The 5 Phases of Abandonment and Recovery: The Path of Healing

Enjoying the Scenery --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Enjoying the Scenery — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Overcoming the Trauma of Abandonment

Abandonment has its own kind of grief trauma – a powerful grief universal to human beings.  The grief can be acute – as when we go through the ending of a relationship, or chronic – as when we feel the impact of earlier losses and disconnection.

The natural folds in abandonment’s grief process fall into five universal stages: Shattering, Withdrawal, Internalizing, Rage, and Lifting.  These stages overlap one another as part of one inexorable process of grief and recovery.  They spell SWIRL which is descriptive of the cyclonic nature of this all-encompassing cloud of human emotion. Each stage affects a different aspect of human functioning and calls forth a different emotional response.

Abandonment is a universal wound – a primal fear.  It’s what makes heartbreak so painful and what is behind the turmoil and uncertainty of divorce.  It’s why separation arouses such intense anxiety and why losing a friend, a job, or a lover causes us to doubt our self worth.

The underlying wound of abandonment is what complicates our grief when someone dies: we may feel left behind, forsaken. We rue the conflict left unresolved and the words left unsaid, left alone to pick up the pieces of a beloved relationship.

Loss of love stirs up feelings of not being worthy, not belonging, not being in control of our lives.  The trauma of abandonment is powerful to implant an invisible drain deep within the self which insidiously leeches self-esteem from within. No matter what you do to try to rebuild your self-esteem, the invisible drain of abandonment is always siphoning it away.

Abandonment’s wound lies deep and invisible. It tugs and pulls, making it hard to let go, always acting beneath the surface, spilling primal fear into moments of disconnection, disappointment, and loss, generating feelings of insecurity and self-doubt that persist into future relationships.

Abandonment left unresolved is a primary source of self sabotage. People have a lot of Outer Child behaviors – self-defeating patterns that lead to a vicious cycle of self-abandonment.

People in abandonment grief include those going through heartbreak, separation, or divorce, as well as those who can’t find a relationship and feel isolated and alone and those caught up in patterns where they keep getting abandoned again and again.

People going through abandonment may be grieving a death, or seeking recovery from a childhood wound that still impinges in their current wellbeing, or may have lost their job, friend, home, or sense of purpose – feeling life itself has left them behind.  Abandonment grief goes beyond the specifics of the loss to the universal source of primal fear and despair – abandonment – the crux of the human condition and the wellspring of renewal.

Exploring S.W.I.R.L. – Five Phases of Abandonment Grief 

This brief overview of the SWIRL process is written from the perspective of someone surviving a loss of love, but it reflects the grief process of the many other types and degrees of loss mentioned above.

Shattering The painful tear in your attachment, stab-wound to the heart.  The sudden disconnection sends you into panic, devastation, shock, and bewilderment.  This can occur even when the relationship had only been one date and he failed to return your text.  You feel the disconnection as a painful jolt, instantly catapulting you out of the positive sense of future that that connection had given you, and sending you back to the beginning where you were abjectly alone.  In a long term relationship, you feel symbiotically attached to your lost love –as if you can’t survive without him or her – which throws you into an intense emotional crisis – a true trauma. You’ve been severed from your Siamese twin and you’re in the recovery room, alone, crying out in pain. Where is your other half? You try to keep remnants of your fractured self together, but your whole sense of reality feels destroyed.  One minute you succumb to the overwhelming despair, suicidal feelings, and sorrow.  The next, you see glimmers of hope, only to be dashed again on the shores of despair.

Withdrawal Love-withdrawal is just like Heroin withdrawal – each involves intense yearning for the object of desire, and its craving is mediated by opiates (opioids) within your body.  You feel aching, craving, longing, needing a love-fix that you can’t get.  You’re strung out, incessantly waiting for your lost love to call or return.  You’re plagued with separation anxiety – an expectant, urgent feeling of heightened vulnerability.  Physical components of withdrawal from love are the same as they are for withdrawal from Heroin.  You’re in withdrawal from your endogenous opiates with flu-like symptoms, as well as suffused with fight or flight stress hormones which give you butterflies and taut nerves.  Your withdrawal symptoms may include intense anxiety and restlessness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite – sick to stomach, and jumpiness. Just surviving the day feels like a fulltime job. Your day is all about pain management.

Internalizing  You begin to turn your anger you feel about being rejected toward yourself and beat yourself up, which creates the intense depression that accompanies abandonment.  You idealize your lost love at your own expense, indicting yourself for “not being good enough”, for losing the most important person in your life.  You internalize the rejection, interpreting the dismissal as evidence of your alleged personal unworthiness.  Internalizing is the most critical stage when your wound becomes infected and can leave scarring on your self-image.  You inculcate a narcissistic injury.  You have grave doubts about your ‘attachment worthiness’ – that is, your ability to hold someone’s love. You blame yourself for the loss.  Old feelings of insecurity merge into your new wound.  Without recovery, this onslaught to your self esteem can persist and interfere in future relationships in the form of intrusive insecurity, a symptom of abandonment’s post traumatic stress.

Rage  You attempt to reverse the rejection, expressing rage over being left and over the situation you are in.  You are restless to get your life back in order, riddled with low frustration tolerance, your anger spurting out of control.  You resent being thrust into aloneness against your will.  You regress into fantasies of revenge and retaliation.  Your aggressive energy is like a pressure cooker.  You boil over easily, sometimes spewing anger onto innocent bystanders (like your friends when they suggest simplistic things like, “You gotta move forward” or “Just let go.”)  You may have difficulty with assertiveness, tend to under-react – afraid to express your anger directly to your abandoner for fear of losing any more crumbs of his love and approval.  So your rage can remain impotent and can get inverted into an agitated depression.

