Answers can seem so easy when you are looking from the outside in. If you have ever loved a self-destructive person, you have probably had thoughts like me, “Why doesn’t she just leave him already? I wish he would just stop drinking!” Getting stuck on the seemingly obvious solutions to other peoples’ problems can leave us feeling helpless and frustrated.
In the past, I would try to control the other person and their situation. This would lead to over-stepping boundaries, the other person feeling guilty and high resentment on both sides. Eventually I learned that I could not force change upon anyone that is not ready. While my previous approach was motivated by a desire of health and happiness for that person, that was not the result. At the end of the day, the person had not made any changes and I was left holding a barrel full of uncomfortable emotions.
I hope you feel empowered when you hear that you can make drastic changes in the relationship without the other person changing a single thing. Is it easy to set boundaries with people who are constantly in crisis or seem to be destroying their own lives? No… but it is possible!
Here are ways to shift your relationship with the ‘self-destructor’ in your life.
1. Educate yourself. Research has shown that rats who are trapped in a cage and are exposed to electric shocks will remain in the cage even when the door is opened! Individuals who have experienced trauma are likely to continue engaging in behavior or staying in an environment that prolongs the trauma. At least 70% of people in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event in their life and we know that trauma can have lasting effects on the brain. Learning about the biology behind your loved one’s behavior can help you move from frustration to understanding.
2. Put the air mask on yourself first. It may go against your instincts but taking care of your physical and emotional health first will give you the capacity to support your loved one. Identify your self-care musts that need more attention. Maybe chores are being ignored, you see the gym less and less or date nights are a thing of the past. Dropping everything to ‘save’ your loved one from crisis makes you vulnerable to feeling burnt out and it enables them to continue their destructive behavior.
3. Learn the difference between enabling and supporting.
Enabling looks like financial support, running errands that support the destructive behavior and allowing your loved one to abuse you emotionally, verbally or physically. Helping looks like holding your loved one accountable, staging an intervention and seeking professional help for them or yourself.
(Families dealing with Eating Disorders)
(Families dealing with Addiction)
4. Find support for yourself. The benefits of attending a confidential support group or individual therapy can be tremendous. Both resources will offer you an opportunity to learn about and practice tips 1-3. Reducing stigma, lessening feelings of isolation and finding a supportive community are also potential gains. You deserve support too!
When you notice yourself feeling frustrated and trying to control the ‘self-destructor’ in your life, remember The North Wind and the Sun fable. One day, a man wearing a cloak walks by The North Wind and the Sun. They decide to have a competition to see who can get the man to take off his cloak first. The North Wind blows and blows but this makes the man clutch onto his cloak as tight as he can. When it is the Sun’s turn, it gently sends rays of sunshine down upon the man until he is so warm that he removes his cloak. Refocus some energy onto yourself, offer support and you will become the sun.