Confession: I am the original martyr.
It’s true. Just ask my husband. Or my parents. Or my friends. I always have to do it alone. No one ever helps me. In fact, I’m just alone all the time.
After 41 years and decades of psychotherapy, medication, meditation, healing circles, and all the things I am supposed to do to take care of my inner child, it still hurts. But, childhood wounds are deep. And, my healing journey is not linear.
For me, abandonment isn’t a myth. It was a true story. At least, my adoption paperwork said so: Abandoned at a police station in Seoul, Korea. No family history attached. My adopted parents always reassured me that I was loved - otherwise, I wouldn’t have been left at a police station where I could be found and cared for. That made sense in my head. But, I couldn’t reconcile that in my heart. I tried to visualize my birth mother leaving me at the police station and being able to walk away. Did she cry? Did she look back? How could any mother do that?
I grew up feeling a profound sense of loss, an overriding fear of being alone, and the deep shame of feeling unlovable.
But, abandonment issues aren’t just for adopted kids. Anyone who has experienced loss, neglect, abuse, or lack of attunement (physical and/or emotional responsiveness) from a parent, caregiver, or loved one - especially during childhood - may suffer from abandonment wounds, even later in life.
As a child, my wound looked like trying to win the love of my adoptive parents by being perfect - straight A’s, dancer, musician, volunteer, and all the school clubs - then as a young adult, lashing out by engaging in risky behaviors (sex, drugs, and alcohol).
On the outside, I looked like little miss overachiever. On the inside, I felt alone, miserable, and unloved, suffering from depression, bulimia, and self-hatred.
As an adult, my abandonment wound looks like (still) trying to be perfect - then beating myself up when I’m not. Stressing over the small stuff. People-pleasing. Taking personally other people’s shit. Feeling like a martyr - or even putting myself into situations where I can be the martyr (then complaining about it later).
The good news is that it can get better. At least, it did for me.
The first step: acknowledge the abandonment wound
While I’m not one for labels (that’s a lie actually, I have a deep love for my electronic label maker), naming my abandonment wound made me feel like it was valid - and that my resulting emotions and behaviors were justifiable. As someone who has always felt crazy, the impact of acknowledging my wound helped me feel normal.
Notice, with curiosity how it shows up… then honor the wounded child
For me, this started with a list of the ways in which my childhood wound has affected my life. Though I love making lists, this one was painful, eye-opening, and like the naming exercise above, liberating. I listed out all the emotions, the people-pleasing and self-sabotaging behaviors, the fear-based career moves, and even the ex-friends and ex-boyfriends who meandered into my life, and who left, painfully and dramatically.
Sure, maybe not everything can be wholly traced back to my abandonment wound (there were certainly other wounds too), but noticing patterns - and trying my damndest to do it without judgment - has been super fascinating and highly educational. I now get to see myself with a whole new level of self-compassion for the wounded child that I once was. And, I get to notice, with much more awareness, when that wounded child shows up at my doorstep and wants to be acknowledged and loved.
Resource, resource, resource
In the world of healing, resourcing is doing something that feels good, regulates the nervous system, and reminds the brain that I am not in danger in the present moment, so calm the fuck down and reeeeeeelax. So, when my wounded child shows up, and that familiar feeling of panic, scarcity, and fear of being unloved rises up in my chest, I do something resourcing.
For me, that looks like breathing, meditation, music, dancing, yoga, hiking, cuddling my cat, getting a massage, taking a bath, or watching movies that help me release my sadness.
Once the chatter in my brain and the pain in my heart subsides, I can, from a more regulated, state of mind, body, and heart, think about what might have triggered my abandonment wound. Then, I can move to the next step...
Own what’s mine. Dump what’s not
With abandonment trauma (and most other traumas, for that matter), one of the most painful feelings is the lack of agency. I had no choice in being abandoned. Someone did it to me. And it fucked me up for years.
But, with healing, I get to reclaim my sense of power. When I find myself building a narrative about how I always have to do it alone, or how I’m always failing at being perfect, I get to (from a resourced state) acknowledge that my wounded child was triggered, own my own feelings, and then release anything that doesn’t belong to me (like someone else’s guilt, usually the result of their own wounded child).
Resource, resource, resource
And, then I come back to my resources. Again, and again, and, again. Because healing, for me, is a lifelong, never-ending process of my wounds showing up, acknowledging and honoring them, owning my own shit, releasing what is not mine, and taking care of myself with self-love and self-compassion every step of the way.
When I pay attention, I get the opportunity to heal even the tiniest part of my old abandonment wound. And when I don’t pay attention, without fail, it’ll come back to teach me a bigger lesson next time around.
Ironically, when I finally did look my trauma in the face years ago when I reconnected with my Korean birth mother, I learned that I was never, in fact, abandoned. At least, not in the way that my paperwork said I was.
Learning the truth of my story hasn’t lessened the pain from my abandonment wound. But, it has helped me reframe my abandonment trauma into intergenerational trauma. Tracing back the legacy of trauma in both my biological family and my adoptive one, and seeing how those cycles impact me today, has been, in many ways, resourcing. It’s a poignant reminder that, it’s not all about me and my wound. It’s about healing generations of wounds - for my ancestors, and for my future children. And, that, is a gift.