The Unbearable Responsibility of Children of Alcoholics
Have you ever tried coming home after a long day at work, and then within seconds, you feel that you need to do more? That you should do more? That you never give yourself permission to relax? This inner voice of responsibility is probably very old. It has controlled you for many, many years.
Many adult children of alcoholics are often driven by a great urge to save and help others in all kinds of situations. This urge is especially great in adult children who assigned themselves the role of the hero child*.
As the son or daughter of an alcoholic, you probably had too much responsibility at home. You were responsible for your siblings and your own parents. That kind of responsibility as a child was too much. It is not acceptable to hand over so much responsibility to a child. But there were not other options. You took that responsibility in order for you and your family to survive.
Perhaps no one has ever told you that it was not, and never should have been your responsibility. I am telling you now that it is not.
It is not your responsibility. You are allowed to let go now!
Creating Boundaries: Your Responsibility and the Responsibilities of Others
Learning how to stop taking responsibility for everyone else is a long process. It is hard work. One of the characteristics of adults who grew up in an alcoholic home is that this feeling of responsibility is deeply ingrained in them. The first step is acknowledging how thoroughly you feel that you SHOULD do everything for everyone else, and how TRUE that feeling is on the surface.
You do not know what healthy boundaries are dividing your responsibility and the responsibilities of others. Learning how to set boundaries is one key to your recovery (link: https://www.vumc.org/health-wellness/news-resource-articles/establishing-effective-personal-boundaries). As you were growing up, your own boundaries were blurred and destroyed again and again. You probably had few, if any responsible adults around you who could teach you what was a reasonable degree of responsibility for a child your age. Because of these circumstances, you never learned what boundaries were healthy. Not knowing your own boundaries, it is difficult for you to know when a request is reasonable and when it is not.
An Exercise to Create Clearer Boundaries
You can start this work by trying to get more in touch with your grief, your anger and your sense of exhaustion. Those feelings and thoughts are somewhere inside you. If the pressures of your life have been too heavy for too long, you may feel these feelings more acutely. They are your own genuine feelings. They are feelings of sorrow, injustice, loss and a desire for someone to take care of you. Perhaps you are the only one aware of these feelings. Perhaps even those closest to you do not even know your true feelings. One of the effects of having an alcoholic parent is that you do not feel it is acceptable to have such feelings. When you have had enough of everyone else’s demands and problems, you are convinced that you are not okay or lovable. I want you to know that this is NOT TRUE.
In order to acknowledge these feelings, you could write a letter to your anger and to your exhaustion. You could also share some of your feelings with a friend you trust. It may be difficult at first, but it will help you build secure relationships.
All Your Feelings Are Okay
These are your feelings and they are absolutely real and true. It is now time for you not to suppress them. Having had alcoholic parents, you have some work ahead of you. Creating boundaries is healthy and necessary. In order to heal and become a whole person, it is healthy for you to practice not taking care of everyone else. You do not have to take responsibility for them. Part of your recovery is for you to learn that other people are able to take care of themselves.
As the adult child of an alcoholic, you have feelings of guilt and “should have” and a bad conscience. These feelings have controlled you for too long. They have pushed your own needs away. Jasmina’s addition: Doing these exercises will help you put your needs first.
Dealing with Feelings of Guilt
By learning to take care of yourself and taking time alone for yourself, these ”voices” of guilt and bad conscience may start ”yelling” at you. They will demand space. Let them. Expect to feel ashamed and guilty and have a bad conscience when you start breaking your old, non-constructive patterns. These feelings will intrude upon your first forays into setting your own boundaries. The best you can do is not to act on them. As you build more and more resilience and practice feeling better about yourself, these ”voices” will retreat. They will become weaker and weaker, and at some point they will no longer demand your attention.
Dealing with Catastrophic Thinking
Thoughts are just thoughts. I know it sounds so simple when I say it, but it is a fact. As the son or daughter of an alcoholic, you are used to ruminating and worrying all the time. You have very likely had many, many evenings and nights wondering about everything that could go wrong. Days have gone by thinking about one catastrophe after another. If that is case, I want you to know that these are just thoughts.
Worrying is not helpful. Thoughts of catastrophe and feelings of anxiety are only increased when you think about them. It is possible for you to learn to not give them the space they demand. They are not true. They make a lot noise and they hurt you. They engage you in self-flagellation. Contrary to how you may feel, they DO NOT protect you from your problems. Just because you have imagined every possible disaster scenario does not prepare you for the challenges life will throw at you. Catastrophic thinking does nothing good for you. (link: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320844.php). It makes you feel miserable and destroys your mood. Leave it be. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Do what you can to distract yourself.
Dealing with Feelings of Loneliness
In addition to feelings of guilt, you may also feel lonely. If you do, it is important that you start reaching out. It is possible for you to start building secure relationships. Everyone needs friends and good relationships. There may be times during your life when it is hard for you to see who those people could be. If you find yourself in such a situation, you need to start developing friendships and a circle of people who can help you thrive. Jasmina’s addition: If you feel that you lack friends and a sense of community, you can try to sign up for an activity that interests you. You could also take up a (team) sport or sign up for classes in a subject you find intriguing. Activities with other people can help you build self-esteem and grow your peer support system.
When you start letting go of responsibilities that are not yours, and only take responsibility for what is reasonable, you will also be able to more securely set healthy boundaries for yourself. With patience, time and practice, this will in turn improve your wellbeing. I know it is hard work, but I also know that the results are worth it. You are worth it!
* The role of the Hero is one of the classic child roles. Read more about child roles in dysfunctional families in the book “Raised in a Bottle” (link to the book). These roles include the Hero, the Scapegoat, the Lost Child and the Mascot.
Establishing Effective Personal Boundaries:
5 Small Ways “Adult Children” Can Take Better Care Of Ourselves:
Personality Subtypes in Adolescent and Adult Children of Alcoholics: A two part study
Catastrophic thinking: A transdiagnostic process across psychiatric disorders:
How to stop catastrophizing:
How to Put a Stop to Catastrophic Thinking