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How to Tell if You are a Victim of Emotional Abuse

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Abusers can be either male or a female. This article is therefore inclusive as the cycle of abuse is the same whether the abuser is a male or a female. These stages of the cycle of abuse are important to know about if you are going to manage your safety.

Step 1: Kaboom!

The cycle begins with a loud verbal explosion, yelling, screaming, accusations, verbal harassment, needling, or threats of abandonment. “You’re lucky I put up with you. No one else would tolerate what I do. If you don’t shape up, I’m going to dump your sorry ass, you loser!” Meanwhile, he/she the one behaving like a lunatic. He/She is not going to leave you. It’s an empty threat. You should be so lucky. However, one of the effects of emotional abuse is that you believe his/her nonsense and actually fear being abandoned.

Step 2: Let’s be Friends

Next, a period of remorse, rationalizations and/or excuses follows. He/She will either:

  • Apologize and vow it will never happen again.
  • Pretend like it never happened, which is also highly abusive.
  • Blame you for their outburst. If you didn’t do x, y, and z, he/she wouldn’t have to be that way. Abusive personality types never take responsibility for their own actions. It’s always someone else’s fault.
  • Deny the incident occurred.
  • Minimizes their behavior and insists it wasn’t that bad. Usually, you’re so relieved that the screaming and insults have stopped, no matter how he/she spins events, that you go along with it. You hope the recent attack was the last, but it never is.

Step 3: The Calm Before the Next Storm

Things go back to “normal” for a time. This is referred to as the “honeymoon phase.” No overt abuse is taking place. You’re getting along, while simultaneously waiting for the other shoe to drop and hoping that it won’t. He/She appears sincere in her efforts to be kind and loving, but what he/she is actually doing is lulling you into a false sense of security that the worst is over. It’s not.

Step 4: Tick, tick, tick

Tension begins to build again, replacing the all too fleeting honeymoon period. Irritability surfaces. Communication deteriorates. He/She makes veiled accusations, blaming you for his/her unhappiness, frustration and anything else he/she can think of. He/She emotionally withdraws and gives you the cold shoulder. Eventually, this escalates into another full blown rage episode, verbal attack, humiliation party or completely shuts you out.

The Repetitive Cycle of Abuse

This repetitive cycle of abuse will leave you feeling insecure, fearful, worthless, broken, and dependent upon the abuser. Eventually, your entire life revolves around trying to second guess his/her moods and needs in an effort to stave off the next attack. You become a non-person in that your needs don’t matter because your entire focus shifts to keeping her happy, which is an impossible task. You won’t be able to make him/her happy, no matter how hard you try. Nor will you be able to change his/her behavior; only he/she can do that.

The only way to end the cycle of abuse is to end the relationship. You can try some kind of formalized therapy, but the abuser usually denies the fact that there’s a problem. Alternately, if he/she does agree to attend therapy, he/she typically sabotages treatment by either labeling the therapist as a fraud, especially if he/she gets called on his/her bad behavior, or finds a therapist who colludes with him/her and piles more blame and abuse onto you.


If you are concerned about being the victim of emotional or physical abuse, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

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Additional Resources

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The Gaslighting Recovery Workbook
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emotional blackmail
verbally abusive relationship
The verbally abusive relationship

SimplePractice Coaching

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simplepractice ehr

SimplePractice is a great solution for both individual therapists and group practice owners. Understanding where everything is can be a daunting task at times. Here are a few basics to help you along the way.

How Shame Can Warp Our Lives

The dynamics of shame and embarrassment are central issues in the development of the self in those individuals who have come from dysfunctional families. Understanding a few issues can be helpful in making changes so that these fears will lose their great power in your life.

The Problem with Shame

Shame is a core emotion for those who come from dysfunctional families. Those who grow up in dysfunctional families are “shame-prone” because of their early experiences of the “self” as “weak and highly limited.” The usual “buffering” factors that help us at times of problems are not available in dysfunctional families (i.e., a supportive family).

