Whitfield Charles. Healing The Child Within. Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families


I am honored to write this foreword for the updated edition of the classic, Healing the Child Within.

A pioneer in trauma recovery, since 1995 Dr. Charles Whitfield has been voted by his peers as one of the best doctors in America. His wisdom and words have touched the hearts and minds of millions of readers and imparted a precious commodity—hope. Throughout his career Dr. Whitfield has generously shared his lifetime of research and clinical experience with other professionals and recovering people. Over seventy-five authors have quoted or cited this book a remarkable number and a measure of the book’s importance in our arsenal of skills.

In the twenty years since Dr. Whitfield first published Healing the Child Within, we’ve made great progress in understanding the effect of trauma on the human psyche. This book has made a significant contribution to that understanding and has become a best seller as a result. Dr. Whitfield describes the “Child Within” as “the part of us that is ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled.” (pg. 1). When this part of us is not nurtured a false self emerges. To understand and move beyond being trapped in this false self, Dr. Whitfield draws from three key areas: the impact of child abuse and neglect, the integration from telling our story as a key part of recovery from the many detrimental effects of child abuse and neglect, and how the spiritually-based Twelve Step recovery movement has helped in healing.

Child Abuse and Neglect

What is life like without the skills to form and maintain close and safe relationships? Without the ability to care, to feel remorse, empathy and love? Forming healthy emotional relationships is related to specific parts of the brain that develop during the first years of life. Significant interruption of healthy development by repeated trauma often leaves a child in an out-of-control “fight, flight or freeze” state, often called post-traumatic stress disorder, which Dr. Whitfield discusses in Chapter 7. That distressed and impaired development as a child can also lead to difficulty in feeling arousal or pleasure as an adult. In this book, Dr. Whitfield recognizes how common child abuse is in troubled families and describes the many guises of trauma. Recent studies have shown, for example, how neglect and emotional abuse are equally as devastating to the developing child as physical or sexual abuse.

Dr. Whitfield explains, “While severe physical abuse and overt sexual behavior are clearly recognizable as traumatic to infants and children, other forms of child abuse may be more difficult to recognize as being abusive. These may include mild to moderate physical abuse, covert or less obvious sexual abuse, mental and emotional abuse, child neglect, and ignoring or thwarting the child’s spirituality or spiritual growth.” (pg. 37).

As early as the first year of life, a child’s ability to express emotion and exhibit levels of control over feelings and behaviors are formed. It is during that critical time in our development that we learn how to relate to ourselves and others.

Integrating Our Story

Our story can tell us a lot about ourself. Why is telling our story so important? While the answer is complex, researchers and clinicians are finding pieces to the puzzle. As Dr. Whitfield so eloquently explains, “We begin to see the connections between what we are doing and what happened to us when we were little. As we share our story, we begin to break free of being a victim or a martyr, of the repetition compulsion.” (pg. 110).

Research has shown that it is not so much what really happened to us during childhood that matters the most, but how we do or don’t make sense of it. In other words, a coherent personal story suggests emotional and intellectual integration. As Dr. Whitfield says, “Telling our story is a powerful act in discovering and healing our Child Within.” (pg. 96). That simple act causes our brain to perform several tasks at once, including the merging of feelings, behavior, conscious awareness and sensation. During this process, we realize and reframe life events, behaviors and emotions into a more insightful and healthier whole.

This integration takes place most effectively in safe places, such as group or individual psychotherapy, self-help group meetings, journaling, or having a heartfelt talk with a best friend. One of the most consistent findings from the last fifty years of research is that the safe and skilled quality of a therapeutic relationship is the best predictor of treatment success. Within that setting, the clinician can help a person find meaning in their life story in a safe place where they can take risks, drop some unhealthy defenses against pain, and hear a supportive whisper in their head as they gain new insight about themselves and their world. Some call this an “epiphany” or an “ah ha” experience. They are now more in touch with themselves—more connected, less defended, and better integrated—all of which is personal growth.

Buddhists describe the self as an endlessly peeling onion. Every layer is a new chapter to explore and integrate. Dr. Whitfield explains, “As we transform we begin to integrate and to apply transformation to our daily life. To integrate means to make whole from separate parts.” (pg. 119). It is important to understand how integration relates to our well-being. The more integrated our brain, the more complex and healthy it will be, as the following story illustrates:

Marcus grew up in an alcoholic home. His father was an abusive alcoholic who beat Marcus with a leather belt. At age twelve, Marcus decided that he would never let anyone hurt him again and from that point declared, “If anyone gets in my face, I will kick their ass.” Although he had many drinking buddies, Marcus continually had problems with male authority figures such as supervisors, teachers, policemen and male therapists. When asked he said, “It’s as though there is another person inside of me that takes over–I have no control.” While in treatment, Marcus had a hard time handling his feelings and could not seem to find words to express them. He described his rage as “All or nothing—I either don’t feel anything or feel too much.”

Much of the language of the brain is represented by our feelings, but Marcus could not name his or handle them well. We refer to this difficulty as being a problem of integration. Marcus can use several techniques to help himself here. One involves having a perception, then making sense of it, and responding in a timely and effective fashion—all of which working a recovery program can facilitate. Second, meditation can help change brain function. For example, mindfulness meditation replenishes mental and emotional energy and promotes new attitudes and responses to life. In this book that you have in your hands, Dr. Whitfield shows us step by step how to accomplish these kinds of recovery skills.

Growing up in a traumatic environment, a child like Marcus will develop an over-active brain stem. Most stress response systems reside in this area and such increased excitation can lead to fear, anxiety, anger, rage and impulsivity. Repeated childhood trauma can also lead to problems with feeling empathy, problem solving, and the ability to abstract and conceptualize. Furthermore, people like Marcus can over-estimate the degree of threat or mis-read visual cues such as facial expressions, resulting in an inability to modulate emotional pain. Imagine what will happen when he experiences a situation in early recovery that reminds him of the old trauma. For example, if his male supervisor at work gets angry with him, Marcus’ brain has learned to go into a “fight or flight” pattern, which leads to another angry outburst.

Healing the Child Within describes fourteen core recovery issues. Among these issues is control or lack thereof. For Marcus, and many others, this fear of losing control leads to self-destructive behavior. In the past, male authority figures have told him they would kick him out of treatment, fire him, put him in jail or punish him in other ways. But these responses only reinforced Marcus’s perception that when he allowed such people to get close, they hurt him. In a therapeutic environment Marcus can learn to break this old non-productive pattern of failure. He can start to learn to self-regulate and self-soothe. Healing the Child Within speaks clearly about this process of change.

The primary focus of psychotherapy involves the integration of feelings (affect) and thinking (cognition), resulting in personal growth. Marcus had difficulty naming and processing his feelings. How can he best promote such balance and integration? For eons, we have used stories for conveying many kinds of information, including the mental, emotional and physical aspects of our lives. We can integrate and heal our stress-disordered brain and body using a story that we co-create with a therapist, in group, or with our sponsor. This kind of balancing and integration brings new insight. Marcus will likely learn to detach from his childhood coping and survival response of anger that has long caused him problems. As a twelve-year-old, that was the best survival strategy his brain could make. With the introduction of self-soothing skills such as naming, re-framing and meditation, his brain can start to relax in situations that used to trigger anger and rage.

This is the kind of integration that Dr. Whitfield speaks of in this classic book. To become whole is to become and to realize that we are capable of peace and understanding of ourselves and others.

The Spiritually-Based 12 Step Recovery Movement

As Dr. Whitfield writes, “In perhaps one of its briefest definitions, spirituality is about the relationships that we have with our self, with others and with the universe.” (pg. 127).

A person does not have to be religious to be spiritual. The benefits of spirituality include humility, inner strength, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, acceptance of self and others, harmony, serenity, gratitude and forgiveness.

The relationship between meditation and spirituality has been well documented. Meditation and spirituality both involve feelings of release into places beyond space and time. Spirituality and healing are closely connected. From a common sense perspective, spirituality serves as a strength when used in recovery. In cases where someone says they are either an atheist or agnostic, meditation techniques can be a useful replacement.

There are many ways to enhance spirituality. Of great importance to Marcus may be his association with a spiritually-based 12 Step program and surrounding himself with spiritual people. Learning to appreciate the many spiritual moments in his life will also be important for him. Living a meaningful and engaged life increases pleasure and reduces isolation, emptiness and pain.

Dr. Whitfield explains, “… we can begin to see that happiness is not something that we attain. Rather happiness, peace or serenity is our natural state. Beneath all of what we add to our feelings and experience, beneath our self-contraction, lies serenity Itself.” (pg. 141).

In 1986, when this book was first published, it was cutting edge and ahead of its time. Just as relevant today as it was twenty years ago, Healing the Child Within remains a ground-breaking book in trauma psychology and recovery. I welcome you to its pages, knowing that within them you will find healing and wisdom.

Cardwell C. Nuckols M.A., Ph.D.


In 1986 I wrote this book as a kind of educational aid and “bibliotherapy” for my patients. I based its simple healing content on what I had observed for years among my patients, most of whom were adults who had been traumatized as children, and what I had learned up until then from reading the clinical and scientific literature on the subject. At that time I did not intend this book for the general public, and did not anticipate that it would sell over a million copies—or that it would be translated into over ten other languages worldwide (see page 150).

That nearly all of the original content and principles in this book have held up to the later, and now current, clinical scientific and research findings is remarkable, but not surprising. Over the last twenty years these findings have verified the detrimental effects of growing up in a traumatic and hurtful family. Of all these painful effects, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I discuss in Chapter 7, may be one of the most common and disabling disorders that befall adult children of trauma.


As has been shown by my ten years of research and reading of over 330 scientific studies that were conducted on well over 230,000 people world-wide, such trauma may also result in numerous other hurtful effects that manifest in other ways, including any one or more of the common so called mental disorders—from depression, to addictions, to schizophrenia—plus an array of physical disorders.

Also called “trauma spectrum disorders,” these illnesses show a strong link with having a history of repeated childhood trauma. Furthermore, contrary to current psychiatric lore, the evidence for these illnesses being due to a genetically transmitted disorder of brain chemistry is weak. Indeed, if and when any brain abnormalities are found in research studies on them, these abnormalities are likely a mechanism for the disorder, with the repeated childhood and later trauma being the cause of both mechanism and disorder.1

Since 1986 we have learned several more important things. Most families across the world are dysfunctional in that they don’t provide and support the healthy needs of their children. What results is an interruption in the otherwise normal and healthy neurological and psychological growth and development of the child from birth to adulthood. In order to survive, the traumatized child’s Real Self (True Self or Child Within) goes into hiding deep within the unconscious part of its psyche. What emerges is a false self or ego which tries to run the show of our life, but is unable to succeed because it is simply a defense mechanism against pain and not real. Its motives are based more on needing to be right and in control.

The Meaning of Healing the Child Within and the ACoA Movement

This approach to healing that I describe in this book has also been validated by the countless people who have recovered by using its principles. I summarize six of its main meanings as follows.

Awakening by us and our clinicians that there is more to recovery than simply “don’t drink” (or don’t use drugs, or don’t try to control another’s use) and go to meetings. Many have tried that, and while improved, were still hurting. Many transferred their addiction to food, money, sex, work, unhealthy relationships or another self-destructive, compulsive behavior. Many also found that the psychiatric drugs they were given did not work well and had bothersome or toxic effects.2

Discovery and Identification of our Real Self (Child Within) and our spirituality. For many, the old-style conventional organized religions often encountered by recovering people is giving way to a more expansive, universal, experiential, life- and growth-giving spirituality.

Validation of our experience of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Many of us grew up in an alcoholic family, and others grew up in other kinds of dysfunction.

Permission to do the healing work of recovery. In a departure from the usual mental health model of having some sort of mental disorder or “psychopathology,” this approach reframes our suffering from the old view of being bad, sick, crazy or stupid to having a normal reaction to an abnormal childhood situation.1, 2

Structure for the specifics of what to do to accomplish the healing process. I describe these specifics in this book and in more detail in A Gift to Myself and My Recovery.3, 4

Recovery from our confusion, suffering and lack of purpose, meaning and fulfillment in life.3


While re-reading this book in preparation for this update, I corrected a few typos and some out-of-date terms and sentences, but I did not have to change the basic text and message of healing. I have also provided a new and up-to-date reference section and added an index to make it more reader-friendly.

Patience and Persistence

Recovery from the effects of trauma and growing up in a dysfunctional family and world takes patience and persistence. We are naturally impatient to reach the end without delay, and skip the hard work of healing. An important part of successful recovery is learning to accurately name what happened for us and the components of our inner life as they come up for us, including our various feelings, and learning to tolerate emotional pain without trying to medicate it away.

One of the most profound principles of healing is embodied in the phrase “one day at a time.” Although healing takes a long time, by using this admonition our outlook can shift immediately, making the journey not only more tolerable, but meaningful, and anchoring us in the present moment. As we grieve our buried pain and work through our core recovery issues, with patience we will slowly release our past unresolved internal conflicts. We gradually discover that our future is a destination not yet determined. Our life is in the present, which is where we can eventually find peace.



Discovering Our Child Within

The concept of the Child Within has been a part of our world culture for at least two thousand years. Carl Jung called it the “Divine Child” and Emmet Fox called it the “Wonder Child.” Psychotherapists Alice Miller and Donald Winnicott refer to it as the “true self.” Many in the field of alcoholism and other chemical dependence call it the “inner child.”

The Child Within refers to that part of each of us which is ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled; it is our Real Self—who we truly are.

With our parents’ unknowing help and society’s assistance, most of us deny our Inner Child. When this Child Within is not nurtured or allowed freedom of expression, a false or co-dependent self emerges. We begin to live our lives from a victim stance, and experience difficulties in resolving emotional traumas. The gradual accumulation of unfinished mental and emotional business can lead to chronic anxiety, fear, confusion, emptiness and unhappiness.

Denial of the Child Within and the subsequent emergence of a false self or negative ego are particularly common among children and adults who grew up in troubled families, such as those where chronic physical or mental illness, rigidity, coldness or lack of nurturing were common.

Yet, there is a way out. There is a way to discover and to heal our Child Within and to break free of the bondage and suffering from relying on our false self. That is what this book is about.

Will This Book Help Me?

Not everyone was mistreated or abused as a child. No one really knows how many people grow up with a healthy amount and quality of love, guidance and other nurturing. I estimate perhaps 5 to 20%. This means that from 80 to 95% of people did not receive the love, guidance and other nurturing necessary to form consistently healthy relationships, and to feel good about themselves and about what they do (Satir 1972; Felitti et al 1998).

While not easy to determine whether you lean toward being more healthy or less healthy in relationships with self and others, you may find it helpful to answer some of the following questions.

I call it the “Recovery Potential Survey” because it reflects not only our woundedness, but also the potential that we have to grow and to realize an alive, adventurous and happy life.




If you answered “occasionally,” “often,” or “usually” to any of these questions, you may find it useful to continue reading. (These questions are modified from AI-Anon Family Group, 1984, with permission.)

Other questions to consider are:



If you answered “Occasionally,” “Often,” or “Usually” to any of these questions, this book may be helpful to you. (If you answered mostly “Never,” you may not be aware of some of your feelings.)

In this book, I describe some basic principles of discovering who we really are, and propose that the answer lies in the liberation of our Real or True Self, our Child Within. I will then describe how to bring about the recovery of our Real Self, which may lessen our confusion, pain and suffering.

Accomplishing these tasks will take time, effort and discipline. Because of this, you may wish to read these chapters over at intervals through the coming months and years.


Background of the Concept of the Child Within

References to the concept of the Child Within originate as far back as before the time of Christ. But three recent developments are important to its current concept.

Child Abuse and Neglect

The first development comes out of two movements. One is the child abuse recognition and recovery movement. The other is an offshoot of an interaction of this with certain clinicians and writers in the psychotherapy field. These concepts have evolved over the past 70 years, perhaps coincidentally within the same time frame of the second major movement of the Child Within.

That second major development includes the 12 Step self-help recovery movement and the closely aligned alcohol-and-the-family treatment movement. This may surprise people who are not familiar with all three of these areas: child abuse, psychotherapy and alcoholism recovery. Yet there is a definite interconnection, with each making important contributions.

Alcoholism Recovery

Successful alcoholism recovery began in 1935 with the founding of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. In addition to suffering from the illness of alcoholism, most founders of A.A. were either adult children of alcoholics, and/or were mistreated or abused as children. Many had unsuccessfully tried various forms of psychotherapy. Unfortunately, even today, outside of the field of alcoholism treatment, individual psychotherapy for alcoholics and their family members early in recovery has not substantially improved.

Like psychotherapy, the field of child abuse and neglect is only beginning to discover the vast clinical skills and effectiveness available in the field of alcoholism, other chemical dependence, and co-dependence (defined on page 29). In turn, the alcoholism/CD field is learning more and more from psychotherapy with child abuse and neglect.

During its first 20 years, Alcoholics Anonymous grew rapidly, and became firmly established as the “treatment” for alcoholism (Kurtz, 1979). Its 12 Steps of recovery were a revelation for the heretofore misunderstood and mistreated alcoholic. In the mid 1950s both the generic family therapy movement and the fellowship of Al-Anon—which is for the family and friends of alcoholics—came into being. But the children in the alcoholic family were given little attention, especially the Child Within of all affected.

Until the late 1960s essentially no articles or books seriously addressed concern for children from alcoholic families. The first book, The Forgotten Children, by Margaret Cork, was published in 1969. After that the literature and attention gradually increased.

The Family and Children

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, practical approaches to understanding and helping family members of alcoholics and other chemical dependent people soon emerged. The field has developed so rapidly that today some clinicians and educators are specializing in this area. The founding in 1983 of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) encouraged networking and the dissemination of information. In 1977 the first self-help groups for adult children of alcoholics began to meet. Today, these “ACA” or “ACoA” groups are still active, and have published the first edition of their “Big Book” (ACA 2006).

During these last few decades and years, the concept of the Child Within re-emerged and began to mature, both in the alcoholism, family field and in that of psychotherapy.


The involvement of psychotherapy in the “Child Within” concept began with the discovery of the human unconscious, followed by Freud’s trauma theory. However, Freud quickly discarded the latter for one less clinically effective in healing childhood trauma wounds—the drive (or instinct) theory and the Oedipus complex (Freud 1964; Miller 1983; 1984). While many of Freud’s brightest and most creative students and colleagues, such as Jung, Adler, Rank, and Assagioli, disagreed with Freud’s latter two theories and made their own valuable contributions to the field of psychotherapy, the concept of the “Child Within”—the Real or True Self—came slowly. Contributions by Erikson, Klein, Horney, Sullivan, Fairbairn, Hartman, Jacobson and others paved the way for London pediatrician Donald Winnicott to describe his observations of mothers, infants and children. These included specifics about the Real or True Self, which is our Child Within, and which is crucial in our lives and to feeling alive.

Drawing from the psychoanalytic psychotherapy literature, especially from Freud and Winnicott, from observations of her patients, and from reading works on child abuse, in 1979 psychoanalyst Alice Miller began integrating child mistreatment, abuse and neglect, and analytic psychotherapy. In her three books, however, only twice does she make the important connection of alcoholism as a major parental condition predisposing damage to the Child Within. In no way do I fault her, for I believe that she has had the same incomplete education that I and most helping professionals had—i.e., essentially no training in alcoholism and childhood trauma effects as primary processes (Whitfield 1980). In fact, our early training has actually been negative about these two common clinical conditions.

Medical Illness

Another contribution to healing the Child Within came from using group psychotherapy and guided imagery as a treatment aid for cancer patients. Discovery that many cancer patients had neglected getting their needs met and expressing their feelings, Mathews, Simonton and others (1983) described approaches to remedying these needs. Others in the field of medicine are beginning to use similar approaches in treating heart disease and other life-threatening conditions (Dossey 1984; Felitti et al 1998). I believe that the principles and techniques in healing our Child Within can have important and useful applications in helping to ameliorate all illness and suffering.


The final area that connects those above with the Child Within is that of spirituality. The alcoholism and alcoholism-family fields use this recovery aid effectively. Some psychotherapists and physicians are beginning to recognize its value (Wilber 1979, 1983; Whitfield 1985; Wegscheider-Cruse 1985; Vaughan 1985; Gravitz, Bowden 1987). I refer to spirituality—not organized religion—throughout this book, especially in Chapter 15. I believe that spirituality is crucial in achieving full recovery from any medical or psychological condition, and especially for discovering and ultimately liberating the “Child Within,” our Real and True Self.


Just what is our “Child Within?” How do we know it when we see it, feel it or recognize it? What relevance does it have to recovery from the above-mentioned conditions, as well as from other physical, mental-emotional and spiritual illnesses?


What Is the Child Within?

No matter how distant, evasive, or even alien it may seem to be, we each have a “Child Within”—the part of us that is ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled. This is our Real Self—who we truly are. Horney, Masterson and others call it the “real self.” Some psychotherapists, including Winnicott and Miller, call it the “true self.” Some clinicians and educators, in and out of the alcoholism and family fields, also call it the “inner child.”

With the help of parents, other authority figures, and institutions (such as education, organized religion, politics, the media, and even some psychotherapy), most of us learn to stifle or deny our Child Within. When this vital part of each of us is not nurtured and allowed freedom of expression, a false or co-dependent self emerges. I further describe these two parts of each of us in Table 1. (See page 10).

Our Child Within or Real Self

In this book I use the following terms interchangeably: Real Self, True Self, Child Within, Inner Child, Divine Child, and Higher Self. (I capitalize the first letters to show its importance for us in living and to help differentiate it from the false or lower self.) It has also been called our Deepest Self, our Inner Core (James, Savary 1977). These terms refer to the same core part in us. One description: who we are when we feel most authentic, genuine or spirited.

Our Real Self is spontaneous, expansive, loving, giving, and communicating. Our True Self accepts ourselves and others. It feels, whether the feelings may be joyful or painful. And it expresses those feelings. Our Real Self accepts our feelings without judgment and fear, and allows them to exist as a valid way of assessing and appreciating life’s events.

Table 1. Some Characteristics of our Real Self and our False Self.

Real Self

False Self

Authentic Self

Unauthentic Self, mask

True Self

Co-dependent self, persona


Ungenuine, “as-if” personality


Plans and plods

Expansive, loving

Contracting, fearful

Giving, communicating


Accepting of self and others

Envious, critical, idealized, perfectionistic


Other-oriented, overly conforming

Loves Unconditionally

Loves conditionally

Feels feelings, including appropriate, spontaneous, current anger

Denies or hides feelings, including long-held anger (resentment)


Aggressive and/or passive


Rational, logical

Child Within, Inner Child

Over-developed parent/adult scripts; may be childish

Ability to be child-like

Needs to play and have fun

Avoids play and fun


Pretends always to be strong

Powerful in true sense

Limited power



Enjoys being nurtured

Avoids being nurtured


Controls, withdraws

Self indulgent


Open to the unconscious

Blocks unconscious material

Remembers our Oneness

Forgets our Oneness; feels separate

Free to grow

Tends to act out unconscious, often painful patterns repeatedly

Private self

Public self


Our Child Within is expressive, assertive, and creative. It can be childlike in the highest, most mature, and evolved sense of the word. It needs to play and to have fun. And yet it is vulnerable, perhaps because it is so open and trusting. It surrenders to itself, to others and ultimately to the Universe. And yet it is powerful in the true sense of power (discussed in Chapters 11 & 15). It is healthily self-indulgent, taking pleasure in receiving and in being nurtured. It is also open to that vast and mysterious part of us that we call our unconscious. It pays attention to the messages that we receive daily from the unconscious, such as dreams, struggles and illness.

