ACOA Masks, Manipulation & Maladies of Adult/Child Syndrome

By Angie Carter, CRADC, SAP

ACOA Masks: This time of year [October] some people wear masks to hide their identity for holiday fun and entertainment. But some individuals wear a type of mask on a daily basis in order to hide who they really are from others. ACOA masks come from being raised in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional home environment and can cause one to create different parts of self in order to endure, survive and flourish. We develop an outer self with behaviors that we show the world around us and our inner self holds our true thoughts and feelings. In order to get our needs met we can become manipulative and controlling. A lack of healthy coping skills and the inability to be our true selves can cause a variety of maladies such as depression, anxiety or physical ailments.

Family Recovery

ACOA Masks & Family Dysfunction

Being in long term recovery I have had the opportunity to uncover, examine and work on the effects of being raised in an alcoholic home that hindered me as an adult. I didn't know I was wearing an ACOA mask which hid a large part of my true identity, I just thought that was who I was. I was not able to do the work of self-discovery until I had been sober for several years. In the beginning of my sobriety, it took all my energy and focus to just not drink or use for that 24 hours. I do not think I was psychologically ready to handle those kinds of deep rooted issues until I developed some of the skills that recovery taught me, namely, how to handle emotions.

There are three main ego states that individuals basically operate from and they are the adult ego state, the parent ego state or the child ego state. An ego state can also be described as the 'state of mind' or the part of self that someone is in when reacting to something. We move in and out of these different parts of self, depending on what the situation is.

The adult ego state is the mind-set we are in when utilizing our executive functioning thought process. It is the part of us that comes forward while at work, or when searching for a solution to resolve issues with family members, friends, co-workers etc... This part does not typically demonstrate a lot of emotion or feelings. It can be referred to as the problem solving part of ourselves. If we get 'stuck' in this part of ourselves, we can be seen as too analytical and unemotional.

The Parent Ego state is the state of mind we are in when someone needs us, whether it is our children or others. It is the part of self that comes forward and can be nurturing, caring, and supportive. It protects and shows empathy in healthy ways. People who are drawn to and in relationships with alcoholic/addicts get stuck in the 'parental role' and develop codependency. It becomes unhealthy when they take on too much of the responsibility or lose themselves in the relationship.

The Child Ego state has several different "kid" parts to it. The natural child is the spontaneous, fun-loving and playful part of self, or the little professor which is the observer and figures out how things are done, and if we grew up in a dysfunctional family there is a wounded child-self. This wounded child part carries a multitude of feelings and functions and can be a variable in the development of the false self. It has three main distinct subparts to it, which are the Angry/Defiant Child, the Vulnerable Child and the Critical Parent.

The Angry/Defiant Child is the part that comes forward with the intent to help us set boundaries, to say no or achieve autonomy. It also attempts to protect the vulnerable part of us and that is why we will get mad or lash out instead of showing hurt feelings. The Vulnerable Child is the part that carries all the pain, sadness, hurt, fear and abandonment. This part internalizes contempt as opposed to the angry child which externalizes it. The third part of the wounded child is the Critical Parent ACOA mask, which carries all the shame-based messages that we received from the dysfunctional ACOA upbringing. It's the part that is hyper-critical and judgmental of self and others.

Individuals raised in a dysfunctional home learn the unspoken rules of don't talk, don't feel and don't trust. Many times we are fearful of expressing our feelings, setting boundaries and being authentic so we use ACOA masks to hide who we really are. In an attempt to get our needs met we can act in ways that are manipulative and when we are not true to ourselves and honest with others we can become sick emotionally or physically. Attending therapy and the continued support of an ACOA group can help with the healing process. In recovery we can take our masks off, let go, ask for help, and begin to take care of our inner life while we learn how to enjoy our outer life

About the Author

Angie Carter, CRADC, SAP is a certified reciprocal alcohol and drug counselor and DOT certified Substance Abuse Professional. She is in private practice at Carter Counseling & Consulting Services. Angie is available for telephone coaching and/or consultation. Click here to contact Angie with appointment requests, questions, or feedback.