In working with the victims of abandonment trauma, I keep coming across folks who are emotionally anorexic. When people attempt to give them love, they can’t seem to take it in. They rather remain in a state of emotional starvation rather than risk abandonment – their greatest fear.
As with almost all conditions, emotional anorexia can be seen on a spectrum. Most of us have moments when we can’t take something in – praise, acknowledgement, empathy, admiration, affection. But let’s see what this condition looks like in its extreme. To clarify it, let’s suggest what it is not:
It’s not just that you haven’t yet found anyone who creates that spark of connection.
It’s not just that you’ve been searching for your tribe and can’t seem to find “your type of people.”
It’s not just that you’re lacking an appetite for a love-connection because you’re currently too satisfied with the peace and calm of being on your own.
It’s not just that you’re enjoying a period of separation from your well-meaning friends and family so you can incubate emotional self reliance and discover new aspects of yourself.
It’s not just that you are overthrowing your old pattern of behaving as if: “it’s better to be in a bad relationship than no relationship at all” – to prove to yourself that “no relationship feels better than the chronic heartache of a bad one.”
It’s ALL of these things and more combined into an entrenched pattern whose reactions and behaviors have become involuntary. They operate unconsciously to isolate you.
Fear of abandonment
Underlying emotional anorexia is fear of abandonment, a universal, primal fear that can become powerful enough to cause your primitive emotional brain to erect involuntary defenses aimed at protecting you from emotional harm. For emotional anorexics, this means avoiding closeness.
When someone comes along toward whom you feel that spark, it triggers one of two things or both happen:
You feel so vulnerable that you can’t tolerate the anxiety, so you split.
Or you feel so engulfed that you can only push them away.
Emotional anorexia can extend into your social world, walling you off from friends, family, and anyone else who tries to get close or express love. Hackles of fear go up. The very thing you need most creates the greatest fear and necessitates building the thickest walls to avoid the risk of abandonment.
Fear of engulfment
The flipside of fear of abandonment is fear of engulfment. The expectations of the other person begin to close in on you. You fear having to abandonment yourself.
When you try a relationship, your emotional pendulum swings wildly between fear of engulfment and fear of abandonment, never resting in the middle long enough to give you peaceful moments with the other person, thus thwarting the process of developing trust and forming a relationship.
You simply can’t take in nourishment offered by a love relationship because your hyper-alert defense system has been primed to elicit avoidant behaviors that work to prevent emotional penetration at all costs. To protect you from the danger of attachment, you build a fortress surrounded by a mote filled with crocodiles. When someone is able to scale the walls and get close to you, you become agitated and volatile. You freak out.
Fear or abandonment can be extreme enough to constitute a phobia. Abandophobics may appear to be seeking relationships, but on closer examination, they are chasing after people who are so out of reach that it eliminates the risk of a real relationship. Their unconscious defense mechanisms get them to avoid intimate relationships altogether to avoid any chance of getting hurt.
Some people’s pattern is best described as emotional bulimia. Initially you are able to intake someone’s love, but as it starts to metabolize, you expel it. The vomiting is involuntary. Try as you might to keep it down, you can’t help spitting it back up, sending their love and attention, along with your hopes of a relationship down the drain once again.
You are most likely fully aware of the anxiety at the heart of this – your panicky insecurity – the fear of impending emotional annihilation – but it’s more difficult to remain fully conscious of the origin of the defense mechanisms that prevent you from getting close– the automatic mechanism behind all of your fault-finding and barrier-building.
Let’s look at the case of Janet:
Janet felt revulsion every time she tried to be with her boyfriend. She suspected that her hyper-criticalness of him was motivated by her primal fear of abandonment, but once the laundry list of his faults began to formulate in her mind, she simply could not block them out. They seemed real. When he texted her, she found it annoying; she’d judge him as needy. When they went out on a date, she found some of his habits repellant. She’d start noticing things like specs of dandruff on his shoulder, an oily smell to his hair, or how he kept licking his bottom lip. These things loomed large and helped her justify her revulsion. But she wondered if she was just imagining them. Which came first, the revulsion or the dandruff?
Many people have experienced quandaries similar to these when trying to be in a new relationship, but for emotional anorexics and bulimics, feeling repelled is a preset unconscious mechanism.
Emotional anorexia can be a feature of post traumatic stress disorder of abandonment, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobic reactions, and other diagnostic categories. Regardless, the message is the same: Don’t give up; remain hopeful. Making even a small change in overcoming avoidance can get you over the hump and into a fulfilling, trusting connection. Yes, abandonment fear is primal, but it doesn’t have to rule our lives. We have tools to identify and heal our underlying abandonment wounds. As we gain awareness into our defense mechanisms, we learn to dismantle the ones in our way. We realize that we can risk getting close to someone and if it doesn’t work out, we can risk trying again. In the meantime, we will be okay.
To overcome this condition, we need to go beyond awareness and undertake a comprehensive program of incremental change. We have effective hands-on exercises that help us sooth, calm, and nurture ourselves and build emotional resilience. To overcome the phobic patterns of avoidance, progressive desensitization is a component. Through therapeutic counseling, group support, and coaching from friends, sponsors and professionals, you can overcome your self sabotage, build emotional self reliance, and form loving connections.
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By Susan Anderson © 2015