Adult Children of Dysfunctional Adults

Your coping strategies may be keeping you from healing.

When we are stunned by some tragedy, we can only see and feel the tragedy. Only with time and distance can we see the tragedy in the context of a whole life and a whole world.”
Harold S. Kushner, from “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Many of my high functioning clients are children of dysfunctional parents. My lower functioning clients might be as well, but they have enough difficulty in the present, and don’t have the energy to work on their childhood.

Many troubled people are the traumatized survivors of bad parenting, and I suggest bad parenting to be the smoking gun of modern culture. These crimes would be less likely in a healthy extended family. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one.

Remodeling What’s Normal

A personality is a many structured thing. There are many angles one can take to changing one’s personality and each angle affects the other. You can’t change your personality the way you can remodel a house, as every change affects other parts of you. Our personalities are a bit like a house of cards.

This is the attraction of talk therapy: you can limit its effect. The disadvantage, however, is that it has little effect. Some of us poo-poo talk therapy, but most therapists believe in it as their stock in trade. Most therapists aren’t very good, and it’s just as well that they don’t have sharp tools as they’d do more harm than good.

Do you think talking would be a path to cure a depressed person? How about a dysfunctional parent? It would be of little help to either, and it does little more good for their traumatized children, who are now adults.

But there is a purpose for talking, and you have to know a little about hypnosis to understand it. Hypnosis is the management of fixated states. You can use it like a lever to amplify your experience. With amplification comes memory, motivation, and sometimes insight.

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Our Blind Fixations

We are all in varying states of fixation, mostly fixated on our perceptions, but also fixated on avoiding things. Our lives are games of volley and serve, where our serves are our intentions, and our volleys are the steps we take toward satisfaction.

Our normal behavior is conditioned, and within our conditioned state we build our personality, frame our situation, and justify our actions. Our normal state of mind has all the features of a hypnotized state. We only call it “normal” because it represents us. Everyone lives in such a state.

Talk can be powerful. If you’ve ever spoken to a hysterical person, you’ll know how upsetting it can be. But talk therapy is nonthreatening talk. The purpose of nonthreatening talk is to relax a person while keeping them in their normal state. Relaxation is a prerequisite to changing state.

In hypnotherapy, conversation is referred to as pretalk. It precedes directive hypnosis. Directive hypnosis is where you reframe another person’s point of view. Reframing is not a suggestion, it’s a direction.

In analogy with a martial art, reframing aims to redirect another person’s strength. To reframe, you take what another person believes, combine it with what they resist, and serve it as an irrefutable conclusion.

What makes this a hypnotic process rather than just regular talk is that your argument makes little sense. It cannot make sense if it’s to be effective, because what makes sense is the structure that prevents change. This is the fallacy of talk therapy and talking in general: we’re always trying to make sense when, in truth, we manufacture what makes sense.

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Fixing from the Top Down

Working on problems from the top down means using reason and intellect. These wonderful tools dissolve obstacles like dish soap dissolves grease. Reason is our soap and intellect is the sponge. Our egos are intellectual, which is why we tend toward reason to daub at our problems.

Some of our problems will respond like soiled dishes. We can scrub away the problems and dry ourselves off. These are the small problems, our tactical mistakes. Even big problems may submit to intellectual scrubbing; some interpersonal problems can be resolved if they’re reasonably structured with positive intent.

But there are other problems which, like the clogged drain, require more than scrubbing. The whole idea of good plumbing is that all obstructions will submit to small fixes, but a damaged personality is badly plumbed. There is no sludge trap that can be easily opened.

Hypnosis, like anesthesia, relaxes the patient before surgery. Hypnosis can actually be used as an anesthetic for surgery, but here I’m using surgery metaphorically. The clogged drain is emotional, and emotions are not changed with reason.

The intellect is powerful, and I like working with intellectual people because they’re adept and honest. If not honest, at least transparent. They may not reveal themselves, but they know that hiding from themselves will only make change more difficult.

The least successful clients I have are dishonest. I know they’re dishonest, but they won’t admit it. I respect those people like I respect washed out bridges, but I don’t like them. I let them know they are their primary problem, and that usually ends our relationship.

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Fixing from the Bottom Up

Don’t call it coaching, counseling, therapy, or consulting, and certainly don’t say it’s fixing psychopathology. Call it learning to be your best, as has been denied you.

You can’t fix a washed out bridge by working on the surface of the road, you must rebuild the foundation. Psychological foundations are emotional. Before you can rebuild emotions, you must have access to them.

The habitually dysfunctional person is immune from talk therapy. They have been talking to themselves all their lives and their dysfunction is the result. They’ll have comfortable answers to all your questions, even if they don’t make sense.

Their most important answers will be dishonest, but they’ll have justifications for them. And you can tell they’re dishonest because these rationalizations are not open for discussion. These are the emotions that neither you nor they have access to.

This is why crisis is the tried-and-true path to change, and most people who come to me feel that crisis might be approaching. At least, they’re worried about it. I can help the ones who are looking to change themselves. I cannot help the ones who are looking to change others.

Crisis is the washing out of one’s path, the collapse of one’s rational plan. It’s honest to see danger coming even if you don’t see your hand in it. It’s not dishonest to be blind. It’s only dishonest when you refuse to see.

It’s not too hard to see the problem if you dig down to where the foundation has broken. As in physical surgery, the biggest difficulty is getting to the problem. Obstructing you is dishonesty, guilt, shame, anger, despair, refusal, and fear. These reactions and coping strategies are quite immune to talking, and talking is viewed with suspicion.

Your crisis is the best path to resolution because the crisis is the line along which your defenses have fractured. Never let a crisis go to waste, or there will be a greater one later. On the other hand, you have to enter the crisis because only you know what hides in the territory.

Don’t Hope, Act

I help my clients repair the poorly engineered foundations of their lives. I hate to call it therapy because the problem is not a sickness. I don’t like to call it coaching because this involves more than just time management. Would the term “life counseling” be accurate?

It’s like helping you fix your own teeth. This sounds frightening, but it need not be. I hold the mirror, provide anesthesia, and encourage your repair. The frightening part is extraction, but that’s usually unnecessary.

Extraction refers to bringing to light repressed memories of abuse. These memories are painful, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is recognizing that there are aspects of your personality that exist solely to protect you from these memories.

To reveal and resolve these memories means you will lose the shame, guilt, anger, and weakness at the foundations of your personality. Those parts of yourself will die, and that’s not a metaphor. What remains is the injured infant these parts have sheltered.

For the children of dysfunctional parents, infancy was a time of sorrow, anger, fear, and insecurity. Does anyone want to relive their infancy? I sure as hell don’t. Yet, that’s the crux of the problem.

The life problems of adult children of dysfunctional parents revolve around the weaknesses built into them in their childhoods. We are all such children to varying degrees. To take off the braces that are our coping strategies is terrifying.

Most of us won’t do it. My parents didn’t. If you’re like them, you’ll grow up in twisted shapes and pass on some version of your dysfunction to your children.

This is an old problem, and one that’s solved by the extended family and free learning. In the joined contexts of nuclear family and state education, this has become a pandemic. Without help, parents never learn, and without parents, children never grow.

It’s not as bad as it might seem, and growing up won’t be as depressing as it was the first time. You really can heal old wounds, but only those wounds that are yours. You cannot fix your parents or theirs before them.

These injuries tend to go back a long way. When you work to fix them, you will help many more people than yourself.

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