Stop Having Conversations You’re Not Really Having

You’re at a family dinner. Things are winding down, most everyone’s done eating, and they’re talking about the movie “No Country for Old Men.” Your brother talks about how great it was, how much he liked it. He says, “Pure genius.” Your sister’s boyfriend sits back and says, “Pure garbage. I hated it.” Silence falls. Your sister hopes that your brother doesn’t get defensive and start a verbal fight.  And she hopes her boyfriend will quickly say something else, something nice.

Growing up, when we disagreed with our alcoholic parent’s opinions, he or she accused us of being an enemy, of hating him, or of conspiring against him – simply because our opinion differed from his or hers. What our alcoholic parent wanted was for us to support his or her opinon…at the expense of expresing our own opinion (that is, they rejected the free expression of our self). In doing so they taught us to believe that when someone disagrees with us they are, in essence, rejecting us. Part of growing up and outgrowing one’s alcoholic upbringing is knowing that differences of opinion are not personal attacks.

In a sick family, your brother would feel defensive (as if his taste in movies was being evaluated) and say, “Whoa! Garbage? What’s your deal – you got something against me?”

Your sister’s boyfriend says, “I don’t have anything against you – I just hated the movie.”

Your brother says, “Sounds like you’re calling my taste in movies garbage.”

Sister’s boyfriend says, “No, I never said that.”

Brother says, “That’s not what I heard you say.”

Pretty much everyone around the dinner table is uncomfortable and wishing they’d been born into a different family.


That’s not what he heard his sister’s boyfriend say because the brother is listening with old, sick ears. He can’t hear actual words – he hears only insults. Because his father didn’t tolerate freedom of opinion, he doesn’t understand how oppposing opinions can coexist.


A lot of us don’t really hear what people are saying to us, we listen for subtext. If a stranger suggests that our tires need more air and look like they’re getting flat, we’re insulted rather than thankful.  We hear, “You’re a negligent car owner,” rather than the helpful words. We assume they are judging us, but we have absolutely no indication of that.

As people raised by alcoholics, we often fail to hear the actual words being spoken to us, and we react to our interpretation of what’s “behind” the things people say rather than what people are actually saying. When we’re emotional, it becomes extremely hard for us to hear people’s words at all – it’s habit for us to listen for subtext.


The other behavior that we have in common, which is related to listening with our fear rather than our ears, is the thoughts we think. We often scare ourselves with our thoughts – totally made-up scenes that are not actually happening.

For example, you’re driving home and you’re late.  You stopped at the grocery store and Walgreens, too, but you spent a lot of time at Walgreens looking around and you’re making it home later than expected and later than you said you’d be home. If you’re the child of alcoholics, you’re likely going to imagine the conversation when you get home – because you think you’re going to be in trouble for being late. (People who grew up like us are always worried about getting yelled at or ‘in trouble’ when least expected – so we try to be on guard, at all times.)

In the car, you might role-play the conversation you’ll have when you arrive home, putting imagined words into the mouth of your children or partner (“I can’t belive you’re so late.” “Why didn’t you think to call?” “Daddy, you’re late again!” “Dinner is cold, but it wasn’t fifteen minutes ago.” “I don’t feel like going out to dinner if you don’t respect me enough to be on time.”) How awful. Why do we think these things?

It’s as if we’re so used to hearing the mean words of our self-centered, childish parents that we imagine the words that we no longer hear – out of habit.


Start to catch yourself having these negative, fake conversations. Catch yourself putting words in other people’s mouths.  Catch yourself imagining scenarios.


Then replace the script with wonderful lines, realistic lines. Or, simply skip imagining conversations altogether.  Start taking control of what you’re thinking – use your thinking time to come up with ways to grow.


When you’re in living situation in which your fear is not greeted by anger and unexpected dark moods, but by love and appreciation, you’ll know you’re in a good spot and one in which you’ll have room to grow and grow and grow. That’s healthy soil. And you don’t have to wait for another person to begin – you can create that loving and respectful environment for yourself.


