ACoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) – the ‘reverse’ laundry list

The ACoA World Service Organisation have identified some of the likely traits that we’ll suffer from if we grew up in a family where one or both parents were alcoholics. They call this list of traits the ‘reverse’ laundry list, to reflect its affinity with the AA laundry list.

It can make heartbreaking reading, but – as they say in ACoA – it’s good to remember that this is a description, not an indictment. If you’re reading the list and see some truths in it for you, please keep reading, because below the descriptions of how you may be thinking, feeling and acting now is another list – which shows the way to feeling safe and truly empowered. It takes bravery, but if this list means something to you, you’ve already proved that you have bravery in spades.

Here’s the ‘reverse’ laundry list:

    1. To cover our fear of people and our dread of isolation we tragically become the very authority figures who frighten others and cause them to withdraw.
    2. To avoid becoming enmeshed and entangled with other people and losing ourselves in the process, we become rigidly self-sufficient. We disdain the approval of others.
    3. We frighten people with our anger and threat of belittling criticism.
    4. We dominate others and abandon them before they can abandon us or we avoid relationships with dependent people altogether. To avoid being hurt, we isolate and dissociate and thereby abandon ourselves.
    5. We live life from the standpoint of a victimizer, and are attracted to people we can manipulate and control in our important relationships.
    6. We are irresponsible and self-centered. Our inflated sense of self-worth and self-importance prevents us from seeing our deficiencies and shortcomings.
    7. We make others feel guilty when they attempt to assert themselves.
    8. We inhibit our fear by staying deadened and numb.
    9. We hate people who “play” the victim and beg to be rescued.
    10. We deny that we’ve been hurt and are suppressing our emotions by the dramatic expression of “pseudo” feelings.
    11. To protect ourselves from self punishment for failing to “save” the family we project our self-hate onto others and punish them instead.
    12. We “manage” the massive amount of deprivation we feel, coming from abandonment within the home, by quickly letting go of relationships that threaten our “independence” (never get too close).
    13. We refuse to admit we’ve been affected by family dysfunction or that there was dysfunction in the home or that we have internalized any of the family’s destructive attitudes and behaviors.

We act as if we are nothing like the dependent people who raised us.

And the path to recovery…

  1. We face and resolve our fear of people and our dread of isolation and stop intimidating others with our power and position.
  2. We realize the sanctuary we have built to protect the frightened and injured child within has become a prison and we become willing to risk moving out of isolation.
  3. With our renewed sense of self-worth and self-esteem we realize it is no longer necessary to protect ourselves by intimidating others with contempt, ridicule and anger.
  4. We accept and comfort the isolated and hurt inner child we have abandoned and disavowed and thereby end the need to act out our fears of enmeshment and abandonment with other people.
  5. Because we are whole and complete we no longer try to control others through manipulation and force and bind them to us with fear in order to avoid feeling isolated and alone.
  6. Through our in-depth inventory we discover our true identity as capable, worthwhile people. By asking to have our shortcomings removed we are freed from the burden of inferiority and grandiosity.healing heart
  7. We support and encourage others in their efforts to be assertive.
  8. We uncover, acknowledge and express our childhood fears and withdraw from emotional intoxication.
  9. We have compassion for anyone who is trapped in the “drama triangle” and is desperately searching for a way out of insanity.
  10. We accept we were traumatized in childhood and lost the ability to feel. Using the 12 Steps as a program of recovery we regain the ability to feel and remember and become whole human beings who are happy, joyous and free.
  11. In accepting we were powerless as children to “save” our family we are able to release our self-hate and to stop punishing ourselves and others for not being enough.
  12. By accepting and reuniting with the inner child we are no longer threatened by intimacy, by the fear of being engulfed or made invisible.
  13. By acknowledging the reality of family dysfunction we no longer have to act as if nothing were wrong or keep denying that we are still unconsciously reacting to childhood harm and injury.
  14. We stop denying and do something about our post-traumatic dependency on substances, people, places and things to distort and avoid reality.

Thank you to Donna Torbico at Heal and Grow for ACoAs for drawing my attention to this list, and for all her great blogs.

