I am always taken aback when insightful people can’t seem to relate to the out-of-control aspect of someone’s addictive behavior. Even when they have addictions of their own people can be at a loss to relate to someone else’s addiction. I believe this is a really common occurrence. So here are my observations about this phenomenon.
Some real life examples
1) Students in a college class about addiction counseling were considering whether a sex offender is in fact a sex addict when he continues the behavior despite the dire consequences. One student offered this stunning explanation: “maybe he’s just evil.” Mind you, this student is studying to be an addiction counselor.
2) A bright, educated friend of mine is a recovering alcoholic. She has a roommate who is in Overeaters Anonymous. He repeatedly eats her food and she becomes irritated and expresses frustration that he cannot control himself. Eventually she realizes that she has been totally ignoring what she knew all along: that he has an addiction to food.
3) The wife of an alcoholic who is in recovery in Al-Anon states that she just doesn’t get alcoholism. She described her own ability to drink now and then and how little it means to her. She cannot fathom the alcoholic’s compulsion to drink even though she admits that her own compulsive enmeshment in the other person’s disease is out of her control.
Why other people’s addictions are hard to grasp
- Wearing blinders.
Certainly “denial” could be a part of it. Addiction may be totally dissonant with how we have come to regard that person, so we just brush it aside or minimize it. “He’s great; he doesn’t have any ‘issues.’” Or “nobody’s perfect.”
Or we may have a vested interest in not seeing the problem. It would be difficult for us to confront the person, it would disrupt our relationship, it would hurt their feelings etc. And so we “minimize” the problem away.
- Empathy collapse
Sometimes we don’t want to let the person off the hook. We feel they are doing us a disservice by behaving in an out-of-control fashion in some area of their lives. We want to rely on them and then they go and do that.
At this point we are thinking of ourselves. We feel their addiction to be threatening and we lose the capacity to see them as suffering with an affliction. We are the ones who are afflicted, and our ability to feel empathy for them goes out the window. We may even take on a self righteous stand.
- The breakdown of inter-subjectivity
I have come to the conclusion that sometimes there is something so alien about another person’s addiction that we just can’t relate. This is particularly true of sex addiction. It has that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality in spades.
But all addictive behavior has some of the quality of an unlikely and unfathomable way of being. The addict is one person in their regular state and someone completely different in their driven, addictive state. The addict resembles nothing we can directly identify with.
Some ways to approach your friend’s addiction
- Maintain better boundaries
It is crucial to remember what may seem obvious: “My friend is not the same as me.” Some of the problem with seeing another person’s addiction for what it is involves accepting that they are different from us and in ways that we may just have to accept without fully understanding them.
- Understand that the addiction is not the person
A destructive pattern of behavior may have a great impact on those around them, and it may seem like such a mysterious “dark side” of the person. In fact it really is a disease that manifests in out-of-control behavior and that can be addressed with treatment. It is a disease, like any other.
- Let go of the blame game
Have you heard the saying “I am human; therefore nothing human is alien to me”? Can we learn to have sympathy for ourselves and empathy for our friend at the same time? I think we can so long as we thoroughly examine the feelings that we have about the sex addict and realistically assess what we can and cannot do to help.