Communicating with my family


Many people from dysfunctional families have experienced overt or covert verbal abuse. Some useful questions to consider as we review our personal history include the following:

  • Did our parents practice unhealthy communication?

  • Were they dishonest with one another or their children?

  • Did they lie to themselves or others on a regular basis?

  • Did they rage or swear or tell us that “you’ll never amount to anything?”

  • Or, was the verbal abuse more covert and subtle?

  • Did we see verbal people-pleasing going on to control or take care of people’s feelings?

  • Were things kept hidden? Were there family secrets?

  • Did seemingly harmless but subtly stabbing sarcasm rule the day?

  • Are we using any of these verbal tactics today in our own lives or allowing others to use them with us?

If we review the communication habits that once protected us, we might find that many of them still haunt us today. Once we have identified the internal and external voices that are still damaging us, we can stop empowering them and start replacing them with healthier choices.

To have healthy and loving relationships, we must decide that this is truly what we want. Keeping this desire in our hearts and minds helps us to replace our desire to protect ourselves at all times, and at all costs.

Before recovery, we lived life according to what others wanted in a relationship. By placing our desire for a healthy relationship with ourselves first, we are learning a new way of life. When we love and honor ourselves, we have healthier relationships with others.

A loving relationship includes honesty, openness, willingness, acceptance and taking care of ourselves, so that we can go freely to others. We learn to release the need to be filled from the outside, learning instead to be filled from within, before coming into relationship with another. Loyalty to ourselves needs always to come first.


Extract from Mary’s story

My first step took over a year to look at the effects my childhood had on me and how I had integrated so many destructive behaviors in order to survive. I didn’t want to feel those feelings I had locked away for so many years. I felt that by looking at my past, I would be disloyal to my parents. It took some time to realize this work was not about blaming my parents, but about holding them accountable for their behaviors.

I learned that codependence is inter-generational , and that my parents were doing what was taught them. Their dysfunction had been handed down to them , just as they had handed it down to me, and as I had passed it on to my children. This work was simply about stopping the cycle.

In This moment I love and accept my Family

I was a low priority on my Mother’s list. When I metaphorically said “knock, knock” I heard no response. There was no sharing of anything meaningful, no intimacy in this mother-daughter relationship. Now, with my mother in her 80’s our relationship is evolving. My mother talks to me and even expresses feelings.

I listen well thanks to ACA. I’m learning so much about my Mother’s strengths: She’s emotionally stable, retains old friendships and has developed a support system for dealing with my father’s dementia. I am grateful that I have come to know my Mother better – I value our new and renewed relationship.


In codependent families, boundaries are never the same from day to day. Sometimes there are no boundaries at all. They shift and change depending on to the emotional climate.

Emotional Boundaries

We are responsible for what we do with our feelings and how we show them. Other people are also entitled to their feelings and accountable for their behavior around them.

Our responsibility in recovery is to not try to fix our or other peoples feelings

We allow others to be responsible and have their own feelings without trying to change them. When we become aware of our own boundaries we respect and value others boundaries too. No one can make us feel anything we do not choose to feel.

Mental Boundaries

It is our choice to accept or reject what others say about us and about what we think or say.

We begin to make our own choices about how we think.

We allow others to have their own thoughts without interruption or ridicule. Others thoughts can only hurt me if I let them.

Our internal and external communication habits shape our thoughts, feelings, actions and relationships – literally everything we experience in life. Not speaking up for ourselves and expressing our feelings in an open, honest and healthy manner keeps us trapped in our codependency – a disease that for many members is a disease of silence.

What is healthy communication?

Healthy communication is clear, concise, and honest. To improve our communication, we first need to know our hearts and minds clearly. Codependents continually need to ask. “What do I think, feel, and need?”

Once we answer these crucial questions, we can empower ourselves to express our feelings openly and honestly without being controlled by our fear of the reactions of others.

What causes codependent communication?

Codependent communication is caused by one primary force: fear and the need to control it.

If we look closely at the feelings and attitudes behind most codependent communication, we discover a host of fears, fears of commitment: shame, a core belief in our own lack of worth, or others’ anger and abandonment.

The major problem with this unhealthy communication is that we dishonor ourselves. Every time we fail to honor our precious thoughts and feelings for the sake of pleasing others, we sell ourselves out as well. Our true self may be in pain or furious, but we walk around with a plastic smile on our face.

How do we assess our codependent communication patterns?

Developing healthier communication habits is a process. One excellent way to begin working on this aspect of our recovery is by doing a written Fourth Step inventory of our communication history. If we do this, we may discover that many of our codependent verbal habits were learned from our families or in relationships with damaging, significant others.

How do we change our codependent communication patterns?

As the Steps teach us, learning to change our codependent habits begins with acceptance, a willingness to change,, and then action. We can’t change what we don’t know. However all the insights in the world won’t help unless we want to change and actually do it. We can begin this process by working all Twelve Steps in light of our verbal habits.

The most important point to remember is that these patterns have been learned, and they can be unlearned. Our verbal habits may have run our lives for years and protected us around unsafe people, but today we can let go of them and walk through the discomfort that comes with changing old behaviors.

Thoughts & Suggestions on Healthy Communication

  • I avoid obsessing over other people’s problems and shortcomings. Obsessing over others is deceptive. It prevents me from focusing on my unhealthy behavior and attitudes.

  • I discover my options, even though they may be painful and uncomfortable choices. I put myself first, and others I care about a close second. I am gentle and considerate of my needs and wants.

  • Others around me may react negatively to my changes. Some family systems perpetuate dysfunction, because they are accustomed to dysfunction, or the behavior is comfortable. A non-healthy family system may become more unstable when one person within the system pursues healthy ways of relating.

  • I avoid justifying or explaining myself even when I feel a compulsion to do so.

  • I speak slowly, firmly and clearly when drawing boundaries.

  • Sometimes I delay my immediate response to a question or comment to give myself time to think and feel.

  • I prepare for difficult conversations with my family – I talk to my Sponsor and other recovery friends before and after the conversation.

  • I notice when I am trying to control others with my words, tone, volume or non-stop talk – or if others are trying to control me in the same way.

  • When visiting my family I try to notice when I need to leave to spend some time alone for a while. I plan some sanity strategies ahead of time.


  • I remain self-assured with my own identity. I value my accomplishments, make my own decisions, and approve of my behaviours.

  • I see others and myself realistically – my family members are not there to satisfy my needs

  • I realise I am an adult, capable of taking care of my needs. Therefore I can never really be abandoned. My Higher Power is always present to love and guide me.

  • I remain my own person. By practicing healthy boundaries and expressing my needs directly

  • In recovery I am learning to say “no” to my family when it is appropriate for me.

  • I make my own choices about when and how long I spend with my family. I journal about my avoidant behavior.

  • Although I love my blood relatives, they can’t always understand and support the changes in me.