The Happiness Jar

The Happiness Jar

I recently saw a great idea from author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) that encourages giving thanks and acknowledging the positive in our day. She suggests getting a jar of some sort and taking a couple of minutes to write down the happiest moment of your day. Taking a moment to do this allows you to slow down and actually appreciate something from each and every day. It doesn’t have to be anything earth shattering or a standout moment. The happiest part of your day might be sharing a laugh with a friend, or maybe it’s being the first one up in a quiet house. Maybe the happiest moment is grabbing a cup of coffee that gives you the energy to get through the day. I love this idea because it is about finding something special in a completely ordinary moment.This is also a great reframing exercise. Honestly, life is hard and there are some days that are just really shitty. Often within the tough moments we can find moments of gratitude or peace if we choose to look for them. This isn’t about pretending life is perfect or that the tough stuff doesn’t happen, it is just about choosing to find good moments even amongst the chaos.Throughout the year you get to see the notes piling up. On days that are feeling particularly tough, being able to read through your notes might give some strength to keep pushing forward. I can’t think of a better keepsake at the end of the year as you reflect on what your year was like. It’s easy to get caught up and let big moments define our year (both good and bad), but this exercise is a reminder that it is the small things that can bring absolute joy.Danielle

Source: The Happiness Jar

Understanding avoidance – the ocean and the undertow

Understanding avoidance – the ocean and the undertow

I was thinking about avoidance – and how this can feel like a good strategy for dealing with anxiety though in fact it only makes things worse – when I came across this brilliant blog post on avoidance during bereavement, written by ‘What’s Your Grief’ (WYG), which I regularly read for a greater understanding of grief and loss. Their post underlined for me the promise of safety that makes avoidance look so appealing, and what a hollow promise this turns out to be. It’s like swimming towards an apparently peaceful bay, only to realise that it has a powerful and dangerous undertow.

This is WYG’s definition of avoidance, which does a great job of explaining why we avoid painful/fearful situations or people because of our internal reactions:

Experiential avoidance is an attempt to block out, reduce or change unpleasant thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations.  These are internal experiences that are perceived to be painful or threatening and might include fears of losing control, being embarrassed, or physical harm and thoughts and feelings including shame, guilt, hopelessness, meaninglessness, separation, isolation, etc.

And why it doesn’t work:

Avoiding seemingly painful stimuli might prove beneficial in the immediate, but it is a short term solution.  It’s like taking an aspirin to treat a broken arm; it may temporarily dull the sting, but if one doesn’t address the broken bone they will never be able to heal.

You can read the full blog post here. My thanks to them, and to you for reading. Go well.

Sarah Tomley is a counsellor working in Suffolk, UK, at Insight Counselling Ipswich

Self-help strategies for anxiety

If you feel that your anxiety is affecting your daily life, it’s good to check in with your doctor. There are some physical conditions that can cause anxiety, so ask your doctor for a full physical check-up, if possible, or to check for medical conditions known to cause symptoms of anxiety, such as hyperthyroidism, Vitamin B12 deficiency, or heart irregularities.

Once you’ve been reassured that there’s no physiological cause, there are many ways you can help calm the body and the mind. These two work on each other in a two-way system, so you can do things to calm the mind and they will slow down the body’s anxious reactions (this is known as working ‘top down’), or you can work on the body and notice how your mind begins to become more calm (this is known as working ‘bottom up’).

CALMING THE MIND

When we start associating certain things with making us anxious, we begin to avoid them. This is completely natural and ties in to our evolutionary psychology – anxiety is there as a prompt to keep us away from dangerous situations. However, when anxiety becomes a common or everyday state, it comes into play with situations that are not potentially dangerous in terms of our physical safety. And it turns out that avoiding things that make us anxious isn’t a good idea – research has shown that avoidance increases anxiety, rather than lessening it. So someone might start by avoiding large gatherings, then small parties, then even an outing with close friends, because the avoidance has fostered a sense of anxiety in ever-smaller situations. This means that anxiety is best overcome by facing your fears rather than avoiding them, and the earlier this is done, the easier it is to ease any anxiety that has become associated with particular things, people or events. No one needs to do this on their own, so be sure to seek professional help if this feels right for you.

Here are some other ways for calming the mind:

  • Mindfulness has proved to be especially useful as a way to ease anxiety both short- and long-term, so you might want to consider using a mindfulness app (such as Headspace) or website (I like AudioDharma.org but there are lots more to choose from). The Oxford Mindfulness Centre – home of mindfulness-based CBT – has lots of resources, including a great three-minute ‘Breathing-space Meditation’ to calm the mind and body – click here to listen now.
  • See your anxious thoughts as guesses, not facts. Your mind is trying to predict what might happen, but it might be wildly out! Are you basing your predictions on what happened in exactly the same situation in the past? And if so, how likely is it that every factor will be exactly the same? (The philosopher Heraclitus famously said that “we never step into the same river twice”.)
  • Remember that just as our muscles are there to allow us to stretch and move, the brain is there to produce thoughts. Some of these are useful, and some are less so, while others are not useful at all. Spend some time when you’re not anxious just noticing some of the thoughts that arise in your mind. Perhaps think of them as clouds passing by, in front of your awareness – you can pick one or two up, or choose to let them all just float on by. There’s no need to act or even react to our thoughts – noticing them in a detached way allows us time to evaluate their usefulness and respond with choice.
  • Be aware that the mind can also make up whole stories, especially about ourselves (perhaps that we are unlovable or worthless or ‘stupid’). These messages are likely to have evolved from past experiences, and do not necessarily bear any relation to any truths about ourselves. If you have had difficult relationships in the past – with family members, friends or work colleagues, for instance – it’s possible that you’ve picked up faulty information (this is a useful area to explore in counselling). Notice any thoughts or stories like this and allow them to float on by. If they’re ‘sticky’, write them down or draw something that represents them. That way they have been expressed, and you can always come back to them later.
  • Broaden the picture. It’s possible to become very drawn to one particular aspect of a situation and become scared by that. Broaden your view, so that when you consider the situation again, it’s just one part of a much larger picture in your mind. If you like, you can ‘zoom out’ all the way to a satellite view of earth. Or imagine how you’ll think about this situation in 10 years’ time. Give yourself more distance, either geographically or in time. How big does the problem seem now?
  • Stay in the present. Look around you now, and notice the colours, sounds and shapes. What’s moving? What’s still? Are there any smells? Is any part of your body touching the ground or a piece of furniture? How is it, being in this body, today, here and now?

