Therapists have long known that when we have grown up in unstable, disruptive, and dysfunctional families end up having similar characteristics. As a result, they end up having traits that can directly affect their potential for having full and enjoyable lives.
Originally, the research was focused on alcohol as the only dysfunction in the family (thus, Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOA). In recent years, the understanding of dysfunction in the family has extended beyond alcohol to the point that the new trend is to refer to those that grew up in such circumstances as Adult Children.
It doesn’t matter if the dysfunction in the family is major or minor; the impact is felt the same. Children end up developing traits that they will have to struggle with throughout their adult lives. Knowing about these traits helps them to know that they are not crazy. It is that they have grown up in a crazy or dysfunctional environment that has caused them to develop these characteristics.
Table of Contents
Not everyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family has all of the following characteristics. However, they help us understand more about how one tends to respond when having grown up in a dysfunctional situation. What follows is a summary of the most common difficulties that we suffer as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family.
Not Knowing What “Normal” Is
They suspect what normal is and probably know better than anyone else, but they are never really sure. Such individuals are actually very practical people who have learned to survive in life on instinct. However, this leaves them feeling insecure about what is really the right way of doing it.
Difficulty Finishing Tasks
They have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end. They may have great beginnings, but then have problems with full follow-through, because they are doing several things at once and trying to do everything. They have problems pacing themselves, and their activities, tending to become exhausted with all that they have to do.
Avoiding the Entire Truth
They lie with ease, or stretch the truth, even when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. Growing up in a dysfunctional family where everyone pretended that nothing was wrong taught them a great deal about denying the truth of what was right in front of them. It’s understandable, as it was the only way for them to cope and survive. But now, as adults, this survival skill starts to backfire on them.
High Standards of Performance
They judge themselves without mercy and have very high standards of performance for everything that they do. They also tend to do most of the work because they know that they do it the best. They take themselves very seriously, are impatient, and have problems being flexible with themselves and others. As a result, they may have difficulty with close friendships and intimate relationships.
Inability to Have Fun
They have difficulty relaxing and just having fun or playing. It is difficult to sit still and relax. There is a need to be constantly doing something and keeping busy. They also have difficulty relaxing with others.
Difficulty Adapting to Change
They over-react to changes that they have no control over. Being in control is very important to them. They want others to be controlled and to do things right. Change in any schedule is difficult for them. They become irritable, easily upset when things are not right, and over-react to even minor changes. This is usually a result of being either be super responsible or super irresponsible. There is no middle-ground in functioning. For example, there is a concern that if someone else does not do something, it will not get done; if it does get done, it won’t get done right.
They can be highly intense people in everything that they do. There is a tendency to be perfectionistic, compulsive, obsessive, and have a need to have everything in order. They react to anything that is not done perfectly or cleaned up in the right way.
Depression and Self Image
They constantly seek approval and affirmation. As a result, they tend to be co-dependent needing to take on all the responsibility, do all the work, help others, and forget their own needs. They feel that they are different from other people and just don’t quite fit in. They may have problems with anger and underlying depression and sadness which they may not recognize. However, depression is is anger and frustration held inside.
There is a sense of seriousness, underlying criticalness, and a negative response style in the tone of the person’s voice. They have never grieved their lost childhood since they had to grow up too fast. They were the children who looked and acted like little adults even when they were very small children.
They are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. They believe that, with a little more effort, they can get other people to love them. They believe that other people can be taught how to change just by their own effort and involvement. They often are impulsive, jumping into things and then having to spend excessive amounts of energy cleaning up messes and problems.
How to Be Less Codependent
If you want to change, you have to commit yourself to a personal changing plan. If you find things that get in your way (“blocks”), you have to do anything to understand why the blocks keep happening. However, you must look inside of yourself, not others, to find the answer. The following “laws of change” are designed to help you slowly grow out of codependent thinking patterns. They will allow you to enjoy life and “start living in the real world.”
The Law of Personal Responsibility
Stop looking to others for help, blaming them for problems, and look to yourself to personally “make it happen.” Ask, “What am I going to do about it?” Maturity is “Staying Power” even in the face of problems and having to do things that you don’t want to do. It’s important to stop looking at what other people need to do. You can only do this by letting go of blame and focusing on yourself.
The Law of Meaning
The search for meaning is not to “find the answer.” It is living life again, now, day-by-day, struggling with the disappointments and problems of growth. Follow your passions in life and know that it takes time and planning. Life may have changed it’s course for your, but it is still a journey that you need to be excited to exploring.
The search for meaning is not an end in itself but a “way to start living again.” We struggle to survive so that we may continue to the search. In that way the search transforms living into something more than an exercise in endurance, or a “waiting game” for the “right solutions, answer, feeling, identity, direction, etc.”
