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Friendship with ex: attachment anxiety causing panic attacks

J

jojeba

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My boyfriend broke up with me three months ago because he was suffering from depression and didn't feel he was able to be in a relationship. We had been very happy so it was a difficult sudden blow. I told him I would be there for him but avoided contacting him for a month, to give him space. I realised his depression was not helped by my constant need for contact with him, and I used the time to explore why I felt such deep attachment, and why I couldn't handle the break up very well. After a month I felt clearer and got in touch. We've met up a few times since then, as friends, and he said he really values me as an ally. He clearly cares about me, and I still care about him, but he's going away travelling for 4 months to figure himself out. So I know I just have to be a friend right now. When we're together we're very close, and we both obviously enjoy being together, as friends if nothing more, but when we part ways I have a panic attack. I am short of breath, want to cry, want to be near him again, and cannot work out why I like this. I'm a reasonable and independent person, I don't feel jealous or suspicious of him but this clearly looks like attachment anxiety. We're meeting up one more time before he goes travelling and I just don't know how I will handle that ensuing panic attack. It's taken weeks to get to a therapist via my GP so that won't happen until the new year. I don't want to push this man away by revealing any of my symptoms so am just trying to ride out the feelings alone. How can I get over this?
 
Gajolene

Gajolene

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:welcome: to the forum, sorry I didn't see your post sooner. I think you will benefit by exploring your feelings with your new therapist. You can talk on here as a distration when you panick or start obsessively thinking and can't break out of it.
My current boyfriend and I hated each other when we first met over 25 years ago and he was dating another past friend of mine but we became friends over time, We discovered an attraction for each other when I broke up with my last long term boyfriend and he was boarding temporarily, we formed a relationship and he moved in. It was a disaster, we fought, lived completely differently to one another and annoyed the crap out of each other. We broke up for a year then got back together as the feelings and attractions were still strong, there is a real love between us. Now we work famously together as long as we keep our own places and give each other lots of space. I know my PTSD interferes with my relationships and he has some kind of adhd and can rage time to time which is very triggering for me.
We did find ways to work around it though, It may not be an old school conventional relationship but it works for us and we're quite happy as two independant adults with independant lives.
I hope you find a way to work things to both of your advantages with your friend/boyfriend.
 
N

notrealname

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I don't want to push this man away by revealing any of my symptoms so am just trying to ride out the feelings alone. How can I get over this?
There's your issue.

There is no such thing as pushing a man away by feeling anxiety or feeling upset or being hurt or whatever. Would you be pushed away if he was feeling anxious, upset, etc? You obviously haven't been pushed away by his depression.

People do not leave you because you are unhappy. Or rather, healthy, happy people do not leave you because you are unhappy. That goes for friends and boyfriends.

I have one foot in ambivalent attachment as well. I also don't have any problems with jealousy or suspicion and in fact don't have problems of needing to be inappropriately close in the relationship - I'm happy for others to have their independence - but my reaction to breakups can be extraordinary (and, for me, embarrassing) - and the reason for it is shame:

"There's something wrong with me, further evidenced by this extreme reaction, I can't let them find out because they'll hate me for it/I'm too much/I have issues/I'm crazy/other people shouldn't have to cope with me..."

^^That there is what ambivalent attachment means. It's about shame and about believing, at some level, that you are unwanted (because you 'need too much'). In reality, ambivalently attached people were given the impression early on in life that they needed too much and were ashamed to need their parents (they had the same needs as other children, but their parents were unable to meet those needs in a consistent manner, giving the child the impression that they were 'too needy' and that they would be rejected for being too needy). This continues in your mind into adulthood and plays itself out.

You have said in your message you feel your boyfriend's depression was deepened by your need for him - why would that make someone depressed? I just want you to ask yourself that, because most people do not feel depressed when someone wants to be around them. They feel wanted. Most people actually find it flattering - unless this was a case where you were phoning him several times a day? And are you sure you wanted to be inappropriately close? Or did he want to be inappropriately distant? (Make sure you don't take whatever he says is 'normal' as the truth)

You are now saying that he will reject you if he sees any need in you - if you appear too anxious or too upset by the idea of losing him. Do you think it is inappropriate to feel anxious and upset about not seeing someone you are in love with? I would say it is 100% absolutely healthy and completely normal to be upset about that. Allow yourself to be upset about that, you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. And believe me when I say that it is shame that is causing every symptom you have (if it really is an attachment issue).