Exposing one’s shame or embarrassment to others can be extremely anxiety-provoking for those who are always having to protect themselves from others who might see their “defective self.” This leaves us feeling highly vulnerable to hurt, abandonment, and aloneness.

With the lack of support from others there is a “defensive distortion” of the internalized “ideal self” that can help to make one feel positive. The gap between the actual and ideal selves produces shame feelings that are extremely painfully felt by children who have been abused or come from dysfunctional families.

Vulnerability and Shame

Vulnerability is felt because the child has been confronted with their inability to control the self, others, or events resulting in a poor understanding in human behaviors. In contrast, healthy children imagine the future as holding unlimited possibilities and see themselves self as having unlimited potential. Traumatized children dread and shrink from “future imagined threats” in terms of confusing, painful past events they have experienced.

Whenever one cannot trust an adult, the adult is de-idealized. The child faces the loss of the idealized other that can be psychologically internalized to help them develop their own positive self-image. To maintain the idealized dysfunctional parent, the child denies or distorts their emotional experiences of the parent. This results in exacting a heavy toll. The child’s experience of the self and others is grossly incomplete, unintegrated, and unreal.

Support in dysfunctional families is frequently compromised. The child is told that their pain, lack of control, need to be a child, and any understanding of them does not matter. These messages then become internalized. When abuse, trauma, dysfunction, control, are kept secret and hidden, the child is cut off from potentially protective and shame-mitigating/buffering responses from adults.

The Many Disguises of Shame

Shame-based responding may go unrecognized by the person and others. Such behaviors and symptoms permit one to escape painful shame feelings. Intense and repeated shame can feel like a “global attack on the self” that the individual will fight off at any cost.

Shame-based responding behaviors can be disguised as one or more of the following:

  • Boredom
  • Hostility
  • Compulsive self-reliance
  • Grandiosity
  • Dissociation
  • A need to have control over other people’s every move
  • Unrecognized depression
  • Bodily symptoms and pains
  • Suicide
  • Alcoholism
  • Running from commitments and relationships
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Marital/relationship problems
  • Anger management problems

Fearing exposure of “the defective self,” the person may react defensively to others who inquire about any behaviors. They hide their shame with another feeling such as anger, control, sadness, or fear of assertiveness.

The person may choose unsafe figures to idealize in order to trust and believe in something better than one’s own self. As such the person enters relationship that are inappropriate, co-dependent, and unhealthy. For example, acting out and having an affair is a statement of wanting and yet mistrusting closeness with others.

Resistance, defensiveness, and acting out can be understood as shame-avoiding behaviors. Shame-based responding can cause others to react in the same defensive, angry, fault-finding, excuse making, protecting of the dysfunctional person, all induced by the “shame-based person.” All any of this does is to reinforce the individual’s secretiveness, lack of being real with others, and underlying feelings of shame.

Shame-based responders would rather “run” from dealing with situations, relationships, and others. They are prone to divorces rather than changing and growing. Blaming and fault-finding is easier because it was taught to them early in their lives by their parents. People with histories of dysfunction and/or abuse have higher rates of physical disorders, pains, disabilities, and internalization of emotional problems which come out aggravating any physical disorders.

