When You Grow Up In a Dysfunctional Family

by George A. Boyd © 1992

When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you experience trauma and pain from your parents’ actions, words, and attitudes.

Because of this trauma you experienced, you grew up changed, different from other children, missing important parts of necessary parenting that prepare you for adulthood, missing parts of your childhood when you were forced into unnatural roles within your family.

For some of you, it has led you to attempt to flee the pain of your past by alcohol or drug use.

Others of you feel inexplicably compelled to repeat the abuses that were done to you on your own children or with your own spouse.

Others of you have felt inner anxiety or rage, and don’t know why you feel as you do.

You were innocent, and your life was changed dramatically by forces in your family you had no control over, and now you are an adult survivor of that trauma.

This article will discuss what these families are like, what is the impact of growing up in these families, and what you can do to begin the process of healing.

Roles Within Dysfunctional Families

A dysfunctional family is one in which the relationships between the parents and children are strained and unnatural.

This is usually because one of the family members has a serious problem that impacts every other member of the family, and each member of the family feels constrained to adapt atypical roles within the family to allow the family as a whole to survive.

The spouse in this family may enable the problem spouse to maintain employment by lying for him or her, for example.

He or she may become obsessive about the problem spouse's abnormal behavior, such that he or she loses perspective in his or her own life, a pattern that is called codependency.

Sharon Wegscheider referred to this family role in alcoholic families as that of the Enabler. [1]

The children also assume roles within the family to make up for the deficiencies of parenting.

Sharon Wegscheider referred to these roles within the alcoholic family as the Hero, the Scapegoat, the Lost Child, and the Mascot. [2]

The Enabler protects and takes care of the problem spouse, whom Sharon Wegscheider refers to as the Dependent [3], so that the Dependent is never allowed to experience the negative consequences of his or her actions.

  • While the Enabler feels angry and resentful about the extra burden that is placed upon him or her by the Dependent's unhealthy, irresponsible and antisocial behavior, he or she may feel powerless to do anything about it.
  • The Enabler feels he or she must act this way, because otherwise, the family might not survive.
  • While the family is afforded survival by the Enabler's responsibility, the Enabler may pay the cost of stress-related illness, and never have his or her own needs met, in effect, being a martyr for the family.
  • The paradoxical thing about the Enabler's behavior is that by preventing the Dependent's crisis, he or she also prevents the painful, corrective experience that crisis brings, which may be the only thing that makes the Dependent stop the downward spiral of addiction.

The Hero, who is usually the oldest child, is characteristically over-responsible and an over-achiever.

  • The Hero allows the family to be reassured it is doing well, as it can always look to the achievements of the oldest son or daughter as a source of pride and esteem.
  • While the Hero may excel in school, be a leader on the football team or a cheerleader, or obtain well-paying employment, inwardly he or she is suffering from painful feelings of inadequacy and guilt, as nothing he or she does is good enough to heal his family's pain.
  • The Hero's compulsive drive to succeed may in turn lead to stress-related illness, and compulsive over-working.
  • The Hero's qualities of appeasement, helpfulness and nurturing of his or her parents may cause others outside the family to remark upon the child's good character, and obtains him or her much positive attention.
  • But inwardly, the Hero feels isolated, unable to express his or her true feelings or to experience intimate relationship, and is often out of touch with his or her own sources of spirituality.

The Scapegoat, who is often the second born, characteristically acts out in anger and defiance—often behaving in delinquent ways—but inwardly he or she feels hurt in that the family's attention has gone to the Dependent or the Hero, and he or she has been ignored.

  • The Scapegoat's poor performance in school, experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sexuality, flaunting of the conventions of society, or involvement in adolescent gangs or criminal activity may lead him or her to be labeled the family's problem, drawing attention away from the Dependent's addiction.
  • This behavior can also be seen as a cry for help, and it is often the delinquency of the Scapegoat that leads the entire family into treatment.
  • The acting out behavior of the Scapegoat may bring with it substance abuse or addiction to alcohol or drugs, early pregnancy for which he or she is not prepared, or incarceration.
  • The hostile and irresponsible attitude of the Scapegoat may lead him or her into accidents, or acts of violence against others or self.
  • The attitude of defiance may lead him or her to do poorly in school, effecting future employment and the opportunity to earn an adequate income.
  • The Scapegoat's cleverness and manipulation may be used to engage in leadership of peer groups, or in the invention of schemes of dubious legality, or outright criminality, to earn a livelihood.
  • Though the Scapegoat may develop social skills within his or her circle of peers, the relationships he or she experiences tend to be shallow and inauthentic.
  • The Scapegoat, cast in the role of a rebel, may have lost touch with his spiritual potentials and morality, as well.

The Lost Child role is characterized by shyness, solitariness, and isolation.