Sorry if this doesn't actually reflect your life, I'm guessing by the words you've used somewhat :)
 
J

jojeba

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Notrealname: Your post just made me
 
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J

jojeba

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Notrealname: Your post just made me cry, because it's exactly me you've described, and exactly my experience in childhood. Thank you so much - you really hit the nail on the head. Just reading that makes me feel I understand myself a little better. I do question my worth, and think my anxiety and 'neediness' is a weakness. I have always thought needing anyone else is weak: that's something I once learned through previous therapy (back before any of this anxiety came about).

And you are so right in all your points about hiding my feelings away, and taking a more realistic perspective. I always assumed it was my neediness that made things worse: he found it hard to respond to me all the time and I in turn, looking back, was always impatient for a response.. Although in hindsight he also told me he couldn't give me the reassurance he felt I deserved, because he was so inside his own head with his depression. I forget about that: in fact, even he felt I was justified in my needs; he was just unable to meet them. But I fear if I tell him about my anxiety and my feelings, that he will take it as proof that being with him just causes me pain (all part of his view that he's not good to be with) or feel it's another pressure to handle, when all he really wants to do is withdraw and be alone.

If he wasn't going away travelling in a couple of weeks' time I would broach this more with him and perhaps see if he wanted to try things again after a little while. But I now have to sit on my hands and think carefully about what I want to say to him. To be honest, I would love to get back together with him but the timing is just all wrong. And that is all part of why I panic I think. I know he's going away and knowing this, I want to be with him all the time. The obsession is horrible and I wind up wasting all my energy on thinking about us, and him, rather than me.
 
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jojeba

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Gajolene, thank you so much for sharing your story. It helps to know I'm not alone. x
 
N

notrealname

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I do question my worth, and think my anxiety and 'neediness' is a weakness. I have always thought needing anyone else is weak
Oh me too. When I first read about attachment theory, I assumed I was avoidant because the list of 'things avoidant people relate to' sounded exactly like me: Independence is extremely important, needing others is weak etc. etc. But these are actually also the things ambivalent people think - perhaps more so.

all part of his view that he's not good to be with
I am not in any way criticising him, but the truth is that right now at this moment, he's right about that. You can have compassion for him and understand his depression and his inability - right now - to be able to provide for others. I'm not asking you to be angry or to hate him for that (I'm sure you'd find that impossible) because it's absolutely not his fault. But unfortunately, it does mean that right now he is not able to provide you with what you need to be happy. And what you need to be happy is not 'too much', as he has attested himself. In your heart wish him the best and hope he finds happiness in the future, but also recognise that you do deserve someone who is capable of meeting your needs and capable of providing a fulfilling relationship.

If he wasn't going away travelling in a couple of weeks' time I would broach this more with him and perhaps see if he wanted to try things again after a little while. But I now have to sit on my hands and think carefully about what I want to say to him. To be honest, I would love to get back together with him but the timing is just all wrong. And that is all part of why I panic I think. I know he's going away and knowing this, I want to be with him all the time. The obsession is horrible and I wind up wasting all my energy on thinking about us, and him, rather than me.
Understandable, but keep moving those thoughts back to yourself every time you find yourself thinking of him. What's really going to make you feel better?

There are a couple of trends among ambivalent folks like you and I. Firstly, a sense of powerlessness - a sense of feeling trapped, stuck, controlled, helpless. As if no matter what you will not get what you want from life. Accept this is not true. Sit down with yourself and work out what you want from life and then make it your pact with yourself that you are going to go out there and do that right now. What do you want for your career? What do you want from your hobbies? How do you envisage yourself loving life separate to your boyfriend? (And you're just going to have to trust that this is possible) Work out what it is - and dream big - and then go out there and do that thing. If it seems overwhelming, work out what steps you can take to approach it in small chunks and, no matter how you feel, force yourself forward into it. When you recognise yourself having thoughts or feelings that are upsetting, do not judge yourself for them, you have not failed. Just be aware they are there and tell yourself 'oh, I'm thinking about that again' and gently shift your attention. If it's an emotion, say to yourself 'I'm feeling ____, but emotions wane if I let them and don't fight them and I can cope with this. I will feel ok again soon'. Allow your thoughts, allow your feelings, do not ever judge yourself for them, and gently shift your attention to something fulfilling or enjoyable because you deserve that.

