When efforts to bond with our dysfunctional parents failed, the result was confusion and anxiety. In order to survive in a home devoid of healthy parental love, limits, and consistency, we developed survival traits very early in life.
This is a tragedy when we consider that our childhood was the foundation on which our entire lives were built.
In an angry, drama filled, dysfunctional family, the seeming lack of parental boundaries (through consistent loving discipline) resulted in an inability to develop our own internal boundaries. We learned not to depend on our parents to care and look after us; instead it was up to us to look after ourselves.
Because we couldn’t trust our own parents, we became generally suspicious and mistrustful of all people.
Yet, we were defenceless against the projection of blame from adults. And, because children do this, we felt responsible for our parents' problems. We became "little adults" that felt compelled to accept responsibilities well beyond our years.
A well-known American psychiatrist Dr. Tim Cermack explained that children from dysfunctional homes actually suffer from emotional and psychological symptoms that are best described as a combination of co-dependency and a variant of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.
According to Dr. Cermack,
"...it occurs when people are subject to stresses of such intensity and nature that they clearly lie outside the range of normal human experiences. The effects are especially severe if the stress is caused by a series of traumatic events, and is of human origin. The effects are even more severe if the individual under stress has rigid coping strategies, or if the person's support system includes those who encourage denial of the stress"
Growing up in a dysfunctional family was certainly traumatic.
We often experienced inconsistency, sexual inappropriateness, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial and real or potential violence.
Survival became a full-time job. We had to detach from our emotions because they were too painful or confusing. This is called ‘disassociation’ which is described as when our psyche seals a part of itself away from current traumatic events. This was a protective measure to defend our inner essence or being. That inner sanctum escaped the desecration, the violence, the neglect, the sexual abuse and other violations.
Emily Dickinson, the American poet, summed this up beautifully:
There is a pain so utter that it swallows substance up Then covers the abyss with trance— So memory can step around—across—upon it As one within a swoon goes safely where an open-eye would drop him— —Bone by bone
This would all be great if it weren’t for the fact that with the dissociation of painful feelings also comes the disassociation of other feelings: joy, contentment, creativity, intimacy, sexuality and love.
Those of us who were raised in a dysfunctional family discover that we still live life with this dissociation. We may find it difficult to maintain healthy adult relationships as we tend to be attracted to other people who have had similar childhoods. We may find our combined childhood issues are too dynamic. Or, it may be too painful to allow someone to see our insides.
This continued disassociation has much to do with our on going depression, anxiety, stress and thinking that if only we could get to the future then everything would be OK.
Recovery begins when we start to identify how we survived our childhoods and what tactics we used. This is the beginning of healing our disassociation.
There are too many survival traits to list on paper that would satisfy everyone’s experience. However, there are some definite patterns that we may identify with. Here are some of the main ones.
1. We feared people and retreated into isolation
Isolation was a brilliant way to protect us. Our parents may have been highly critical. After all, we were only small and we didn’t really understand what we’d done wrong. The adults were too scary to handle.
Although we wanted them to pay attention to us, care for us and love us unconditionally, they couldn’t. And if they did, it was the wrong kind of attention and we may have received neglect, smothering or abuse and in order to survive, we hid.
Isolation took many forms:
cutting off from friends
losing interest in hobbies
not talking to peers
declining invitations from social groups
generally staying away from others
immersing ourselves in our own world.
2. We developed control mechanisms
These are ways we found to control our anxiety, stress and depression.
Denial: the refusal to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion or to admit it into consciousness
Repression: The action or process of suppressing a thought or desire in oneself so that it remains unconscious and suppression including unacceptable memories, impulses, or desires
Hypervigilance: scanning people and the environment to notice and prepare for all eventualities and be ready to respond or act in order to keep us safe
Sixth sense: cultivating an extrasensory perception (ESP) that involves the reception of information not gained through the recognized senses and not internally originated. Some people call it an antenna and for us it was a lifeline if we needed to gauge the sense of what was going on.
3. We didn’t trust
Learning not to trust the adults was imperative because we were told things that didn’t add up and if we trusted what we were told, it would have harmed us.