  • Inwardly, he or she feels like an outsider in the family, ignored by parents and siblings, and feels lonely.
  • The Lost Child seeks the privacy of his or her own company to be away from the family chaos, and may have a rich fantasy life, into which he or she withdraws.
  • The Lost Child often has poor communication skills, difficulties with intimacy and in forming relationships, and may have confusion or conflicts about his or her sexual identity and functioning.
  • These children may be seen to seek attention by getting sick, asthma, allergies, or by bed-wetting.
  • Lost Children may attempt to self-nurture by overeating, leading to problems with obesity, or to drown their sorrows in alcohol or drug use.
  • The solitude of a Lost Child may be conducive to the development of his or her spirituality and creative mental pursuits, if low self-esteem does not shut down all efforts at achievement.
  • The Lost Child often has few friendships, and commonly has difficulty finding a marriage partner.
  • Instead, he or she may attempt to find comfort in his or her material possessions, or a pet.
  • This pattern of escape may also lead him or her to avoid seeking professional help, and so may remain stuck in his or her social isolation.

The Mascot role is manifested by clowning and hyperactivity.

  • The Mascot, often the youngest child, seeks to be the center of attention in the family, often entertaining the family and making everyone feel better through his or her comedy and zaniness.
  • The Mascot, in turn, may be overprotected and shielded from the problems of life.
  • Inwardly, the Mascot experiences intense anxiety and fear, and may persist in immature patterns of behavior well into adulthood.
  • Instead of dealing with problems, the Mascot may run away from them by changing the subject or clowning.
  • The Mascot uses fun to evoke laughter in his or her circle of friends, but is often not taken seriously or is subjected to rejection and criticism.
  • The Mascot commonly has difficulty concentrating and focusing in a sustained way on learning, and may develop learning deficits as a result.
  • The Mascot also may fear turning within or looking honestly at his or her feelings or behavior, so he or she may be out of touch with his or her inner feelings, and his or her spirituality.
  • The frenetic social activity that the Mascot expresses is in fact often a defense against his or her intense inner anxiety and tension.
  • The inability to cope with the inner fear and tension leads many Mascots to believe they are going crazy.
  • If this inner anxiety and desperation is not addressed, it is not uncommon that a Mascot may slip deeper into mental illness, become chemically dependent, or even commit suicide.

A special case is the only child. An only child in an alcoholic family may take on parts of all of these roles, playing them simultaneously or alternately, experiencing overwhelming pain and confusion as a result.

Sharon Wegscheider notes that the longer a person plays a role, the more rigidly fixed he or she becomes in it.

Eventually, family members "become addicted to their roles, seeing them as essential to their survival and playing them with the same compulsion, delusion and denial as the Dependent plays his [or her] role as drinker." [4]

Types of Dysfunctional Families

Dr. Janet Kizziar characterizes four types of "troubled family systems," which are "breeding grounds for codependency:" [5]

  1. The Alcoholic or Chemically Dependent Family System
  2. The Emotionally or Psychologically Disturbed Family System
  3. The Physically or Sexually Abusing Family System
  4. The Religious Fundamentalist or Rigidly Dogmatic Family System

Codependency expresses in these dysfunctional families through the typical strategies of minimizing, projection, intellectualizing and denial.

Minimizing acknowledges there may be a problem, but makes light of it.

Projection blames the problem on others, and may appoint a scapegoat to bear the family's shame.

Intellectualizing tries to explain the problem away, believing that by offering a convenient excuse or explanation, the problem will be resolved.

Denial demands that other people and self believe there is no problem.

The patterns of codependency can emerge from any family system where the overt and covert rules close its members off from the outside world.

These family systems discourage healthy communication of issues and feelings between themselves.

They destroy the family members' ability to trust themselves and to trust another in an intimate relationship.

They freeze family members into unnatural roles, making constructive change difficult.

Rules that encourage the unnatural patterns of relating in these codependent family systems include:

  • Don't talk about problems
  • Don't express feelings openly or honestly
  • Communicate indirectly, through acting out or sulking, or via another family member
  • Have unrealistic expectations about what the Dependent will do for you
  • Don't be selfish, think of the other person first
  • Don't take your parents as an example, "do as I say, not as I do"
  • Don't have fun
  • Don't rock the boat, keep the status quo
  • Don't talk about sex
  • Don't challenge your parent's religious beliefs or these family rules

The dysfunctional family dynamics engendered by these unrealistic and restrictive rules leads to unfulfilling relationships as adults. This leads, Dr. Kizziar believes, to the symptomatic characteristics of codependency in adult relationship styles, marked by:

  1. Difficulty in accurately identifying and expressing feelings
  2. Problems in forming and maintaining close, intimate relationships
  3. Higher than normal prevalence of marrying a person from another dysfunctional family or a person with active alcoholism or addiction
  4. Perfectionism, having unrealistic expectation of self and others, and being too hard on oneself
  5. Rigidity in behavior and attitudes, having an unwillingness to change
  6. Having a resistance to adapting to change, and fearful of taking risks
  7. Feeling over-identified or responsible for others' feelings or behavior
  8. Having a constant need for approval or attention from others to feel good about themselves
  9. Awkwardness in making decisions, feel terrified of making mistakes, and may defer decision-making to others
  10. Feeling powerless and ineffective, like whatever they do does not make a difference
  11. Exaggerated feelings of shame and worthlessness, and low self-esteem
  12. Avoiding conflict at any price, and will often repress their own feelings and opinions to keep the peace
  13. Apprehension over abandonment by others
  14. Acting belligerently and aggressively to keep others at a distance
  15. Tendencies to be impatient and over-controlling
  16. Failure to properly take care of themselves because of their absorption in the needs and concerns of other people, and acting like martyrs, living for others instead of for oneself
  17. Dread of the expression of their own anger, and will do anything to avoid provoking another person.