The other trend among ambivalent folk is to believe they are incompatible with most people - they tend to at some deep level believe love is rare, and they also tend to have a hard time believing they can be happy with anyone but this one person.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, love was actually rare for you when you were growing up. It is totally rational for your brain to have learned that this is true. Fortunately, it's not. There are millions of people out there for you. It's difficult to believe that right now but accept it is true and keep reminding yourself of that fact. Also accept it is difficult for you to believe - and this is 100% normal for absolutely everybody out there in your situation. But recognise that in three months time you will not believe he is the only man out there anymore.

The second reason you are stuck on him is because the only way you can rid yourself of shame is to be accepted despite what you believe are 'shameful flaws' (neediness etc.). Another person accepting you, in your head, would not wipe away that shame. Only him accepting you would wipe away that shame. Recognise this thought pattern and remind yourself that none of this is your fault and that he does accept you just as you are, he just also realises that he cannot be in a relationship right now and he needs to focus on himself. You need to focus on yourself too.

Be very, very kind to yourself. It's difficult if you're in the habit of self-shaming, so don't beat yourself up if you find it hard. Just recognise when you're doing it and gently shift your attention and keep repeating to yourself that you have nothing to be ashamed of.
 
J

jojeba

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Thank you so much. So so much. I am bookmarking this to read every day.
I last saw my ex the day before yesterday - I ended up staying over at his. We clearly both care for each other. But obviously can't commit to one other the way we want to. It's difficult. Today I am in full blown obsessive mode. He fills my thoughts and I feel shaky with the stress of it. Every time I see something around my house that reminds me of him or hear a song, my heart crumbles into my stomach. I am seeing him again in just over a week, probably the last time before he leaves, as I mentioned. I am also going away for Christmas with a girl friend between now and then. I want to be excited about that instead of just focusing on my attachment. I'm following the techniques you suggested and sometimes they work but only for a minute or two. I don't want to be like this.
 
N

notrealname

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Thank you so much. So so much. I am bookmarking this to read every day.
I last saw my ex the day before yesterday - I ended up staying over at his. We clearly both care for each other. But obviously can't commit to one other the way we want to. It's difficult. Today I am in full blown obsessive mode. He fills my thoughts and I feel shaky with the stress of it. Every time I see something around my house that reminds me of him or hear a song, my heart crumbles into my stomach. I am seeing him again in just over a week, probably the last time before he leaves, as I mentioned. I am also going away for Christmas with a girl friend between now and then. I want to be excited about that instead of just focusing on my attachment. I'm following the techniques you suggested and sometimes they work but only for a minute or two. I don't want to be like this.
You're going to feel that way at first but it will go. Just believe that it doesn't last long and that these are only emotions - you can cope with them. Give yourself a bit of distance between your thoughts and your feelings, it takes a bit of practice and you have to keep doing it. I know it's horrible but you're going to be ok soon.
 
J

jojeba

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You're going to feel that way at first but it will go. Just believe that it doesn't last long and that these are only emotions - you can cope with them. Give yourself a bit of distance between your thoughts and your feelings, it takes a bit of practice and you have to keep doing it. I know it's horrible but you're going to be ok soon.
Notrealname: I can't thank you enough for your advice. I will keep trying to find that distance. It helps if I remember that giving my ex the space he needs, and focusing on my own goals, is actually what has helped us come back together the way we have. If I panic now and push things it will not help either of us. And that I need to give myself space and time too, so that things get easier. I will try to keep all this in mind when I see him in a week's time. Every time I feel panicked and desperate, or catch myself obsessing (which, granted, is every few minutes), I try to think of something else. He's still there, in the back of my mind, no matter what I am doing, but I will try to remember that this will pass. Again, I really appreciate all your words. It means a lot.
 
J

jojeba

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Update: We were supposed to spend a day together before he goes off travelling in a week, but he's cancelled due to not having enough time. I feel panicked all over again. I suppose deep down I know this will prevent me having a really bad anxiety attack after saying our goodbyes but I was emotionally reliant on that last day together. I wonder how long it will take until he's no longer in my head? I have a week at home with all my friends away for xmas and NYE and worry for my sanity!
 
