The Devalued Self: Childhood Emotional Abandonment, Devaluation of the Self, and Anxiety

I wanted to share some thoughts on some of the key concepts that play a role in the development of the nature of our sense of “Self”. I think that these concepts need to be understood in order to really learn how to re-conceptualize them thereby affecting positive change within us. That is the incredible power of the Mind, the power to create and destroy concepts. Concepts are ultimately what makeup the world that we experience, and so we do have the power to create the world that we live in. It is a manifestation of our own internal state. We are able to recondition ourselves to think better, to feel better, to act better, and ultimately, to perceive and experience more truthfully and authentically.

Overcoming low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and all manners of suffering has always been understood to be a central premise of all spiritual traditions. Many of us view the world through paradigms, through tinted lenses that diminish our potential experience of the world and of ourselves in ways that create suffering. Explained below is a general and basic framework of how our mental health – the state of our mind – is inexorably tied to our state of Being; it highlights the intersection between the psychological and the spiritual. Taking this framework and applying it to an assessment of contemporary social standards and attitudes, particularly to parenting styles and relationship and social expectations, I feel that it becomes very clear how harmful many of those standards and attitudes can be for our health and development. It forces us to keep in mind a couple of questions related to our ourselves and our relationships: “how is this affecting my spiritual and mental health?” and “how did I come to hold these beliefs, and why?” In terms of our personal development, we ought to ask ourselves, “Is this way of feeling and way of thinking a reflection of who I want to be, of who I truly am, of my potential?”

Everything is rooted in what the Islamic spiritual tradition refers to as our فطرة (Fitrah), our primordial human nature. It is an interesting concept that encapsulates both the physical and the metaphysical dimension and their relationship to one another. Our external life is a reflection of our internal life, and so our relationship with others is often a reflection of our relationship with our own Self. The inward dimension of the Soul, of our psyche, must be tended to and nurtured. When institutions and philosophies, whether religious or secular, neglect attempting to understand these dimensions they produce social structures, attitudes, and norms that are objectively damaging to human beings on a fundamental level. In this case, they tend to cease being spiritual traditions, becoming instead toxic institutions that take advantage of people and their vulnerabilities. What societies label as normative behavior and attitudes may in fact be harmful to us. On an individual level we feel that we have no choice but to endure the suffering they cause in us. The most potent examples that come to mind are the concepts of romantic love and filial love. A cursory look at how contemporary culture, whether it is from within a society that identifies as secular or as religious, portrays these concepts reveals clearly a dangerous confusion between symbiotic codependent arrangements and actual relationships, emotional hunger and love, and validation seeking and affection. But rather than identifying such arrangements, characterized by neediness and possessiveness, as toxic they’re instead labeled as romantic, pious, or dutiful. We become a confused generation that is attracted to what is detrimental to us both spiritually and emotionally, draining us of our resources and disrupting our development and growth into actualized beings. We remain in toxic environments that continually trigger our childhood insecurities making it very difficult for us to develop and mature beyond them.

The Formation of the Devalued Self

Children are inclined to grow into emotionally hungry adults when they are conditioned by emotional abandonment during early childhood, referred to as childhood emotional neglect (CEN). Emotional Hunger is understood to be a strong anxiety driven need for emotional validation and love caused by emotional deprivation in one’s childhood. It is an agitating state to be in, a primitive condition of pain and longing which people often act out in a desperate attempt to fill a void or emptiness within them.

When parents are emotionally hungry they tend to seek emotional validation from their children instead of providing it to their children, confusing their own intense feelings of need and anxious attachment for genuine love, tenderness, and concern towards their children. A reversal of role occurs, where parents often act out the role of the care-receiver while the child acts out the role of the caregiver. Babies especially, because of their vulnerability and innocence, learn to confuse these expressions of emotional hunger for expressions of genuine love, perhaps in the same way that their parents did when they were children, which points to the cyclical nature of intergenerational trauma passed down through learned behavior and a genetic propensity for responding to certain triggers. But, this is not love. This is an inversion of the concept of love, from an unconditional concept to a conditional concept; love is dispensed, and in many cases, can only be dispensed to the child after the child has met the parent’s emotional expectations. This confusion manifests in adulthood and influences the nature of our relationships and the sorts of people we become attracted to, especially in a romantic sense. The core belief that we must prove ourselves to them before they can love us is a common feature, for example. But this belief is not a First Principle. It is an effect of a prior condition within us, which we then must ask, “Why is my self-worth predicated on someone else?”

