So you’ve been rejected. You don’t know why. You did everything you could. You feel you certainly didn’t deserve it, either. Prayer doesn’t seem to work. Reconciliation efforts are rebuffed. Whatever relationship there was has vaporized. All that’s left is disbelief, anger, and a baffling sense of “What has happened?” The ACDF Put-Off Certainly no one can account for or explain all the reasons that rejection occurs. Yet there are some patterns which emerge which can help to account for the sudden inexplicable “put-off.” One of these patterns is characteristically found in Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA’s) and Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACDF’s). Whenever you’ve felt that you’ve been suddenly discarded into the “human discombobulation of emotional excrement and discarded relationships,” you may want to consider the ACDF “Put-Off” as one possibility. Their Traumatic Roots ACOA’s and ACDF’s (hereon collectively referred to as ACDF’s for simplicity) virtually always have a traumatic background. Sometimes it’s parental divorce. Sometimes its the death of a parent or sibling. The varieties of wounding environments are virtually endless. Living in an abusive home and/or where various addictions were present creates trauma. Having to grow up with children with disabilities requires enormous and inappropriate sacrifice of self. Being in an environment in which one had to be hyper-vigilant to survive, but never recognized, accepted and unconditionally loved is traumatic. Perhaps most traumatic is having to maintain a less-than-honest public facade. Whether it be that of a “perfect preacher’s home” or covering up or a physically abusive alcoholic parent makes no difference. What does cover it up well–be it unhealthily–are Claudia Black’s “Three Rules” of the dysfunctional home:
Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.
Emotional Shut-Down Taught that it was wrong to talk, trust and feel, ACDF’s learned that intimacy and relationships were wrong. Their experience in their families taught that they were painful, heart-wrenching and full of risk. ACDF’s carry these lessons into adulthood. Even when on their own, they continue their well-ingrained obedience to the three rules: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. The only difference is that as adults their obedience may not be due to fear of parental reprisal. Instead, what drives their continued abidance is the fear of rejection. Make no mistake. The rejection which ACDF’s feel is not, in their mind, simply “rejection.” For them rejection is to be cast into some totally meaningless, detached state of nihilism far worse than that described in T.S. Eliot’s proverbial “Wasteland.” Such rejection, in their minds, is so painful that to exist with it is more painful than not to exist at all. Since this inexplicable nihilistic rejection is such a horrifying experience, ACDF’s apply the three laws (“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel”). to their relationships. The result is that they will have no friends…ever. Sure, they’re friendly. They’re sociable. They may even be “lives of the party” or popular (even flirtatious) “social butterflies”. But don’t be mistaken. Though they are “in” the social world, they will not be “of” it. Even the thought of relationships and bonding may create intense anxiety. For this reason they often appear to be so “in control” of themselves. Indeed, personality analyses may indicate that these ACDF’s have a high desire to “look good,” to “demonstrate their competency” in given areas. Feeling that they “can outperform others” in their given specialties, these and other sorts of personality traits are really a skillfully crafted wall to keep others away. Some ACDF’s keep people away by talking so much you can’t get a word in edgewise. Others shy away so much as to be virtually unnoticed. Others will only say things when it is absolutely certain there is no risk to express an opinion. Others will inexplicably “vanish” or “escape” when afraid. What these and other ways of relating having in common is that they are designed to protect, preserve and avoid any type of bonding or relationship. But They “Care” Though those who have been “put off” may not believe it, ACDF’s do “care.” But they distinguish between “caring” and “loving.” “Caring” in their vocabulary can mean to keep people from getting hurt only as long as they don’t also get hurt. “Loving,” as opposed to “caring,” often means having to invest in a relationship in which a possibility of pain, suffering, and sharing occur. An important operative difference between “caring” and “loving” for the ACDF is that one can still keep the three rules while caring. Loving, however, requires that the “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” defense be discarded. They don’t want to be insensitive. Indeed, they may castigate others who they believe “don’t care.” Yet when it comes to love the ACDF will be anywhere but in line. The Price Of Intimacy Since the beginning of the human race, God indicated that it was not good for man (and woman) to be alone. The creation of a help-meet for man was the beginning of intimate human