J

jojeba

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Well, an update for anyone interested: my ex was withdrawing more before his trip away, but two days before sent me a long letter apologising for not having the emotional capacity needed to give me what I deserved; thanking me for always being there for him, saying that I have changed his life and wishing me good things in my own life. And that he loves me very much. That meant a lot and answered a lot of questions in my own heart. It seems I've done the right thing all along, although now he's gone I have to focus on myself. Him leaving has helped my attachment anxiety (still early days but so far I feel calmer) and am going to go back to a therapist soon too and address what made me get so attached and hope I never feel that way again. It's amazing how lost you can be in your own head when in the throes of anxiety. I look forward to feeling clearer as time goes on.
 
N

notrealname

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Well, an update for anyone interested: my ex was withdrawing more before his trip away, but two days before sent me a long letter apologising for not having the emotional capacity needed to give me what I deserved; thanking me for always being there for him, saying that I have changed his life and wishing me good things in my own life. And that he loves me very much. That meant a lot and answered a lot of questions in my own heart. It seems I've done the right thing all along, although now he's gone I have to focus on myself. Him leaving has helped my attachment anxiety (still early days but so far I feel calmer) and am going to go back to a therapist soon too and address what made me get so attached and hope I never feel that way again. It's amazing how lost you can be in your own head when in the throes of anxiety. I look forward to feeling clearer as time goes on.
Well done, you're doing really well :) But remember that 'attachment panic' is not a mystifying illness that will take over, you should become attached to partners, it's very important that you do. It's completely, utterly normal. And it sounds to me that your partner was a nice guy that has apologised for not being able to be there for you in a normal, healthy way.

Normally, attachment problems come about when one of these is true:
a) One partner is 'against' attachment to another (feels engulfed by normal levels of attachment/intimacy, dislikes being emotionally close with others)
b) One partner believes they have very few options for love, so believes this is their only chance
c) One partner takes rejection or potential rejection personally due to beating themselves up (if I were a better person this person would have accepted me - it is because of me that I am not with that person)

This all boils down to how we feel about ourselves and what lessons we have learned about love and attachment from our parents. The one time I had a break-up that completely floored me is completely logical and rational when you see it from my point of view (in the context of my experiences).

I had been in many relationships, left most of them, been left once (felt bad, but not overwhelmingly so, when left, and judged myself for feeling bad, believing it showed weakness).

The next relationship I was in, I felt bad immediately because I felt dependent due to overwhelming feelings of shame that I couldn't resolve unless accepted by him. This feeling went away pretty quickly but came back when he turned out to actually care about my feelings and say nice things to me about how felt about me, and tell me he missed me when I wasn't there. His face lit up when I entered the room, etc. It was like I actually mattered to someone and it was the first and only time I had felt that there was something about me that was valued.

The end of that relationship completely destroyed me because in my experience, that's not what relationships were like. I genuinely - utterly - believed that it was not normal for someone to feel that way about me or to treat me that way - to actually care about me and my welfare - until very recently. For years, I believed that relationship was different from all other relationships and that there was something between me and him that could not be repeated.

Now, I am rather demonstrably not stupid and not irrational. Rationality, in fact, is something I love above all else (to a degree others find frankly irritating), but it is in fact perfectly rational for me, given my experiences, to not recognise that someone valuing me should be normal. The reason I was so destroyed and the reason it took me six years (yep) to get over that breakup was firstly because I didn't believe it would ever happen again (I once told a therapist I thought this was utterly unrealistic and stupid and I meant it) and because the extreme emotions I experienced during the breakup, which made me behave desperately and in a burdensome way that I'm not proud of (not made better by my parents' reaction: one to tell me he probably left just so he could be as far away from me as possible (not true, by the way, we did actually get on extremely well and there weren't relationship issues as much as mental health issues on both sides) and the other phoned me up with what I can only assume was a pre-written list of all of my 'failures' over the last year, which he reeled off to me in order to 'motivate me'). In hindsight, I'm not surprised I was destroyed.

I then perpetuated my beliefs over those six years by accepting relationships with men who a) I didn't care about and didn't love and b) didn't show any care or love towards me. I wasn't just being a dick, I genuinely believed that's what life was like and that it would be unrealistic to have any higher expectations. I even thought it was unrealistic I would meet someone I found physically attractive, but now I accept that isn't true, because I've met two people I found attractive this year, although neither was a good match for me personality wise.