By being real, it is free to grow. And while our false self forgets, our Real Self remembers our Oneness with others and with the Universe. Yet for most of us, our Real Self is also our private self. Who knows why we chose not to share? Perhaps it is a fear of being hurt or being rejected. Some have estimated that we show our True Self to others on average for only about 15 minutes each day. For whatever reasons, we tend to keep that part of us private.

When we “come from” or when we are our True Self, we feel alive. We may feel pain in the form of hurt, sadness, guilt or anger, but we nonetheless feel alive. Or we may feel joy, in the form of contentment, happiness, inspiration or even ecstasy. Overall, we tend to feel current, complete, finished, appropriate, real, whole and sane.

Our Child Within flows naturally from the time we are born to the time that we die and during all of our times and transitions in between. We don’t have to do anything to be our True Self. It just is. If we simply let it be, it will express itself with no particular effort on our part. Indeed, any effort is usually in denying our awareness and expression of it.

Our False Self

By contrast, another part of us generally feels uncomfortable, strained, or unauthentic. I use the following terms interchangeably: false self, co-dependent self, unauthentic or public self.

Our false self is a cover-up. It is inhibited, contracting and fearful. It is our egocentric ego and super-ego, forever planning and plodding, continually selfish and withholding. It is envious, critical, idealized, blaming, shaming and perfectionistic.

Alienated from the True Self, our false self is other-oriented, it focuses on what it thinks others want it to be; it is over-conforming. It gives its love only conditionally. It covers up, hides or denies feelings. Even so, it may make up false feelings, as it often does when we consistently answer a “How are you?” with a perfunctory “I’m just fine.” This quick response is often necessary or helpful to defend against the frightening awareness of the false self, which either doesn’t know how it feels or does know and has censured these feelings as “wrong,” or “bad.”

Rather than be appropriately assertive—for the Real Self—it is often either inappropriately aggressive and/or passive.

Our false self tends to be the “critical parent,” should we use transactional analysis script terminology. It avoids playing and having fun. It pretends to be “strong” or even “powerful.” Yet its power is only minimal or nonexistent, and it is in reality usually fearful, distrusting and destructive.

Because our false self needs to withdraw and to be in control, it sacrifices nurturing or being nurtured. It cannot surrender. It is self-righteous and attempts to block information coming from the unconscious. Even so, it tends to repeatedly act out unconscious, often painful patterns. Because it forgets our Oneness, it feels separate. It is our public self—who we think others and eventually even we think we should be.

Most of the time, when we are in the role of our false self, we feel uncomfortable, numb, empty or in a contrived or contracted state. We do not feel real, complete, whole or sane. At one level or another, we sense that something is wrong, and that something is missing.

Paradoxically, we often feel like this false self is our natural state, the way we “should be.” This could be our addiction or attachment to being that way. We become so accustomed to being our false self that our Real Self feels guilty, like something is wrong, that we shouldn’t feel real and alive. To consider changing this problem is frightening.

This false or co-dependent self appears to be universal among humans. It has been described or referred to countless times in print and in our daily lives. It has been called such diverse names as a survival tool, psychopathology, the egocentric ego and the impaired or defensive self (Masterson 1985). It can be destructive to self, others and intimate relationships. However, it is a double-edged sword. It has some uses. But just how useful is it? And under what circumstances? The following poem by Charles C. Finn describes many of our struggles with our false self.

Please Hear What I’m Not Saying

Don’t be fooled by me.

Don’t be fooled by the face I wear.

For I wear a mask, a thousand masks,

masks that I’m afraid to take off,

and none of them is me.

Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me,

but don’t be fooled.

For God’s sake don’t be fooled.

I give you the impression that I’m secure,

that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without,

that confidence is my name and coolness my game,

that the water’s calm and I’m in command,

and that I need no one.

But don’t believe me.

My surface may seem smooth but my surface is my mask,

ever-varying and ever-concealing.

Beneath lies no complacence.

Beneath lies confusion and fear and aloneness.

But I hide this. I don’t want anybody to know it.

I panic at the thought of my weakness and fear being exposed.

That’s why I frantically create a mask to hide behind,

a nonchalant sophisticated facade,

to help me pretend,

to shield me from the glance that knows.

But such a glance is precisely my salvation. My only hope and I know it.

That is, if it’s followed by acceptance,

if it’s followed by love.

It’s the only thing that can liberate me from myself,

from my own self-built prison walls,

from the barriers I so painstakingly erect.

It’s the only thing that will assure me of what I can’t assure myself,

that I’m really worth something.

But I don’t tell you this. I don’t dare. I’m afraid to.

I’m afraid your glance will not be followed by acceptance,

will not be followed by love.

I’m afraid you’ll think less of me, that you’ll laugh,

and your laugh would kill me.

I’m afraid that deep-down I’m nothing, that I’m just no good,

and that you will see this and reject me.

So I play my game, my desperate pretending game,

with a facade of assurance without

and a trembling child within.

So begins the glittering but empty parade of masks,

and my life becomes a front.

I idly chatter to you in the suave tones of surface talk.

I tell you everything that’s really nothing,

and nothing of what’s everything,

of what’s crying within me.

So when I’m going through my routine,

do not be fooled by what I’m saying.

Please listen carefully and try to hear what I’m not saying,

what I’d like to be able to say,

what for survival I need to say,

but what I can’t say.

I don’t like to hide.

I don’t like to play superficial phony games.

I want to stop playing them.

I want to be genuine and spontaneous and me,

but you’ve got to help me.

You’ve got to hold out your hand

even when that’s the last thing I seem to want.

Only you can wipe away from my eyes the blank stare of the breathing dead.

Only you can call me into aliveness.

Each time you’re kind and gentle and encouraging,

each time you try to understand because you really care,

my heart begins to grow wings,

very small wings,

very feeble wings,

but wings!

With your power to touch me into feeling

you can breathe life into me.

I want you to know that.

I want you to know how important you are to me,

how you can be a creator—a honest-to-God creator—

of the person that is me if you choose to.

You alone can break down the wall behind which I tremble,

you alone can remove my mask,

you alone can release me from my shadow-world of panic and uncertainty, from my lonely prison,

if you choose to.

Please choose to. Do not pass me by.

It will not be easy for you.

A long conviction of worthlessness builds strong walls.

The nearer you approach to me

the blinder I may strike back.

It’s irrational, but despite what the books say about man,

often I am irrational.

I fight against the very thing that I cry out for.

But I am told that love is stronger than strong walls,

and in this lies my hope.

Please try to beat down those walls

with firm hands

but with gentle hands

for a child is very sensitive.

Who am I, you may wonder?

I am someone you know very well.

For I am every man you meet

and I am every woman you meet.


Stifling the Child Within

How do our parents, other authority figures and institutions—such as education, organized religion, politics, the media, and even the helping professions—stifle or deny our Child Within? How can we identify whether we were affected? What factors or conditions made our parents and others stifle our Real Self?

Some Human Needs

In ideal circumstances, some human needs must be fulfilled so that our Child Within can develop and grow. Drawing on authors such as Maslow (1962), Weil (1973), Miller (1983, 1984), and Glasser (1985), I compiled a hierarchical list of twenty factors or conditions that I call “human needs” (See Table 2). Nearly all are associated with our relationship with ourself and with people around us.

To reach our full potential, we apparently require most of these needs. Growing up in an environment without these needs, we grow up automatically without realizing that our needs have not been met and are not being met. We often feel confused and chronically unhappy.

Survival, Safety and Security

A newborn requires so much attention that someone must be available and able to provide enough needs for its simple survival.

At the barest minimum, this includes its safety and security.

Table 2. A Hierarchy of Human Needs

(Compiled in part from Maslow, 1962; Miller, 1981; Weil, 1973; Glasser, 1985).






Touching, skin contact




Mirroring and echoing






Being real






Others are aware of, take seriously and admire the Real You


Freedom to be the Real You


Tolerance of your feelings






Belonging and love


Opportunity to grieve losses and to grow




Loyalty and trust




Mastery, “Power,” “Control”




Having a sense of completion


Making a contribution


Altering one’s state of consciousness, transcending the ordinary




Enjoyment or fun






Unconditional love (including connection with a Higher Power)


From studies by Spitz, Montague, Peace and others we know the importance of touching as is a human need. Infants deprived of touching fail to thrive and grow, even if they get proper food, nourishment and protection. Touching is most powerful by appropriate skin to skin contact. Experiments with rabbits fed atherosclerosis inducing diets show that those rabbits which are held and petted by the laboratory workers tend not to get atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Those rabbits which are not held and petted tend to get atherosclerosis (Dossey 1985).

It seems that to feel connected and cared for, we need to be hugged and touched. Virginia Satir has suggested that we need from four to twelve hugs a day as part of our health maintenance.


The child or individual must be attended to—given attention. The mother or other parent figure(s) must attend the infant and child so that at least its safety, security and touching are met.

Mirroring and Echoing

The next need begins to validate the infant, child or even the adult, as a feeling and thinking being. Mirroring and echoing is when the mother reacts non-verbally by facial expression, posture, sounds and other movements so that it realizes that it is understood.

At this point we understand that if the mother or other parent figure cannot provide these first few needs, the child’s physical, mental-emotional and spiritual growth would likely be stunted. One reason may be that the mother herself is so impoverished and needy that she uses her infant to satisfy her own unmet needs. This is an amazing thing about infants. They can sense that mother is needy, and can eventually detect her specific needs and begin providing them for her. Of course, this carries a major price—the denial, stifling and stunting of the infant’s own True Self or Child Within. That price escalates as the child grows into an adult, with resulting physical, mental-emotional and spiritual pain and suffering.


Guidance, also a part of helping the infant and child to develop and grow, may include advice, assistance, and any other form of help, verbal or non-verbal. It also includes modeling and teaching appropriate and healthy social skills.

Listening, Participating and Accepting

It is helpful to know that someone hears us, even if they do not always understand. Increasingly nourishing forms or types of listening are associated with numbers 9 through 20 on this Needs Hierarchy, including participation with the child in appropriate activities, and accepting the Self—the Child Within—of the infant, child and eventual adult. The mother, other parent figure or concerned other is aware of, takes seriously and admires the other person’s Real Self. They demonstrate their acceptance by respecting, validating, and being tolerant of the feelings of the other’s Real Self. This allows the Child Within the freedom to be its authentic Self and to grow.

Now, readers may see that some of their needs were not—perhaps are not—being met. Yet we are but half-way through this hierarchy of our human needs.

Opportunity To Grieve Losses and To Grow

With each loss that we experience, whether it be a real or a threatened loss, we have a need to grieve it—to work through the associated pain and suffering. To do so takes time. And when we grieve our losses to completion, we grow. This process of grieving and growing is what a major part of this book is about.


Support implies that the friend or caretaker will not block the Real Self’s seeking, receiving input and creating, and will do everything possible to assure that the Real Self can fulfill its potential. Support includes actively doing whatever is possible to see that the Real Self is able to reach its potential.

Loyalty and Trust

Being supportive requires loyalty and trust from both the giver and the receiver. A person cannot betray another person’s True Self for long without causing serious damage to the relationship. In order to grow, the Child Within should feel trusted and be able to trust others.


On a basic level, achieving or accomplishing implies empowerment, “power,” “control,” or the potential to master—belief that the person can accomplish a task. On a higher level, this means not only completing the task, but also being aware that the task is complete. Perhaps the highest level of accomplishment is the feeling that one made a contribution, which offers meaning to the task.

Some people who grew up in troubled or dysfunctional families found it difficult to complete a task or a project or to make decisions. This is because they did not practice doing so with the guidance and support of an important other. By contrast, others from dysfunctional families may be high achievers in some areas, such as education or work, but are repeatedly unable to achieve in other areas, such as intimate relationships.

Altered Consciousness, Enjoyment and Fun

Classifying the alteration of one’s state of consciousness as a human need is somewhat controversial. This is because of the folklore that altered consciousness implies using alcohol or other mood-changing drugs (Weil 1973). Actually, we seem to have an innate—even a biological need—to periodically alter our conscious state, whether it be by daydreaming, laughing, playing sports, concentrating on a project or sleeping. Closely related to this is another need and also an altered state: enjoyment or having fun. Many children from troubled families have difficulty relaxing and having fun. Ability to be spontaneous and to play is a need and a characteristic of our Child Within.


Sexuality is often not mentioned as a human need. Rather than sexual intercourse alone, by sexuality I mean a range of potentials, from feeling good about being a man or a woman, to enjoying various aspects of being sexual, to discovering the man (animus) inside the psyche of the woman or the woman (anima) inside the man.

Many of us who grew up in troubled homes may have difficulty with our sexual identity, functioning or enjoyment. Some of us may have been sexually abused, whether overtly or covertly.


Having the freedom to risk, explore and do what is spontaneous and necessary is another human need. Along with this freedom comes responsibility. For example, spontaneity tends to be healthy, whereas impulsivity may work against our best interests.


The next-to-the-last highest order of human needs is nurturing; to provide any or all of the above needs to someone is appropriate in each situation. However, the nurturing person must be able to nurture and the person in need must be able to let go, to surrender, in order to be nurtured. In my observations of patients, their families, and of other people, this reciprocity is unusual in human interaction.

It is not the child’s job to nurture their parent, and when this happens repeatedly, it is a subtle form of child abuse or neglect.

Unconditional Love

The final need is unconditional love. This is a difficult concept for many to understand. I discuss this need further in Chapter 15.

The Unfulfilled Parent

Rarely does anyone find a mother, other parent figure or close friend who is even capable of providing or of helping us to meet all our needs—much less one who delivers them. There is usually no such person available. (In fact, getting pregnant and carrying a child to term is sometimes primarily for the mother’s needs.) Thus, in our recovery, we grieve over not having had all our needs met as infants, children and even as adults. Grieving over the opposite—getting things that we didn’t want or need—such as child mistreatment or abuse, is also helpful. I discuss this grieving process further in Chapters 11 and 12.

Many mothers, fathers or other parent figures are mentally and emotionally impoverished. A likely reason is that their needs were not met as infants, children and/or adults. They are thus so in need that they tend to use others in an unhealthy and inappropriate way to get these needs met. Anyone in their immediate environment, anyone close to or near them, including infants and children, will be unconsciously used (Miller 1983). In order to survive, the child who cannot develop a strong True Self compensates by developing an exaggerated false or co-dependent self.


At first it may seem inconceivable that a mother would use a vulnerable, helpless newborn infant to get her own needs met. Yet this occurs repeatedly in many troubled or dysfunctional families. In the next chapter, I describe conditions in the child’s parents and family that tend to promote such confusion, regression, and misdirection.


Parental Conditions that Tend to Stifle the Child Within

How can a mother, other parent figure or, later in life, a close friend be able to help us meet many of our needs? In general, to do so they must have had their needs met as children and/or worked through a process as adults of healing their own Child Within and learning to get their needs met.

However, certain conditions may interfere with getting needs met. The more deprived, more severe, or advanced the parent’s and family’s condition, the less the child’s needs tend to be met. These parental conditions are listed in Table 3. The word “parental” means not only the parent, but may also include siblings and anyone else, and in the life of an older child and certainly in that of an adult refers to any close or otherwise influential person.

Alcoholism and Other Chemical Dependence

Alcoholism or other chemical dependence can be defined as recurring trouble, problems or difficulties associated with drinking or using drugs. The trouble may occur in one or more of several areas, including relationships, education, legal, financial, health, spiritual and occupational.

We know that children of alcoholics (CoAs), and other family members tend to be unaware that their parent or other family member is alcoholic or dependent on another drug. Black (1984) estimates that close to half of adult children of alcoholics deny a parental drinking problem. And up to 90% of CoAs who themselves become alcoholic or chemical dependent cannot identify a parental drinking problem. This lack of awareness of a major source of the family chaos results in extensive, destructive and unnecessary acceptance, as well as self blame and guilt among family members.

Table 3. Parental Conditions Associated with Dynamics of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Other Dysfunctional Families


Other Chemical Dependence

Co-Dependence (Neurosis)—See Table 4

Chronic Mental Illness and Dysfunctional Physical Illness

Extreme rigidity, punitive, judgmental, Non-loving, perfectionistic, inadequacy

Child abuse—physical, sexual, mental-emotional, spiritual

Other conditions, e.g., those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder

Any reader who wonders or is concerned about a parent’s or another relative’s drinking or drug use may find it helpful to answer the following Family Drinking Survey. (If you are no longer living with the family member in question, or if they are deceased, try to answer these questions as though you were still living with them. If it is drug use about which you have been concerned, substitute “drug use” for “drinking” in the questions.)

Family Drinking Survey




If you answered “Yes” to any 2 of the above questions, there is a good possibility that someone in your family may have a drinking problem.

If you answered “Yes” to 4 or more of the above questions, there is a definite indication that someone in your family does have a drinking problem.

(These survey questions are modified or adapted from the Children of Alcoholics Screening Test (CAST) (Jones Pilat, 1983), the Howard Family Questionnaire, and the Family Alcohol Quiz from Al-Anon. They are referenced in Whitfield et al 1986.)

Co-dependence—the Neurosis of our Time

The next condition is co-dependence, or co-dependency, originally termed “co-alcoholism” in the 1970s. Co-dependence is far more inclusive since the 1980s five definitions I show in Table 4.

Co-dependence is a disease of lost selfhood. In a vicious cycle, it is a condition that stifles our True Self, our Child Within. It results from and contributes to all of the parental conditions in Table 3.

We can begin to define co-dependence as any suffering and/or dysfunction that is associated with or results from focusing on the needs and behavior of others. Co-dependents become so focused upon or preoccupied with important people in their lives that they neglect their True Self. As Schaef (1986) says in her book Co-Dependence, it leads to a process of “nonliving” which is progressive.

Endemic in ordinary humankind, co-dependence can mimic, be associated with, and aggravate many conditions. It develops from turning our responsibility for our life and happiness over to our false self/ego and to other people.

Table 4. Some Definitions of Co-dependence

1)…an exaggerated dependent pattern of learned behaviors, beliefs and feelings that make life painful. It is a dependence on people and things outside the self, along with neglect of the self to the point of having little self identity.

(Smalley, S: cited in Wegscheider-Cruse 1985)

2)…preoccupation and extreme dependence (emotionally, socially, and sometimes physically) on a person or object. Eventually, this dependence on another person becomes a pathological condition that affects the codependent in all other relationships. This may include…all persons who (1) are in a love or marriage relationship with an alcoholic; (2) have one or more alcoholic parents or grandparents; or (3) grew up in an emotionally repressive family…It is a primary disease and a disease within every member of an alcoholic family.

(Wegscheider-Cruse 1985)

3)…ill health, maladaptive or problematic behavior that is associated with living with, working with or otherwise being close to a person with alcoholism (other chemical dependence or other chronic impairment). It affects not only individuals, but families, communities, businesses, and other institutions, and even whole societies.

(Whitfield 1984, 1986)

4)…an emotional, psychological, and behavioral pattern of coping that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules—rules which prevent the open expression of feeling, as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems.

(Subby 1984)

5)…a disease that has many forms and expression and that grows out of a disease process that…I call the addictive process…the addictive process is an unhealthy and abnormal disease process whose assumptions, beliefs, behaviors, and lack of spiritual awareness lead to a process of nonliving which is progressive …

(Schaef 1986)

Development of Co-dependence

The genesis of co-dependence begins by the repression of our observations, feelings and reactions. Others—often our parents—and eventually we begin to invalidate these, our often crucial internal cues.

Usually early in this process we begin to deny a family secret or another secret. Because we focus so much on the needs of others, we begin to neglect our own needs, and by so doing we stifle our Child Within.

But we still have feelings, often of hurt. Since we continue to stuff our feelings, we become increasingly tolerant of emotional pain. We often become numb. And because we stuff our feelings, we are unable to grieve our everyday losses to completion.

All of the above blocks our growth and development in the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of our being. But we have a desire to contact and know our True Self. We learn that “quick fixes” such as compulsive behaviors will allow us to glimpse our True Self and will let off some of the tension. However, if the compulsive behavior is destructive to us or to others, we may feel shame and a resulting lower self-esteem. At this point we may begin to feel more and more out of control and we try to compensate by the need to control even more. We may end up deluded and hurt and often project our pain onto others.

Our tension has now built to such an extent that we may develop stress-related illness manifested by aches and pains and often by dysfunction of one or more body organs. We are now in an advanced state of co-dependence, and may progressively deteriorate so that we experience one or more of extreme mood swings, difficulty with intimate relationships and chronic unhappiness. For those who are attempting to recover from alcoholism, another chemical dependence, or another condition or illness, this advanced state of co-dependence may seriously interfere.

The development of co-dependence may thus be summarized as follows:

Growth of Co-dependence

  1. Invalidation and repression of internal cues, such as our observations, feelings and reactions.
  2. Neglecting our needs.
  3. Beginning to stifle our Child Within.
  4. Denial of a family or other secret.
  5. Increasing tolerance of and numbness to emotional pain.
  6. Inability to grieve a loss to completion.
  7. Blocking of growth (mental-emotional, spiritual).
  8. Compulsive behaviors in order to lessen pain and to glimpse our Child Within.
  9. Progressive shame and loss of self-esteem.
  10. Feeling out of control. Need to control more.
  11. Delusion and projection of pain.
  12. Stress-related illness develops.
  13. Compulsions worsen.
  14. Progressive deterioration:

Extreme mood swings.

Difficulty with intimate relationships.

Chronic unhappiness.

Interference with recovery from alcoholism/CD and other conditions.

Whether we are an infant or a child growing up with such a co-dependent person, or whether we are an adult living with or close to them, it is likely that with our present diminished awareness and coping skills we will be negatively affected. By the process described in the first half of this book, our True Self will be stifled.

The Subtleties of Co-dependence

Co-dependence is one of the most common conditions causing confusion and suffering in the world. It may be subtle in its manifestations, and therefore difficult to identify. The following is a case history of Karen, a 45-year old woman whose parents were co-dependent and through growing up with them she became co-dependent.

“When I heard the characteristics of adult children of alcoholics described, I saw a lot of myself in them. So I looked and looked for an alcoholic in my family background and couldn’t find one. I found I had to look deeper as my parents both had a lot of characteristics of co-dependence. My father was also a workaholic. He was such a success. But he gave his time and energy to everyone except his family. He was the mayor of our town, and I felt guilty when I asked him for attention. He just wasn’t there for me as a father and to help me when I was growing up. My mother was a compulsive overeater, although I didn’t know that at the time. She wasn’t the mother I needed either. They both trained me to be a self-sacrificer and a people-pleaser.

I married two alcoholic men, and gradually became so focused on them that I neglected my own needs and felt like I was losing my mind. I didn’t know how to say ‘no’ to people. Because my life was going so badly, I tried to correct it the only way I knew how from my past: I worked harder, went back to college, getting into super responsibility and compulsive overactivity. And I neglected my needs even more. I was depressed, and became progressively more depressed, so much so that I took an overdose of sleeping pills. That was my ‘bottom.’

