How Do Adult Children Deal With Feelings?

Simple questions, such as “how do you feel,” result in complicated answers when an adult child, who emerges from a dysfunctional, alcoholic, or abusive upbringing, contemplates them. On the emotional level, he may feel little. On the intellectual one, he may not even entirely understand the concept.

Indeed, one of the very characteristics of the adult child syndrome explains this deficiency-namely, “we have ‘stuffed’ our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much.”

So stuffed were they, in fact, that such people soon believed that they no longer existed and often robotically functioned, unable to connect their experiences with the feelings that would otherwise have enhanced them.

“An alcoholic home is a violent place,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 86). “Alcoholism is a violent solution to the problem of pain, and anyone trapped in its lethal embrace is filled with rage and self-hate for choosing this form of denial. Children exposed to such violence come to believe that they are to accept punishment and abuse as a normal part of existence. They identify themselves as objects of hate, not worthy of love, and survive by denying feelings of hopeless despair.”

“For many of us,” it continues to note (p. 306), “we learned to tune out our true feelings because it was too painful to admit we were neglected, abused, or mistreated in various ways. We locked away events of our lives.”

“To survive in the midst of confusion and to have any sense of control, adult children must distance or dissociate from their feelings of pain and fear,” it further states (p. 87).

Parents write on the slate of who their children are and hence become in life. The reactions to the danger these children are subjected to are understandable, automatic, and survival-oriented, since they had no means to protect themselves from or defend themselves against such exposure, nor did they possess the physical, emotional, psychological, or neurological development to either understand their parents’ adverse, sometimes predatory behavior or escape it, other than to flee within by creating an inner child sanctuary in which they tucked themselves during heightened incidents throughout their upbringings.

Any help from other, non-offending family members, who were most likely hopelessly caught in the same system and therefore wore sound-suppressing headsets of denial, proved nonexistent, leaving them to sink into the quicksand of despair, feel abandoned, and ultimately isolate, no longer reaching out to others later in life concerning their silent, internal plights.

Exacerbating this dilemma is the fact that their detrimental childhoods robbed them of the trust they needed to do so.

Ironically, abuse can be self-denying, since a person cannot identify what he does not believe exists.

‘Family secrets, ignored feelings, and predictable chaos are part of a dysfunctional family system,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 22). “The system allows abuse or unhealthy behaviors to be tolerated at harmful levels. Through repetition, the abuse is considered normal by those in the family. Because the abuse seemed normal or tolerable, the adult child can deny that anything unpleasant (even) happened in childhood.”

Repressed feelings can quickly become volatile, each optionless “solution” contributing a little more fuel to their eventual fires, and touching any of them off, whether deliberately or by means of unintended retriggering, creates an unidentifiable, distorted jumble of everything in their pots.

“(Adult Children of Alcoholics members) describe expressing their feelings in a bundle or as one indistinguishable feeling,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 161). “For example, anger, shame, joy, or worry are expressed by tears.”

It is particularly difficult to connect with positive feelings because an adult child must first plow through the negative ones encapsulating them, sparking an uncomfortable charge that ignites and brings into present time the plethora of his past negative, unresolved ones.

So volatile can this become, in fact, that they will resort to several methods to avoid being trapped in them and, inadvertently, their pasts.

“The first,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 87), “uses the functional defenses of the mind to deny or distort the painful reality by projecting, repressing, or rationalizing the feelings that are causing the pain. Using a substance to alter the feelings is a second way… A final form… uses negative excitement to keep us unaware of deeper feelings. By focusing our attention on phobias, obsessions, dreams, and taboos, and compulsively tensing in response to these fears, we force the body to build a protective physical armor and to produce adrenalin, endorphins, and melatonin to chemically block the perception of pain.”

Progressively gaining momentum with each repeated childhood infraction or later-in-life retriggering, feelings can entrap the adult child, causing him to act them out as if he were nothing more than a string-pulled puppet, or act them in, sparking stress-related symptoms and diseases.

That adult children have difficulty feeling also stems from the fact that their parents were often unreceptive to what they thought or felt, particularly because they did not wish to hear what they themselves could not see, thus ensuring the propagation of the tightly closed system in which the disease of dysfunction was incubated.

Three simple rules, which were ironically never stated, but implied through untolerated behavior on the child’s part included “Don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.”

“The ‘don’t talk’ rule,” according to the ACA textbook (pp. 192-193), “has its origins in homes where children were often told to ‘shut up’ or ‘be quiet’ whenever they attempted to speak or express a thought… The ‘don’t talk’ rule also means the family does not talk about things that are important, such as feelings and spirituality… The ‘don’t talk’ rule of dysfunctional homes often means that feelings were unimportant or too scary to address.”

Adult children thus became masterminds at shelving, repressing, and disconnecting from their feelings, minimizing their reactions to the detriment and chaos they not only perceived, but were habitually the targets of. Exposing the very facets of their parents’ behavior that they denied only pried open their lids, inviting more abuse and ironically “protecting” the parents and not the children who were the targets of it, ensuring its perpetuation.

The rule almost became a subtle form of brainwashing. Unwritten though it may have been, it clearly stated that “silence equaled survival.”