Validation, in this context, is essentially the attempt at deriving Value from what is external to the Self, especially from the approval of others. As adults, why do we have a strong need for people’s approval? To be popular? For social status? These tendencies, although a little complex due to how particular manifestations of it relate to primitive society and survival, ultimately have their origin in early childhood interactions with their primary caregivers. When children are denied this emotional validation from their parents it causes them to feel a deep sense of abandonment. Because of how vulnerable they are, abandonment equals death and therefore is traumatic; talk of abandonment is actually talk of death. It activates our survival instincts and so it is accompanied by a deep fear and insecurity. Anxiety is the machinery of fear, and thus the physiological expression of abandonment trauma. This is not to say that parents do not love their children if they don’t give them appropriate validation. There are many reasons why a parent was unable to respond appropriately to the needs of their children – from having to work three jobs just to put food on the table thus either being too exhausted or just not around enough, all the way to having to deal with their own mental health issues. For all of these sorts of reasons, there is consensus among child psychologists that a child needs at least four primary caregivers around them. Traditional knowledge has communicated this already throughout the centuries. I am reminded of that proverb found in Igbo and Yoruba, “It takes a village to raise a child”. It is expressed in my different African languages. In Sukuma they say “One knee does not bring up a child” and in Swahili they say “One hand does not nurse a child”. The essence of all of these proverbs and lessons is that raising a child is a communal effort. Parents are not perfect, they can’t do it alone.

The first act of abandonment inculcates in us the expectation that our needs will not be met. As Darwin wrote, “We are are anxious if we expect to suffer.” As the child experiences emotional abandonment, the resultant insecurity and anxiety eventually leads to resentment and anger towards the parent. But because the baby, out of its nature of vulnerability and intrinsic reliance on the parent, views the parent as perfect. It has to. And so it instead redirects its anxiety and resentment inwardly at itself. This inward direction of anxiety and anger leads to the second act of abandonment, which is understood as the manifestation of shame; the baby perceives that it must be the one at fault for being abandoned and therefore it must not be worthy and deserving of affection and love and having its needs met.

tl;dr: When emotionally hungry parents use their babies as emotional outlets to pacify their own unresolved emotional hunger the baby experiences abandonment. This abandonment results in anxiety and eventually resentment. The baby directs this resentment inwardly at itself resulting in shame. The baby feels that because the parent(s) are emotional unavailable, it is their fault and that he/she must be bad.

We internalize shame after we have been sufficiently conditioned by it. This is typically what is referred to as toxic shame because of how it soils our self-concept, resulting in the Devalued Self. Although it was abandonment that was the requisite condition for devaluation, after the formation of our self-concept, which occurs during the rapprochement sub phase of child development according to Mahler, we feel that it was our inherent devaluation and worthlessness in the first place – as a first Principle – that led to us being abandoned. Thus abandonment is our expectation going forward in life, which expresses very clearly the second half of Darwin’s statement, that “If we have no hope of relief, we despair.” This is the basis of emotional hunger, thus the emotional hunger of the parent(s) has been transferred to the child through abandonment trauma.

tl;dr: When the child transitions into a stage of self-awareness, that shame that was felt since earlier formative phases of development up to now forms the basis of the child’s negative self-concept, or, Devalued Self.

The nature of our behavior, which is largely uncovered through our relationships with one another, especially in a romantic context, can perhaps be said to exist on a spectrum between validation seeking and affection giving tendencies; the prior being a reflection of deprivation while the latter a reflection of abundance. Emotional hunger maintains in adulthood that childlike need for validation, of acquiring value from what is external to us, in order to alleviate our condition of pain and longing, our sense of deprivation. As an adult quality however, it is a childish need that eventuates in us a sense of entitlement; we feel entitled to our object of validation because we associate it with our sense of self-value. The most potent example of this is an abusive relationship that is characterized by a love-hate dynamic. Out of this sense of entitlement arises the spiritual concept of attachment, especially towards other people. We cling to others and grasp at them as a desperate attempt to validate ourselves, to fill up our emptiness, to give our lives a sense of meaning and fulfillment. When validation is not received, or it finally dawns on us that it does not lead to self-value, we feel resentful and anxious, agitated and temperamental. This tends to be the basis for our unrealistic expectations towards others and how those eventuate in destroying relationships.