In desperation, I called A.A. and they told me to go to Al-Anon, which I did. I attended a meeting every day and I loved it. Now it’s six years later, and I still attend one meeting a week. I also had 2½ years of group therapy and several months of individual therapy. I found it all very helpful. Looking back, I discovered that not only was my recovery program helpful mentally and emotionally, but it was a great help to me spiritually. I discovered that my biggest problem was with my mother, on whom I had come to depend regarding how I was supposed to feel and live. I was so sick that I couldn’t even feel and live for myself. I had to look to others to see how to feel and live. I was angry at my mother for this and at my father for supporting her for doing so and for his not being there for me when I needed him. And I picked two husbands who unknowingly encouraged me to continue all of these patterns. I’m so glad that I made a recovery.”

Karen’s story represents some of the subtle manifestations of co-dependence. Since 1986 the 12-step fellowship of Co-dependents Anonymous (CoDA) has helped countless people recover from its painful effects.

Chronic Mental Illness or

Disabling Chronic Physical Illness

Chronic mental illness may range from subtle and mild to obvious and disabling. It may include any of the major chronic mental and emotional illnesses listed and described in DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition, of the American Psychiatric Association).

The following is a case history of Barbara, a 56-year-old married woman with four children and a professional career:

“Four years ago I finally went for help. I had been depressed since my early childhood. In therapy I learned that my mother had been chronically depressed most of her life. I remember a time in my mid-twenties when she got me a date with a man with whom she was having an affair, while she was still married to and was living with my father. I felt really bad about going out with him. My father had been cold and distant from both me and my mother. Later, when my mother was hospitalized from taking an overdose of sleeping pills, I learned that my father had been impotent for most of their marriage. That was a ‘family secret,’ of course. I viewed my father’s distance and mother’s chronic depression as my fault as long as I can remember, and I felt a lot of shame and guilt over it. I survived as a child by being obedient, doing well in school and focusing on my mother.

I took on a caretaker role. As a teenager I went to the library and read everything I could find on psychology in an attempt to cure my mother and father. In my recovery in psychotherapy and in my self-reflection, I learned that I was fused with my mother, that our boundaries were so merged that I literally woke up every morning and didn’t know how I felt until I looked at how my mother was feeling. I also learned that my father’s coldness and distance had nothing to do with how good a little girl I was or how hard I worked, but it had to do with him. I learned that I no longer had to be a victim. Since then I have been feeling better overall, and my life is going better. I continue to work on getting free of my old problems.”

By reaching out for help, Barbara came to recognize the damage done to her True Self by growing up in a troubled family, and is now well on her way to recovery.

Extreme Rigidity, Punitiveness, Judgmentalness, Non-Loving, Perfectionism or Inadequacy

Although many people’s True Self has been substantially stifled, the exact nature of the “trouble” in their family cannot be easily recognized or labeled. For example, recognizing advanced alcoholism in a family member may be relatively easy because it is so blatant. But recognizing a less obvious condition is more difficult. I have observed and treated hundreds of adult children of alcoholics and other trauma during their long-term recovery.

Cathy was a 32-year-old woman who grew up in a troubled family. There were no alcoholics in the family, yet she joined and experienced growth in an early therapy group for adult children of alcoholics for which I was a co-leader. She represents an increasing number of “adult children of troubled or dysfunctional families,” or “adult children of trauma” whose backgrounds, life and suffering are more similar than dissimilar to those of adult children of alcoholics. When she was about midway in her recovery, she wrote the following about her life:

“My parents espoused the ‘what will people think’ philosophy. In public we really did pull off the ‘perfect family’ image—we were all very gracious to each other. At home Mom and Dad changed from smiling, chatting, joking, to Dad completely withdrawing physically, verbally, emotionally and Mom yelling for attention.

I always had a feeling of ‘preparing for’ or getting ready for something…always a flurry of household chores to get through. I felt happiest when I was in the midst of a chore—I had a role. And I learned early to try to bottle tensions by anticipating what needed to be done next—to make it easier for Mom. I consciously worked at not needing anything from anyone again to hopefully cut down on some of my stress.

Dad was either never home, or sleeping whenever he was at home. He may as well have stayed away. I don’t recall any interactions with him other than at a distance—being afraid of him, though he was never verbally or physically abusive. I grew up with a neutral feeling for my Dad, and very strong emotions for Mom: ‘taking care’ of her by not being a bother, by not giving her any trouble, by anticipating how she would want me to be. This later developed into a strong emotion of hating her for the distance she fostered between Dad and me. For most of my adult life I’ve wavered between pleasing her and being very rebellious around her wishes for me. Being the fifth of six children, I have a strong memory that Dad didn’t know which one I was at times. He was a workaholic outside the home. Mom was compulsive about things in the home. I am now trying to get in touch with some of my feelings about my dad. I remember quietly living my life, hoping no one saw me, while at the same time craving anyone’s attention. I was overweight and always tried to lose the weight, trying to hide because of how I looked.

I continued my quiet life throughout high school, feeling protected and safe whenever I was at home. I had a feeling of not wanting to be away from the house. I wasn’t like my siblings who went out for sports, drama, speech, etc. This pattern continued in college. I didn’t have a safe, protected place to be on campus and my weight became a big problem. I was not developing a direction with my life and attended three colleges, ending up with a two-year degree.

My adult life became mere survival. I didn’t have the capacity to form and maintain relationships. I broke up with any man I was seeing. I moved out on roommates. I left jobs after I started having personality problems with bosses. I kept away from my family on an unconscious level. I became bulimic to control weight gains. I dated men opposite from those Mom would approve. I began smoking and drinking as a sign of my ‘independent thinking.’

I was chronically depressed, isolating and compulsively overeating or dieting. I wanted people to think I had it all together and didn’t need anything from anyone, but inside I was so needy that whenever I did have a friend, I expected to be fulfilled from that one person.

I came into Overeaters Anonymous 3½ years ago, devastated from my binge/purge cycle, and have been abstinent from overeating for a year now. I started attending an ACoA therapy group, feeling I fit in this group just like I fit into OA. These people were just like me and I was a lot like them. But I quickly realized that recovery work was so painful to go through. I started ACoA group therapy over a year ago and have attended on a weekly basis.

For six months I didn’t feel any emotions or at least I couldn’t identify any. But I was exposed to group members’ experiencing feelings about their current issues and identifying and re-experiencing incidents in the past that were too painful to feel before.

I began to be willing to risk letting these people know me—motivated largely by the desire to stay abstinent from overeating. I began developing a sense of the group representing a safe family in which to develop and to begin to re-experience what I didn’t get in my own family. I began to have some honest interactions, even though I was afraid of and not feeling worthy of group time, of undivided attention from the group. But I was slowly getting a growing sense of self-esteem from real, honest interactions in and out of group. I was open to acknowledging that I have feelings, to identifying them, and finally to expressing them to be able to feel my healing. I let go of destructive patterns in relationships and in how I see myself. I was finding inherent worth in my simply ‘being.’ I talked about what it was like growing up in a home where I felt invisible. Telling the truth of my story as I perceive it has been freeing for me. Being honest with myself has been the core of recovering—which was difficult to do since I came to therapy with no sense of self. I discovered that for me it takes time to even get an inkling that I have a right to myself. It has taken time and a lot of facing my feelings in constructing a healthy self, one day at a time, through OA and group therapy.”

These families—or other family-like environments—for which Cathy’s story serves as an example, fit many of the dynamics of a troubled or dysfunctional family. Some common parental conditions include extreme rigidity, extreme punitiveness, judgmentalness, perfectionism and a cold or non-loving relationship with children and other family members. The parents were inadequate to administer to the mental, emotional and spiritual needs of the child.

These states or conditions are often insidious, subtle, or hidden. They may be difficult to recognize without some substantial recovery work in self-help groups, group therapy, individual counseling, or in other forms of introspection by sharing with and listening to trusted others. Outwardly, these families are usually not viewed as being troubled or dysfunctional. Indeed, they are often viewed as being “normal” or “healthy.” This category of troubled or dysfunctional family is open for more observation, exploration and research.

Child Abuse—Physical, Sexual, Mental-Emotional and/or Spiritual

Child abuse is common in all sorts of troubled families. While severe physical abuse and overt sexual abuse are clearly recognizable as traumatic to infants and children, other forms of child abuse may be more difficult to recognize as being abusive. These may include mild to moderate physical abuse, covert or less obvious sexual abuse, mental and emotional abuse, child neglect, and ignoring or thwarting the child’s spirituality or spiritual growth. Examples of covert or more subtle sexual abuse include a parent’s flirting, relating sexual experiences, stories or jokes; touching children, adolescents or even adult children on inappropriate parts of their anatomy; and any other unnecessary sexually stimulating behavior. These forms of abuse usually result in deep-seated feelings of intense guilt and shame that are unconsciously carried into adulthood. I will address emotional abuse in more detail later.

Spiritual abuse is likely to be controversial, rarely discussed, yet real. For example, raising a child to be an atheist or cultist may seem like spiritual abuse to some parents, but not to others. More subtle forms taught by some organized religions are the strong teaching of an angry deity, inflicting guilt or shame, or insisting that certain other denominations or belief systems are automatically bad or inferior. While the latter may be easily observed in some fundamentalist Christian denominations, they are by no means limited to these, since such characteristics pervade many of our world’s religious systems. Indeed, these views are often major factors starting and continuing the many wars that have been fought around the world.

Other conditions stifle our True Self. Some examples may be found under the post-traumatic stress disorder, discussed in Chapter 7.

Some Commonalities

These seven parental conditions often exist in mixtures among troubled families. The stifling of the Child Within, or to use perhaps stronger language—the murder of the child’s soul (Schatzman 1973)—has certain common dynamics within the family. These may include inconsistency, unpredictability, arbitrariness, and chaos (Gravitz, Bowden 1985). Inconsistency and unpredictability tend to repress spontaneity and are in general “crazy making.” Combined with arbitrariness, these dynamics may promote the core issues of difficulty trusting or fear of abandonment, as well as chronic depression. They result in a chaotic environment. This precludes the development of a safe, secure and reliable foundation from which to learn about ourselves and others through risk taking.

While many of these characteristics of troubled or dysfunctional families are common, all may not be present in every troubled family.


Many troubled families are inconsistent, and some are not. One way that many troubled families are consistent is through consistently denying the feelings of many family members and having one or more family secrets. Troubled families that are rigid tend to be more consistent and predictable. Because they are excessive, these qualities function to control and shut down family and individual growth.


Many troubled families are predictable in their unpredictability. That is, family members learn that they can expect the unexpected at any time. By contrast, many will know what to predict, and even when to predict it, although they may not know it consciously or talk about it with others. However, they usually live in chronic fear, as though “walking on eggshells,” of when they will suffer their next trauma.


The arbitrariness means that no matter who the family member is or how hard they may try, the troubled person or persons would still mistreat them in the same way. In a family where rules have no rhyme or reason, the child loses trust in the rule setters (the parents) and in their own self. They are unable to understand the environment. However, while the more rigid families may be less arbitrary, they can still be troubled, painful and dysfunctional and they are often arbitrary about their rigidity.


Chaos may be manifested by any of the following: (1) physical or emotional abuse, which teaches the child shame, guilt and “don’t feel;” (2) sexual abuse, which teaches the same, plus distrust and fear of losing control; (3) regular and repeated crises, which teach a crisis orientation to life; (4) predictable closed communications, which teaches “don’t talk,” “don’t be real,” and denial; and (5) loss of control, which teaches obsession with being in control, and fusion or loss of boundaries or individuation.

While dysfunctional families tend to be chaotic, in many troubled families chaos is either absent or minimal. Here, chaos is often subtle in its manifestations. Active or overt chaos does not have to be present to stifle our Child Within. Rather, just the threat of chaos—whether it be threat of crisis, threat of mistreatment of any form, or threat of seeing another family member mistreated—no matter how simple or transient, can be just as damaging. It does so by installing fear, which blocks our being real and creative. When we cannot be real and creative, we cannot discover, explore and complete our stories and thereby grow and develop. We cannot have peace.

Even if active chaos occurs only once or twice a year, the threat of its unpredictability, impulsiveness and destructiveness to self and others is enough to chronically destroy peace and serenity.

The family member in the middle of chaos, whether active or threatened, may feel that this is so routine and so “normal,” that he or she does not recognize it as chaos. This principle is true for all the characteristics in this chapter.


Child mistreatment (maltreatment or abuse) in various forms can be subtle, although clearly damaging to the growth, development and aliveness of our True Self. Examples are listed in Table 5.

Denial of Feelings and Reality

Troubled families tend to deny feelings, especially the painful feelings of the members. The child—and many of the adults—are not allowed to express feelings, especially painful (also called “negative”) ones such as anger. However, each family usually has at least one member, generally the alcoholic or similarly troubled person, who is permitted to express painful feelings openly, especially anger. In such families where anger is chronic and unexpressed directly by members, it often takes other forms—abuse of self, others, and other anti-social behavior, and various forms of acute and chronic illness, including stress related illness. What the child sees as reality is denied, and a new model, view or false belief system of reality is assumed as true by each family member. This fantasy often binds the family together in a further dysfunctional way. This denial and the new belief system stifle and retard the child’s development and growth in the crucial mental, emotional, and spiritual areas of their life (Brown 1986).

Table 5. Some Terms for Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Trauma That May Be Experienced by Children and Adults.



Abuse: Physical—spanking, beating, torture, sexual, etc.

Mental—covert sexual (see below)

Emotional—(see below)

Spiritual—(see below and text)






Withholding love

Inflicting guilt

Not taking seriously





Joking about


Laughing at



Making light of or minimizing your feelings, wants, or needs



Breaking promises


Raising hopes falsely


Responding inconsistently or arbitrarily

HurtingBeing CruelBelittling

Making vague demandsStifling


Saying “you shouldn’t … feel such & such, e.g., anger”


Saying “If only … e.g., you were better or different” or


Inflicting fear

“You should … e.g., be better or different” (See also negative messages in Table 6)

Overpowering or bullying



To repeat: while discovering some of the conditions described here may feel uncomfortable, it can start the way out of our suffering and confusion. We can summarize the common characteristics of troubled or dysfunctional families as including at least one, although usually several, of the following:

  • Neglectful
  • Having one or more secrets
  • Mistreating
  • Dis-allowing feelings
  • Inconsistent
  • Dis-allowing other needs
  • Unpredictable
  • Rigid (some families)
  • Arbitrary
  • Chaotic at times (including crisis orientation)
  • Denying
  • Quiet and functional at times

Other characteristics of troubled families may include a variety of neglect and mistreatment. Reading about and reflecting upon examples of mistreatment or trauma can help us to find our True Self. Also helpful is hearing others tell their stories of mistreatment or trauma. But one of the best ways to begin validating our own mistreatment or trauma is to tell our own story in the company of people who accept and support us and who will not betray our confidence or reject us. I call such people “safe” or “safe and supportive,” and describe these principles in the following chapters.


What other factors or dynamics inhibit our Child Within? In the next chapter I focus on the development of low self-esteem, the shame dynamic and negative rules, negative affirmations or messages.


The Dynamics of Shame and Low Self Esteem

Shame or low self-esteem plays a major role in stifling our Child Within. Shame is both a feeling or emotion, and an experience that happens to the total self, which is our True Self or Child Within (Fischer 1985; Kaufman 1980; Kurtz 1981).

It is also a dynamic or process that happens to us, especially when we are unaware, and sometimes even when we become aware of the truth about many of the aspects of our shame.

Growing up in a troubled or dysfunctional family is nearly always associated with shame and low self-esteem in all members of that family. Only the manifestations of shame vary among family members. We each adapt to shame in our own way. The major similarity is that nearly everyone operates primarily from their false self. We can thus describe the troubled or dysfunctional family as being shame-based.


People often confuse shame with guilt. While we feel both, there is a difference between them.

Guilt is the uncomfortable or painful feeling that results from doing something that violates or breaks a personal standard or value, or from hurting another person, or even from breaking an agreement or a law. Guilt thus concerns our behavior, feeling bad about what we have done, or about what we didn’t do that we were supposed to have done.

Like most feelings, guilt can be a useful emotion to help guide us in our relationships with ourselves and with others. Guilt tells us that our conscience is functioning. People who never experience guilt or remorse after transgressions have difficulty in their lives, and are classically said to have an anti-social personality disorder.

Guilt that is useful and constructive we call “healthy” guilt. We use this kind of guilt to live in society, to resolve our conflicts or difficulties, to correct our mistakes, or to improve our relationships. When guilt is detrimental to our serenity, our peace of mind, and our functioning—including our mental, emotional and spiritual growth—we call it “unhealthy” guilt. People from troubled or dysfunctional homes or environments often have a mixture of healthy and unhealthy guilt. Unhealthy guilt is usually not handled or worked through and lingers on, at times becoming psychologically and emotionally disabling. Our “responsibility” to family overcomes our responsibility to our True Self. There may also be “survivor” guilt, wherein the person feels guilty and unworthy for leaving and abandoning others in a troubled environment or surviving in life after others may have failed (see also Chapter 7 on PTSD for more on survivor guilt).

Guilt can be relieved substantially by recognizing its presence and by then working it through. This means that we experience it, and discuss it with trusted and appropriate others. In its simplest resolution, we may apologize to the person whom we may have harmed or deceived, and ask their forgiveness. In its more complex forms, we may have to talk about the guilt in more depth, perhaps in group or in individual therapy.

Guilt is usually easier to recognize and resolve than is shame.


Shame is the uncomfortable or painful feeling that we experience when we realize that a part of us is defective, bad, incomplete, rotten, phony, inadequate or a failure. In contrast to guilt, where we feel bad from doing something wrong, we feel shame from being something wrong or bad. Thus guilt seems to be correctable or forgivable, whereas there seems to be no way out of shame.

Our Child Within or True Self feels the shame and can express it, in a healthy way, to safe and supportive people. Our false self, on the other hand, pretends not to have the shame, and would never tell anyone about it.

We all have shame. Shame is universal to being human. If we do not work through it and then let go of it, shame tends to accumulate and burden us more and more, until we become its victim.

In addition to feeling defective or inadequate, shame makes us believe that others can see through us, through our facade, and into our defectiveness. Shame feels hopeless: that no matter what we do, we cannot correct it (Fischer 1985; Kaufman 1980). We feel isolated and lonely with our shame, as though we are the only one who has the painful feeling.

What is more, we may say, “I’m afraid to tell you about my shame because if I do, you’ll think I’m bad, and I can’t stand hearing how bad I am.” And so not only do I keep it to myself, but I often block it out or pretend that it is not there.

I may even disguise my shame as if it were some other feeling or action and then project that onto other people. Some of these feelings and actions that may mask or bind our shame include:




Neglect or Withdrawal






Disappointment, and



Compulsive Behavior

And when I feel or act out any of these disguises, it serves a useful purpose to my co-dependent or false self—acting as a defense against my feeling the shame. But, even though I may defend myself well against my shame, it can still be seen by others, e.g., when I hang my head, slump down, avoid eye contact or apologize for having needs and rights. I may even feel somewhat nauseated, cold, withdrawn and alienated (Fischer 1985). But no matter how well I may defend myself and others against it, my shame will not go away—unless I learn what it is, experience it and share it with safe and supportive others.

An example of the guise that our shame can take happened in group therapy when Jim, a 35-year-old accountant, began to tell the group about his relationship with his father, who lives in another state. “Every time we talk on the phone he tries to judge me. I get so confused that I want to hang up.” Jim talked more and interacted with the group, who asked him what feelings were coming up for him right now. He had some difficulty being aware of and identifying his feelings, and made little eye contact with the group. “I’m just confused. I always wanted to be perfect around him. And I never could do it to his satisfaction.” He talked further, and the group asked him again what feelings were coming up for him right now. “I feel some fear, some hurt and I guess I’m a little angry.” As a group leader, I also asked him if he might be feeling some shame, as though he were somehow an inadequate person. He said “No. Why would you think of that?” I pointed out that his drive to be perfect, his avoidance of eye contact, and the way he described his relationship with his father suggested to me that he was feeling some shame. A tear came to his eye, and he said he would have to think about that.

Where Does Our Shame Come From?

Our shame seems to come from what we do with the negative messages, negative affirmations, beliefs and rules that we hear as we grow up. We hear these from our parents, parent figures and other people in authority, such as teachers and clergy. These messages basically tell us that we are somehow not all right, not okay. That our feelings, our needs, our True Self, our Child Within is not acceptable.

Over and over, we hear messages like “Shame on You!” “You’re so bad!” “You’re not good enough.” We hear them so often, and from people on whom we are so dependent and to whom we are so vulnerable, that we believe them. And so we incorporate or internalize them into our very being.

As if that were not enough, the wound is compounded by negative rules that stifle and prohibit the otherwise healthy, healing and needed expression of our pains (Table 6). Rules like “Don’t feel,” “Don’t cry” and “Children are to be seen and not heard.” And so not only do we learn that we are bad, but that we are not to talk openly about any of it.

However, these negative rules are often inconsistently enforced, as described in the previous chapter. The result? Difficulty in trusting rule-makers and authority figures, and feelings of fear, guilt, and more shame. And where do our parents learn these negative messages and rules? Most likely from their parents and other authority figures. This is an example of childhood trauma (here as emotional abuse) being transmitted from one generation to the next.

Table 6. Negative Rules and Negative Messages Commonly Heard in Alcoholic or Other Troubled Families

Negative Rules

Negative Messages

Don’t express your feelings

Shame on you

Don’t get angry

You’re not good enough

Don’t get upset

I wish I’d never had you

Don’t cry

Your needs are not all right with me

Do as I say, not as I do

Hurry up and grow up

Be good, “nice,” perfect

Be dependent

Avoid conflict (or avoid dealing with conflict)

Be a manBig boys don’t cry

Don’t think or talk; just follow directions

Act like a nice girl (or a lady) You don’t feel that way

Do well in school, no matter what

Don’t be like that

Don’t ask questions

You’re so stupid (or bad, etc.)

Don’t betray the family

You caused it

Don’t discuss the family with outsiders; keep the family secret(s)

You owe it to us Of course we love you!

Be seen and not heard!

I’m sacrificing myself for you

No back talk

How can you do this to me?

Don’t contradict me

We won’t love you if you . . .

Always look good

You’re driving me crazy!

I’m always right, you’re always wrong

You’ll never accomplish anything

Always be in control

It didn’t really hurt

Focus on the alcoholic’s drinking (or troubled person’s behavior)

You’re so selfishYou’ll be the death of me yet

Drinking (or other troubled behavior) is not the cause of our problems

That’s not true I promise (though breaks it)

Always maintain the status quo

You make me sick!

Everyone in the family must be an enabler of dysfunction

We wanted a boy/girlYou _________________________________

The Shame-based Family

When everyone in a dysfunctional family comes from and communicates with others from a base of shame, it may be described as being shame-based.

Parents in such a family did not have their needs met as infants and children nor usually as they continue into adulthood. They often use their children to meet many of these unmet needs (Miller 1981, 83, 84, 86).