The particular expression of these codependent traits by each individual is often a function of the type of family in which a child grows up.

For example, Dr. Janet G. Woititz [6] recognizes the following 13 traits that are characteristic of adults who grew up in a family where alcoholism was present.

Adult children of alcoholics

  1. Guess at what normal behavior is
  2. Have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end
  3. Lie, when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
  4. Judge themselves without mercy
  5. Have difficulty having fun
  6. Take themselves very seriously
  7. Have difficulty with intimate relationships
  8. Overreact to changes over which they have no control
  9. Constantly seek approval and affirmation
  10. Usually feel they are different than other people
  11. Are super responsible or super irresponsible
  12. Are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence the loyalty is undeserved
  13. Are impulsive, and tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences.

In Authoritarian families, whose members may be subjected to inflexible religious values or a black-and-white, one-dimensional view of the universe by a dominant parent, Dr. Janet Kizziar [7] believes may be subject to the following problems:

  1. They suffer from a frozen identity state, dominated by oppressively strict moral values.
  2. Their feelings become cut off from beliefs, and they no longer are certain what they really feel.
  3. The members experience great difficulty in thinking and deciding for themselves, as dogma or parental authority overshadows free choice and independent thinking.
  4. They have discomfort sharing honestly about their past, as they believe they must continually pretend they are living up to the ideal held up to them by their authoritarian parents.

Children who grew up in families where they were victims of incest show a variety of psychological, behavioral and interpersonal issues.

Psychologically, they suffer from sleep and eating disorders, fears and phobias, recurring nightmares, dissociative reactions, depression, anxiety and hysterical reactions, have low self esteem, believe they are polluted or inferior, and feel intense guilt, fear, shame, and anger.

Behavioral consequences include school problems, truancy, delinquency, running away from their families, prostitution, promiscuity, and higher rates of suicide attempts and completed suicides.

Interpersonally, they have difficulty trusting others, and they are more likely to physically and sexually abuse their own children, and are more likely to be sexually victimized. [8] Some adults experience difficulties with adult sexual adjustment, and nearly half show decreased sexual drive after childhood sexual abuse. [9]

Stress Disorders in Survivors of Dysfunctional Families

So intense are some of the reactions to growing up in these families, that Dr. Timmen L. Cermak believes they are similar to "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" experienced by survivors of disasters or wars, such as Vietnam Veterans.

These happen to people who chronically live through or with events "outside of range of what is considered normal human experience."

War veterans and adults growing up in dysfunctional families may, without warning, re-experience feelings, thoughts and behaviors that were present during the original traumatic event. These re-emerging painful feelings are newly triggered by environmental stimuli. [10]

Dr. Cermak notes, "for children from chemically dependent families, the trigger can be almost anything...the sound of ice clinking in a glass, an expression of anger or criticism, arguing, the sensation of losing control. [11]

Another symptom of stress disorder is psychic numbing, which Dr. Cermak describes as suspending feelings in favor of taking steps to ensure personal safety, or splitting between one's self and experience—disconnecting from feelings in order to survive. [12]

Survivors of trauma also experience hyper-vigilance, an inability to feel comfortable unless they are continually monitoring their environment. Cermak relates they "remained on edge, always expecting the worst, unable to trust or feel safe again." [13]

Finally, survivors of trauma, veterans of a war, or children from chemically dependent families, feel survivor guilt. [14]

"Whenever they experience the fullness that life has to offer, they immediately feel as if they are betraying those who never had the chance. It seems somehow wrong to go away and be healthy when those that are left behind are still suffering." [15]

Healthy Families, Unhealthy Families

Codependency is transmitted through family learning, and family members come to believe that these distorted patterns of relating are normal.

As the family is the primary arena of socialization, children growing up in these families are ill equipped to deal with the demands of the larger world outside the family home.

They are often saddled with inadequate coping skills, distorted perceptions of what is appropriate behavior, and unrealistic expectations of the behavior of other people.

To heal these dysfunctional patterns of relating, the codependent adult must get into touch with the "inner child," the real self within.

This part of us is alive, energetic, creative, and capable of seeing things as they really are.

The inner child can love others unconditionally, and can tell the truth.

In contrast, the codependent, "false self" feels uncomfortable, strained, and inauthentic in relating to other people.

