When you have a friend or loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you know that it’s super challenging to talk to them about their addiction. When you do, you run into all kinds of defenses. In their current mindset and understanding, they will do almost anything to be able to maintain their addiction and especially to avoid treatment of any kind. Below, I use the metaphors of the Lamb, the Lion and the Owl to identify the alternative communication styles that you may use to talk with your loved one.
The Lamb’s style of communicating is softer, more flexible, responds to resistance, distress or unhappiness with nurturing, and compromise.
The Lion is confrontational, has strong opinions about what needs to be done, favors tough love, sees behavior as right or wrong.
The Owl listens, asks questions to learn more, and reflects on what is being shared.
Results of Each Style
The Lamb’s way can lack a sense of firmness, clarity, guidance or direction for their loved one.
The Lion’s form of communication is forceful, authoritarian, and based on preconceived notions of what their loved one may need. It usually evokes defensiveness, withdrawal or resentment.
The Owl is there to draw out their loved one’s experience and provide an opportunity for them to reflect on and discover their desire for change and for finding their own wisdom and way out of addiction.
Your loved one is not purposefully avoiding getting help or wanting to change. They are aware of their addiction and its consequences for themselves and those around them. However, they are caught in a cycle of negative perceptions that doesn’t allow them to see what is really happening to them. In their minds they feel they have no choice about whether they use or not. Because they see their addiction as the only solution to their uncomfortable or distressing feelings created by their repetitive thought patterns, they quite naturally go into a defensive or protective mode; thus you encounter avoidance, anger, guilt, resentment, and blame. Therefore, talking with an addict about their situation requires a new understanding of addiction, what creates it and how to support your loved one in letting it go. Below are some typical communication scenarios that illustrate what works and what doesn’t.
1. “I need to tell you how I really feel.” This is often a disguise for assigning your feelings to the other person’s behavior. Feelings are the result of your state of mind about what’s happening in the moment. This is universally true for everyone. Realizing this can foster a powerful change in your understanding of what creates your experience of your loved one. With this insight, much of your reactivity to your loved one can calm down. Blame turns to compassion, curiosity about their experience, and a greater ability to access wisdom for finding a way forward.
2. “What can I do to help you?” The question starts from the attitude that there is something wrong with the other person and they need to be fixed. True, they have an addiction. Their addiction is their attempt to deal with negative mind states. These states create uncomfortable feelings which create the urge to drink or use. Once they see that they do not have to act on their thought/feeling, they can either heed the pull of the compulsion or let it go. As they continue to disregard the thought-generated compulsion to use, overtime the urges will fade. Seeing your loved one as whole and in need of a new understanding about the nature of thought will change your perception of them and yourself. Gradually you begin to have a greater ability to stay present and to listen without judgment. Bringing these qualities to your interaction creates the best container for change and healing.
3. “I miss the time we spent together. How can we start hanging out again?” It is so important to stay connected to your addicted loved one in any way you can. This may not be easy and will require a high level of honesty on your part about your ability to be or not to be with the person’s behavior. If you are honest with them about your own limitations while expressing your love for them, you will continue to be a positive factor in their ability to create change
4. “If you don’t have a problem, why did this [series of events] happen?” Questions or statements that remind the addict of all their bad behavior will only add to the already huge load of shame and guilt they carry about their addiction. Thus the hold of addiction can tighten even more—often diminishing their ability to realize the effect of their using.
Asking self-reflective questions provides a gateway for them into more awareness of their experience. A self-reflective question that creates an opportunity for learning rarely begins with “why?” “Why” takes us further down the rabbit hole of trying to “figure out” in our heads the source of the problem—the last place we will find the answers we seek. We want to know what is their experience? Where do they think their feelings are coming from? Do they see a repeating pattern in their state of mind and behavior? And what happens when they engage in that repetitive pattern of thinking? We want them to be more conscious of their experience and to feel it being created by their attitude in the moment. Denial has too often been used as a club instead of signaling the need for greater self-awareness.
5. “I love you but I can’t do this anymore.” Before you decide to cut off contact with your loved one, it would be useful to understand where your feelings about your loved are coming from. It seems as though they are coming from your loved one’s behavior much the same way that your loved one thinks their urges/feelings are coming from their addiction to a substance. In both cases it is thought generated feeling that is the culprit. You might notice how much of your thought centers on the addict and their addiction. You may be surprised to find that your feelings about your situation arise from your state of mind in the moment.
When you take responsibility for your thought-generated emotions, you set an example for your loved one. You will begin to see how your habits of worry, anger, disgust, disappointment, etc., are being created inside of you. You will begin to separate your loved one from their behavior. However, if there are certain behaviors that are too difficult to be around, then it is good to identify those and set limits around them. For instance, you may not want to be with your loved one when they are under the influence. In this case you can tell them not to call or not to come home if they have been using. Tell them to get a motel room and sleep it off or any other creative solution you come up with to shield yourself from the behavior. However, always keep in mind that your thoughts about their addiction and their situation is different from who they are. If you have decided to maintain a relationship, then the easiest and most effective way to stay connected is to simply listen to them. Listen for what they are saying on a deeper level. Listen for some truth or logic in how they see their experience. This will provide the context and basis for a conversation about the way forward and the possibility of change.
The stance and attitude you assume in talking with your loved one makes a huge difference in how they will respond to you and your efforts to support them to change. In truth, there is no one right way to talk to your loved one about their addiction. Sometimes being soft and flexible like the Lamb may work. Other times the tough love of the Lion is needed. My bias is toward the way of the Owl because it honors your loved one’s experience and gives them space for insight and self-discovery.
As you deepen your understanding of the universal truth that feelings are created by thought in the moment, not by the person, the situation or the behavior, you will be more and more in touch with the source of wisdom, clarity and well being. Any blame, shame or guilt will give way to a sense of compassion for your loved who is also simply caught in a misunderstanding about the source of their experience. Guided by this deeper aspect of yourself, you will have a larger capacity to interact with your loved one in a way that provides the best support for them to let go of their addiction.
Judy Voruz is a family counselor, helping families struggling with addiction since 1985. She holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology and is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor. For five years, Judy served as a family counselor at the Hazelden/Betty Ford Foundation. Contact her at 541-274-0758 or firstname.lastname@example.org.