Nowadays, I understand that I deserve to be valued and that people valuing me or accepting me for who I am and actually caring about my welfare and feelings. I'm also coming around to the idea that as there is nothing particularly different about me, there will be people I find attractive, and some of them will have a personality well-suited to mine.

These are the kinds of beliefs that perpetuate attachment problems - and that's all an attachment issue is, a set of beliefs that are perfectly rational considering your experience, because no matter how intelligent or how thoughtful you are, if you've never experienced normal or healthy, you have no idea what it looks like.

One of the first things I would encourage is not to judge yourself by your feelings. You haven't actually said anything here that says to me 'attachment issues'. You have said you are upset by your boyfriend leaving you. What do you think would be the healthy response? Indifference? I would be alarmed if you were not upset by the breakdown of a relationship with someone you love. But you sound like you know you will love someone again and that you will begin to feel better about this soon, which tells me you do not have attachment issues. Believe me, six years ago, I would have been writing that it was impossible for me to ever meet someone like that again and that he had set the bar too high. Others would have told me it was ridiculous to say that, and I would have thought 'well, they would say that, they don't understand that our relationship wasn't like other relationships, it's so rare they can never have experienced it', because in my world, being loved was rare. Do you see what I mean?

So I guess what I'm saying, is that you don't sound anywhere near as bad as I was, and having read a load about preoccupied/ambivalent attachment, I'm nowhere near as bad as most (I don't recognise or relate to the vast majority of feelings, thoughts and behaviours that are associated with the preoccupied), so while I absolutely encourage you to have therapy - because if you feel in your gut that you need help then you should absolutely do that and you're obviously a great candidate for therapy because you are so insightful and motivated to feel better - I also want you to know that there is nothing terribly wrong with you. I see no evidence of that, anyway.

You're going to do great. I've managed to get through life so far without too much of a hiccup - although, yeah, plenty of hiccups along the way - and I was in a much worse position than it sounds like you are, with much more extreme beliefs. I wish I had been you at your age, I really do, there's a lot of hope here :)
 
J

jojeba

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Thanks again for your wonderful and generous rationality and insight. I suppose the behaviour that makes me believe I have attachment issues is the extreme panic I feel when not around my ex - hard to breathe, obsessing, etc. I decided to write him a letter with a lot of heartfelt advice for him while he was away working on himself (asking him to be kind to himself, to let him know that while he probably won't want to communicate with anyone that he can always reach me, etc) - and I wrote that letter about 50 times before I got it perfect. Which doesn't sound much but I even spent a whole day just writing that letter over and over. It is obsessive behaviour which doesn't seem to fit into any other part of my life and feels so new and scary. It's only about this particular person, and I think it's because we did have this connection based upon our hidden weaknesses. As if we both saw in the other things that nobody else saw, and we leaned on each other.

Deep down I know I will meet someone again but I find the idea of even kissing someone else horrifying and uncomfortable - not because I don't crave affection or because I'm not interested in being physical with anyone else, but because I still have feelings for my ex. It was, ironically, my shortest relationship yet the most intense and therefore it is proving to be my hardest break-up. Last night I went by his house to drop off the letter I wrote, and we were both clearly finding it difficult to deal with the whole situation. It was awkward and weird, and when I left, he practically hid in the other room... Only as I was about to step out the door did he come out and hug me for a good minute or two, saying nothing. Everything had already been said.

He is someone who can't show his feelings but has revealed them to me, so it means all the more - and that intensity of emotion is new to me. I'm not used to big shows of heartfelt romance (during our relationship) or honest declarations of love and understanding (a couple of days ago - sadly so late in the game but really appreciated), so yes, I am finding it hard to believe I will have that again. Even friends I showed his letter to said they'd never had anyone say such things to them, and I can't imagine I will either.

Thank you for helping me see that not everything I feel is "abnormal" or to do with attachment, and you're right - I am simply heartbroken for the end of a relationship that meant something to me. I also think, looking at my relationship patterns, that I have a habit of trying to "save" and nurture the men I fall in love with, and that this time the man actually needed saving. So it made me feel more valued than I have before. More needed, even if I've only just had him confirm to me that he did in fact need me. But the obsessive and panicked behaviour makes me think I have some attachment anxiety issues, at least around this one man, and hopefully I can unpick and understand what was going on here.

