When There’s Alcoholism in Your Family Tree (or Your Partner’s Family Tree): Part One

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 12.40.24 PMWe all find our way to the realization that our family history includes alcoholism, we just find our way there differently.  Some of us find our way through finding ourselves in a relationship with an addict of some sort again and again, until we examine our family history and codependent leanings — and, through that reflection, we spot alcoholism in our family tree. Others of us come to realize it through observing our partner’s parents’ drinking habits, their eternal happy hour, and we probe more deeply into our partner’s family tree and the parents’ behavior while our partner was being raised (and perhaps during visits we will hear enough stories to have a picture of how the grandparents or great-grandparents behaved, too). Still others of us grew up with an alcoholic parent, in recovery or actively drinking, and while we knew that, we only fully discover later in adult life what that means for us in terms of emotional inheritance and our connection to the family tree.

Some Alcoholic Families Are Alcohol-Free

One of the best (and shortest) books on adult-child issues is Wayne Kritsberg’s The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome (I reviewed the book in a past post).  These images are from that book, and illustrate the four main family tree types that make up an alcoholic family system. These are the “main” types.

It can surprise some people when they find themselves relating deeply to the characteristics of adult-children of alcoholics, but didn’t have drinking parents. That’s where the Type 3 family comes in. Type 3 is fascinating because it reflects that family system in which there was “no alcoholism” and yet the characteristics and behaviors of adult-children were still passed on through the grandfather on one side.

Type 3 Alcoholism in the Family Tree, from "The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome" by Wayne Kritsberg

Type 3 Alcoholism in the Family Tree, from “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” by Wayne Kritsberg

The Other Three Types of Alcoholic Family Systems

There are others arrangements of family systems, of the four main types. These are all from the Wayne Kritsberg book, The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome.

Family Type 1 Alcoholism in the Family Tree, from "The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome" by Wayne Kritsberg

Family Type 1 Alcoholism in the Family Tree, from “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” by Wayne Kritsberg

Type 2 Alcoholism in the Family Tree, from "The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome" by Wayne Kritsberg

Type 2 Alcoholism in the Family Tree, from “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” by Wayne Kritsberg

Type 4 Alcoholism in the Family Tree, from "The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome" by Wayne Kritsberg

Type 4 Alcoholism in the Family Tree, from “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” by Wayne Kritsberg

My Family Tree Doesn’t Look Like That! 

Without question there are other family tree assemblages beyond these four. If you don’t find your family tree reflected here, don’t worry — yours existed, so it counts; find the one that matches most closely. For example, you might not know for sure that your partner’s father or grandfather actually was an “alcoholic,” so there may be some unknowns to the puzzle. Go with your hunch.  A tip:  when you know that a grandparent had some kind of mental illness, that can sometimes be the information you need to fill in the picture (many, many people with depression or bipolar disorder self-medicated and became alcoholics – the two are often intertwined). So regard all clues as clues.

Type 1 (above) illustrates a family tree with two alcoholics at the head of the two branches; however it does not illustrate “double” alcoholic parents, where both parents on one side drank. This may illustrate how rare that is. Yet, Type 1 is the closest match to the “double” alcoholic family tree structure.

If it Behaves Like an Alcoholic Family System, It May Be an Alcoholic Family System

Aside from regarding what Type of family system we come from, it’s very important to look through this lens:  What characteristics of alcoholic family systems are still in play in our families?

It’s very important because it can be hard to identify with certainty if there were alcoholics or not — denial comes into play — but it’s easy to identify dysfunctional behaviors. Actions speak louder than words – so, observe.  Look at your own household first before you extend your gaze to the families you see your children and their children establishing.

The Family System Continuum, from "The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome" by Wayne Kritsberg

The Family System Continuum, from “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” by Wayne Kritsberg

How Dysfunctional Is Your Household and/or Family of Origin?

Does your family behave like an alcoholic one? Maybe. Maybe not. Study it. Take a week to reflect on these questions, and see what you observe and remember.

