Help4Trauma.org

Artwork © 2015 Jocelyn Patrick

Overcoming the Cycle

INTRODUCTION

Janet G. Woititz (2010) explains:

The child grows into an adult. We all know what an adult is...until we are asked to define the word. When we begin to search for answers, we wonder. Maybe its the point in your life when you are where the buck stops. Maybe thats when you become an adult ... the time when you are in charge of your life.

You have a lot of questions, many of which lead to new questions. Because your foundation is ambiguous, you've always had a lot of questions. You may not even have known what all those questions were but one thing was clear. You didn't have a lot of answers.

THE PROBLEM

According to Adult Children of Alcoholics (2015):

Many of us found that we had several characteristics in common as a result of being brought up in alcoholic or other abusive, dysfunctional households. We had come to feel isolated, and uneasy with other people, especially authority figures. To protect ourselves, we became people pleasers, even though we lost our own identities in the process. All the same we would mistake any personal criticism as a threat. We either became alcoholics ourselves, married them, or both. Failing that, we found other compulsive personalities, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment.

We lived life from the standpoint of victims. Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, we preferred to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. We got guilt feelings when we stood up for ourselves rather than giving in to others. Thus, we became reactors, rather than actors, letting others take the initiative. We were dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment, willing to do almost anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to be abandoned emotionally. Yet we kept choosing insecure relationships because they matched our childhood relationship with alcoholic or dysfunctional parents.

These symptoms of the family disease of alcoholism or other dysfunction made us 'co-victims', those who take on the characteristics of the disease without necessarily ever taking a drink. We learned to keep our feelings down as children and keep them buried as adults. As a result of this conditioning, we often confused love with pity, tending to love those we could rescue. Even more self-defeating, we became addicted to excitement in all our affairs, preferring constant upset to workable solutions.

THE SOLUTION

Adult Children of Alcoholics (2015) assert:

The solution is to become your own loving parent

As ACA becomes a safe place for you, you will find freedom to express all the hurts and fears you have kept inside and to free yourself from the shame and blame that are carryovers from the past. You will become an adult who is imprisoned no longer by childhood reactions. You will recover the child within you, learning to accept and love yourself.

The healing begins when we risk moving out of isolation. Feelings and buried memories will return. By gradually releasing the burden of unexpressed grief, we slowly move out of the past. We learn to re-parent ourselves with gentleness, humor, love and respect.

This process allows us to see our biological parents as the instruments of our existence. Our actual parent is a Higher Power whom some of us choose to call God. Although we had alcoholic or dysfunctional parents, our Higher Power gave us the Twelve Steps of Recovery.

This is the action and work that heals us: we use the Steps; we use the meetings; we use the telephone. We share our experience, strength, and hope with each other. We learn to restructure our sick thinking one day at a time. When we release our parents from responsibility for our actions today, we become free to make healthful decisions as actors, not reactors. We progress from hurting, to healing, to helping. We awaken to a sense of wholeness we never knew was possible.

By attending these meetings on a regular basis, you will come to see parental alcoholism or family dysfunction for what it is: a disease that infected you as a child and continues to affect you as an adult. You will learn to keep the focus on yourself in the here and now. You will take responsibility for your own life and supply your own parenting.

You will not do this alone. Look around you and you will see others who know how you feel. We will love and encourage you no matter what. We ask you to accept us just as we accept you.

This is a spiritual program based on action coming from love. We are sure that as the love grows inside you, you will see beautiful changes in all your relationships, especially with God, yourself, and your parents.

BREAKING THE CYCLE

Janet G. Woititz (2010) explains:

"Adult children of toxic parents (from abusive, disfunctional, and/or alcoholic parents) guess at what normal is."

Dysfunction, as it is their most profound characteristic. Adult children of alcholic, abusive, and disfunctional parenting simply have no experience with what is normal.

After all, when you look at your history, how could you have any understanding of normalcy? Your homelife varied from slightly mad to extremely bizarre.

Beyond your chaotic day-to-day life, part of what you did was to live in fantacy (dissociating). You lived in a world that you created all your own, a world of what life would be like IF ... what your home would be like IF ... the way your parents would relate to eachother IF ... the things that would be possible for you IF ... And you structured a whole life based on something that was probably impossible. The unrealistic fantasies about what life would be like if your parent got sober, or treated you better probably helped you survive, but added to your confusion.

