I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it. It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series starts today with (Talk #1) Three Metaphors. Questions and feedback welcome.
The first thing a therapist learns is that most people don’t know why they feel what they feel or do what they do.
We think we do, but we don’t.
Once during a lecture Joseph Campbell drew a big circle on a blackboard and then added a tiny notch at the top. The circle, he said, represents the whole human being, and the notch represents the conscious part.
The main goal of this group is to expand your notch – to raise your awareness of the forces that shaped you and where your feelings and behavior come from.
We’ll do that by looking at your family of origin and how you were unconsciously conditioned by it to see, feel and act.
I’ve been trying to expand my own notch for forty years now, and the most important part of that work has involved looking at my family of origin.
My father was alcoholic and my mother was codependent. Those two facts shaped my life more than anything.
They taught me how to see myself and other people. They taught me how to handle feelings and relationships, cope with stress and perceive the world.
They also left me with anger, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, narcissistic tendencies, social anxiety, workaholism, an identification with underdogs, a tendency to self-medicate with sugar, and a compulsion to solve other people’s problems.
At 69 I’m still trying to understand how all that happened, and to sort out the useful lessons from the unhealthy ones.
It’s the main reason I became a therapist, and the main reason I wanted to do this group.
In the course of figuring out my own conditioning and helping others figure out theirs I’ve come across three useful metaphors we’ll be using in this group: Plan A, the Inner Kid, and control addiction.
~ Plan A refers to everything you learned as a kid about yourself, other people, feelings, relationships and life itself – all the conclusions, assumptions and rules you absorbed from your environment and your experiences.
We each have a Plan A, and we each learn it the same way – unconsciously. We watch and listen to the big people around us and decide that’s how we’re supposed to be. We also have stressful experiences which force us into certain ways of coping and then, as adults, we revert to those Plan A reactions in times of stress.
Why is understanding Plan A important?
Because to the extent we rely on it as adults, we feel like kids inside, and we function in ways that are often outdated, maladaptive and unhealthy.
Speaking of feeling like kids inside:
~ The Inner Kid refers to the part of you that was forced into hiding when you were powerless. I think we each have an Inner Kid, and that understanding that helps us understand both ourselves and other people better.
In therapy I tend to think of the Kid as the authentic part – the real you, the part that reflects what you really feel and really need.
I also think of it as the wounded part — the part that carries all your unmet needs, unexpressed feelings, unresolved conflicts and unhealed wounds.
Again, I think we each have a Kid which was driven into hiding when we were young, and which gets triggered now when we’re stressed. And one sign that our Kid is getting triggered is that we become controlling.
~ Control addiction is my favorite explanation for human behavior. I’ll explain my view of it in more detail later, but here are the basics:
 Control means the ability to edit reality – to make people, places and things (including ourselves) behave the way we want.
 Human beings are hardwired to seek control, mainly as a result of our big brains – brains that remember and project and plan and analyze and worry and obsess – which cannot, in fact, stop doing any of those things.
 I believe
~ We’re all addicted to control.
~ This addiction causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems.
~ The root of this addiction is the wish to control feelings.
~ There are better ways to handle feelings than control.
I call these the Four Laws of control, and they’re the basis for how I do therapy.
So those are the three metaphors. I’ll explain each in detail in the weeks to come.
In the description I sent you I said this group would have three goals. The first had to do with what I hope you’ll learn here: To help you better understand how childhood issues play out in your current life.
In the language of the three metaphors, that means figuring out
(a) what your Plan A is and where it came from,
(b) how your Inner Kid functions and what s/he needs, and
(c) what triggers you into compulsive controlling.
One last note about what we’ll be discussing:
Much of what I’m teaching you will be counterintuitive.
That means not just that it will be unfamiliar, but that your mind and emotions may well reject it, at least initially. It just won’t fit your normal ways of perceiving, feeling and acting. It may even make you uncomfortable.
If that happens, relax. It’s normal.
Learning this new view means going through three stages: (a) understanding the idea, (b) accepting the idea, and finally (c) practicing the idea.
Take all the time you need with each stage.
Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.