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When I started recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic, going back and remembering my childhood was painful enough, but more daunting was facing and dismantling the character defects and harmful habits I’d developed to cope with it. Criticism tends to reverberate and expand inside my head, so I avoided it and refused to take responsibility for my own behaviors. But recognizing I was a para-alcoholic meant actually seeing myself objectively and doing the work to change. As I recovered from my co-dependent, control-freak ways, the things that changed weren’t extreme behaviors but the everyday bad habits that made my life far harder than it needed to be. So here’s some patterns that bit-by-bit, I work on breaking every day.
1. People pleasing, over-responsibility, and having no boundaries
I know, I know: that’s three things! But bear with me—I grouped these together because they all stem from the same source: a compulsive need to be liked. I had such a ninja talent for discerning and then delivering what other people wanted that most of the time I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I’d agree to do things that didn’t interest me, or didn’t have time for, and end up stressed and angry. I’d find myself instantly agreeing with things I didn’t, and I’d hold back to avoid conflict. Almost all of this came from my fear of abandonment and a desperate need to keep people in my life, regardless of whether they were healthy for me. Instead, I’d do what I thought they wanted and feel resentful for it. Now, I no longer need everyone to like me, and I make a point to be honest about what my opinion may be, as long as I’m kind about it. One of the first things I learned was to add a new word to my vocabulary: No. Most people are surprisingly okay with hearing it.
2. Ignoring my own feelings and impulses
Years of burying how I really felt meant that I had trouble identifying my own emotions. I didn’t even have the words for basic ones. I slowly learned to pay attention to my physical responses, but even those were only a clue to the unaddressed layers underneath. Now, if I feel my shoulders tighten, I know that I’m stressed, but underneath that is probably anger because I’ve compulsively said yes when I didn’t want to. And if I feel resentment toward a person or a responsibility, I can almost always trace it back to failing to be honest with someone else about what I actually want and need. Now, when I feel negative emotions, I accept them rather than resisting. They pass more quickly. And knowing my real feelings also helps me be honest with myself about whether I actually want to go to a friend’s party or when I’ve agreed out of guilt.
3. Controlling other people
Letting go of people pleasing made me realize just how sneakily controlling I’d been with the people closest to me. I’d skirt around the truth to avoid hurting feelings, because I didn’t want my friends and family to feel negative emotions—especially not toward me. And it’d rob both of us of the chance to either make things better or move on. But as I accepted my own feelings, I saw just how fleeting emotions are. So now I own up to the things I want, and let others have their feelings—regardless of how angry they may be. It’s not my job to protect people who aren’t asking for it.