It becomes clear that you have no framework of reference for what it is like to be in a normal household. You also have no frame of reference of what is O.K. to say and to feel. In a more typical situation, one does not have to walk on eggshells all the time. One doesn't have to question or repress one's feelings all the time. Because you did, you also became confused. Many things from the past contributed to your having to guess at what normal is.

The first major step is to understand that there is no such thing as normal. A more appropriate word is "functional" - what works for you? If applicable, the family you are with now needs to learn to solve problems and resolve conflicts. A basis for you as a parent is to gain knowledge of developmental stages of children so that your expectations for them will be realistic; books concerning this are available at a library or book-store. The family needs to participate together in decision making where everyone's opinions and feelings are validated - no giant secrets. For yourself, find a person with whom you can talk about anything. Be willing to risk admitting that you don't know; this gives you a realistic appraisal of your self and opens the door for real sharing. Do trust your instincts about a situation. Identify what makes you uncomfortable, talk about it, and decide what to do. Most of all, do not worry about being "perfect". When conflicts do arise confront the situation directly (confronting reality is non existant in an abusive home). This strengthens your understanding of what you do and what goes on inside you. Confront it, deal with it, and resolve it.

"Children of abusive homes have difficulty in following projects through from beginning to end."

One evening, in a meeting for adult children of alcoholic, or otherwise abusive, disfunctional households, the topic was procrastination. When I asked the group members to talk about what it meant to them, the opening response was, "I'm the worlds biggest procrastinator," or "Somehow I just don't seem to be able to finish anything that I start."

These comments are fairly typical, and it's not too hard to understand why a difficulty exists. These people are not procrastinators in the usual sense

The great job was always around the corner. The big deal was always about to be made. The work that needed done around the house would be done in no time...the toy that will be built...the go-cart...the doll house...and on and on.

"I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that." But this or that never really happened. Not only didn't it happen, but the alcoholic wanted credit for even having the idea, even for intending to do it. You grew up in this environment.

There were many wonderful ideas, but they were never acted on. If they were, so much time passed that you had forgotten about the original idea.

Who took the time to sit down with you when you had an idea for a project and said, "Thats a good idea. How are you going to go about doing it? How long is it going to take you? What are the steps involved?" Probably noone. When was it that one of your parents said, "Gee that idea is terrific! You sure you can do it? Can you break it down into smaller pieces? Can you make it manageable?" Probably never.

This is not to suggest that ALL parents who do not live with alcohol or abusive tendencies teach their children how to solve problems. But it is to suggest that in a functional family the child has this behavior and attitude to model. The child observes the process and the child may even ask questions along the way. The learning may be more indirect than direct, but it is present. Since your experience was so vastly different, it should be no surprise that you have a problem with following a project through from beginning to end. You haven't seen it happen. Lack of knowledge isn't the same as procrastination.

What is needed here is the "Game Plan" process. First, be willing to take a realistic look at the basic Idea: Is it manageable? Possible? Secondly, develop a step-by-step Plan. Set a time limit for each step (approximate): this gives a sense of what the parts are and how much time needs to be given to each part. The third step is to decide how you are going to meet the time limit. You need to look at your typical working sytle and decided whether or not it needs modified. Look again at the overall plan: be willing to revise the Idea if the steps don't fall into place or if the goal is not manageable. After you have decided to go ahead, do not be rigid with each step, but any revisions must be within careful planning and considersation. It will develop into an automatic response after repeated practice. Your children need to experience a pattern within your home if the cycle is to broken for the next generation. The guidelines need to be established as it is time that they begin to do things systematially; your modelling and guidance is the only thing they have to pattern after.

"Adult suvivors of abuse lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth."

Lying is basic to the family system affected by alcohol, abuse, and otherwise disfunction. It masquerades in part as an overt denial of unpleasant realities, coverups, broken promises, and inconsistencies. It takes many forms and has many implications. Although it is somewhat different from the kind of lying usually talked about, it certainly is a departure from the truth.