  • It acts to cover up, deny and withhold genuine feelings, and inhibits spontaneous, "natural" or playful behavior.
  • It may develop a negative attitude toward self or others that is envious, critical, blaming, shaming and perfectionistic.
  • It tends to be other-oriented, focused on what it believes others think it should be or others want it to be.
  • It is capable of only conditional love, rewarding others only if they conform to its inner values of what is right and wrong.

Codependency is generated in emotionally disturbed family systems by inconsistent, unpredictable, and crazy parenting styles.

In physically and sexually abusive family systems, codependency is related to the violation of personal boundaries. Victims of abuse fear that the violation may reoccur at any time, and also experience an invasion of their self respect—they cannot control their own bodies, and their choices and desires are not respected.

In alcoholic and drug using family systems, codependency arises as a result of the unpredictable behavior of the substance abuser, and the stresses it places on the other members of the family.

In fundamentalist, dogmatic families, codependency is created by over-control and excessive regimentation.

In a healthy family system, family members openly acknowledge their problems, discuss them openly, and work toward change.

  • They believe change is acceptable, and actively solicit workable solutions from other family members.
  • Children in these families are free to express their needs and wants.
  • Family members can talk about feelings and traits in themselves that they feel should be changed: shame and embarrassment do not immobilize them.
  • There is permission to express appropriate anger.
  • The adults of the family model healthy, congruent behavior for their children: what they tell their children to do and what they themselves do, match.

Families function to provide the following needs for their members:

  1. Maintenance, the provision of food, clothes, shelter, and health care
  2. Nurturance, the granting of safety, security, warmth, and a sense of "home
  3. Inclusion, the fulfilling of love and belongingness needs
  4. Privacy, respect for each member's autonomy and separateness
  5. Esteem, the bestowing of a sense of worth and personal value on its members
  6. Understanding, the agreed upon right of members to make mistakes and learn from them
  7. Recreation, the opportunity to have fun together
  8. Spirituality, the permission to develop a relationship with a Higher Power, to have meaning and purpose in life.

To the degree that these functions of the family are eclipsed by dysfunction of one or more of its members and by the codependency that derives from this, to that degree will the ability of its members to successfully cope with life in the world outside the family be diminished.

Dr. Janet Kizziar sees that the family roles embody these functions of family, albeit in a distorted way.

The Enabler provides for Nurturance needs, and may ensure Maintenance needs as well, if the Dependent is incapacitated.

The Hero brings Esteem to the family; the Scapegoat, mistakes, so that the individual and family derive Understanding and learn from them; the Lost Child, Privacy; and the Mascot, Recreation, the spirit of fun and comic relief.

She also points out three other roles that appear in some dysfunctional families, that of the "Princess" or "Little Man," the "Doer" and that of the "Family Priest."

The Princess or Little Man is the child that is cast in the role of the family favorite.

  • This family member is often subject to emotional, or covert incest, becoming a substitute spouse for the opposite sex parent. As a result, this family member never gets his or her needs met.
  • The Princess or Little Man is not allowed to be a child, as he or she must always be available to service the needs of mother and father.
  • Children who are pressed into this role often attract sexually and physically abusive partners in their adult relationship, as they never form proper boundaries.
  • This child often embodies the Inclusion, or love and belongingness needs of the family.

The Doer is often cast as the breadwinner, the caretaker for the family, furnishing its Maintenance needs.

  • He or she tends to be over-responsible, yet is saddled with guilt, feeling that he or she never does enough.
  • The result of this labor of love on behalf of the family that takes up all of the Doer's time and strength is that he or she often feels fatigued, tired, lonely, unappreciated and empty.
  • The family does not acknowledge the Doer for what he or she accomplishes.
  • The Doer may become workaholic, deriving his or her personal satisfaction and self respect from employment.
  • Doers may attempt to meet their needs for love and belongingness, esteem, and actualization outside the family, which is perceived as a place of tension and misery.

The Family Priest is cast in the role of embodying the family's spirituality.

  • This family member is denied sexuality, and is expected to abide by the strictest codes of morality or virtue.
  • The family expectation for this member is that he or she will take vows, and become a monk or nun, a priest, rabbi, minister, or sannyasin, renouncing the world, and living for God and service to humanity.
  • If this family member refuses to assume this role, he or she may be treated as if they are worthless, a family pariah or scapegoat.

In a healthy family, members are not cast into rigid roles. Instead of pressing each member to embody a role to fulfill only one family function, each member is giving the opportunity to experience each of the family roles.

As a result, they incorporate positive adult and parental modes of functioning.

  • They are able to maintain themselves and their own families.
  • They are able to give and receive nurturing.
  • They are able to establish a network of intimate and friendship relationships in which they can experience love and belongingness.
  • They have the capacity to function autonomously and to take initiative.
  • They have self respect and can respect the values and boundaries of others.
  • They can accept their own mistakes and learn from them.
  • They have the capacity to laugh and have fun.
  • They have a relationship with their Higher Power, a source of inner meaning, strength, and hope.
A Question of Boundaries

In dysfunctional families, parents violate the boundaries of their children.

