Existential Psychology


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Here is a poem that was written by a patient of Rollo May’s. It evokes powerful feelings of aloneness and existential anxiety that are central to being abandoned.

You stand there by the table,
Still clutching your teddy bear…
Make it so small they’ll fail
to find it…

Then you’re left
To defend what they didn’t want-
Not being able to find it

(Unknown author, from ‘Man’s Search For Himself’ by Rollo May, pg. 89-90)

We are going to look at some psychological consequences present in adult relationships where a person felt abandoned or actually was abandoned by a primary caregiver in childhood. The primary bond between parent and child is extremely important for all subsequent bonds because it acts as a sort of blueprint. When we are very young we lack the capacity for comparison or the awareness that there are many ways of being and acting. The parental relationship feels to a child like objective data for how the world works. That is why it is quite common for people to seek out partners that are similar to the caregiver of that sex, and also why so many adults have political and religious views that are identical to their parents’ views.

The process of differentiation is essential to grow into one’s full self, and this includes forming a view of the world that is distinctly your own. It is based upon more objective critical observation where beliefs are not taken as facts and upon honest self-reflection to discover who and what you really want to be in your life. Differentiation is scary for anyone because it means leaving behind the metaphorical safety net of solidarity that agreeing with the group provides. Many cultural values are transmitted through the microcosm of parental teachings, so deciding upon your own values challenges not just the authority of one’s own primary caregiver but also the wider authority of one’s community and often an entire culture.

There are some special challenges in differentiation and human development for a person who was abandoned in childhood. Honest self-reflection and changing one’s mindset on the meaning of the events that transpired is essential to having healthy adult relationships.

Without honest self-reflection about the meaning of being abandoned, worldview and relationships will be colored. Abandonment says much more about the caregiver than it does about the child. The reason it took place was centered around issues going on in the life of the caregiver. There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about you that made your parent decide to leave. There are a few different patterns in romantic relationships that either try to repeat or try to avoid the initial abandonment and its resulting psychological and emotional states. In either case your real self is not at the center of how you view your relationships since your behavior takes into consideration hostile conditions that are not conducive to human growth and well-being. Many children do feel a sense of love and security from their primary caregivers and all children deserve to feel this way.

By trying to make the primary abandonment repeat in a romantic relationship, we mean that a person will unconsciously set the conditions where rupture of the relationship is unavoidable. You will drive your partner away and help to create and maintain conflict that seems unable to resolve. The rupture will confirm your suspicions. If all people leave then it means your primary caregiver leaving was also unavoidable, which shields you from the unbearable anxiety that resulted from being abandoned.

Existential anxiety is at the very center of abandonment because anxiety is the threat of non-being, and abandonment is the total rupture of a relationship; it is an extremely powerful symbolic form of non-being. At a core level anxiety has to do with the fact that we will one day die and there is nothing we can do to stop it. The rupture of a relationship is symbolic death, and in the case of abandonment it occurs under hostile conditions that are big, scary, and impossible for a child to truly grasp.

One solution to combat this unbearable anxiety in relationships is to do everything possible to prevent abandonment from happening again. This will surely backfire and actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy where a partner does decide to leave due to the actual conditions of the relationship. These conditions are in place to prevent the partner from leaving. Struggles to dominate and control in big and small ways will start to define the relationship and make a partner feel trapped and devalued. He or she will decide that conditions are unbearable and eventually leave.

If a person who was abandoned by a primary caregiver takes the time to honor his or her rights to growth, happiness, and love then conditions can be set for healthy relationships based on feelings of trust, closeness, and security. We all deserve to feel lovable and when we do then we can love others. Abandonment is the symbolic equivalent to death that we all must face in our lives, so a person who has dealt with it knows existential anxiety on a deeply personal level. You can use your knowledge of existential anxiety to enrich your relationships and treasure the ones you develop since you know they will one day have to dissipate.