The Five Stages of Healing from Abandonment, Heartbreak, and Loss

silhouette of a woman standing staring at the sky

And even though we need one another, abandonment has taught us that we don’t need any one person to find love and fulfillment. We need people, possibility, and hope. When we stay connected to our feelings, the possibility for emotional fulfillment is always present. – Susan Andersen

Deep intensive inner work is what you can expect with this book as your guide through healing from abandonment. Yep, abandonment. Such a harsh-sounding word to such a painful experience we’ve all had in one way or another.

The book focuses mainly on abandonment in the context of relationships. Psychotherapist Susan Anderson defines it as a loss of love, a feeling of disconnection, being left behind. And all these she personally went through when her longtime partner told her he doesn’t love her anymore and left her out of the blue.

After more than 30 years of helping clients how to deal with heartbreak and loss, it’s when she fully recognized that practical, well-researched, and clinically tested steps are required to heal from such an emotional wound.

Because it’s a workbook, you will find many questions and inventory questions (“IQs”) for introspection to help you with the recovery process.

Susan also shares the story of the little girl who was abandoned by her parents and the black swan who teaches her the lessons. These are the “Swan Lessons” we can all learn from as we deal with heartbreaking experiences.

More than the goal of abandonment recovery, the higher purpose that this book wants to serve is for us to celebrate the life around us at all times and increase our capacity for love.


Observing its shape and dimensions from a distance, I was able to see for the first time that abandonment has its own kind of grief—a powerful grief universal to human beings. I could see where its natural folds lay—that it broke down into five universal stages: Shattering, Withdrawal, Internalizing, Rage, and Lifting.

Each of the stages affects a different aspect of human functioning and calls forth a different emotional response. They overlap one another as part of one inexorable process of grief and recovery.

Susan was comparing the grief — a different form of grief we feel from abandonment — to a dark cloud that overshadows us.

She says there are 5 stages of abandonment:

  1. Shattering – the painful tear in your attachment, a stab wound to the heart. Your sense of self is fractured and your sense of reality is destroyed. You’re devastated!
  2. Withdrawal – much like drug (or any addiction) withdrawal, you’re yearning intensely for your object of desire. You feel a painful aching, longing, needing a love fix but can’t get one.
  3. Internalizing – a critical stage, you blame yourself for your loss. You feel unworthy. Doubts and insecurity creep in, which slowly damage your sense of self.
  4. Rage – in your attempt to reverse the rejection, you express rage over being left. You’re angry about your situation and you’re impatient to get your life back in order.
  5. Lifting – life begins to distract you, lifting you back into it. Abandonment lessons are learned and you feel ready to experience life in a new way.

Susan tells us that we’ll swirl through the stages within an hour, a day, a year, cycles in cycles, but eventually, we emerge out as a changed person. This transformation leads us to greater life and love.

the abandonment recovery workbook healing quote


Akeru is the name I’ve given to a program that turns the pain of an ending into the beginning of positive change. Akeru is a Japanese word with many meanings: to end, to begin, to pierce, to start, to expire, to unwrap, to turn over, to close, and to open. It’s a perfect word to describe the cycle of renewal and healing involved in abandonment recovery. Akeru also refers to the empty space created when someone leaves, allowing you to see a painful loss as an opportunity to fill a void with something new and positive.

“All beautiful beginnings are disguised as painful endings.” That’s what comes to mind when we speak of Akeru. It signifies rebirth.

Akeru is the special type of mindfulness practice, the healing balm we apply to the wound caused by abandonment. It works with rather than against the energy involved in the pain. It uses the powerful human desire for attachment to create new life and connection.

For each stage of the SWIRL process, there is a corresponding Akeru exercise:

  • For Shattering, the Akeru exercise is called Staying in the Moment
  • For Withdrawal, the Big You / Little You Dialogue
  • For Internalizing, the visualization exercise called Building a Dream House
  • For Rage, the self-awareness tool called Outer Child
  • For Lifting, there’s an exercise for Increasing Your Capacity for Love and Connection

Blame It on the Amygdala

Your amygdala is an almond-shaped structure set deep within the mammalian brain (or “limbic system,” as some call it). The amygdala plays a central role in the way you emotionally respond to any threatening situation. It functions as your body’s central alarm, scanning your environment for signs of imminent danger, warning and empowering you with powerful stress hormones with which to protect yourself. The danger it perceives can be a stampeding herd of buffalo, an explosion in a nearby building, or the threat of your primary relationship breaking apart.

Imprinted in your amygdala are memories of how you responded to fearful events accumulated since childhood—events that conditioned you to respond automatically to future events. The amygdala reacts to abandonment as a threat. We experience this reaction as fear. Our first fear is abandonment—being left with no one to ensure our survival.

It’s not you. It’s a part of you — your amygdala (the emotional part of the brain). It’s the seat of emotional memory and it plays a lead role in the abandonment experience.

When there’s a threat, our body goes into the fight-or-flight response and preps us for enduring the battle. The same thing happens when the threat is the loss of a relationship, but we intellectually interpret the surge of neurohormones and other physiological signs of self-defense as “going into pieces” (the Shattering stage).

