In our age of technological wonders, there's a place where even the most advanced, most finely tuned and calibrated machines, can't penetrate. In each of us, inside our deepest emotional selves, lives a small child who never grows up. The small child won't show up on a conventional X-ray or a CAT scan. The small inner child remains invisible to the almost-magical probing of nuclear-magnetic resonance. Invisible, but ever- present, a part of every cell, every fiber of being.
No matter how big, strong, capable and successful we become, a part of us still feels small and helpless. We are afraid of disapproval, scared of making mistakes, terrified of being found out. We worry about rejection and abandonment. We fear isolation, being left alone to fend for ourselves in a world hostile to us, or worse: utterly indifferent. We know what the poet meant when he wrote, "We are strangers and afraid, in a world we never made."
At times everyone -- not just children of alcoholics -- feels like a lost child, stumbling alone in the crowd, sucking his thumb and hoping not to be found out as a fool.
Sadly, this perpetual frightened child feeling is frequently over-developed in people who grow up with alcoholic and co- dependent parents. And is it any wonder?
As a child in an alcoholic home, you were bombarded constantly with threats to your physical and emotional safety. You were forced to take on the physical, psychological, and social responsibilities of adulthood before you were emotionally prepared to cope with them. And you probably did a fairly decent job of it, too.
But it is scary to a child to take on adult worries, cares and responsibilities. After all, from a child's vantage point, the adult world looks big, powerful and menacing. In comparison, the child is small and powerless. A nebbish. Without a loving and reliable parent to guide the way, the world seems frightening, almost overwhelming.
To be sure, alcoholic and co-dependent parents do love their children. Of this there can be no doubt. Neither can we doubt the simple truth that alcoholism turns even the most loving parent into a person who is unreliable, unpredictable, and emotionally distant.
Because alcoholic and co-dependent parents are so wrapped up in their own problems, kids are frequently left to fend for themselves. Even when your parents were in the same room with you, they may have been unavailable to you emotionally.
It's not that you were left alone all the time.
No, it was much worse than that.
You were isolated with a person you couldn't predict, count on, or control. You were stuck. You felt trapped in a kind of living hell, damned if you tried to escape and damned if you stayed.
Now, think back. Did you talk about your anxiety and fears? Did you openly discuss your sense of insecurity and isolation?
That would be breaking the rules. Admitting such feelings would be a direct violation of the alcoholic family's conspiracy of silence. Just as your anger had to be denied, so did your fears. You had to be strong, invulnerable, controlled, proud. Those were the rules, the covert laws of the co-dependent domain.
Those dimly articulated regulations foster the adult child's second paradox: A fragile inner life of fear and anxiety covered by a false front of competence and bravado.
Tanya accurately described this paradox: "I have this feeling of being in over my head all the time. I feel overwhelmed. It's hard to talk about, but it's like I have to please everyone, make everybody think I'm this strong, wonderful person. I feel stuck, always struggling, but never getting to where I want to be."
At the same time, Tanya was objective enough to realize that in many ways she was the very image of success. At work, she was even considered a role model for some of the younger women -- an example of the enterprising woman executive.
"What a joke!" Tanya said ruefully. "I worry all the time that one of these days my mistakes will catch up with me and everyone will find out what I'm really like. Just thinking about it puts me in a depression."
Tanya isn't alone. Her feelings of being overwhelmed, of being stuck, of constantly trying to please are common among adult children. And so is her well-practiced ability to present an image of having it all together. She's really very good at fooling people.
This pretense of emotional invulnerability does not come cheaply. The denial and deceptions needed to hide our real selves from others exact a high cost in terms of lost self- esteem, secret guilt and endless nightmares of inadequacy.
Sadly, when a person has to expend so much energy pretending to be a strong, capable, and invulnerable adult when they don't really feel that way, they risk the possibility of forever feeling like a frightened child inside.
Emotionally Stuck in Childhood
All children need and want help in structuring and controlling their lives. In alcoholic families, this necessary guidance is either totally missing or confusingly inconsistent. To add insult to injury, the little structure that is provided in alcoholic homes is based on parental needs rather than the needs of the child.
Your mother or father needed you to grow up fast socially and emotionally in order to satisfy their own ego needs. If your family was poor, you may have had to assume early financial responsibilities.
Even if money wasn't a problem, your confused and emotionally inadequate parents may have relied on you to provide emotional support beyond your capabilities, to be a confidante to adult worries, to care for other children, to act as a mini- mother or mini-father. And in some instances, even to act as a mini-spouse.
Your character was prematurely structured into adult-like behaviors, but on the inside you still had the feelings and fears that were appropriate for what you really were: A child.
You were pushed to grow up too fast, you were structured so early to behave in a way that was beyond your emotional limits, that there was little room for further growth and personality development.
As a consequence, you became emotionally stuck in a place where you were part child and part adult.
You were a child adult.
Neither fish, nor fowl; neither child, nor adult.
Now, when you are physically grown-up, you may be suffering the stunting emotional effects of premature structuring. Your mature behavior belies the truth -- in many ways, you still feel like a kid.
If you were forced to grow-up fast to satisfy parental ego needs without concern for your own needs, you will inevitably reach a point of rebellion. You will struggle against the constraints of your existence. You will want to grow, to expand, to find the answers to life's questions.
In agonizing moments of introspection, you ask: Is this all there is? Is this enough? And ultimately you cry out in desperation: Who am I-- really?!
But what can you do? Where does a man or woman trained from childhood in the alcoholic family's conspiracy of silence, shame and denial go for answers to these deeply personal existential questions? How can you address the deeper issues of your life when to do so raises an irrationally ingrained fear of physical or emotional annihilation?
