Note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2006 edition of Meadowlark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
Fear of Abandonment: Some Lessons from M. Scott Peck and Pia Mellody
By Lawrence S. Freundlich
In Pia Mellody's charting of childhood developmental immaturity, one of its primary symptoms (meaning one of the inherent, essential human attributes of the child at birth) is dependency. Each human child is dependent for his survival on his primary caregivers and, as he matures, on his ability to cooperate with others so that he may get what he needs and wants in order to become a functional adult. Thus, the infant is first dependent and, then, as he matures, interdependent. However, this potential to develop the skills necessary for interdependence has a built-in obstacle, one that, like the other primary symptoms, is inherent at birth; this built-in obstacle is the child's fear of abandonment.
My recent readings in M. Scott Peck's enormously influential The Road Less Traveled (Simon and Schuster, 1978) have reminded me how much of a creative and/or a destructive force the fear of abandonment can be in the shaping of a child's psyche. Its power to harm is obvious. On the other hand, its power to become a shaping element in a child's healthy development of interdependence is less obvious, but just as elemental.
As an infant, totally dependent on his parents for the fulfillment of his needs, the child's expectation is that the world exists to satisfy his own desires. This instinctual expectation of immediate satisfaction is unreasoning, uncivilized and innocently selfish. In the first few months of an infant's life, a child does not take care of himself. He is taken care of. Not only does he lack the skills to self-care, but also he has no conception that the environment has anything else on its mind than to care for him. He demands everything, with no inkling that it might be refused or unavailable. If it is refused or unavailable, he will presume that he is being abandoned. He will view any denial of his wishes as a mortal threat, and anyone who has heard a baby scream for solace knows how nature has shaped his voice to indicate the imminence of a mortal threat - even if the threat is only a wet diaper, a desire for an ounce of milk or the need for a nap.
If very young children are to emotionally survive these reality-based inklings of abandonment, they must learn, in Peck's terminology, "delayed gratification." Peck equates delayed gratification with discipline - the discipline forced on every child when he recognizes that he is part of a social system and not "God the Baby." The challenge of delayed gratification brings the child face-to-face with the reality of being only one human being among others, competing for survival in interdependent groups.
Self-care - or the ability to recognize that you will get what you want only if you do some of the job yourself - is learned in the face of the child's elemental desire to be cared for totally: "I want what I want, and I want it now." The parental challenge is to teach the child discipline without implying abandonment. In other words, in order for a child to grow up, he has to learn that delayed gratification is not equivalent to abandonment. The child's ability to survive will depend on how well he learns to cooperate. This is when the sublimation of abandonment fear becomes the engine for healthy development. Peck says:
Most parents, even when they are otherwise relatively ignorant or callous, are instinctively sensitive to their children's fear of abandonment and will therefore, day in and day out, hundreds and thousands of times, offer their children needed reassurance: "You know Mommy and Daddy aren't going to leave you behind"; "Of course Mommy and Daddy will come back to get you"; "Mommy and Daddy aren't going to forget about you!" If these words are matched by deeds, month in and month out, year in and year out, by the time of adolescence, the child will have lost the fear of abandonment and in its stead will have a deep inner feeling that the world is a safe place in which to be, and protection will be there when it is needed. With this internal sense of the consistent safety of the world, such a child is free to delay gratification of one kind or another, secure in the knowledge that the opportunity for gratification, like home and parents, is always there, available when needed....
But many are not so fortunate. A substantial number of children actually are abandoned by their parents during childhood, by death, by desertion, by sheer negligence... Others, while not abandoned in fact, fail to receive from their parents the reassurance that they will not be abandoned. There are some parents, for instance, who, in their desire to force discipline as easily and quickly as possible, will actually use the threat of abandonment, overtly or subtly, to achieve this end. The message they give to their children is: If you don't do exactly what I want you to do, I won't love you anymore, and you can figure out for yourself what that might mean." It means, of course, abandonment and death... So it is that these children, abandoned either psychologically or in actuality, enter adulthood lacking any deep sense that the world is a safe and protective place. To the contrary, they perceive the world as dangerous and frightening, and they are not about to forsake gratification or security in the present for the promise of later gratification or security in the future, since for them the future seems dubious indeed.
Considering the shaping power of the fear of abandonment, we can see that being taught to self-care may appear to the child as the withdrawal of his parents" support. How then does one introduce the discipline of self-care without exciting the fear of abandonment? Peck says that self-care is impossible unless the child feels that he is valuable. "The statement "I am a valuable person" is essential to mental health and is a cornerstone of self-discipline [delayed gratification]." Peck and Pia Mellody are in agreement on this point of being valuable. Without a feeling of value, the child will not self-care.
For Mellody, self-esteem is the first core issue. In discussing the internal connections of the core issues, Mellody speaks of psychic balance being achieved when value, power and self-care are properly functioning. She observes that, when we believe we are valuable, we do not have to depend on the opinions of others to verify our value (our internal boundary is working). We are in touch with our inherent worth. Our actions are congruent with our belief in our own value. Then, because we value ourselves, caring for ourselves becomes an act of self-esteem. Self-care then is a function of self-esteem, because it is natural to care for someone we like. The good feeling we have about ourselves is projected out into our environment. We learn to care for ourselves because we believe we are worth caring for in a world abundant in possibilities of caring for us.
It is impossible to teach self-care to a child who is unwilling to delay gratification because he is terrified of abandonment. Self-esteem, on the other hand, makes the child confident that abandonment does not lie waiting in the shadows of delayed gratification. The abandonment-haunted child will not allow himself to be vulnerable enough to experiment with the techniques required for interdependence. If he takes a chance, he thinks he will be injured. Instead of venturesome vulnerability, he will hide himself behind various kinds of lies (adaptations) so that no one can touch him. He becomes, in Mellody's terms, "the adapted wounded child." Peck writes,
...For children to develop the capacity to delay gratification, it is necessary for them to have self-disciplined role models, a sense of self-worth, and a degree of trust in the safety of their existence.These "possessions" are ideally acquired through the self-discipline and consistent, genuine caring of their parents; they are the most precious gifts of themselves that mothers and fathers can bequeath. When these gifts have not been proffered by one's parents, it is possible to acquire them from other sources, but in that case, the process of their acquisition is invariably an uphill struggle, often of lifelong duration and often unsuccessful.
That uphill, lifelong struggle takes place in the arena of our relationships and their failed intimacy. As Mellody pointed out in her book, Love Addiction and Love Avoidance, the only proper use of the word "abandonment" is in the context of childhood. The child who is without the ability to self-care can, indeed, be abandoned - left with no resources. Adults, who have presumably learned to care for themselves, cannot be abandoned; adults have resources even when they are rejected or disappointed in relationships. Adults are responsible for their own self-care.