How Acting-Out Old Issues May be Making Matters Worse
Unresolved emotional issues may be resurfacing. There are better solutions than acting them out.
Antonieta Avenue Contreras
As of today, I’ve spent the longest period of my life with almost no human connection. The last time I was in front of another person, comfortably, was March 15th.
That’s 10 weeks ago — 70 whole days without any talking, laughing, feeling close to people I love and care about; 1,680 hours without regular doses of connection, of experiencing the warm feeling that comes from sharing during a meal, a session, or a meeting with those that are part of my clan.
Like many others, I have adapted. I have looked for socialization online and I even ventured to the park to see a friend this week. With a mask.
With her face covered with a mask and sunglasses! With the breath from my conversation tasting like separation, and social distancing. I went to look for warmth and, instead, my nervous system felt isolated and abandoned. I didn’t notice this clearly until my dreams were full of images of loneliness, and my mood became blue.
Perhaps this sounds familiar?
Jayne Leonard wrote recently at the Medical News Today that “abandonment issues” arise when an individual has a strong fear of losing loved ones.
But I have no fear of losing anyone: at this point, I know that everyone close to me knows how to protect him/herself from contagion, and that most of us are safe because we are respecting the quarantine. Still, the feeling of abandonment has been engulfing me. My curiosity — and my profession — pushed me to investigate this further.
Abandonment can often be at the root of emotional issues. Darlene Lancer wrote on PsychCentral that “many people don’t realize that they’re feeling emotionally abandoned or that they did as a child. They may be unhappy, but can’t put their finger on what it is.”
Several professionals have written that the loss of physical closeness often feels like emotional abandonment. Different authors have explained that it’s less about literal proximity and more about what happens when we can’t connect with others, and when our emotional needs — in terms of relationships — can’t be met. Bingo!
We are still living with uncertainty, and in one way or another, at risk. Our autonomic nervous system keeps trying to do its job of keeping us safe and afloat.
The first safety mechanism it will use is social engagement. This system relies on the successful functioning of the ventral vagal system — involved with most aspects of social contact and pleasure. It helps us to feel safe through eye contact, smiling, and tone of voice.
Its job is to assess every gesture of the other to let us know if we can trust the person for safety, and puts the brakes on any other defenses — like fight or flight — from getting activated. With everyone wearing a mask, the ventral vagus is unemployed.
Watching Governor Cuomo in the middle of the day has been a very healthy way to activate our social engagement system: his confidence and humbleness, his commanding tone combined with a compassionate attitude. His words and values give us comfort and make us feel protected…Until we read the news and see that there is no real protection coming from the government.
That’s when the hidden sensation of feeling abandoned kicks me the hardest. Images of the Superdome in New Orleans during Katrina come to mind and the desolation suffered from that community feels now closer to heart;
accounts from my own clients about Puerto Rico living without electricity for months after Hurricane Maria give me chills; the statistics of the disproportionate number of African Americans deaths due to the coronavirus bring me to tears. Abandonment may not only be a sensation; it may be the reality we are living in (again?).
Fear of abandonment makes us feel “needy.” When our emotional needs are not met, and we can’t really feel safe and comforted, our system has no choice but to move into more severe ways to give us protection. These protections are counterproductive in moments like this.
Our defense system was designed to protect us from predators that were visible and clearly identifiable — it has not adapted to recognize a submicroscopic agent or a megalomaniac personality as sources of abandonment, threat, or possible annihilation.
If our system gets the signal — from our emotions — that more extreme defenses need to be activated because we are overwhelmed and hopeless, dysregulation (abnormal or impaired regulation of metabolic, physiological, or psychological processes) will become constant — and as chronic as the pandemic — and symptoms like anxiety, frustration, depression, or other mood problems will start appearing either very clearly, or in the background.
The emotional dysregulation will very easily push us into “acting out” the worst parts of us (acting out is the unconscious release of strong impulses — normally suppressed or denied such as anger, control, etc — in order to gain relief from tension or anxiety):
- If someone has a tendency to feel entitled, acting more entitled as a way to feel protected could be their new way to operate without even noticing.
- If some people tend to see enemies in those that are different from them, they now could want to eliminate them.
- If someone developed a victim stance as a strategy of survival earlier in life, victimization will feel more real than ever, and the need to find a savior will feel more intense.
- If someone felt invisible in childhood, the quarantine will feel very painful and the strategy of “shutting down” will increase.
- Those that felt misunderstood or invalidated will have more extreme reactions if others don’t show consideration towards them.
- Those that learned to respond aggressively as a way to feel in control (and safer), may become violent. Domestic violence is rampant right now.
- Someone that doesn’t trust and is normally suspicious to feel safer may join conspiracy theories. Paranoia and persecutory anxiety can easily develop.
- If someone is easily influenced, they may become gullible and easy to manipulate. They felt safe trusting someone in power and they may look for that type of protector.
- And so on. We all developed strategies growing up to cope with the situations we were not able to handle. Whatever was unresolved before may be reappearing unannounced and augmented.
If you are having feelings of abandonment right now, just notice it. It’s normal. We may even get used to them for the months ahead until certainty comes and we recover our normalcy. We just need awareness and to develop tolerance as a way to build resilience and to get ready for the rebuilding phase that will come after the crisis.
If your mood is changing and you have found yourself doing, feeling, or saying something that seems “neurotic” and extreme, notice it too.
Did it bother you? Finding someone to blame or justifying your actions won’t make things better. Open to the possibility that almost everyone is experiencing something similar and that life and relationships have an extra layer of difficulty for now.
Neurotic behavior means there is an unresolved conflict, and of course we all have unresolved conflicts at this time. We can’t really resolve what’s happening to all of us as a collective, or to each one individually.
If you are dealing with some outbursts or uncomfortable responses from others, notice and register them without taking them personally.
Finding compassion for others and for yourself could be a very good resource. That may stop you from feeling defensive or defeated. Acting out the frustration we are all experiencing could make your relationships more difficult. You could even lose friends and the support you so much need presently.
On the other hand, if you have the tendency to go numb or escape, you may consume your resilience by using those strategies, since they are very demanding for your emotional system and use a lot of energy. They put you at risk of not bouncing back once this is over.
People that used to drink and felt safe doing it could easily develop a dependency under these circumstances that will be very difficult to overcome later. Shutting down is not the answer either, even if it was when you were in an unsafe environment before.
Shutting down will remove your motivation and purpose. We need each other, and we need you. Moving yourself out of passivity will, actually, offer you much more protection.
If the abandonment feeling is bringing abandonment issues from your past, it may be a good moment to look for professional help because they may get exacerbated to the point of dysregulating your system and activating your defenses to a harmful level. Becoming dysregulated during this crisis could easily develop as PTSD.
Observing our emotions and emotional reactions day by day is a way to stay regulated by sending the message to our autonomic nervous system that we are actively participating in our regulation, safety, and wellbeing, and that its extreme measures are not needed.
Taking care of our emotional health during this pandemic is as necessary as protecting our physical health. It’s not only an individual endeavor, it is a collective one.
We will — as a society — need to be physically and mentally strong after this passes. We will need Collective Resilience.
Antonieta Avenue Contreras
Trauma and Sex therapist in private practice; faculty, supervisor, and consultant at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. Board Certified Neurofeedback clinician; trained and certified in all kinds of trauma-informed modalities including Contemplative Eastern Psychotherapies.