You can hold tight to your emotions for a long time -- some people can hold on forever -- but for many adult children of alcoholics, crisis-time hits somewhere in the mid-thirties. It's a natural time to take stock, not just for adult children, but everyone.
We start asking questions: "Where am I going?" "What am I doing?" "Why am I doing it?" And we worry: "Is it ever going to get any better?" "Has life passed me by?"
We want answers to our questions, we want to understand the meaning of our lives. If the answers don't come, we may drop into an emotional tailspin, opening ourselves to anything that provides even temporary relief from our anxiety and questions -- alcohol, drugs, food, smoking, work, new lovers, encounter groups, meditation, religious cults.
A voice inside is shouting: Take stock! When is it going to get better? You've been living somebody else's life. When are you going to start living your own life? Half your life is gone! Is this all there is?
As one adult child said, "It was like I woke up one day and found out the race was almost over and I hadn't even left the starting gate."
Confronted with the undeniable reality that you no longer have all the time in the world to find yourself, you are quite simply terrified.
The question is: Do you face your fear head on, or do you run from it?
Do you even possess the necessary emotional equipment required to confront the frightened child inside you? Your parents certainly didn't act as exemplars, as good models, did they?
Unable to cope with family stresses themselves, alcoholic and co-dependent parents try to ease part of the burden of their own problems and fears by enlisting their children's help in covering-up and coping with the family turbulence.
Your parents did not mean to harm you when they abdicated their parental duties in this way. They did the best they knew how to under difficult circumstances and, yes, they made mistakes. Continually.
Forcing young children to become miniature adults is one of the major child-rearing blunders made by alcoholic and co- dependent parents.
As a child in an alcoholic home, you were placed under tremendous pressure to solve problems over which you had no control, to please, to make things better without asking questions or making waves or asking for outside help.
You became an active member in the conspiracy of silence, learning that it was important for you to cope without admitting the confusion or pain or fear you felt every time your parents behaved like crazy people with their deceits and moods and unpredictability.
Even though you were only eight or ten years old, you were expected to adjust to problems your parents couldn't handle. You were expected to cope without cracking, to stuff your feelings, to not only survive yourself, but to protect your siblings and help your parents in their struggles.
You weren't up to the task. No child is.
So, there you were -- a child burdened with adult worries, but without the grace of adult knowledge. What could you possibly do? Who could you turn to? What were your options?
If you were a normal child living under these chaotic circumstances, you soon learned how to use your own behavior to bring a semblance of order and control to your environment. You learned there were some specific things you could do that made life just a little bit easier to bear . . . if only for the moment.
You learned to lie because sometimes it was the only way to keep the peace.
You learned to manipulate because sometimes it was the only way to obtain the emotional and physical necessities of life.
You learned to tell people what they wanted to hear because sometimes it was the only way to shut them up.
You learned to make promises you couldn't keep because sometimes that was the only way to win approval.
And you learned to hide your emotions because sometimes that was the only way to avoid unbearable pain.
When carried into adulthood, these childhood survival skills become the tools of self-destruction. If we lie, manipulate and pretend in our adult relationships, we end up short-circuiting our capacity to love and be loved. The constant strain of protecting ourselves against detection puts us into a frenzy of fear.
And it makes us feel guilty!
Part of the paradox is that most adult children have pretty high standards of right and wrong. You aren't a sociopath-- you know the difference between right and wrong. And you care about others. When you stretch the truth, or withhold information, or pretend to be something you're not, you aren't deliberately trying to hurt anyone. You're just trying to get by, keep your self-esteem intact, and avoid disaster. And still you hurt.
Because you admire honesty.
Lies, half-truths, pretenses, manipulations, and unkept promises violate higher values of integrity, truthfulness, authenticity, and personal responsibility.
You want to be honest, but something always gets in the way. You want to learn to be open and above-board, yet the fear of being judged and found wanting prevents you from showing your real self. You want to enjoy the freedoms of adulthood, but you find instead that the old roles and conflicts of childhood reappear to haunt you.
Ask yourself the following questions:
-- Do you withhold information about your feelings, so the people closest to you have to guess what's really in your mind and heart?
-- Is it hard for you to make a direct request because being denied makes you feel unloved?
-- Is it hard for you to tell the people you love how much you really care about them?
-- Do you worry about keeping track of all the half-truths, misrepresentations and lies you tell to different people?
-- Do you feel isolated and afraid of people and authority figures?
-- Do you sometimes feel you have no identity of your own?
-- Would you rather swallow poison than be publicly exposed as being wrong or unable to competently handle your responsibilities?
-- When put on the spot do you become defensive and justify your actions by blaming or criticizing others?
There's a tug-of-war, a bitter conflict, between the desire to fulfill our higher values of honesty and integrity and the need to protect our frightened inner selves with a wall of denial, deceptions and pretense.
This conflict is one of the major sources of our anxiety.
Understanding this anxiety is one of our most important tasks. Our self-esteem is based in large part on this most fundamental human dilemma -- do we live up to our higher values or do we play to our fears.
To be honest or to be safe? Which will it be? As children, we had no way of knowing there were other modes of operating. We lied because we had to. We manipulated and pretended because it helped us get by. It didn't make us happy, just safe for a minute or two. We simply did what had to be done to survive.
But as adults, we stand on the crossroads of choice, all possibilities open to us.
In all honesty, it must be said again that the path to taming a turbulent past is not an easy one to follow.
For if we choose to pursue our higher values, if we pick openness and honesty and integrity, then we must forsake our mask of invulnerability. We must stand naked and be judged for who and what we really are.
And that's what terrifies us.
© Copyright 1986, 1997, 2003 Gayle Rosellini & Mark Worden
This Web edition is for personal use and not for distribution. Zipped plaintext copies via email on request.
For copies on disk, inquire :: Mark Worden