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Are you over involved in a loved one’s addiction?


  • Relationships

Are you over involved in a loved one’s addiction?

Despite having the best of intentions, it’s not uncommon for those supporting a loved one with an addiction to take on too much responsibility - and the most effective ways of supporting are often counterintuitive.

Here are 7 indicators that you might need to adjust your helping strategy.

1. High Anxiety

Living alongside a loved one’s addiction can feel like being caught in a perpetual emergency, wondering what state they might be in at any given time, or what they’ll do next. It’s not uncommon for helpers to feel nauseous, their nervous systems in overload as they anticipate the next crisis. This hypervigilance cannot be managed by trying to get the addicted person clean and sober - though that can feel instinctual. It must be managed by learning how to self regulate, calm anxiety and settle our nervous system. 

2. Feeling Numb

Running on anxiety and doing too much can mean we have little opportunity to settle into our bodies and feel our feelings. This can be an unconscious payoff of over-functioning. The addicted person numbs via their drug use, while the helper numbs by over-functioning. However, there’s a high cost of managing our feelings this way, because if we can’t feel our feelings, we can’t determine our needs. Numbing can also be part of our freeze response, the last vestige of physiological safety enacted by the nervous system when we encounter a threat to our life or wellbeing, or to that of someone we love. Unfreezing requires creating safety - which is why boundaries are so critical.

3. Rage

When we give more than we comfortably can, or don’t observe our own limits, anger emerges to let us know where our limits are. When we repeatedly ignore our limits and silence the anger that is there to protect us, the cumulative effect over time is rage. Whether it’s the silent, gritted teeth variety, or explosive rage, it’s worth listening to the messages within anger which can steer us towards understanding where limits need to be drawn.

4. Resentment

When we become over involved in the life of an addicted loved one, we don’t attend to our own life, and resentment can develop. Important projects may remain incomplete, life goals abandoned, experiences that bring us joy are put on hold; all while we continue to pour time, energy and money into our loved one’s problem.

The resentment generated interferes with the vital, open hearted connection with the addicted person. The antidote to resentment is to live our own life fully, despite it feeling counterintuitive to do so whilst our loved one is struggling.

5. Poor Self Care 

When we direct all our care toward our loved one, we have little left for ourselves. We stop exercising, resting, eating well, getting enough sleep and having fun. This can be driven by a misguided loyalty, whereby we feel guilty looking after ourselves while our loved one suffers. However, neglecting ourselves doesn’t reduce the addicted person’s suffering. If anything, addicts are prone to feeling responsible for others, often blaming themselves for the poor health of those who have sacrificed so much to look after them. When we take good care of ourselves, it lightens the burden of guilt that the addicted person carries, while also serving as a powerful example of what we wish them to do for themselves.

6. Control and Rigidity

When our efforts to help are driven by anxiety, we may become inflexible in our approach. We may enact threats or become doggedly attached to certain outcomes that would feel settling to us. Our ‘help’ becomes less like help and more like taking over and managing their life, which gets in the way of our loved one feeling capable of solving their own problems. Learning how to hold space for the person as they figure out their own problems is hugely helpful.

7. Exhaustion

It is physically and emotionally exhausting to take more responsibility for another person’s life and wellbeing than they do. Helpers burn themselves out trying to help their addicted loved one get well, whilst the person with the addiction remains unmotivated or does little to help themselves. Making a project out of ‘fixing’ our loved one and forgetting about ourselves leaves us depleted and under-resourced to be able to engage with the problem constructively. Focusing our change effort on ourselves is far more productive.

Almost everything that is helpful when a loved one is caught in an addiction is wildly counterintuitive. Focusing on our own emotional and physiological functioning and mindfully watching for indicators of over involvement can provide opportunities to offer a different kind of support. In this way, we can begin to offer the help that really helps. Read For The Families for more support on how to cope with a loved one’s addiction.

Byron Private offers an effective pathway to recovery for those living with drug and alcohol addictions, codependency, eating disorders and mental health. If you or someone you love is needing help, please reach out to our clinical team for a confidential discussion on 02 6684 4145 or via our online contact form.

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