Yes. Yes, you absolutely can. (You already are, just by reading this.)
Growing up as an adult child requires 3 steps:
- Processing your pain
- Learning about healthy living
- Putting new behaviors into practice
Each of these three aspects will deliver you into your own version of true adulthood.
I’ve reviewed Wayne Kritsberg’s book “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” before, here. Now I’m circling back to Chapter 8 of his book, where he discusses the Recovery Proces.
It’s obvious (I hope!) that I believe deeply that it’s absolutely possible to grow up and grow out of being the child of alcoholics. I also believe deeply that humans are designed, as any animal or plant is, to regenerate new limbs when other limbs have been severed (and heal bruised hearts). None of us are likely to become perfect, pain-free people who have relationships that don’t require maintenance (part of our healing, in fact, is to let go of perfectionism). Learning how to deal with our emotional inheritance is key to our freedom from that same inheritance. Growing out of our childhoods, and growing up from here–we are worth doing that.
Growing up in adulthood is a process, something we need to fold like egg whites into our everyday routines. We will need to maintain this process over time in order to stay strong, healthy, functional and happy. It’s no different from keeping our bodies fit by going to the gym–it starts out as developing muscles, then it becomes about maintaining that strength and a level of fitness. The idea is to even out the peaks and valleys over time, so we’re not falling into that vicious cycle of getting into shape, emotionally as well as physically, from a standpoint of deep frustration only after we’ve let ourselves go and muscles have become droopy and wiggly.
The Recovery Process is part of Kritsberg’s ‘Family Integration System,’ which he developed over many years as he worked with families and individuals coping with the issues shared by children of alcoholics. I am so impressed by his ability to be so accurate and respectful of the deep personal trauma children of alcoholics have experienced (he doesn’t reveal whether or not he had alcoholic parents, so I can’t assume he did).
DO THE SCRIBBLE-DANCE
If you’re like me, you tend to take directions literally. Kritsberg’s Recovery Process requires us to be more interpretive. They “right” way through is not a straight line, not always a progressive forward march–rather, it’s a scribble on a page, up down, forward, around. A dance. So, we’re not doing these steps in a 1-2-3 fashion. Instead, we’re doing these steps like a dance, like: 1-2-1-1-1-3-2-1-3-2-2-3-1-1-1-2-1-2-1-3-3-2-2-1.
SCRIBBLE-DANCE ALL YOUR LIFE
And the steps should be used as needed, in the order necessary, when needed–that is, whether on the same afternoon or whether this year or next or when you’re 68, over time.
THE RECOVERY PROCESS: 3 Steps
This is Part I of the Recovery Process, based on how it’s outlined in Kritsberg’s book. (Part II involves setting up a binder, creating your own, homemade self-healing worksbook–that part I’ll cover in another post.)
Process Your Pain: ”Emotional Discharge”
This is the part where you cry, or rage (beating a pillow, screaming your head off in your car, climbing a too-steep hill reallyreallyreallyfast with tears wet on your face, and the like), and feel all the many faces of your oldest pain.
This part isn’t something you do all at once, but in bite-sized chunks. (And remember, you’re doing this to a greater or lesser degree for the rest of your life and in conjunction with Steps 2 and 3). For best results, this first step needs to happen safely, which means in the environment of a support group, a therapist’s office, doing daily writing, a twelve-step group, or even family therapy.
Kritsberg’s book has activities that can help you begin this part of the process.
You deserve to do this work, and your freedom will come from doing it. It’s impossible to heal if you’re carrying around bottled-up sadness, rage, and hurt.
Learn About Healthy Living: “Cognitive Reconstruction”
From the book: ”Cognitive reconstruction is the process of learning how to think in a way that is healthy and acquiring a base of information about life.”
We are lacking in knowledge about how so-called normal families raise their children and how so-called normal people live their everyday lives, from work to relationships, all the practical aspects of living (negotiation, self-assertion, resolving conflict, etc.) It’s not our fault. But we need to teach ourselves this stuff.
