of seeking some relief from our unhappiness.  And
so we can become unhappy children, teenagers and adults.
Mentally and intellectually we may be able to think about our
problems and work out various theories as to why we have
problems and look for strategies and ways of better managing
our problems (consider the size of the self-help industry).  This
is of course a sensible approach, find out what the problem is
and fix it.  Rationally this makes sense but two factors tend to
get in the way.  The first is that our problems are often
embedded or embodied in our physical and emotional self and to
the extent that we have been repressed and then suppressed
our own physical-emotional experience we have difficulty in re-
accessing the source of our problems.  If we can’t reconnect
with the unacknowledged or repressed parts of ourselves, we
may be unable to re-integrate what was dis-integrated and learn
the skills that we need to overcome our problems.   This is not
an argument for regression or catharsis in itself, since the feeling
or expression of pain or insecurity does not necessarily make a
difference in everyday life or relationships.  We need to connect
with ourself consciously, with awareness, gently, consistently
and feel supported.  Connecting needs to make sense (even if it
sometimes feels scary) and we need to be able to understand
the why, how and what of connecting to allow reintegration.   
The second factor that gets in the way of the rational, fix-it
approach is that the insecure, pretending child has often
developed a powerful, subconscious belief that he or she IS the
problem (some variation of I’m not good enough, I’m not ok).  
This belief is supported by the split, dissonance, dissociation
(and usually sensed conflict, gap, emptiness, knot in the
stomach etc) between the pretend self and the self-that’s-left-
behind.  While we can rationalize about being good enough or
not good enough, if the attempt to make oneself feel good
enough is not supported, is not congruent with our physical,
emotional experience, then the rational, fix-it campaign may be
doomed to failure or only partial success.
In summary, when we have a problem manifesting on a  physical-
behavioural,  emotional-relational,  cognitive-self or combination
of all three levels, it is usually not enough to tackle the problem
with either solely one form of approach eg physical, emotional or
mental.  Sport, exercise or yoga will not fix problems on every
level, nor will cathartic, intellectual or spiritual, self-help courses,
nor will one type of therapy, or even one relationship.  I know a
lot of people may disagree, who may say running transformed
me, meditation fixes everything, CBT fixed me and I don’t want
to disagree.  What I do want to say is that personal problems
and indeed our self development in general needs to be
addressed by paying attention to and taking account of
ourselves on every level – physical, emotional, relational,  mental
and ultimately spiritual.  While emotions can transcend the
physical (eg saving anothers’ life at the cost of one’s own),  and
the mind transcends the emotions (we can learn to change our
emotional responses), if we have a problem on one level it needs
fixing on that level. And fixing things on a mental level does not
automatically mean that a problem on a physical-emotional level
is fixed (we may know and say that we want to change but be
unable to do so).***  Hence while I will support any technique,
therapy, exercise or program that makes a difference, I choose
to offer a counseling/psychotherapy service that offers a mind-
body approach and seeks to reintegrate where before there has
been a lack of integration on some or all levels.

*cf Wikipedia on Attachment theory

** problems can also arise due to acute and chronic trauma
including intimidation, violence and abuse and self abuse as well
as other combinations of circumstances and factors.

***The mind transcends and includes the emotions, but this
does not mean that emotional development is automatic
(otherwise Nazism would not have included genocide, religions
would not justify war, we would not tolerate cruelty, addiction,
hunger etc).Positive thinking may help (though some would
argue not including some recent research), but visceral reactions
are visceral reactions.
"Mind/body medicine is of course nothing new-- What is new is the
legitimization of research in this field to the point of government funding and
the incorporation of mind/body programs into the offerings of major medical
institutions, many of which are noted for their conservatism and scientific
bent." William Collinge, MPH, PhD, Researcher  (cf: Benson-Henry Inst of
Mind Body Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital: ).  
For more mind-body research intormation also see