Shame-based families often, though not always, have a secret. This secret may span all kinds of “shameful” conditions, from family violence to sexual abuse to alcoholism to having been in a concentration camp. Or the secret may be as subtle as a lost job, a lost promotion or a lost relationship. Keeping such secrets disables all members of the family, whether or not they know the secret (Fischer, 1985). This is because being secretive prevents the expression of questions, concern and feelings (such as fear, anger, shame and guilt). And the family thus cannot communicate freely. And the Child Within of each family member remains stifled—unable to grow and to develop.


Paradoxically, even though the family may communicate poorly, its members are nonetheless highly connected emotionally and through denial of and loyalty about keeping the secret. Often one or more members are dysfunctional in some capacity, so other members take on their roles. Everyone learns to mind everyone else’s business one way or another. What results is a group of family members who are enmeshed, fused or who have invaded or even overtaken one another’s boundaries and personal space.

The boundaries of healthy and individuated people schematically look something like the following:


Healthy relationships are open, flexible, allow the fulfillment of some of one another’s needs and rights, and support the mental-emotional and spiritual growth of each person. While they are often intimate and close, their intensity has a flexible ebb and flow that respects each member’s needs and allows each to grow as individuals.

By contrast, the enmeshed or fused relationship may schematically look something like this:


Or in the case of a troubled or dysfunctional family, like this:


These enmeshed or fused relationships are generally unhealthy, closed, rigid, and tend to discourage the fulfillment of one another’s needs and rights. They tend not to support the mental, emotional and spiritual growth of each person. Little or no ebb and flow of closeness and distance is allowed. The case histories of Karen and Barbara illustrate such unhealthy or fused boundaries.

To survive in such an enmeshed relationship, we generally use several defenses, such as denial (of the secret, our feelings, and our pain), and projection of our pain onto others (attacking, blaming and rejecting) (Course 1976). However, when we leave the shame-based relationship, even though we may have survived and are still surviving, such a shame-based and co-dependent stance of fear, guilt, denial and attacking does not tend to work for us. When we leave an unhealthy relationship and try to use the same ways and defenses in relating that we used to survive in the unhealthy one, those ways and defenses don’t tend to work well in the healthy relationship.

The shame-based person is nearly always enmeshed in some way with one or more people. While we are in a dysfunctional, shame-based relationship, we may f eel like we are losing our mind, going crazy. When we try to test reality, we are unable to trust our senses, our feelings and our reactions.

Compulsive Behavior and the Repetition Compulsion

When we live our life in a shame-based and co-dependent stance, focusing inordinately on others, we naturally feel as though something is missing, that we are somehow incomplete. We are unhappy, tense, empty, distressed, feel bad and/or numb. But to be real seems threatening to us. We tried being real with others, and too often were rejected or punished for it. And so to be real again, to express our feelings and get our other needs met, seems too scary. Besides, we are not used to doing this. So we defend ourselves against realizing our real needs and feelings (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Cycle of Shame and Compulsive Behavior

(Modified from Fischer 1985, with permission)

But our Real Self, now alienated and hidden from us, has an innate desire and energy to express itself. Secretly, we want to feel its aliveness and its creativity. Held in for so long, stuck in such an approach-avoidance dilemma, its only way out is through a specific form of negative compulsive behavior that has worked for us in the past, even though we may get only a glimpse of our True Self by doing so. Such compulsive actions range across a wide spectrum of possible behaviors, from heavy use of alcohol or other drugs, to short-term, intense relationships, to trying to control another person. It may involve overeating, oversexing, overworking, overspending or even overattending self-help group meetings.

This compulsive behavior tends to be negative in some way, such as self-destruction or other-destruction. It may produce a crisis as a side effect or may precipitate a crisis for self and for others. While we can control the behavior to some extent—we have some degree of willpower over it, in that we may even plan it—it often occurs impulsively and automatically, as if by reflex.

When we thus behave compulsively, we usually get temporary relief from tension, suffering and numbness, even though we might feel some shame about it. And even though of short duration, we feel alive again to a degree. However, later we are left feeling shameful and incomplete (Fischer 1985).

This type of behavior has also been called the repetition compulsion (Miller 1981, 1983). It comes about from unsolved internal conflict that we carry in our unconscious mind, the place within us of which we are not usually aware.

A Way Out

From the recovery experience of hundreds of thousands of people, we know that there is an effective way out of this constricting and binding effect of shame: to tell the story of our trauma and pain to safe and supportive others.

What we expose and share is our Child Within, our True Self, with all of its weaknesses and all of its strengths. We cannot heal our shame alone. We need others to help us heal ourselves. They validate our predicaments and our pain, and they accept us as we are. And when we hear others tell their stories and share their shame, we help them to heal their shame. Doing so helps us as well. By such sharing and listening, we begin to practice the principles of compassion and unconditional love.

Such sharing and storytelling is heard and seen countless times each day, whether in self-help groups, group therapy, individual therapy or between intimate friends.

Blocks to Healing

As we begin to heal our shame, we may encounter stumbling blocks within us that prevent us from going ahead with our healing. These blocks include: (1) negative attitudes that we may have about ourselves; (2) memories of facial expressions or other images in people that made us feel shameful in the past that we now see in other people and possibly in ourselves; and (3) the overshadowing or binding by shame of some important areas in our lives (Fischer 1985). These areas may include the following:

1) Our feelings

2) Our healthy drives (e.g., sexuality, aggression, hunger and the need for intimacy)

3) Our needs (see Chapter 4 and Table 2)

4) Our thoughts (e.g., especially any “bad” thoughts).

Age Regression

For example, any time that we feel hurt by an authority figure, such as one of our parents, we may feel anger. However, the anger quickly changes into or is covered up by feeling shame. We may also begin to feel fearful and confused. Because all these feelings may begin to feel overwhelming, as though we might lose control, we quickly suppress all of them and become numb. During this, and for several minutes afterward, we can become dysfunctional in varying degrees. This whole process may take just a few seconds, but we may feel as though we are helpless little children again. Such an occurrence has been called age regression or reversion to an earlier survival mechanism.

Tom is a 45-year-old attorney and father of two. He tells in group therapy of his discovery of regression to a younger age.

“It took me 45 years to see what happened when my father put me down. Last month when I visited him and my mother, within five minutes of arriving, my father tried to put me down by making a joke of my being an attorney. He said, ‘Here comes the shyster lawyer,’ and then looked at me, my mother, brother and sister to see if we’d laugh with him. With the help of this group, I’ve learned how I reacted. I suddenly felt confused, helpless and angry as though I were five years old again. I hung my head and went numb. It was a horrible feeling that I’ve had hundreds of times growing up, and I still have it when he does that. I also have it around people who try to tease me or judge me. What I’m realizing is that doing that is one of his main ways of handling conflict or tension in our family. He tries to make a joke or tease or put down whomever he is in conflict with. His other way was to leave the person, you know, abandon them, so that the conflict was never handled. So I’m practicing recognizing when I age regress and taking deep breaths and walking around to gather my sanity so I can deal with him or people like him. I’m setting limits with my father now when he does that. I’m saying to him, ‘I don’t like it when you joke about my career like that, and I won’t visit you anymore if you keep doing that!’”

Handling Age Regression

We can begin to break free of a shame bind or an age regression by becoming aware of it. When it occurs, we recognize it. And when we recognize it, take several slow, deep breaths. Doing this will relieve us of our confusion, numbness and dysfunction, and allow us increased awareness of what is happening, so that we can better take control of ourselves. Instead of being paralyzed, confused and dysfunctional, we pull ourselves right back into our True Self. And we continue to function as our True Self by getting up and walking around, and observing reality around us. If we are with safe and supportive people, we can then begin to talk about how we feel. We may also leave the person who is mistreating us. Even if we don’t leave, we can gain comfort by grasping our car keys, a symbol of our ability to get away.

We also discover that age regression may even be advantageous to us. It tells us immediately that we are being mistreated! Or we are being reminded of being mistreated. And when we know that we are being mistreated, we can explore ways of taking action to remedy the situation and to avoid the mistreatment.

We know that there is a way out. We are beginning to heal our Child Within.


The Role of Stress:

The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that may so affect someone that not only is their Child Within stifled and stunted, but the person often becomes overtly ill from repeated stress and its extreme traumas. The PTSD interacts with the dynamics of co-dependence to such an extent that these two conditions often overlap. What Kritsberg (1986) describes as “chronic shock” among children of alcoholics can be equated to PTSD.

PTSD may occur across a spectrum of manifestations, from fear or anxiety, to depression, to easy irritability, to impulsive or even explosive behavior, to numbness. To determine whether PTSD is present, the DSM III and IV (1980; 1994) suggest that the following four conditions be present.

Recognizable Stressor

The first is the history or the ongoing presence of a recognizable stressor. Some examples and degrees of stressors are shown in the DSM III, and are reproduced in a modified form in Table 7. While there are countless other examples, I have italicized several of the stressors found among troubled or dysfunctional families.

From this short list of examples one can see that stressors are commonly found in families and environments that tend to stifle the True Self. However, to determine the presence of PTSD, the type of stressor must be outside the usual range of human experience. Examples of such stressors may include assault, rape, other sexual abuse, serious physical injury, torture, concentration camp experience, floods, earthquakes, military combat and the like. I believe, as do others (Cermak 1985), that growing up, or living in a seriously troubled or dysfunctional family or similar environment often is associated with PTSD. The PTSD is said to be more damaging and more difficult to treat if: (1) the traumas occur over a prolonged period of time, e.g., longer than six months; and especially so if (2) the traumas are of human origin; and if (3) those around the affected person tend to deny the existence of the stressor or the stress. All three are present in an actively alcoholic family and in similar troubled families.

Table 7. Severity Rating of Psych social Stressors

(from DSM III)

Code Term

Adult Examples

Child/Adolescent Examples


No apparent psychological stressor

No apparent psychological stressor


Minor violation of the law; small bank loan

Vacation with family


Argument with neighbor; change in work hours

Change in schoolteacher; new school year


New career; death of close friend; pregnancy

Chronic parental fighting; change to new school; illness of close relative;sibling birth


Serious illness in self or family; major financial loss; marital separation; birth of child

Death of peer, divorce of parents; arrest; hospitalization; persistent and harsh parental discipline


Death of close relative; divorce

Death of parent or sibling;repeated physical/sexual abuse


Concentration camp experience; devastating natural disaster

Multiple family deaths

Re-experiencing the Trauma

The second condition or manifestation is the re-experiencing of the trauma. This may be a history of recurrent and intrusive recollections of the trauma, recurrent bad dreams or nightmares, or sudden symptoms of re-experiencing the trauma, often with rapid heart rate, panic and sweating.

Psychic Numbing

An outstanding characteristic of the True Self is that it feels and expresses feelings (Chapter 3, Table 1). The false self denies and covers up genuine feelings. This advanced condition, called psychic numbing, is characteristic of PTSD. It may be manifested by a constriction or absence of feeling and of expressing feelings, which often results in a sense of estrangement, withdrawal, isolation or alienation. Another manifestation may be a decreased interest in important life activities.

Describing psychic numbing, Cermak (1986) writes, “During moments of extreme stress, combat soldiers are often called upon to act regardless of how they are feeling. Their survival depends upon their ability to suspend feelings in favor of taking steps to ensure their safety. Unfortunately, the resulting “split” between one’s self and one’s experience does not heal easily. It does not gradually disappear with the passage of time. Until an active process of healing takes place, the individual continues to experience a constriction of feelings, a decreased ability to recognize which feelings are present, and a persistent sense of being cut off from one’s surroundings (de-personalization). These add up to a condition known as psychic numbing.”

Other Symptoms

Another symptom of PTSD may be hyperalertness or hypervigilance. The person is so affected and fearful about continued stress, that s/he is constantly on the alert for any and all potential similar stressors or dangers, and how to avoid them. Yet another symptom is survivor guilt—guilt felt after escaping or avoiding some of the trauma when others are still in the trauma. While survivor guilt is said to lead to the feeling that the survivor has betrayed or abandoned others, and often then to chronic depression, I believe that several other factors lead to chronic depression, primarily the stifling of the Child Within (Whitfield 2003).

Another symptom may be avoiding activities associated with the trauma. A final symptom, not listed in DSM III or IV, is multiple personalities. People with multiple personalities often come from highly troubled, stressed or dysfunctional families. Perhaps multiple personalities are often offshoots of the false self, driven, in part, by the energies of the True Self to express itself and survive.

Cermak (1985) suggests that the dynamics of the condition known as “adult child of alcoholic,” “CoA syndrome,” or other similar terms are a combination of PTSD and co-dependence. From my experience treating ACoAs and following them in their recovery, as well as treating adult children from other troubled or dysfunctional families, I believe that PTSD and co-dependence are likely to be a part of many troubled or dysfunctional families. I further believe that PTSD is but an extreme extension of the broad condition that results from stifling the True Self in any form. When we are not allowed to remember, to express our feelings and to grieve or mourn our losses or traumas, whether real or threatened, through the free expression of our Child Within, we become ill. Thus we can consider viewing a spectrum of unresolved grieving as beginning with mild symptoms or signs of grief, to co-dependence, to PTSD. A common thread in this spectrum is the blocked expression of our True Self.

Treatment of PTSD consists of long-term group therapy with others who suffer from the condition and usually as needed shorter term individual counseling. Many of the treatment principles for healing our Child Within are helpful in treating PTSD.

Cermak (1986) said, “Those therapists who work successfully with this population have learned to honor the client’s need to keep a lid on his or her feelings. The most effective therapeutic process involves swinging back and forth between uncovering feelings and covering them again, and it is precisely this ability to modulate their feelings that PTSD clients have lost. (They) must feel secure that their ability to close their emotions down will never be taken away from them, but instead will be honored as an important tool for living. The initial goal of therapy here is to help clients move more freely into their feelings with the assurance that they can find distance from them again if they begin to be overwhelmed. Once children from chemically dependent homes, adult children of alcoholics, and other PTSD clients become confident that you are not going to strip them of their survival mechanisms, they are more likely to allow their feelings to emerge, if only for a moment. And that moment will be a start.”


How Can We Heal Our Child Within?

To rediscover our True or Real Self and heal our Child Within, we can begin a process that involves the following four actions.

1) Discover and practice being our Real Self or Child Within.

2) Identify our ongoing physical, mental-emotional and spiritual needs. Practice getting these needs met with safe and supportive people.

3) Identify, re-experience and grieve the pain of our ungrieved losses or traumas in the presence of safe and supporting people.

4) Identify and work through our core issues (described below and elsewhere (Whitfield 1995, 2003).

These actions are closely related, although not listed in any particular order. Working on them, and thereby healing our Child Within, generally occurs in a circular fashion, with work and discovery in one area a link to another area.

Stages in the Process of Recovery


To get to the point of recovery, we must survive. Survivors are by necessity co-dependent. We use many coping skills and “ego defenses” to do this. Children of alcoholics and from other troubled or dysfunctional families survive by dodging, hiding, negotiating, taking care of others, pretending, denying and learning and adapting to stay alive using any method that works. They learn other, often unhealthy, ego defense mechanisms, as described by Anna Freud (1936) and summarized by Vaillant (1977). These include: intellectualization, repression, disassociation, displacement and reaction formation (all of which if over-used can be considered to be neurotic) and projection, passive-aggressive behavior, acting out, hypochondriasis, grandiosity and denial (all of which if over-used can be considered immature and at times psychotic).

While these defenses are functional in surviving our dysfunctional family, they tend to work poorly for us as adults. When we attempt to participate in a healthy relationship, they tend not to further our best interests. Using them stifles and stunts our Child Within and promotes and reinforces our false or co-dependent self.

Ginny was a 21-year-old woman who grew up in an alcoholic family. At the beginning of her recovery, she wrote the following poem. It exemplifies some of the pain of the survival stage.

Afraid of Night


Like the child waiting in the night

For warm hands and arms to wrap

Themselves around her loneliness:

To spend herself in tears of sudden safety—

And of love.

I, too, in the dark aloneness of self unloved,

Unanchored, abandoned, and denied,

Still summon with silent child cries

the ancient hope—

The old sure magic of wantedness.

The child still lives in me

With that eager hurt of innocence bewildered

And betrayed. Ah, that painful paradox.

To sense the rescue,

And know there is none.

But driven by old dreams, pale yet powerful,

Remembrances of the soft dear touch of love,

I wait.

One waits. One always waits.

It is forgotten—that nameless need

The years have beaten from my wasted heart.

But like some unshaped primeval force,

It beckons, crowds my reality,

Blunts stiff reason.

And I am grotesque with helpless wanting,

Turning my mind inwards, backwards.

Dull, too, is pain with young memories

That weaken and defy,

Submit then die.

I do not live;

I wait in such unhope.

Here Ginny tells us about her pain, numbness, isolation and hopelessness. Yet, she also reflects one ray of potential hope in the line, “The child still lives in me.”

Part of recovery is to discover ourselves, our Child, and how we use these ineffective means of relating to ourselves, to others and to the universe. This can be most productively accomplished during the working stages of recovery.

While it is clear that we are surviving, it is also true that we experience a good deal of pain and suffering. Or we become numb. Or we alternate between pain and numbness. Slowly we become aware that these very skills and defenses that allowed us to survive as mistreated infants, children and adolescents, do not work well when we try to have healthy, intimate relationships as adults. It is the painful effects of this abuse and neglect and this failure in our relationships that do not work for us, that push and at times even force us to begin looking elsewhere than these ineffective methods. That looking elsewhere can trigger our recovery.

Gravitz and Bowden (1985) describe recovery in their ACoA patients as occurring in six stages: (1) Survival; (2) Emergent Awareness; (3) Core Issues; (4) Transformations; (5) Integration; and (6) Genesis (or spirituality). These stages parallel the four stages of life growth and transformation described by Ferguson (1980) and the three stages of the classical mythological hero or heroine’s journey as described by Campbell (1946) and by myself and others.

We can clarify and summarize the similarities of each approach as follows.


Each stage is useful in healing our Child Within. Each stage is often recognized only in retrospect. When we are in the stage, we do not always realize that we are there. This is one reason why it is helpful to have a sponsor, guide, counselor or therapist during recovery. A therapy group that uses principles of ACoA recovery, described in this book and elsewhere (Gravitz, Bowden 1985), can be especially helpful (Whitfield 1990).

Awakening (Emergent Awareness)

Awakening is the first glimpse that “things” or “reality” are not what we thought. Awakening is an ongoing process throughout recovery. To begin, we generally require an entry point or trigger—anything that shakes up our old understanding or belief system of reality, of the way that we thought things were (Ferguson 1980; Whitfield 1985; 2003).

Because our True Self is so hidden, and because our false self is so prominent, awakening may not come easily. Nonetheless, it often happens. I have witnessed this process in hundreds of children of trauma. The entry point or trigger may range across a wide spectrum. It may start with hearing or reading someone describe their own recovery or own True Self, or being “sick and tired” of our suffering, or beginning to work seriously on another life problem in counseling or therapy. For others, it may be attending a self-help meeting or an educational experience, reading a book or hearing about it from a friend.

At this time, we often begin to experience confusion, fear, enthusiasm, excitement, sadness, numbness and anger. These mean that we are beginning to feel again. We begin to get in touch with who we really are—our Child Within, our Real Self. At this point, some people will give up and go no further. They find it easier and more “comfortable” to retreat back into their false self (which we can call a relapse of neurosis or co-dependence) because these feelings are frightening.

Those who are recovering alcoholic, other drug dependent, or dependent upon other unproductive behavior, such as overeating or compulsive gambling and the like, may begin to experience a relapse. Or they may precipitate another form of shame-based compulsive behavior, such as spending money that they do not have. But this awakening can be an opportunity to take a risk or a plunge to discover our whole self, our aliveness and even eventually some lasting peace.

Finding Help

At this point it is helpful to find a sponsor, counselor or therapist to help us discover and heal our Child Within. The recovering person, however, is usually so vulnerable, often related to the confusion, fear and enthusiasm and/or resistance to recovery, that they might find a sponsor or clinician who has not worked through their own recovery of their Child Within. If that person cannot get their own needs met, they may use the newly awakened person to meet some of these needs. The result is that the patient, client, student or “pigeon,” is traumatized again, resulting in the vicious cycle of unresolved trauma and return to the false self (Miller 1983; Jacoby 1984).


The following are guidelines to finding a sponsor, therapist or counselor who will usually tend to be helpful rather than harmful. The person will tend to have or be:

1) Demonstrable training and experience. For example, a clinician or therapist has training and experience in helping people to grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually, as well as being effective in helping with specific problems or conditions, such as being an ACoA or an “AC” (Adult Child of a troubled family).

2) Not dogmatic, rigid or judgmental.

3) No promises of quick fixes or answers.

4) While you sense that they genuinely respect you as a human being and your recovery and growth, they are firm enough to push you to do your own work of recovery.

5) Provide some of your needs (listening, mirroring, echoing, safety, respect, understanding and accepting your feelings) during the therapy session.

6) Encourage and help you learn to find ways outside the therapy session to get your needs met in a healthy way.

7) They are well progressed in healing their own Child Within.

8) They do not use you to get their needs met (this may be difficult to detect).

9) You feel safe and relatively comfortable with them.

Occasionally a friend during recovery has many of these qualities. However, a friend or relative is not forced to listen with full attention, and is generally not trained in helping you work through your specific problems or issues. Friends and relatives may want you for their needs, sometimes in unhealthy or unconstructive ways. And some friends or relatives—usually unconsciously—may, sooner or later, betray you or reject you. You may end up feeling “toxic” or crazy. Being close to these unrecovered people is generally not “safe.” Avoid them when possible.

It will probably take some time before you can trust the process of therapy and recovery enough so that you feel okay about taking risks to begin exposing your True Self. Give yourself that time. For some, the time needed will be relatively short—a matter of weeks. For others, it may take longer than a year. It is important to share these fears with your therapist and not withhold them. Taking this one step breaks the pattern of denying feelings that you learned as a child.

As you feel a sense of trust, you can begin to risk talking about your innermost secrets, fears or concerns. I have described the healing power of telling our story in Chapter 12 and in Alcoholism and Spirituality, and others have also described it (Kurtz 1979). Whether in individual or group therapy, it is helpful to talk, even if at first you may stutter or ramble. Feel free to ask your counselor, therapist, group leader or group members for feedback about how you come across. No matter what type of therapy you choose, it is helpful to do much of the work of recovery on your own, outside the session. This can include activities from wondering, considering, questioning and exploring various ideas and possibilities; to keeping a diary or a journal; to telling your dreams to trusted people; to working through conflicts with others.

Eventually, when you talk to others about yourself, it is useful to your recovery that you begin to become clearer and briefer, especially if you are in a therapy group or self-help group.

There is a truism in counseling that people in therapy generally relate and behave in the same or similar ways that they behave outside of therapy. It may be helpful in your recovery to ask your therapist or group how you are doing in this area.

Finally, there is the issue of transference in therapy, which includes your feelings and conflicts around your relationship with your counselor, therapist, or group (Jacoby 1984). Take a risk and express exactly how you feel, even if angry, shameful, guilty or whatever, no matter how unimportant it might seem at first to you. Your feelings are okay, despite your fears that they are bad or unjustified.


Once you feel trusting enough so that you can risk self-disclosure in recovery, you are usually ready to begin conscious work on some of your core issues, which I address in the next chapter.


Beginning to Deal with Core Issues

An issue is any conflict, concern or potential problem, whether conscious or unconscious, that is incomplete for us or needs action or change.

