March 30, 2022

The Discard Response: How we React to the Trauma of Abandonment.


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For many abuse survivors, our recovery involves confronting and healing from the experience of being discarded.

Our trauma responses can manifest as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. We can even cycle through them much like the stages of grief. Sounds like fun, huh?

I found myself cycling through these responses. Until a few years ago, I thought I was crazy, weak, and defective for doing so. Cue my isolation and shame. I’ve only recently started to break free of that toxic isolation and shame.

These are two of the hallmarks of abuse and abusers. And, likewise, there are also hallmarks of reactions to that abuse and its perpetrators.

What I have noticed, in my own experience, is that I flung my trauma responses in desperate fashion. Great. Sounds well-adjusted. But my erratic desperation of trauma responses was par for the course. Abuse is destabilizing. Response to it is destabilizing. No matter how it’s expressed, we are, in some way, off-kilter. No shame there.

How would anyone react when an explosion hits their life?

So, let’s peruse and demystify some of the chaos.

And then apply grace and compassion to ourselves…for surviving it.

The Discard

Rejection. Abandonment. “Ghosting.”

We are treated in these ways, via our abuser who has decided to leave us physically, emotionally, maritally, financially. They decide/declare they are “done” with us. We have no say in the matter, presumably. We don’t get a vote.

That’s the decree. And we are traumatized, as we feel left alone, bereft. The “fight response” can show up as a refusal to accept being left. We vow to “win them back.” We vow to never give up. We vow to get them to change their minds.

Pleading phone calls, text messages, sobbing prayers to our Higher Power, maybe a little humiliating cyberstalking, thrown in for flair, can pop up here.

We come from the position that they just need to see the error of their ways.

The problem here? They often don’t see their decision to leave us as a mistake. They see that they are right, justified, honorable, even holy in their choice to walk away from us. A bigger, better deal beckons to them. They feel they deserve so much more than us. They may feel it’s simply time to move on.

To them, maybe, “It’s nothing personal.” But it feels personal to us. How could they? That becomes our cry.

If we recognize that our thoughts are not theirs, what’s meaningful to us is not the same for them, we can more easily disengage and stop fighting for what is a defeat beyond our control. We cannot control another person. Fighting can be our self-destructive attempt at control.

They made their choice. And for what it’s worth, abuse survivor to abuse survivor, they chose wrong. You didn’t deserve to be discarded.

We now have the choice to fight for our healthier sense of self.

We already are the bigger, better deal. We can live that way, fully, without them.

Flight can be another trauma response to the discard.

This can be tricky. We can flee from them, from healthy relationships and situations, and, of course, from ourselves and from the truth.

Denial. Magical thinking. Self-medication. Some common tactics for when you and I want to “check out.”

Because the abuse and the trauma of being discarded is so painful, we want to avoid and numb ourselves. Refusal to address these realities in therapy, binging on the addiction of our choice, and telling ourselves that we’re really “fine” (when we are not) are all ways we choose to run away. The discard left us brutalized. No one enjoys feeling that feeling.

So, we reason if we can feel anything else but that, we’ll be safe.

Hate to tell ya, but nope. It doesn’t work like that. It just primes us for future abuse.

No one wants to attend an autopsy. There’s a scary corpse there. It’s gruesome. There’s too much death here. We want life. A good, happy life. Why should we focus, then, on death?

To that, I offer a well-worn sentiment on adversity, of any kind…

“The only way out is through.”

We need to stop running away from the monster. We need to stop and confront the abusive circumstances.

And that’s not to be confused with confronting our abuser.

To do that will, more than likely, invite more pain and dysfunction. We are beyond the person being the source of our issues. Their harm now must turn into our healing. Confronting them, in person, will not necessarily accomplish and facilitate that healing. Confronting how we can become healthier, however, can create our healing. Fleeing from ourselves blurs the image in the mirror.

We need to stop and face ourselves, not our abuser, and all that comes with it.

There’s a difference between that and freezing in our trauma response to the discard.

Yes, indeed. Want another fun response we display? We can also freeze when discarded.

