We know we can’t save anyone from their pain and suffering. We know trying to rescue or change someone in the throes of addiction drains us to the point of depletion; it becomes a never-ending cycle of feeling hopeless and helpless. We desperately want to maintain hope and feel guilty if we give up. The good news is, there is a way to maintain hope without burning out, and it starts from inside you.
Having worked with clients with eating disorders, chemical dependencies and other addictions, as well as their families, I understand that hearing, “Well, you can’t change them,” doesn’t make it any easier to watch a loved one suffer the natural consequences of addiction and destructive behavior. There might not be anything that takes away the distress of bearing witness to the struggle, but there absolutely is a way to take care of yourself so you can maintain hope, caring, and support for your loved one no matter where they are on their path.
It Starts with Mindfulness
Mindfulness is simply being present with your experience without trying to change or judge it. Mindfulness happens when we slow down, even become still, and intentionally turn our attention inward. We can observe our internal world. Right now you can pause and notice your five senses, notice thoughts and feelings come and go, or feel each moment of your breath. Your human brain will want to analyze, categorize and judge. Mindfulness is the practice of noticing these tendencies without attaching to them, seeing that there is a self or mind separate from our impulsive human reactions.
Without Mindfulness, we run on autopilot and impulses. Without even realizing there’s an urge, we impulsively react to feel better. For instance, we might offer to help someone out — again — who has asked for money 10 times before and not paid us back. We might again lend them the money, before we realize that it is the desire to not feel guilty and helpless that is running the show. Or, we might scream at someone because we weren’t aware of how much resentment toward that person has built up.
Practicing Mindfulness, through formal or informal methods, helps us strengthen our ability to have more awareness in everyday moments. We react less impulsively and often have fewer regrets or apologies to make.
Awareness of the Arguments
The source of stress is often arguing with reality. Mindfulness is a practice of going inward to notice your own experience exactly as it is. Sometimes this means sitting with feelings of helplessness, pain, grief, anger, resentment and the desire to feel better. We want it to be different, even think it “should” be different. Though when we strive for something to be anything other than it is, or when we try to cling because we don’t want it to change, we aren’t accepting what is. This is a stressful energy drain that leads to losing the energy necessary to stay hopeful.
We can turn to acceptance. Acceptance is at the core of Mindfulness practices. I’m sure you’ve heard before, “It is what it is.” This doesn’t have to mean we like the reality we are in. At times the experience is downright unpleasant. When we resist the reality (even if it’s an unpleasant one), we increase our suffering. It’s like paddling upstream in a strong current. Perhaps saying to yourself, “This is difficult and this is how it is right now,” can help you lean into acceptance. Acceptance can also mean acknowledging exactly how we feel without judging it. Stating to yourself, “I’m losing hope and I notice feeling guilty,” likely feels better than, “I am such a bad parent/sibling/spouse/friend for losing hope.”
In teaching and guiding Mindfulness, I’ve heard many critiques and arguments about Mindfulness feeling too passive, especially when there is known harm being done. Mindfulness and Acceptance are not synonymous with passivity. Mindfulness helps us connect to our true values and make decisions accordingly, instead of reacting without thinking it through. In fact, when we connect with our true values, we find ourselves motivated into purposeful, loving action.
Steady Through the Storm
Equanimity is connecting with a steady inner peace no matter what the circumstance. Equanimity is something we can practice, though it also something that becomes more naturally available the more we practice it.
I remember walking a client through a brief meditation and visualization to practice equanimity. I asked her to imagine a chaotic storm in the middle of the ocean. The storm had crashing waves, strong gusts of wind, and rain that could be seen when the lightning broke the darkness. Then I asked her to sink below the surface until she was 50 feet down. With her eyes closed she said, “It’s still. I know there’s a storm up there, but I can’t feel it down here.” I explained that that’s equanimity; finding that tranquil place within our self that we can connect to no matter what “storm” or chaos is in our life. This doesn’t make us blind to the storm, rather it helps us to observe it without getting knocked around, gasping for air in the crashing waves (that aren’t in our control).
Equanimity reminds us that we can remain grounded in our own sense of self, separate from external circumstances or others’ choices. This prevents burnout, including from the energy of maintaining hope and care. Hope can stay resilient and steady by observing without attaching.
This Is Your Journey, Too
I’ve worked with many families and spouses that weren’t even aware they were caught in the chaos of their loved one’s addictions. It was as if they were living it as their own and taking it on like it was their job. When asked to Mindfully — with compassion and non-judgment — be aware of how this was for them, they first noticed feeling tired. Then they typically realize that they have lost track of their own goals, interests, and well-being. No wonder there was nothing left to keep hope alive.
When someone you love is going through the storm of addiction, it’s easy to get caught in analyzing their decisions and trying to convince them of ways to change. Regardless of the boundaries and limits you choose to set for how you support your loved one, it can be helpful to remember this is also about your own journey.
Just like when I ask Mindfulness students to use rush hour traffic as a practice for accepting what is and increasing patience, you can use any stressful situation as an opportunity to grow into your best self.
It seems counter intuitive, but when we focus on our own well-being, we are often more able to maintain and sustain hope and loving intentions for others. Focusing in on how you want to grow as a person can anchor you into your well-being. This can anchor you into equanimity, that ability to stay steady and tranquil no matter what.
Kathleen Sprole, MSW, LICSW is a mental health therapist, board approved supervisor, and founder of One Moment Center, LLC. For more information www.onemomentcenter.com