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Don’t Take It Personally

November 6, 2018
Carrie Wilkens, PhD
Carrie Wilkens, PhD

If you are a family member of someone with a substance problem, you have probably heard suggestions that include distancing yourself, using tough love, or detaching until your loved one bottoms out and decides to change.  On one hand, given how awful you feel (e.g., constantly angry, tired, scared), these recommendations can make a lot of sense. On the other hand, the odds are that you really want to help your loved one. And when you try to detach or distance yourself you still feel angry, tired and scared, maybe even more scared because now you have so little contact! 

The reality is that as a family member you can have a tremendous impact on your loved one’s decision to change, and family influence is one of the main reasons people seek treatment.  Fortunately, there are strategies for helping that have been proven in studies to be very effective. Unfortunately, our culture and the traditional treatment world have been slow to embrace them so you may have not heard about them. Thankfully, they exist and you can learn them and have a positive impact.

The first step, however, is to gain perspective on your own feelings and the problems you are facing.  Based on thousands of hours of listening to parents and family members over the years, we would like to validate some common feelings you may be having:

 Disappointment that your family isn’t “normal,” that your dreams for your loved one (your child, your spouse, your sibling) and your family life elude you; more specifically disappointment that your loved one relapsed again, lied again, cut classes again, got fired again…

Anger that your loved one is putting you and your family through this, that they don’t seem to care about your suffering or appreciate what you are trying to do for them…

Fear that your loved one is blacking out, driving drunk, dropping out, ruining their life…

Discouragement when your loved one doesn’t change after a long heart-to-heart, a scary incident, a second time in rehab…

Shame over your loved one’s choices, the suspension from college/lost job, their rudeness or anger in public, their choice of friends, inappropriate clothes, not taking care of themselves… 

Sadness that you can’t talk to your loved one, that you don’t talk to your wife anymore because you only fight about your kid, that your loved one doesn’t seem to want a happy life that you always wanted them to have…

Guilt because you blame yourself for causing or contributing to the problem or at least for not preventing it. Wondering whether you give your loved one enough attention or too much, have been too demanding or not demanding enough into infinity.  You wonder if your divorce, temper, or tendency to drink one too many drinks caused the problem…

There are two things to remember about these emotions: 1) it is totally reasonable and normal that you are feeling some or all of them, and 2) it is very helpful to moving forward constructively if you can acknowledge them to yourself, but not have them play out in your discussions with your loved one. If they are, they will likely drown out any other message you are delivering.

We list some of what you may be going through emotionally as almost a gruesome, “greatest hits” list of how hard this all can be. We also list them for another, totally practical reason as well: Your feelings are valid and are a direct result of the complicate, painful problem that you face in your family if your loved one is dependent on substances.  At the same time they need to be managed if you are going to be successful in instigating change. 

Strategy Session: Don’t Take It Personally – How can you keep that confusion and fog of emotion from knocking you off your course as you try and help your loved one make changes? We suggest that you try and understand going into any given situation that it has the potential to be emotional for you (often), and work to stay calm.  A major help in this? Don’t take your loved ones decision to use substance personally. This may seem like a very odd way to interact with your loved one, but it is critical to keeping your balance and not sinking when the going gets tough, like when they are snippy, they are lying, they are late, they are doing any number of things you feel insulted/hurt/disregarded by.

We know this is difficult, and actually feels artificial and unnatural. “I should be able to speak my mind”, “I can’t let him get away with this crap”, “he needs to know how much he hurts our feelings”. All valid feelings – though not necessarily valid strategies, and we are in the strategy business of trying to most effectively encourage positive change.

How are you supposed to not take it personally? 

1. Try thinking about your child as if they were your neighbor’s child when he tells you about the unfortunate thing they did last night. Doing so might help you have a little distance as you think about how to respond.  

2. Remember how you feel when someone gets upset with you. Do you ever feel defensive or shut down yourself? 

3. Recall the last time you had a calm discussion with your loved one that went well, and the last time you were emotional and it went badly. 

4. If you are dealing with your child or teenager, try and recognize that it’s your child’s job to rebel to some degree, to push to see how far they can go; when they finds the boundary, you want that boundary to be solid and safe. Remember being young yourself. Most teenagers aren’t trying to mess with their parents. They are exploring, experimenting, figuring out who they are, and trying to find ways to feel good. 

5. Try and shift your focus from what’s happening “to you” to what you can do. 

6. Finally, take care of yourself. The more emotionally resilient your baseline and the more distress tolerance tools you have on hand, the less reactive you will be.

The hard part about this is…depersonalizing your loved one behavior may feel unnatural. However, the most effective strategies for change depend on your not taking their behavior personally.

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