Solutions to Shame

  • It’s critical to understand that you anger, need to control, avoidance, blaming, physical problems, overly high personal standards, relationship problems, and so on, are all related to “shame-based” responding.
  • Agree that keeping secrets, hiding feelings and emotions, only makes it worse in the long run.
  • Admit that you did not have a healthy childhood and you need to reach out to others for help.
  • Know that you are not defective. You just grew up in a dysfunctional family that was overly-controlling, abusive, dysfunctional, and unconcerned with you needs as a child.
  • Know that your behaviors are controlled by the past, not the present situation.
  • Admit to your fears of closeness, intimacy, and letting others know you.
  • Grieve your “lost childhood,” understanding that you anger and need to control is related to “never having been a child.”
  • Quit blaming others, even when they are the ones that have the problem.
  • Focus on yourself, realizing that when you give up control you actually have more control – even if you think that you are right and they are wrong!
  • Know that your fears are related to the past, being hurt, and worrying that if you do anything you will be hurt again.
  • Know that “shame-based responding” can come out in many more ways that we have discussed here. Look to understand yourself and your defensive style with all the “yes, but’s….”
  • Let go of your need to control others or needing to know what they are doing, where they are at, and whether or not they will remain loyal to you. That is all related to the “fears of the past.”
  • Know that you can’t control others to love you. Give them choice and freedom, taking the risks and the anxieties associated with risk you feel.
  • Know this will all take time. Others need much time to “trust” the “new you” and cannot be “rushed into change” just because “you feel different.” Healing comes by understanding other’s needs while not forgetting your own in the process.
  • You don’t have to blame others. You just have to understand what has happened to you. You do not need to confront anyone except the feelings inside of you.

The healing power comes from the reflection on the pain that one has had to live through. To heal is to make an effort to understand your experience. One does not have to blame. One just has to understand what happened and how this made things much more difficult along life’s path for you. You just have to deal with the persons and situations inside of you that shaped your early life experiences.

If you are going to heal, you have to feel, experience, reflect, and give a conscious awareness to what happened and what you went through. Once you have done this you can start to mourn the past so you can move on to a “new and improved future.” The only way to change this is to “not do it,” no matter what you feel. Keep these fears to yourself and remind yourself that you are now an adult and you don’t need to focus on such negatives. Otherwise, they will continue to increase and be the central focus of your life.

Why Is It So Hard to Say No? The Truth about Boundaries.

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Do not walk on this wall

We all want to be fair, kind and loving to the people that we care about. Sometimes that means going out of our way for them. At other times, it means putting up with a certain amount of crap. In the long run, we hope and bet on the odds that it’s worth it for our relationship to have a little give-and-take. However, giving out love without any boundaries can be extremely dangerous and carries extreme risk to our own sense of self and others.

We all know that it’s important to have boundaries. On paper, it makes perfect sense to have boundaries. But when we try to put our assertiveness to the test, we often flounder. Others may refer to us as “dependable” and as someone who can always be counted on. But when we need help, there’s no reciprocation.

If any of this sounds familiar, you’re probably living a life with misaligned boundaries. Why is it so hard for us to have boundaries? What makes us trapped in trying to please others? How does our anger and anxiety start turning inward as we struggle with our inability to say “no”?

Wait, I’m not Crazy?! Adults Who Grew Up in Dysfunctional Families

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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.

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 Child 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.

The Laundry Lists Workbook

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.

Extreme Loyalty

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.

Impulsivity

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.


Why Do People Who Come From Dysfunctional Families Have More Interpersonal Problems?

Have you ever felt that…

  • …other people don’t understand you?
  • …other people “have it out” for you?
  • …you have to “protect yourself” from others?
  • …others are just not as accepting of you?
  • …you have to defend yourself from other people?

The answers to these and many other questions are critical to your having a long-term happy life.  Understanding a few issues might be of some help. The challenge for you will be to read this material and learn ways of applying it in your everyday life without blaming or excuses.

The Answer Is Not The Other Person

Many times, we think that the solution to all our problems lies in how other people respond and react to us. This belief system is based in the fact that one has grown up in a dysfunctional family where “survival of the fittest” was essential.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family means a few key things:

  • The people around us caused problems, were unavailable, were abusive, neglectful, unconcerned, and generally unhelpful.
  • We were always looking for “unknown or unexpected dangers”.
  • We were “always on guard, suspicious, and reactive in order to survive.”

However, now that one is an adult, things are different. We are required to have a new and improved approach to interacting with the world. This new approach has to be based on an awareness that you know more now, have more control, and no longer need to be in a “defensive survival mode.”