Questions to ask can include:

  • What is the level of rigidity in your household? (Rigidity, control, rules-based, hypervigilant, or…no rules and no consistency.)
  • Are there secrets within the family?
  • Do you have fun, behave spontaneously?
  • How serious is everyone?
  • What’s tension like around the house?
  • Is there any degree of tiptoeing around people or topics in your house?
  • Is everyone in the family afforded personal boundaries?
  • Is someone ‘in trouble’ if they disagree with mom/dad or others in the house?
  • Are there any issues, fights, or situations that have been ignored instead of resolved?
  • Does the family have a center, and come together, or is there avoidance of each other?
  • Is there a ‘with us or against us’ spirit in the family?
  • Are there aunts/uncles who can’t be discussed because they are “bad” people or did “bad” things?
  • Is love conditional and based on ‘good deeds’ as opposed to being who one truly is?

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 11.15.10 AMWhen Both Parents Drink

Both of my parents drank. My mother died of an alcohol overdose at age 53. That takes a lot of sustained self-loating. I talked about her death in this video. My father stopped drinking and has lived thirty years and counting sober. Their addictions took very different trajectories, but they both knew the pull of addiction, a force greater than their wills alone.

My guess is that most marriages in which both heads of the family drink don’t last. So the question is, how do the ones that do manage to last work? They manage their dysfunctional dynamic differently. Alcoholics often have an un-quenchable need for love and approval, which they seek from their family — children — and partner. If their partner is also a self-loathing/love-seeking addict, then it can be an explosive and extremely high-conflict situation. In order to stay together, they may have to take turns in the dynamic, by loving and hating one another in alternating cycles of chaos. (This cycle happens unconsciously, just like the cycle of abuse, a form of chaos, that revolves in families with one alcoholic parent.)

In families with one alcoholic parent (or addict of some sort — compulsive spender, porn addict, etc.) and one non-alcoholic parent, the non-alcoholic parent will be the peace-keeping codependent. That role is the one who keeps things going, keeps up appearance, makes few demands, and complements the addict’s role by reassuring them of their love for them and sometimes rationalizing the abusive behavior that comes their way. This role varies in its level dysfunction. Some codependent spouses of addicts will hold addicts to reasonable behavior and establish boundaries and consequences for behavior that’s unacceptable, others will simply leave the marriage, and still others will rationalize the situation and the addict’s behavior in hopeful and creative ways in order to stay in the marriage for reasons that are important to them.

Alcoholics are people, people with an addiction to the substance alcohol. So when looking at the two-alcoholic parent family, it’s helpful to examine the nuances of behavior and the dynamic between the two parents when analyzing the family (the two alcoholics in a “double” alcoholic partnership won’t be exactly alike). Since two active alcoholics in the parental roles can create an unstable force, it might be worth thinking about whether one of the two drinking parents drank more than the other, or if one holds the alcoholic role a bit more than the other. That could yield some interesting observations. Although both my parents were addicts, I tend to think of my father as the alcoholic parent in the family system (analysis-mode), rather than my mother — my dad is whom I was raised by after age five. My father remarried when I was six. His new wife wasn’t a substance addict, and she filled the codependent role. My mother went on to remarry three times after my father, and held the addict role in those marriages. So you could say that each found a way to be the one alcoholic at the head of the family system.

role reversal zWhen Childlike Adults Raise Children

When both parents are actively addicted to alcohol, that means you essentially have two children at the helm. This means that children raised by two alcoholics will certainly grow up to be adult-children. They’re adult-children who were raised by adult-children. Are children raised by two alcoholic parents worse off than children raised by one alcoholic parent? Nope. They will still identify with the characteristics of children of alcoholics, just like every other adult-child.

For people raised in an alcoholic family system — whether Type 2, Type 4, or any other type  – the parenting given during the developmental stages of childhood will have been insufficient.

What are the stages of development?

