This term turns out to be a powerful way to summarize a huge number of ways in which we deal with emotional pain. It is probably, on average, the first step we take when hurt. It can be recognized in our early recognition of “fight or flight.” We do not like pain and move away from it.
A great cause of pain is the world causing a sense of humiliation in us or any sense of shame. The idea is to get a sense of how this concept of “withdrawal” along with a few others in later essays, are in fact capable of engulfing huge swaths of our behavior. I start by thinking in biological terms, again: pleasure- pain. Did you ever nudge an amoebae with a pipette under a microscope? The organism moves away. It withdraws. A sea anemone closes it’s tentacles.
So on the most practical level it is a move toward safety, although depending on the circumstances some would call it cowardice others prudence. Would that such labels were of any use. The purpose here is to show that such responses as “withdraw” start at such an early age we are well within their clutches before we can do much about them. It can take years to free ourselves and unfortunately we can simply become simplly more and more entangled in our own web.
Yes there is a specific term for this “problem” when it becomes severe and it is “agoraphobia” but one point of these essays is to blur the line between those “official” words and the terms I am using such as “withdrawal.” That is “Agoraphobia” is withdrawal but all withdrawal is not agoraphobia in fact the vast majority of withdraw is not agoraphobia yet damages all of us.
Yet, we like to think of it as a “them” not “us” problem. They have the problem we do not. We do not see all the ways we “withdraw” from people hurting ourselves and others. A few examples:
In the distant past I remember my first year away at college early in the semester I left the safety of my elite campus and went with a “townie” out to a restaurant a few miles out towards the strip malls with a friend of his. We sat down and were talking and at some point I noticed that his friend had disappeared. I panicked I said, "Where did he go?" How was I going to get back to school? He said he left. I was flabbergasted. My friend was a bit older and very nice guy and looked at me knowingly, like I was a lost puppy. Knowing what? Knowing that I had just “not been” around. Knowing that I had not learned about people that abandoned other people. Not knowing about people who “withdrew.”
So an important point “withdraw” is a double edge sword. We “withdraw” because we were “attacked” but this sets up a “habit” that we later cannot control, that may later lead us to not attack other but to “abandon” them when they need us. Ah, but wait a very important insight to appreciate is that to “withdraw” can be an attack. What feels worse to be yelled at by a loved one or to simply have them disappear sometimes never to return? I have mentioned before there is research to show that children that have been verbally abused do better than those that have been abandoned.
Then just the other day deep feelings were triggered in me when a patient got a ride to see me and we were having a very difficult time negotiating something. He said “I would have walked two hours to get here.” I saw his “ride” In the waiting room and then I saw him get up and leave and the patient excused himself for a minute. Then after he came back a while later I asked him what happened to his ride he said, “Oh he left.” A discussion ensued and I asked him what more important thing did his friend have to do? I said and asked, “he knew he was bringing you to the doctor right?” (he did not have to wait to see me at all). So the point is the man (fifty some years old) “withdrew,” bolted for some reason known only to him. True enough I always say when you know the answer it makes perfect sense. He probably “hates” doctors’ offices. But it is one more testament to our level of empathy for one another or at least our capacity to carry it out.
Finally, one place where there is a huge crystal clear problem with “withdrawal” is in Japan where they have a specific name for it. It is called Hikikomori (pulling away, being confined). It is a phenomenon whereby young men will leave school and come home and live in their room. This possibly affects up to 20 per cent of all adolescent males or 1 per cent of the overall population. I understand that it is pretty much that it is not that they live in the house but in their room ( by definition at least 6 months) . This can and does go on for years. It is often precipitated by an incident of bullying at school.
I mention that humiliation is a primary cause of withdrawal such as above in the case of Hikikomori. I am sure it occurs to anyone that fear would be a great motivation to withdraw and so it is, And so too are any number of sequences of feelings.
http://www.squidoo.com/thinking-feeling-doing (Summary of Principles used in these posts.)
Tomkins, Silvan S.: Affect Imagery Consciousness NY: SPringer Publishing Company, 1963.
Shame and Pride : Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self by Donald L. Nathanson Paperback (March 1994)
W.W. Norton & Company; ISBN: 0393311090