This is not simply about doing nothing, in a moment. This is about being immobilized, paralyzed, disempowered, all because we are traumatized and/or triggered or retriggered. We feel unsafe, in danger. Sometimes we genuinely are. Sometimes, it is our past experiences firing off wild messages that, if we move or act, we will encounter harm.

It is the bunny rabbit in the wild when a wolf is on the scene. The bunny knows stillness is its survival technique, its prey-centric skill set against a predator. Use whatever the creature has at its disposal, therefore.

We respond similarly.

How this can often show up when being discarded is when we operate from an enabling vantage point.

We can reason with ourselves that if we just freeze, make no movement, take no action of any sort, we can be safe as our predatory wolf, the actual discard from the abuser will pass us by. We will no longer be the “prey” of an abandoned person. The relationship, the love, the marriage, the friendship, and our original sense of familiar self. Those important things will all be safely restored and returned to us.

Just be the bunny.

But the bunny also has another survival technique: hop away to safety. Hop for its life. Hop in any direction, just as long as it gets away from the dangerous environment.

Here’s where we need not to judge our desperate attempts at survival. We may have hopped into other dangerous, unhealthy situations, but at least we moved. We need to acknowledge that and give ourselves credit for that. Healing has treacherous terrain attached to it; the process is often confusing, unclear, filled with setbacks, failures, and yes, pain. But moving, eventually, will get us where we need to be.

Keep moving; keep hopping, any way we can.

Another trauma response that we can use is that of “Fawn.”

It can feel like the freeze response, but it involves a bit of surrender, “going belly up.” The approach, like the other trauma responses, asserts the “I’ll do anything to stay safe” line of thinking, even if our safe definition involves having our abuser in our lives, trying to bargain, to keep the peace, at any cost.

It can, indeed, mimic the bargaining stage of the grieving process. It can be passive in our attempts, silently, secretly hoping with our wishful thinking and begging prayers, that our submission will get our discarding abuser to rethink their choice, come back to us, and treat us differently (better).

Or, of course, we can, again, actively pursue and plead with our abusive and abandoning person, asserting, to one degree or another, “I’ll do anything (just please don’t leave me).”

Again, we’re attempting to stay “safe,” to keep some version of our love and happiness definition alive and well, and in our lives.

Here is often where we can lose our dignity. Often, in abusive circumstances, we have been groomed to accept, tolerate, and internalize mistreatment of all kinds. We have learned, wrongly so, that we deserve it. It’s “normal.”

It is not.

But the grooming we have learned has us contorting and twisting, adapting, and changing, all to suit the needs, wants, and demands of the abuser.

We continue this, even within the context of being discarded by that abusive person. Part of why we do this involves the wrong core belief that we need that person’s “permission” to disengage and live free from harsh and harmful treatment.

And even though the abuser may, very well, be “done” with us, they often refuse to permit us to move on. It’s a sick, ego-driven mindset for them. It’s a power imbalance, with them being all-powerful, while we continue to yearn, pine, and be in the beggar’s position for the hope and the potential of any kind of scraps of love and attention.

They enjoy the fact that we don’t get over them. They enjoy being the “un-gettable” object of desire and focus. Why, then, would they do anything to change that? Why would they let us go?

Therefore, we need to take our power back, work on building and restoring healthy self-esteem. We are the ones who need to grant ourselves permission to move on from them. That is part of our work and our healing. Therapy, prayer, meditation, and support groups can aid in that process.

But we cannot wait for the permission to be healthy and happy to ever come from the abuser in the discarding situation. It will not come. They have chosen; they have moved on.

It’s time we choose ourselves and move on, away from them as well.

Rethink Discard: Not Trash

Changing our perspective on how we view the discard, specifically, with us being discarded, involves changing our value from trash to treasure. We are not garbage, even though the experience of “being thrown away” has made us feel like trash. Our inherent worth is a valuable treasure.

We are an original creation, never again to be duplicated on this planet. Healthier people in our lives will see that, honor that, and love that about us.

But before we look to “other,” we need to work on accepting that in and for ourselves. We need not to abandon or reject ourselves.

Acceptance is an ongoing, ever-learning, unique, worthwhile work.

And we are worth doing that work.


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