The Plan B Talks
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 continues with (Talk #2) There I go again: Families & Plan A. Questions and feedback welcome.
The family ocean
An old proverb tells us that fish will be the last creatures to discover water.
Makes sense, right? Water is the only environment fish know. So to a fish water is simply a given, something to be taken for granted and ignored.
Human beings are like that.
Except the water we take for granted is our family.
By family I don’t mean just the group of people around us when we’re born and raised.
I mean an emotional environment, a way of feeling and perceiving and thinking and acting. We depend on family not just for our lives and emotional feeding but for our sense of what the world is and how we’re meant to function in it.
Family is the psychological sea in which we swim, the only reality we know.
So we have no choice but to adapt to it and absorb it, to carry it inside us everywhere we go.
And even when what we’ve absorbed causes us problems – makes us unhappy or emotionally sick, for example – we usually don’t think to step back question it.
Since it’s almost impossible to see your family objectively.
If you doubt this, think of how we get defined by our family roles.
Family therapist James Framo writes,
The “family way” of seeing and doing things becomes automatic and unquestioned, like the air one breathes. [For example,] It is very difficult for anyone, no matter how grown-up or mature, to avoid the family role assignment when he is in the presence of his family. Whether his role is that of “the quiet one,” “the smart one,” “the slick one,” “the troublemaker,” “father’s protector,” or any one of countless assignments, he will find himself behaving accordingly despite himself. 
Try a thought experiment. Think of your family of origin. Now ask yourself,
Who was the strong one?
Who was the weak one?
Who was the emotional one?
Who was the unemotional one?
Who was the funny one?
Who was the angry one?
Who was the anxious or insecure one?
Who was the controlling one?
Who got controlled?
Who was the problem solver?
Who was the problem?
Now try asking yourself
Did I have a role?
What was it?
Do I slip back into it when I’m with my family?
How am I still playing this role somewhere else in my life?
Was I aware of this before now?
For most of us it takes a long time to discover how our family role has defined us – if we ever discover it at all.
On the other hand, if we’re in recovery from anything – anxiety or depression or addiction or chronically bad relationships or some other emotional problem — sooner or later we begin to suspect that maybe we need to reexamine our family.
That we need to do what Freud originally defined as the goal of psychoanalysis: make the unconscious conscious.
So how do we do that?
How does a fish discover water?
We consciously turn our attention to what we’ve ignored, and to start asking higher level questions about it.
And a good question to start is: What’s my Plan A?
As I said last time, Plan A is my label for everything we learn as children about life and how to live it.
We each have a Plan A. And we each pretty much learn it in the same place and in the same way.
The place is our family, and the way is unconsciously.
Nobody sits us down at the kitchen table and says, “Listen up. Here’s how you do Life.” They just do Life themselves, and we watch and listen and soak it all up like little sponges. Which explains why our Plan A tends to look so much like that of our family members.
And it works for a while. Especially while we’re still living in the family. We’re all following the same unwritten rule book.
But Plan A always breaks down.
It happens when we move beyond the family into the larger world, filled with new people and new challenges. And we discover that what worked at home doesn’t always work out there.
At which point we have, at least in theory, a choice.
We can tell ourselves, “Oh, I see. I guess I need a Plan B.” Or we can tell ourselves, “I must be doing it wrong. I better work harder at Plan A.”
Guess which we choose?
Right. Plan A. Always Plan A.
Two reasons for this. First, we may not even know there’s such a thing as Plan B. We think Plan A is just normal. Why would anyone do Life in any other way?
Second, even when we begin to suspect there are other options, change is scary.
So we cling to Plan A because it’s familiar. It may not work great, but we can do it in our sleep.
And we usually keep doing just that until we develop symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, communication problems, bad relationships.
Those symptoms are what drive us into therapy.
Seeking, whether we know it not, a Plan B.
In 1983 Janet Woititz published a book titled Adult Children of Alcoholics which contained what came to be known in recovery circles as The Laundry List.
It’s a list of thirteen traits typical of adults who grew up in dysfunctional families.
A dysfunctional family, by the way, is simply one in which the members cannot get their needs met.
And adult children are people still trying to figure out what their Plan A was and which parts of it they need to exchange for something healthier.
If you’d like to be able to notice when you slip into Plan A – to say “Oh, there I go again” instead of reacting unconsciously — the Laundry List is a good place to start.
Below is a revised version.
If you’re an adult child,
You guess at what normal is, then try to imitate it.
You have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.
You lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
You judge yourself without mercy.
You have trouble relaxing or having fun.
You take yourself very seriously.
You struggle with intimate relationships.
You over-react to changes beyond your control.
You constantly seek approval and affirmation.
You feel different from other people.
You’re either super responsible or super irresponsible.
You’re extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that your loyalty is undeserved.
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.
If you identify with one or more of these symptoms you may wonder what it means.
I’ll tell you.
It means you’re like me, and everyone else I know.
Because there’s no one on this bus but us fishes.
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.
 James Framo, “Symptoms from a Family Transactional Viewpoint,” in Explorations in Marital and Family Therapy (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1982), p. 31.
 Adapted from Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1983).