  1. Partrick says:

    I think as I started to recover and I was stuck in isolation because I saw so much bad soil out there.Also the opposite of isolation occured and I replanted in the wrong soil and just becase it was better and there is was growth I still didn’t grow abundantly.I know I was a part of the contaiminated soil once.As I become more aware of myself,my history and the messages(bad nutrients) I received and send out,it really is scary.I am learning to trust my instincts(inner messages).I know the messages get mixed up in what I hear and I also know there are alot of otheres that just aren’t aware of the actual messages they are sending and why.I know isolation is also a type of solitude and as I grow I am starting to see where the good soil is at.I am aware I need to be around other healthy people I also need to stay alert.I also think for me growth includes prunning and a copmlete repotting process mixed with wisdom to know what nutrients need to be added to the new mix of soil.As you stated above the main ingredients are Love and Appreciation.I also know I had to re-evaluate my deffinitions of those words.My real growth started when I surrendered to the fact that I thought I had proper nutrients to begin with.I was wrong I was lacking nutrients.Maybe I am not in isolation as much as I am in germination.I am breaking the soil and re-surfacing heading for the light!
    Thank You for more nutrients.

  2. amy eden says:

    I love how you expanded on the soil analogy – incredible insights in that. Your point about not knowing you were in bad soil is apt…I feel like we have to go so deep to repair ourselves, not just into our emotions but into our basic infrastructure and wiring (our root systems) and do essential re-wiring of ourselves from there.
    I’m glad we are. Thanks for your observations.
    amy eden

  3. JohnS says:

    Spot on, spot on! I would rehearse alternative conversational replies as if I were in a chess match. At some point, and this prior to learning I was an ACA, I found I could say what I truly meant instead of trying to anticipate how it might be taken. Healthy people, I quickly found out, actually enjoyed hearing my true perspective. I’ve never ever been able though, to be honest to my own family members, and gave up trying years ago.
    Even today, I notice when I’m in a stressful situation, I try to second guess what the other side is thinking and prepare a defense when none is needed.
    Thank you for the insight. It is reassuring to know others have faced and come to an understanding of problems that we ACA face in everyday life.

  4. amyeden says:

    Yeah. The moments I become aware of the fact that I’m having “rehearsal” conversations, it shocks me how habitual it is. When I stop pre-thinking interactions…I’m much more present in the here and now, and that feels 150% better, it feels right.

  5. Being an ACOA myself I understand just what you mean. SOme dysfunctional family members sure know how it make things turn to ice that were postive. It makes u wanna over analyze what you want to say to others.

  6. SeanG says:

    Wow, this hit home big time. THANKS SO MUCH!

  7. AngrySar says:

    Oh. Yes. This is again, dead-on for me. I don’t know how many times I’ve been tensed ALL DAY at work over some imagined conversation I “know” will happen when I get home. I obsess over every imagined word, and when it doesn’t happen I’m exhausted and can’t figure out why.
    Wow… thank you again, for opening my eyes to this. Another great post.

  8. Kristina says:

    WOW..this is exactly my spouse! We argue constantly, he’s very abusive with is words and never HEARS what I say. I always tell him to listen with his heart, not head. Hoping he would truly hear what I said. He accuses me and condemns me before I even know what I did wrong. A completely innocent conversation turns bad so often I rarely talk to him. Thank you for giving me insight again.

  9. amyeden says:

    Kristina, he’s lucky you’re so patient! How do you manage to rise above it and keep a clear head? Perhaps you can see he’s ‘lost it’ and not himself when he gets defensive… -ae

  10. Andria Lea says:

    god i hate those fake conversations, and it’s true they work both ways – hearing negatives only, and then making up entire conversations or weird scenarios to be “prepared”. I am very lucky to be both in therapy, and in a very loving relationship. when i realize i am pulling this stunt with my spouse i feel awful and confused as to how we ended up there. it is wonderful to see it in black and white, and know it’s not just “me” and i can do something to change it. thank you for that. thank you for giving me the words to understand better.

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