Monthly Archives: March 2018

Decoding 3: I feel different

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(Decoding the laundry list, concluded.)

If I’m an adult child,

(10) I feel different from other people.

This comes mainly from how I overcontrol my emotional life.  I don’t trust or listen to feelings so much as judge them. Since I judge them, I don’t share them with anyone else.  Since I don’t share them, others don’t share their feelings with me, so I never discover that we feel essentially the same way.  Trapped in this closed loop of feeling > judgment > more feeling > more judgment,  I’m forced to the inaccurate conclusion that I’m different from everyone else.

(11) I’m either super responsible or super irresponsible.

This comes from how I manage my anxiety.  Since I don’t understand that my anxiety comes from emotional constipation (i.e., holding feelings in), I blame it on external stressors, like the stuff I have to do in my life.  Sometimes I try to be all over that stuff (super responsible), and sometimes I try to try to forget or ignore it (super irresponsible).  Unfortunately neither approach works for long.  Hyper-responsibility leaves me anxious and exhausted, while hyper-irresponsibility leaves me anxious and guilty.  So I swing like a pendulum between these two unhealthy extremes, confusing the hell out of myself and the people around me. 

(12) I’m extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that my loyalty is undeserved.

This comes from doubting myself and the evidence of my feelings.  Childhood left me convinced I was permanently flawed, so when things go wrong between us I blame myself.  (If you hurt my feelings I decide I’m oversensitive.  If you ignore or neglect me I tell myself Stop being so needy.  And after I lose my temper with you I may worry Am I crazy?)  My sense of self-worth is so low that I figure I’m lucky to have any relationships at all, and so must work extra hard to preserve them.  This damaged view of myself that keeps me in relationships long after a healthier person would have escaped.   

(13) I’m impulsive — i.e., tend to lock myself into a course of action without thinking through alternatives or consequences.

This, too, comes from how I manage anxiety.  I’m impulsive because I lack self-awareness (for example, that I’m constipated) and the ability to defer gratification.  Instead I grab for the first choice I think will bring relief.  (Boss yelled at me?  Quit the job.  Boyfriend didn’t call?  Drive by his house.  Girlfriend forgot my birthday?  End the relationship.)  In recovery I’m learning, though, to take a breath, consider my options, process my choices with a safe person, and that there are better ways to reduce anxiety than leaping without looking. 

 Part 14 of a series on

monkeytraps and adult children.

Read part 1 here.

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Decoding 2: I grew up scared

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(Decoding the laundry list, continued.)

As an adult child,

(5) I have trouble relaxing or having fun.

That’s because I grew up scared.  I never knew what to expect.  (Will Dad hug me or hit me?  Will Mom reassure me or tell me what I did wrong?  Will they get along or argue?  Will I be accepted? Criticized? Abused? Ignored?)  Such uncertainty is rife when a family member is alcoholic, but it exists in all families to some extent.   Uncertainty made me hypervigilant.   I learned to scan constantly for threats, signs of tension or anger or conflict or other trouble.  I did that so long I lost the ability to do otherwise, to drop my defenses and relax or just play.  I became an adult who is chronically braced against imminent danger.  

(6) I take myself very seriously.

This flows directly from the last item.  Fear makes you pretty damn serious.  Fear hijacks your attention, steals your energy, keeps you preoccupied and wary.  And since one of the things I’m most scared of is criticism, I’m forever worried that others will judge me.  (Dance?  Play?  Act silly?  God, no.  I’d look like a fool.)  I worry about that, on some level, all the time.      

(7) I  struggle with intimate relationships.

Intimacy means being able to be yourself with another person and allow them to do the same with you.  It requires dropping your defenses and surrendering control.  It requires faith, both in other people (I trust you not to hurt or betray me) and in myself (I am basically lovable and can take care of myself).   I never developed that faith.  So showing another person who I really am feels like skydiving without a parachute.  Frankly it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone can do it, or would want to.

(8) I over-react to changes beyond my control.

