| Addiction | Family Support | Relationships |
One of the hardest experiences for families to manage is when the principles of one of its members diverge from what the family considers to be their collective family principles. This can happen in subtle ways in any family on any day of the week, but it happens in very striking and gross ways when people are caught in an addiction or other mental health crisis. People do not behave at their best when they are drowning in their own struggle.
Principles fall by the wayside, usurped by the need to simply survive, the threat system is either over-activated or under-activated, and cognition doesn’t fire at optimum levels. The part of the brain that determines values and principles, and can behaviour into congruence with them, goes offline, and with it, the capacity to imagine cause-and-effect scenarios and link behaviour with likely consequences.
In families, whether we are witnessing the integrity of a once-principled family member slip away, experiencing our adolescent child’s values emerge in violent opposition to our own, or bumping up against principles (or lack thereof) in our spouse that are horribly discordant with our own, alarm bells are likely to be raised, and sometimes to fever pitch.
“I can’t believe he would behave like that!! He grew up in a good family!”
“What will people think of our family if she keeps behaving like that?”
Misaligned values and divergent principles can send family anxiety sky-rocketing and are very often the source of family conflict, separations and emotional cut-offs. They strike at the heart of the deep-seated fears families have of being judged and excluded by other families and wider society.
We are herd animals. It is threatening to imagine that we might be ousted from the herd.
We know in a very primal way that our survival depends on remaining with the herd. Whether social judgement, exclusion or ousting is a real or perceived threat makes little difference. Our threat systems respond as if the threat is real, regardless.
Family members are inclined to engage in ‘managing, diagnosing and fixing’ the offending family member’s behaviour, and work at ‘controlling, coercing and convincing’ them to change their behaviour so that it might sync back up with accepted family values and allow a return to the relationship zone where anxiety levels are tolerable and threat systems settled. Placing the change effort on another person however, rather than on ourselves, is generally the result of an anxiety-driven and anxiety-generating scramble back to a more tolerable place, rather than a considered, mindful approach that brings lasting change.
So often, families behave in ways that they are not proud of as they scramble to get another family member to behave in a more acceptable way, and then blame their own poor behaviour on the person who initially acted without principle. This does not help the original family member find a better way, nor provide an example of, and invitation into, more principled behaviour. In families, we do ourselves and other family members a favour when we are willing to sincerely ask ourselves…
What principles of my own have I abandoned in my attempts to get my loved one to be more principled?
Being in one’s integrity and aligning behaviour with principles is one of the clearest barometers of both recovery and maturity, but it need not start with the addict or other struggling person, and it often can’t. When any family member who is anxious about another member’s seeming lapse in values and principles is willing to work on becoming more accountable to their own values and principles, they become part of the solution.
‘Just for today, let it begin with me.’(Al-anon)
Anna Lloyd is a Family Therapist at Byron Private and a Clinical Psychotherapist in Private Practice in Sydney’s Inner West, working with individuals, couples, families and groups. Trained in Gestalt Psychotherapy, Bowen Family Systems Theory and Systemic Family Constellation work, Anna is passionate about family systems and the power of systemic approaches to recovery and wellness.
Specialising in Addiction Recovery/Addictive Family Systems, Anna brings 15 years of experience living and practicing the work. She is strongly committed to trauma-informed therapeutic approaches, and values warm, holistic, body-inclusive, life-affirming therapy grounded in mindfulness, practical wisdom, and the science of relationship systems and the brain.
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