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Friday, April 10, 2015

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing

In my prior articles about adult children of dysfunctional families, I focused on various personality traits, which are described in ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) Laundry list and which are often found in adult children from dysfunctional families, including confusing love and pity and having difficulty completing things.  In this article, I'll focus on another trait from this list, people pleasing (also known as approval seeking).

Children of Dysfunctional Families

As I've mentioned in the prior articles, dysfunctional families, include families where there is addictive or chaotic behavior, which could include, among other things:  alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive gambling, domestic violence, infidelity, sexual addiction, and other chaotic and unhealthy behavior.

People who grew up in a dysfunctional family often didn't get the love and approval that they needed as  children.  So, as adults, they usually engage in people pleasing behavior, often to their own detriment, to try to seek approval and avoid feeling abandoned.

Inwardly, they often suffer with low self esteem, which also fuels their need to seek approval from outside of themselves.

Not everyone who engages in people pleasing behavior comes from a dysfunctional family, but it is a common trait for adults from these families.

Often, until they come to therapy, individuals who engage in people pleasing behavior have little or no awareness that they have this personality trait.

It's also not unusual for them to wait until there's an emotional crisis for them to seek help for themselves.

The following vignette which, as always, is a composite of many cases to protect confidentiality, illustrated how therapy can help to overcome people pleasing behavior:

Alice was in her early 50s by the time she came to therapy for the first time.  She was exhausted and at her wit's end trying to balance taking care of her teenage children, her husband, her household, and her elderly parents.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing

Never having been in therapy, Alice came initially because she felt she needed emotional support to continue providing support to everyone else.

Initially, she expressed guilt about not being able to handle all the responsibilities that she took on without feeling depleted and overwhelmed.

As we discussed her family history, she divulged that she grew up as an only child in a household where her father was an alcoholic and her mother was a compulsive gambler.

Her role in the family was as the "scapegoat" (see my article:  The Role of the Family Scapegoat in Dysfunctional Families).

Alice had a nurturing grandmother who took care of Alice when she was young

They lived upstairs from Alice's grandmother, who was warm and nurturing and also made sure that Alice's basic needs were taken care of while Alice's parents were out drinking and gambling.

But after her grandmother died, when Alice was 12, Alice was often left to fend for herself as well as take care of her father when he came home drunk while her mother was out at the casino.

Alice described her mother as cold and withdrawn.  Her mother often stayed in her room (the parents had separate bedrooms) and kept to herself, especially as her gambling got progressively worse.  When she paid attention to Alice at all, she was critical and dismissive.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families:  Alice's mother was a compulsive gambler
Sometimes, when her mother lost a lot of money gambling and she came home angry, she would take out her anger on Alice.  She would threaten to put Alice in an orphanage.  This would terrify Alice as a young child and it created a fear in her that her mother would abandon her.

It wasn't until she came to therapy that Alice came to understand that her parents had already abandoned her emotionally and how this also exacerbated her fears about abandonment and a need to seek approval from others.

Alice described her father as being the more affectionate one when he was sober.  He had endearing pet names for Alice and she liked being around him during those times.

But when he was drunk, it was as if he were a different person (Alice called these shifts "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde").

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing:  Alice's father drank excessively

Alice dreaded being around him when he was drunk because he was often enraged and verbally abusive.  When she was a young child and her grandmother was still alive, Alice would retreat into her grandmother's apartment to steer clear of him.

But after her grandmother died and her father's drinking got worse over time, she had no retreat.  And he would usually come home so drunk that he could barely get into bed by himself.

Since her mother wanted nothing to do with her father, Alice would help him as best as she could.

Throughout her childhood, she tried very hard to please her parents, but she was only moderately successful with her father when he was sober.  No matter how hard she tried, Alice couldn't please her mother.

Alice got married when she was 18 to get out of her parents' house.  She and her husband barely knew each other.

Her husband, who was also 18, turned out to be an alcoholic.  Alice tried to make the marriage work, but she left him after three years because she couldn't stand his drinking anymore.  She had a job so she was able to support herself in a rent stabilized apartment.

Several years later, she remarried to a man who was loving and stable, and they eventually had two teenage daughters.

At the point when Alice came to therapy, she was working full time, raising her daughters with her husband, assuming all the household chores at home, and taking care of her elderly parents who lived nearby.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing

She was so exhausted that she often got sick because her immune system was compromised.

Although her husband wanted to help at home and with her parents, she wouldn't allow.  She felt that she needed to be in control of all aspects of the responsibilities that she took on.

She didn't want her daughters, who were in their mid-teens, to help because she didn't want them to feel overwhelmed the way she did as a child.

So, against her husband's wishes that their daughters should have some responsibilities, Alice often catered to them as well (see my article:  Avoiding Codependency With Your Children).

Her husband was also annoyed that Alice spent so much time cleaning and shopping for her parents because they were ungrateful and they could easily have afforded to hire help.

He often told Alice that, by overextending herself with her parents, she was still seeking the love and approval that she never got as a child, but until she came to therapy, she wouldn't listen to him.