There are at least 14 core issues in the recovery of our Child Within that we can work through. Eight of these have been described by clinicians and authors, including Gravitz and Bowden (1985), Cermak and Brown (1982), and Fischer (1985). These core issues are: control, trust, feelings, being over responsible, neglecting our own needs, all-or-none thinking and behaving, high tolerance for inappropriate behavior and low self-esteem. To these I have added being real, grieving our ungrieved losses, fear of abandonment, difficulty resolving conflict, and difficulty giving and receiving love.

As problems, concerns, conflicts or patterns come up in our life, we can bring them up with selected safe and supportive people. At first it may not be clear just which of these core issues—or perhaps more than one of them—is involved for us. Core issues do not present themselves to us as an “issue.” Rather, they present at first as problems in our everyday life. However, with persistent considering and telling our story it will generally become clear which issue or issues are involved. This knowledge will be helpful in gradually getting free of our confusion, discontent, and unconscious negative life patterns (repetition compulsions or re-enactments).

All-Or-None Thinking and Behaving

This is the ego defense against pain that therapists call splitting. When we think or act this way, we do so at either one extreme or the other. For example, either we love someone completely or we hate them. There is no middle ground. We see the people around us as either good or bad, and not the composite they really are. We judge ourselves equally as harshly. The more we use all-or-none thinking, the more it opens us up to behaving in an all-or-none fashion. Both of these actions tend to get us into trouble and to cause us to suffer unnecessarily.

We may become attracted to others who think and behave in an all-or-none fashion. But being around this kind of person tends to result in more trouble and pain for us.

Table 3 (p. 26) lists types of parental conditions associated with dynamics of ACoAs, and adult children from other dysfunctional families. While all-or-none thinking can occur in any of these parental conditions, it occurs especially often among fundamentalist religious parents. They are often rigid, punitive, judgmental, and perfectionistic. They are often in a shame-based system, which attempts to cover over and even destroy the True Self.

All-or-none thinking is similar to active alcoholism, other chemical dependence, co-dependence or other active addictions and attachments, in that it sharply and unrealistically limits our possibilities and choices. To be so limited makes us feel constricted, and we are unable to be creative and to grow in our day-to-day lives.

In recovery, we begin to learn that most things in our life, including our recovery, are not all-or-none, not either-or. Rather, they are both-and. They have shades of gray, they are somewhere in the middle, a “3, 4, 5, 6, or 7” and not either a “0” or a “10.”


Control is perhaps the most dominant issue in our lives. No matter what we think we have to control, whether someone else’s behavior, our own behavior or something else, our false self tends to latch on to this notion and won’t let go. The result is often emotional pain, confusion and frustration.

Ultimately, we cannot control life, so the more that we try to control it, the more out of control we feel because we are focusing so much attention on it. Frequently the person who feels out of control is obsessed with the need to be in control.

Another word for control is attachment. Wise people have found that attachment or needing to be in control is the basis for suffering. Certainly, suffering is part of life. We all may have to suffer before we can begin to consider our alternatives. Suffering may point out the path toward peace of mind. One alternative that nearly always relieves our suffering is surrender: we surrender our false self, and our attachment to the notion that we can control anything.

We suffer when we resist what is. We slowly find that one of the most powerful and healing acts is giving up our need to always be in control. This freedom is that of our True Self. In this context, the word “surrender” does not mean to “give up” or to “lie down” in the military sense of losing a war. Rather, we mean that one who surrenders wins the struggle of trying to control, and ameliorates most of their resultant needless suffering (Whitfield 1985). This becomes an ongoing process in life, not a goal to be achieved only once.

Needing to be in “control” is intimately related to and includes several other major life issues: willpower, fear of losing control, dependence/independence, trust, experiencing feelings, especially anger, self-esteem and shame, being spontaneous, self-nurturing, all-or-none and expectations of self and others. Many people have not worked through these important life issues. However, most of the time they believe they have overcome, i.e., controlled these issues and all other life problems. They even believe they can somehow control life itself.

It is hard to learn that life cannot be controlled. Life’s powerful and mysterious process goes on, no matter what we do. Life cannot be controlled because it is far too rich, spontaneous and rambunctious to be fully understood, much less controlled by our thinking, controlling ego/false self (Cermak 1985).

At this point we can discover that there is a way out, a way to get free of the suffering associated with our always needing to be in control. The way out is to surrender, and then to become, gradually, a co-creator of life. This is where the spiritual aspect of recovery comes into play as a powerful aid. Attendance at and working 12 Step recovery programs such as Al-Anon, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, ACA/ACoA, CoDA, and Overeaters Anonymous and others are helpful. Other spiritual paths may also be helpful.

We work on our control issues by asking for help from appropriate others and by letting go. When we do this, we begin to discover our True Self, and we begin to feel more alive.

Being Over Responsible

Many of us who grew up in troubled or dysfunctional families learned to become overly-responsible. That often seemed the only way to avoid many of our painful feelings, such as anger, fear and hurt. It also gave us the illusion of being in control. But what seemed to work then doesn’t always work well now.

A 40-year-old patient of mine told me that he always said “yes” to requests at work, and doing that was causing him a lot of suffering. By working on himself for two years in group therapy and by taking a course on assertiveness, he has learned to say “no,” and to let others do what he cannot do or does not want to do. He is discovering his True Self, his Child Within.

Instead of being overly-responsible, other people may be irresponsible, passive and feel as if they are victims of the world. It is equally helpful for them to work in recovery on these issues; some benefit from learning healthy boundaries (Whitfield 1995).

Neglecting Our Needs

Disowning and neglecting our own needs is intimately related to being overly-responsible. Both are part of our false self’s actions. It may be useful at this point to review Chapter 4. Some may find it helpful to make a copy of Table 2 which lists some of our human needs and to put this list where we can see it easily and often—perhaps also to carry it with us.

By observing and by working on our recovery we can begin to identify people and places where we can get these needs met in a healthy manner. Gradually, as more and more of our needs are met, we discover a crucial truth: that we are the most influential, effective and powerful person who can help us get what we need. The more we realize this, the more we can seek out, ask for and actually realize our needs. As we do so, our Child Within begins to awaken and eventually to flourish, grow and create. Virginia Satir said, “We need to see ourselves as basic miracles and worthy of love.”

High Tolerance for Inappropriate Behavior

Children from troubled or dysfunctional families grow up not knowing what is “normal,” healthy or appropriate. Having no other reference point on which to test reality, they think their family and their life, with its inconsistency, its trauma and its pain, is “the way it is.”

In fact, when we assume the role of our false self, which troubled families, friendships and work environments tend to promote, we become fixed in this role—we don’t realize there is any other way to be.

In recovery, with appropriate supervision and feedback from skilled and safe others, we slowly learn what is healthy and what is appropriate. Other related issues include: being overly-responsible, neglecting our own needs, feelings, boundary issues and shame and low self-esteem.

Tim was a 30-year-old single man who had been in our therapy group for two months. He told us, “When I was a kid, I felt trapped into having to listen to my father’s irrational talk and behavior when he was drinking, which was every night and all of most weekends. When I would try to get away from him, I felt so guilty and my mother added to it by telling me how selfish I was. Even today as an adult, I let people treat me badly. I let some almost walk all over me. But until I found out about adult children of troubled families and started reading about it and going to meetings, I thought something was wrong with me.” Tim is learning about his high tolerance of others’ inappropriate behavior and is beginning to get free of this often subtle form of mistreatment.

Fear of Abandonment

Fear of being abandoned goes all the way back to our earliest seconds, minutes and hours of existence. Related to the issue of trust and distrust, it is often exaggerated among children who grew up in troubled or dysfunctional families. Thus, to counter this fear, we often mistrust. We shut out our feelings so we don’t feel the hurt.

Some of my patients reported that their parents threatened to leave or abandon them as a disciplinary measure when they were infants and young children. This is a cruelty and trauma that may appear benign to some on the surface, although in my opinion it is a covert form of child abuse.

Juan was a 34-year-old divorced man, a successful writer, who grew up in a troubled and dysfunctional family. He told us in group, “I can’t remember much about my life before age 5, but at that time my father left me, my mother and my younger sister—out of the blue! He had told my mother he had a job to do out West and would be back. But he didn’t tell us kids. And what’s more, my mother shipped me off to live with my aunt 600 miles away, without telling me why. I must have been shocked. I denied it all until now. Just in the last few months I’ve got in touch with my feelings that not only did that SOB abandon me, but my mother rejected me. That must have really hurt that little boy inside of me. I’m just now beginning to get angry about that, too.” At a subsequent session, he told us, “One way I learned to handle people abandoning me was not to get too close to them. And with certain women, I’d get very close to them, but if any conflict came up for very long, I’d leave them right away. I can view it now that I was abandoning them before they could leave me.” Juan continues to work on his feelings of hurt and anger in dealing with this important issue in his recovery—that of abandonment.

Difficulty Handling & Resolving Conflict

Difficulty handling and resolving conflict is a core recovery issue for adult children. It touches upon and interacts with most of the other core issues.

Growing up in a troubled or dysfunctional family, we learn to avoid conflict whenever possible. When conflict occurs, we learn mostly to withdraw from it in some way. Occasionally, we become aggressive, and try to overpower those with whom we are in conflict. When these techniques fail, we may become devious, and attempt to manipulate. In a dysfunctional environment, these methods may help assure our survival. But they do not tend to work in a healthy intimate relationship.

Recovery itself—healing our Child Within—is built on discovering conflict after conflict and then working through each. But the fear and other painful feelings that come up as we get closer to the conflict may be too much for us to experience. Rather than face the pain and the conflict head-on, we may revert to our prior methods. These may include, “I can do it on my own.” A problem is that doing it on our own has not always worked well for us.

Joanne was a 40-year-old woman who had been in group therapy for adult children of dysfunctional families for seven months. She tried to be the dominant member of the group. But when Ken joined the group, he tried to be assertive with her, and at times was aggressive enough to cause her difficulty and frustration in being as dominant as she had been. After several altercations between Joanne and Ken, Joanne announced that she had decided to leave the group. Upon exploration by the group, their basic conflict was revealed. My co-leader and I said, “Joanne, Ken, and the group are at a crucial point in their recovery. You are right in the middle of an important conflict. You have an opportunity here, since this group is a safe place, to work through a core issue for each of you. In the past how have you handled conflict?”

The group members discussed how they often ran away from it, or became aggressive or even manipulative, and that had not worked for them. A group member said to Joanne, “You really do have a chance to work this thing through. I hope you don’t leave.” She said she would think about it, and the next week she returned and said she had decided to stay in the group.

She told the group that she felt that they didn’t listen to her and support her, and that since Ken had joined the group, had felt that more so. More issues were revealed, including that she had always had difficulty recognizing her needs and getting them met. She also had always felt unappreciated and unloved by her parents. She, Ken, and the group worked on their conflict, and over the course of several group therapy sessions, have resolved it.

In handling and resolving conflict we first recognize that we are in it. We then take a risk if we feel safe, to disclose our concerns, feelings and needs. By working through conflict, we learn more and more to identify and work through past conflicts and current ones as they come up.

It takes courage to recognize and to work through conflict.

Beginning to Talk About Our Issues

In recovery, we begin to report, from the depths of our True Self, such experiences and fears, such as that of being abandoned. When we share our feelings, concerns, confusions and conflicts in the company of safe and accepting people, we construct a story that we might not otherwise be able to tell. While it is useful for others to hear our stories, the most useful and healing thing about telling our own story is that we, the story-teller, get to hear our story. Before we tell it, we don’t always know exactly how it will come out.

So, no matter which concern, problem or life issue we may want to work on, risking and beginning to talk about it with a safe person or persons is a way out of the unnecessary burden of remaining silent and holding in our pain. And when we tell our story from our hearts, bones and guts, from our Real Self, we discover the truth about ourselves. Doing so is healing.

Most often, when core issues and feelings come up for us early in recovery, our false self actually disguises them into other guises or masks. A task in recovery for us is to learn to recognize issues when they come up. One of the advantages in talking with safe others about our concerns is that doing so helps to expose and clarify our issues.

Other Issues

Of the remaining major or core issues of recovery, I have already discussed that of low self-esteem or shame in Chapter 6. Throughout this book I discuss the issues of being real, grieving, handling our feelings, and resolving conflict. In my other books I discuss these core issues, and in My Recovery (2003) I describe how to include them in making a personal recovery plan for healing.

Triggering Core Issues

Many situations can trigger our core issues, so that they become activated and begin to enter into our lives more overtly. One situation is an intimate relationship—one in which two or more people dare to be their Real Selves with one another. In an intimate relationship we share parts of us that we may rarely share with others. Such sharing immediately raises issues like trust, feelings and responsibility. While we have the opportunity for many intimate relationships in recovery, our relationship with our counselor, therapist, therapy group members or sponsor can and does trigger many issues. To deal with these most constructively we can practice being our Real Self as much as possible. This requires us to surrender, to trust, to risk and to participate. And all of this is potentially frightening.

Other situations that often trigger or precipitate the surfacing of these issues include going through major life transitions (Levin 1980), demands on our performance at work, home or play, and especially making visits to our parents or family of origin (Gravitz and Bowden 1985). When the feelings, frustrations and issues surface, we can begin to get free of them if we are real, and if we share our Real Self with safe people whom we can trust.


In the next 3 chapters I talk more about feelings and how to use them in our healing.


Identifying and Experiencing Our Feelings

Becoming aware of our feelings and constructively dealing with them is crucial in the process of healing our Child Within.

People who grew up in troubled or dysfunctional families don’t tend to get their needs met. Not getting our needs met hurts. We feel the painful feelings. Since the parents and other members of such families tend themselves to be unable to listen to us, to support us, and to nurture, accept, and respect us, we often have no one with whom we can share our feelings. The emotional pain hurts so much that we defend against them by the various unhealthy ego defenses described in Chapter 8, thus shutting the feelings out, away from our awareness. Doing so allows us to survive, although at a price. We become progressively numb. Out of touch. False.

When we are thus not our Real Self, we do not grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Not only do we feel stifled and un-alive, but we also often feel frustrated and confused. We are in a victim stance. We are unaware of our total self, and we feel as though others, “the system,” and the world are “doing it to us,” as if we are their victim, at their mercy.

A way out of this victim stance and its pain is to begin to identify and to experience our feelings. An effective way to facilitate knowing and experiencing our feelings is to talk about them with safe and supportive people.

Bill was 36-years-old, successful at work but not in the intimate relationship he wanted. In group therapy one day he said, “I hated my feelings and being always asked to talk about them here. After two years in this group, I’m beginning to see how important they are. And I’m even beginning to enjoy them, even though some are painful. Basically, I feel more alive when I feel my feelings.”

There is no need for us to know everything about our feelings. All we need to know is that feelings are important, that we each have all of them, and that it is healthy to begin to know them and to talk about them. Our feelings can be our friends. Properly handled, they will not betray us; we will not lose control, be overwhelmed or engulfed—as we may fear.

Our feelings are the way we perceive ourselves. They are our reaction to the world around us, the way we sense being alive (Viscott 1976). Without awareness of our feelings, we have no real awareness of life. They summarize our experience and tell us if it feels good or bad. Feelings are our most helpful link in our relationship with ourselves, others and the world around us.

The Spectrum of Feelings

We have two basic kinds of feelings or emotions—joyful and painful. Joyful feelings make us feel a sense of strength, well being and completion. Painful feelings interfere with our sense of well being, use up our energy and can leave us feeling drained, empty and alone. Yet even though they may be painful, they are often telling us something, a message to ourself that something important may be happening, something that may need our attention.

Being aware of our feelings, and feeling them in a natural flow, as they occur spontaneously from minute to minute, day to day, gives us several advantages. Our feelings can both warn us and assure us. They act as indicators or gauges of how we are doing at the moment and over a stretch of time. They give us a sense of mastery and aliveness.

Our Real Self feels both joy and pain. And it expresses and shares them with appropriate others. However, our false self tends to push us to feel mostly painful feelings and to withhold and not share them.

For simplicity, we can describe these joyful and painful feelings across a spectrum, starting with the most joyous, going through the most painful, and ending with confusion and numbness, as follows:


Viewing our feelings in this way, we see that our Real and True Self, our Child Within, is empowered with a wider range of possibilities than we might have believed. The maintenance and growth of our Child Within is associated with what psychotherapists and counselors call a “strong ego,” or sense of self i.e., a flexible and creative self that can “roll with the punches” of life. By contrast, the false self tends to be more limited, responding to mostly painful feelings—or no feeling at all, i.e., numbness. Our false self tends to be associated with a “weak ego” or self sense i.e., a less flexible, self-centered (negative or egocentric) and more rigid one. [Originally Freud and his followers used “ego” to mean what we now understand as being both our True Self and false self. But since about 1940, object relations and self psychologists have differentiated these and generally do not use the term “ego.” Today, more people equate ego with false self.] To cover up the pain we use relatively unhealthy defenses against pain which give us fewer possibilities and choices in our lives.

Levels of Awareness About Feelings

In order to survive, a person who grew up in or is presently living in a troubled environment tends to be limited to the feeling armamentarium of their false self. As we begin to explore and become more aware of our feelings, we discover that we can have four different levels of awareness about them.

1) Closed About Our Feelings

When we cannot feel a feeling, we are closed in our ability to accurately name and use it (Table 8). At that stage not only do we not know the feeling, but also we are unable to understand and communicate the condition of our True Self. While we may be talking superficially or even reporting facts, our interpersonal interaction and our ability to experience life and to grow is very low. We can call this stage of growing and sharing our feelings closed, or Level One.

2) Beginning to Explore

At Level Two we can begin to explore our feelings. Here we may be guarded in sharing our newly found feelings, and they may come out in conversation disguised as ideas and opinions rather than actual feelings. At this level interactions with others and our ability to experience life and grow remains low, but it is greater than where we were in Level One. While most people have feelings and would often like to express them, most people do not do so and thus live their lives in a low awareness and sharing of their feelings, limited to functioning in Levels One and Two. This limited use of feelings is what the false self is accustomed to.

3) Exploring and Experiencing

As we begin to know our True Self, we begin to explore and to experience our feelings at a deeper or “gut” level. Here we are able to tell others as feelings come up for us how we really feel. By doing so we can have much interpersonal interaction with people who are important to us and can experience our life more. We thereby grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually. When we reach this more efficient Third Level of our feelings, we know ourself better and are better able to experience intimacy with another.

4) Sharing Our Feelings

However, sharing our feelings with another is like a two-edged sword. First, we may share them with someone who does not want to listen. They may themselves be functioning at Levels One or Two and be incapable of listening. Or they may appear to be listening, but are preoccupied with their own agenda, which is entirely different from ours. Or even more painful results could happen. We could share with someone who is not safe and supportive, and we might be rejected for sharing and we may even be betrayed. The difficulty in sharing feelings is shown in the following recovery history.

Table 8. Levels of Awareness and Communication of Feelings, With Guidelines for Sharing

(Modified from Dreitlein 1984)


Ken was a 34-year-old successful salesman who grew up in a family where his father and brother were actively alcoholic and his mother was co-alcoholic. In his therapy group he spoke of how he had recently set limits on his brother’s attending a birthday celebration at Ken’s house by asking his brother not to drink or use drugs at the occasion. When asked about how he felt about his brother’s potentially disrupting the party since that was his pattern in the past, he told the group that he felt “fine” about it. The group members asked him how he really felt and again he said, “Well, fine. But I told you this today to get your feedback.” The group continued to ask him how he really felt. Gradually, he realized that he had been blocking and suppressing feeling fear, anger, frustration and confusion, and he told that to the group.

Ken took advantage of being in a therapy group by using them as a mirror, and asking them for their feedback. He had been in the group for three months at the time and was beginning to trust the group as being a safe and supportive place and a resource in which he could air his concerns and confusions. He used the group to help him to discover an important part of his True Self, his feelings.

When we share our feelings, it is most appropriate to do so with safe and supportive people. Early in recovery people who grew up in troubled or dysfunctional families may want so much to share that they get rejected, betrayed or otherwise get into trouble by telling others, indiscriminately, about their feelings. They may find it difficult to learn that it is not appropriate to share feelings with everyone.

Share-Check-Share and Safe/Unsafe People

How do we decide who is safe and who is not? One way is by the technique of share-check-share (Gravitz, Bowden 1985). When we have a feeling that we want to share, but perhaps aren’t sure of who is safe and who is not, we can share just a bit of our feelings with selected people. Then we check their response. If they don’t seem to listen or if they try to judge us or if they immediately try to give us advice, we may not wish to share any more feelings with them. If they try to invalidate our feelings, or if they reject us and certainly if they betray us by talking about us, and especially our confidences, then they are probably not “safe” to continue sharing with. However, if they listen, are supportive and do not react with the above responses, then it may be safe to continue sharing with them. Further clues for “safe” people are those who make eye contact with us, tend to appear sympathetic and don’t try to rush in and change us, our situation or our feelings. Over the long term someone who is safe will be consistent in listening and supporting and will not betray or reject us.

Places to practice sharing and checking are a therapy group, a self-help group, with a counselor, therapist, a sponsor or a trusted friend or loved one.

Spontaneous and Observing

As we become more comfortable and able to trust our True Self and others, we can begin selectively to disclose our feelings in a more complete way. As this kind of sharing continues and matures, we can observe our feelings more and more (Level Four). As we do so, we discover an empowering and healing principle: we are not our feelings. While our feelings are helpful and even crucial to our aliveness and our ability to know and enjoy ourselves and others, we can at the same time simply observe them. Here we are at harmony with our feelings. They do not overtake us or rule us. We are not their victim. This level with our feelings is advanced.

Transforming Our Feelings

Each feeling has an opposite (Table 9). As we become aware of each painful feeling, and as we experience each and then let go of it, we can transform them into joyful feelings. This allows us to experience the gratitude from transforming our pain into our joy, our “curse” into our gift.

Our feelings work in concert with our will and our intellect to help us live and grow. If we deny, distort, repress or suppress them, we only block the flow to their natural conclusion. Blocked feelings can cause distress and illness. By contrast, when we are aware of our experience, and share, accept and then let go of our feelings, we tend to be healthier and more able to experience the serenity or inner peace that is our natural condition.

Taking time with our feelings is essential to our growth and happiness. The way out of a painful feeling is “through it.”

TABLE 9. Some Feelings and Their Opposites

(Compiled in part from Rose et al., 1972)

Painful Feelings*

Joyful Feelings






































Contentment Fulfillment

*You may notice that I do not call these painful feelings “negative” ones, since often feeling some of them may be positive or useful to us, depending on how we use them.

**Fear, anger and shame may be the most useless of our feelings.

Our feelings are a vital part of a crucial dynamic in our growth—here, our grieving. When we lose something important to us, we have to grieve to grow from it, which I describe in the next chapter.


The Process of Grieving

A trauma is a loss, whether a real loss or a threatened one. We experience a loss when we are deprived of or have to go without something that we have had and valued, something that we needed, wanted or expected.

Minor losses or traumas are so common and subtle that we often do not recognize them as being a loss. Yet all of our losses produce pain or unhappiness: we call this pain and train of feelings grief. We can also call it the grieving process. When we allow ourselves to feel these painful feelings, give them an accurate name, and when we share the grief with safe and supportive others over time, we are able to complete our grief work and thus be free of it.