relationships. Fear of relationship and bonding first occurred among humans when Adam trusted Eve…and cooperated in their fall into sin. Echoes of the pain of that brokenness happens each time intimate relationships are formed and destroyed. It is these echoes which haunt ACDF’s. Often the echo is rooted in a painful loss from childhood. The inexplicable divorce of parents. The unexpected abandonment of a parent. The persistent inability of parents to affirm and accept children “Mr. Rogers” style–just the way they are. The continued infliction of inappropriate responsibilities such as having to “act like an adult” at an inappropriately early age, being a parent for younger siblings, or having to sacrifice a childhood to take care of less-gifted or physically disadvantaged siblings. Whatever the circumstances, the echo is really a “siren.” Like the shrill, disquieting “sirens” of ancient mythology, ACDF’s direct all their energies to silence–or at least deaden–the deafening sirens of painful grief. Since intimacy is so painful, they seek “buffers” not requiring intimacy. Pain Buffers Such “buffers” can be either socially acceptable or unacceptable. Workaholism, performance-drivenness, and developing specific extraordinary expertise are examples of acceptable “buffers.” Note “acceptable” buffers such as these have two-pronged defense. Not only do they hide the pain and keep their secret; they also create a sense of domination and aura of respect and admiration. This two-pronged defense reinforces the ACDF’s’ characteristic tendencies–denial and control. For ACDF’s, the most excellent defense mechanisms are denial and control. They go hand in hand. As any ACDF knows, the one who is in control has the ability to control denial. He who can maintain denial maintains control. Maintaining both through perfectionism, extraordinary high expectations of self and others, workaholism, and other defense mechanisms keeps away any fear.
After all, if one is in control, what is there to fear?
Hence their compulsive drivenness to always “look good” and to “be above the crowd.” Hence some of the most competent and most-highly respected individuals are not simply serving humanity or being exemplary Christians. They are extremely effective at maintaining defense mechanisms. By choosing to enter respected positions of power and esteem–law enforcement, military, the ministry, executive positions, highly “respected” organizational positions, etc., they enhance their defenses with the additional aura of “power.” The greatest benefit of being the leader, of course, is that they are in control. It is interesting how those who distrust authority will gravitate to positions of authority simply to eliminate the threat from others who might exercise authority over them. Though they may or may not be suitable occupants of the office, though they may have insecurities, fears and feelings of inferiority, they feel “safe” because they are, after all, in control. Recognition: The ACDF Response For ACDF’s, recognition, achievement and affirmation is not so much a way of affirming their goodness as it is an undeniable affirmation of the strength of their defenses. While other non-ACDF’s may commend them in a personal way so as to build up their self-esteem and confidence, ACDF’s interpret these commendations otherwise, often as threats. “What do they really want?” “What did I do wrong?” and “What are they really trying to say, and why wont they just say it?” . . . are just some of the anxious thoughts which grip their entire being. Such compliments are a guarantee of safety and an indicator that their anti-intimacy defenses are working. ACDF’s often tend to shy away from any gesture of commendation. Such compliments and recognition give them an uncomfortable prominence which only magnifies the energy needed to keep their secret. One ACDF put it this way.”I’ve always struggled with compliments. In fact, I almost hate getting compliments. They don’t make sense. ‘Why would anyone want to compliment me? If I accept the compliment, that means I’ve let my guard down, let this person in, and we all know the end result of that is going to be getting hurt!'”The discomfort ACDF’s feel when fear enters is overwhelming. Psychologists indicate that it is akin to claustrophobia. It causes internal, unseen symptoms of anxiety as well as overt, physical reactions. Shortness of breath, increased heart rate, gastro-intestinal uneasiness, and changed anxiety-related cerebral function are just some examples of internal symptoms. External, visible symptoms can include skin color changes, flushed “blank” facial expressions, sudden “darting back,” voice changes and sudden personality or mood changes. All of these are often related to the fear that the echoes of past pain will rise up and demand to be addressed. The reason they did not deal with the pain when it happened was because they didn’t have the emotional and/or developmental resources or, perhaps, it wasn’t safe to deal with at that time. So they repressed the pain and kept it buried. When such emotions surface they do so…often with the intensity as if it had just happened moments before. When the dam breaks, the tears flow. Since the