| Family Reflections |

Disappearing Act

Adaptive childhood responses backfire in adulthood



or the years of life, we’re “trapped” within a particular family with its particular circumstances. If we don’t like what we find there it’s too bad — we’re too little and too helpless to leave. Moreover, because of the inherent privacy of our experience, we often suffer through it without access to appropriate emotional support.

Hashem gives every child numerous instinctive tools to help ensure emotional and even physical survival in these difficult situations. And when the situation isn’t so dire, these tools help all of us maintain our equilibrium through the years of our dependency and vulnerability. They allow us to jump rope, learn math, make friends, and progress along our developmental journeys despite the myriad emotional challenges that arise out of being raised by fallible human beings in an imperfect world.

Says one woman, “My parents fought all the time. I couldn’t tolerate the constant bickering, the raised voices, the threats. I coped by retreating. When they were at it, I’d lock myself in my bedroom and bury myself in my books. My parents didn’t seem to notice. They never looked for me afterward, never asked me if I was okay. It was like I was invisible to them. I suppose they thought that since I didn’t say anything, I didn’t notice anything. Maybe they thought that I didn’t feel anything! I was just a kid. I couldn’t come to them, to tell them that I was scared and sad. All these feelings were stuck inside me, and formed a burden that weighed me down all throughout my childhood.”

Disappearing Adults

Although the instinct to disappear can help a child survive family stress and move forward in his own social and academic life, it can get in the way later on. For instance, when dealing with one’s own marital stress, a “disappearing” spouse is unavailable for conflict resolution and consequently unavailable for an authentic and emotionally close relationship. A “disappearing” parent similarly loses out on the establishment of secure, lifelong bonds with offspring. Various types of “disappearing” may affect one’s job performance and even one’s own relationship to oneself.

“When things get stressful, I read novels nonstop. It’s an addictive habit. I know that because if I’m involved in a really good book, I put off essential tasks like making dinner and supervising homework. On days like that I tell my husband that I’ve had such a busy day, he’ll need to pick up pizza on the way home, and I let the kids forge my signature in the morning. I know that it’s wrong, I just can’t help it,” says one mother.

Although this woman seems to be suffering from a bad case of immaturity and irresponsibility, she’s actually correct in her own diagnosis: She has an addictive disorder. People who habitually disappear may turn to both addictive substances and addictive behaviors to help them escape from reality. While we’re all familiar with the harms of alcohol and drug addiction, most of us are less familiar with the wide range of behavioral strategies that people use to disappear. Some people take stressful pieces of mail (bills, warning letters, documents that require attention) and place them unopened in storage boxes, to be tended to “later.” Some people put off making appointments or tending to important business. Some people avoid making necessary decisions. The absent spouse isn’t just absent-minded — he or she is truly disappearing and thereby abandoning a partner and the tasks that adulthood requires.

Eventually the disappearing act will bring about more stress than it relieves. What worked so well in childhood tends to backfire in adulthood.

Avoiding Avoidance

Those who learn to disappear in childhood need to learn — gradually and gently — how to tolerate the discomforts and stresses of adulthood. First, they must acknowledge that they’re doing their disappearing act. Then, they need to experiment with tolerating small bits of discomfort (opening and tending to one piece of mail, for example). Then, seeing that they survive that discomfort, they can move on to intentionally and consciously experiencing slightly larger amounts of stress.

At the same time, they need to reduce the use of addictive substances and behaviors, allowing themselves to engage fully in both pleasant and less-pleasant activities, safely experiencing both pleasant and less-pleasant emotions.

Over time, the “full-catastrophe” experience of life becomes not only tolerable but actually rewarding. Because staying present connects us to ourselves, each other, and to Hashem.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 891)

Oops! We could not locate your form.