This small organ in our brain that was conditioned to react to abandonment when we were a child reacts the same way during an adult break-up. (Indeed, we’re still children acting only as grown-ups)

The amygdala also can worsen the abandonment experience because it triggers past memories, along with the old painful feelings that can seem out of proportion to the actual situation.

Next time a friend asks, “What’s wrong with you?” Now, you know, “It’s not me. It’s my amygdala.”

Okay, that was an excuse, hehe… It’s still you, but at least you become aware of why you feel a certain way and know that there’s nothing wrong with the way you feel. With that awareness, which you have access to through the cerebral cortex (the cognitive part of the brain), you are able to consciously process your experience and handle your feelings.

the abandonment recovery workbook healing quote

Back to the Future

The only human resources strong enough to heal the powerful feelings of abandonment are your awareness and your imagination. Awareness is what helped you find your center, and imagination helped you create peacefulness and hope within it.

Back to the Future doesn’t rely on traditional inroads into your psyche. By gaining entry through your imagination, it disarms your internal gatekeepers—those psychological gremlins who work unconsciously to maintain the status quo in your life. Back to the Future is not about maintaining your old patterns; it’s about changing them.

Through 30 years of clinical practice and personal experience, Susan claims that the Back to the Future exercise provides a shortcut to recovery, but it does not work by magic. It involves taking action. We put our imagination into action.

(Remember the “Slightly Future Self” lesson from Start Right Where You Are???)

You imagine your life as it might look in the future after having gone through a difficult experience. It involves three levels: visualization, problem-solving, and action.

Compare this exercise to karate. Karate masters prepare to break the block by visualizing not the block, but the space beyond the block to break through it. Likewise, Back to the Future uses your imagination to visualize the space beyond your blocks and yield positive outcomes.

To visualize the future possibility is to focus your energy on the solution rather than the problem.

Back to the Future exercise is what we use in the Akeru exercise Building a Dream House. Simply put, you imagine your dream house, picturing yourself within it, and feeling grateful for the possibilities of life.

With consistent practice, this exercise improves your sense of self-worth, boosts your self-esteem, and helps you feel good about yourself — values that abandonment may have deprived of you.


A common and vexing problem keeping many of you on the outside of love is a condition of the heart that I call abandoholism. It occurs when abandonment takes on a mind of its own and becomes a compulsion. You’ve heard of foodaholism, workaholism, shopaholism, and, of course, alcoholism. Well, here comes another addictive pattern—abandoholism.

Abandoholism is similar to the other -holisms, but instead of being addicted to a substance, you’re addicted to the emotional drama of heartbreak. So you pursue unavailable partners to keep the romantic intensity going and to keep your body’s love chemicals flowing.

We’ve got another connection here. Review The Gap lesson from Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.

We have a name for it in the abandonment case: “Abandoholism” — a psychobiological form of addiction. Susan describes abandoholics as people who have been hurt in the past, and the associated fear they acquired has conditioned them to equate insecurity with love. This leads them to getting involved with unavailable partners that bring up those insecurities.

Put another way, abandoholism is the addiction acquired from filling “the gap,” the emotional hole, the emotional drama that needs to be fed.

Now, how do you break this pattern? You need to learn more about yourself, come out of denial, know your values, and examine your deeply held self-defeating beliefs. Then replace them with new ones that will serve you for your greater good.

the abandonment recovery workbook healing quote


A primary task of abandonment recovery is to strengthen your ability to be a separate person. This is a first step in accepting the reality of your aloneness. Whether you are emotionally or physically alone, it is where you are right now. As you’ve discovered, protesting it doesn’t make it go away and only keeps you stuck in Withdrawal. The idea is to accept that you are alone for now and decide what you can do to make the best of it.

This requires a huge leap—all the way from focusing your energy on what you wish you had to what you do have. And what is that? You have yourself and your determination to benefit from your abandonment experience.

The first step towards healing? Acceptance. Accept the situation you’re currently in. Don’t deny the feeling that comes with that acceptance. You can run away from what you feel, but you can never run away from yourself.

Susan says that being alone allows you to face yourself. You open yourself to discovering your higher self.

She quotes psychotherapist Peter Yelton: “To find yourself alone not by choice is the only gateway you’ll ever have to really knowing yourself. Only when the deep pain is acknowledged can the truly transformative occur.”

And she goes on further emphasizing that your ability to be your own separate person is critical to sustaining a long-term relationship in the future.

Self-Love IQ

Accepting the universal need for connection does not mean that you must first find a mate to be happy. It means that you must provide an object of focus for your attachment energy, and that object, first and foremost, is you. Learning to love yourself is critical to recovery.

…not only to recovery but to everything.

