"One of the great truisms that most people know intellectually but struggle to show in their actual communication is this: The past is gone, and we cannot get even a single second of it back. When your words truly reflect this understanding, however, you can center all of your speech around the hopefulness of what can be done from this moment forward."
Addiction is a complex, physiological disease that impacts people’s physical, emotional, and social health. Since most people aren’t trained in how to talk to others, let alone those who are struggling in any way whatsoever, it’s especially understandable why you might be unsure how to effectively talk with someone who is struggling with addiction. The advice offered here, however, is a helpful crash course on the minimum you need to know when talking to someone who is struggling with addiction.
When you see someone struggling with addiction in any way, say something. If you say nothing, thinking that “someone else” will say something, you can bet that others are thinking something similar. When nothing’s said, nothing’s said; so a great rule of life is to say something. Of course it’s how you say something that matters most, so it’s wise to keep the following things in mind; beginning with: Saying something doesn’t mean you have to fix everything - or even “fix” anything, for that matter. The goal in your interaction is not for you to "make someone better,” it’s to lead with compassion and share awareness.
Be Supportive, Not Judgmental
It’s a myth to believe that it’s effective to “shame someone” into treatment or through the process of recovery (shame is feeling bad about who you are). The reality is that being judgmental toward someone struggling with addiction is not helpful. In fact, people who struggle with addiction are more likely to self-medicate to avoid the crippling feelings associated with shame; so it’s wise to understand that being judgmental is not only unkind, it’s counterproductive. You would not, after all, shame someone for having any other physiological disease, so be mindful first and foremost to be supportive by setting your judgments aside.
As you seek to be supportive and nonjudgmental, there are three straightforward actions that you can do: Listen, validate, and explore options.
Seeing a person you care about struggle with addiction can be unspeakably overwhelming. When you’re in a world of hurt or coming from a place of fear, it can be difficult to set your own need to be heard on hold while you focus on what the other person has to say. Your words, no matter how wise, logical or reasonable, however, cannot tell you about the inner, subjective experience of others: Only listening to them can do that. The most effective way to talk to someone who’s struggling with addiction is to do your best to really focus on trying to understand what they’re going through.
It's vital to focus on listening to what others are specifically experiencing. The more people see that you are listening (and not judging), the less need they’ll have to be defensive. The more effectively you listen, the more open others are to take to heart what you have to say in return.
Effective listening does not mean just being quiet and giving someone else the space to talk. It’s how you listen that matters most. When you listen to others with genuine interest in wanting to know about their inner experience, you won’t respond in pre-planned ways. Other people can sense when you’re listening only to be heard just as easily as you can pick up on people doing that to you. To listen with humility and genuine interest, imagine others standing on the other side of a huge box. As long as they’re on an opposite side, you will not be able to “see” what they’re seeing, and you will need them to tell you about what they are experiencing in order to get a better understanding.
Once you listen with genuine interest and the humility of setting your ego aside, the best way to check how effectively you are hearing what they’re communicating is to validate.
To validate is to acknowledge others’ feelings and experiences. To validate does not mean to agree with or condone what others are saying or doing; rather, it’s to verify your understanding of what they’re communicating to you. There’s a big difference, too, between telling others that you “completely understand” what they’re going through, and telling them that you understand what they’re communicating. When you tell others that you completely understand their personal, subjective, inner experience of life, they can become defensive, and understandably so. Just as no one else can fully understand the entirety of your internal world, the same is true for others. It’s wise to communicate your desire to understand while simultaneously holding a space to respect their inner, subjective, and unique experience.
People who are struggling with addiction often feel such intense, piercing emotions that no amount of you telling them about what you've experienced will help them process their own pain more than giving them an opportunity to express what they are experiencing inside. In addition to feeling overwhelming cravings, emotional pain, and racing thoughts, to struggle with addiction is oftentimes to feel so isolated, so misunderstood, and so desperate for someone to understand, that having someone genuinely listen with interest and validate that experience is transformative. Truly effective validation can only come after accurately listening to a person's individual experience.
To validate is ultimately to acknowledge what others are going through, and the more validated people feel, the more prepared they are to explore options.
One of the great truisms that most people know intellectually but struggle to show in their actual communication is this: The past is gone, and we cannot get even a single second of it back. When your words truly reflect this understanding, however, you can center all of your speech around the hopefulness of what can be done from this moment forward. And hopefulness is a beautiful message to convey to someone who is struggling with addiction. We live in an era of a more complete understanding of what addiction is than ever before, and our modern treatment options are efficacious - which means they work.
Knowing you don’t have to solve a person’s struggle with addiction on your own (or that you’re not charged with “fixing” anything), allows you to step forward and talk to someone who’s struggling with addiction in a supportive and nonjudgmental way. Be present in your communication, and then take the time to listen, validate, and explore the many treatment options that can all support a person’s journey of recovery.
Written by Dr. Christian Conte