Parents from these families do not respect their children's personal freedom and privacy, they discount their children's feelings, do not honor their attempts at independent thinking and decision-making, and do not allow them to experience their impulses toward creativity, spirituality and self actualization.

These deficits in the children's development are revisited by problems in their adult relationships and careers, and with raising their own families.

When parents disrespect a child's boundaries, the child's sense of self—his or her autonomy, self-respect, feelings of effectiveness and of making a difference—are compromised.

In place of a healthy sense of self, children may come to feel they are "damaged goods": unworthy, inferior, inherently bad, incompetent, stupid, or ugly.

This negative conditioning limits what they believe they are capable of doing, being, and having throughout their lives.

One of the central priorities of the recovery process must be to reconstruct this damaged self-esteem.

Boundaries are broached in different ways.

  • In the physical or sexual abusing family, the child's physical boundaries are violated.
  • In families where there is insanity or serious illness of a parent, the child's emotional boundaries are infringed upon, and the child may be forced into the role of surrogate spouse for the other parent, or required to act as the ill parent's caretaker.
  • In the substance abusing family, the volatile and immature behavior of an intoxicated parent creates confusion about appropriate boundaries in interpersonal roles.

    As there are no models of rational or predictable behavior, there is breakdown of honest communication, a lack of emotional stability and nurturing by the parents, and a lack of safety that would permit trust, self disclosure and intimacy to develop.

  • In the fundamentalist, dogmatic, or authoritarian family, parents trespass on children's right to think for themselves (mental boundaries).

    They also violate children's rights to make their own decisions (volitional boundaries), to interpret and act upon their own conscience (moral boundaries), and to experience and express their innate spirituality, creativity, and quest for meaning and value (spiritual boundaries).

Another priority for recovering adult children from these dysfunctional families must be to rebuild appropriate boundaries.

  • They must relearn what is appropriate sexuality, and what are legitimate ways to express displeasure or anger without injuring others or themselves.
  • They must re-empower themselves to say no to relationships they do not want and that are not good for them, no to demands that they are not able to handle.
  • They must rehabilitate their ability to trust, to feel and share their feelings, to self disclose and establish intimate relations.
  • They must reestablish their ability to think for themselves, and to make their own decisions, confusing and scary as that might be.
  • They must re-own a coherent and meaningful set of moral values by which to govern their lives, and to take responsibility for their behavior.
  • And finally, they must renew their connection and relationship with a Higher Power, that provides for them a sense of guidance, a road map, a set of principles from which they may confidently and courageously live their lives.

None of this is easy. But the experience of numerous people who have survived growing up in these families, and have embarked upon a program of recovery, let us know that it is possible to regain their sanity and peace of mind, despite their painful and abusive past.

We also know that if an adult who grew up in these types of families does not address these powerful and poignant issues, it is likely that he or she will unwittingly continue these patterns of abuse into a new generation.

The child who is a victim of incest or molestation may go on to molest his or her own children.

The victim of physical violence may beat or neglect his or her own children.

The child of an alcoholic or drug addict may become chemically addicted him or herself, at a rate up to four times that of the population who did not grow up in these families.

The child of an authoritarian parent may perpetuate the cycle of tyranny, passing on intolerant and repressive values to his or her children.

This familial transmission does not stop unless we break the pattern, and find a way to heal the wounds that have been inflicted upon us, and resolve that we will not repeat the past: not in our lives, not in our children's lives.

Exercise: setting your personal boundaries

You define your personal boundaries by zones of emotional space around you. They vary with the degree of personal intimacy with which you relate to other people.

  • Acquaintances are those individuals that you let into your public space.
  • Friends are those whom you let into your private space.
  • Close friends are those whom you let into your intimate space.
  • Only those individuals who come closest of all, a spouse, the dearest and most trusted of friends or relatives, or your life companion, are ever allowed to enter into your most intimate space.

With each progressive layer of intimacy, you apply different standards to what is required of an individual to earn the right to know you in a more intimate way.

To protect your privacy, to ensure your safety, you erect barriers to those who would come close to you: only those that earn your trust and pass your tests are ever granted the right to move to deeper layers of intimacy.

Through betrayal or disillusionment, people can be exiled from a more intimate layer to a less intimate layer: thus close friends of one day may become friends or acquaintances of another.

In this exercise, first, list on separate sheet of paper those individuals in your life who fall into each of these intimacy categories in figure one to your right. In other words, list the names of the people in your life who are acquaintances, friends, close friends, and those you allow into your most intimate space, your nearest and dearest.

Next, observe what your standards and rules are for allowing a person to be an acquaintance, a friend, a close friend, or your nearest and dearest. Write these down on a second sheet of paper.

Notice if your current relationships adhere to these rules or guidelines for getting close to you.