Thanks again for listening, and for sharing your experiences; I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.
 
N

notrealname

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No worries.

And 'aha', I recognise these thought processes.

Does this sound familiar to you?

People with this lifetrap display an excessive focus on meeting the needs of others at the expense of their own needs. These patients experience their self-sacrifice as voluntary They do it because they want to prevent other people from experiencing pain, to do what they believe is right, to avoid feeling guilty or selfish, or to maintain a connection with significant others whom they perceive as needy. The Self-Sacrifice schema often results from what we believe to be a highly empathic temperament – an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. Some people feel the psychic pain of others so intensely that they are highly motivated to alleviate or prevent it. They do not want to do things or allow things to happen that will cause other people pain. Self-Sacrifice often involves a sense of over-responsibility for others. It thus overlaps with the concept of codependence.

It is common for patients with this schema to have psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, or fatigue. Physical symptoms may provide these patients with a way to bring attention to themselves, without having to ask for it directly and without conscious awareness. They feel permission to receive are or to decrease their care for others if they are “really sick”. These symptoms may also be a direct result of the stress created by giving so much and receiving so little in return.

People with this schema almost always have an accompanying Emotional Deprivation schema. They are meeting the needs of others; but their own needs are not getting met. On the surface, they appear content to self-sacrifice, but underneath, they feel a deep sense of emotional deprivation. Sometimes they feel angry at the objects of their sacrifice. Usually patients with this schema are giving so much that they end up hurting themselves.

Often, these people believe that they do not expect anything back from others, but when something happens and the other person does not give as much back, they feel resentful. Anger is not inevitable with this schema, but people who self-sacrifice to a significant degree, and have people around them who are not reciprocating, usually experience at he least some resentment.

it is important to distinguish self-sacrifice form subjugation. When people have the Subjugation schema, they surrender their own needs out of fear of external consequences. They are afraid that other people are going to retaliate or reject them. With the Self-Sacrifice schema, people surrender their own needs out of an inner sense or standard. Subjugated people experience themselves as being under the control of other people; self-sacrificing patients experience themselves as making voluntary choices.

The origins of these two schemas are different as well. Although the two overlap, they are almost opposite in their origins. The origin of Subjugation is usually a domineering and controlling parent; with the Self-Sacrifice, the parent is typically weak, needy, a childlike, helpless, ill, or depressed. Thus, the former develops from interaction with a parent who is too strong, and the latter with a parent who is too weak or ill.

People with the Self-Sacrifice schema typically exhibit behaviors such as listening to others rather than talking about themselves; taking care of other people, yet having difficulty doing things for themselves; focusing attention on other people, yet feeling uncomfortable when attention is focus on them, and being indirect when they want something, rather than asking directly.

There can also be secondary gain with this schema. The schema has positive aspects and is only pathological when brought to an unhealthy extreme. Patients might feel a sense of pride in seeing themselves as caretakers. They might feel that they are good for behaving altruistically, that they are behaving in a morally virtuous way. (In contrast, sometimes the schema has a “never enough” quality, so that no matter how much self-sacrifices do, they still feel guilty that it is not enough.) Another potential source of secondary gain is that the schema might draw other people to them. Many people enjoy the empathy and help of the self-sacrifice. People with this schema usually have many friendships, although their own needs often are not being met in these relationships.

In terms of over compensatory behaviors, after self-sacrificing for a long time, some patients suddenly flip into excessive anger. They become enraged and cut off giving to the other person completely. When self-sacrificers feel unappreciated, they sometimes retaliate by conveying to the other person: “I’m not going to give you anything ever again.
The self-sacrifice schema, as it's called, is a pattern of thinking that is almost always a coping mechanism for another pattern of thinking called emotional deprivation. I was completely unable to see myself in the description of emotional deprivation when I first started therapy and have only been able to see myself in it in the last couple of months - a year after therapy. One of the main tenets of emotional deprivation is that the patient can't feel it or doesn't notice it. This is largely because they do not know they have needs to be fulfilled, as their needs were ignored as a child. That's what I meant about the message "I don't matter" being given by caregivers that did not meet my emotional needs, but I thought all of that was normal so to me there was no problem. Here's the description of emotional deprivation anyway:

This is probably the most common schema we treat in our work, although patients frequently do not recognize that they have it. Patients with this schema often enter treatment feeling lonely, bitter, and depressed, but usually not knowing why; or they present with vague or unclear symptoms that later prove to be related to the Emotional Deprivation schema. These patients do not expect other people-including the therapist-to nurture, understand, or protect them. They feel emotionally deprived, and may feel that they do not get enough affection and warmth, attention, or deep emotions expressed. They may feel that no one is there who can give them strength and guidance. Such patients may feel misunderstood and alone in the world. They may feel cheated of love, invisible, or empty.

