Recognize your limits in dealing with a loved one’s problem behavior.
Can you accept reality and act accordingly?
Do your expectations fit what Is really taking place?
It is possible to see through denial.
Everyone faces difficult situations, troubling relationships, and family conflicts that can be challenging to handle. One of the ways of toning down how upsetting such situations are is by refusing to see the truth. At the simplest of levels, you ignore the weather reports because you don’t want to carry an umbrella, telling yourself it isn’t going to rain—but you end up getting wet. That’s annoying, but no big deal. Or your GPS tells you there’s traffic up ahead, but you don’t really feel like detouring. How bad could it be? So, you lose some time.
But what happens when you don’t allow yourself to see and accept an important reality because it’s scary, or you have expectations of yourself that don’t fit with what is really taking place? Then the consequences can be significant and harmful.
Maybe your spouse spends money you don’t have, plunging you into financial worry and debt. They promise it won’t keep happening and, because it’s easier than not, you believe them. You tell yourself that things will be fine, that they know better now. And yet the situation doesn’t change. As I discuss in my new book Am I Lying To Myself? How To Overcome Denial and See The Truth, denial is a coping mechanism to make things seem more positive than they are. But as long as you let denial rule your life, you will never get out from under whatever it is that is bogging you down and causing you pain.
One of my patients, I’ll call her Ann, is experiencing denial with regard to her brother, who has been struggling with substance use for decades. He’s been trying to get clean for at least two decades and she has been with him every step of the way, holding his hand, trying to encourage him to stop doing drugs, offering support whenever he ran himself into the ground. Despite all of her efforts, his addiction to heroin has remained intractable, so much so that in the last year he overdosed two times. But Ann believes she can fix him, that all the effort and time and concern she is putting toward him will make a difference. In fact, all the effort she is putting in is simply draining her, taking her away from her own family and her own life.
he is not alone. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has talked publicly about a similar situation in which he tried to help his younger brother with a cocaine addiction. So much of the effort is tied to guilt, feeling you have to be a good-enough sister or brother, that keeps you from giving up on a loved one. Ultimately, however, too much of yourself can be lost.
When Ann’s brother’s overdosed the second time, she gave up all her plans in order to take care of him. He never even thanked her. Instead, he shared with her that he really thinks his drug use is bigger than he is. He’s tired and doesn’t see himself able to overcome it.
Hearing that was intolerable to Ann. The notion that he couldn’t get a leg up, that he wouldn’t go to therapy or get medication from a psychiatrist, that all the suggestions she offered him didn’t help, was more than she could believe. The truth is, she can be supportive only to the point that he can take in her suggestions and act on them. No matter what she does, it doesn’t mean anything if he can’t accept it. In order to break the pattern, Ann needs clarity on her expectations of herself, what she thinks it means to be a loving sister, and to what degree she can go in offering support before her brothedr’s drug use takes over her life as well.
Dr. Jane Greer; Marriage and Family Therapist
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