Growing up in an alcoholic family

The most pervasive and damaging of beliefs, perceptions, and practices are internalized with neither awareness nor consent. Children raised in unhealthy environments learn painful, unspoken lessons that dictate the rules they are to live by and roles they are to play. Growing up in the midst of addiction taught millions of us how to compensate for family dysfunction.

We learned:

The rules:
– Don’t trust
– Don’t feel
– Don’t talk

We took on roles within the family:

– Caretaker
– Hero
– Clown
– Scapegoat
– Lost Child

What we did as children was necessary and adaptive. Upon entering adulthood, many of our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors no longer serve us, and yet insidiously they remain integral to our way of being. Being an Adult Child of An Alcoholic/Addict (ACOA) is not a diagnosis, yet our individual struggles have a great deal in common.

Guilt is a default setting for ACOAs. It’s a reflex. If something’s wrong, we assume it’s us. Even when we know we’re above reproach, we feel bad anyway. We tend to believe that we are responsible for other’s happiness and so when there is a conflict or hurt feelings, we feel we have failed.

We may be very successful in our external lives, but we tend to be emotionally immature. Our most common continued struggles are self-doubt and anxiety.

It’s hard to experience feelings that never were instilled or nurtured. We struggle to feel safe, secure, good enough, loveable, and acceptable. This is the residual of past rejections. We fear that anything good in our lives will be lost or taken from us if we don’t endlessly strive. We find it impossible to be at peace. Most of us are very busy people who view relaxing as a terrifying thing to do.

We’re eternal people. We intuitively sense and attend to the needs, wants, and feelings of others. This allows us to ignore ourselves. The recovery adage that best describes us: “Were not really human beings because we don’t know how to just be. We’re human doers because we derive all of our self-worth from doing.” Yet what we truly want is to be appreciated for who we are.

In order to achieve self-acceptance, we must be willing to receive and retain the truth healthy people have of us. As we integrate their perceptions, we replace the untruths we internalized as children. It’s not enough for us to know that the people in our past were wrong. We must become free to feel it.


Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim is the cofounder of an online addiction recovery program that is affordable and provides complete anonymity