The Four Key Relationships in Addiction Recovery


I believe that addiction is a disease of isolation. The deeper and deeper we slide into our addictive actions and behaviors, the more and more distant we become from relationships that are important to us. There are four key relationships that undoubtedly suffer when we’re active in our addiction:

  1. Our relationship with ourselves.
  2. Our relationships with our family.
  3. Our relationships to our higher power.
  4. Our relationships in society.

1. The First Key Relationship: How We Relate To Ourself

When honestly looking at our past behavior while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, I think it isn't easy to feel good about yourself. And perhaps that is the easiest and most simple definition of self-esteem. Common feelings turned inward, experienced by people in active use are anger, loneliness, shame, guilt, and inadequacy, among many others.

The deeper and deeper we slide into our addictive actions and behaviors, the more and more distant we become from relationships that are important to us. Here are 4 key relationships that undoubtedly suffer when we’re active in our addiction.

It is common to have very low self-worth and not feel very important or very likable. It is challenging to attract and give love when you don’t feel lovable. How do we change this? How do we start moving forward in a positive direction? The first really positive action we can take is to become abstinent. Stop using drugs or alcohol and stay stopped.

As we enter into addiction recovery and move down the path toward sobriety, it is natural to feel a bit better about oneself. After all, you’re finally taking pro-active and positive steps to improve your life. We will have to develop a richer definition of self-esteem than how we feel about ourselves. Perhaps a broader concept would be to look at the value we place on ourselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

Where does self-esteem come from?

For some reason, I picture a little newborn baby in the hospital being held up behind the nurse's glass. New parents are gazing fondly at their new child. Then I ask myself, does that child have low self-esteem? Where did this concept of not putting a value on ourselves come from? What’s that all about?

Somewhere along the line, I believe we learned how to feel about ourselves. One thing I know is that one of the strongest forms of teaching and learning is modeling.

We tend to emulate what we are shown. If we are raised in a healthy family, a Leave It to Beaver situation, where our needs are met, love and reassurance freely given, I don’t think there will be low self-esteem issues.

Unfortunately, many people who suffered through addiction come from less than ideal and emotionally functional families. Now I’m not all about blaming our parents, I really believe they did the best job that they could, but the fact is some of us were raised in less than ideal family situations. Think about that. We learn from what is modeled around us.

Leaving the past behind us, think about how our value and perception of ourselves plummeted as we became active in our addiction. I really think that at some deep level, we know that drinking and drugging is not a positive influence on our life. Yet we continue to do it. That push and pull of wanting to stop, then having to use, can play havoc with how we feel about ourselves.

Enough. How About if We Move into Some Solutions?

One of the great things about addiction recovery is that our self-esteem can take a major boost. Sometimes though, the old feelings and thinking can re-occur. That is when self-esteem tips can be a useful recovery tool.

When people talk about improving self-esteem, they usually mean self-confidence. While the two are related, they are not the same. Self-esteem is all about self-worth and self-value. It’s how we see ourselves in relation to other people and our environment. It has nothing to do with vanity or conceit. The lack of self-esteem is a major problem and has a leveling quality. Rich and poor, all strata of society alike, are afflicted by it, and people decide between happiness and unhappiness because of it.

If self-esteem is an area in your life where you need improvement, here are some tips you can use to build your self-value and improve the way you see yourself:

Self-esteem Tips

1. Know what you want. You can’t assess where you are in your journey if you have no idea what you want to have in life. You also will not be able to judge whether you’ve been doing a good job or just so-so.

Set goals that are clear and doable. Make sure that these are things you want to do and attain, and not things your parents, family, friends, and colleagues insist you ‘should’ have. Is it just the latest trends that dictate your aspirations? If so, you will never catch up and be satisfied. You can only claim your goals as your own if you recognize them as things you truly, genuinely want in your life.

2. Assess your good points. List the things that you do well and the things that make you a good person. It could be anything: intelligence, a good sense of humor, good analytical ability, compassion, creativity, ability to spot trends or people skills. These are things that you have and can recognize as an integral part of your personality and talents. No matter how low you feel in your life, these are qualities that you never lose.

3. Recognize your liabilities. Improving your self-esteem does not mean ignoring the things that make you human. To be human is to make mistakes; just do not let them keep you stuck. List your negative traits and label them as areas in your life you need to work on, areas for improvement. Treating them as downright liabilities will make them seem an unalterable feature of your life and create a feeling that you are helpless against them.