It requires “opening oneself up” to a new life. The only person who can make a difference in your life is you, not other people. Not everyone is “out to get you.” There’s no need to justify things by saying, “I get along with some people, so why can’t everyone else just accept me the same way?”

You have to be with those people who can help you “learn new ways of relating and being in the family” in a way that can promote growth, provide for new experiences, and so forth. This all takes risk, time, and being vulnerable along with letting go of control and feeling that you have to be right.

Understanding What “Normal Families” Are Like

“Normal” families are very different from dysfunctional families. They know that the first task in life that the infant has to struggle with is “Trust vs. Mistrust”. They work to help the child feel that they can “come out of themselves and trust” by meeting their needs for food, comfort, holding, rocking, and being generally available to the child.

As a result, “normal” families build everything around this foundation of trust where each of the members know that they can count on the family and the parents to be there for them even when the going gets rough and things seem overwhelming.

By having a foundation of trust, each of the family members can count on each other. They trust each other. This foundation becomes central to how they approach life, interactions and living. This allows them to be open with others, to struggle through the difficult times, and to find solutions to problems and struggles. There is a “trusting comfort” no matter what happens.

Dysfunctional families never admit their problems. They have the four dysfunctional rules of the family:

  1. Don’t talk about it.
  2. Don’t feel.
  3. Don’t think (or expand your thinking to other ideas)
  4. Avoid doing anything to change things at all costs.

As a result, no one is open. Everyone feels insecure, having to depend only on themselves, and there is a sense that they have to “fight for everything that is owed to them.” There is a lack of trust; a lack of openness; a lack of really knowing what to do unless the person establishes a rigid way of dealing with life in order to survive.

When one is then questioned, the person from a dysfunctional family is immediately defensive, reactive, opinionated, and unyielding. Issues become polarized — black or white, right or wrong, “my way or the highway,” when in reality, issues are never that simple and are usually more complex.

However, there is a refusal to see things beyond “the issue in front of them” which increases the tensions in interactions. They sense that they now have to “fight” in order to “win their personal war of survival” against all the untrustworthy people in the world who are perceived as being out to get them and deprive them of having a happy life along with blocking their entrance into “the family.”

In dysfunctional families, it is easy to get caught up in the “issue of the moment” rather than considering the broader issues, thinking of alternative ways of viewing it, or needing to know the full story. The person in dysfunctional families get caught up in the “energy of the moment,” resulting in a “personal reactiveness-defensiveness” to whatever is said. Everything is taken so personally.

In contrast, functional families admit that they have problems. The difference is that they are open to discussing these issues and to finding solutions to those problems without defensiveness and reactiveness. When there is defensiveness, it is only brief because they know that overall they can trust the family to be there for them — a major difference!

Functional families are not perfect, but they are committed to each member of the family to insure that each member can grow up into their full potential. Functional families work to resolve their problems rather than “running away from them” or saying “I don’t have to deal with you.” Functional families don’t continue to feel that “maybe some day out there I will find the right person, or situation, that will understand and accept me fully.” They already have that sense of trust and comfort in a supportive and open family.

Functional families know that there will be problems, blocks, difficult times, hurt feelings, struggles, and so forth. Through it all, they will stick together and try to work together to “maintain positive contact.”

Why Does It Feel Like You Are Being Attacked?

The problem with a person who has grow up in a dysfunctional environment is that they always feel that they must defend themselves from real or imagined attacks.

Their responses to others insures a “self-fulfilling prophesy” that allows them to tell themselves, “see how that person responded to me — THIS is why I have to defend and attack.”

The fact that functional families “talk about, and confront, issues” seems to be threatening and is therefore interpreted as attacking on one’s identity. When one grows up in a dysfunctional family, it is important to quickly develop opinions without taking the time to examine all the different angles which would allow for a full understanding of the issue. When others question what one wants, or “needs,” it feels like an attack because one has “worked so hard” to survive — and others just don’t get it or appreciate it.