dam can break so easily, since all it takes is for the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back, their defenses must be perpetual and hyper-vigilant. Anything less than perfect can result in uncontrollable pain. When They Blow Their Cover ACDF’s can blow their cover…but not very often. Perhaps not quite as rare–but certainly not by any means frequent–is when ACDF individuals willingly share their pain. When they do, it is often unexpected and unplanned. But it can happen only in the safest, most trusted environment possible. Often it occurs only when the pain is great enough and the usual control and denial mechanisms no longer work. Efforts to numb the pain through alcohol, compulsive behaviors (e.g., cleaning house et al) or other combinations of actions just don’t work anymore. They must face the fear. They must resolve the grief. They must have closure…or be consumed. An ACDF AccountWhen counseling ACDF’s, one common thing I experience is that they are dealing with some sort of pain from the past. As soon as they indicate something from their family background which has given them pain, they may try to “clam up,” change topics, or give non-verbal signals of fear, discomfort or pain. Watery eyes, sudden change in tone of voice from weakening to suddenly strong and self-sufficient, physically recoiling into a quasi-fetal position are just some of the possible responses. The simple, non-threatening observation, “It hurts, doesn’t it…”, can sometimes give them the permission and safety to unload their grief. Whether it occurred years or decades ago, to them it feels like yesterday. Since they never had the capacities to deal with it before–and not alone–they have never EVER shared their pain. It has been repressed by virtually numerous means. The tears will start to flow. When this occurs, do not be alarmed, surprised or reactive. These responses will simply incite intense fear-related responses. Instead, expect and watch for the fear responses. Watch their eyes, their face, their uneasiness, their skin color, their shaking, twitching, and sudden darting back actions. If ever there was a time for the non-anxious presence, now is the time. ACDF’s And The “Put-Off” But how does this relate to being put off? The truth from the ACDF perspective is that they never put off anyone. They can’t! Why? Because they virtually never attach to anyone. And, after all, how can anyone “put off” anyone with whom they have been unattached? From their perspective, those who feel unjustly put off are naive to think that ACDF’s would ever make attachments. ACDF’s, when accused of putting others off, respond that those individuals should have known better. They never should have made those attachments. If they are in pain, it’s their own fault! This defense, of course, simply shows their control, denial, projection and other defense mechanisms at work. It also is their way of showing how they were dealt with when they were severely traumatized. No one cared for them. They had to stick it out by themselves. They had to be tough. What’s wrong with you? Self-Detachment And Splitting This defense is further reinforced by some ACDF tendencies to detach themselves from themselves. In their deepest pain, some ACDF’s will describe how they feel “detached” from themselves. For ACDF’s, it’s almost as if they can watch themselves and the actions of others as if on television. They see themselves in action, but then they know it’s not really them. Others will say they want to “run away from themselves.” This “splitting” is a natural response to inexplicable, excruciating trauma. Child abuse victims often “split” off from their bodies while being sexual abused. This separation of “self from self” helps ease the pain and obscure the identification of the painful abuse with the abused. When threatened and anxious, ACDF’s may extend this splitting by splitting away from others. Overwhelmed with inner pain and anxiety, ACDFs will characteristically make a sudden, immediate escape from others…and, if possible, from themselves. The most helpful awareness for those who have been put off by ACDF’s is to recognize that they are not the only ones put off. The ACDF’s have done it to themselves, too. Though they may lament that they have no friends, the truth is that they have a history of running away from friends and bonded relationships. One ACDF noted, “I can’t tell you how many friends I lost when I was in high school by running away from them. I used to think to myself, ‘XXX has been my friend for awhile now. I need to stop the friendship now. If I stop it, s/he won’t have the opportunity to hurt my feelings in the future.’ I went through college knowing only a few people, and none that I would call ‘friends’–I don’t even remember all their names or could begin to guess where they even live. It was a lonely time. When I met my wife, that helped with the loneliness, but she was really my only friend. Even now, I would have to say that I really have only a couple of true friends, but many acquaintances. This makes it easier, by the way. Acquaintances can be dropped easier than friends without any emotional ‘problems’ and ‘touchy-feely’ stuff.”Dealing With The “Put-Off” The key to dealing with the put-off is to be able to totally put the put-off into context. The put-off does not necessarily mean the ACDF dislikes you. It’s not you they are putting off. Neither is it what you’ve done (So stop stewing over it!). Instead, it’s them…their fear, their wounding and their pain which triggers their “put-off” defense.. Though one might be tempted to think otherwise, the “put-off” is virtually totally unrelated to what you have done, how you have cared, or what extremes you have sacrificed. It’s unrelated to your competency. It’s unrelated to your pastoral skills and integrity. Again, let me repeat. It’s not you. It’s them. It’s their anxiety, pain, and unresolved grief they are passionately avoiding at yours–and their–expense. What They Need Most What ACDF’s need most when in “put-off” mode is, ironically, not to be put-off. Unleashed anger, retaliatory remarks, harsh and hurtful words, legalistic threats, and any sort of threatening reaction or response are almost universally reinforcing. They also help the ACDF to justify their “put-off,” thus reinforcing their denial mechanisms. Intervention, however, must be very judicious, non-threatening and patient. It cannot be rushed. Counseling is unnerving for ACDF’s. When they are yelling at a counselor and the counselor smiles, takes in all the anger and pain and returns it to the ACDF in love, it’s scary. This fear incites defense mechanisms of suspicion and distrust. “What do they have up their sleeve?” “Are they really listening? And, if they are, how can they care?” As distrust comes to a boil, suddenly a virtually uncontrollable inner turmoil erupts over what to do with this person who’s treating you this way. In this swirl of uncertain anxiety and fear, the most immediate relief is to escape as quickly as possible. Whether the ACDF flees or forces the intervener out, the result is the same: “put-off!” An important principle when interacting with ACDF’s is this. the intensity of their pain is directly related to their sense of time. The greater the pain, the longer the time needed to subside toward equilibrium. Since the ACDF “trauma(s) of origin,” though occurring decades ago, is felt as if it happened just yesterday, any sense or expectation that they’ll be over it “in a week or two” is pure illusion. “Over it” may not occur for years or decades…if ever. ACDF’s know this, too. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have developed such elaborate and rigid long-term defenses. Pastoral Care For The ACDF Once it is understood, forgiveness and genuine pastoral concern can more effectively and genuinely be offered to ACDF’s. In terms of pastoral care, perhaps the most important things to understand about ACDF’s are the following: 1) Understand the control issue. For ACDF’s control is first and foremost a defense mechanism, not a mechanism to enhance the welfare of others.
Anyone who tries to wrest away this control is considered a threat to keeping their secret and keeping their pain at bay. It is a survival issue. If they can no longer maintain the three rules, their deep pain will surface. The intensity of the fear of loss of control of their defense mechanism leaves them only two choices: deal with it…or flee.
2) Understand what ACDF’s believe are the consequences for giving up control. It’s not just that they’ll have a bad day or have a headache. For them the consequences of loss of control are the ability to survive or not. Being in control, they believe, is the only way they can maintain a sense of being “normal.” Lacking control, they are victims. They are vulnerable. They will be hurt…again…just like they were when the trauma(s) of origin occurred.
3) Recognize that virtually everything they are, do, think, and feel is motivated or influenced by pain…or pain avoidance. The pain is excruciating. Recognition of this helps engender a genuine sense of compassion. 4) If, as John Gray says, “Men are from Mars and Women from Venus,” then it perhaps it may be reasonable to suggest that ACDF’s are from Saturn, the planet named for the mythical god of war. The fact that they are still alive and functioning is testimony to the strength of the human spirit. They have survived the long voyage to Earth but, whether male or female, still think in terms of their planet of origin, Saturn. Their “Mars” and “Venus” behaviors simply help provide the facade to cope and survive a hostile and alien earth of intimate, bonded relationships. 5) Recognize that ACDF’s use the “put-off” for maintaining their own internal equilibrium. It’s just simply a more “vulgar” way of describing a denial mechanism. They do it to others because they do it to themselves. And they do it in both circumstances for the same reason: to avoid unleashing/unearthing intense, unbearable, unimaginably excruciating pain. 6) Name the control issue for what it is. ACDF control tactics are a defense mechanism. They defend by eliminating, denying, ignoring, destroying or unseating any other possible authority. This includes all hierarchical power, including God. It is for this reason that ACDF’s, in their most vulnerable state, will admit they have a “weak” faith. The reason for their weak faith is because they don’t let–or want–God to be in control. In their eyes, God has this little problem: He likes to think He’s God. “Why won’t God just do it my way?” For ACDF’s, one of the worst things about God is that He’s both unpredictable and invisible. Even if their attitude is “God does His thing, I do mine,” the reality is that God is the one thing in this world they can’t control. This is the core of their paralyzing fear complex. 