New Days From Old Family Scripts

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Family scripts and experiences are carved in stone. Recovery requires a significant long-term effort to disconnect the emotional wiring that sabotages relational intimacy caused by family dysfunction. Many of us have turned inward unable to connect to others. At the time, it was a necessary choice in order to survive the lack of safe, loving, and consistent care from our primary caregivers. For many, mom and dad were good people who did some lousy parenting. They did the best they could most of the time. It just wasn’t enough. As a result, many of us learned to numb ourselves from the myriad of unhealthy childhood experiences to protect ourselves from disintegration and pain. 

Today our relationships become conflictual and difficult. We recreate past disappointments and losses that were experienced from family past. We become compulsive. We are driven from boredom by a compulsive desire for more excitement. We seek ways not to think or feel. We think that if we control situations and people around us, we will not be so likely to get hurt or be alone. So our truth becomes black and white, driven by thoughts we would like to avoid. Many of us deny reality. We want others to do our research for truth. We tell ourselves that the realities that surround us are not actual. It’s all fake news. Addicts have done this their entire lives. It’s an illusion that we embrace to numb the out-of-control and over-control cycles that create more and more chaos. We learn to compartmentalize so that we see these weaknesses in others to avoid the impact of our own past experiences in our family of origin.

Here are a few recovery reflections from old family scripts.

1. Grieving unmet needs is important to accepting what is. There is a desire for others in our family of origin to embrace the newfound awareness and truth that is discovered in recovery. But, they don’t! In many cases, your insights are ignored and not even acknowledged. For a season, much of your energy is spent trying to help your family of origin to see what you have uncovered. Grieving takes time. You will need to let go and accept that your loved ones will likely never see what you know. Acceptance is not compromise. Rather, it leads to separating yourself from your truth. Without grieving you will fight your family and fight yourself trying to get them to understand. Acceptance leads to embracing whatever relationship you can engage with your family of origin. It always means letting go of what does not exist but you wish it did.

2. Learn to internally regulate your feelings. Allow the emotional pain from your family of origin to surface.  For me, it was like trying to hold down powerful springs that were essentially painful experiences. There was a pattern of behavioral experience that included religion, fast-paced living, and addiction that served as a cocktail for numbing out what I did not want to face or feel. The reality of painful past experiences was the springs that kept pushing back against my stubborn will, which tried to avoid the experiences I feared to face. Finally, I wore out and all of the springs started popping up all over the place. I was unable to control them. Internally, I fell apart. This was the place I began to learn to regulate my feelings. It required that I surrender to trying to control what was uncontrollable. Internal regulation included facing what was real about my parents and childhood.  Until this happened I relied upon life skills that led to intimacy disability.

3. Reconstruct your beliefs about relational fulfillment. How you do relationships will change as you reconstruct your fundamental beliefs about yourself and the world around you. Detaching from your family of origin is often necessary to realize that you are worthwhile. Others see that you are an unrepeatable miracle of God. Give yourself permission to take it in. There was a time in my life that I enjoyed the connection and friendship of others but I craved the acceptance and connection that I did not have from my family of origin. I desperately wanted their smile of approval. Like wolf pups hovering around the carcass of their dead mother hoping for milk, I hovered seeking the approval and acceptance that would never come from my family of origin. I learned to let go and move on. You must too. Learn to believe that who you are is valued. Rebuild your mistaken beliefs into affirmations that help you realize your destiny of connection, value, and relational intimacy. This reality is a result of accepting your being just the way you are. 

    For many of us, it takes a lifetime to unravel the family scripts that were carved in stone. Those who take the journey and stay the course, discover the secret of their own brilliance and genuinely rejoice in being an unrepeatable miracle of the universe.

    Self Empowerment — Making Things Enough

    READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

    Addicts in recovery often struggle with knowing how to meet their needs in healthy ways. As a child, many developmental needs were left unmet because parents who never had their needs met when they were young and vulnerable failed to meet their children’s needs. They pass along the same dysfunctional patterns they learned from their parents. This is one way dysfunctional patterns of behavior are intergenerationally transferred. 

    As a child, they learn to compensate in order to survive. They become very good at improvising—doing what pleases their parents and gets their attention. They learn to do and perform because the value of being is de-emphasized. Children learn to do anything to avoid neglect and abandonment which are terrifying experiences. This is when a child loses a sense of identity. Children mistakenly believe that whatever they do to get noticed is who they are. So they lose themselves in family roles (hero, scapegoat, lost child, etc) or in taking care of others. Sometimes they act out with negative behavior or through personal accomplishments to get attention. They hope to be noticed by caregivers. The result is that they are never able to do enough outside behavior to fill the empty space inside. That is when they create a cocktail of life experience to avoid the feelings of neglect and abandonment. 