This step is about gaining an understanding of our problematic behaviors. If you’ve read one or another of the behavioral and emotional characteristics of children of alcoholics, you’ve begun this self-investigation! Some examples of “Cognitive Reconstruction” are:
- Learning that you need to ask for what you want
- Learning to recognize unhealthy behavior (unhealthy for you/unhealthy for them)
- Understanding what self-sabotaging behavior is and recognizing it in yourself
- Taking a tough look at yourself and how you behave, the good, bad and ugly and taking ownership of that
- Learning what a healthy lifestyle looks like, reading about how others live
- Learning how healthy families operate
- Gaining an understanding of the characteristics that you identify with, and start thinking about how to re-wire your brain. The voice in our head tends to be repetitively negative–tune in to that so that you can replace the messages with more helpful ones–like this:
We can learn to say this, “I’m going out tonight for some ME time.” (Rather than, “Why can’t my husband realize how hard I work and that I need a break? It’s so self-centered of him.”)
We can learn to think, “I’m going to make it there on time, how nice. But, if I’m in doubt of that, I’ll call to let someone know.” (Rather than, “Shit, shit, traffic, I’m going to be late, I can feel it, I hate being late, why am I always late?”)
We can tell ourselves, “My stepmother feels bad that I didn’t take her out to brunch for Mother’s Day, and that’s OK–her feeling bad doesn’t mean that I’m bad. I know the difference. I was doing what I needed to do for me, and I’m proud of my progress.” (Rather than, “She’s so manipulative, she hates me now, she makes me so angry with her guilt trips, I’m going to give her a piece of my mind!”)
We can tell ourselves, “I’m working on this spreadsheet and, so far-so good. I will ask someone if I have questions.” (Rather than, “This spreadsheet is going to be the end of me, I hate working on this kind of thing, I’m probably not good at it, and they probably know that.”
Pay attention to your thoughts, and re-work the ones that aren’t working for you.
Putting New Behaviors into Practice: “Behavioral Action”
From the book: ”Behavioral action is the process of the ACoA beginning to behave in a way that promotes a healthy life-style.”
This is the action step. This is the step all about doing — eating healthily, exercising, and limiting your interactions with people to the healthy, energizing ones.
Examples of this from my own life are:
- Waiting 3 days before replying to evocative or otherwise upsetting emails
- Playing fair, loving fair, and fighting fair
- Recognizing how my body feels when I get defensive, and then making a conscious decision about how I react–having that choice, not getting unwillingly engaged (not giving in to the itch, needing of yelling/being a victim and insisting on having been wronged)
- Walking away from fights, choosing to cool off
- Going to ACA meetings (even though this falls into Step 1 as well, it’s taking action, too.)
- Going for walks, going to the gym (when I can, even if it’s brief)
- Eating homemade breakfasts
- Cooking at home, cooking organic vegetables, eating organic fruits, whole grains and lean proteins
- Calling friends to see how they’re doing
- Being compassionate with myself and with those I care about
- Developing, choosing and maintaining healthy friendships
- Being willing to change
- Being completely honest, even when it’s uncomfortable or immaterial
- Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with problematic family members
- Saying “no” when I need to – and that sometimes mean backing-out of plans (hopefully gracefully!)
- Asking for what I want and what I need – I practice at that a lot
- Asking for the direction that I need at work, double-checking that I’m on track with projects
- Listening when people tell me their upsets and fears, not ‘taking on’ their issues or over-helping
- And…blogging about it all
There’s no time like NOW to do this. If you’re reading this, you’re already doing a bit of all 3!
We can face our painful experiences from childhood. We can think about the painful memories, the mean things said and done to us, and we can write about it, and talk about it. And freedom comes.
Don’t worry about conquering this overnight – think baby steps. And remember the key is to fake it until you make it: even if new actions feel like a role, somewhat ill-fitting…behave in your new ways till the new role fits like a glove.