Why is it so hard for an ACoA (Adult Child) to feel feelings? What is the path towards awakening those feelings in the body and moving towards direct communication, understanding personal needs and then expressing them to others? In this article, NY Therapist Heather Coleman discusses emotional intelligence coming from a dysfunctional family system. She would also like to invite you to join a new group starting in the New Year on raising emotional intelligence for ACoAs and others from dysfunctional families (see below for details.)
The feeling center of an Adult Child (ACoA) is often shut down and on a frozen mode. The alcoholic (or dysfunctional) family system generally runs on the foundational principles of “Don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t feel.” There are certain unspoken family rules in the system that keep the addiction (or dysfunction) afloat–others are don’t play, don’t make a mistake, and so on.
Don’t talk and don’t trust revolve around secrecy and a lack of safety. If the family members are not open and vocal about the addiction, perhaps it can be maintained that it doesn’t exist. However, when it comes to then talking about it later, there might be a fear of not being believed, that your story is unreal or untrue. Overall, there is a sense of mistrust in the household because it is built on fear, control and then distortion and inconsistent messages. An adult child might then come into adulthood with fear and self-doubt (depending on how many resources were available throughout childhood)– in themselves, in others and in their story.
With Don’t Feel, it was often scary to have a feeling expressed in an alcoholic home–you never knew the response you would get back–screaming, cajoling, sarcasm, a door slammed, a strange enmeshed feeling thrown back–so kids learn to push down feelings, ignore them, dissociate or act out. An an adult child, it then becomes the task to find safe spaces and safe people to slowly open up to, to tell their story (to be believed) and to let old frozen emotions begin to unfreeze. Children in alcoholic homes often feelings but can’t access them unless they are in the presence of a trusting adult. In therapy as an adult, it becomes a practice to identify these feelings and put them into words, which can also lead to accepting them rather than acting them out. This takes time, gentleness and patience– which starts to inadvertently look like good-enough parenting… good-enough reparenting if you will.
When our feelings have been iced over for so long, it can feel like a slow process of unthawing them in therapy. In a trusting relationship, it may be possible to start identifying them in our bodies, becoming as specific and detailed about the qualities of the sensations and then practicing vocalizing them– in other words, what that feeling says. For a long time, it may feel like the initial stage of therapy is just adjusting to trusting and feeling safe in the presence of another person– and you can feel numb for quite awhile. This is not a problem, but rather just the initial phases of the work and also an opportunity to start to bring focused, caring attention to the body– the beginning of seeing if there’s even a small sensation on the cusp of becoming an emotion. There’s also a fear of becoming overwhelmed and flooded– so any good therapist will know how to slow the process down enough to have the felt experience remain at a tolerable rate.
ACA Feeling Wheel
The following is a Feeling Wheel from the ACA (Adult Children) meetings of Arizona: I bet you didn’t know there were so many and of so many shades!
The path to recovery as an Adult Child is feeling safe enough to explore more and more experience, especially of the Felt kind. Essentially, you can begin to explore and understand more and more shades of your experience emotionally and hopefully begin to fear feelings a bit less–this will begin to heal different areas of life, especially at work, in your home, romantically and platonically. It is here that we can begin to become aware of our own patterns and how Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel is being played out– then we can start to make moves when we know what we feel and can then express it constructively to our loved ones. Moreover, since parts (if not all) of the emotional center has been shut down, we have less and less access to emotional information and, in essence, contact with some vital parts of our lives– life might feel dull and muted at times.
Through therapy and other supportive resources, the hope is to live a whole, full life that is vibrant and where we can begin to get our own needs met. By increasing emotional intelligence, it may be the first time that you are actually defining personal needs for yourself by listening to yourself (and your bodily cues) respectfully. A great way to supplement personal therapy is with group therapy — what better way to practice feeling feelings safely and expressing them authentically than in a safe and supportive group?
NYC ACOA GROUP
Heather is starting a NYC group for Adult Children from Alcoholic or dysfunctional families on Monday nights from 7-8:30 pm starting the first week of January on the 7th.
If you have any questions about group and would like to set up a consultation to discuss joining, contact Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (347) 708-6177.
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