Anxiety, Shame, and Low Self-Esteem, Oh My! (aka The Legacy of a Dysfuntional Family System)

Anxiety, Shame, and Low Self-Esteem, Oh My!

"On my best days, I'm a great mom. On my worst days, I don't even recognize myself. Actually I do - on my worst days I act just like my father."

"Even though I'm not drinking anymore, my life is not where I want it to be. I'm anxious all the time and, instead of drinking, now I'm using food to get through the day."

"I always feel alone. I don't know how to have a healthy relationship, but I really want one! Whenever someone gets too close, I find a way to mess it up."

"I've always worked really hard - some people say too hard. I can't tolerate the idea of something not being perfect. On the outside I look put together and successful, but on the inside I feel empty and insecure."

At the core of many of these complaints is a common denominator: having grown up in a family with dysfunction. This article is meant to help underscore what that means, what it looks like, and how you can work towards healing the legacy of your past. (Fasten your seat belt: this blog is going to be longer than usual!)

What Makes a Family Dysfunctional?

First of all, I want to clear something up - most families and parents (yes, most!) are doing the absolute best that they can. Most parents and caretakers are not out to intentionally harm their children.

Most families have some periods of time when functioning is impaired by stressful circumstances (a financially stressful time, a serious illness, a death in the family, etc). Healthy families tend to return to normal functioning once the crisis is over.

Family systems with dysfunction have these problems, but more chronically. There is more instability than there is stability. Children in these families are not consistently having their physical, emotional, and/or developmental needs met.

Adults raised in dysfunctional family systems report difficulties maintaining intimate relationships, maintaining positive self-esteem, and trusting others. They also fear a loss of control and have a hard time identifying their own feelings.

Wait, So What Do Healthy Families Look Like?

Healthy families are not perfect! There may be regular bickering, yelling, misunderstanding, tension, hurt and/or anger - but not all of the time.

In healthy families:

  • Emotional expression is allowed and accepted - you deeply know you are loved and respected even when you are angry or acting out.
  • Individuality is valued and honored -  each family member is encouraged to pursue his or her own interests; boundaries between individuals are honored.
  • Children are consistently treated with respect and do not fear emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.
  • Parents can be counted on to provide consistent care and safety for their children.
  • Mistakes are allowed: everyone makes and owns their mistakes. Perfection is unattainable and unrealistic, and is acknowledged as such.

What Goes Wrong in Dysfunctional Families?

Families that experience chronic problems that impair family functioning often fit into one of the following categories of parental dysfunction:

  • Deficient Parent(s): Mental illness or a disabling physical illness usually contribute to this type of parental inadequacy - though chronically stressed and emotionally unavailable parents also fit in this category. Children in these families have to take on responsibilities far beyond their capacities at a young age. Parental emotional needs often take precedence and children often assume the role of a caretaker. These children begin to ignore their own needs and feelings. And, because as children they are simply unable to fulfill an adult role, they often feel inadequate and guilty.
  • Controlling Parent(s): Some parents fail to allow their children to assume responsibilities appropriate for their age; they continue making decisions for their children well beyond the age when this is necessary. The parent's own fear leaves them feeling betrayed and abandoned when their child shows signs of appropriate independence and autonomy. These children frequently feel resentful, inadequate, and powerless. Transitions into adult roles are often quite difficult as these adults frequently have difficulties making decisions independent from their parent(s). As adults, when they act independently, they experience guilt, as if growing up in and of itself were disloyal to their parent(s).
  • Alcoholic or Addicted Parent(s): Addiction tends to create family systems that are chaotic and unpredictable. Rules that apply one day don't apply the next. Promises are neither kept nor remembered. Parents may be strict at times and indifferent at others. In addition, emotional expression is frequently forbidden and open discussion about the addiction or the related family problems is usually nonexistent. There is often a high degree of secret keeping in families with addiction. All of these factors leave children feeling insecure, frustrated, and angry. Children can also internalize that it is their fault that their parent(s) behave in this way. Mistrust of others, difficulty with emotional expression, and difficulties with intimate relationships carry into adulthood.
  • Abusive Parent(s): Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse can have lasting effects on children - especially when these come at the hands of a primary caretaker. Any type of abuse violates a child's safety in the relationship and, in the case of physical and sexual abuse, the safety they experience in their body. Often children blame themselves for the abuse and so develop self-loathing, shame, and worthlessness, which they carry into adulthood.

Legacies of Dysfunctional Family Systems

Everyone has their own unique story of how their childhood experience has impacted their life. Some people's experiences are more severe while others' are more mild. Whichever the degree, what we know for sure is that we all find a way to adapt to challenges in order to get through it the best way we can. Those adaptations can be thought of like a software package in our system or our personality. And once they run a certain program, they just keep running that same program over and over into adulthood - at least until we make a conscious effort to update them.

According to the book, "Adult Children of Alcoholics," Dr. Janet Geringer Woititz lists the following common characteristics of adult children of dysfunctional families:

  • Adult children guess at what normal is.
  • Adult children have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end.
  • Adult children lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
  • Adult children judge themselves without mercy.
  • Adult children have difficulty having fun.
  • Adult children take themselves very seriously.
  • Adult children have difficulty with intimate relationships.
  • Adult children over-react to changes over which they have no control.
  • Adult children constantly seek approval and affirmation.
  • Adult children feel that they are different from other people.
  • Adult children are either super responsible or super irresponsible.
  • Adult children are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that their loyalty is undeserved.
  • Adult children are impulsive.

Take this quiz to assess how much you may be impacted by having been raised in a dysfunctional family system.

But, the Past is the Past - What Can I Do About it Now??

Regardless of the type of dysfunction, its severity, and its legacy, you have survived! You have also likely developed a number of valuable skills and strengths to get you through stressful times. So, it's important to take stock - you may find that much of what you have learned in your family is quite valuable in your life!

Many survival behaviors you developed are your best assets! In thinking about the changes you may want to make in yourself, it is important that you do not lose sight of your many strengths and good qualities. For example:

  • People who grow up in dysfunctional family systems often have finely tuned empathy for others - it is what may make you, in part, such a great parent or partner or friend.
  • Others are often very achievement-oriented and are therefore highly successful in some areas of their lives.
  • Most are resilient to stress and adaptive to change.

Working through some of the legacies of growing up in a dysfunctional family that you wish would shift takes time - patience is important! The aspect of yourself or the pattern you wish to interrupt likely stems from a survival behavior that was critical to you when you were growing up - even if it is problematic in your adult life. These reactions and responses have become so automatic that you likely don't even notice it is happening until it's over.

How Trauma-Informed Therapy Can Help

Therapy, with a focus on your issue being a legacy of having grown up in a dysfunctional family system, can help start rewiring these reactions and responses. The first step is becoming aware of how these reactions and patterns are, in fact, legacies of your past. Then, with patience and compassion for this legacy playing out before your eyes, you will soon start to notice that you have more spaciousness around these issues and more choice about how you react - choices that can be more in line with your goals, your integrity, and how you would most like to represent yourself.

Interested to know more? Subscribe to my newsletter to receive future blog posts, insights, and self-help tips straight to your inbox or contact me so we can talk more.

© Ellie Vargas, LCSW

*Parts of this article have been adapted from the Texas Woman's University website


Ellie Vargas, LCSW is a wife and a mama of two girls, a trekker on the bumpy trail of personal growth, and a Trauma-Informed Psychotherapist. In that order.