The more emotionally hungry we are then the greater in severity our inclination for seeking validation is and the deeper our attachments are to those objects of validation. Out of this Devalued Self emerge the conditioned paradigms acquired in childhood through abandonment; that we are not deserving of having our needs met, that we should not expect our needs to be met, and that we are less precious or valuable than others. Our existence, which especially manifest in our relationships, are then governed by a paradox; on one hand we have an anxiously driven need for validation, expressing a sense of entitlement and holding unrealistic expectations towards others. But on the other hand, we neither feel worthy of it nor do we expect to receive it, and so we don’t really work towards improving our situation. This paradox characterizes low self-esteem. There is a sense of being trapped within a perpetual and internalized conflict, maintained by engaging in what is called bottom line thinking, the negative view of your sense of self that is at the heart of low self-esteem. It becomes easy to consciously believe ourselves to be bad, or to attribute a metaphysical component to our existence – that everyone hates us, that we are cursed, or that God hates us. It is a success barrier that prevents us from achieving goals related to our happiness. A sense of need combined with the expectation of abandonment and loss is the cause of this existential sense of anxiety.

Out of this bottom line thinking arises the narratives that frame our conscious experience of the world in ways that merely confirm our paradigms, and therefore, our Devalued Self and its character of being undeserving. Although these narratives vary in appearances and expressions, they all adhere to the Principle of biased interpretation. Narratives that arise out of biased interpretation distort the meanings that we attach to what we experience – even if the experience is positive. If anything positive happens to you, you minimize its importance. But if negative things happen to you, you maximize its importance, and thus its effects. This is all in order to confirm the negative view of yourself, and in doing so, you validate your negative identity, which ironically provides you with some comfort. This is because of that sense of shame at the core of our Being that really defines the character of devaluation. We feel ashamed for being abandoned and rejected on one hand, but on the other, it is comfortable because we have self-identified with it. But the comfort that we get from this sort of validation is not something that we can rely on to get through life. By validating our negative sense of self we ensure that we remain anchored at that developmental level. Acquiring validation as a supplement can be helpful, but it becomes maladaptive when it is relied upon as a crutch.

Unhealthy narratives arise out of an unhealthy mind, they are basically coping mechanisms. These narratives not only prevent us from holding healthy views about ourselves and our relationships, it also makes it difficult for us to truly hold others accountable for how they mistreat us and how we mistreat others.

tl;dr: The Devalued Self, being in a state of emotional hunger, seeks validation from the external world, especially from other people, in order to find a sense of self-value. This is the basis of attachment. It makes us emotionally needy, having a sense of entitlement towards our object of validation. Despite an attachment to someone, our conditioned paradigms tell us that we are not valuable, unworthy of being happy, and that we cannot expect good things to happen to us. This results in an internal paradox between our needs and our beliefs, trapping us in a cycle of indecisiveness, anxiety, and suffering; this defines low self-esteem. We frame our experiences through narratives that confirm this low self-esteem, validating the paradigms of the Devalued Self.

The Biological Component of Trauma and Anxiety

Traumatic experiences can end up being stored in part of the limbic system. The earlier and more deeply that the brain has been conditioned by emotional trauma then the more abstract and vague the sources of anxiety felt later in life will be. This is because the brain is actively creating links between traumatic memories of the past and the present situation it’s in, which perhaps explains why our brains sometimes automatically enter into that “fight or flight” survival mode for no apparent reason. Through associative learning, thoughts and events, even if they are neutral and have nothing to do with past trauma can become linked to past trauma, and thus associated with anxiety. When this happens, we think that the occurrence of present events is the source of our agitation and pain when really it’s just an effect.

The Canadian neuropsychologist, Donald Hebb, explains two important Principles, that “neurons that fire together, wire together” and “neurons that fire apart, wire apart”. Our brain is sculpted by the active creation of links through association of experiences as well as the active destruction of links through disassociation of experiences. If there are two nearby neurons that often produce an impulse simultaneously, their cortical maps may become one. This is an important biological fact to consider as far as healing is concerned.