The first and most basic lie is the family's denial of the problem. So the pretense that everything at home is in order is a lie, and the family rarely discusses the truth openly, even with each other. Perhaps somewhere in one's private throughts there is a recognition of the truth, but there is also the struggle to deny it.

The next lie, the cover-up, relates to the first one. The non-abusive, non-alcoholic family member covers up for the abusive, alcoholic family member. As a child, you saw your non-alcoholic or non-abusive parent covering up for your alcoholic, abuse parent. You heard him or her on the phone making excuses for your mother or father for not fulfilling an obligation, not being done on time. That's part of the lie you lived.

You also heard a lot of promises from your alcoholic/abusive parent. These too turned out to be lies.

Lying as a norm in your house became part of what you knew and what could be useful to you. At times it made life much more comfortable. If you lied about getting your work done, you could get away with being lazy for a while. If you lied about why you couldn't bring a friend home, or why they were late coming home, you could avert unpleasantness. It seemed to make life simpler for everybody.

Lying has become a habit. Thats why the statement, "Adult children of alcoholic/abusive parents lie when its just as easy to tell the truth," is relevant. But if not lying is what you have heard comes naturally, perhaps it is not as easy to tell the truth.

In this context, "It would be just as easy to tell the truth," means that you derive no real benefit from lying.

The solution lies in the adage: "one day at a time". This is a very difficult since as children we learned direct pay-offs for dishonesty. It is important to differentiate between a measured lie and an automatic lie. A measured lie may be beneficial; the habit to break is automatic lying. The first step is to become aware of it. And promise yourself not to lie for one whole day. If you were not able to do it, write down without "judging" yourself since the idea is to become more aware of how you behave. Repeat this resolve for four days and check progress. If automatic lying is evident, make a commitment to correct any misstatements as they occur. If, in the end, lying cannot be broken then accept it as a deeply rooted survival tactic; you may have to seek help to change your behavior.

"Adults of childhood abuse judge themselves without mercy."

When you were a child, there was no way that you were good enough. You were constantly criticized. You believed that your family would be better off without you, because you were the cause of the trouble. You may have been criticized for things that made no sense. "If you weren't such a rotten child, I wouldn't have to drink." It makes no sense, but if you hear something often enough, for a long-enough period of time, you will end up believing it. As a result, you internalized these criticisms as negative self-feelings. They remain even though noone is saying them to you anymore.

Since there is no way for you to meet the standards of perfection that you have internalized from childhood, you are always falling short of the mark you have set for yourself. As a child, whatever you did was not quite good enough. No matter how hard you tried, you should have tried harder. If you got an A, it should have been a A+. You were never good enough. A client told me his mother was so demanding that when he was in basic training, he found the sergeants loose. So this became a part of you ... who you are, as a part of the way you see yourself. The "shoulds" and "should nots" can become paralyzing after a while.

Your judgment of others is not nearly as harsh as your judgment of yourself, although it is hard for you to see other people's behavior in terms of a continuum either. Black and white, good or bad, are typically the way you look at things. Either side is an awesome responsibility. You know what it feels like to be bad, and how those feelings make you behave. And then, if you are good, there is always the risk that it won't last. So, either way, you set yourself up. Either way there is a great amount of pressure on you all of the time. How difficult and stressful life is. How hard it is to just sit back and relax and say, "It's O.K. to be me."

"Although I make mistakes, I am not a mistake". Be willing to look at yourself honestly. You need to seperate your behaviors from your ideas of yourself as a person. It is your attitude about your "problems" that causes problems. Be open to the positive side of yourself. Be accepting when things go well - this goes against the grain and there may be attempts on your part to sabatoge the whole situation. Accept accomplishments; playing them off is not humility but a perpetuation of a negative self-image. Just because something is easy for you does not mean it is any less important - enjoy it.

"Adults of chilhood abuse have difficulty having fun and take themselves two seriously."

These two characteristics are very closely linked. If your having trouble having fun, you're probably taking yourself very seriously, and if you don't take yourself all that seriously, chances are you can have fun.