  • Bonding Stage (from birth to 6 or 9 months)
  • Exploratory Stage (from 6-9 months to 18-24 months)
  • Separation Stage (from 18-24 to 3 years)
  • Socialization Stage (from 3 years to 5 years)
  • Latency Stage (6 to 12 years)
  • Adolescence (13 to adult)

You can read more about these stages in the healing from and understanding codependency book Recovery From Codependence: It’s Never Too Late to Reclaim Your Childhood by Laurie Weiss and Jonathan Weiss). I’ve adapted them, here:

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 8.41.09 AMBonding Stage:  From Birth to 6 or 9 months of life
This is the stage of asking for needs to be met — crying out for your primary caretaker because your diaper is wet, you are hungry, or you want to be held. This happens through repetition. You cry and your caretaker responds in the appropriate way by providing food, the breast/breastmilk, holding you, using eye-contact, smiles, cooing, song, loving looks, etc. From getting the response consistently to expressed physical needs when we are infants, we learn the basic, foundational sense of trust in self and others, the “sense that they world is a safe and responsive place.”

When the Bonding Stage isn’t fully experienced as an infant: A deep, fundamental shame about our needs exists in us as teens and adults, until we can discover and resolve this fundamental developmental issue as adults.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 8.39.34 AMExploratory Stage:  From 6-9 months to 18-24 months
Here we’re moving out of our mother’s arms onto the floor, moving farther from the womb than ever before (a few feet away or a dozen feet away!) and creeping away bit by bit and learning about our environment through exploratory play, we’re crawling or even walking, and touching the environment around us. When our attachment to our primary caregiver is secure (we know they are there and will respond to our needs), we can experience this realization without anxiety and fully experience this stage. In this stage we need to be afforded the freedom to move around physically and go after he things that attract us (while the parent keeps watch, unobtrusively, looking out for our safety.) The idea is that our exploration is supported and our safety is looked after.

When the Exploratory Stage isn’t fully experienced as an infant:  As adults, we refrain from taking initiative, are passive in our lives and relationships, we hesitate, we people-please, and we deeply fear of abandonment and/or engulfment in relationships.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 8.46.03 AMSeparation Stage:  From 18-24 months to 3 years
As very young children we’re now coming to understand that our parents aren’t a part of us, we are not a part of them, and that we are truly separate entities inside and out — we begin to get this with our minds. We experience this by interacting with the word ‘no’ and beginning to understand that “thinking” is the way to cope and resolve the conflict between what the caregiver says and what we, as the baby and toddler, want. We’re feeling our way through what it means to have a need/want. We’re beginning to understand at a very basic level that our wants and someone else’s needs can co-exist and be reconciled.

When we don’t complete the Separation Stage in a functional way:  As adults, we find ourselves in Stay/Go, I Need You/I Hate You types of push-pull interactions. We give until we’re empty. We feel, as adults, that we have to be attached to someone in order to feel complete and safe. In our romantic relationships, we’ll try to please the other and abandon our personal needs and rights, and this sets a codependent dynamic into spin.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 8.40.35 AMSocialization Stage:  From age 3 years to 5 years
At this point as small children, we’re getting actively engaged in obtaining information about the world around us, and how it works, and getting an understanding of how we fit into that as people. In these years, we also like to learn what we are capable of and Why things are they way they are. The other important lesson of these years is learning the difference between Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions. Our parents coach us through this stage by helping us understand how things are. (Dear big brother or childish mother, we are too new and young to any ask dumb questions at this stage, only important questions that help us sort out what’s what in this world!)

When we don’t complete the Socialization Stage in a functional way: As adults, we’ll engage in “magical thinking” and have trouble understanding our right to ask questions and learn. We’ll also have a warped sense of what’s true and why our thoughts or wishes don’t make something a reality (magical thinking), and why our feelings shouldn’t necessarily be the source of our actions (particularly in the case of anger and hurt).