To complete our grief work takes time. The bigger the loss, the longer the time generally required. For a minor loss we may complete most of the grieving in a few hours, days or weeks. For a moderate loss this work may require months to a year or longer. And for a major loss the time required for the healthy completion of grieving is usually from two to four years, or longer.

Dangers of Unresolved Grief

Unresolved grief festers like a deep wound covered by scar tissue, a pocket of vulnerability ever ready to break out anew (Simos 1979). When we experience a loss or trauma, it stirs up energy within us that needs to be discharged. When we do not discharge this energy, the stress builds up to a state of chronic distress. Kritsberg (1986) calls it chronic shock. With no release this chronic distress is stored within us as discomfort or tension that may at first be difficult for us to recognize. We may feel it or experience it through a wide range of manifestations, such as chronic anxiety, tension, fear or nervousness, anger or resentment, sadness, emptiness, unfulfillment, confusion, guilt, shame or, as is common among many who grew up in a troubled family, as a feeling of numbness or “no feelings at all.” These feelings may come and go in the same person. There may also be difficulty sleeping, aches, pains and other somatic complaints, and full-blown mental-emotional or physical illness, including PTSD, may result. In short, we pay a price when we do not grieve in a complete and healthy way.

If we suffered losses in our childhood for which we were not allowed to grieve, we may grow up carrying several of the above conditions into and throughout our adulthood. We may also develop a tendency toward self-destructive or other-destructive behaviors. These destructive behaviors may cause us and others unhappiness, get us into trouble and can cause us crisis after crisis. When these destructive behaviors are repeated, they may be called a “repetition compulsion.” It is as if we have an unconscious drive or compulsion to keep repeating one or more of these behaviors, even though they are not usually in our best interest.

Children who grew up in a troubled or dysfunctional family suffer numerous losses over which they are often unable to grieve in a complete way. The many negative messages that they get when they try to grieve set up a major block: not feeling and not talking about it (See also Table 6 in Chapter 6). When these rules and patterns that are learned as children and adolescents continue into adulthood, they are difficult to change. Yet in healing our Child Within, in finding, nurturing and being our True Self, we can change these ineffective behaviors and occurrences. In doing so we begin to break free of the bonds of our repeated and unnecessary confusion and suffering. We first have to identify and name our losses or traumas. Then we can begin to re-experience them, going through our grief work and completing it, rather than trying to go around it or trying to avoid it as we have been doing up until now.

Beginning to Grieve

We can begin our grief work through any of several possible ways. Some of these ways include beginning to:

1) Identify (i.e., accurately name) our losses.

2) Identify our needs (Table 2).

3) Identify our feelings and share them (Chapter 10).

4) Work on core issues, (Chapter 9).

5) Work a recovery program.

Identifying Our Losses and Traumas

Identifying a hurt, loss or trauma may be difficult, especially one that we may have “stuffed,” repressed or suppressed. Identifying one that happened long ago may be even more difficult. While talking about our pain and our concerns may be helpful, simple talking or “talk therapy” may not be enough to activate feelings or grief around ungrieved losses.

That is why experiential therapy or techniques can be so helpful in activating and facilitating grief work. Experiential techniques, such as group therapy, risking one’s real concerns or family sculpture, allow a focus and a spontaneity that taps into the unconscious processes which otherwise may remain hidden from our ordinary awareness. Only an estimated 12% of our life and our knowledge is in our conscious awareness, in contrast to 88% that is in our unconscious awareness. These experiential techniques are helpful not only in identifying, but also in doing our actual work of grieving. The following are examples of some experiential techniques that may be used to heal our Child Within through grieving our un-grieved hurts, losses or traumas.

1) Risking and sharing, especially feelings, with safe and supportive people.

2) Storytelling (telling our own story, including risking, and sharing).

3) Working through transference (what we project or “transfer” onto others, and vice-versa for them).

4) Psychodrama, Reconstruction, Gestalt Therapy, Family Sculpture.

5) Hypnosis and related techniques

6) Attending self-help meetings.

7) Working the 12 Steps (of Al-Anon, ACA, AA, NA, OA, etc.).

8) Group therapy (usually a safe and supportive place to practice many of these experiential techniques)

9) Couples therapy or family therapy

10) Guided Imagery

11) Breathwork

12) Affirmations

13) Dream analysis

14) Art, Movement and Play therapy

15) Active imagination and using intuition

16) Meditation and Prayer

17) Therapeutic bodywork

18) Keeping a journal or diary

These experiential techniques should be used in the context of a full recovery program, ideally under the guidance of a therapist or counselor who knows principles of healing our Child Within.

To help further in identifying our losses, especially our ungrieved ones, I have compiled some examples of losses (Table 10). This list can be supplemented by also re-reading or referring to Table 5, which describes some terms for various losses or traumas that we may have experienced as children and as adults.

A loss may be sudden, gradual or prolonged. It can be partial, complete or uncertain or unending. It can occur singly or be multiple and cumulative. Always personal, it may also be symbolic.

Loss is such a universal experience, but because we encounter it so often, we easily and often overlook it. Yet it always carries with it a threat to our self-esteem. Indeed, loss occurs any time we suffer a blow to our self-esteem (Simos 1979).

While loss often occurs separately and discreetly, its resulting grief brings up prior un-grieved losses that have been stored in our unconscious. An ungrieved loss remains forever alive in our unconscious, which has no sense of time. Thus past losses or even a reminder of the loss, just as current losses or the memory of past losses, evoke fear of further loss in the future (Simos 1979).

Table 10. Some Examples of Loss

(Compiled from Simos 1979)

Important Person—Close or Meaningful Relationships

Separation, divorce, rejection, desertion, abandonment, death, abortion, stillbirth, illness, geographic move, children leaving home, etc.

Part of Ourself

Body image, illness, accident, loss of function, loss of control, self-esteem, independence, ego, expectations, lifestyle, needs, culture-shock, job change, etc.


Healthy parenting, getting needs met, healthy development (through stages), transitional objects (blanket, soft toy, etc.), gain or loss of siblings or other family members, body changes (e.g., in adolescence, middle age and older age). Threats of loss; separation or divorce.

Adult Developmental

Transitions, including mid-life and older life.

External ObjectsMoney, property, necessities (keys, wallet, etc.), car, sentimental objects, collections.

In summary,

Past losses and separations

have an impact on

current losses, separations and attachments.

And all of these factors bear on

fear of future losses and

our capacity to make future attachments. (Simos 1979)

Identifying an ungrieved loss is

a beginning of getting free

of its often painful hold on us.

Because loss can be such an overwhelming event in recovery from alcohol and other drug dependence, and co-alcoholism, co-dependence, and other effects of trauma, I have considered ten losses to be grieved in these conditions as further examples for people, who may have been affected, to continue to identify some of their ungrieved losses (Table 11).

Table 11. Some Losses in Alcoholism, Chemical Dependence, Co-dependence, and Adult Children of Alcoholics and other Troubled or Dysfunctional Families

1) Expectations; hopes, beliefs

2) Self-esteem

3) Parts of self (other than self-esteem)

4) Lifestyle

5) Instant altered state of consciousness and/or pain relief (the alcohol or the drug or the adrenaline high)

6) Past unexperienced relationships

7) Past incompleted developmental stages

8) Past ungrieved losses & traumas

9) Changes in current relationships

10) Threats of future loss

Stages of Grief

Acute grief tends to follow an approximate course, beginning with shock, fear, anxiety and anger, progressing through more pain and despair. Then it ends on either a positive or a negative note, depending on the conditions around the loss and the person’s opportunity to grieve it (Bowlby, 1980).

These stages or phases may be further described by breaking them down into more detailed components.

Stage 1. Shock, alarm and denial.

Stage 2. Acute grief, consisting of:

Continuing, intermittent, and lessening denial. Physical and psychological pain and distress. Contradictory pulls, emotions and impulses.

Searching behavior composed of:

preoccupation with thoughts of the loss, a compulsion to speak of the loss, and to retrieve that which was lost, a sense of waiting for something to happen, aimless wandering and restlessness, a feeling of being lost, of not knowing what to do, inability to initiate any activity, a feeling that time is suspended, disorganization and a sense that life can never be worthwhile again, confusion and feelings that things are not real, fear that all the above indicate mental illness.

Crying, anger, guilt, shame.

Identifying with traits, values, symptoms, tastes or characteristics of the lost object.

Regression or return to behaviors and feelings of an earlier age or connected with a previous loss or reactions thereto.

Helplessness and depression, hope or hopelessness, relief.

Decrease in pain and increasing capacity to cope over time.

A drive to find meaning in the loss.

Beginning thoughts of a new life without the lost object.

Stage 3. Integration of the loss and grief.

If the outcome is favorable:

Acceptance of the reality of the loss and return to physical and psychological well-being, diminished frequency and intensity of crying, restored self-esteem, focus on the present and future, ability to enjoy life again, pleasure at awareness of growth from the experience, reorganization of a new identity with restitution for the loss and loss remembered with poignancy and caring instead of pain.

If the outcome is unfavorable:

Acceptance of the reality of the loss with lingering sense of depression and physical aches and pains, of lower self-esteem, reorganization of a new identity with constriction of personality and involvement and vulnerability to other separations and losses (Simos 1979).

Breaking these stages down into components is helpful to our conceptualizing and understanding the grief process. However, these components are not discrete and sequential—they do not tend to follow each other in any prescribed order. Rather, they tend to overlap and to move around the various areas and manifestations listed above.

Dana was a 28-year-old woman who grew up in an abusive and actively alcoholic family. In her late teens she became alcoholic, and four years ago, at age 24, she stopped drinking and began treatment for her alcoholism. She had been in our therapy group for adult children of alcoholics and other troubled families for about two years, making noticeable progress. When she broke up with her boyfriend, she told the group, “I’m hurting so bad. I’m down to my last hurt, this emptiness is so bad. I broke up with my boyfriend two weeks ago. This week I started crying and just couldn’t stop. I’m realizing that breaking up is not all that is making me feel so bad. It is my loss of that little girl inside of me. I’ve been going home every night and crying myself to sleep.” Here she cries, and takes a long pause. “I just can’t believe that that little girl was treated as bad as she was. But it’s true.”

In beginning to grieve over one loss—the relationship with her boyfriend—she triggered her unfinished grieving over another loss—the mistreatment and abuse of her Child Within. This is an example of how grieving is not always as simple as it might first appear. Of course, Dana had been grieving the loss of her Child Within for a long time, although it was in an incomplete way: including through the repetition compulsion of going out with men who mistreated her, by not trusting her sponsor in A.A. and not trusting the therapy group for nearly the first year of her joining it. But gradually she began to risk and to tell her true story little by little. She is now beginning to break free of the shackles of her false self and her repetition compulsion and to heal her Child Within.

To work through the pain of our grieving, we experience our feelings as they come up for us, without trying to change them. Grief is thus active work. It is mental and emotional labor, exhaustive and exhausting (Simos 1979). It is so painful that we often try to avoid the pain around it. Some ways that we may try to avoid grieving include:

  • Continuing to deny the loss.
  • Intellectualizing about it.
  • Stuffing our feelings.
  • Macho mentality (I’m strong; I can handle it by myself).
  • Using alcohol or other drugs; or other addictions/attachments.
  • Prolonged attempt to get the lost object back.

Even though we may get temporary relief by such methods, not feeling our grief only prolongs our pain. Overall, we consume as much energy in avoiding grieving as we would if we went ahead and grieved our loss or trauma. When we feel something as we grieve, we decrease its power over us.

In healing our Child Within we may discover that we have been avoiding grief work over losses or traumas that happened a long time ago. Yet we suffered much and long through our inability to grieve. For some of us it may now be time to begin to work through and to complete our grieving.


There are many possible ways to facilitate feeling and experience our feelings as they come up for us. I listed several possible experiential techniques under “Identifying Our Losses” above. The first two of these are among the most readily available for us: Risking, sharing and telling our story with safe and supportive people, which I describe in the next chapter.


Continuing to Grieve: Risking, Sharing and Telling Our Story


When we risk, we expose ourself, our Child Within, our True Self. We take a chance and we become vulnerable. When we do this, two extreme outcomes may emerge—acceptance or rejection. Whatever we may decide to risk about ourself, another may accept or reject—or they may react somewhere in between.

Many of us may have been so wounded from risking—whether in our childhood, adolescence, adulthood or all three—that we are usually reluctant or unable to risk and share our Real Self with others. Yet we are caught in a dilemma: when we hold in our feelings, thoughts, concerns and creativities, our Child Within becomes stifled and we feel bad, we hurt. Our held-in energy may build up so much that the only way we can handle it is to let it out to someone. This is the predicament that many of us who grew up in troubled families encounter. And because of a number of factors, such as our seeking approval, validation, excitement and intimacy, we may select someone who is not safe and supportive. Indeed, they may reject us or betray us in some way, which may just confirm our reluctance to risk. So we hold in all our feelings again, and the cycle continues. Yet to heal our Child Within we have to share it with others. So where do we start?

Rather than hold it in and then let it out impulsively or haphazardly, we can begin a step at a time. Find someone who we know is safe and supportive, such as a trusted friend, a counselor or therapist, a therapy group or a sponsor. Begin by risking one little thing. Follow the share-check-share guideline described above (Gravitz, Bowden 1985). If it works, share some more.

Risking and sharing involves several other core issues, including trust, control, feelings, fear of abandonment, all-or-none thinking and behaving, and high tolerance for inappropriate behavior. When any of these issues come up, it can be useful to consider, and even to begin talking about it with safe people.

As we risk, we can eventually begin to tell our story.

Telling Our Story

Telling our story is a powerful act in discovering and healing our Child Within. It is a foundation of recovery in self-help groups, group therapy and individual psychotherapy and counseling.

Each of our stories when complete contains three basic parts: separation, initiation and return (Campbell 1949). Twelve-Step self-help groups describe their stories as “What we were like,” “What happened” and “What we are like now.” People in group therapy may call it risking, sharing, participating and “working” in group. In individual counseling or psychotherapy we may describe it by similar names, and psychoanalysts may call it “free association, working through transference and through unsolved internal conflict.” Among close friends, we may call it “baring our souls” or “having a heart-to-heart talk.”

In sharing and telling our story we can be aware that gossip and wallowing in our pain are usually counterproductive to healing. This is in part because gossip tends to be attacking rather than self-disclosing and it is generally incomplete, following the victim stance or cycle. Wallowing in our pain is continuing to express our suffering beyond a reasonable duration for healthy grieving. There is a danger here that may be observed in some self-help meetings: When a person tries to tell a painful story that has no apparent or immediate resolution, the other members may unknowingly label it as “self-pity” or a “pity party.” In this case, while self-help meetings are generally safe and supportive, the bereaved may wish to look elsewhere to express their pain.

Simos (1979) said, “Grief work must be shared. In sharing, however, there must be no impatience, censure or boredom with the repetition, because repetition is necessary for catharsis and internalization and eventual unconscious acceptance of the reality of the loss. The bereaved are sensitive to the feelings of others and will not only refrain from revealing feelings to those they consider unequal to the burden of sharing the grief but may even try to comfort the helpers” (i.e., the listener).

Our story does not have to be a classical “drunkalog” or long in length. In telling our story we talk about what is important, meaningful, confusing, conflicting or painful in our life. We risk, share, interact, discover and more. And by so doing we heal ourselves. While we can listen to the stories of others, and they can listen to ours, perhaps the most healing feature is that we, the story teller, get to hear our own story. While we may have an idea about what our story is whenever we tell it, it usually comes out different from what we initially thought.

I have illustrated our story in Figure 2. Starting at the point on the circle called “contentment,” we can forget that we are in our story. Eventually in our day-to-day life we experience a loss, whether it be a real or a threatened loss. The stage is now set for both grieving and growing. In Figure 2 I have summarized most of the initial pain of our grieving as hurt. And when we feel hurt, we tend to get angry.

At this crucial point we have a possibility of becoming aware that we have experienced a loss or are suffering an upset. And here we can choose to make a commitment to facing our emotional pain and grieving head-on. We can call this cycle of our story a “completed” one or the “hero/heroine’s journey.” Or we may remain unaware of the possibility of working through our pain around our loss or upset. We may then begin to build up a resentment and/or to blame ourselves, which eventually leads to stress-related illness, and to more prolonged suffering than if we had worked through our upset and our grieving in the first place. We can call this cycle the “victim cycle” or the “martyr/victim stance.”

If we commit to work through our pain and grieving, we then begin to share, ventilate, participate and to experience our grief. We may need to tell our story in such a fashion several times periodically over a period of several hours, days, weeks or even months—in order to finally complete our story. We may also have to consider it in other ways, mull it over, dream about it and even tell it again.


Figure 2. OUR STORY

While this has been painful for us, we are now complete with our upset or conflict. We are free of its pain. Our conflict is now resolved and integrated. We have learned from it. We have healed our Child Within and have grown. And we can settle back to our natural state of our Child Within, which is contentment, joy and creativity.

However, to begin to tell our story may be difficult. And when we tell it, it may be difficult to express our feelings around it. And among our most difficult feelings to recognize and to express is anger.

Anger is a major component in grieving and in healing our Child Within.

Getting Angry

Anger is one of the most common and most important of our feelings. Like other feelings it is an indicator to us of what we might need to attend to.

People who grew up in a troubled family often do not realize how angry they are nor how useful it can be for them to recognize and express their anger even if their traumas or mistreatments happened many years ago. When they were children and adolescents, they were often repeatedly mistreated. This mistreatment may be subtle. As discussed above in Chapter 9, under “High Tolerance for Inappropriate Behavior,” children and adults often do not realize that they have been mistreated. Having no other reference point from which to test reality, they think that how they were treated—and often how they still are being treated—is somehow appropriate or okay. Or if not appropriate, that they somehow deserve to be so mistreated.

Through hearing the stories of others in recovery, we slowly learn what mistreatment, abuse or neglect actually is. In recovery in group therapy or individual therapy, becoming and being aware of our feelings and expressing them, is shown to be a distinct advantage in eventually living a successful and peaceful life. As we discover our mistreatment, we can begin the necessary and freeing process of grieving and mourning. Becoming aware of our anger and expressing it is a major part of that grieving process.

One of the few deficiencies of some of the 12 Step self-help groups is their hidden fear of feelings and emotions, especially painful ones. There is even a saying “H.A.L.T.”—don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. The newly recovering person can just as easily take this to mean “hold in your feelings” as to its more accurate meaning “take better care of yourself so that you can help prevent being overwhelmed by these feelings.”

Many people in recovery are afraid to express their anger. They are often fearful that they might lose control if they really get angry. Then they might hurt someone, hurt themself or something else bad might happen. Were they to pursue it, they would often discover that their anger is not a superficial upset, but is actually rage. And to be enraged is scary. It is normal to be scared over becoming aware of and fully expressing our anger.

Often accompanying being angry, there may be somatic or nervous symptoms, such as trembling, shaking, panic, loss of appetite and even a feeling of excitement. It can be freeing to get in touch with and express our anger. Yet in a troubled family or environment, the healthy awareness and expression of feelings is discouraged and may even be forbidden.

As a child, adolescent or adult, we experience a loss or a trauma, whether real or threatened, and from that experience respond, most basically, with fear and hurt. However, in an environment where feelings can’t be expressed, we feel as though we caused the loss or trauma. We feel shame and guilt. But it is not okay to openly express these either. So we may then feel even more angry, and if we try to express that, we are squelched again. With repeated stuffing or repressing of such feelings, our Child Within is left feeling confused, sad, shameful and empty. As these painful feelings build and accumulate, they begin to become intolerable. With repeatedly nowhere to ventilate them, our only choice seems to be to block them all out as best we can—to become numb.

We actually have four additional choices, which we may learn as we grow older: (1) to hold it in until it gets unbearable; (2) unable to let it out, we get physically or emotionally sick, and/or we may “blow up;” (3) to blot the pain out with alcohol, other drugs or other addictions; or (4) to express the pain and work through it with safe and supportive people.

Blotting the pain out with alcohol or other drugs, whether prescribed by a physician or self-administered, is generally not effective for long and may be dangerous, in part for the child of an alcoholic parent or grandparent, because of the tendency of alcoholism and other chemical dependence to run in families. Doing so also blocks or delays healthy grief resolution. A problem is that many of us have reached out for help with our pain and we have been given drugs to lessen the pain, rather than be counseled that we are in the process of grieving and encouraged to work through it.

Holding the pain in until it gets so unbearable that we blow up is an outlet that is often modeled in troubled families. While doing so is probably more effective than drinking or using drugs to handle it, or than becoming numb, it is not nearly so effective as ventilating the pain when it happens or “comes up” with a person who is safe and supportive.

Protecting Our Parents: A Block to Grieving

In the previous chapter I listed six ways that we may use to avoid the pain of grieving: denying our loss, intellectualizing about it, stuffing our feelings, being macho, using alcohol or drugs and prolonged attempting to get the lost object back.

In further discussing anger we can now describe another block to grieving: that of protecting our parents and other parent and authority figures from our anger. Before and during grieving and discovering our Child Within we may sense, believe or fear that if we get angry at our parents, it will not be appropriate or that something bad will happen. This belief and fear is perhaps related in part to the “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” rule described in this book and elsewhere (Black 1981). In Table 12 below, I list nine ways that we, as children and adults, tend to protect our parents from our anger.

The first way is by outright denial. We may say something, like, “Oh, my childhood was fine” or “I had a normal childhood.” Such was their trauma, that many adult children of alcoholic, troubled or dysfunctional families cannot remember 75% or more of their childhood experiences. In my clinical experience, however, when working in recovery, most adult children are able to work through the denial and to gradually uncover their ungrieved losses or traumas and work through them. Hearing others’ stories in group therapy, ACoA self-help meetings and elsewhere is a help in identifying and recognizing what happened to us. We can then begin to mobilize our grieving, which includes getting angry.

Table 12. Answers, Approaches and Strategies often Used to Protect the Parents (and thus Block Healing)


Frequently Heard

1)Outright denial

“My childhood was fine.”

2)Appeasing; “Yes, but…”, detaching from the feelings

“It happened but…they (my parents) did their best.”

3)Viewing pain of the trauma as a fantasy

“It really didn’t happen that way.”

4)Fourth Commandment (Catholic) or Fifth (Protestant & Hebrew)

“God will be angry at me for my anger at my parent(s).”

5)Unconscious fear of rejection

“If I express my anger or rage, they won’t love me.”

6)Fear of the unknown

“Something really bad will happen. I might hurt someone, or they might hurt me.”

7)Accepting the blame

“I’m the bad one.”

8)Forgiving the parents

“I’ll just forgive them” or “I’ve already forgiven them.”

9)Attacking the person who suggests doing recovery work

“You’re bad for suggesting that I express my hurt and rage or that my parents could have been bad.”

The second answer, approach or strategy to protect our parents is by taking an appeasing attitude, such as “Yes, my childhood may have been somewhat bad, but my parents did the best they could.” Doing so is often a way that we detach from our feelings. Assuming such a “why bother” stance prevents us from beginning necessary grief work in getting free of our suffering.

