Whatever a person experiences in childhood, he takes with him into adulthood and often subconsciously recreates or re-enacts those dynamics in school, at places of employment, in clubs and organizations, in his own family, and, if he seeks recovery, even in twelve-step meetings. Whether these experiences are positive or negative in nature, they become internalized and accepted; and, if the person wishes to change any feelings, emotions, behaviors, and reactions based upon them, he needs to identify, understand, address, process, and transcend them. It is unlikely that he will be able to do this on his own.
Because parents are not perfect and usually do the best they can based upon their own upbringing circumstances, no home-of-origin can ever be a flawless environment in which a person can be fully prepared for life.
Nevertheless, Anthony Stevens attempts to depict what an ideal home could theoretically look like in his book, On Jung (Routledge, 1990, p. 97). “… Maturation proceeds through a sequence of innate archetypal expectations, which the environment either succeeds or fails to meet,” he states. “The most important of these expectations are that the environment will provide adequate warmth and nourishment for survival; a family consisting of mother, father, and peers; sufficient space for exploration and play; security from enemies and predators; a community to supply language, myth, religion, ritual, codes of behavior, stories, values, initiatives, and, eventually, a mate; and an economic role and/or vocational status.”
Adult children who grow up with alcoholic, para-alcoholic, dysfunctional, and even abusive parents are powerless to combat, escape from, or even understand their circumstances and usually attribute any shaming, critical, blaming, or detrimental behavior toward them as justified actions because of their own inadequacies, inferiorities, or just plan unlovability. Forced, without alternative, to flee within and create a trauma-sparked, time-arrested inner child, they cease to develop, replacing their true selves with false or synthetic ones and unknowingly adopt survival traits by means of rewired brains, as they expect similar circumstances in the outside world they were subjected to in the inside one.
Some of these traits, which were developed to survive, endure, tolerate, and adjust to unstable, unsafe, and even dangerous circumstances when maturity, tools and brain development were lacking, include isolating, becoming afraid of parent-representing authority figures, seeking approval, fearing anger and criticism, adopting addictions and compulsions, self-identifying as victims, overdeveloping their senses of responsibility, habitually harnessing fear, pitying others instead of genuinely loving them, repressing childhood feelings to the point of numbed annihilation, fearing abandonment, and being consistently reactive.
When an adult child finally leaves his home-of-origin, he is not a blank slate who begins all over again in the world beyond its doors. Instead, he takes all of his experiences, understandings, feelings, fears, and defenses with him, and unknowingly both expects and recreates them as he progresses along his life’s path.
One of his “recreations” involves his subconscious need to continue to re-enact one or more of the family roles he may have adopted during his upbringing.
Becoming a hero, one of them, he intellectually and functionally rises above his pain and transforms himself into what the late recovery expert John Bradshaw termed “a human doing as opposed to a human being.” As an overachiever, he may earn high grades in school, join extracurricular clubs, become the captain of the football team, and win awards.
“The hero child of a dysfunctional family might seek to make good grades,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 98). “This is the honor student who shows the world that his family values education and is therefore stable.”
What it really is, however, is the equivalent of the perfect family portrait in which everyone wears suits, smart dresses, and smiles, but it deludes and deflects opinions and covers up the insanity and chaos that may play out behind closed doors.
Other family roles include the mascot-or the child who continually tries to cut through the tension with jokes and humor-and the lost child, who senses his environment is not safe and thus fades into the background, failing to express an opinion and reducing himself to little more than a shadow that dances on the walls. He retreats within, fantasizing in his room, escaping his harsh reality through books and movies, and disconnecting from his circumstances. Shrinking and slinking, he may wonder if his image will actually appear in the mirror if he passes one.
The scapegoat, the fourth type, is the child who fields all of the blame, anger, responsibility, and shame, whether he has any part in the situation or not.
“Such survival roles tend to have a hardy life and remain fixed in our personalities long after we have left our unhealthy homes… ,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (ibid, p. 98). “(Adult children) can look at their families and see the roles in effect decades after the children have grown up and left the family.”