7) Their “faith” in God is rooted in their controlling God. Christian ACDF’s may have a God-pact: “God and I have an agreement. He doesn’t bother me and I don’t bother Him. He stays where I want Him and I do what I’m told.” It doesn’t take a lot of discernment to recognize that this relationship not only lacks intimacy and sells faith short. It’s idolatrous. A God under man’s control is no God at all. It is merely the imagination of man’s heart. 8) Since their perception of God and faith is distorted, so is their conception of grace. Legalism, requirements, guilt trips and other such motivations are most comfortable for ACDF’s. Why? Because they can be controlled, measured, evaluated and monitored. Most importantly, such law-oriented attitudes and behaviors give security. “Grace,” for ACDF’s, is scary, fearful and anxiety-producing. Why? Because it can’t be earned. Nor can they control how it comes, how much of it comes, or why it comes. Nor, once received, can one give back enough to “pay God back” to keep them from owing anything to God. ACDF’s believe if God ever gave them more than they could ever repay, wouldn’t this mean they would be obligated to be connected to God? Wouldn’t this mean they would have to give up their control? Wouldn’t it mean they would have to get intimate with God? Wouldn’t it mean they would have to care and love others as God loved them? Of course! For non-ACDF’s this experience is called “Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.” For ACDF’s, however, it’s called “Welcome to my nightmare.” They fear being “tied down” to Someone that you can’t get away from. “Grace” is like a debt you can never repay. When the “Hound of Heaven” pursues them in loving grace, they flee in desperation and fear as if there is no escape. 9) Teach ACDF’s to trust “grace” first. This is the most difficult, but most essential core task. It requires them to open their hearts, disclose their pain, and talk to God for healing. It requires ACDF’s to trust God and His never-broken promises. It requires them to feel the release into grace and begin a “talk, trust, feel” relationship with God. 10) Encourage them along to participate in an appropriate “Twelve Step” Christian recovery program. In order for ACDF’s to be released into grace, they have to “let go.” In order to let God come into their lives and heal them, they have to “let go.” In order to heal and bring closure to the pain, they have to “let go.” Pastoral familiarity with the “Twelve Step” programs and the healing process is essential. Being able to relate relevant scriptural truths is also critical. But the pastor or therapist cannot do it alone. ACDF’s need not just hear what is normal. They need to see it modeled by other ACDF’s in various stages of recovery. If misery loves company, healing loves and needs company even more. Al-Anon and other recovery groups help the ACDF to feel release from guilt. They enable them to see others struggle with talking, trusting and feeling. One of the most critical things it does is to encourage the ACDF to develop and experience genuine bonding and the intimacy of trusting relationships.
So You’ve Been Put Off?
Perhaps the most important thing to do if we’ve been put off is to put it into biblical perspective. “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me” is perhaps one of the best scriptures in this vein. Given the spiritual dynamics of ACDF’s, the issue is not that they’ve put you off. The issue is they are putting God off. Perhaps the problem is that we don’t have our ministry focus right. Instead of engaging in self-pity and placing our own rejection and acceptance issues above God’s, perhaps an understanding of what’s really happening can help us recall the true nature and focus of our calling: to comfort the people of God with His grace. Comforting ACDF’s with grace is perhaps the most important–but challenging–task. The greatest working of the Holy Spirit can be to help these guilt-driven, legalistic, compulsive, pain-bearing, independent individuals to discover the joy of the Gospel. When God’s ministering servants can get beyond the pain of rejection, the overwhelm of anger and the grief of betrayal, they are much better prepared for ministry to these very, very valuable children of God who bear indescribable pain. Experiencing the healing freshness and spontaneous joy of the Gospel, ACDF’s can shed their ACDF-related defenses. They are craving a God that “is our Refuge and Strength, a very present help in trouble.” Let’s share the grace and promises of God so that they, like us, can declare,
“Therefore will we not fear though the earth be removed…
The God of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our Refuge.” Psalm 46 (KJV)
Thomas F. Fischer