If you are experiencing discomfort or feelings of mistrust in a relationship, notice if that you may have allowed that person to get closer to you than is appropriate.

By controlling your standards, you insure that only those individuals who meet your needs for integrity, safety and trustworthiness will come close to you.

You control intimacy in relationships by what you are willing to disclose about yourself, and you can distance yourself if it is appropriate.

This way you will prevent many unfortunate relationships and the attending heartache that goes along with them.

Changing Negative Conditioning of the Past

Though you may now be an adult, you carry with you the memories of the past.

The past has shaped you and molded you in ways you may not even be aware of, ways that remain deeply buried in your subconscious mind.

The trauma of growing up in a dysfunctional family has left scars, wounds that still hurt, emotional pain and confusion that won't go away, crazy patterns of acting and relating that don't make sense, but you feel compelled to do them anyway.

To change the negative programming in the biocomputer that is your Subconscious mind, you must correct the statements that are replaying like endless answering machine tapes.

These statements tell you that you are not good enough, that you can't succeed, that you are just another drunk like your father (and you are painfully aware that like him, you do have a problem with alcohol)—statements you have come to believe and act upon.

If you want your behavior to change and to alter the negative consequences that your behavior has brought to you, you can begin to change this negative programming.

The overt functioning of the Conscious mind includes behavior and sensation. The functioning of the Conscious mind of which you may become readily aware comprises eight levels:

  1. Gross motor behavior, such as turning your body or moving your arms and legs.
  2. Fine motor behavior, as when you move your fingers, or perform coordinated movements like dancing or playing hockey.
  3. Orientation toward stimuli, like when you move your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or the touch or temperature receptors on your skin to become aware of some object in the environment, or something on or next to your body.
  4. Movement of internal organs, as in the case of when you become aware of your heart racing after a chase, or butterflies in your stomach when you feel anxiety.
  5. Speech, when you vocalize your thoughts and feelings and communicate to other people.
  6. Voluntary control of breath, as when you hold your breath when diving underwater or taking deep breaths when you are feeling angry or upset.
  7. Self-direction, the inaudible speech you use to tell yourself the next thing to do, as in "sit down, reach down, grab your shoelaces with both hands, tie your shoe".
  8. Self-monitoring, the I AM statements you use to describe what you are doing, for example, "I am now eating ice cream."

Your functional Subconscious mind also has eight levels. It is comprised of your basic conditioning that determines what you think, feel, and believe.

  1. Fear or aversive conditioning, which includes your feelings of wanting to escape, thoughts that a situation or a person is dangerous, or beliefs that you might be harmed if you hang around any longer.
  2. Sexual or attractive conditioning, that elicits your feelings and sensations of sexual arousal, your fantasies about sexual behavior, your beliefs about your sexual attractiveness, worthiness, and competence.
  3. Anger or aggressive conditioning evokes your feelings of being wronged, your fantasies of harming another or taking revenge, or beliefs that you are justified in hurting another person, acting out violence, or causing injury, pain or misery.
  4. Moral or inhibitory conditioning, that bring up feelings of guilt or unworthiness, fantasies of being punished by another person or by a Supernatural Agency like God or the devil, and the beliefs that define for you what is good or evil.
  5. Learning or experiential conditioning produces feelings of confidence or certainty, gives rise to associative thinking and memories from your past, and your beliefs that identify an event, person, or thing as being similar or dissimilar to what you have experienced before.
  6. Habit or motor conditioning, prompts feelings of ease and confidence in making a movement you have previously practiced repeatedly, thoughts about the effectiveness of your actions, and beliefs about what is possible and impossible for you to do and achieve by your actions.
  7. Desire or attachment conditioning, which motivates feelings of craving or need, fantasies of doing, being, having, and enjoying the object of desire, and beliefs about what is possible for you to do, be, and have in your life.
  8. Subliminal awareness, marked by your I AM or identity statements about your thoughts and fantasies, feelings and beliefs, and your perception of your desires, habits, and conditioning.

The simplest kind of self-programming is called affirmation.

Affirmation is having the self-direction portion of your Conscious mind give suggestions to your Subconscious mind. You may suggest to your Subconscious mind, for example:

  • There is nothing to fear when you stand up in front of an audience to give a talk.
  • You are beautiful and desirable and are attractive to the opposite sex.
  • You can control your anger.
  • You will act in accordance with your morals.
  • You will remember the information you just learned so you will do well on the upcoming test.
  • You will shoot baskets easily when you aim the basketball.
  • You can achieve what you set out to do in your life.

Another kind of self-programming is called processing. In this method, you have the self direction portion of your mind ask your Subconscious mind a series of questions.

You may ask, for example:

  • What makes you afraid of heights?
  • What is it that makes you attracted to men or women who abuse you?
  • What is it that makes you so angry about that?
  • Why do you feel this behavior is wrong?
  • What was it like when you were five, growing up?
  • What is keeping you from running the 100-yard dash just a little bit faster?
  • What is it you really want in your career?