The hero, for instance, may assume an ever-increasing number of responsibilities at his job and not even be compensated for them-nor, ironically, believe that he deserves to be. The mascot may only understand humor as the way to deal with tension and adversity, since he failed to gain any other tools with which to do so. The lost child may quietly and unassumingly perform his function at work, never hoping to be anything more that what his entry-level title suggests and not even be known by his name by more than a few of his coworkers. And the scapegoat, having acquired a hairpin trigger, may immediately accept responsibility for anything amiss or altogether missing–so used to this interaction is he.
During preparation for a recent surprise birthday party for one of the women in my office, for instance, this family dynamic clearly played out. While many set up plates, placed candles on the cake, and wrapped gifts, one employee, whom I knew to be an adult child, asked for various items as she wrapped her own present.
“Do you have any tape?” she asked. “Where’s the scissors? Is that the only ribbon we have?”
Each time the tension seemed to build inside of her.
“Do you have a bow so I can finish wrapping this gift for NADIA’S’ STUPID BIRTHDAY?” she finally screamed.
Incredulous, others shot her a glance, wondering how an occasion that was supposed to be pleasant could be perceived with such emotional turmoil.
Looking at her, I calmly said, “It’s nice that you can join us at the party, Mr. Smith.”
I knew that she was acting out what her father had always done at home and “brought him” to the office. Parties were not enjoyable occasions for her. Instead, they were fraught with chaos and tension created by her para-alcoholic parent and this was all she knew, as she relived her upbringing circumstances.
“By working the steps, the adult child realizes family roles were required to approximate protection in an unsafe home,” the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook advises (ibid, p. 97). “We often feared for our safety and took on roles to disarm our parents.”
Indeed, an adult child’s place of employment represents a microcosm of his home-of-origin. Unrecovered, he carries this dynamic with him. Once again powerless and seeking to determine his role, function, and purpose within it, he may view his boss as a parent-representing authority figure, fearing him, but making great efforts to mask this fact. He may re-enact any number of survival traits and family roles, from people-pleasing to overachieving.
The Adult Children of Alcoholics workplace laundry list, encompassing ten more traits than the original laundry list’s fourteen, details these upbringing-bred manifestations.
“The workplace laundry list is a list of 24 statements that describe many of our thoughts and interactions at work… ,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (ibid., pp 416-417). “(It) shows how we can attempt to recreate our dysfunctional family roles at work or in some social settings.”
It is extensive and includes, to name only a few, perceiving a boss as the alcoholic parent and a coworker as a sibling, feeling different than others, being unable to ask for help or instruction, being fearful of criticism, needing to people-please, striving for perfection, becoming a workaholic, displaying a high tolerance for dysfunction and chaos, and feeling hurt when others exclude them from post-work functions and get-togethers.
Unresolved family-of-origin fears, traumas, distrusts, and distortions provide walls an adult child cannot penetrate or get around without significant recovery and they serve as barriers between him, others, the world-at-large, and the Higher Power of his understanding. Trying to see and understand God, in fact, can be nothing short of trying to see Him through cracked glass.
“… Many of us transferred the traits of our parents onto God,” the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook points out (ibid, p. 219). “We projected our abandoning parents onto a Higher Power, believing that God was vengeful or indifferent. Even if we thought God was love, many of us secretly wondered if He truly cared or listened.”
Twelve-step meetings may be the final venue in which family dynamics are recreated. Ignorant of their structure, which includes the running of them by a Higher Power, the need to work the steps and the traditions, and the rotation of service positions among attendees, an adult child may erroneously conclude that whoever first reads the opening and introduces the topic, must be the authority figure who is “in charge of it all.” He may feel insecure and jittery. He may feel a need to be in control to foster the perception of safety. And it may take several meetings before he dares his first share, rehearsing it in his mind before he vocalizes it, and then berating himself afterward when he realizes he failed to deliver the picture-perfect performance he had intended. These are all family dynamic recreations.
Whether a person is reared in an unstable, unsafe, dysfunctional home and can thus be labeled an “adult child” or comes from a loving, supportive one, he subtly learns what he experiences and anticipates the same conditions after he leaves it. Both types subconsciously recreate and re-enact them at times and both may not be aware that this dynamic is at play. Nevertheless, if the person from the more negative environment wishes to uproot these behaviors, he must identify, examine, process, and transcend them through therapy and/or the twelve-step processes.