Once again, in order to understand this problem, you need to look back at your childhood. How much fun was your childhood? You don't have to answer that. Children on alcoholics or abusive parents simply don't have much fun. One child of an alcoholic described it as "chronic trauma." You didn't hear your parents laughing and joking and fooling around. Life was very serious, angry business. You didn't really learn to play with the other kids. You could join in some of the games, but were you really able to go and let yourself have fun? Even if you could have, it was discouraged. The tone around the house was a damper on your fun. Eventually, you just went along with everyone else. Having fun just wasn't fun. There was no place for it in your house. You gave it up. It wasn't a workable idea. The spontaneous child was squashed.

Having fun, being silly, being child-like, is to be foolish. It is no wonder that adult children - abuse survivors - have difficulty having fun. Life is too serious.

You also have trouble seperating yourself from your work, so you take yourself very seriously at whatever job you do. You can't take the work seriously, and not yourself. You are there-for a prime candidate for burnout.

One night a client turned to me with a very angry face and said, "You may make me laugh at myself, but I want you to know I don't think it's funny."

The child/children in you need(s) to be discovered and developed. A good idea is to spend time with a kid who knows how to have fun. Take time for yourself without deciding that every moment has to be productive - as strange as it sounds, you may have to plan as to how you are going to do this.

Seperate yourself from what you do. Work is not all of you; it is serious because it is relevant but do not make it all encompassing. You do not have to be what you do. You need to plan conscientiously in order to begin to separate yourself from your activities. Schedule your time. Schedule time to Play. Ask yourself what did you DO FOR YOURSELF TODAY? You need to have other things to think about and other things to do in order to have a whole life.

Survivors of childhood abuse have difficulty with intimate relationships.

You want very much to have healthy, intimate relationships, but it is extraordinarily difficult for a number of reasons:

The first and most obvious reason is that you have no frame of reference for what is a healthy, intimate relationship because you have never seen one. The only model you have is your parents, which you know and I know was not healthy.

You also carry with you the experience of, "come close, go away," the inconsistency of a loving parent-child relationship. You felt loved one day and rejected the next. The fear of being abandoned was a terrible fear that you grew up with. If that same fear today isn't overwhelming, it certainly gets in the way. Not knowing what it is like to have a consistent, day-to-day, healthy, intimate relationship with another person makes building one very painful and complicated.

The fear of abondonment gets in the way of the developing of a relationship. The development of any healthy relationship relationship requires a lot of give and take, and problem-solving. There is always some disagreement and anger which a couple resolve. A minor disagreement gets very big very quickly for adult children of alchoholic and abusive parents, because the issue of being abandoned takes precedence over the original issue.

These overwhelming fears of being abandoned or rejected prevent any ease in the process of developing a relationship. Coupled with a sense of urgency, "This is the only time I have; If I don't do this now, it will never happen," tend to put pressure on the relationship. It makes it more difficult to evolve slowly, to let two people get to know each other better, and to explore each other's feelings and attitudes in a variety of ways.

This sense of urgency makes the other person feel smothered, even though it is not the intent. I know a couple who have tremendous problems, because whenever they argue she panics and worries that he is now going to leave her. She needs constant reassurance in the middle of the arguement that he's not going to leave her, and that he still loves her. When he is in conflict, which is difficult for him as well, he tends to want to withdraw and be by himself. Needless to say, this makes the issue at hand more difficult to resolve than if it were only the issue itself needing to be confronted.

The feelings of being insecure, of having difficulty in trusting, and questions about whether or not you're going to get hurt are not exclusive to abuse survivors or adult children of alcoholics. These are problems most people have. Few people enter a relationship fully confident that things are going to work out the way they hope they will. They enter a relationship hopeful, but with a variety of fears.

So, all of the things that cause you concern are not unique to you. It's simply a matter of degree: your being an abuse survivor, or a child of an alcoholic cased the ordinary difficulties to become more severe.

All healthy relationships need to be shared. Offer your partner what you would want offered to you. The degree of intimacy is determined by how much you're is willing to be given.

