If you grew up in an unhealthy or dysfunctional family, it has drastically and permanently altered the course of your life. It is absolutely vital to understand how, specifically, this affects you so that you can stand a chance to change patterns of unhealthy choices and behaviors that plague you and your adult life.
The bottom line is that it’s important to realize that you are not crazy. Rather, you grew up in a crazy or “dysfunctional” family which caused you to develop essential yet unhealthy survival habits. You also learned how to live with “dysfunction as normal” and are not used to a life without chaos. To gain freedom from your past, you need to learn exactly how this has impacted you.
Table of Contents
How Do I Know if my Family was Dysfunctional?
A family is dysfunctional or unhealthy when one or more of the adult caregivers struggled with addiction, compulsions, codependency or bad behavior. These “bad behaviors” and the reactions others had to them permanently altered the way in which the family operated. The influence of these negative patterns invaded all aspects of the family life.
As a child, your emotional needs were often ignored. You came up with ways to cope and survive. However, these “rules for living” are ultimately self-destructive because they are designed for living as a child in an unhealthy family and not as an adult in a normal life.
Am I an Adult Children of a Dysfunctional Family?
People who grow up in a chaotic, unpredictable and unhealthy family tend to have extremely similar traits and unhealthy coping patterns. This is what sets Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACOD) apart from other people. ACODs are different from people who were raised in other types of families. They tend to view the world in a way that is unique.
See if you can recognize yourself in some of these traits (not everyone will have all traits):
- They never feel that they know what “normal” is.
- They feel that everyone else has the “secret rules” for how to live as a healthy adult.
- They don’t know how to live without chaos and crisis, a lifestyle pattern which is difficult to break.
- They can have difficulty following finishing tasks and through with things.
- They often judge themselves without mercy.
- They don’t know how to relax and just have fun.
- They may take themselves very seriously and be highly intense.
- They have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- They over-react to changes over which they have no control.
- They constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- They feel they are different and don’t quite “fit in” with others.
- They are either super-responsible or super-irresponsible.
- They are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
- They maintain the lie that everything was ok in the family.
- They are impulsive and jump into things without thinking clearly.
- They have never grieved their lost childhood and struggle with underlying depression, anxiety or anger.
- They erroneously believe that, with a little more effort, they can get others to love them.
- They erroneously believe that, with a little more effort, they can get others to change.
Originally, the research on dysfunctional families was focused on alcohol. Over time, the term Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOA, became known. However, in recent years the understanding of dysfunction in the family has extended beyond alcohol. The new trend is to refer to those that grew up in such circumstances as Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. 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.
Not Knowing What “Normal” Is
Adult Children never feel that they know what normal is. They think they know; in fact, they believe that they know it 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 things.
They simply have no experience with what is normal. Growing up, they never had the freedom to ask, so they never know for sure. Their goal in life is to keep others from finding out that they don’t know. Instead, they have to guess all the time, which ends up being hard, lonely work. They missed out on the discussions with their parents about how to handle things. They have no frame of reference for what is ok to say and to feel.
Difficulty Finishing Tasks
Adult Children 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.
The real problem is that they are not procrastinators in the usual sense. They came from homes of an awful lot of promises. No one took time to sit down and say “that is a good idea.”
Avoiding the Entire Truth
Adult Children can lie with ease, or stretch the truth, even when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. The first and most basic lie is the family’s denial of the problem. They have a recognition of the truth, but also a struggle to deny it. There were also a lot of promises that also turned out to be lies.
Adult Children had to maintain the lie that everything was OK in the family when many problems were obvious. They may have lived in an “as-if family” that looked good, was even loving, but the alcohol, or other dysfunction, did not allow them to fully be a child. They learned how to lie by the experts.
High Standards of Performance
Adult Children 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.
When they were children, there was no way they were good enough. They were constantly criticized, often for things that made no sense. If one hears something often enough, for a long-enough period of time, you will end up believing it. As a result, one internalizes these criticisms as negative self-feelings.
Judging themselves negatively is one of the things that they do best. Judgement of others is not nearly as harsh as judgement of self. Black and white, good or bad, are typically the way of looking at things. If things are good, there is always the risk/fear that it won’t last. There is a great deal of pressure on Adult Children all the time.d
Inability to Have Fun
Adult Children 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.
No one played with them or taught them how to play, or even what the rules for playing are. They are afraid to take time off to play; they have to be always on. They have to put all their efforts into keeping up and pushing ahead. Life is difficult and stressful because it is hard to just sit back and relax and say “it is O.K. to be me.”
Taking Themselves too Seriously
Adult Children take themselves very seriously, are impatient and have problems being flexible. The spontaneous child got squashed many years ago. They even disapprove of others acting silly. They have trouble separating themselves from work. They work hard at figuring out life and proving themselves.