Example:  We might Feel bad that we weren’t invited to a birthday party, yet we can Think about it and sort out possibilities, and we can decide on our Actions from there, such as inviting that kid over to play or to our party in order to test assumptions, rather than cutting that kid out in reaction to our hurt.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 8.39.14 AMLatency Stage:  From age 6 years to 12 years
These are the years in which we develop our rules to live by. “He [the child] must learn that the reasons for rules are more important than the rules themselves, and that following rules is a method for making things work.” (Recovery From Codependence: It’s Never Too Late to Reclaim Your Childhood).  So, for example:  We brush our teeth after breakfast rather than before because it clears the breakfast food off our teeth. We get up with an extra 20 minutes in the morning so that we don’t have to rush. We mark important dates in the calendar so that we remember them. We don’t watch video games at our house, even though your friend does, because we want to spend that time reading, playing, and getting outside. And on, and on.  As children in this stage we will, naturally (and importantly!) argue the rules. The key is that our parents allow our voice and consider is as part of the rule-making, so as not to create blind rule-followers for children nor children who grow up to rebel against all rules for the sake of rebellion.

When we don’t complete the Latency Stage in a functional way:  As adults we try to follow a system of rigid and impossible rules that we establish for ourselves, or we have no consistent rules at all.  Black and white thinking results. This is the result of learning to follow “rules’ but not having any insight to the “reasons” for rules, and so we get it wrong and wonder why we can’t keep up with adulthood.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 8.38.18 AMAdolescence:  From age 13 to 19 years
In this important stage, we re-live all of the earlier stages in our  new body and embody them once again, in a way that allows us to go out into the world – the real world.  And it is a very important stage for that reason. In these years we learn:

  • I can be a sexual person and still have needs
  • I can be responsible for my own needs, feelings, and behavior, it’s okay to do so
  • It’s okay to be on my own, I’ll be OK
  • I’m welcome to come home again
  • My parents love me and their love goes with me, wherever I am

When we don’t complete the Adolescence Stage in a functional way:  We can turn to eating disorders if we’re too enmeshed with our family, which signals a struggle with the parents and being too intertwined in the family — our only ‘escape’ is their control over how we eat or don’t eat. We might try to “escape” into relationships or marriage if our attempts to be more like our peers than our parents is reacted to with an iron fist and rejection of who we are/experimenting with being. In an effort to be more autonomous, we may try risky behaviors, and find that our parents’ reaction of anger and punishment pushes us further into identification as a “bad” child and we retreat into that identity more deeply (the opposite of both what our parents want and what we want for ourselves).

Who Guided You Through These Developmental Stages?  

As you can imagine, it’s impossible to nurture one’s child through these stages well when the parent isn’t sober and emotionally available.

I said that my father was the alcoholic in my family system, but my mother also drank and I lived with them both until I was about age three or four. So, when I consider the Bonding and Exploratory stages, I very much regard both of my parents.

These early stages are tricky to analyze because many of us don’t really have memories of these early periods, we lack the oral histories of them, and it can bring up a lot of pain to attempt to recall these early childhood phases. That said, we don’t have to remember things in traditional ways to know we weren’t well-served; we can know in a way that’s impossible to translate into words, a way that’s known in our bodies.

Trust that.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 8.23.05 AMOnly You Can Parent Yourself Now

What kind of alcoholic family did you come from? Who drank (or was depressed or had another type of addiction)? During what developmental stages might you have received the least (and most) parenting? What can you do, now, to re-parent yourself?  When you fail, do you comfort yourself? When you have a wild idea or simply want to wear something “wild,” do you love yourself compassionately, do you allow the wildness? Have you found a way to let spontaneity into your life?

Keep asking the questions that led you here. Become open to understanding both your family history and your personal future in completely new ways.

In nearly every moment, week, and year in this life there exists an opportunity to re-parent yourself in a loving, kind, and healing way.

-Be kind to yourself.

Amy Eden is the author of The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion




Start Practicing Self-Kindness and Personal Boundaries Come Naturally

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 6.16.45 AMThere are aspects of our journey, self-investigation, and its narrow paths that we can only walk alone. We want to share ourselves so completely with our friends and partners that, at times, we try to take them with us to the tough, dark places that it’s appropriate for only us to go.