The Law of Relationships
You must establish a “balance” between personal and professional relationships. You must nurture both in appropriate balanced ways. You have to make yourself physically, psychologically, emotionally, and productively attractive to others or they will not want to be around you. If you complain too much, others will lose faith in you. You must become kinder, let go of your anger, your need to control, and to “look good and right.”
Remember, everybody loves a winner and everybody avoids a loser. This means learning to delay gratification and wanting things your way instantly. Other people owe you nothing. Your behaviors will determine what you get from others.
The Law of Beliefs
You need to examine your beliefs to determine if you have “twisted” thinking so that you can correct it. Remember: “I do not see the world the way it is, I see the world the way I am.” Attitude is everything. Remember that when you are so emotional and intense in your feelings and beliefs, you are just “pushing your beliefs and ways” on others. You are not listening to, and understanding, others.
The Law of Having Goals
Success and satisfaction in your life equals your ability to set and achieve goals. You have to be specific. Develop a five year plan and work your plan. Set dates for achievement. Write out your plan and review it on a regular basis. Share it with others who can help to share your excitement and desire to grow and achieve.
The Law of Giving and Receiving
You must plant before you can harvest in many different areas of your life. You will not receive until you have put yourself into your life project and “worked it.” However, you have to first get your own life in order and focused before you can really help others or you are just keeping yourself scattered and getting off track from the real goal. You identity is not based on how much you can do for others. It is showing through your life how you have gotten yourself together. It is a quiet giving and receiving with a focus on the goal of growth.
The Law of Persistence
All plans take time, much more than we ever expect. There will be many ups and downs as you “play your plan.” You have to have persistence and patience. Nothing ever works out when we want it to. Don’t quit, ever! Persistence is more important than your talents or opportunities.
The Law of Letting Go of the Past
Let go of old hurts, losses, problems, unresolved issues, obsessions, etc., so you can focus on today and “living life” in the Present Moment. These may be real but they can become excuses for getting stuck and blocked from moving your life forward.
The Law of “Nobody Will Save You”
Others have to let go of being codependent in helping you, making it easy, or feeling sorry for you. You have to struggle, suffer, and handle it yourself. No one promised you a rose garden! You won’t grow unless you work your plan, not rushing it. You have to change you. Waiting to change until you are sure others have changed first, dooms you to failure. Honor yourself and avoid failure statements of “yes, but.”
The Law of Respecting Others
The ability to accept diversity of opinion and feelings. Understand how your behaviors affects others. Know that there is more than one correct answer. Allow others to find their own solutions, learn from errors, and develop their own path and solutions. You do not have to control, direct and tell them what you know is right for their life.
The Law of Taking Responsibility
The ability to accept responsibility for one’s own actions and deeds, without blame, defensiveness, defending one’s own position, or finding fault with others.
The Law of Being Resourceful
The ability to develop skills to meet needs in life. Knowing when to ask for help; knowing when to offer help. Knowing when to reach out to others for help, and that not keeping secrets is critical to growth and change.
Individuals that relate to the ACOA patterns tend to struggle with codependence. Codependency is best understood as a relationship where you do all the work, suffer all the consequences, the other person does not grow or change, others don’t even notice all you do, or appreciate it, and you end up worn out, exhausted, and blamed. Codependent relating is one where there is too much caring and helping.
Helping others is fine. However, if we try to do too much, and overprotect and save them, we end up taking away growth, risking, and independence from others. They then start to act and react like little children. This doesn’t help them recover and grow on their own–figuring out for themselves. It enable them to remain helpless and “the same” no matter how much you complain and point out the reality of things.
The overly-helpful person defines their identity by feeling the need to do things for others, even when it is not in our best interests, or when the other person has said NO to our helpful requests. The codependent person will repeat the request, do it anyways, or say “are you sure?” It is as if they are stuck in a loop without a solution, doomed to repeat trying to help the other person in order to save them, get them to “get it”, and so on.
Codependency as an Addiction
The Too Good helper is addicted to the activities of doing for others. They are hooked on worrying, helping, answering, knowing, handling problems, solving feelings, and always knowing what is right for others because they are looking for acceptance and reassurance. It Is a drug that tells the person that they are “okay.” However, they are always needing to be reassured and become addicted to the “drug of needing to do for others” in order to feel whole.
The Too Good helper can be a nice, submissive, overly helpful one, or the dominant, controlling, directing, talking too much, directing, managing, strong mothering one who KNOWS BEST about what is needed for the other person. They violate other people’s psychological and personal boundaries, feeling their emotions, knowing what is best, taking on the other person’s problems, etc.