Both parents were now in their early 70s and retired.   Her mother was in reasonable good health and she could have taken care of herself and her husband.  But she felt it was Alice's duty, as their only child, to take care of them.

The father, who had cut back on his drinking, was showing signs of alcohol-related dementia and he had become much more passive.

Both treated Alice as if she were still a child, and she felt like a child whenever she was around them (see my article:  Feeling Like a Child Again During Family Visits).

At work, Alice often eagerly volunteered to do extra work to please her boss, who complimented her, but who hadn't given her a raise in several years.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing

The weight of all of these responsibilities came crashing down on Alice one day as she was driving back home from her parents' home to her house during an ice storm.

As she narrowly missed hitting another car due to icy conditions, she burst into tears and barely managed to maintain control of the car.

By the time she got home, Alice felt like she was losing her mind.  She was so out of touch with her own feelings that she didn't realize that her anger and frustration had been building up for many years.

When her husband suggested that she seek help, she felt deeply ashamed for needing help, but she also knew that she felt too overwhelmed to deal with her emotions on her own.

When I showed Alice the ACOA Laundry list, which is a list of 14 character traits developed by the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, she was stunned to discover that she could identify with most of these traits, especially #2 which says, "We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process."

We also talked about codependency and how her codependent behavior was adversely affecting her life as well as her husband's and daughters' lives.

We began therapy by working on Alice developing a better sense of self as an individual who was separate from her parents and her current family.

We worked on her developing better coping skills and self care routines (see my article about self care).

We also did trauma therapy, including EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and clinical hypnosis to help Alice process her feelings of being emotionally abused and her fear of being abandoned (see my articles: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment).

Giving up even a little bit of control wasn't easy for Alice.  But along the way, she allowed her husband to shoulder more of the responsibilities at home, which he was more than willing to do.

They also both sat down and talked to their daughters about assuming more responsibility for themselves and household chores.

At first, unaccustomed to having these responsibilities they balked, but they eventually got accustomed to helping out.

The most difficult part for Alice was being assertive and setting limits with her mother.

It took a lot of work in therapy for her to get the courage to stand up to her mother and deal with the possible emotional consequences.

Alice mourned what she didn't get emotionally from her parents.

Alice was assertive with her mother

By the time she was ready to talk to her mother, Alice had developed a stronger sense of self.

She knew her mother would be very angry and might never speak to her again.  Although this made her feel anxious and sad, Alice was ready for this possibility.

When she told her mother that she would no longer cook and clean for her parents because she needed time for herself, as Alice predicted, her mother went into a rage and called her "selfish."  But Alice was able to be assertive and set limits with her mother.

Afterwards, Alice had terrible pangs of guilt and anguish. She talked in therapy several times about calling her mother to apologize and take it all back.  But deep down she knew that would be a step backward.

Under these circumstances, feeling guilty after taking a stand for one's self isn't at all unusual, especially for adult children of dysfunctional families, who have problems asserting themselves.

As Alice expressed her guilt, we both knew there was a younger part of herself, the young child who didn't want to be abandoned, who was getting emotionally triggered within Alice. So, we did ego states therapy work to help to heal that part of Alice.

After not hearing from her mother for several months, Alice received a call one day from her mother, who spoke casually and acted as if nothing had ever happened between them.

Even though her mother didn't apologize, Alice knew that it had taken a lot for her mother to make that call, so she accepted her mother's limitations and spoke to her.

By the end of the conversation, her mother gave Alice a dig by saying that the house was in better shape than it ever was with her new housekeeper.  But Alice realized what her mother was doing, and she didn't go for the bait.  She knew she couldn't change her mother.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing

During the termination phase of our work together, Alice reflected back on the crisis that had brought her to therapy.

At the time, as previously mentioned, she wanted emotional support to keep doing what she was doing, but she came to realize that her codependent behavior was unhealthy for her and those around her.

Although she had initially seen this crisis as one of worst things to happen in her life, she now saw it as a turning point that forced her to come to therapy so she could regain her sense of self.

By the time, she ended therapy, she was no longer engaging in people pleasing behavior.

She had more realistic expectations of her parents (see my article:  Developing Realistic Expectations About Your Family of Origin).

She was taking better care of herself.   She and her husband went out more.  Her daughters were helping out more.  Alice no longer spent long hours at the office and she asserted herself to get a raise.  She was also attending Al Anon meetings (see my article:  Al Anon: Beyond Reciting Slogans).

See my other articles on this topic:
Dynamics of Children of Dysfunctional Families
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families: Confusing Love and Pity
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families: Having Difficulty Completing Things

Getting Help in Therapy
Even when you know that you are caught up in approval seeking behavior, trying to overcome this problem on your own is difficult due to the underlying dynamics and emotional triggers involved.

Getting Help in Therapy

Rather than being stuck in this dynamic, you can seek help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping clients to develop a strong sense of self, work through related trauma and overcome codependent behavior.

Freeing yourself from your history of dysfunctional family dynamics can help you to live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many adult children of dysfunctional families and others to overcome shame, improve their self esteem, set limits and boundaries with family members, and overcome codependent behavior to lead happier lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.