Neural pathways connect distant areas of the brain, and each pathway is associated with a particular action or behavior. Every time we think, feel or do something, we strengthen this pathway. Because the narratives that we interpret events in our lives with determine the nature of the experience, these narratives can thus deepen or superficiate neurological pathways that associate anxiety with an event or memory. The psychotherapist, Albert Ellis, wrote about how it is our beliefs that determine our emotional response to events, not the events themselves.

tl;dr: Trauma and anxiety are stored in our neural network. The degree to which we experience anxiety in relation to events and memories determines the degree to which our neural network is conditioned towards experiencing anxiety. Beliefs and paradigms, expressed as narratives, determine the nature of our experiences. Therefore, narratives can either exacerbate or inhibit such conditioning. They can sculpt the mind in healthy or unhealthy ways. Neuroplasticity can be either adaptive or maladaptive.

Philosophical and Spiritual Implications

Our core beliefs, our paradigms, and our narratives are reflections of our sense of Self and our self-concept. It raises certain ontological questions because of their implications. We should ask not only “What is the nature of Being?” but also “How ought the nature of Being be?” How we perceive ourselves is reflected in how we perceive the world; the Mind constructs and defines concepts and projects them outwards, which is what we experience, calling it the world. It is our perception of the world, rather. We are constructing a world by actively connecting constructed concepts with anxiety and fear, creating an increasingly complex web of interconnected thoughts and emotions that results in a very chaotic world for us. Because, at our core, we expect to suffer, the world thus becomes a traumatic manifestation and a reminder of our most primordial sufferings, of emotional abandonment, and of the shame of abandonment.

We may go some time unaware of this state, but it tends to manifest in situations where we are at risk of becoming emotionally vulnerable and invested. We may cope by latching onto others, neurotically clinging to an external expectation that we have internalized. That is one coping mechanism. Another is its converse, which is to become avoidant completely. Thich Nhat Hanh says that the earliest experience of trauma was being born into the world. That moment plants in our hearts the “seed of fear”, and this is the basis of the ego, our physical existence. Without tending to that seed, that fear will largely determine how events in our lives will unfold and how we will experience the world.

It is possible to tend to that “seed of fear”, to transcend our current self-concept to create a more fulfilling and meaningful world for us. A world that is not the purveyor of our punishment, but rather a place of growth and of lessons, of fulfillment. How to do this is hinted in Ellis’s explanation on how our beliefs determine our emotional response to events. It means that it isn’t simply the case that the brain shapes the Mind, which is a rather materialist positions. But rather, that the Mind can shape the brain by using beliefs and narratives to build newer and healthier pathways. It means that power does not lie in the world of external phenomenal concepts per se, but rather, within ourselves and our capacity to make mental value judgments and our potential to perceive reality in a different way, in a way that manifests from within an overpowering Beauty and deep sense of value that ends our desperate need for validation from other people, from destructive ideologies, from concepts that are mere illusions.


[1] “Emotional Hunger Vs. Love” by Robert Firestone Ph.D.
“Notice that a parent’s failure to respond is not an event that happens to a child. Instead, it’s something that fails to happen for a child. Because CEN is not an event, it’s invisible, intangible, and unmemorable. It goes virtually unnoticed by both child and parent. A hundred people could be watching an instance of CEN and not one of them would notice.”

[2] “Helping Parents Distinguish Love from Emotional Hunger” by Lisa Firestone Ph.D.
“Emotional hunger may be expressed in anxious over-concern, over-protection, living vicariously through one’s child, or an intense focus on appearances. Parents who behave in this manner exert a strong pull on their children that drains a child of his or her emotional resources… [Parents] often confuse their own intense feelings of need and anxious attachment for genuine love. They fail to make a distinction between emotional hunger, which is a strong need caused by deprivation in their own childhoods, and genuine feelings of tenderness, love, and concern for their child’s well-being.

[3] 13 Things to Remember If You Love A Person With Anxiety

[4] How You Can Rewire Your Brain

[5] “How To Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything-yes, Anything” by Albert Ellis (Author).

[6] “The Will to Power” by Friedrich Nietzsche (Author), Walter Kaufmann (Editor, Translator), R. J. Hollingdale (Translator).

[7] “The Complete Guide to Overcoming Eating Disorders, Perfectionism and Low Self-Esteem” By Christopher Freeman, Peter Cooper, Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan.

[8] “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1899) by Charles Darwin.

[9] “The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation” (1975) by Margaret S. Mahler (author) with Fred Pine and Anni Bergman.

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