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 #5) Hungry, lonely, scared: Decoding the laundry list. Questions and feedback welcome.
Because we are afraid of life, we
seek to control or master it.
~ Alexander Lowen
Three talks ago I told you about The Laundry List, those thirteen symptoms common to kids from dysfunctional families.
Three decades of working with adult children — plus seven decades of living as one — make it hard for me to read that list as anything but a detailed description 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 emotionally hungry, lonely and scared. I feel this all the time, and assume these feelings are unique to me, and am convinced that if you knew about them you’d judge me. So I hide my feelings and fake normalcy. I do this in order to control how you perceive and react to me.
(2) I have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.
This comes from how I handle discomfort. I hate discomfort, mainly because I’ve no idea what to do with it. I haven’t learned to detach or vent or ask for support or help or advice. So I try to make the discomfort go away by stopping what I’m doing. (I call this “taking a break.”) And since all projects turn uncomfortable at some point, demanding I do things I’d rather not do, I end up stopping permanently. Thus my garage remains a disaster, my graduate degree unearned, my book unwritten, and I may never lose those last ten pounds. I do this to control how I’m feeling.
(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 how I feel about you, or what I really want or hate or fear — makes me 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 become automatic, a habit. I control the truth because it calms my anxiety and helps me believe I can control what happens next.
(4) I judge myself without mercy.
Childhood taught me to expect others to criticize, judge 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, or ending a relationship before you can be dumped.) And judging myself without mercy saves me from being surprised or disappointed should you ever do it. I do this to control the anixety I feel in relationships.
(5) I have trouble relaxing or having fun.
As a kid I never knew what to expect. Will Dad come home drunk or sober? Happy or angry? Will he hug me or hit me? Will Mom comfort me or point out my flaws? Will my parents get along tonight or scream and break things? This uncertainty made me hypervigilant. I learned to constantly scan for danger, signs of unrest or tension or anger or conflict or some other trouble. I did that for so long that I lost the ability to not do it, to drop my defenses and relax or just play. I became an adult chronically braced against imminent danger. I do this in an attempt to control my anxiety about living in an unpredictable environment.
(6) I take myself very seriously.
Anxiety makes you pretty damn serious. It hijacks your attention, steals your energy, keeps you preoccupied and wary. And since one of the things I’m most scared of is rejection, I’m forever worried that others will dislike or judge me. I dread embarrassment and humiliation. Dance? Play? Act silly? Make a fool of myself? God, no. On some level I’m afraid of that all the time. Chronic seriousness feels like controlling how you will see and evaluate me.
(7) I struggle with intimate relationships.
Intimacy means being able to be myself with another person and allow them to do the same. It means dropping my defenses and surrendering control. It requires faith, both in you (I trust you not to hurt or betray me) and in me (I am basically lovable and can take care of myself). I never developed that kind of faith, intimacy scares the crap out of me. Showing my true self to another person feels like skydiving without a parachute. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone can do it, or would want to. Intimacy means surrendering control in a way I simply cannot.
(8) I over-react to changes beyond my control.
I spent childhood defending against situations that were confusing, stressful and scary. This left me experiencing the external world – the world of people, places and things — as dangerous. And I concluded that the only way to achieve a sense of internal safety was to control those externals. A logical conclusion, maybe, but psychologically disastrous, since it left me hypersensitive to everything I couldn’t control. 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. My need to control external reality keeps me scared of reality itself.
(9) I constantly seek approval and affirmation.
Every kid needs large helpings of the four A’s: attention, acceptance, approval and affection. These are the basic components of love. Kids who get enough grow up feeling loved and lovable. Kids who don’t grow up emotionally hungry. I grew up hungry, and now my hunger compels me to seek feeding in the form of approval and validation. Unfortunately I seek it in controlling and self-defeating ways. For example, since I feel unlovable, I feel unworthy of feeding, so instead of showing you my true self I hide the parts of me I think you’ll reject. I try to fool you into loving me. This never works, because whatever love or approval I do win feels meaningless, since I had to lie to get it. So I remain chronically hungry and chronically compelled to seek approval and affirmation again and again. The controlling way in which I seek feeding makes it impossible for me to ever feel adequately fed.
(10) I feel different from other people.
This comes from how I overcontrol my emotional life. I don’t trust or listen to my true 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 true 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. The wall I’ve built to control the risk of judgment keeps me feeling isolated, alienated and alone.
(11) I’m either super-responsible or super-irresponsible.
This comes from how I manage my anxiety. Since I don’t realize that my anxiety comes mainly from emotional constipation — i.e., holding feelings in — I blame it on external stressors, like the endless To Do list that is my life. Sometimes I try to control my anxiety by finishing everything on that list (super-responsible), and sometimes I turn my back on the list (super-irresponsible). 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. My attempts to control anxiety by focusing on externals just makes me more and more anxious.
(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 usually blame myself. (If you hurt my feelings I decide I’m being oversensitive. If you ignore or neglect me I tell myself Stop being so needy. If I lose my temper with you I 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 habit of ignoring or misreading my internal radar keeps me in relationships long after a healthier person would have escaped. My distorted self-image leaves me hanging onto you for security and constantly suppressing and overcontrolling myself.
(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 both self-awareness (for example, the fact that I’m constipated) and the ability to defer gratification. Like a child, I grab for the first choice I think will bring relief. (Boss yelled at me? Quit the job. Boyfriend didn’t call? Throw a tantrum. Girlfriend forgot my birthday? End the relationship. Partner cheated on me? Drive into a tree.) Adult children in recovery learn to calm themselves down — to take a breath, consider their options, maybe process their choices with a safe person. In recovery I’ll learn there are better ways to reduce my anxiety than leaping without looking. But now I get so flooded with uncomfortable feelings that the only way I know to control them is by acting out.
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.