The ingredients of a healthy relationship involve each of the following:
  • Vulnerability - how willing one is to let down the barriers/how much one is going to let the other affect his/her feelings.
  • Understand - does one understand what the other means by what he/she says or does.
  • Empathy - feel what he/she feels
  • Compassion - genuine concern for issues that cause him/her concern
  • Respect - treating the other as if he/she is of value
  • Trust - allowing another to gain access to things that you don't want everyone to know.
  • Acceptance - being OK with the way you or your parner are
  • Honesty - truth or games?
  • Communication - freedom to talk about issues that are important in the relationship
  • Compatibility - the degree of liking/disliking the same things. To what degree do differences matter?
  • Personal Integrity - maintaining self as well as offering to others
  • Consideration - being mindful of one's own and other's needs
  • Most of all one has to consider, "Am I seen and do I see the other person realistically? The other attributes to not matter if this one is not present. Mainy problems in relationships have to do with one's relationship with self. You need to find what works best for you. Find out who you are. Feel good about yourself and be willing to admit it!! Act on it.

Most of all one has to consider, "Am I seen and do I see the other person realistically? The other attributes to not matter if this one is not present. Mainy problems in relationships have to do with one's relationship with self. You need to find what works best for you. Find out who you are. Feel good about yourself and be willing to admit it!! Act on it.

"Adult survivors of childhood abuse overreact to changes over which they have no control."

This is very simple to understand. The young child of the alcoholic or abuser is not in control. The alcoholic's life was inflicted on him, as was his environment.

In order to survive when growing up, he needed to turn that around. He needed to begin taking charge of his environment. This became very important and remains so. The child of the alcoholic or abuser learns to trust himself more than anyone else when it's impossible to rely on someone else's judgment.

As a result, you are very often accused of being controlling, rigid, and lacking in spontaneity. This is probably true. It doesn't come from wanting to do everything your own way. It isn't because you are spoiled or unwilling to listen to other ideas. It comes from the fear that if your not in charge, if a change is made, abruptly, quickly...and without your being able to participate in it, you will lose control of your life.

When you look back on your reaction and your behavior later, you feel somewhat foolish, but at the time you were unable to shift gears.

Coming to grips with this issue requires a large degree of self awareness. The first thing you have to recognize is when you overreact. If someone should ask, "Whats the big deal?" and you feel defensive than you have overreacted to that situation. Analyze the situation. Why did it really matter to you that the change occurred without your helping to affect it? What did that mean to you? When did it happen before? Understand that your overreaction results from your history. This is the first and most significant way to overcome the pattern - awareness of the pattern and the history that causes it. Unlocking your rigid routines helps to overcome this characteristic. The flexibility exercised here will generalize to other areas. Easing that will help to ease you up. This will help you develop some freedom to affect the things you can and to accept the things you can't.

"Adult survivors of childhood abuse constantly seek approval and affirmation."

We talk about an internal and external locus of control. When a child is born, then environment is pretty much dictates how he is going to feel about himself. The school, the church, and other people all have influence, but the most important influence is what we call "significant others." In the child's world, this means his parents. And as he gets older these messages become internalized and contribute significantly to his self-image. The movement is toward the internal locus of control.

The message that you got as a child was very confused. It was not unconditional love. It was not, "I think you're terrific, but I'm not too happy about what you just did" The definitions were not clear and the messages were mixed. "Yes, no, I love you, go away." So you grew up with some confusion about yourself. The affirmations that you didn't get on a day-to-day basis as a child, you interpret as negative.

Now, when affirmation is offered, it's very difficult to accept. Accepting the affirmation would be the beginning of changing your self-image.

The issue here is one of self confidence. There are a variety of ways to become more confident in one's own abilities. The first way is concerned with the support and encouragement of other people. Decide that you are going to TAKE THE RISK and allow some of the support and encouragement to be felt. Identify the people you can trust. Use their support and encouragement as positive energy. Take the good feelings and use them to feel a little more. Begin building your self confidence. Ask yourself what you did today that you feel good about. Regardless of how trivial it may appear, dont throw it away - you did it; it is your success. Commit yourself to accomplish the tasks you set for yourself once you recognize that it is realistic. If the task is recognized as difficult, practice. Don't spend time projecting disaster or success. Spend your time in the present moment. Understand that you are not responsible for everything that does not work out, and that everything that does work out is not a matter of coincidence. Self confidence is built on little successes and acknowledging the little successes. Build on the things you can do well. Begin to trust yourself and others.

"Adult survivors and children of alcoholics usually feel different from other people."