I spent childhood reacting to events that were scary or stressful.  This left me experiencing the external world as dangerous.  And I concluded that the only way to feel safe was to control those external events — the people, places and things in my environment.  A logical conclusion, but psychologically disastrous, since it made me hypersensitive to everything I couldn’t control.  And every life is filled with the uncontrollable.  So now, to the extent that I rely on control to feel secure or confident, my internal life feels not safe but chaotic.

(9) I constantly seek approval and affirmation.

All kids need large helpings of the four A’s: attention, acceptance, approval and affection.  Kids who get enough feel loved and lovable.  Kids who don’t feel holey — emotionally hungry.  I didn’t get enough, so now my hunger compels me to seek feeding in the form of approval and validation.  Unfortunately I seek it in self-defeating ways.  Since I feel unlovable, I don’t believe I deserve feeding.  So instead of revealing my true self to you I hide the parts of me (like anger and self-doubt) I think you’ll dislike.  I try to fool you into loving me.  As a result whatever love or approval I do get feels meaningless, since I had to lie to get it.  I remain holey, and so compelled to seek approval and affirmation again and again.

(To be continued.)

 Part 13 of a series on

monkeytraps and adult children.

Read part 1 here.


Decoding the laundry list

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Three decades of knowing and working with adult children (not to mention six decades of living as one) have made it impossible for me to read the thirteen laundry list items as anything but iterations of control addiction. 

For example, as an adult child

(1) I guess what normal is, then try to imitate it. 

I don’t feel normal (whatever that is).  I feel different, inadequate, anxious.  I assume these feelings are unique to me, and that if you knew about them you’d judge me.  So I hide my feelings and fake normalcy.  (I won’t let on how much a change in plans disturbs me, for example, or how nervous I am in social situations.)   I do this to control how you perceive and react to me.

(2) I have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.

This is mainly because of how I handle discomfort.  All projects turn uncomfortable at some point, demanding we do things we’d rather not do.  I don’t know what to do with such feelings — that it helps to vent, for example, or ask for encouragement or advice.  Instead I try to make them go away by interrupting what I’m doing.  (I call this “taking a break.”)   Thus my bedroom remains unpainted, my graduate degree unearned, my book unwritten, and I may never lose those last ten pounds.   

(3) I lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. 

Since the truth (like how I really feel about myself or about you) makes me terribly uneasy, honesty feels dangerous.  It feels much safer to conceal and manipulate the truth.  I’ve been doing that for so long that now it’s a habit.  I overcontrol the truth because it gives me the sense that of being able to control you and how you see me.   

(4) I judge myself without mercy. 

Childhood taught me to expect others to criticize or reject me.  This was so painful that now I anticipate it and do it to myself before you can.  I’d rather abuse myself than feel victimized.  (Kind of like quitting a job before they can fire you.)  And judging myself without mercy saves me from being surprised or disappointed should you ever do it.  In this way I manage both my expectations of you and my own chronic anxiety.

(To be continued.)

Part 12 of a series on

monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.


Four laws

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Twenty-five years of practicing therapy have led me to four conclusions:

1. Human beings are addicted to control.

2. This addiction causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems.

3. Behind this addiction lies the wish to control how we feel.

4. There are better ways to manage feelings than control.

These are the Four Laws of control.* 

Adult children really need to understand them and how they function.

Why?

Because at the root of all the adult child’s emotional problems — anxiety, depression, addictions, struggles with relationships and communication and intimacy — is a dysfunctional and futile pursuit of control.

“This is very simple to understand,”Janet Woititz writes, explaining why adult children over-react to changes beyond their control.  “The young child of the alcoholic was not in control.  The alcoholic’s life was inflicted on him, as was his environment.”

Living in an unsafe unpredictable environment is so scary that such kids grow up addicted to chasing what they never had — a sense of safety and structure and peace of mind.  And they do this mostly by trying to control people, places and things.

Of course, Woititz is describing children of alcoholics. 

But can’t the same can be said of all children, regardless of background? 

What child has control? 

What child isn’t largely helpless in the face of his parents, his environment, and forces beyond his understanding, much less his control? 

What child doesn’t grow up as an adult with at least some unfinished business?

Which is why I say we are all adult children.

