If there’s one thing most of us are taught during our childhood years, it’s that family is important and should be a source of joy and security in our lives. But what if your family didn’t fit the paradigm we see in movies and on television? What if your family has become a dark, well-kept secret, or a source of shame or trauma in your life? Reconciling your expectations of what family should be and the reality of what family is can be incredibly challenging for those who have come from abusive homes. As an adult child of an alcoholic, I’ve struggled intimately with how the cracked foundations of a childhood home can bleed into adulthood and make loving yourself a tremendous feat. But even in your darkest hour, it’s important to recognize that there is always hope for you to heal, to step into your own power and leave the pain of your childhood behind. All it takes is three simple steps.
Step 1: Be Kind and Forgiving to Yourself.
Adult children of damaged parents tend to be hard on themselves. I know this firsthand: for years, I struggled with crippling perfectionism, an issue that stemmed from needing to impress my parents, particularly my father, in order to gain their love and attention. Making mistakes gave me terrible anxiety, and if anything went wrong in my home I automatically blamed myself. This behavior continued well into adulthood until I realized that the only person I needed to impress to be happy was me, and that I was never to blame for my parents’ faults. And even now, I’m still struggling to put these concepts into practice on a daily basis.
If there’s one thing adult children of dysfunctional homes need to do, it’s give themselves a break. A devastating number of us are chronic perfectionists, workaholics and masochists. It can be difficult for us to take compliments, to believe that our partners love us. Practice mindfulness by monitoring your inner dialogue every day, paying careful attention to the way you react to any slip-ups you make. Support yourself with positive self-talk, not self-destructive speech. And don’t hesitate to compliment yourself for your achievements and for simply being the amazing person you are. Lose yourself to joy, to silliness, to feelings of hard earned success. Reward yourself. You deserve it.
Step 2: Keep Moving Forward – Don’t Look Back.
Breaking down a dysfunctional family is like peeling back the layers of an onion: it’s arduous, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s difficult not to be brought to tears while doing it. Especially when someone else is doing the peeling, and it’s your family! This is why I quit therapy. I became tired of having therapists deconstruct the defects of my parents, flaws I was already understood all too well. I discovered that the more you obsess over the past, the more you lose focus on the beauty of the present moment.
When I reflect on the past, I do so with a non-judgmental perspective. The past cannot be changed: it can only be accepted for what it is. This concept has allowed me to dislodge the resentment I had toward my parents for taking away the normalcy of my childhood. Looking back on the past with the intention of accepting someone for who they are and leaving your expectations behind allows you to move one step closer to finding freedom from the pain others have caused you.
Step 3: Break Off Harmful Relationship Patterns That Mirror the Past.
Adults from dysfunctional families frequently encounter situations that eerily mirror the dynamics they had with their parents. Many of us become ‘rescuers’ for damaged partners and we like to have excessive control, which sabotages the healthy relationships in our lives. Why? Adult children of alcoholics, in particular, tend to have serious issues with control and self-worth. After all, we develop self-esteem from how our parents reacted to our feelings and needs. If our parent(s) were distant, critical or failed to be our mirror, developing healthy self-esteem as an adult can be challenging. Not to mention that living in a chaotic environment can quickly create a deeply insecure person who craves control and order to feel safe.
As we discussed, the past can’t be changed. But what you can change is your attitude toward yourself. Your self-image is the one thing you can undoubtedly control. Although long held negative beliefs you’ve had about yourself – that you’re unworthy of love because your alcoholic mother did not love you, that you’re damaged beyond repair because your narcissistic father left you – may seem too powerful to control, they can only define you and affect you if you give them permission to do so. Who told you that you’re unlovable because you had a parent who struggled with their past and also felt unlovable themselves? As an adult who has made it this far, the definition of who you are begins within you. What your parents, siblings or relatives think of you has no meaning unless you believe it has meaning. And taking the shortcomings of your parents personally will always hold you back from healing.
As your self-awareness grows and you can confidently look yourself in the eye and tell yourself that you are lovable, you’ll encounter others who believe the same — and reaffirm that you’re worth it, and always have been.