Next is viewing the pain of our loss or trauma as being a fantasy. This one is commonly projected onto us if we do our recovery work in psychoanalysis or psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy. The analyst or therapist may suggest or imply that if a trauma happened to us, we never can remember it the way that it actually happened, with the implication that it is a fantasy. Compounding the wound, this once again invalidates the pain of our Child Within (Miller 1983). We end up concluding something like, “It really didn’t happen that way.”

In whatever method of therapy or counseling, we may be exhorted to admit that our fears are now groundless, our defiance no longer necessary and our need for acceptance long since met by the therapist, counselor or general therapy group. We may also be told that while we may hate our parents, we also love them, and that what they did wrong was done only out of love. Miller (1984) says, “The adult patient knows all this, but he is glad to hear it again because it helps him once more to deny, pacify and control the Child Within him who has just begun to cry. In this way, the therapist or the group, or he himself, will talk the child out of his ‘silly’ feelings because they are no longer appropriate in the present situation (although still intense); a process that could have produced positive results—namely, the awakening and maturation of the child’s true self—will be undermined by a method of treatment that refuses to offer support to the angry child.” To get free from mistreatment, we usually need to get angry.

The next way of blocking our anger is by the Fourth (or Fifth) Commandment, which says “Honor thy father and thy mother, that their days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (King James Version, Exodus 20:12). It is difficult to decipher or interpret exactly what the word “honor” means in this context. Over the centuries, however, it has been interpreted by most parents to mean “no back talk” and other such stifling messages to the child. We may conclude from this Fourth Commandment something like, “God will be angry at me if I get angry at my parents. It just isn’t right,” or “I will be an evil or a bad person if I get angry at them.” Most organized religions around the world have similar exhortations, which tend to stifle our Child Within and our ability to be real and to work through our losses in a healthy manner.

A fifth way of avoiding our anger and grieving by protecting our parents is by being afraid of rejection by them. We may consider, think or say something like, “If I express my rage, they won’t love me,” or “They may treat me like a bad little boy or girl again.” This is a genuine fear that needs to be expressed when it comes into our awareness.

A sixth way is by being fearful of the unknown, or fear of expressing feelings. We may say or think, “Something really bad will happen. I might hurt someone or they might hurt me.” This is another genuine fear that we may need to express in recovery. We may also accept the blame onto ourself, saying, “I’m the bad one.”

Many people avoid their anger and their grief by simply “forgiving” their parents. Assuming that forgiving is an easy act, they may say “I’ll just forgive them.” Or often more stifling to their True Self, “I’ve already forgiven them.” However, most people who say this have not forgiven completely, since forgiving is a process that is analogous to, if not in large part identical to the grieving process.

A final method of protecting our parents is by attacking the person who suggests that we may need to do recovery work, especially any work that might involve expressing anger at or blaming our parents. We may say or think something like, “You are bad for suggesting such a thing!” or “How dare you suggest that my parents could have been bad?”

In one or in a combination of these ways, we protect our parents from our hurt, anger and rage. And by doing so, we stifle our True Self and block our ability to recover from needless suffering. However, we are now armed with the knowledge of the possibilities of these blocks. Now, when we start to use them in any way—perhaps unknowingly, to impede our grieving—we can begin to let go of them when we are ready.

Expressing Our Anger

We’re learning that in healing our Child Within it is appropriate and healthy to become aware of and to express our anger. But how can we express it? And to whom?

It is becoming clearer to us that there are some people who are able to listen to our anger and to help us process it. These are the safe and supportive people that I have mentioned—therapists, counselors, sponsors, therapy groups and self-help group members and trusted friends. By contrast, there are other people who, for one reason or another, are unable to tolerate or to hear our anger. These may include our parents and others who may in some way remind us of our parents. If we express ourself the way we need to, directly to the parent or other person in question, it is unlikely that a healing experience will be completed. The person may well not understand what we are trying to say or what we are trying to do. Or they may reject our expression, our offering to risk ourself, and we may feel confused, hurt and powerless again. While it would be cathartic if we could ventilate our anger to these people, doing so would likely not be in our best interest. And it might even end up being self-destructive. Because they have not healed their Child Within, they are generally unable to be a part of the safe and supportive healing of another. However, we can learn to set limits with these people, so that they do not continue to mistreat us. We set limits both with firmness and with love. We do so not with aggressiveness, but with assertiveness.

While it is usually helpful to eventually make peace with and, through the grieving and the forgiveness process, to forgive our parents and others who have mistreated us, it is important that we not rush or hasten this process. There are some therapists and counselors who may insist on making reconciliation with our parents an immediate or ultimate goal of therapy. But premature efforts in this direction can actually block discovering and healing our Child Within. It is usually best to take our time.

And even if we work for a long time to discover and heal our Child Within, we may not be able to heal our differences with our parents. We come to the realization that we cannot fix them. They are the way they are, and nothing that we can do will change that. And so we let go.

For some people whose parents or others—such as an actively alcoholic, violent or otherwise abusing person—are “toxic” to them, it may be helpful to separate from them for a few months to a year, or more. Such a separation or “detoxification” period provides a space and a peace that will allow us to begin to discover and heal our Child Within.

Further Principles

The more we were hurt by the lost object or event that we grieve, the more anger we generally have. And even if we had a fairly healthy relationship with the lost object, we can still get angry at it for leaving us helpless and deprived. We may also get angry at others, including those we believe in some way were responsible for the loss, and at anyone who is not suffering as we are. Finally, we may get angry at having to pay for counseling and even at our counselors or therapists for pushing us to do our grief work.


Eventually after we have worked through our anger and the rest of our grieving, we let go of our anger and our suffering. We come to a point where we have had enough. In the next chapter, I will address the various features of the process of transforming as we heal.



Through various ways, including being real, self-reflection, working in therapy groups, self-help groups and counseling, many people are transforming their lives to become more free, whole and fulfilled.

Transformation is a changing of form, a forming over, a restructuring. Ultimately it is a shift from living our life to get somewhere, to living our life as an expression of our being. When we transform, we transform our awareness or consciousness. We switch from one domain of reality and being to another. Through such change, we grow and transcend to higher, more empowering, more peaceful and more creative levels of being. At the same time that we experience more personal power and more possibility and choice, we also begin to take more responsibility for making our lives work (Whitfield 1985).

In the transforming stage of recovery we work to expose the vulnerable parts of our Child Within and almost paradoxically at the same time claim the power that is inherently there, within our Child (George, Richo 1986). We transform the burdensome and often dysfunctional parts of our lives into positive and more functional ones. For example, when we identify, work through and change our core issues, we may make some of the transformations that follow.

Making such changes in our lives may not come easily. We have to work at it by risking and telling our story to people who are safe and supportive. However, when we transform, we generally don’t just one day feel a low self-esteem, wish we felt better about ourself, and the next morning awaken with a healthy self-esteem. Rather, there are specific steps in this kind of life-changing work.

Working on a single issue at a time that either concerns us or comes up for us is usually the most helpful way to go about the process of transforming. Gravitz and Bowden call it “chunking it down,” or breaking down a possible plan or solution to a problem into step-by-step or component parts. I have given a beginning outline form to some of these steps in Table 13.


Recovery Issues

Transformed Into

Grieving past and current issues

Grieving current losses

Difficulty being real

Being real

Neglecting our needs

Getting our needs met

Being overly-responsible for others

Being responsible for self, with clear boundaries

Low self-esteem

Improved self-esteem


Taking responsibility, while letting go of control

All-or-none functioning

Freedom from all-or-none

Difficulty trusting

Trusting appropriately

Difficulty with feeling

Observing and using our feelings

High tolerance for inappropriate behavior

Knowing what is appropriate, and if not, asking a safe person

Fear of abandonment

Freedom from fear of abandonment

Difficulty resolving conflict

Resolving conflict

Difficulty giving and receiving love

Loving self, others and Higher Power

Table 13. Some Steps in Transforming and Integrating Core Issues in Healing Our Child Within


Joan was a 33-year-old woman who worked on the core issue of neglecting her own needs. As long as she could remember she nearly always focused on other people’s needs and would end up neglecting her own. She had developed a pattern of finding particularly needy people to associate with, which helped her to focus on others. In group therapy she said, “Before now I never really knew I had any needs. The whole idea was foreign to me. But I’m beginning to see that I do. The need I’m working on right now is being able to relax and have fun. Even that word ‘working’ may sound funny for this issue, but that’s what I’m doing. I’m always so serious that I don’t even know what it’s like to let my hair down and have fun. I guess I never got to learn to be a kid and to play as a kid. I was always super-responsible. My counselor gave an assignment to take 30 minutes each day and just play, relax or have fun. And she wants me to do that for an hour each day on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m not sure I can do it. But I’m trying it. After doing it the first day, I forgot about it for the next five days. So I see that I’m resisting it.”

By breaking down the process of getting needs met into first realizing that we have needs, and then beginning to identify and accurately name them, we begin to work through the issue of our neglecting our needs. Accomplishing just these steps regarding our needs may take several months or longer. Eventually we will begin to get one or more of our needs met on a regular basis. With increasing awareness and continued work upon and attention to our needs, we will have transformed our lives so that we now actually get our needs met most of the time.

After becoming aware of core issues, we now work with them. Becoming more aware, we act on what we experience, calling things for what they are. We learn to respect our own internal monitoring system—our senses and reactions. Ignoring or neglecting this crucial part of us is now a thing of the past. We are open to our feelings, senses and reactions, all an important part of our Real Self.

When useful, we call into play the share-check-share process, described above (Gravitz, Bowden 1985). We share a little at a time, and check the other person’s response. If we sense that they are listening, have heard us, are being real with us and are not going to reject or betray us, we can choose to share some more, and then check again.

Breaking Free of Being a Victim

We also begin to see the connections between how we are doing now and what happened to us when we were little. As we share our story, we begin to break free of being a victim or a martyr, and of the repetition compulsion.

Richard was a 42-year-old father of three and a successful businessman. He had married two women who turned out to be alcoholic; he was presently in divorce proceedings with his second wife.

“Until now I never realized what I was doing. With the help of counseling and this group I’ve discovered a pattern that ended up hurting me. My mother was alcoholic, although I never could see that, and certainly couldn’t admit it until now. I guess I never could help her, so I had to go out—without realizing what I was doing—and find women who I could help. But I couldn’t help either of them either. Al-Anon and this therapy group helped me to see that. My eyes are now open to try to avoid my previous mistakes. I feel better about myself now.”

Richard has transformed a part of his life, the way he creates and lives his story. What he has transformed are his awareness, actions and behaviors. The life story that he creates and tells now is one of a recovering or former martyr/victim who unknowingly acted in a repetition compulsion, to a person who is more aware of what he is feeling and doing. As I have described in “Telling Our Story,” he is now out of the martyr/victim cycle and into the hero/heroine’s journey. The following are some further descriptions of some of the components in these two ends of the spectrum of transformation.

Martyr/Victim Cycle

Hero/Heroine’s Journey

False self

True Self



There and then

Here and now

Unfinished business

Finished and finishing business

Few personal rights

Many personal rights

Stagnation, regression


Sharing little

Sharing as appropriate

Same story

Growing story

Repetition compulsion

Telling our story

Impulsive and compulsive

Spontaneous and flowing

Most is unconscious

Much is conscious

Unaware stuckness

Progressively aware becoming and being



Not working a recovery program

Working a recovery program

Less open to input from others

Open to input from safe others

Varying degrees of “dry drunk”

Working through pain and

appreciating joy

Doing it “on my own”


Often grandiose

Humble yet confident

Fewer possibilities and choices

More possibilities and choices

“Unhappy dream”

“Happy dream” (fromA Course inMiracles)

Excludes Higher Power

Includes Higher Power





In recovery our core issues resurface many times, and we continue to become more aware of them as we work on them. As we do so, we discover that these issues are not isolated, but they often interact with or even include other issues. For example, the issue of trust often interacts with or even includes the issues of all-or-none, control and low self esteem.

Letting Go, Turning It Over and the Forgiveness Process

Many people get into a 12 Step or other program of recovery from alcoholism, chemical dependence, overeating, neurosis or other forms of suffering, and after attending the program regularly and even working it for two or more years, are still in emotional pain. Often when someone brings up family issues, or anger, or confusion in a standard 12 Step meeting, the group will avoid it or someone will say “Why don’t you just turn it over,” as if it were easy to get free of our confusion and suffering immediately. (“Turn it over” generally means to turn our upset or resentment over to a Higher Power.)

But we cannot “turn it over” without first knowing what it is that we want to turn over. We need to know it more deeply—by beginning to experience our conflicts, feelings and frustrations. We experience not intellectually, but deeply, in our “heart, guts and bones,” the core or fiber of our being. We can facilitate our experiencing by risking, talking and telling our story with safe others. The deeper our wound or trauma, whether it be past or present, the more often we will likely have to tell our story and grieve over not getting what we wanted. This may take months or at times even years of talking about and expressing our feelings around our hurts and wounds.

Only after we have so identified and experienced our pain to completion are we authentically able to begin considering the possibility that we may have a choice. The choice is to continue suffering or to stop suffering over whatever we have discovered is of concern for us, whatever has upset us. If we choose to stop suffering and feel authentically ready to do so, we can then let go of it. It is usually only at that point that we are able to “turn it over,” and really be free of it. This entire step-by-step process, can be called several names, including the forgiveness process, the detachment process, turning it over, decathexis, or simply “letting go.”

We can summarize this process as follows:

  1. Become aware of our upset or concern.
  2. Experience it, including telling our story about it.
  3. Consider the possibility that we may have a choice to stop suffering over it, and then
  4. Let go of it.

In healing our Child Within, we work through this process of identifying or becoming aware, experiencing and then letting go. Since most of us have suffered a large number of ungrieved losses in our lives, working through them may take a long time. This is a test of our patience. In jest, some have referred to the prayer for patience: “God (Higher Power, etc.) please give me patience and give it to me now!”

Being Assertive

During the transformation stage in healing our Child Within we begin to become aware of the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Being aggressive is usually some sort of attacking behavior—whether verbal, non-verbal or physical, that may get us what we want, but usually leaves us and the other person feeling upset or bad about the encounter. By contrast, being assertive usually helps us get what we want or need, but without leaving us or another feeling upset or bad. In fact, a major indicator of whether we have been assertive is that we and the other person feel okay or even good about the interaction.

Many children growing up in troubled or dysfunctional families learn how to be either aggressive or manipulative or to sit back or withdraw. They don’t get what they want or need. They almost never see assertiveness being modeled, are rarely taught to be assertive and thus grow up to be adults who operate by being either aggressive, and/or manipulative or passive, “people pleasers,” or a combination of these.

Being assertive will usually get us what we want or need. But learning to do so usually takes practice. Some places to practice being assertive are with the safe and supportive people referred to throughout this book. An especially productive place to practice being assertive is in a therapy group. Some people, however, will also find the need for taking an assertiveness training course. Such courses are usually available in most communities and are inexpensive.

Bob was a 30-year-old accountant who joined a therapy group for adult children of troubled families. He was shy, withdrawn and quiet in the group. Try as he would, he couldn’t seem to get his points across in group. A fellow group member who had taken assertiveness training suggested that he also take such a course. After doing so, Bob became much more active and expressive both in and outside of group. “I learned to speak up for myself,” he told us. “Now when something is bothering me or when I want something, I speak up for it. It’s still difficult for me but now I make myself speak up after I’ve thought about what I want to say. And each time I’m successful at being assertive, it gets a little easier.”

When we transform and become assertive, others around us may be taken aback by our change. They may even try to make us think there is something wrong with us because we have changed.

Joe was a 52-year-old married man, father of one, who grew up in a troubled family that had much difficulty with boundaries—always minding one another’s business. He spent his childhood and much of his adult life confused, resentful and sad. In his recovery he began to become more assertive and self-assured. “Recently when I stood up to my father when he mistreated me, I felt so good about it, because I was assertive. Later my mother who saw me be assertive with him told my sister, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with your brother Joe lately. He’s so different. I wonder what’s wrong with him?’… as though I’m crazy or something. If I didn’t have my wife and this group to talk to, I’d probably believe her, that maybe there is something wrong with me, that maybe I’m going crazy. But I know I’m not—in fact, I’m getting healthier.”

Joe is having an experience that is common to many people who are in recovery and who are healing their Child Within. Often people who either knew us in the past or know us now may notice a change in us. Depending on where we are in our recovery, they may notice that particular change in us, and become afraid that they might have to change some day. Fear may build up in them to such an extent that to handle it they often dump it in some way onto others, often onto the person who they saw changing. It can be threatening to some people to see others change.

A Personal “Bill of Rights”

By the transformation stage we begin to discover that we have rights as individual human beings. As children and even as adults we may have been treated by others as though we had few or no rights. We may have ourselves come to believe that we had no rights. And we may be living our lives now as though we have none.

As we recover and heal our Child Within, we can put together our personal “Bill of Rights.” As part of the therapy groups that I have facilitated, I have asked the group members to consider what rights they have, to write them out and to share them with the group. The following is a compilation of rights that several groups have created.

Personal Bill of Rights

  1. I have numerous choices in my life beyond mere survival.
  2. I have a right to discover and know my Child Within.
  3. I have a right to grieve over what I didn’t get that I needed or what I got that I didn’t need or want.
  4. I have a right to follow my own values and standards.
  5. I have a right to say no to anything when I feel I am not ready, it is unsafe or violates my values.
  6. I have a right to dignity and respect.
  7. I have a right to make decisions.
  8. I have a right to determine and honor my own priorities.
  9. I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others.
  10. I have the right to terminate conversations with people who make me feel put down and humiliated.
  11. I have the right not to be responsible for others’ behavior, actions, feelings or problems.
  12. I have a right to make mistakes and not have to be perfect.
  13. I have a right to all of my feelings.
  14. I have a right to be angry at someone I love.
  15. I have a right to be uniquely me, without feeling I’m not good enough.
  16. I have a right to feel scared and to say “I’m afraid.”
  17. I have the right to experience and then let go of fear, guilt and shame.
  18. I have a right to make decisions based on my feelings, my judgment or any reason that I chose.
  19. I have a right to change my mind at any time.
  20. I have the right to be happy.
  21. I have the right to my own personal space and time needs.
  22. It is okay to be relaxed, playful and frivolous.
  23. I have the right to change and grow.
  24. I have the right to be open to improve communication skills so that I may be understood.
  25. I have a right to make friends and be comfortable around people.
  26. I have a right to be in a non-abusive environment.
  27. I can be healthier than those around me.
  28. I can take care of myself, no matter what.
  29. I have the right to grieve over actual or threatened losses.
  30. I have the right to trust others who earn my trust.
  31. I have the right to forgive others and to forgive myself.
  32. I have the right to give and to receive unconditional love.

You may wish to consider whether you have any of these rights. My belief is that every human being has every one of these rights and more.

As we transform we begin to integrate our transformations into our lives.



As we transform we begin to integrate and to apply our transformation to our daily life. To integrate means to make whole from separate parts. Healing means moving toward wholeness or integrating—”coming into order” (Epstein 1986). Healing and integration are the opposite of the confusion and chaos of the past. From all of our recovery work we now use what we have learned and integrated for the good in our life.

By this stage we have progressively less and less confusion and difficulty in using what we have worked through and learned. Now we simply do what needs to be done, almost as though by reflex.

At the integration stage we are just who we are and have no need to apologize to anyone for being ourself. Now we can relax, play and have fun without guilt. At the same time we have learned to set limits where doing so is appropriate for our needs. We know and act upon our rights.

We can begin to put a picture together that may help to clarify this process of healing our Child Within (Figure 3). In this illustration, we see that recovery is not a static happening or an event. It doesn’t simply happen to us and then we start enjoying life. Recovery is not an all-or-none event. Rather, it is an ongoing process that continues in the here and now, over a multiplicity of here and nows.

In our recovery we don’t awaken just once. We awaken numerous times. And we don’t risk and tell our story just once. We tell it many times as we occasionally hurt and grieve, grow and, on balance, enjoy our lives.

Figure 3. Healing Process for the Child Within


We begin to identify our losses from our past and present and grieve them as they come up. And as core issues surface for us, we talk about them and work through them. As we identify our issues, we may notice that two come up for us often: all-or-none thinking and behaving, and control. Depending on the number and severity of our ungrieved losses, we may have had to use this kind of thinking and behaving to survive (see top left of Figure 3). Being a small child there were few other ways. But now in the transformation and integration stage we begin to get free of their hold on us. And as we do so, we notice that our need to control is gradually decreasing.

We begin to identify our needs and search out ways to get them met in a healthy manner. And we begin to practice being real by being our Real Self.

Healing our Child Within does not usually occur in a linear fashion, as may be suggested by the sequences in Figure 3. Rather, it tends to occur in waves or in a circular fashion and then in a spiral one, as does our story. Each time we complete and integrate a story—that particular “episode” of our life story, we are then free to create a newer, bigger and more truthful or honest story. Part of this truth and honesty has to do with our being real, who we really are. As we progress and grow in life, we then compile and create bigger and bigger stories and then integrate each into our life (see Figure 4).

In our healing, integration and growth, there will often be what feels like regression, slipping backwards or back-sliding. Everything we seemed to have gained, we may feel like we have lost. We may end up feeling confused, hopeless and in pain. This is a crucial point in our story and in our life. This is an opportunity for us to learn something important about our Child Within. Because if we stay with our feelings and our experiences of the Present Moment, the Now, even though all may seem lost, we will likely once again discover that the way out of our pain is through it. We help ourself go through it by being in it and telling our story about it to trusted others.

It will also be helpful for us to experience the pain and the joy in solitude. It can be at this time of solitude that we consider that there is something in life more powerful than we. While doing so can be difficult, if we dare, we can even go inward in a state of humility and surrender, and ask such a question as “If there is a God or a Higher Power out there, please help me.”

Figure 4. Co-creating Our Story (Each circle is a story.)


By now this process is familiar to us. Not only is it our story but it is identifying a loss whenever one may come up for us and then grieving it. As we so grieve our loss and tell our story, we can consider a new possibility—that we can take a step back from it at times and observe it. When we step back even farther and observe, we begin to see a pattern of many stories, ebbing and flowing, growing and regressing, but in an ever upward and expanding direction overall (Figure 5). Given time, this is our recovery and our growth.

When we were children, to survive in our particular environment we had to tolerate being mistreated. Now we no longer have to tolerate being mistreated. We now have a choice.

Integration often comes at between three and five years of a full recovery program. When stress comes up that knocks us back to a survival-stage feeling again, we are now able to awaken and recognize a core issue rapidly, cycle through the transformation stage rapidly, reminding ourself of what is happening and how not to be mistreated and that we do have boundaries and choices (Gravitz, Bowden 1986). We no longer have to waste our energy on denial, because we now sense and see things for what they really are. Relative to our past, we are stuck for only a very short time.

We no longer have to stop to think consciously about what is happening—although it is okay to do so. Now we just do it. We fully reclaim our Real Self, including being real when we feel like it, and deciding when not to be real in certain situations or around certain people. When we do experience a loss, feel frightened, upset or age-regress, we recycle it, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

We establish appropriate boundaries and limits with people. If people continue to run roughshod over us or ignore us, we say either, “No, you can’t do that anymore” or we get out. We don’t stand in the rain anymore and pretend it isn’t raining (Gravitz, Bowden 1986). We are no longer victims or martyrs.