They also assume that in any other group of people everyone else feels comfortalbe and they are the only ones who feel awkward. This is not peculiar to them. Never, of course, does anyone check it out to find out that each person has his own way of trying not to look awkward. Is that true of you also?

Interestingly enough, you even feel different in a group of adult survivors or children of alcoholics. Feeling different is something you have had with you since childhood and even if the circumstance does not warrant it, the feeling prevails. Other people had an opportunity to be children. You didn't. You were very much concerned with what was going on at home. You could never be completely comfortable playing with other children. You could not be fully there. Your concerns about your home problems clouded everything else in your life.

What happened to you is what happened to the rest of your family. You became isolated. As a result, socializing, become part of any group, became increasingly difficult. You simply did not develop the social skills necessary to feel comfortable or a part of the group.

Its hard for children of abusive and alcoholic parents to believe they can be accepted for who they are, and that the acceptance does not have to be earned.

Take the risk of sharing with others. The risk involves letting you know who you are and getting to know yourself better. You are unique as a person but you are not all that different from other people. Find out all you can about what survivors of abuse feel like. This understanding will not affect feelings much but it will make it easier to push yourself. The only way to get the things you really want is to give them away: If you need to be loved, offer love to others; the need for understanding and closeness are accomplished in the same way. It is important to select just a few special people in your life and offer them what you want and they, in turn, can offer you what they want. Promise yourself that everyday, in a very small way, you will reach out to another person, either by getting to know them better for who they are or by letting them know you a little better for who you are.

"Adult survivors are either super responsible or super irresponsible."

Either you take it all on, or you give up. There is no middle ground. You tried to please your parents, doing more and more, or you reached the point where you recognized it didn't matter, so you did nothing. You also did not see a family that cooperated with eachother. You didn't have a family that decided on Sunday, "Let's all work in the yard. I will work on this, and you work on that, and then we'll come together."

Not having a sense of being part of a project, of how to cooperate with other people and let all the parts come together and become a whole, you either do all of it, or you do none of it. You also don't have a good sense of your own limitations. Saying "no" is extraordinarily difficult for you, so you do more and more and more. You do it - not because you really have a bloated sense of yourself - you do it (1) because you don't have a realistic sense of your capacity, or (2) because if you say "no" you are afraid that they will find you out. They will find out that you are incompetent. The quality of the job you do does not seem to influence your feelings about yourself. So you take on more and more and more ... until you finally burn out.

The issue here is the need to be perfect. Many super responsible people, in order to stop, have to get sick - they burn out. They cannot find an acceptable way short of this. It does not have to get to that point to begin working on the problem. Part of the solution is realistically assessing your own capabilities. Assess what is fair tor someone else to ask of you. First look at your work and set up specific guidelines for yourself. Consider the amount of time you are willing to spend on the job. Refer to your job description and decide what is reasonable and fair to be asked of you. Seperate your responsibilities from the work that belongs to someone else. Decide what is workable and what is not. You may need to discuss these things with another person. The basic question is "Do I really have need or really want to do this? "No" is an option that is always available to you. If you are not sure, discuss it with someone you can trust. Learning to say "no" is hard to do and involves practice and risk taking. Look at the consequences and be ready to handle them.

Give yourself time to think if you are not sure. This will provide time to figure out an alternative or to make it easier to say "no" if that's how you feel. Buying time can enable you to get started or burn out. If you have burned out, you need time to rest and recover. When the energy reappears, you need to live in a more measured way. You need to begin giving to yourself; you need to learn to take in energy, not only to give but to get. Take a look at your relationships. You may need to develop relationships with people who have as much to offer you as you have to offer them. If the problem of being super irresponsible results from never having gotten started, you may need to find out what it is you want to do. It will probably be a good idea to do this with some professional direction. The decision to do this is probably the hardest part.

References:
Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, Inc. (2015). The Problem. Literature. Retrieved from: http://www.adultchildren.org/literature

A., T., & F.,D. (1978). The Laundry List: The ACoA Expereince. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

Woititz, J. G. (2010). Adult Children of Alcoholics: Expanded Edition. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=NlihAgAAQBAJ

Woititz, J. G. (2010). The Complete ACOA Sourcebook: Adult Children of Alcoholics at Home, at Work and in Love. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?isbn=0757395414