These 14 Traits describe a personality who cannot truly love another person or truly allow a Higher Power to work in his or her life. As adult children, we have great difficulty accepting love as well. These are not shaming statements or predictions of doom. As children and teens, we were not given a true or consistent example of love. So how can we know love or recognise it as adults? Our parents shamed us or belittled us for being vulnerable children. In their own confusion, they called it love. They passed on what was done to them, thinking they were being caring parents. What many adult children described as love or intimacy before reaching ACA was actually co-dependence or rigid control.
The adult child syndrome is somewhat interchangeable with the diagnosis of co-dependence. There are many definitions for co-dependence; however, the general consensus is that co-dependent people tend to focus on that wants and needs of others rather than their own. By doing so, the co-dependent or adult child can avoid his or her own feelings of low self-worth. This is the sixth trait of the 14 Traits. A co-dependent focuses on others and their problems to such an extent that the co-dependent’s life is often adversely affected. In addition to emotional suffering, co-dependents can suffer from serious chronic physical illnesses. The illnesses include stomach problems, severe headaches, insomnia, colon problems, and skin ailments in addition to other physical conditions.
In ACA, we realise we could not have reacted another way given our dysfunctional upbringing. As children, we focused on the odd or neglectful nature of our parents’ behaviour. We mistakenly thought we caused their moods or attitudes or could do something to change circumstances. We did not realise that we were children and that adults were responsible for their own feelings and actions. Many of us thought we caused our parent’s addiction. We took responsibility for their drinking and drugging, thinking we could make them stop, slow down, and eventually love us. As children, we took responsibility for out parent’s anger, rage, blame, or pitifulness. We were children, but we unknowingly took responsibility for our parent’s feelings and poor behaviour. This mistaken perception, born in childhood, is the root of our co-dependent behaviour as adults. By living with a blaming or shaming parent, we developed a dependent false self. Our false self constantly seeks outward affection, recognition, or praise, but we secretly believe we don’t deserve it. Meanwhile the Inner Child is driven inward into hiding. The false self is the adult child personality expressed in the 14 Traits of the Laundry List.
Many adult children arrive at the adult years with an over-developed sense of responsibility, which they communicate as love or nurturing care. This behaviour is a disguise to get the love we never received as children. Before recovery, many adult children had relationships in which they thought they were in love with another person. In reality, they were trapping or manipulating that person to extract affection. This behaviour creates the response we fear most – abandonment.
By attending ACA meetings, we realise we developed these characteristics to survive our home life. Before recovery, our experience shows that adult children use the 14 Traits frequently. We combine them to meet the demands of life. For instance, a person might fear his boss (Trait 1) and engage in approval seeking behaviour (Trait 2) while accepting a high level of abuse on a job that he would feel guilty about leaving (Trait 7). Feeling like a victim (Trait 5), he goes home to his alcoholic wife (Trait 4) and stuffs his feelings down (Trait 10). He takes on an inordinate amount of house chores by being overly responsible (Trait 6).
He wants to leave his wife, but he has confused love and pity and fears facing the abandonment that will come from walking away (Traits 9 and 12). The cycle is repeated the next day, the next week and the next year. The traits are passed on to children in the home.
While these characteristics stunted our emotional and spiritual lives, we must realise they protected us as children. We grip these common behaviours tightly as adults. They are not easily surrendered even though they create the internal pain and isolation that has driven us to Adult Children of Alcoholics. We urge you to be gentle with yourself as you begin to address the most troublesome traits. There is another way to live.
The ‘Other’ Laundry List
We must note that most of the 14 Traits have an opposite. Our experience shows that the opposites are just as damaging as the counterpart. For example, if we feared authority figures, as the first trait suggests, we also became authority figures to our children, spouses, or others. When we stop and think about it, we realise we were feared as authority figures. If we lived our life from the viewpoint of a victim (Trait 5), then
many of us have become persecutors and perpetrators who created victims. If we got guilt feelings for standing up for ourselves (Trait 7), we could also feel guiltless by shaming someone verbally. We could take from others what was not ours without feeling guilty.
These examples represent the reverse side of The Laundry List. Many of us would like to deny that we have been a dominating authority figure, but we have. We don’t like to think about victimising others or projecting blame onto them, but we have. Many of us have re-enacted what was done to us, thinking we were justified. Some of us have engaged in fights that go beyond mere words. We have slapped and slugged others in a fit of rage. Some of us have used a violent cursing with threats of physical harm to intimidate others. A few adult children have willingly stolen merchandise, written bogus cheques, or embezzled money for various reasons that don’t hold weight in the light of our explanations. We can feel shame or disgust when we think about our actions. This is a healthy guilt, which is different from the toxic guilt that we were raised under.
Our behaviours, whether we are a victim or creating victims, highlight an ACA truism: “ACA is not an easy programme to work.” Yet the effort it takes to work ACA is far less than the effort it takes to live in co-dependence or trying to control others or circumstances out of our control. If we apply half the effort to ACA that we apply to living co-dependently, we will see amazing results. We will find clarity and self-worth.
We will need help. We will need acceptance from others when we cannot accept ourselves. We do not need to shame ourselves or dive into self-condemnation, but we must be honest about our behaviour. We sometimes need a reminder that we are acting destructively and should consider rethinking our behaviour.
ACA allows us to admit our behaviour in a safe place without judgement from others. By working the ACA program, we learn to recognise when we are thinking like a victim or persecutor and to talk about it. We re-parent ourselves with gentleness and self-love. We become open-minded to the idea that we can change with time and with help.
From the ACA ‘Big Red Book’ pp.6-9 © Adult Children of Alcoholics Word Service Organisation