We make our toughest journeys inward by ourselves

Certain legs of the journey have to be coursed solo and generate tales and adventures that can’t be told or shared. It’s important to summon courage and go inward in times when those who love us can’t journey with us and can’t even hold the map for us. Good friends can certainly accompany us to the edge, the waiting room, the airport tarmac, but not farther. And yet, they will of course see how we embody our adventure and manifest our new sense of self as we return to refuel — and in that way, they’re still an observer, even if at a necessary remove.

It may sound lonely to do deep inner work alone. Indeed. It is. It’s particularly frightening for adult children of rigid, alcoholic, or otherwise dysfunctional childhoods because to go inward means to trust yourself. To work on yourself means to believe your sense of right is right, and to decide to care less about convincing others. To go inward means not seeking approval, none but your own. And we’re not sure if our own approval is enough. We habitually crave the approval of others (from small smiles and nods to verbal praise and applause) to know that we’re safe and liked, a behavior characteristic of being an adult child.

I wait at the threshold, the path’s entry

What I’m astounded by most when talking with the people I’m doing life + spirit coaching work with is the feeling of privilege, the privilege of bearing witness to a person’s self-discovery. (The threshold is as close as one can realistically get!) When I was first asked to coach someone, in the beginning, I mistakenly thought my value to people was as someone who supports a person’s goal-setting and goal-achievement. And while that’s certainly part of the recipe, setting and reaching goals is a result that comes, but it comes along with many additional, important rewards — one of which is an impulse to uphold personal boundaries in one’s daily life.

The desire to uphold personal boundaries arises naturally

Something that I’ve witnessed people do as part of their self-discovery work, whether it was on their list of life + spirit coaching goals or not (and it’s usually not), is speaking up about personal boundaries. This just seems to arise!  It seems to come organically from doing their self-cultivation work — as if through the practice of self-reflection and tuning-in to what’s under our surfaces that we start to feel repelled by the usual boundary violations.

Why? It’s all about the focus of our hearts and minds. In shifting our focus to knowing ourselves more deeply, through the process of studying ourselves, we feel it much more palpably when something isn’t OK with us.

We didn’t feel the usual boundary violations so sharply when we were living focused on other people and their needs. We didn’t sense that our body-mind was signaling us to say No Thanks, No Way, or Another Time, because we were prioritizing survival above feeling our feelings. When we begin to feel more like our true selves, we have a center point or compass that we can, at last, navigate by. That’s when we start to notice that the usual gossip, drama, and offers to dance with toxicity are less and less enticing — we’re just not into it, it doesn’t pull us in. We’re onto something more engrossing – becoming someone who can participate in our lives, others’ lives, and the community as ourselves.

It’s as if we learn good physical posture and, after sitting with a straight back and neck for a week, notice that slouching feels like sinking and as if it’s crippling.

The desire to show up authentically becomes very strong

It’s impossible to cultivate your self-worth and still allow continuous attacks upon it.

I’ve witnessed a client saying no to dinner out with her spouse when it felt like keeping up appearances, though it was usual and expected of her to go. I’ve witnessed a client holding her elderly, alcoholic father to adult-grade behavior for possibly the first time in their lives. I’ve listened to someone admit that her husband is afraid of how she’ll change in the process of cultivating her true self (that she’s afraid of the impact of her self-work on the relationship, too); for now, agreeing that it’s scary is the best, most honest approach possible to addressing the fear of the unknown. They’ve found that talking about the fear openly is enough.

I have so much gratitude for being able to witness the journeys of others, the people I do coaching with. I admire their courage, their fiery will to heal, see new perspectives, make personal discoveries, trust their intuition, and frankly, feel more like themselves more often. I learn so much from them, and I’m grateful for that, too.

Your mind can stop walls from closing in

An example of the gift of just one conversation came on a recent morning when a client was telling me about workplace and career challenges. She has felt on and off for quite some time (two decades actually) that she was in the wrong career but couldn’t ever think what the right one was. Her sense was of being trapped in a role she wasn’t meant for – as if thumbing here nose at fate, yet wanting fate to talk back.