As we have noted, there are three types of deprivation: deprivation of nurturance, in which patients feel that no one is there to hold them, pay attention to them, and give them physical affection, such as touch and holding; deprivation of empathy, in which they feel that no one is there who really listens or tries to understand who they are and how they feel; and deprivation of protection, in which they feel that no one is there to protect and guide them (even though they are often giving others a lot of protection and guidance). The Emotional Deprivation schema is often linked to the Self-Sacrifice schema. Most patients with a Self-Sacrifice schema are also emotionally deprived.

Typical behaviours exhibited by these patients include not asking significant others for what they need emotionally; not expressing a desire for love or comfort; focusing on asking the other person questions but saying little about oneself; acting stronger than one feels underneath; and in other ways reinforcing the deprivation by acting as though they do not have emotional needs. Because these patients do not expect emotional support, they do not ask for it; consequently, usually they do not get it.

Another tendency we see in patients with an Emotional Deprivation schema is choosing significant others who cannot or do not want to give emotionally. They often choose people who are cold, aloof, self-centred, or needy, and therefore likely to deprive them emotionally. Other, more avoidant patients become loners. They avoid intimate relationships because they do not expect to get anything from them anyway. Either they stay in very distant relationships or avoid relationships entirely.

Patients who overcompensate for emotional deprivation tend to be overly demanding and become angry when their needs are not met. These patients are sometimes narcissistic. Because they were both indulged and deprived as children, they have developed strong feelings of entitlement to get their needs met. They believe they must be adamant in their demands to get anything at all. A minority of patients with the Emotional Deprivation schema were indulged in other ways as children. They were spoiled materially, not required to follow normal rules of behaviour, or adored for some talent or gift, but they were not given genuine love.

Another tendency in a small percentage of patients with this schema is to be overly needy. Some patients express so many needs so intensely that they come across as clinging or helpless, even histrionic. They may have many physical complaints-psychosomatic symptoms-with the secondary gain of getting people to pay attention to them and take care of them (although this function is almost always outside their awareness).

Goals of Treatment

One major goal of treatment is to help patients become aware of their emotional needs. It may feel so natural to them to have their emotional needs go unmet that they are not even aware that something is wrong. Another goal is to help patients accept that their emotional needs are natural and right. Every child needs nurturance, empathy, and protection, and, as adults, we still need these things. If patients can learn how to choose appropriate people and then ask for what they need in appropriate ways, then other people will give to them emotionally. It is not that other people are inherently depriving, it is that these patients have learned behaviours that either lead them to choose people who cannot give, or discourage people who can give from meeting their needs.

Strategies Emphasized in Treatment

There is a strong emphasis on exploring the childhood origins of this schema. The therapist uses experiential work to help patients recognize that their emotional needs were not met in childhood. Many patients never realized they were missing something, even though they had symptoms of missing something. Through imagery work, patients get in touch with the Lonely Child part of themselves and connect this mode to their presenting problems. In imagery, they express their anger and pain to the depriving parent. They list all their unmet emotional needs in childhood, and what they wish the parent had done to meet each one. The therapist enters images of childhood as the Healthy Adult, who comforts and helps the Lonely Child, and then the patient enters the image as the Healthy Adult, and comforts and helps the Lonely Child. Patients write a letter to the parent, for homework (which they do not send), about the deprivation uncovered through imagery work.