4. Build slowly but surely. Take little steps to improve your self-esteem. Big successes build upon small successes. You can’t decide to change your outlook drastically today and expect extreme results in the morning. By taking it slowly and performing well during each turn, you gradually build a solid base of achievements that will boost your self-esteem more effectively.

5. Make it a point to improve yourself daily. Whatever you do, say, or think should be geared towards improving your self-esteem. Improve the way you dress, walk, or talk. Take further studies to hone your knowledge and skills, learn a new language, take up cooking classes, start a new hobby. Being able to immerse yourself in a worthwhile activity creates a feeling of capability and opens new growth opportunities.

6. Keep away from people who shoot you down with snide remarks and unfair criticisms. Associate with positive people. There will always be grouches and negativists who will think nothing about giving careless opinions that make other people think unworthy of praise or recognition. If you find people who make it their life mission to belittle other people’s achievements, keep your distance. They will not contribute anything good to your life.

7. Be yourself. You’ll never improve your self-esteem if you try to live life and find acceptance as a projected mask of yourself. Pretending to be someone you’re not will fail to affirm your uniqueness and potential and will only make you sadder about your circumstance. You can’t make everyone love you, so don’t try.

8. Make other people feel good about themselves. People tend to like you more if you’re honest and pleasant. Polish your listening skills and body language to make people feel comfortable. Respond to them visibly and with interest. You might think that this is the opposite of what you want to do to improve your self-esteem. Still, by focusing your attention on other people, you create an aura of likeability that they gravitate towards, making them choose you over others. And when you are singled out as a good person who’s terrific to be with, your self-esteem grows.

9. You have the right to make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, regardless of what you’ve heard or what popular media wants you to believe. Accepting that you will make mistakes and that it’s all right, you learn to recognize that it is a necessary process you need to go through for you to improve yourself.

10. Recognize that you are a unique individual with a different set of talents and that you have something to contribute. You may not be a big celebrity like Justin Timberlake, as rich as Bill Gates, or as powerful as Oprah Winfrey. Still, your individuality makes you as important as they are, with as much right to exist and make something of yourself.

2. The Second Key relationship: How We Relate To Our Families

I was asked to lecture on addiction and relationships to about 50 patients in an inpatient treatment facility. I asked the group to shout out emotional states or consequences of their active addiction while writing their responses on the board. We developed a list; take a look at it very carefully because I am going to ask you a question after:

  1. isolation
  2. financial consequences
  3. guilt
  4. legal issues
  5. shame
  6. abandonment
  7. anger and rage
  8. loss of morality
  9. cheating
  10. poor health
  11. job loss
  12. dishonesty
  13. Losing interest in life
  14. divorce

Here Is the question

With all that going on, why would you NOT think your relationships are in trouble?

Look at what you were bringing to the relationship. Look at your emotional contribution. The silence is deafening.

A person who is active in their addiction has one the self-centered goal in mind: to continue using drugs and alcohol. If someone close to them points out that they are hurting themselves and others around them, the natural thing to do is to put up walls insulating themselves from the message. The addict will continue to use and twist the relationship as long as it promotes his ability to continue alcohol or drug use.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard:

I just want my old (husband, wife, mate, friend) back. The obvious implication here is that things have changed, and if you go back to the list we mentioned before, it is not for the better. I have NEVER heard anyone say, “the more I drank or drugged, the better my relationships got.”

The Million Dollar Family Dilemma

I could make a million dollars if I could solve this early recovery dilemma. There are two views on healing relationships as we move into sobriety, the recovering persons and families. Unfortunately, they are almost always opposed. Here the two positions that are talking about:

The recovering person

With good reason, wants to let go of the past, live in the present, and move on to the future. They are very sincere in their conviction that they have finally got it right and that drugs and alcohol will no longer be a problem. And for everyone’s sake, we hope it is true. They want to re-establish family relationships as if nothing has happened and not dwell on the past wreckage or least tone it way down.

The family member(s)

I sincerely hope that there is no return to drug or alcohol use. However, the past cannot just be ignored; the pain was genuine to them every day while the user just ‘checked out,’ leaving the family members holding the bag for a whole host of problems. They truly want to believe that it is all over but have genuine concerns about it. The track record has not been good.