She reflected deeply on her feelings. She came to realize that she was behaving in the job according to certain rules, and decided to look at what those rules were. That inquiry led her to notice that her perspective was limiting, if not a vice tightening around a panicked sense of displacement. After some more reflection and taking the time and space to listen to and analyze her thoughts, she had a brilliant breakthrough: she hadn’t yet tried to make the job her own. The very though of making her job her own caused the walls to halt, to stop closing in around her.

Her thoughts opened up the space around her!

Her thoughts contained hope and were feather-light because they weren’t burdened with history or “shoulds.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 6.06.05 AM

We talked about the scene in Star Wars in which the characters are trapped in the garbage compactor, which was tricky enough, but then the walls begin to close in. It’s a frightening scenario anyone can relate to!

What’s more, it’s a metaphor for life:  When we think only certain, limiting thoughts, the walls move in closer. When we alter our assumptions, the walls stop. When we think something outside the bargain in our mind (how we’re “supposed” to behave, how we’re “supposed” to feel, how one behaves at jobs, what were supposed to expect of our jobs, whether we allow ourselves to challenge our bosses, or fear them), we can stop the walls that are threatening to squeeze us tight because we can’t perceive options.

Seeing options opens walls

It’s not only thinking “limiting” thoughts that makes the walls close in, but inactive, passive thoughts, too. It’s no coincidence that the same type of thinking that stops panic and anxiety also stops the walls of possibility from encroaching:  Taking action. The thoughts that move us from being squeezed to feeling we have room to move and options, possibilities, and hope are thoughts of action.

"There's no way out."

“There’s no way out.”

Fear is inactive, passive.

And the antidote for it is active, expansive thoughts, perceptions, and actions.

Options is a central idea. My life was changed when I understood how the perception that I had options, actually had options, in situations in which I saw nothing but dead-ends — underscored this for me: Those moving walls that compact our spirits are a operated by our minds!

"What do I need to do in order to enjoy the work I do?"

“What do I need to do in order to enjoy the work I do?”

A sense of options comes naturally as we become aware of our habits of thought. It comes as part of creating a time and place to do work that will allow us those life-altering, heart-inflating insights. It comes with our self-parenting work, our work on our stuff. It comes and pleasantly surprises us by being not half as scary as the journey once seemed.

We’re not trapped.

Unless our mind says we’re trapped. Even then, that’s something we can work with.

- be kind to yourself


Amy Eden is the author of The Kind Self-Healing Book



What’s Kind Book Buy Friday?

unnamed-51Are we being selfish trouble-makers when we say “no”? Or, rather, are we truly and simply expressing ourselves? We may actually be saying, “I prefer this other thing, or this other thing delights me.” Listen to those you care about when they say “no” — what delights them? What are they saying? What’s another way that our ears can hear “no”?

Is The Kind Self-Healing Book for you? Well:

* Are you self-critical?
* Is it difficult for you to let go and just have fun?
* Do intimate relationships scare you?
* Would you rather control others than trust them?
* Do you question whether you have a right to your feelings?

See what you think – you can begin reading The Kind Self-Healing Book for free – the first chapter and actually do the first 3 activities.

Tomorrow is Kind Book Buy Friday

And, if after reading that free first chapter and activities, you like what you see, please join me in buying the book from amazon.com tomorrow on Kind Book Buy Friday. If we do this all together, we can have IMPACT and get amazon.com to notice my little book.

Follow this on the book’s Facebook page, too:  http://bit.ly/kindbookfb



Even me, I’m buying a copy of my book, too!


Win a copy of my book for a friend (or yourself) this week

I’m promoting my book on its Facebook page, here. This week — you can enter to receive a complimentary copy of the book or eBook (I’m giving-away one of each).



Know someone who needs more self-kindness and compassion in their life? Win a free copy of The Kind Self-Healing Book…

Posted by The Kind Self-Healing Book on Monday, July 6, 2015

I was going to start a new habit and then completely forgot. Again.