For example, if our mom was passed out, drunk, on the floor and we asked what was wrong, we were told ‘nothing, it’s fine; don’t worry’,
If we trusted that response we would have had to ignore our own feelings of panic and fear, the churning in the stomach as well as the confusion. So, in order to survive, we learned not to believe what we were told.
4. We didn’t feel
Sharing how we felt was too great a risk. We were told our feelings were wrong. If we cried we were told ‘stop crying – you’ve got nothing to cry about.’
We learned at a young age that feelings were unacceptable and we would be criticised. Anger, shock, fear and confusion were too dangerous to take to our parents yet we desperately needed to run to them and have them tell us everything was OK and we were OK.
We gradually shut our feelings down to avoid being shamed for having any emotions but this broke our hearts.
5. We became a people pleaser
We took on parental responsibilities i.e. looked after our parents’ mood rather than them look after our emotional well being; we lost touch with ourselves in the process.
We learned to be vigilant about other peoples’ moods so we could soothe them. People pleasing was a potent survival trait because it gave us (or so we believed) the power to influence others in a way that would keep us safe. If we could please other people, they would have less reason to abuse us.
Amongst the people pleasing we lost our own identities. We had to do this, by abandoning ourselves, in order to survive. It also fulfilled another role: to take the focus of our own pain of abandonment.
6. We became the victim
We were victimised and we acted as the victim in order to survive the anger.
We came to realise, albeit unknowingly, that submission may work better than lashing out.
Often the victim role proved it was the best way to keep others from hurting us. In a world where we felt overwhelmed yet ineffective, retreating into the helplessness of feeling like a victim helped bring about a sense of peace by surrendering to the fact that we couldn’t win against the adults. It was the ultimate acceptance.
7. We bullied others
We were victimised and we were angry. But, because it wasn’t safe to release the anger, we denied it. Of course, it didn’t go anywhere and we projected it onto others and anticipated their aggression. When the anger became too much to contain, we released it through bullying. This was followed by feelings of shame.
8. We judged ourselves harshly.
We weren’t taught to have healthy feelings about ourselves. For many of us, constant criticism was normal.
This then became our normal for the simple reason that children learn their identity from what their parents give them in their early years. If criticism was what we got, then that’s what we gave ourselves.
This helped us survive by anticipating the criticism we would get and ensuring we gave it to ourselves first which:
helped us fit in with the family dynamics
prevented others’ criticism hurting us as much as possible
‘doing it to ourselves before others did it to us’.
9. We disassociated
We disassociated by mentally and physically separating ourselves from what was happening around us.
This helped relieve the pain of being the object of hurt and humiliation. We learned to be in another place. This could take the image of a dream or fantasy. Many of us had imaginary friends who were very real to us and we could turn to them for comfort.
10. We reacted, rather than responded, to others
We waited in the wings for directions from others. This enabled us to keep an eye on the tell tale signals of the adults as to whether they were angry, sad, drunk, distant or abusive.
Our reactions became automatic. We jumped, ran, pleased others, cried, cleaned, soothed, cooked or obeyed others depending what would work best to satisfy them and save ourselves.
11. We were addicted to chaos
Our dysfunctional family created instability and we survived this chaos by producing feelings of fear and/or excitement. High-energy feelings create abnormal levels of hormones that keep us in the ‘flight or flight’ response.
The fight or flight response (also called hyper arousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.
It was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon. His theory states that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, preparing the animal for fighting or fleeing.
This results in a cascade of hormones flooding the system e.g. catecholamines, and epinephrine, estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol, as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.
This dose of hormones left us feeling negatively excited which:
kept us wired
numbed all other feelings
gave us a reason to create more drama
Other suggested survival traits are:
Repressed my feelings
Put others’ needs before my own
Hid my true self
Grew a ‘sixth sense’
Stayed ‘in control’
Was self sufficient
Tried to please the adults
Became addicted to chaos
Was loyal to my family
Was super responsible
Took myself overly seriously
Was super irresponsible
Daydreamed or had fantasy friends
Highly self critical