The repression of feelings distorts reality, forces the person to adopt filters only others with similar upbringings have, create bodily toxicity, and lead to physical, comorbid complications, which those without such pasts may suffer from much later in life, such as hives, ulcers, gastrointestinal maladies, elevated blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, and even heart disease.

“We are confused about feelings because naming and feeling our own… is new to us,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 161). “As children and teens, we based our feelings on our parents’ moods and actions. We were hypervigilant to a parent’s tone of voice, body language, and gestures… By the time we arrive at ACA, many of us do not know that it is okay to have feelings that are different from those of people we care about.”

An additional layer of confusion results from the variation, if not dichotomy, between a parent’s actions and verbal claims. While berating a child is certainly demeaning and offers no positive support, for example, a parent may state the opposite. “I’m only hard on you because I want you to excel and have a better life,” he may say, unaware that he is repeating the same illogic he was forced to accept when he was growing up.

At other times he may deny the statements or actions which register on a child’s face and then negate them by telling the child not to feel what is naturally generated within him, as if there were no correlation between what they said and how the child responded to it.

Poor to nonexistent parental boundaries, another factor, result in the projection of and the child’s enmeshment with negatively charged feelings, blurring the line between them until the child adopts the same emotions and believes that they are his own. So powerful can they become, that the adult child may contract a second disease of codependence, (over and above the one of dysfunction), or one in which he focuses on the needs and wants of others, as if they were external extensions of him, enabling him to avoid his now too painful feelings. He can eventually reach a point of total selfhood loss.

This extreme is inherently expressed by the joke that, when a codependent dies, someone else’s life passes before his eyes.

“All boundaries,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 346), “remind us that the feelings, behaviors, and attitudes of others are separate from our own. The feelings and thoughts of others are not our responsibility.”

So disconnected can a chronically traumatized person become, that he can even disconnect from his own body, negotiating the world by snapping mental image pictures outside of himself, as if he were no longer the core of his existence.

Feelings can therefore paradoxically be both camouflaging (of the trauma and pain) they represent and uncontained, forcing the person to transcend his bodily boundaries.

“Overpowering (ones) rule our lives through compulsions and obsessions.” (ACA textbook, p. 457).

Although decades of repression and dissociation result from forcibly throwing all feelings into a single boiling cauldron, they can equally and ironically be frozen in a time-suspended freezer.

“Our disconnection can come in the form of frozen feelings, which are also known as ‘psychic numbing,'” according to the ACA textbook (pp. 268-269. “We become so numb to feelings and sensations… Some of us have been so traumatized that we shut down our emotions and cut ourselves off from our bodies. While we still function in our jobs and relationships, we are not totally present in our bodies. We look at others and wonder what it is like to feel ‘normal’… In reality, we are not feeling much of anything.”

This concept can also be metaphorically expressed.

“Many adult children have ‘frozen’ feelings in addition to being confused about (them),” according to the ACA textbook (p. 185). “Our feelings are like a great glacier, which appears stationary, but which moves with great force and sureness. Hidden within the glacier are huge boulders that scrape the earth, leaving deep scars and ruts. Occasionally, one of these huge rocks works its way up, piercing the icy surface… Release occurs.”

Tantamount to this release is the realization that feelings exist in the body, while the definitions of them only exist in the head. The former entails emotionalization. The latter is called intellectualization.

The tucked and buried inner child, a necessary, time-suspended defense against and expression of the person’s original abuse and cognizance of his home-of-origin danger, represents his true self and, as such, is a long-forgotten and unreachable treasure trove of intrinsic resources, natural endowments, positive feelings, and love, the latter of which is the essence bestowed upon him by his Creator and which he therefore shares with the souls of every living and even deceased human being.

One of the initial steps on the path to recovery, which will most likely entail self-help reading, therapy, psychology support groups, and spiritual twelve-step programs, is re-realizing the existence and then re-identifying the multitude of feelings the adult child was born with, but was forced to disconnect them, even on an intellectual level, before skirting the fringes of them on an emotional one.

The more he can bore through the surrounding and converting negative and painful ones that were necessary psychological defenses, the more he can embrace and move to the center of the positive ones. Even the former, however, have layers. Below anger, for example, may be hurt.

Although moving out of isolation may be considered the first phase of recovery, reclaiming a person’s feelings constitutes the second one.

“The return of feelings,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 83), “is the second stage of mourning and indicates healing has begun. Initial feelings of anger, guilt, rage, and despair resolve into a final acceptance of loss. Genuine grieving for our childhood ends our morbid fascination with the past and lets us return to the present, free to live as adults.”

Part of this path entails identifying the appropriateness of feelings to the current situation and gauging if they are still too reactive or amplified for it.

Feelings, in the end, reawaken adult children to what they were before dysfunctional, alcoholic, or abusive upbringings transformed them into what they were not, allowing them to once again feel alive and enhance their experiences as they negotiate the world. Provided that boundaries have been defined and that they have re-risen to a level of trust, feelings serve as the restitched threads to the souls of humanity they lost, enabling them to share their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual states with others and, indirectly to God or the Higher Power of their understanding, thus completing them.