8025692978_23480bb612_oOn a recent Saturday, a coaching client described something I’ve come to think of as a particular kind of amnesia, ‘amnesia of intention’. It’s a kind of forgetfulness, but extremely complete. While she and I were talking, I had an ‘ah-ha!’ moment because it was the first time I’d heard someone describe the experience. While I’ve had the experience, and been frustrated by it many times, I haven’t written about it. It didn’t occur to me that it could be a widely-shared issue.

If you’ve experienced this amnesia, it feels like completely forgetting to start a new habit that you were eager to begin. It’s a kind of amnesia that strikes and takes with it our best self-care intentions. It feels like forgetting, but runs deeper. It’s a kind of forgetting that feels a bit PTSD-y, a bit impossible to believe, a bit crazy, and like something was blotted out — like amnesia.

Have you ever completely forgotten that you were going to start a new self-enriching habit? Maybe writing in the mornings, calling a friend each week (to hear how they are doing), planting a garden, meditation, beginning a morning routine of gentle exercise, or eating a salad every day?

When I use the word “forgotten,” I mean it. I don’t mean that you wanted to start a new, healing habit and then avoided it or made excuses for why you can’t start today, why tomorrow is inconvenient too, as well as next week. This is different. I’m talking about a kind of amnesia of intention, a complete blotting-out of the decision or bargain you made with yourself.

This kind of thing, this type of forgetting, used to completely throw me off balance. It freaked me out. Who forgets that they were going to start going for walks in the afternoon? Me. And clearly it was a sign that I was going just a little bit crazy. (Going crazy is always just around the corner lurking, isn’t it?)  I couldn’t understand why I could make a decision for my well-being and then just — blip! — just completely space-out about it.

Here’s a bit how it looks. If this sounds familiar, please post a comment or send me an email. I want to know.

Here’s the Amnesia Cycle

1. Realize that you have always loved sketching (or playing guitar, running, etc.)
2. Make a plan to buy a sketch pad and pencils (or a guitar, running shoes, etc.)
3. Research a weekend art class (or music classes, running clubs, etc.)
4. Feel hopeful and excited about cultivating the Real You inside
5. Continue on with your day and evening and go to bed.
6. A couple days or weeks later realize that you COMPLETELY FORGOT YOUR INTENTION
7.  Wonder if you’re crazy

What’s going on with this type of Forgetting?

Is it a kind of emotional amnesia? Self-soothing that triggers amnesia? Do we forget to act on our plan because we got something desperately needed from simply thinking about doing something? Is the soothing so deeply nutritive that our bodies-minds gobble up the sweet center and toss away the rest? Does the long-term plan for self-cultivation get tossed away too?

Are we so in need of emotional soothing that at times the very idea of a soothing plan of action gives us a quick fix?

This turnabout of the mind strikes me as a survival-living byproduct. It smells like something that has to do with survive-the-moment-living because we forget. We start with a plan to turn over a new leaf, to start a new behavior and habit of self-kindness, and end with relief followed by amnesia (as well as a bit of shame when we once again remember).

It makes sense.

If we’re wired to be cocked and ready for chaos, ready to handle a parent’s sudden rage, how could we also have time to plan for the long game and take the long view about our well-being? Well-being is a calm activity and that’s in conflict, metaphysically, with victim-of-chaos living. Due to our nurturing, we seek soothing ideas, situations, and substances — which include thoughts about new hobbies and habits.

The part we have to learn — by teaching it to ourselves — is the part that involves writing our plans down, the part that involves putting the plan into our calendar, and the part that involves taking the first step and putting a lot of energy behind that first step, knowing how hard solidifying a new habit is (but also knowing how powerful a habit is once solidified).

Don’t Scold, Apply Compassion

If we do nothing else when disappointed by having fallen prey to this kind of blot-out amnesia, we can be compassionate toward ourselves about it. Forgetting at this level is a signal that we need attention. We need our attention. Our self-guidance, self-parenting, and self-compassion.

Apply ample quantities of compassion to your amnesia and it will eventually self-correct.

- be kind to yourself.