Functional families are into questions, raising issues, looking at alternatives, while being able to maintain relationships. Upsets are not “taken seriously” and are only seen as “temporary disagreements that are discussed in order to be understand, convey information, help others grow and reach their full potential.

When growing up in a dysfunctional family, one sees everything as an attack, having a sense of being misunderstood and not fully appreciated, and never being fully accepted and loved. However, if one continues to have a sense of feeling under attack, then something is wrong.

What happens when one feels defensive and attacked is that they come across to others as “obnoxious and reactive, defensive and attacking even when it is unnecessary.” The person then “believes that they are right” and that “no one will ever understand them.”

The result is that they will then “block themselves off from the other person” making it impossible for them to learn about the normal “give and take” of life and healthy relating patterns. They will continue to be angry and untrusting believing that it is the fault of the “other person(s).”

All this does is block insight, happiness, and maturing growth. The alternative approach is for the person to “run away” and find a way to “be by themselves” in order to avoid the “problems of living with others” who “just don’t get it or give me a difficult time.”

What Can Be Done To Change Things?

First, you need to realize that what is happening in your interactions with other people has NOTHING to do with you as a human being and a person! It has more to do with your manner of interacting with others, interpreting what is said by them, and your defensive responsive style that avoids taking the time to “look at yourself and what you need to do to make changes in how you come across!”

So, you don’t have to change you as a person. All it means is that you have to change how you handle your interactions with others. It has to do with the “tense, defensive, reactive style issues” that you learned to help you survive in the past as a child — which no longer are necessary to your life and in fact will cause you problems if you continue it in the present.

Being an adult means that one has to change and to work at finding realistic solutions that do not involve blame, defensiveness, reactiveness, and trying to “prove that one is acceptable and lovable.” Changing one’s behavior is “the solution.” It is not looking to the other person to make the changes.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…”. However, in Alcoholics Anonymous, a more realistic version of this is, “You shall know the truth, and at first it shall piss you off.” Facing things is difficult and overwhelming at first. But this is essential to making real changes that can “free you” for a better life beyond “a survival mode.”

So the issue is not about the other person, whether they accept you, or in finding ways to convince them that you are fine. This only keeps you reacting as a “small defenseless child in a dysfunctional family where reactiveness kept you alive. It is only about how you handle things and how you change your response to life and to others now that you are an adult!

It is about your doing your best to get comfortable with other people where more intimate relating is required so you can learn how “real families” work together to help, protect, and focus each other toward growth. This is where you can “learn how to live a positive life.”

It is not about protecting your territory, identity or beliefs. It is letting go of reactive, defensive, controlling, ideas that you “know are right and others have to accept.” It is more about focusing on “letting go and starting to learn how to be in a family in a different way.”

It is about learning to “allow others to enjoy you” rather then focusing on “winning” because you feel vulnerable, attacked or not accepted. It is about “making yourself comfortable” with others rather than their being “okay” only if they accept things the way you want them. It is about learning how to relax, allow others to like you, and for you to like them.

It is about doing your best to make the others “like you” — not the other way around! It is about growing in the present, growing in the present relationships, and “taking risks (multiple ones) to change the past and provide for you a more positive future.

You may perceive others as attacking when in fact they are only trying to be helpful, to refocus you positively, and to deal with some of the real issues that are facing “the family.” It is not about you!

Why Is Changing My Response Important?

It is easy to ask “why me,” or “why am I the one who has to give up control.” Change (not having the control) and feeling open to others makes one feel vulnerable. It can bring back memories of “having to fend for one’s self as part of survival.

The real issue in life is that when one feels that they are on the defensive, it has more to do with their sense of “surviving dysfunctional past issues” rather than dealing realistically with the present situation.

