How to Overcome a Dysfunctional Family Upbringing

I grew up in a dysfunctional family with an abusive father who struggled with substance abuse. As a kid, I survived two divorces, and grew up in three different homes—all of which were dysfunctional. I struggled for a long time in not understanding why I was different than other people. When I discovered the secret to overcome my dysfunctional family upbringing, I almost ignored it because the path was so contrary to what I thought I needed to survive.

Even today, at the ripe age of 45, I still fall back into familiar behavior patterns and need to work hard to train myself to break out of old habits. When something good happens in my life, the first thought that crosses my mind is to ward myself against a possible twist of fate or impending doom. I remember days as a kid in which I'd be happy, playing with my toys, and when my father came home from work, on a dime, the mood would shift in the house and we all needed to walk on eggshells. I surely didn't want to be the one who angered him and I soon learned that no matter how good I felt and how life was going that I needed to be ready for the other shoe to drop.

I needed to be constantly vigilant, hyper responsible, type A beyond compare and, down to the smallest detail, I needed to be ready for anything. Have you ever felt this way? I'd rather do a project on my own so that I knew that the job would get done and done right. I had trouble trusting people and it became all or nothing in that I expected people to live up to my impossible high standards. I liked control because I had none as a kid.

And there were many dark times in my childhood. At times, I didn't know where we would get money for food and shoes. I remember my grandparents taking us into their home and having some solace from the wrecked family life I grew up in, but when my mom remarried and husband #2 didn't work out, our lives were in freefall once again.

Years passed, I grew up, started dating and I realized after two failed relationships that I was simply repeating the patterns of my upbringing. My communication style, the challenges with trust I had, my wanting to control the world around me, all of this could be tied into what I knew of relationships. The dysfunctional behaviors that I had seen played out in my family life had become what I emulated in my own relationships.

I felt deep shame because I was perpetuating the behaviors that I had hated so much as a kid. I became angry, frustrated, confused, and after a bad breakup with a woman I had been engaged in my early 20s, I knew that I needed help. I started seeing a counselor and he suggested that I also started to attend an Adult Children of Alcoholic Anonymous (ACOA) support group.

One of the most important lessons I learned during this time was that I needed to retrain my thoughts. My knee-jerk reaction to a situation might be off-base because of what I learned as a kid. The best way for me to overcome the challenges I had was to think of a tape playing in my head (now I guess that would be an mp3). I needed to learn how to rewrite my instincts, changing unhealthy behavior to being more productive.

A simple way I could do this was to ask myself this question:

Is this healthy for me?

When I stop, am at peace and have taken care of myself (I'm not tired, hungry or stressed), I can find an honest answer to whether a situation (person or thing) is healthy for me. Once I had changed the baseline of my reactions, I could take a more objective approach to any obstacle in my life. Yet the most effective skill that I learned and is the groundwork for building a solid foundation of healthy behavior was so foreign to me that I fought it for years.

What I learned is that I was powerless over the dysfunction in my family. I couldn't control or fix any of it. And on the heels of realizing I couldn't change or fix any of the dysfunction, was the understanding that my life had become a disaster. The more I tried to control events, the worse they became. I couldn't make anyone in my family change and I also couldn't make my partner change in any of the romantic relationships I had been in.

I needed to admit that I was powerless over the dysfunction. When I first realized that I needed to do this, I fought it for so long. How could I let go, admit being powerless and be true to myself? If I did that, bad things would happen (or so I thought from my childhood upbringing). If I wasn't hyper vigilant, who would be? But a strange thing happened: When I started to let go, my life began to change for the better. For an alcoholic, the first thing on the road to recovery is to admit that one has a drinking problem. For those of us who grew up in a dysfunctional family, we need to admit that we are powerless and that our lives had become unmanageable.

The more I come to terms with my dysfunctional family upbringing, the more I learn about myself and the healthy behaviors I can instill not only in my own life, but in those of my children. The first time that I truly could identify with the problem, the more I could understand that I wasn't alone and that there was a way to change. Is this easy? No, change is not easy. I'm on a lifelong journey and there are still times that I screw up and make mistakes, but it's become easier and easier to bounce back from a relapse from my dysfunctional behaviors that I learned as a kid. Each day I'm learning more and more. I'm happy to share this with you because if what I've learned can help me, then it can surely help you.