Surprisingly enough, your Subconscious likely has an answer to whatever you may ask it.

It will give you direct answers and will often reveal the hidden truth about whatever is troubling you.

All you have to do is ask, and then listen for the answer. You may wish to write it down, as well, so you can refer to it later.

Affirmation and processing will allow you to get in touch with your basic feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, and to change them to a certain degree. For the stubborn, recalcitrant, and deeply engrained patterns and attitudes, however, affirmation, and processing may not necessarily work—for these you need to bring out the heavy guns of Metaprogramming.

Metaprogramming means directing or changing your behavior and conditioning from an even deeper portion of you, called the Metaconscious mind. Metaconscious mind brings the following functions to bear on your basic conditioning:

Resolution – getting mad at, fed up with, and tired of old behavior or habit patterns, and deciding emotionally to do something about it.

Rehearsal – role playing new verbal behavior, mentally practicing new movements, visualizing yourself acting in a new way, having new things and people in your life, and being a different person.

Argument – setting new limits or standards for your behavior, specifying how your behavior, words, or life shall be changed, and undermining and exposing your negative beliefs and behavior.

Planning – scheduling, designing, and setting up new goal-oriented patterns of behavior. Defining projects and goals, and specifying deadlines for accomplishment of objectives.

Reflection – thinking about the consequences of your behavior, getting ideas for alternative ways of acting, feeling, believing or thinking.

Insight – looking at yourself objectively with the "eye of the mind". This allows you to witness your behavior, conditioning, and defenses against change.

Self Awareness – the awareness of your total personality from the vantage point of the Self. This center is the nucleus of the personality, and is experienced as a center of awareness, will, and joy, director and controller of your life.

Will is the internal controlling and ordering principle that operates through the human personality and gives expression to impulses from yet higher aspects of the mind, the Superconscious Mind, the human spirit, and the Soul.

For either programming or metaprogramming to operate effectively, they must be empowered and given permission by the Will.

Will is the connection with the deepest principles within a human being and is the manifestation of his or her Essential Self.

Behavior is largely the end result of the internal conditioning imbedded in the Subconscious mind.

Affirmation and Metaprogramming allow you to alter this programming in the Subconscious mind. This helps you to begin to take charge of your thoughts, your beliefs, your actions, and ultimately, your life.

By rediscovering your Will, you are reunited with your core, your Essential Being. This gives you the power to regain control over your life and affairs, and to take it back from those to whom you have given it away by your codependent styles of relating.

In learning to take charge of your conditioning, you give yourself back the keys to determining your own destiny, instead of being controlled by the traumatic experiences of your past and the people who have learned to manipulate you.

Whole Self / Damaged Self

The impact of growing up in a dysfunctional family takes its toll on individuals growing up in these families.

  • Adults who grew up in these dysfunctional families may experience problems with addiction: overeating, chemical dependency, sexual compulsions, workaholism, or destructive gambling behavior.
  • They may suffer from low self-esteem, not believing they deserve the good things in life.
  • They may feel depressed or anxious, and be uncertain why. They may self-sabotage their goals and dreams, fail to actualize their potentials, unwitting acting out a life script written by early negative programming.
  • They may have problems with making money, managing money, or settling down into a satisfactory career.
  • They have difficulties with intimacy, forming close relationships, and dread letting go of a relationship, even when it is destructive. They report sexual dysfunction, sexual obsession or lack of sexual desire.
  • They may be troubled with health problems that derive from too much stress, failure to properly care for their nutrition or get proper exercise or sleep, and being overly driven in their lives, not knowing when to let go or relax.
  • Their acting out as adolescents may have interfered with their education, and their emotional tension may have interfered with their ability to concentrate and to study, limiting their job prospects; and confusion, which effected their school performance.
  • Their rebellion may have led to legal entanglements.
  • They may be out of touch with their feelings and their spirituality, and lack a sense of meaning in their lives.

In sum, they emerge from their stormy childhood with a damaged self.

The healing process is assisted by an inventory of the damage, and then developing a personal "treatment plan" to address the aspects of the self that can be rehabilitated.

In some cases, the damage can no longer be remedied, which means that you will have to grieve for your loss, and in time, come to an inner acceptance, and forgive yourself for your mistake.

The next steps are reflecting on each important aspect of your life, setting realistic goals, then determining a way to reach these goals.

By writing down these goals you will be on your way to dealing with a painful past and creating a brighter present and future for yourself.

First inventory the following aspects of your life, asking where you are now for each area:

  • My physical health and appearance
  • My home and living environment
  • My emotional life
  • My relationships
  • My recovery from addiction and dysfunctional patterns
  • My mental life and education
  • My career and work life
  • My finances
  • My involvement in the community
  • My hobbies, interests in other cultures, my desires for travel
  • My ethics and principles I live by
  • My spiritual life

Write as fully on each subject as possible. Be honest!