CALMING THE BODY

Here are a few effective ways of calming the body (the mind will follow!)

  • Reduce caffeine intake to 300 mg or less per day (that’s two cups of filtered coffee or three cups of instant)
  • Do some physical exercise every day for at least 30 minutes (even a brisk walk will do, but a run is even better)
  • Spend time doing things you love – make sure you’ve got room in your weekly schedule for fun stuff
  • Practise breathing exercises when you’re feeling anxious and just at occasional times during the day. Breathe gently in, drawing the breath down to your lower abdomen (as though you’re blowing up a balloon in your belly), hold the breath for a count of three, and then gently breathe out of your mouth as slowly as possible. Try to make the out-breath at least twice as long as the in-breath. Don’t gulp in the air, because that can cause the physical symptoms of panic. Take it slow, and focus on the slow out-breath. Repeat at least three times whenever you want to calm the mind and body.
  • Everyone has personal favourites (or ‘tools’) too, which they can use to restore balance to the body and mind, such as music, reading, dancing or swimming.

Lastly, it may be that anxiety has a unique meaning for you and actually does ‘make sense’ in a way that you haven’t yet realised. Once this is known, you have a very powerful way of reducing anxiety or even banishing it forever. I’ll look at this in my next post.

As always, thanks for reading.

Sarah Tomley is a counsellor working in Suffolk, UK (www.insightcounsellingipswich.com)

Test your own anxiety levels

Anxiety is a natural thing. Not only that, it’s essential – without anxiety we probably wouldn’t bother doing anything or even survive. Anixety is a motivator, that reminds us that there’s stuff to do, as well as a survival instinct that keeps us safe in dangerous situations. However, when anxiety begins to become an almost ever-present state of being, it can affect our wellbeing and increasingly encroach on our everyday lives, causing us to avoid anything that threatens to bring on an anxious feeling.

An anxiety disorder is said to exist when anxiety becomes long-lasting and severe, and affects a person’s work or relationships.  In 1988, Sir David Goldberg and colleagues at the Social Psychiatry Research Unit within the Australian National University came up with a ‘scale’ or set of questions that could be used to test anxiety levels. It’s simple and quick – so if you’d like to see whereabouts you sit on the scale, read the following questions and write down an answer (‘yes’ or ‘no’) for each question on a piece of paper.

The Goldberg Anxiety Scale
In the past month, for most of the time:

  1. Have you felt keyed up, high-strung or on edge?
  2. Have you been worrying a lot?
  3. Have you been irritable?
  4. Have you had any difficulty relaxing?
  5. Have you been sleeping poorly? (too much or too little)
  6. Have you had headaches or neck-aches?
  7. Have you had any of the following: trembling, tingling, dizzy spells, sweating, frequent urination, or diarrhoea?
  8. Have you been worried about your health?
  9. Have you had difficulty falling asleep?

Interpretating the test
Score one point for each ‘yes’. Most people have some of these symptoms – the average score for the test is four – but the higher the score, the more likely you are to be experiencing anxiety at a level that is affecting and disrupting your life. It may be that you are aware of an event in your life that has caused temporary anxiety, and that you feel the fog is lifting. But if you are troubled by some of the symptoms, and have noticed they are beginning to affect your ability to function on a daily level, this may be a good time to seek professional help from your doctor and consider counselling. Many people seek help for anxiety, because it responds to all sorts of treatments, from simple self-help strategies to counselling and  short-term medication. It is not a ‘character flaw’ or ‘weakness’, but a natural instinct that sometimes runs on overtime, especially when we’re trying to take on especially challenging responsibilities.

In my next post I’ll list some effective self-help strategies for reducing anxiety, including ways to calm the body and mind. As always, thanks for reading.

Sarah Tomley is a counsellor and author working in Suffolk, UK at Insight Counselling Ipswich