Here’s an old story I like to tell: Once there was a man trapped in a cave. The man could see a glint of light high above him and he kept trying to reach it, scrabbling at the walls of the cave in the pitch black. He never found the way out: he died in the dark.
One day long after, some other man came to the cave. When they rolled away the rock, light flooded in. And they found the prisoner’s bones lying on the ground. Right near the bones was an enormously long tunnel that led up and out of the cave. The prisoner hadn’t been able to see it; the way out was right in front of him and he had died because he couldn’t see it.
For people brought up in dysfunctional family systems, the healing process is often simply learning to see through our own darkness to what is right in front of us. We have to be taught to see the way out of destructive behaviors we were set up for in childhood. We have to go into the darkness to get to the light – the only way out is through it. And the way through dysfunctional behavior can be painful.
The idea of healing is the idea of regaining the lost child in each of us, the child as she or he was before learning the lessons of the dysfunctional family.
The idea is not to blame anybody.
We’re not going to go back and blame our parents. The model of the family system, as I see it, is circular: One person’s actions affect all the people in the system; the system thrives on feedback. The way through emotional sickness to health involves taking responsibility for our own actions and feelings now that we are adults ourselves.
Many of us are unaware of feelings we have had for years, feelings so thoroughly internalized that we don’t kno0w they are ruling our lives, coloring our perceptions and shaping our actions. And often we didn’t choose those feelings when we were children.
It isn’t that we have lost our own identity; it’s that we never had an identity of our own in the first place. It isn’t that a man, for example, has lost touch with the little boy inside who once knew how to love; it’s that the little boy was never shown a fulfilling love model in his parent’s behavior, so he never learned ho to love. The man, therefore, may have deeply conflicting feelings about showing – or even admitting – his love.
For many of us the little child (the root of what we really are) got lost when we couldn’t be spontaneous anymore, but instead had to adapt to a dysfunctional family system. In children the private self is very large and the public self very small. Tiny children don’t really care much about what others think of them, because they cannot assimilate the concept of public shame. As the child gets older the private self-shrinks and the public self gets much wider, until in adulthood the public self has pretty much taken over, leaving only a small area that is completely private.
Over the years a child develops layers and layers of denial and avoidance of her own needs, in order to meet the needs of her public self, particularly as she is perceived and perceives herself in the family structure.
And if the family structure is unhealthy- if her parents are caught up in addictive and codependent roles, or any other kinds of mutually abusive roles-there will be so much avoidance that the grown-up woman will be completely unable to see herself as she really is, to recognize her feelings as her own. And she certainly won’t know what to do to regain her sense of self. She will be lost in the dark.
At the root of avoidance is shame. Psychotherapist Erik Erikson says that shame grows out of the feeling of having eyes on you when you are too young to understand what those eyes on you mean. That feeling suddenly interrupts the child’s personal, private experience, and it correlates with nothing else that has gone before. It distorts her reality, irrevocably.
Shame can arise from many courses, of course, and it doesn’t always have to be debilitating, but if it is repeated over and over throughout childhood, the spontaneous child learns not to be spontaneous anymore. She learns to internalize her emotions in order to avoid shame.
Parents who are addictive or codependent people, or who came out of Multi-generational dysfunctional family systems themselves, are going to be neurotic, shame-based parent. They are going to be self-absorbed and unable to understand the needs of their children. The parents discourage the child from realizing that it’s the parents who are supposed to take care of the children, and the child ends up taking care of the dysfunctional parent or parents instead.
She takes care of the family system too, making sure everyone in the system gets all needs me – everyone except herself. She is denied her own reality in striving to protect the reality of the family system. She never gets to have her own feelings.
When parents avoid their responsibilities to their children, the children, in turn avoid the responsibilities to themselves.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: “Nature means children to be children before they become men. If we deviate from this order we produce a forced fruit, without taste, maturity, or power of lasting; we make young philosophers and old children.”
And these children will someday bear other children and continue the multigenerational pattern. How can we ever break the pattern? How can we teach our children to love themselves if we never learned how to love ourselves? Or to love anybody else?
The healing process begins when we gather up the courage to become aware-aware of how we got waylaid, even mislaid in childhood. This can lead to a tremendous anger, even before we are aware and sometimes that anger translates into self-destructive behavior.
By the time I got to be an adult, for example, I was enraged and I was also an alcoholic.
I would go into bars drunk and kick over tables where guys with tattoos were seated. That kind of behavior was frowned on, to say the least. I was obviously very self-destructive at the time.
Becoming aware of our real feelings, especially our rage is a difficult process. The mind has many defenses against self-awareness, chief of which is dissociation. When knowing probes too painful, dissociation and denial can seem to save.
A girl who is sexually abused, for instance, may have to dissociate from her pain in order to survive emotionally.
And she grows up angry without knowing why – but if she knew why, she might not be able to handle it. Once denial gets set up, it functions automatically for the rest of our lives if we never face it. But once we become aware, we begin to recognize our anger and to learn how to express it without hurting ourselves or those around us.
Our families are suffering from a crisis of untruth. We simply do not feel the truth in our family systems, and that leads to shame, which in turn leads to a crisis of the self against the self. We express our anger at ourselves instead of our families by drinking or taking drugs, by eating too much Blue Bell Cookies ‘n Cream ice cream, by having sex with the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
A little bit of this kind of behavior can take away the feeling of shame for a little while. I drink and I feel better about myself and my life.
I eat ice cream and I don’t think about myself and my life. But the next morning I think, Oh, God, look at what I’ve done-again.
There doesn’t seem to be a way out, but there is – and that way is by using a 12-step program based on Alcoholics Anonymous. There are many such programs now: Families Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, and Debtor’s Anonymous. All these programs are growing. Why? Because they work. Check http://pornaddictionend.com
Childhood is over with. We have to be healed. We have to learn to face our pain and feel it and get through it. One of the first steps is to recognize our lost-child self and grieve for the pain. We have to learn to grieve – for ourselves, for our families, for our wasted lives. Because grieving completes the past. And the end of grieving to be reborn.