    The mistaken beliefs that come with abandonment are, I am not worthy, not enough, or don’t measure up to matter to those you most want to be noticed by. So they learn to numb out and avoid the extreme emotional pain and fear associated with neglect and abandonment. Addiction doesn’t take away the pain but it does give what it promises. It is like a warm blanket on a cold night that offers temporary relief and escape from the harsh reality of a world full of winter experiences. 

    Every addict must stop the run-away train going down the track in order to get at the root cause of their destructive behavior. They learn to identify and express their feelings, which they were disconnected from in addiction. They have to be taught how to recognize needs represented in personal affect. They must learn how to assert meeting the needs housed within the emotions expressed. This journey requires education and a lot of practice. Ultimately, they must face their fears of neglect and abandonment. Most people are afraid to express what they feel or need because they fear they will be abandoned. As children, they have been abandoned emotionally, physically, or both. They learn to avoid this fear by the thoughts they embrace and the things they do. They compartmentalize what happened or did not happen as children. They protect those who have abandoned them with staunch family loyalty. They forgive prematurely, minimize results, and deny the impact of abandonment. They do everything possible to avoid facing the fear of abandonment. They learn to regulate themselves emotionally by trying to regulate everyone around them.

    In my book, Dare to Be Average—Finding Your Brilliance in the Commonplace, I told the story about a little boy who loved PBJ (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). He would go to the pantry, take the jar of peanut butter, and spread it on his bread. Then he would slap the jelly and peanut butter together and enjoy his PBJ. When there was daylight at the bottom of the jar of peanut butter, he would pitch it in the trash and reach for a new jar. All was good until one day there was no backup jar in the pantry. So with disappointment, he resigned to do without. As he walked away, his father noticed and asked him to come back to the kitchen. He took the jar of peanut butter that was thrown in the trash, made sure there was no gunk on it, and then scraped the sides of the jar which provided for 1/2” thick of peanut butter rather than the normal 1” thickness. He then noted to his son that he was willing to go without when he could take what was and spread it around and make it enough. 

    This story points to a skill set that many addicts fail to incorporate in their recovery program. When faced with the fear of abandonment in a relationship, they panic. Some insist that their partner fix the fear. They focus on their partner’s shortcomings. This is a subtle way to make the partner the identified problem. 

    Others run from the relationship through an approved replacement addiction like work etc. Many refuse to face their fear of abandonment and resolve the pain. They look outside themselves to medicate their fear. If not through acting out with their drug of choice, they utilize schemes of manipulation and overcontrol impression management or a myriad of caretaking strategies to avoid facing their fear of abandonment. They perceive their relationships through the view of a terrorized disempowered child. Consequently, they look for others to fix what they can only fix from within themselves. It renders them ineffective to take what is in a relationship and do their part to make it enough. Paralyzed in neediness, addicts look to others outside to fix their fear of abandonment.

    Managing the fear of abandonment requires empowering an adult perspective in the following areas:

    1. Recognizing your fear. In reactivity, we can cover our fear of abandonment by focusing on the injustice behavior of a partner. Since we cannot fix our partner when he or she complains or is unhappy, we become defensive and become embroiled in a circular argument trying to fix the blame. What gets lost in the skirmish around who is at fault is the reality that you fear abandonment from your partner at some level.

    2. Address the childhood fear of abandonment. This requires taking time to identify ways that you were abandoned in childhood. You will need to dismantle family loyalty by taking your parents off the pedestal in order to perceive the ways you were abandoned. You will know you have your parents on a pedestal by the feelings of guilt you experience when you speak to the times they abandoned you physically, emotionally, or both. You will need to grieve for the young impressionable part of you that was abandoned. In your grief work, you will need to move the energy of what you feared from your parents to the issue of abandonment. You will then need to transfer this energy to the empowered adult self to provide the safety you need in the here and now. This is not a one-and-done life experience. Rather, it is an adult skill set that must be honed and practiced throughout life.

    3. Make amends when you fail to empower the adult. Insight does not create perfection. You will backslide into giving the reins to the child within to negotiate decisions that require an adult mindset with your partner. When you recognize this to be true, take a deep breath, step back, gather yourself, and make amends. Then request a do-over. Practice will not make perfect. Yet, the combination of practice and a willingness to make amends will provide the incremental progress necessary to grow intimacy and reduce the fear of abandonment. 

    Don’t forget the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Always remember that as the adult in charge, you will have the power to take what is in a relationship spread it around, and make it enough. You do not have to be dominated by the fear of abandonment.