Our journey thus far in healing our Child Within can be summarized, in part, in the following poem by Portia Nelson.

Figure 5. Recovery & Growth Through Experiencing, Telling Our Story and Observing It All


Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

1) I walk, down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost…I am hopeless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

2) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I am in the same place.

But, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

3) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in…it’s a habit.

My eyes are open

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

4) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

5) I walk down another street.

© 1980, Portia Nelson


The Role of Spirituality

Spirituality is so vast an area in recovery that in this brief chapter I can only begin to describe it. Yet it is very helpful—some say crucial—in healing our Child Within.

Spirituality is the last “stage” in our recovery. And paradoxically, it can never be a stage, since it is an ongoing process throughout our pain, healing and serenity.

Beginning to Define Spirituality

In perhaps one of its briefest definitions spirituality is about the relationships that we have with our self, with others and with the Universe. It is characterized by several key concepts and principles, one of which is that it is paradoxical. Otherwise seemingly opposite conditions, entities or experiences co-exist comfortably together. For example, spirituality is both subtle and powerful. It is like our breath. We go about most of our day not even realizing that we are breathing. Yet our breathing is so powerful that if we stop, we die.

Spirituality is personal. Each of us has to discover it on our own, in our own way. It is highly useful, in that it deals with a spectrum of life issues, from learning basic trust to getting free of suffering. And spirituality is experiential. To appreciate it, to use it, and to realize it, we have to experience it. We cannot know it ultimately through our intellect or through reason. It is not knowable. It is only be-able.

It is indescribable. It is so vast, that even if we were to read all of the world’s great holy books and listen to all of the great spiritual masters, we would still not fathom it. Spirituality is inclusive and supportive. It does not reject any thing. And here is where organized religion may enter, because it is a part of spirituality. Thus, while spirituality is not organized religion, it includes it, supports it and then transcends it.

It is healing and growth-inducing, and thus is ultimately fulfilling. The journey of discovery and healing described throughout this book is actually and ultimately a spiritual journey, although we usually do not view it as such at its beginning. As we enter and work through each healing stage, we move to the next stage. And when we move from one stage to the next, we do not abandon or cancel the former stages. Rather, we transcend them, which means that while we still respect and use them as is appropriate and spontaneous for us, we are now operating and living our life from an entirely new level of consciousness, awareness and being. These levels of consciousness parallel several different models of our spiritual path.

Viewing Our “Spiritual Path”

In the 1940s and 1950s Maslow described a hierarchy of human needs (see Table 14). These progress from bottom to top, as: (1) Physiological, basic functioning or survival; (2) Safety; (3) the sense of Belonging and Love; (4) Self-actualization, i.e., knowing and being comfortable with our True Self; and (5) Transcendence or spirituality, i.e., fully realizing our True Self, in relationship with our Higher Self. These parallel the needs described in Chapter 4 and Table 2, where our human needs are listed in more detail. They also parallel the discovery and recovery of our Child Within described throughout this book. And finally, they parallel our levels of human awareness or consciousness.

As we learn various ways of looking at, conceptualizing and “mapping” our journey of recovery, we see that these are similar, perhaps even the same journey looked at in a slightly different way. These three ways also parallel the path of the 12 Steps of recovery: surviving active alcoholism (or chemical dependence, co-dependence, overeating, or other mistreatment and suffering), then admission of a problem, and then changing our isolation to sharing, including eventually with a Higher Power. As we progress in working the Steps, next comes self-examination, catharsis and personality change, followed by improved relationships, helping others and then discovering serenity.

Table 14. Similar Hierarchies of Human Needs, Development and Consciousness

Maslow’s Needs

Healing Child Within

Level of Consciousness


Using Spirituality




Understanding (creativity, natural knowing)



Acceptance through Conflict (Heart)

Dealing with core issues (Exploring)

“Power” (mind, ego, “identity”)

Belonging and love

Awakening (emergent awareness)


Passion (emotions, basic sexuality)



Survival (food, shelter, safety, illness)


As we grow in healing our Child Within, we begin to notice that our Child is not limited to only one or two levels of being, awareness or consciousness. Rather, our Child Within also parallels and exists along these same seven levels, as shown in Table 15.

Helpless Infant

Reading from bottom to top of Table 15, we note that a part of our Child is a Helpless Infant. It wants and needs to be cared for and nurtured. As we cycle through our developmental stages, we first need affection, caring and nurturing. Only when we have had these needs met are we ready to move to the next stage of our development. Since many neglected or mistreated children did not get their needs met in this way, they did not complete their development at this level. Part of the task of recovery is learning to get our needs met and get nurtured so that we can begin to re-cycle through this stage and thus complete our unfinished development in it.

We also discover that there is only one person that can assure that we get the nurturing that we need, and that one person is us. But it is not we as our false self. Rather, it is we as our Total Child Within. Our Child Within is thus both our nurturer and that Helpless Infant that needs so desperately to be nurtured, and it is all the other parts. We are our own nurturer. We have to assure that we get what we need. We may at times get others to help us get what we need, but basically we are the only one that can attend to our needs. I describe our needs in Table 2 of Chapter 4.

Table 15. Levels of Being, Awareness or Consciousness of Our Child Within

• Unconditionally loving Child

• Compassionate Child

• Creative Child

• Struggling and growing Child

• Thinking and reasoning Child

• Feeling Child

• Helpless Infant

Feeling Child

The Feeling Child within us is full of feelings and emotions. Like all seven levels of being of our Child Within, it is interconnected with each of the other levels. Our Feeling Child lets us know when we need to attend to something. That something might be something wrong, like a real danger or a hurt, or something pleasant, or it might be a feeling reaction from the past that comes up. Whatever it is, we are now attentive to it (see Chapter 10 on Feelings).

Thinking and Reasoning Child

Our Thinking and Reasoning Child is related to our ego, mind or self. It is that which many people may erroneously think they are—their “identity.” It is also often mistaken for the seat of “power.” Yet it is only one part of us.

Our Thinking and Reasoning Child is perhaps the part of our True Self that is the most directly connected to our false self. We might even say that they are friends. More than any other, it understands our false self and so will be able to work with it when we need our false self. Many people have an exaggeration or overdevelopment of their Thinking and Reasoning Child and their false self.

As we recover we bring into play the other parts of our Child Within, and we become more balanced, integrated, individuated and whole.

Struggling and Growing Child

Our Struggling and Growing Child is the equivalent of the “Heart” level of consciousness and is the key to our Higher Self and to realizing serenity. It is the link between our Higher Self and our lower self. It can be described in part by the phrase “acceptance through conflict.” This means coming to accept “what is” by first recognizing or becoming aware of it, then working through the pain or enjoying the pleasure, and then coming to peace with it. It is analogous to the grieving process, the process of forgiveness—turning it over—detachment—letting go, and to the process of telling our story, in that it uses these processes to accept and to grow.

Creative Child

Have you ever sensed or known that something was true or right, and you didn’t need any rational explanation to prove it? Our Creative Child is one that uses what men call “hunches” or “gut reactions” and what women call “intuition” to assist them in their lives. This is the part of us that knows naturally and inherently. Ideas, inspirations and creative sparks come up to us through this part of our Child regularly, throughout our lives. For example, this part of us is where we might say most of the great works of art, science, literature and play originate.

However, our false self may at times try to disguise itself as our Creative Child and its “intuitions” will often mislead us. Thus we can check out any inspirations or intuitions that come to us and see how they turn out. If they work for us, they are likely to originate in our Creative Child. If they do not, they may have come from our false self. There are several books available on this topic such as Frances Vaughan’s Awakening Intuition.

Compassionate Child

Have you ever been with someone and on listening to their story you became so touched or moved that a tear came to your eyes? Yet at the same time while you knew they were suffering or had suffered and/or experienced joy, you knew that it would not be helpful to try to rescue them or try to change them? When we have such an experience, we are in direct contact with our Compassionate Child. In fact, at this instant we are our Compassionate Child.

Our Compassionate Child is a sort of mirror image or direct opposite of our Passionate Child. Our Passionate Child may want to try to fix, rescue or change the other person. We may also notice that our Creative Child is the mirror image of our Thinking and Reasoning Child, and that our Unconditionally Loving Child is the mirror image of our Helpless Infant (Table 15).

Unconditionally Loving Child

This part of us is for many the most difficult to comprehend and to be. We were perhaps so mistreated growing up—and for some of us are still being mistreated—that we are unable to love anyone unconditionally, including ourselves. Because of this difficulty, and because I believe that this is a core recovery issue for adult children of trauma, I will discuss it in more detail.

Love and Unconditional Love

Low self-esteem, a sense of inherent defectiveness and unworthiness, is a common experience among those of us who have been mistreated. It is also common among those who have developed an illness such as alcoholism, chemical dependence, an eating disorder or a similar condition wherein one often feels like a victim. Related to several important factors, including repeated childhood and later trauma, inability to control alcohol, drugs, eating, other people or whatever, we believe that we are simply not worthy of receiving love.

Rather than believe we are unlovable, we can shift to believing that we do not need love. This translates into, “I don’t want to be loved,” and then finally to “l will reject love, no matter who gives it to me” (Gravitz, Bowden 1985). We end up with “frozen feelings” or an inability to fully experience feelings and emotions, especially including love.

It is often in recovery where we experience the unconditional love of a self-help group, a therapy group, a counselor, sponsor or a trusted friend, that we begin to feel the healing effects of love. Indeed love is the most healing of our resources, and it takes several years of being so loved to get well and stay well. And then we can begin to love others in return.

A problem for many of us is that we often view love as a limited experience or entity, such as that of “falling in love” or infatuation. In our recovery we learn that love is not simply a feeling. Rather it is an energy that is manifested by a commitment and a will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s total growth, which includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions (Peck 1978).

As we grow in recovery we begin to see that there are several different kinds of love. I outline these in Table 16 according to our seven levels of consciousness. By such a view, we see that in the lower self, love is neediness, “chemistry” or infatuation, possession, strong admiration or even worship—in short, traditional romantic love. Many people who grew up in troubled homes and who experienced a stifling of their Child Within become stuck at these lower levels or ways of experiencing love. In healing our Child Within we eventually discover, work through and transcend to higher levels of love, including caring through conflict, forgiveness, trust, commitment to growth in ourself and in a loved one, unconditional empathy and acceptance, and pure peaceful Being. By recognizing, experiencing and letting go, and by using the spiritual practices described and taught by many, we can gradually open to the Love within each of us (Whitfield 1985; 2006).

Finally we learn that love is what we and what our Higher Power, as we understand It, use to heal ourselves. It is what is ultimately healing in group therapy, counseling, friendships, meditation, prayer or whatever. We no longer have to be afraid of love or to run away from it, because we know that it is inside us as the core and healing part of our Child Within.

Our Observer Self

As we evolve and grow in our recovery we discover that there is a part of us, perhaps located somewhere in the Higher Self of our Child Within, that is able to step back and to watch, witness or observe what is happening in our life. For example, many people have experienced becoming extremely upset and then detaching from their upset and feelings to such an extent that they find themselves actually observing themselves in the upset. Sometimes there is an out-of-body experience, so that they are able to see themselves or a representation of themselves having the upset. This ability can be facilitated by practicing guided or eidetic imagery and visualizations. Closing the eyes, the person visualizes or otherwise imagines the scene or activity about which there is concern. One can then visualize a positive solution to the upset. This can also be done while meditating. Done constructively, this is a healthy practice.

Deikman (1982) and others call this powerful and freeing part of us the observer or observing self. The Western psychological literature refers to the observing self as “the observing ego” but does not explore the special nature of the “ego” and its implications for understanding the self. It thus continues to miss the dynamics, meaning and importance of the observer self, and its theories of the self remain somewhat confused.

Love, Truth, Healing & Power along the Levels of Human Consciousness. (Levels 1 through 3 represent those for the lower self)

(From Whitfield 1985)


The observing self is central to our recovery. An illustration is shown in Figure 6. This shows the inter-relationships of the self (or “object self”) and the observing self. The self is concerned with thinking, feeling, acting, desiring and other survival-oriented activities. (This older and less useful concept of the self includes parts of both the false self and the True Self.) However, the observer self, a part of who we really are, is that part of us that is watching both our false self and our True Self. We might say that it even watches us when we watch. It is our Consciousness, it is the core experience of our Child Within. It thus cannot be watched—at least by any thing or any being that we know of on this earth. It transcends our five senses, our false self and all other lower, though necessary, parts of us.


Figure 6. Relationship of the Observing Self and the self (object self)

(compiled from Deikman 1982)

Adult children of trauma may confuse their observer self with a kind of defense they may have used to avoid their Real Self and all of its feelings. One might call this defense a “false observer self” since its awareness is clouded. It is unfocused as it “spaces” or “numbs-out.” It denies and distorts our Child Within, and is often judgmental. By contrast, our True Observer Self has a clearer awareness, observes more accurately, and tends to be accepting. The following outlines these differences.

Some Differences Between the True Observer Self and The False Observer Self


Expanding our consciousness, we can soon become aware of our part in the larger drama—the “cosmic drama.” By watching our own personal dance or melodrama, we can begin to learn that our Observer Self is that part of us which, when we realize we are “really carrying on,” can step back and observe the carrying on, through the power of our imagination. By doing so, we often bring into play the powerful defense of humor—by laughing at ourself for taking it all so seriously.

Deikman (1982) said, “The observing self is not part of the object world formed by our thoughts and sensory perception because, literally, it has no limits; everything else does. Thus everyday consciousness contains a transcendent element that we seldom notice because that element is the very ground of our experience. The word transcendent is justified because if subjective consciousness—the observing self—cannot itself be observed but remains forever apart from the contents of consciousness, it is likely to be a different order from everything else. Its fundamentally different nature becomes evident when we realize that the observing self is featureless; it cannot be affected by the world any more than a mirror can be affected by the images it reflects.”

As our observer self becomes more prominent, our lower or object self tends to recede. Primary identification with our lower self tends to be associated with suffering and illness. However, building a strong and flexible self, which is part of healing our Child Within, is usually required before we can transition into our observer self for any lasting duration.

Realizing Serenity

As we become more familiar with being our observer self and with the healing power of spirituality, we can begin to construct a possible path to realizing serenity, inner peace and happiness. I have condensed the following description from Alcoholism and Spirituality, where each is discussed in more detail.

Some Possible Paths to Serenity

  1. We are ignorant of our Journey, we are limited (humility): we can study universal “laws,” approximate them and surrender to our lack of ultimate knowledge. Given these limitations, sages over the centuries describe something like the following:
  2. Higher Power is in each of us, and we are in Higher Power.
  3. We can view our reality as a hierarchy of levels of awareness, consciousness or being.
  4. We are going Home (we are Home, already and always). Home on this earth is being all levels of our awareness or consciousness in our own unique fashion.
  5. There will be conflict going Home (melodrama, cosmic drama). This conflict or creative tension is useful to us in some way, probably as a way Home.
  6. We have a choice. We can use our bodies, ego/minds, and our relationships on this earth to reinforce our separation and our suffering. Or we can use them as vehicles for our Soul, Spirit or Higher Self to return Home and to celebrate that return.
  7. Higher Power (Home) is Love (Love is perhaps the most useful way we know Higher Power).
  8. We can remove the blocks to realizing our Higher Power by experiencing (including living in the Now), remembering, forgiving and surrendering (these five realizations can be viewed as being ultimately the same). Regular spiritual practices help us with this realization.
  9. Separation, suffering and evil are the absence of realizing Love, and are therefore ultimately illusions. They are also manifestations of our searching for Love, Wholeness, and Home. The evil or darkness is thus ultimately in the service of the Light.
  10. We create our own story by our beliefs, thoughts and actions. What we believe, think and feel in our mind and heart, we will generally produce in our experience and our life. What we give, we get. As within, so without.
  11. Life is a Process, Force or Flow that lives us. We do not live it. When we surrender to it, i.e., flow with its Process and take responsibility for our participation in it, we become co-creators. We can then become free of our suffering that comes with our attachment to resisting flowing with our Life.
  12. Inner peace or serenity is knowing, practicing and being all of the above. We ultimately discover that we are already and always Serenity and Home.

Some sources: Perennial Philosophy (Huxley), Christ, Tao, Muktananda, A Course in Miracles, Fox, Wilber, Lazaris, Schuan, and many other thinkers and sages.

Some of these principles are illustrated in the following case history of James, a 42-year-old man who grew up in an alcoholic family, his father being the actively drinking alcoholic and his mother usually assuming the role of a placating co-dependent. While he showed no manifestations of being alcoholic himself throughout his adult life, James was progressively aware of his inordinate confusion and suffering. He eventually attended Al-Anon and later, ACoA self-help group meetings, for a total of about six years, with some improvement. He describes the importance and meaning of the spiritual part of his recovery as follows.

“I went to a lot of Al-Anon and then ACoA self-help meetings over these years, probably one or two a week. I really wanted to get well. But I didn’t seem to be doing it, although something seemed to keep me motivated to keep attending. I had always thought it was important for me to be strong, which I equated with being independent. This meant to me not to talk much. I believed I could recover on my own, without anyone’s help. I equated weakness with trusting, surrendering or being dependent, all of which I saw as being a kind of sickness. I viewed people with these characteristics as being sick. And, of course, I felt I was healthier or somehow better than they were. Looking back I see all of this as a probably necessary defense that allowed me to keep attending the meetings without being too overwhelmed by my hidden feelings and the changes I needed to make to recover.

During that time I met a woman at the meetings who was really arrogant and unhappy. She was so obnoxious to me that I tried to avoid being around the meetings she attended.

I thought there was no hope for her and that I was certainly better than she was. Then I saw her change. She started to lose her arrogant attitude and became friendlier to me and to others. She seemed happy. While I hated to admit it since it was coming from her who I had never admired, I felt envious of her positive change. I wanted some of that. But she was also now talking about her Higher Power, and I have always had trouble knowing what that was, even though I had had a fairly active religious upbringing.

So I began considering what had happened to her and how I might get some of that peace or happiness. It began to occupy a lot of my thoughts and feelings. I’d been through 40 years of unhappiness and confusion. I began to read some spiritual literature, and I began to pray. While I had tried to pray since I was a child, there was something different about my praying this time. Perhaps I was more sincere and humble. Then some months later I experienced a kind of transformation that came on me over about a two-week period. My own attitude changed and I let go of my resentments of my father and of others. (Of course, I had done a lot of work in the past on my anger and other feelings, as well as other issues of mine.) I began to really believe in a Higher Power, something I’d never been able to do. I had first reframed health as happiness and then reframed happiness as being associated with needing others and surrendering to them and to a spiritual program. Doing so has made all the difference.”

James’ story illustrates several of the principles of ways to realize serenity (see previous list). First, he experienced conflict and struggle (#5). He used this struggle in his uncomfortable relationship with the woman he resented as a vehicle for his spiritual evolution and growth (#6). He was aware of his conflict and pain, and he began a regular spiritual practice—prayer (#8). He eventually asked for what he wanted, this time with sincerity and humility (#10), and he surrendered to the Process of his life (# 11). Ultimately, he found what he was seeking, and it was inside himself and nowhere else (#12).

The traditional or conventional views of attaining serenity, inner peace or happiness usually uses one or both of either seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. In the seeking approach, the ways of seeking happiness may span a range from hedonistic seeking to focusing on others (which can result in co-dependence) to “being good” and waiting to claim our peace later as a reward in Heaven. In the avoiding pain approach we may try to ignore pain, detach from it or stay away from any situation that might bring on conflict for us. We may ask, “Has either seeking or avoiding ever brought us lasting peace, happiness or serenity?” When I have asked this of others and of myself, the answer is usually “no.”

In response, one of our choices is to feel hurt and resentful about our inability to be happy, and to project our pain onto others. Or as a second alternative, we might begin to observe the whole process and begin to observe the “self-contraction” of our false self, when we are unhappy. As we do so we can begin to see that happiness is not something that we attain. Rather happiness, peace or serenity is our natural state. Beneath all of what we add to our feelings and experience, beneath our self-contraction, lies Serenity Itself. To realize serenity there is nothing that we need to do or even that we can do. If we make all “As” on our report card, that won’t do it. Neither will owning three Rolls Royces, nor will having a million dollars or marrying a “Ms. or Mr. Right.” There is no way that we can earn or achieve happiness, and neither is there any way that we can deserve it. Rather, it is ours inherently, already and always (Course 1976).

For adult children of trauma accepting this idea that we are inherently happy may be difficult. If that is so, I think I can understand. As we heal our Child Within this realization that we are already and always happy becomes easier and easier. I have found that doing a daily spiritual practice, such as meditation or prayer, and reading spiritual literature has been helpful in realizing my own serenity.

Some readers may be skeptical about this concept of “spirituality” Some may be confused. Others may not believe any of it and may even feel like “this author sure has lost it now!” By contrast others may find some solace in reading it, and still others may identify a lot of useful material here. Whatever your reaction, I invite you to follow your reactions and instincts. Reflect upon it, talk about it whenever you may sense that it is appropriate. Use what you can, and leave the rest. Spirituality has worked for me and I have seen it work for hundreds of others in healing their Child Within.


A Note On Recovery Methods

Many clinicians who work with adult children of alcoholics or other troubled or dysfunctional families believe that group therapy is the major treatment of choice for recovery work. I believe this to be true when it is integrated with a full recovery program of:

  • Treatment of any active addiction, compulsion or attachment (e.g., active alcoholism/CD, an eating disorder, etc.).
  • Self-help group attendance, using a sponsor and working the 12 Steps or similar concepts of recovery.
  • Education about the condition and about recovery techniques.
  • Residential trauma treatment—brief and intensive; as desired or recommended.
  • Individual counseling or psychotherapy as indicated.

I believe that consideration of all these are part of a holistic physical, mental-emotional and spiritual recovery program that is ongoing. Given these reservations, the following are some advantages of the major treatment of choice—group therapy.

Some Advantages of Group Therapy for Adult Children

1) The group member has several “therapists,” instead of just one (I recommend having two group leaders and up to seven or eight members in each group, depending on the regularity of attendance).

2) The group re-creates many aspects of their family and thereby provides them a vehicle to work through the emotional ties, conflicts, and struggles (i.e., transference, projection) associated with their own family.

3) The person gets to see recovery modeled in several stages. Especially motivating and healing is the ability to see people come into group and make definitive, and at times, dramatic positive changes in their lives and in healing their own Child Within.

4) With appropriately trained and skilled group leaders, the group is able to work on specific life issues that span the range of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual recovery.

5) The well-known advantages of group therapy in general, such as the ability to obtain identification, validation, feedback, appropriate, but not abusive confrontation, support and the many other useful factors and dynamics in group therapy.

Developing enough skills and momentum of self-healing to overcome and replace the negative conditioning, victim stance and repetition compulsion and to discover and heal our Child Within usually takes from three to five years or more of working such a full recovery program.

Recovery is not an intellectual or rational process. Nor is it easy. It is an experiential process, consisting of excitement, discouragement, pain and joy, with an overall pattern of personal growth over time. Recovery takes great courage. Even though it cannot be explained adequately with words alone, I have begun to describe this process of healing the Child Within.

To continue the healing, the reader may consider looking at my next book—A Gift to Myself, which is a workbook and guide to achieving many of the specifics of the healing process.