Here are the inventory questionnaires (IQs) excerpted from the book that you may find helpful in your self-assessment:

  • Before I can really know love, love has to come from myself, toward myself.
  • Going through heartbreak is an opportunity to learn how to perform this critical task: loving myself.
  • My feelings are the gateway to recognizing how important it is to be loved—loved not by my ex or by a new partner, but by myself.
  • The emotional hunger I feel is my yearning for love from myself.
  • The task of self-love is long overdue in my life, something that needed my attention well before the breakup.
  • My life is exactly where I need it to be to work on what I need to work on.

Follow-up on our previous insight, aloneness doesn’t equate to loneliness. Love has nothing to do with relationship status.

You can be single, alone, and yet still completely happy.

the abandonment recovery workbook healing quote

Big You / Little You

Based on psychoanalytic theory and decades of clinical evidence, Kirsten and Robertiello designed the Big You / Little You exercise to bypass your unconscious gatekeepers and turn self-love into a hands-on activity rather than an abstraction. The technique makes use of separation therapy. It involves separating the part of yourself that contains all of your feelings from the cognitive part where your adult self resides. Separating the two allows you to create a therapeutic dialogue between them.

Susan adapts this Akeru exercise for separation therapy from two psychoanalysts (Kirsten and Robertiello) as a practice to cultivate self-love.

What you do is separate your emotional self (the inner child) — the Little You, from your intellectual self (the adult) — the Big You. And you’re going to have a dialogue (preferably written) between the two.

Little You will express her long-neglected emotional needs and will look to your adult self for help. Your child self reveals her fears, hopes, and dreams.

Big You will be like an ideal parent attending to a child’s needs and feelings. You can also picture your adult self as the better person (higher self) you’re becoming.

the abandonment recovery workbook healing quote

There are questions and sample dialogues provided in the book that can guide your conversation, but there’s really no specific format. Just keep it going. Be open and honest as you can to yourself. And more important is to make this a regular practice (Susan suggests deliberate practice for three months).

Outer Child

The key to change is learning to use Rage energy constructively rather than destructively. You’ve no doubt heard people suggesting you should be proactive rather than reactive. But how do you channel anger in a positive way? That’s the real question.

You need a tool.

I’m going to introduce you to a new voice of your personality: Outer Child. Outer Child is a self-awareness tool that helps you get a handle on how your Rage has gone underground to subvert your relationships. You learn to put your needs and dreams in the hands of your adult self—Big You.

In the hierarchy of self, Outer Child stands between the inner child and the adult— between Big You and Little You. Unlike Big or Little, Outer is a nemesis.

Guess who’s coming uninvited to your Big You / Little You dialogue: the Outer Child — the devil’s advocate, your own saboteur. It won’t go down without a fight. And fight is what it does best.

It doesn’t want to listen to Little You’s feelings. It only cares about its own demands. When it doesn’t get what it wants, it gets mad.

Susan identifies the Outer Child as part of the personality that is driven to act out Little’s anger and fear about being abandoned.

Therefore, we also have to get to know Outer Child, its behavioral patterns, and find out its emotional triggers.

Susan says the key to disarming Outer Child’s defenses is to acknowledge the anger fueling them. To do that, we must learn to separate our feelings from our actions. We need to step into Big You’s shoes to guide our behavior with its adult wisdom.

Think Big. Become a Bigger Person than the Outer Child.

Big Love

The ultimate gift of abandonment is the opportunity to increase our capacity for love. Abandonment taught us that love is the primary focus of a meaningful life. During this final stage, we discover a wellspring of purpose in our human need for love.

“You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.” Ooh! I just love that line by the poet Rumi. It says it all about abandonment.

In the end, abandonment and all the pain it has caused you are truly a blessing in disguise, a gift wrapped in sandpaper. It’s the reason why we say love doesn’t come without pain.

Ladies, your fairy godmother Susan has these final words for you:

Understanding the reason you crave love as intensely as you do is an important step in recovery. The message here is not to give up on your dreams to find someone but to not wait till you find Mr. Right to be happy.

When you don’t have the love you want, create a higher purpose for love to serve in your life. This means broadening your concept of love. It can be much bigger than you currently think. Now we’re talking about developing a higher purpose for this need for connection, one that centers on an expanded concept of love. When loneliness bothers you, use it as motivation to administer to your injuries and transcend to love’s higher purpose.

You have yourself. Love again and this time begin with you. Don’t be afraid of falling completely in love with yourself. You will never get to abandon you.

Love yourself fully and completely. It will be so awesome to share your fullness with the people around you because a wellspring of love is outpouring from you… and even more awesome when you finally found “the one” with whom to share your completeness.

May you love happily ever after!

The Abandonment Recovery Workbook: Guidance through the Five Stages of Healing from Abandonment, Heartbreak, and Loss


SUSAN ANDERSON is the founder of the Outer Child and Abandonment Recovery movements, she has devoted the past 30 years of clinical experience and research to helping people resolve abandonment and overcome self-sabotage.

Visit her online at

Other Books by Susan Anderson

The Journey from Abandonment to Healing: Revised and Updated: Surviving Through and Recovering from the Five Stages That Accompany the Loss of Love
The Journey from Heartbreak to Connection
Taming Your Outer Child: Overcoming Self-Sabotage and Healing from Abandonment

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