Lifting Life begins to distract you, lifting you back into itself.  You experience intervals of peace and confidence.  Abandonment’s lessons are learned and you get ready to love again.   Without recovery, people can make the mistake of lifting above their feelings, losing touch with their emotional center, causing them to become more isolated than before, losing some of their capacity for love and connection. This causes many people to
become attracted to the unavailable (“abandoholic“) because insecurity and rejection are the only feelings they are still able to “feel.”

We experience the stages not as discrete time packets, but rather one continuous process, sometimes going back and forth between phases or experiencing two or more at once, and just as we think we’re through, something happens that thrusts us right back to the beginning.  We swirl through the phases within an hour, a day, a year, cycles in cycles, until we emerge out the end of its funnel-shaped cloud a changed person.

The goal of abandonment recovery is to benefit by the experience rather than be diminished by it.  The program of hands-on exercises helps us reduce the impact of abandonment trauma and constructively work with the feelings at each stage – to turn abandonment into a wellspring for profound personal growth.

SWIRL is a universal process.  We’ve all been through it at one time or another – swirling through the disconnections of everyday life.   We swirled through the hurts and disappointments of childhood.  Our own unique style of swirling is based on patterns we developed from having survived previous losses, heartbreaks, and losses, as well as our temperament and personality, and our susceptibility to feeling rejected.


For abandonment survivors, with our heightened vulnerability, almost anything can cause us to swirl.  It can be very subtle.  Feeling left out, ignored by a friend, or failing to get recognition at work can set swirl in motion.  On a bad day, losing your car keys can send you swirling.  Rather than fault ourselves for overreacting, we need to recognize that we are going through the universal process of SWIRL beneath our taut nerves and tender feelings.

You might go into a mild swirl if, for example, a member of your abandonment support group fails to show up one night.  You and other group members feel the absence of that person as a nearly imperceptible letdown, a slight ‘disconnection’ (a mild form of Shattering).  You feel a slight anticipation in waiting, hoping for him to arrive (Withdrawal).  You feel imperceptibly rejected, dismissed, as if the group “wasn’t important enough to him” barely conscious of any self-depreciation setting in (Internalizing).  Then you feel some imperceptible annoyance that he “didn’t bother to call” (Rage).  And finally, even before these subliminal thoughts reach your awareness, your lift into the group discussion as it gets underway (Lifting).  You went through swirl on such a subtle level you weren’t even conscious of it.  But the vulnerability may have been there, tingeing the moment with subliminal self-doubt, disappointment, and slight agitation – even if you weren’t aware of it.

Abandonment recovery 

Abandonment recovery offers professional and self-help methods to abandonment survivors from around the world.  Its program consists of techniques and exercises that are hands-on, practical, and easy to use.  Abandonment recovery can help everyone resolve their abandonment wounds from past or present losses and to progress toward their goals for greater life and love.

The Abandonment Recovery Workbook is designed to make this process as easy to follow as possible, a well illuminated path to healing. The other books provide detailed guidance through the recovery process as well.

Five Phases of Abandonment Recovery 

  • Shattering is when we experience the painful tear in the dense tissues of our attachment– when we feel our emotional support threatened or torn away; it is primal fear erupting.  The recovery protocol for shattering incorporates the findings on mindfulness and LovingKindess meditation studies into an easy-to-apply method that restores our emotional balance, enhances wellbeing, self-reliance, and self regulation, and whose effects on mental wellbeing, when practiced regularly and over time, have shown to be permanent.
  • Withdrawal is yearning and craving for the lost object, akin to heroin withdrawal.  The protocol for withdrawal is grounded in a separation therapy technique.  Through a hands-on exercise, we build and nurture a significant new relationship with our emotional core, allowing us to directly administer to our oldest, deepest needs and feelings, thereby reversing self-abandonment.(The workbook provides easy delivery.)
  • Internalizing is when we internalize the rejection – take it personally and interpret it as proof that we are unworthy, a self injurious process that leaves residual damages in self esteem.  The protocol for internalizing involves a mental program that works like physical therapy for the brain. It taps into the powers of the imagination and gets them to increase self confidence, expand our scope, set new goals, and change life direction.
  • Rage is the beleaguered self’s attempt to fight back and reclaim our ego strength.  The protocol for rage involves an awareness tool (Outer Child) and a step by step action plan that effectively overcomes our most deeply entrenched patterns of self sabotage, substitutes positive behaviors that become healthy new habits, and promotes incremental behavior change.
  • Lifting is when we experience increasing intervals of relief from abandonment’s emotional deluge.  The protocol for lifting involves using love as a substrate to integrate the exercises into a goal promoting program that helps increase our capacity for life and love and reach our goals.

The workbook helps to create the love-focus throughout our daily activity.
Primal abandonment fear is not something we get rid of like the flu; it is universal and essential, a vital ingredient in the concoction that motivates us to sustain our human connections and build secure foundations within the self and within our lives.  The techniques of abandonment recovery show us how to embrace this primal force as an essential part of what makes us human and channel it productively.  The program is step-by-step, forward looking, and action oriented – targeted to incremental emotional and behavioral change.  In overcoming abandonment, we overcome its traumatic aftermath of self defeating patterns.

See Also:  

PTSD of abandonment: 30 characteristics

Fear of Abandonment

Causes of PTSD of abandonment

What is unresolved abandonment?

Physical therapy for the brain

How abandonment trauma differs from borderline personality disorder  What is an abandonment syndrome?

Abandonment recovery: Everyone can benefit

Healing the primal wound of abandonment 

Abandonment recovery workshops and groups

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© Susan Anderson February 27 2014

1 comment

  1. paula cook says:

    more teaching info on abandonment be good

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