Real maturity requires less defensive responding and more open discussion with others. It requires less reactiveness and “protecting one’s turf and what one needs” and is more open to realizing that one has to find new ways to relate to others in life. As long as one feels defensive, then they are only functioning at a survival level of life.

This does not allow the person to “grow and to reach their full potential.” Survival defensive and reactive responding is a “primitive basic level” that animals, infants, and small children respond at in order to survive. Life is more than “just surviving.” It is reaching for one’s potential which cannot be done when one continues to feel that they are in conflict with other people.

It also does not allow for learning how to live a normal life, because everything feels like it must be fought for. Real living requires “give and take”, listening to the concerns of others, sharing not demanding, being open, not holding grudges, and not always insisting on having one’s own way.

It is moving out of the infant self-entitlement demanding responses of “I have a right to live and exist” into the mature adult interactions of working cooperatively with others in a way that makes others comfortable with you! If one continues to react defensively, waiting for the others to be “different,” then all that happens is that nothing will change and everyone will have hurt feelings.

One can go on with the delusion that everything will be different now, but in reality this will not happen and over time further problems will develop. This does not mean that other people are always right about issues or their responses. It is about finding ways of talking things out in a less defensive and reactive manner.

Real growth requires self-examination and awareness, not saying “well, I know myself and I’ve got it all figured out — if only you would just get out of my way.” Real living in a functional manner requires:

  • Looking for “solutions” to problems of interactions.
  • Humility rather than demanding and “just knowing.”
  • Admitting that you can learn how to live a better life from others.
  • Letting go of pride, blame, irritability, shutting down, reactiveness, or trying to prove a point or that you are right.
  • Admitting that you have a lot to learn from others if you would “listen more” and “react less.”

The “Safe” Alternative

The alternative is that one can “just stay the same” all the while “proclaiming that you know best.”

Sigmund Freud, the “father” of psychoanalysis, suggested that people “tend to repeat the past over and over again” in the attempt to resolve it. In other words, it is hard to break habits because they become “so natural” that they “feel right and comfortable.” So, we repeat the past, over and over again, in hopes that maybe some day we will find a solution by doing the same thing over and over again, faster and faster, with fewer positive outcomes and stronger habit patterns that “keep us stuck the same way.”

We continue to repeat what we have learned, especially from the negative patterns and interactions learned from our early family relationships. “Staying the same is comfortable even though it is self-destructive in the long run.”

Changing brings us in contact with “the unknown” and risk making one feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. However, it is known, comfortable, what one does well, and becomes so automatic that we don’t even have to think what it is that we are doing, even if it means that we continue to destroy relationships while proclaiming that one knows that they are right and everyone else’s way is flawed and wrong!

The key is knowing that “decisions are the hinges of our lives.” The choices we make today will determine the future course of our life and that of our family members. We have to decide between choosing poorly or choosing wisely. It is really a choice that is based on what one “think” looks good now, or on the risk of the “common choices that are not fancy but correct.”

Sometimes we rush to find the “fancy choices” that are based on “horizontal choices based on earthly decisions of the moment.” We need to make all choices based on “Vertical Choices” that have higher meanings based in healthy interpersonal relationships with others — by changing ourselves rather than insisting that we know what is right and continuing to do the same thing over and over again.

However, it is easier to stay the same, to know that one is right, and to block others out of one’s life. In this way, one never has to change or listen to what others have to say that might provide a “new way” of looking at life.

It is more comfortable and simple to stay the same and continue to take things personally, knowing that others are wrong and need to be avoided! Risk is uncomfortable and leaves one feeling vulnerable, even though a quality life is all about taking positive risks rather than avoiding and just wanting comfort — your way.

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We usually “mean well” and want to be “helpful.” In fact, in many ways this helps us to work and solve problems together. However, there are times that the ways in which we help other people may actually cause more problems that we solve. This can happen even if we do it out of genuine love and concern. Understanding this concept is critical to our ability to develop healthy lives, friendships and families. Enabling codependent behaviors actually cause…

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