A client once shared with me a story about how, over a ..." /> A client once shared with me a story about how, over a ..." />

The Life-Long Ache: Seeing What We Internalize as Children

Little boy sitting with his dogA client once shared with me a story about how, over a short period of time, his family took in several rescue dogs in quick succession. All the dogs left the home until they finally found “the one,” who still lives with them today.

He went on to describe how he couldn’t show any affection toward their current dog and then toward the family for a long time. When I asked him why he thought that happened, he said, “I must have been afraid they would all leave.”

What he was describing was the fear of abandonment, which can be defined as a persistent dread or  extreme anxiety about the loss of someone (or a group) that is extremely valued and important to the individual. For example, a child may recognize the impermanence of those he loves and cares for.

The reaction can often be one of emotional numbness or avoidance—a human brain adapting to its environment to protect our hearts.

As a psychotherapist I hear about loss, real or imagined, in many of the stories and observations of people who come through my office. I see themes in their memories, metaphors, and subconscious patterns. In most of those stories I also recognize an ache—a longing that remains unfulfilled or unresolved, despite numerous positive changes and therapeutic goals attained.

I believe this is because there are many pains we incorporate into our psyches that are neither active nor forgotten. They just are. They are the sad facts of our lives that we learn to live with: the internalized rejection of adoption, the loss of a parent or child, the inability to conceive.

Many people enter into psychotherapy seeking a cure.

“I want to get over (a person).”

“I just need not to feel this way anymore.”

“I only want (them/us/myself) to be happy.”

The reality I have experienced, however, on both sides of the couch, is that psychotherapy and personal growth can, at best, create space to understand and accept that ache. But the low-grade sadness which firmly touches fragments of our self will never return to joy again. If you saw the film Inside Out, you recognize this is much like what Sadness does. Once Sadness took hold of those core memories, there was no turning back to yellow (Joy).

And neither should they. No one lives a life of pure, unfiltered joy 24/7, all day, every day. Don’t believe the social media feeds of your friends and family. I know the story behind the story, the truth behind the truth.

In fact, Inside Out got it exactly right. We actually need sadness to appreciate happiness. Without the understanding of rejection, we wouldn’t recognize the relationships that are loyal. Without the void of infertility, or the devastation of loss, we couldn’t value what is left behind or taken away.

The goal of psychotherapy is not the eradication of these sorrows, but the acceptance and tolerance of their effects. In the meantime, we move on to live our best lives because, not in spite, of them.

Natasha Watkinson, LMHC, NCC has a mindfulness based practice in South Florida and via video conferencing.

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  • Lyndsi

    May 16th, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    Aww I can relate to that in that when I was a kid growing up it always felt like the people that I loved the most always went away. So therefore as an adult I still have a hard time getting close to others because I am afraid that in the end they are going to leave me too.

  • Penny

    May 16th, 2016 at 2:38 PM

    I will hear people all the time telling others not to let what happened to them as kids follow them for the rest of their lives. MY question for those people is how do you get rid of those thoughts and those feelings that have seemingly always been there? These are things that have developed very early on in life and to tell people just to start thinking about things differently is a little too simplistic I believe. You might have to work through them, come to accept them and move forward , but that doesn’t mean that they will ever fully go away.

  • burke

    May 17th, 2016 at 10:21 AM

    The big thing is learning that these are things that might not ever fully go away but they don’t always have to be a burden for you either.I look at it like this, yes these things are all things that were said to me or about me or directed toward me, but that does not mean that I have to forever allow them to define me either.

  • Beteela

    May 18th, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    not on topic at all but I do love the accompanying photo that went with this piece

  • Maurice

    October 16th, 2016 at 7:52 PM

    No, you are not really off-topic. The german shepherd in the photo is totally that boy’s main man! I would like to see some research done on how much dogs have done to alleviate childhood trauma, and to enable abused and abandoned children to heal and find their place in the world. The thing that struck me most about the first paragraph in this otherwise terrific article is that all the rescue dogs who were NOT ‘the one’ must have been deeply hurt after being sent away. Many forget that dogs and rabbits bond deeply. Too many short-term ‘adoption’ experiences, and they, too, become leery of opening their hearts. This can make it even harder for them to find forever homes. We need to be as patient with animals as we do with other humans. Many animals have seen as bad or worse treatment, and they can be our greatest friends!

  • Jess

    May 20th, 2016 at 9:28 AM

    Sadly I believe that there are some aches that will always be there. They may lessen a little over time but they will not ever just go away.

  • Maurice

    October 16th, 2016 at 11:18 PM

    I thought that that was the main point of the article, that acknowledgement and acceptance of our pain enabled us to appreciate ‘ordinary’/non-painful events more fully. A good life does not depend upon winning the lottery, but upon appreciating what we *do* have that doesn’t suck. For example, merely being able to read this article involves many miracles: the miracles of consciousness, of sight, of being able to read, of having the time to read, of being somewhat aware of our pain and therefore able to find its source and to begin to hear, of having computer access, of being strong enough to read (e.g. not being so hungry or thirsty as to be unable to function), etc.

  • Maurice

    October 16th, 2016 at 11:19 PM

    typo: I mean “begin to heal”, not “begin to hear”.

  • Benny

    May 21st, 2016 at 9:05 AM

    Shouldn’t we all strive to provide that childhood home to our kids where there are not so many things that leave them internalizing the bad and never remembering the good?
    I kind of see that as the job of the parent. Help them to live a life that is s story that they are not afraid of and that doesn’t leave them feeling so wounded.

  • daisy

    May 23rd, 2016 at 2:22 PM

    I would be very tempted to say that most of us want to focus on what the end result will be versus the process of what it takes to actually get there.

  • Maurice

    October 16th, 2016 at 11:09 PM

    daisy, you have hit the nail on the head regarding why recovery attempts fail, and why acquiring possessions gets greater emphasis than self-awareness/self-improvement. The process IS life, and cannot be replaced by acquiring possessions.

  • Patricia

    October 5th, 2016 at 2:51 AM

    Is there any advice for being a friend to someone who struggles with abandonment? I’d like to know what I can do/not do to not aggravate or worsen the fears. :(

  • Maurice

    October 16th, 2016 at 11:38 PM

    “The goal of psychotherapy is not the eradication of these sorrows, but the acceptance and tolerance of their effects. In the meantime, we move on to live our best lives BECAUSE, not in spite, of them.”

    Well said!!! One of the finest articles on therapy I have yet read.

    “What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.”
    – George MacDonald, in _Phantastes_

    Look him up in Wikipedia, and read Phantastes. C.S. Lewis purchased that book just before boarding a train, read it during the train ride, and arrived at his destination transformed.

    Life is a transformative process, NOT an acquisitive one.

  • Francen

    February 27th, 2017 at 5:17 PM

    Therapy is a never ending process..

  • Maria

    March 8th, 2020 at 7:18 AM

    I agree with you. Therapy is something that can helps in many moments of our lives. I struggle with fear of abandonment and it can truly affect ones life in all relationships. Currently I am having issues with my grown up daughters. I try to help them in every way I can and seems that is never enough. The root of my behavior is the massive fear of they stop loving me and abandon me. It is a painful feeling…

  • Sara

    July 21st, 2022 at 7:34 PM

    I so agree, being thankful for the things we dont even thing about is crucial, our childhood pains will always be part of who we are and how we live our lives. I put my pain in little compartments and take them out once in a while cry and move on again.

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