As with most of the schemas in the Disconnection and Rejection domain, the therapy relationship is central to the treatment of the schema. (The exception is the Social Isolation schema, which usually involves less emphasis on the patient-therapist relationship and more on the patient’s outside relationships.) The therapy relationship is often the first place these patients have ever allowed anyone to take care of, understand, and guide them. Through “limited reparenting,” the therapist provides a partial antidote to their emotional deprivation: a warm, empathic, and protective environment, where they can get many of their emotional needs met. If the therapist cares about and reparents the patient, then this will ease the patient’s sense of deprivation. As with the Abandonment schema, the therapy relationship provides a model that patients can then transfer to others in their lives outside therapy (a “corrective emotional experience” (Alexander, 1956). Like the Abandonment schema, there is a great deal of emphasis on the patient’s intimate relationships. The therapist and patient carefully study the patient’s relationships with significant others. Patients work on choosing appropriate partners and close friends, identifying their own needs, and asking to have these needs met in appropriate ways.

Cognitively, the therapist helps patients change their exaggerated sense that significant others are acting selfishly or depriving them. To counter the “black or white” thinking that fuels overreactions, the patient learns to discriminate gradations of deprivation to see a continuum rather than just two opposing poles. Even though other people set limits on what they give, they still care about the patient. Patients identify the unmet emotional needs in their current relationships.

Behaviourally, patients learn to choose nurturing partners and friends.

They ask their partners to meet their emotional needs in appropriate ways and accept nurturance from significant others. Patients stop avoiding intimacy. They stop responding with excessive anger to mild levels of deprivation and withdrawing or isolating when they feel neglected by others.

In the therapy relationship, the therapist provides a nurturing atmosphere with attention, empathy, and guidance, making special attempts to demonstrate emotional involvement (e.g., remembering the patient’s birthday with a card). The therapist helps the patient express feelings of deprivation without overreacting or remaining silent. The patient learns to accept the therapist’s limitations and to tolerate some deprivation, while appreciating the nurturing the therapist does provide. The therapist helps the patient connect feelings in the therapy relationship with early memories of deprivation, and to work on these experientially.

Special Problems with This Schema

The most common problem is that patients with this schema are so frequently unaware of it. Even though Emotional Deprivation is one of the three most common schemas we work with (Subjugation and Defectiveness schemas are the others), people often do not know that they have it. Because they never got their emotional needs met, patients often do not even realize that they have unmet emotional needs. Thus, helping patients make a connection between their depression, loneliness, or physical symptoms on the one hand, and the absence of nurturing, empathy, and protection on the other is very important. We have found that asking patients to read the Emotional Deprivation chapter of Reinventing Your Life (Young &: Klosko, 1993) can often help them recognize the schema. They can identify with some of the characters or recognize the behaviour of a depriving parent.

Patients with this schema often negate the validity of their emotional needs. They deny that their needs are important or worthwhile, or they believe that strong people do not have needs. They consider it bad or weak to ask others to meet their needs and have trouble accepting that there is a Lonely Child inside them who wants love and connection, both from the therapist and from significant others in the outside world.

Similarly, patients may believe that significant others should know what they need, and that they should not have to ask. All of these beliefs work against the patient’s ability to ask others to meet his or her needs. These patients need to learn that it is human to have needs, and healthy to ask others to meet them. It is human nature to be emotionally vulnerable. What we aim for in life is a balance between strength and vulnerability, so that sometimes we are strong and other times we are vulnerable. To only have one side-to only be strong-is to be not fully human and to deny a core part of ourselves.
The key thing here is that your focus on the needs of others is actually covering up a well of need in yourself. You might not be consciously aware of it, and you may feel that you are simply 'stronger' and able to bear the burden for others when they are needy and upset, and you may feel this is simply the 'right' thing to do. But the obsessiveness you're now feeling is your brain going into fight or flight and saying to you 'I NEED this!' and what you need is to feel like you matter - like you belong, like you have a place in the world, like you are a person of value and worth. That's why that letter and that long hug mean so much to you, because they are little scraps of love to show you are significant in some way, to some one, somewhere.

I can totally empathise with that. But although it sounds like they were beautiful things he did for you, believe me when I say these are scraps, and you don't need to beg for scraps because consistent love exists all around you for you to accept when it is offered. I don't mean to say he is a bad person, he is just in need, as you say, but for that reason he was not able to give you that heartfelt declaration of love earlier in the relationship, or to respond to your needs in a healthy way. That's unfortunate for both of you, but when your brain goes into overdrive and you start obsessing about him, just tell it - love exists everywhere and I matter to a lot of people and I will be significant and special to many, many others, and I will always be significant and special to me.

If you can relate to 'why' you are feeling that way it won't be quite as scary.
 
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