Let’s look at how this affects us.  

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*The Four Laws are explained in detail in Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (Lioncrest, 2015).

 

Part 11 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.

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What’s “control addiction”?

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At the heart of all the adult child’s problems lies control addiction.

What’s control addiction?

Let’s start with two definitions:

Control means the ability to edit reality — to make people, places and things the way we want them to be.

Addiction means the compulsion to repeat a certain behavior in order to achieve a particular gratifying — but ultimately unhealthy — experience. 

Thus control addicts are people who 

(a) feel compelled, over and over and over again, to edit reality according to their preferences, and

(b) experience intolerable discomfort or anxiety when they cannot. 

We are all control addicts.

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Can’t relate?

Think of it this way:

Moment to moment, control addicts carry around in their heads a picture of the reality they want. 

And they constantly compare that picture to the reality they have. 

Anything they do to bring those two realities closer together — to change the one they have into the one they want — is what I call controlling

It’s controlling whether they do it in speech, behavior, or in the privacy of their imagination and dreams. 

Their controlling may be obvious or hidden, conscious or unconscious, choiceful or compulsive, creative or destructive, healthy or unhealthy.

Note that this description covers a vast range of human behaviors. 

I’m controlling when I mow my lawn, balance my checkbook, steer my car, swat a mosquito or help my kid do homework.

I’m controlling when I brush my teeth, salt my eggs, change channels, vote in elections or post selfies on Facebook.

I’m controlling when I pursue a goal, a degree, a job, a raise, a sale item, a cure for cancer or a sexual partner.

I’m controlling when I rage at bad weather, slow traffic, dumb commercials, rude waiters or lying politicians.

I’m controlling when I lie, hide my feelings, pretend to agree with you, worry that I’m fat or guess what you think of me.

I’m controlling when I try to get you to agree with me, hire me, understand me, respect me, kiss me, forgive me or do me a favor.

Also whenever I judge, criticize, manipulate, persuade, coerce or abuse you.

Not to mention whenever I anticipate, plan, ruminate, fantasize, worry, project or obsess.

That’s right.  All those behaviors stem from the urge to swap my current reality for one I think I’d prefer.

All those and infinitely more.

Our craving for control is inevitable and unavoidable, the mother of all motives, the psychological sea in which we all swim.

Perhaps the best way to describe its enormity in human psychology is to describe its opposite:

The opposite of controlling is the ability to say nothing, and do nothing, and trust that things will be just fine anyway.

How often can anyone do that?

How often can you?

We are all control addicts.

Part 10 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.

 

 

 

 

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The core symptom

The White Temple, Thailand

If on first encountering the Laundry List you found it confusing, you’re not alone.

Fortunately I can simplify it for you.

Because behind those thirteen traits is one core symptom that explains all the others. 

It is hinted at by item number 8…

You over-react to changes

beyond your control.

…and item number 13:

You tend to lock yourself

into a course of action

without thinking through

alternatives or consequences. 

This creates confusion,

self-loathing and

loss of control over

your environment.  

At the heart of all the adult child’s problems lies control addiction.

Part 9 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.

 


The laundry list

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In 1983 Janet Woititz offered a list of thirteen traits typical of adult children.*

Her description came to be known in recovery circles as The Laundry List.

If you’re trying to decide whether you possess such traits, it’s still a good place to start.

Below is a revised version.

If you’re an adult child,

1. You guess at what normal is, then try to imitate it.

2. You have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.

3. You lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.

4. You judge yourself without mercy.

5. You have trouble relaxing or having fun.

6. You take yourself very seriously.

7. You struggle with intimate relationships.

8. You over-react to changes beyond your control.

9. You constantly seek approval and affirmation.

10. You feel different from other people.

11. You’re either super responsible or super irresponsible.

12.  You’re extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that your loyalty is undeserved.

13.  You’re impulsive — i.e., tend to lock yourself into a course of action without thinking through alternatives or consequences.  This creates confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over your environment.  You also spend large amounts of time and energy cleaning up the mess.

Part 8 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children. 

Read part 1 here.

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*In Adult Children of Alcoholics (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1983).

 


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