Children who grow up in dysfunctional, chaotic, or addicted families often feel inadequate, defective or broken; and these feelings don’t magically disappear when they grow up and leave home. Feelings of inadequacy stick with us – plaguing many Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACAs) or Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families with a lack of self-worth.
Why do some Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families feel unworthy and not good enough?
Children in dysfunctional families often experience some form of childhood trauma – physical or emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, witnessing violence, homelessness, etc. Below is a list of experiences that are common among children in dysfunctional families. You may relate to some or all of them.
- You were overtly told you’re bad, difficult, stupid, ugly, inadequate, unlovable, or the cause of your family’s problems. You were blamed, yelled at, called derogatory names, and criticized harshly.
- Even if you weren’t told directly, you surmised that you were the cause of your family’s problems because there was no other explanation when you were a child.
- You were ignored. Your parents didn’t pay attention to your feelings or emotional needs. They didn’t notice when you were sad or upset. They didn’t comfort you or ask you what was troubling you. This is called Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) or emotional abandonment.
- You were abandoned or rejected. One or both of your parents physically left you for some period of time (they could have been incarcerated, working a lot, estranged from the rest of the family, or their whereabouts were unknown). Or you could have been emotionally abandoned as described above.
- Your parents didn’t tell you they loved you or didn’t show you affection.
- You were abused physically, sexually, or emotionally.
- You had to act like the parent and grow up too fast.
- Your parents or caregivers didn’t keep you safe. Even if your parents never physically hurt you, they may have created an unsafe environment through their addiction or mental illness, failure to supervise you, drunk driving, domestic violence, angry tirades, or allowing unsafe people into the home. You may have lived in fear or had to “walk on eggshells”, trying to keep everyone happy to prevent anger and abuse.
Any or all of these experiences can lead children to believe that there is something wrong with them; that they are so bad, distasteful or flawed that even their parents can’t love them.
Shame and distorted beliefs
Being ignored, invalidated, and rejected causes us to feel ashamed. And shame is built on the belief that you are deeply and fundamentally flawed. In her book Changing Course, Claudia Black, Ph.D. writes, “To live with shame is to feel alienated and defeated, never quite good enough to belong. It is an isolating experience that makes us think we are completely alone and unique in our belief that we are unlovable. Secretly, we feel like we are to blame. Any and all deficiency lies within ourselves.” (2002, page 12)
You probably came to believe that you caused your parents to reject or hurt you. This was the only explanation that made sense when you were little – and it was the only way to survive. Children need adults to survive. (Even very dysfunctional or abusive parents provide some of the basic necessities, like food and shelter, that young children need to survive.) So, we’re wired to attach to our parents, to be loyal to them, to want to please them, so we can survive until we’re mature enough to take care of ourselves.
The truth is that your parents’ dysfunction and problems made them incapable of caring for you and loving you the way all children deserve to be cared for and loved. Now as an adult, you may be able to see that your parents’ deficiencies were not your fault, but as a child, it was safer (and made more sense given what your parents were doing and saying) to blame yourself. As a result, the belief that you’re inadequate or unlovable got imbedded in your belief system.
Shame keeps us from talking about what happened in our families’, so these beliefs fester and grow. We keep telling ourselves that we’re damaged and unworthy and may not even realize these beliefs are built on lies and misperceptions.
Changing our thoughts and feelings
Many of us have tried to feel worthy by becoming perfectionists and people-pleasers. Since we doubt our own value, we’re always seeking external validation. We need others to tell us and reassure us that we matter, that we’re needed. This is a pattern that will never create self-worth because there’s literally nothing that anyone else can say or do that will change how we feel about ourselves. Only you can change how you think and feel about yourself.
These are some of the strategies that I find helpful for increasing self-worth and decreasing feelings of shame.
- Grieve for what you didn’t get as a child.
- Practice self-compassion. Especially, try to have compassion for the part or parts of you that feel unworthy or unacceptable.
- Acknowledge your feelings; they matter.
- Challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself. Ask yourself questions such as: How do I know this thought is true? Where did this belief about myself come from? Is there another, more helpful, way to think about myself or this situation? Is this my thought/belief or is this something I was told as a child?
- Remember that you can choose to believe good things about yourself. Say positive things to yourself. And when others say nice things about you, believe them.
- Work with a therapist and/or attend a support group. Both can be very helpful in reducing shame.
- Watch India Arie’s “I am Light” on YouTube. It’s beautiful, inspiring, and affirming.
Building self-worth and healing childhood trauma is a process. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming because there are multiple layers of pain and distorted beliefs, but it’s possible to develop an internal sense of worth and adequacy by making small, consistent changes.
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