Abandonment: the root of all suffering

For a while I’ve been developing the idea that invalidation is the source of all emotional trauma. For example in the case of a rape, the degree to which the victim feels that her humanity and suffering are  ignored by her offenders, her family and anyone else, may determine the traumatic quality of the experience over time.

Tonight I had another insight, while prayerfully studying a talk by Joseph B. Wirthlin. I was thinking about Joseph Smith, wondering whether it was easy for him to continue doing his duty towards God and his fellows, even when in the midst of persecution. I cast my mind back to Liberty jail, and his isolation and suffering there. Did he have perfect confidence that his situation would improve, that his oppressors would either be softened or removed? No, he felt at some stages that the lord had abandoned him, and he found that thought unbearable.

What can be more painful than to feel abandoned by those we love most? Isn’t that a child’s worst nightmare? Isn’t that the most emotionally damaging event in one’s life? At the peak of his suffering, Jesus Christ himself experienced this most horrific of all sufferings: the abandonment of his beloved Father. Although it was temporary, it clearly came as a surprise, and may have seemed permanent.

How strange then, that as parents we are so willing to abandon our children and our own parents, even when there is no obvious benefit to them. Controlled crying is a popular way to shortcut a baby’s sleep independence, despite the clear messages it sends about trust, love and safety.

3-year-old children who show too much distress when going to school are labeled with “separation anxiety disorder”, and treated as though they’re somehow dysfunctional.

The elderly whose failing health and mental state becomes a burden are conveniently placed in end-of-life storage, despite overwhelming evidence that such isolation from loved ones precipitates their decline.

As Edward Deci and Richard Ryan explain in their self-determination theory, all humans have a basic psychological need to feel connected to other humans, to feel understood, appreciated and needed. When this need is thwarted, suffering results, and over time this can have devastating effects on emotional well-being and mental health. This is why I think that abandonment is at root of all suffering.


6 responses to “Abandonment: the root of all suffering

  1. Fi__1968

    February 5, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    Nicolas, This looks like a very interesting blog. I am not sure if I agree that abandonment is the root of all suffering…I need to think about this idea some more. I have just finished reading a book called the Primal Wound (Firman) which explores this idea in depth along with ‘non-being’ a state caused by our caregivers violating our true nature by failing to ‘mirror’ our primal needs. My reason for reading this book was to unravel my own need for a spiritual life and indeed whether this was always there (I was born with the need) or whether the need arose out of a desire to find some love and meaning in a young life in which very little love, meaning or understanding were shown…A paradox. I have plenty of love and meaning in my life today and have found myself fascinated with how complete my life now feels by putting aside all my objections to my own spirituality and embracing this aspect of myself fully. As it is reading this book did not solve my paradox, This was solved by the recent death of my mother with whom I ironically I found a deep relationship in the last 3 days of her life, in other words she understood me in her death and although this understanding lasted only 3 days it is now like it was there always

    • nicolasconnault

      February 5, 2013 at 9:37 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Fiona. I’m still tossing this idea around. As with many other ideas I entertain, I haven’t made up my mind about it either, but it rings true to me. However, if I were to further develop this idea using Self-Determination Theory, I would add that great suffering also results from 1. feeling unable to act autonomously, or to act in ways that ring true to our core values; and 2. feeling unable to effect changes in our environment (related to self-efficacy).
      Perhaps I have had more experiences with my relatedness needs being thwarted (especially during high school years) than with autonomy or competence needs, and that’s what led me to write this post… Who knows?

  2. Fi__1968

    February 5, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Nicolas, I should also add that you follow a blog that I write for

  3. Joseph Bray

    February 6, 2013 at 12:42 am

    Great post. I agree that abandonment is a core theme in our alienation. But what of shame, guilt, abuse, impingement (where the parent uses the child to meet [usually] her own emotional needs)? In these cases the child may not actually be abandoned, but suffers none the less.

    • nicolasconnault

      February 6, 2013 at 2:55 am

      Joseph, my thoughts are that there is a conceptual difference between perceived and actual abandonment, just as there is between perceived and actual competence. Perceptions are internal and idiosyncratic, including our perception of reality. When we speak of emotional suffering, they are everything.

      In fact, I may experience the abandonment of a relative, but experience no resulting suffering, perhaps because there was no emotional connection with that person to begin with, or the suffering occurred decades before the present events. It doesn’t feel like abandonment.

      Shame and guilt are certainly painful, although I would distinguish between the two by labelling the former as unnecessary and harmful, and the latter as important for moral development. It would be hard, however, to experience either outside the context of human relationships, and their respective suffering may be more tied with the fear of abandonment than with its direct experience. Shame is intimately linked with feelings of worthlessness, which can only have meaning in reference to significant human relationships.

      There is another concept related to abandonment which is described in SDT, and could be called self-betrayal: when we consistently act in ways that violate our inner values, we feel betrayed by our own behaviour, leading to a “fragmented self”. In a way, we become disconnected from our inner self, which makes us feel miserable.

      So, in light of these reflections, and books I have read recently by Peter Block and John McKnight, a better title for my post could be “Disconnection: the root of most emotional suffering”. Your word “alienation” may be an even better choice!


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