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How Your Fear of Abandonment Keeps You Alive

This is a two-part blog of how the evolution of human emotions has kept us alive. Check out my last blog for the case example of Ichiro and Shohei.

But to continue the conversation, the fear of abandonment and rejection is super real for many of us. Sometimes, this connects all the way back to your childhood. Your parents may have divorced when you were young. Or you might have been neglected by your parents. Or your parents openly criticized you and shamed you. Or maybe you were bullied by your classmates.

There are many situations where a child might interpret certain experiences as rejection or abandonment. And a lot of times, they carry that with them into adulthood.

You might think that this fear of rejection and abandonment is silly. Or maybe you feel like it makes you weak. Or maybe you feel ashamed for caring what other people think of you. But I’ll debunk all of that, and explain why we evolved to care about what other people think of us.

We’re All Helpless Babies

Have you ever wondered why a baby antelope can run within minutes of being born? And why human babies are pretty much helpless when we’re born?

In Homo Sapiens' evolution, bipedalism (walk on two feet) and our intelligence were two really important changes. Since bipedalism requires our pelvis to be larger and broader, the bodies of our ancestors evolved over time to support it. But it also narrowed the human birth canal.

The evolution of human intelligence meant that we had bigger brains. So now, our heads are bigger than ever, but the birth canal is smaller than ever. So how the heck are human fetuses able to squeeze their big heads through the birth canal?

In order to get our big brains through the birth canals, human babies were born prematurely, before they were fully developed. When we’re born, our brains are not fully developed, and it continues to grow and develop as we age. Which is why human babies are born helpless. Because by the standards of our previous ancestors, human babies are born prematurely.

Young humans are completely dependent on their caregivers. And these children know that, and they are genetically wired to build connection with their caregivers, as a way of survival. There are even theories that babies evolved to be cute, to promote caregiving behaviours from their caregivers.

This is why as babies, we want the attention of caregivers, and freak out when we feel abandoned, rejected, or neglected. Because abandonment, rejection, and neglect are literally the death of us.

Solo Quests Equals Death

Humans are weak. Like really weak. In a one-on-one fight, a chimpanzee would destroy us. If you don’t believe me, Google it. But what we lack in individual strength, we more than make up for, in our ability to work together. Our strength isn’t in our physicality. Our strength is in our numbers, and the ability to organize our numbers to cooperate and create complex social structures of interdependence.

Our ancient ancestors 200,000 years ago can’t survive alone. If they were ever kicked out of their group, they would die. They might die to the weather and inability to build adequate shelter by themselves. Or die because they were killed by predators. Or die because they can’t forage and hunt as a single person.

So our ancient ancestors HAD TO make sure they don’t piss the group off and get kicked out. One theory of shame and guilt is that these emotions were developed so we conform to group norms. In other words, we developed shame and guilt as a way to make us feel shitty about ourselves. And because we don’t like feeling shitting, the shame and guilt we feel will get us to conform to group norms, and get us to at least pretend to be nice to other people in the group.

We also evolved a desire to gain social acceptance. Social acceptance makes us feel positive emotions, which encourages us to cooperate and build good relationships with those around us. As a result, we are more likely to receive help and support from others in the group.

So in our evolution, when we are accepted by the group, we feel good. And when we are rejected and abandoned, we feel shame and guilt. And this shame and guilt can get super unbearable. It can go so far as to trigger our fight-flight-freeze response, because we were evolved to understand rejection and abandonment as a death sentence.

We Don’t Need People, But We Also Kinda Do

So let’s reflect on our present day. Let’s think of Canada. Times have changed since our ancient ancestors, 200,000 years ago. For the most part, we don’t need other people. If we don’t belong in any social group, we’re still able to survive.

But our genetics have hardwired us to seek out social connection. Social rejection and isolation are actually really harmful for our mental and physical health.

And part of my work with clients is to find the middle ground. We want to start regulating our bodily systems and emotions, so we can “re-train” bodies to understand that it doesn’t need to activate the fight-flight-freeze response when we are rejected or abandoned.

But of course, we still want to build healthy relationships with others. As noted, it has a huge impact in our mental and physical health. Not to mention life just seems more fun to have positive relationships with others. So we want to find the middle ground of caring vs not caring about social rejection.

With current day technology, we have access to millions of people worldwide. Compared to our ancestors, they only had a hundred or so. And they had to make it work with this pool of people to survive.

But because in our current society, we have soooo much reach, it can be overwhelming when our fight-flight-freeze response is triggered by every single perceived rejection in each social media post or email or text, etc.

So an important part of mental health is to learn to regulate our fight-flight-freeze response. And we also want to pursue relationships that are meaningful to us, rather than being pre-occupied by what some random person said on our Instagram.

But if there’s a takeaway with this blog, is it this: Your fears of abandonment and rejection is normal, and was evolved to keep you alive. So don’t shame yourself for it. Instead, learn to regulate your fight-flight-freeze response, and learn to focus on the relationships that are meaningful for you.

Hey there, my name is Harry, and I’m an Asian therapist here to support your search for health and authenticity. If you are open to weekly self-care FUN-ctivities, subscribe to my “Happy Chemicals Club.” If you enjoy podcasts, you can check these out.

Harry Au

Therapy for Asians

MSW, RSW | he/him

I help Asians go from feeling trapped to becoming self-liberated.

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