For many people, being close to someone who is recovering from issues related to substance abuse is an often confusing experience. Not only are we concerned about the person’s behavior, but we also may feel unsure about how to say the right things when successes are achieved or mistakes are made. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to positively encourage people recovering from addiction in a way that can genuinely help them, but in a sense, we must first understand ourselves if we are to better understand others. Here are just a few ways to provide the kind of encouragement to friends or loved ones that truly helps.
1. Understand that Punishment Doesn’t Work
Whether we like it or not, we live in a culture that often believes that punishment will change a person’s behavior for the better. The prison system, late fees, and educational programs that use negative reinforcement to improve student performance are all still prominently used in our society despite the fact that we know that negative reinforcement based around punishment does more harm than benefit to others. Which leads us to our second point:
2. Instead of Using Guilt-Trips or Passive-Aggressive Behavior to Elicit Change in Others, Highlight the Positive
When we’re critical of others, we may be using forms of psychological punishment that are so deeply ingrained in our own way of thinking about problem-solving that we don’t even realize we’re using them. When we use guilt to change someone else’s behavior, for example, we may in fact be driving away the person that we’re trying to help. The problem with the type of punishment-based thinking that leads us to use guilt or shame to change another person’s behavior is that we are mistaking one effect (the person avoids a particular behavior when we’re around) for a desired outcome (the person actually changes), and we’re destroying the relationship along the way to boot. When we’re passive-aggressive in this way, we may feel as though we’re venting our anger about the issue at hand, but the truth is that we we’re simply making an already negative situation even more negative.
3. Express Positive Emotions Around Progress
How often do we take the time to let someone know that we’re proud of the progress that they’re making? Not only do we live in a society that still uses negative reinforcement to effect behavioral change in others; we also grow up with the idea that expressing our feelings is a sign of weakness. Remember, other people aren’t mind-readers, and we shouldn’t assume that they know how proud we are of the many behavioral changes that they’re making. Be sure to let others know how positively you view their decision to make a change for the better!
4. Listen Rather Than Judge
To a certain extent, everyone struggles with being a good listener at times. Most of us at some point have found ourselves responding to someone’s problems with a barrage of well-intentioned advice, but the truth is that giving counsel does little to help someone unless they’ve solicited it from us. To wit, people don’t tell us about a particular problem because they want a solution, necessarily, but they do describe issues they are having in order to be rid of negative emotions associated with those issues. Remember, listening helps!
5. Remind Yourself that Forgiveness is a Virtue
When a friend or family member has struggled with substance abuse issues, we may have our own negative emotions associated with their behavior. Because anger is a secondary emotion that is most often rooted in fear, it’s a sad fact of the matter that worry about a negative outcome has a strange way of turning into anger towards a person or a situation. One way to get rid of fear and thereby get rid of anger is to practice acceptance and forgiveness towards others in order to better understand their decisions. (If we look within ourselves, we can probably admit that we’re probably pretty flawed too.)
6. Find a Positive Meaning to the Question of “What if…?”
When we don’t have a sense of optimism in our own lives, it can become very easy to focus on potentially negative outcomes for others. The problem with this type of thinking, called “catastrophizing” by mental health professionals, is that we will readily criticize any small lapse in judgment demonstrated by another person out of a fear that a small mistake will lead to a catastrophic situation. For this reason, it’s important that we discuss optimistic views of the future with a friend or loved one who is overcoming substance abuse. Successful treatment of substance abuse can have a variety of deeply meaningful outcomes for someone, not the least of which is a strengthened ability to develop better relationships and achieve difficult career goals. Bringing up these potential benefits is a great way to help someone clarify why they are seeking sobriety, and it may help them to keep their goals in mind when times are tough!
For these reasons, finding a healthy way to encourage positive change in someone overcoming substance abuse will never be necessarily easy, but with practice and reflection, an ability to spot a positive path forward can be developed. With a capacity for truly listening to another person’s perspectives on life and and a goal of seeking to understand what another person is going through, we can truly help others and help ourselves in the process. Remember, none of us is perfect, and we all have our trials at times. At our best, however, we can help others to truly reach their potential. And that is perhaps the most rewarding realization of all.