Their whole identity and self-esteem is based on helping to the point that they become burned out, exhausted, give away too much of themselves, saying and doing nice things all the time and worry that other’s feelings may be hurt if they don’t get involved. It is a feeling that the only way I can be worthwhile, or liked, is to be in charge and handling everything.
The Too Good Helper believes that there is some kind of Power in hope. There is a belief of I can make it happen and this magical belief has the power to convert the lost ones. The opposite actually happens. You make them weak, resistive, and helpless. He/She who has the “problem” (the one who needs your help) actually controls the relationship. They may look helpless but they are actually very powerful!
Codependency as an Enabling Behavior
- When a crisis happens everyone in the system tries to help.
- Sometimes for all the right reasons we do all the wrong things by being “too helpful and trying to hard to solve it all for the other person.”
- We may find that we cannot stop giving the sufferer reassurance and comfort beyond what would be expected under normal circumstances.
- We may over-check, keep checking, asking, talking, which only increases the sufferers anxiety and sense of dependency and loss of independence as an adult.
- Family members may lie and fabricate stories to protect the person and themselves.
Codependence as High Tolerance for Inappropriate Behaviors
Because there is a chronic exposure to an atmosphere that can be illogical, rigid, and highly stressful, those around the sufferer may begin to assume that the illogical is logical and that the inappropriate is appropriate. Family members can develop a tolerance for inappropriate behaviors rather than comment on, and point them out. Perceptions of family members can become distorted and confused and the non-functioning person comes to “expect others to do things for them” as they assume an increasingly passive stance.
Codependency as Preoccupation
Many of the family member’s thoughts can start to exclusively center around the person with the problem. Family members become obsessed with trying to think of new ways to help, find solutions, cures, or handling even everyday problems for the sufferer’s problems. There is a progressive focusing of attention on the sufferer along with an equal neglect of the feelings, wants, and needs of oneself and family members. The Co-dependent becomes “addictively obsessed” with the other person who needs the co-dependent enabler to help them function in life. The Problem is that the other person comes to rely on you to “make them” function–and yet they never understand how much you do for them.
The Mistruth of Codependency
Codependency is a difficult thing. It influences our point of view and affects our feelings of how others react. As full-fledged “adult children”, we often are confused and dismayed by the behaviors of other people. Here are eight of the more common myths that we, as codependent individuals, tend to believe.
1. We believe that people will do what they say. The reality is that most people are caught up in their own lives and reality, and words often do not reflect their intent.
2. We believe that other people think and feel like we do. As a result, we feel hurt and misunderstood when they act and react differently than we were expecting.
3. We believe that other people will follow through with what they promise to do. This often happens because we forget to look past the words of others to what we are observing in their past and present behavior. See the pattern of the relationship as it develops over days, months, and minutes. Watch for the subtle clues and be ready to accept them as facts.
4. We believe that other people feel the same guilt, anxiety, and concern that we feel in similar situations. This eager state of being assumes that others have gone through the same types of “growing” experiences that we have had, when in fact many people are just struggling to emotionally survive day-by-day.
5. We believe that being nice to others will help them make changes, come through, or accept us. We ignore patterns because in our codependent, overly-helpful ways, we secretly hope that we can “change them” over time or help them to become better people.
6. We believe that the more we do for others, the more they will do for us. In reality, many times people are not thinking beyond their own line of sight. It’s often nothing personal, but it is an unfortunate reality that we often ignore because it just “feels wrong”.
7. We believe that people do not have secret motives, desires, or just want their needs met. Don’t get caught up in trying to understand other people from your own needs, desires and wants.
8. We believe that if we love other people enough, everything else will be OK. This happens when we get caught up with our own needs to be loved and accepted by others.
The Road to Recovery
It is hard for those of us who have grown up this way to ask for professional help and therapy, even though this is the very thing that will help to free them from the prison of the past before they pass on their problems to the next generation.
It is important to start to be aware of these potential traits so that one can start to observe themselves. The more one becomes aware of what they are doing, the better the chance that one can start to change, adjust, and file down some of these extreme ways of doing things.
Learning to Say No
Remember that good love means saying no. Others will protest your pulling back, but over time they will respect you more. However, this takes time and is a process of growth that helps you focus on YOU. If you don’t take care of you first, you are no good to others. This is not selfish, only realistic and practical.
Co-dependent relating causes dysfunctional relating patterns that are NOT HELPFUL to others being able to grow and find themselves. Everyone has to hit the wall of learning many times for themselves before they figure it out for themselves. Let others decide, make mistakes, forget things, and learn on their own!
Image by Sarah Berners from Pixabay