Intimate Relationship Difficulties
Adult Children have difficulty with intimate relationships. They want very much to have healthy, intimate relationships. Yet they have no frame of reference for what is healthy. They carry with them the experience of “come close, go away.” The fear of abandonment gets in the way of getting close. They don’t feel good about themselves, or believe that they are lovable.
They feel ok only if someone else tells them they are ok. This gives the other person the power to lift one up or knock them down. A minor disagreement gets very big, very quickly for ACOA’s because of the issue of being abandoned takes precedence over the original issue. Fear of being abandoned or rejected brings on a fear of urgency. This sense of urgency makes the other person feel smothered, even though it is not the intent.
Difficulty Adapting to Change
Adult Children overreact 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.
The young child of the dysfunctional family was not in control. To survive, they needed to turn that around. They needed to take charge of their environment. The Adult Child learns to trust her/himself more than anyone else when it is impossible to rely on somebody’s else’s judgement. As a result they are often accused of being controlling, rigid, and lacking in spontaneity. It comes from the fear of not being in charge/control, if a change is made, abruptly, quickly, without being able to participate in it.
Depression and Self Image
Adult Children 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. The message received as a child was very confused. It was not unconditional love. Instead, they were mixed messages. “Yes, no, I love you, go away,” left one confused and needy. Now, when positives affirmations are offered, it is very difficult to accept.
Adult Children have problems with anger and underlying depression and sadness which they may not recognize. However, depression 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.
Adult Children have never grieved their “lost childhood.” 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.
Feeling Different from Other People
Adult Children feel that they are different from other people and just don’t quite fit in. They have difficulty relaxing with others. They assume that everyone else feels comfortable and they are the only ones who feel awkward. They simply did not have the opportunities or time to develop social skills necessary to feel comfortable or part of a group. It is hard for Adult Children to believe that they can be accepted for who they are, and that the acceptance does not have to be earned. Feeling different and somewhat isolated is part of their makeup.
Over-Developed Sense of Responsibility
Adult Children tend to be super-responsible in everything they say and do. In essence, it’s easier for them to be concerned with the responsibility to tasks and other people than it is focus inward on themselves. One side-effect of this is that we don’t have to look too closely at our own faults. In terms of responsibility, they feel that there is no “middle-ground”. They are are 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. They feel that if they don’t do something, it won’t get done by anyone else, or at least not done correctly. The philosophy is, “Work hard or do nothing”.
As adults, this tactic became a habit where we always assumed over-responsibility for others because it gave us an excuse not to look at ourselves. The discomfort of honestly looking at ourselves, our pain, and our losses was easily overshadowed by our inclination – our habit – of looking for others for whom we could be “responsible”. Meanwhile the unexpressed feelings and memories from our traumatic childhood continue festering, to be acted out repeatedly, producing a paradoxical mixture of us being “helpful” to others, while injurious to our True Self.
One side effect of being so reliable is that saying “no” becomes extraordinarily difficult to do. In part, this happens because they don’t have a realistic sense of their capacity. Other times, it’s out of a fear that in saying “no”, others will think that they are incompetent. There’s also an underlying need to prove themselves, which runs in the face of being able to say “no”.
Sometimes, you will find an Adult Child who is just the opposite: Super-irresponsible. What’s of interest is that both are extremes and that there is no middle ground. Interestingly enough, during midlife there is a risk of swapping, where super-responsible individuals suddenly collapse under the pressure and become super-irresponsible; or the opposite – super-irresponsible people become fed up with their lives and change to being super-responsible. Again, it’s the extremes that are very noticeable.
Adult Children are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. This loyalty is more the result of fear and insecurity. Adult Children believe that, with a little more effort, they can get “them” (others) to love them and change to be better parents/people.
Adult Children are impulsive, jumping into things and then having to spend excessive amounts of energy cleaning up messes and problems. As a child they were more of a parent than a child, so they missed being impulsive as a child. This results in spending an excessive amount of energy needing to fix things they have caused.
Dysfunctional Family Statistics
- More than one-third of individuals have experienced physical or sexual abuse.
- Childhood emotional abuse drastically increases the risk for lifetime depressive disorders.
- A powerful relationship exists between negative childhood experiences and the risk of attempted suicide.
- In our culture, dysfunctional families now happen approximately 96% of the time.
Individuals that relate to the patterns of Adult Children 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.
This is a critical concept for Adult Children to understand in order to be able to challenge and change their own unhelpful coping patterns, addictions, and/or behaviors. Knowing about codependency helps one to “break the chain” of transmitting dysfunctional family dynamics from one generation to the next.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
Recovery and Change
It is hard for Adult Children 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.
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.