Relating to our families conclusion

The recovering person sincerely believes and wants this to be the last time, and wants everybody around him to believe in support him. That’s great, however here is the flaw. This may hurt, but I’ll let you have it right between the eyes; your track record stinks. Why should anybody believe you this time?

Don’t get me wrong, your family wants to believe you, but what they are really looking for is a guarantee. One family member describes it to me as being on a roller coaster; they would see progress get their hopes up high only to see them slide downhill into oblivion.

How about this for a different explanation: the family finally has your attention, your head is out of the drug and alcohol-induced cloud, you might be capable of hearing them. They want you to listen to them. They are not mean and vindictive. They are simply trying to get the point across did they have been through hell too. You certainly were not able to listen to what you are under the influence. Maybe they think that if you know how bad it was, you would not possibly go back.

3. The Third Key Relationship: How We Relate To Our Higher Power (spirituality)

One way or another, our spirituality is definitely affected if by actively using drugs or alcohol. I am going to stick to that point within this Module. You might guess we will be dealing with spirituality in-depth in a future session, and you would be right.

Perhaps one of the most simple yet elegant exchanges I ever heard of when discussing how people become disconnected from their spirituality when using is this:

Recovering person: “I felt I was more and more distant and disconnected from God and my spiritual well-being.”

Person listening: Who moved?”

I used to be envious of people who had a strong connection to God or religion. I always wanted that, but something always held me back; I couldn’t get there. I could not appreciate that while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it was tough to have faith in much of anything.

For those who do believe in something greater than themselves, I can’t recall ever having heard that their faith became greater, and they became closer to their higher power while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

I will state that to grow in recovery, move closer to that peace and serenity that most of us want to achieve; I believe it is necessary to address spiritual issues and personal values.

4. The Fourth Key Relationship: Our Relationships in Society or Community

We have covered relationships with ourselves, our family, and spirituality. Now it is time to tackle pretty much all else that is left, and by that, I mean our relationships in society and with our community.

Almost by definition, our relationships in the society and community around us suffer and deteriorate. Two of the criteria from the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which mental health professionals use to diagnose substance dependence are:

  1. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance, use the substance, or recover from its defects.
  2. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use.

I return to our idea about alcohol and drug addiction as being a disease of isolation. What may have started in the beginning as casual use escalated over time. Our drug or alcohol or use became so prominent that it became the thing we organized everything in our lives around. That includes destroying relationships and actually giving up fun things that we used to do.

One of the real benefits of 12 step programs is they provide a way back into the community and learn how to reestablish those skills we may have lost along the way. Aside from that, all the people in those programs are trying to head in the same general direction: lead a life that is drug or alcohol-free. What better place to become socially reconnected, or to use the program terminology, to partake of fellowship?

When asking people who have relapsed what they believe the causes are, two answers come up repeatedly: boredom and isolation. Sometimes we become so lonely and withdrawn from the society we actually forget or do not know how to reconnect again.

There are some standard answers, such as get a job, do volunteer work, etc. Now, when people complain that they're bored or lonely, I look them right in the eyes and say, what are you going to do about that? Who said it was easy?

Sometimes life in recovery involves pushing the envelope and making an effort. If you need to work on shyness, or being uncomfortable with people, then so be it; let’s start working on it. I know you can do it because you are here reading these words, trying to improve yourself.

As they say in the 12 step programs, recovery is all about action. You can think and study all you want, but nothing happens until you take action.

And in a larger philosophical sense, I believe that’s what makes us human. Making decisions, sometimes being right, sometimes being wrong, but doing something darn it.

In Closing

There you have it, a look at the four key relationships in recovery. I want to touch base on all of those areas, to put a more global view on the concept of relationships.

A final thought or word of caution I might relate to relationships is this if: be very careful about superimposing your desired time frame on reality. In a lot of cases, it took a long time for relationships to deteriorate and crumble. It would be very unrealistic to believe that they can be repaired in short order instantly.

In some cases, people associated with us have had enough of the talk; they want to see more of the walk. A sure-fire method to reestablish positive relationships is to the next right thing, act responsibly, consistently into overtime. If we take the right action and make good decisions over time, people love us will certainly come back into our lives.

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