You may also wish to elicit feedback from supportive friends or co-workers who aren't too timid to level with you about how you are doing in your career or in your relationships, in case you may be laboring under any delusions that you are doing fine, when you really aren't.

Next, you want to set some clear goals in each of these areas of your life, both the ones you are not having problems in and the ones you are having problems in. You can get out a new sheet of paper, and make three columns, like this:


You need to be realistic about when you can accomplish these goals, and not be too hard on yourself if you fail to meet a deadline. Just figure out went wrong, revise your deadline, and try a new and better approach.

Your goal statements should be concrete, not "I want to be happy," but "I want to better cope with the situations and people that frustrate me," or "I want to be earning 125% of my current income by December of next year."

Next you need to determine what will help you achieve each of your goals.

Get out a third sheet of blank paper, and make three columns, like this:


You want to briefly restate your goal, and think of what will help you reach your goal.

The comment section is for a brief comment like, "Completed on 3/15/92," or "Decided against this on advice of my sponsor or therapist."

You may wish to do this one in pencil, so you can add or revise items on it. I call it a success spreadsheet.

I've done a sample one below to give you some ideas.

Better Self-Esteem Get therapy or counseling. Read good books about building self-esteem. Complete some goals so I feel better about myself.
Be less of a doormat Take an assertiveness training class. Read a book on assertiveness training.
Set better limits Decide what are appropriate limits on C.W.'s behavior. Say no when I mean no. Practice my assertiveness skills. Talk over with my therapist why I'm in this relationship.
Need more discipline Take up a commitment I can't get out of so I'll be sure to do it. Get someone to do it with me so it won't seem like a burden. Read The Act of Will by Roberto Assagioli A great book!
Improve my relationship with my boss Discuss relationships with authority figures with my therapist. Work in my journal about resentments toward mom and dad.
To disclose myself Work on trusting with my therapist more fully so I can feel safer in intimate relationships. Journal on my fears of talking to my parents. Make a list of what I am afraid to tell about myself and tell them to B.J. Tell B.J. what I like sexually.
Clearer communication Learn to negotiate by reading a book about this subject. Take a public speaking class.
Learn Accounting Enroll in a class at the university next semester. Get an accounting package for my computer and use it.
Stop Using Alcohol Get into a recovery program today. Read Hazelden recovery books. Attend Alcoholics Anonymous and work the steps of the program. Do whatever it takes to stop drinking!
Deal with pain of growing up in an alcoholic family Attend ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) meetings. Get therapy and counseling. Work on my codependency by working the steps. Read books on codependency and ACA issues.
Enhance my relationship with my Higher Power Learn to meditate and practice meditation daily. Pray daily and attend Church on Sundays. Read books about spirituality and metaphysical topics. Read the entire Bible. Keep a spiritual journal.
Reduce my stress Practice relaxation daily. Practice time management. Say no more and don't take on any more projects.

Once you know how you can work on reaching your goals and what you are willing to do to reach them, there is only one step remaining. DO IT! MAKE YOUR DREAMS HAPPEN!

It is possible for you to overcome a painful past, to rediscover your unique individuality, and to become more effective in your personal life.

Getting in touch with your Soul, your real Self, through a spiritual awakening, is a healing experience, and will help you recognize your potential and find inner strength and wisdom to cope with life's challenges.

Setting clear goals for yourself and finding out how to accomplish them will actualize your dreams, and you will experience greater personal satisfaction.

By finding others who will support you in your recovery, by love, by understanding, by forgiveness, by empowering yourself, it is possible to release the burdens of the past and live more fully in the Actuality of the living present.

This is not an easy task, but no task is more urgent or worthwhile.

Bibliographic References

1. Wegscheider, Sharon. Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family. 1981. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books. Pages 85-88.

2. op. cit. See chart on page 86 of her book for a brief summary and comparison of these roles.

3. op cit. Page 88.

4. Op. cit. Page 88.

5. Material from Dr. Janet Kizziar's class, "Counseling Survivors of Dysfunctional Families," presented at the University of California, Riverside, 1/21/89

6. Woititz, Janet G. Adult Children of Alcoholics. 1990. Dearfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

7. class, 1/21/89. op.cit.

8. Finkelhor, D., Araji, S., Baron, L., Peters, S. D., and Wyatt, G. E. A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse. 1986. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

9. Herman, J. L. and Hirschman, L. Father Daughter Incest. 1981. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

10. Briere, J. "The long term effects of child sexual abuse: defining a post-sexual-abuse syndrome." Paper presented at the 3rd National Conference on Sexual Victimization of Children, Wahington, D.C., 1984.

11. Cermack, Timmen L. Diagnosing and Treating Co-Dependence. 1986. Minneapolis, MN: The Johnson Institute. Pages 55-58. Quoted from Beattie, Melody. Beyond Codependency. 1989. New York: Harper/Hazelden Books.

12. Ibid. Page 55.

13. Ibid, page 56.

14. Ibid, page 57.

15. Ibid, page 57-58.