Many doctors report that their patients feel attacked or harmed by the labels that family, friends, and society assign to them in addiction recovery. Words like “addict” tend to make people with substance use disorder feel reduced and diminished.
The words and labels we use matter, especially when we are in recovery or supporting someone in recovery. When we narrowly label someone as an alcoholic, addict, or junkie, we place them in a box that is difficult to escape. Labeling is easy in that sense–it allows us to conveniently forget that each person is unique and whole, with their own set of internal and environmental struggles. Labeling someone allows us to distance ourselves from them.
Moving away from toxic terminology and toward more holistic, positive language to describe and approach people requires education and compassion. Below are some helpful tips for communicating to or about a loved one in treatment for substance abuse.
Avoid “Addict,” “Alcoholic,” and “Substance Abuser”
These terms, loaded with stigma, alienate people in recovery in the following ways:
- They perpetuate feelings of shame, failure, and isolation
- They solidify a negative self-image, making sobriety harder to achieve or less desirable to pursue, and exacerbate inaction and helplessness
- They ignore the totality of the person and the environment that may have contributed to their situation
When we assign people these types of labels, we imply that they are the problem, not the addiction. We remain unaware of the potential mental health issues or environmental triggers or the lack of appropriate and accessible care that may exacerbate their addiction.
Avoid Communicating Embarrassment, Shame, or Disappointment
When we tell another person that they embarrass, shame, or disappoint us, we verbally avoid responsibility for our own emotions. No one can “make” us feel embarrassment, shame, or disappointment. Someone’s actions may trigger these emotions if we are already primed to feel those things. But our emotions are our own responsibility, not someone else’s. If you’re feeling ashamed about a loved one’s addiction, take some time to reflect on where that shame comes from. What in your past or in your belief system has taught you to react with shame?
Here are some tips to help you monitor the way you communicate with a loved one:
- Avoid telling the individual to control themselves. Addiction is a brain disease and is very difficult to manage or “control” without professional help and support.
- Avoid telling a loved one or friend that they have an addictive personality. This directly communicates that they have an inherent personality defect or character flaw and is both inaccurate and unhelpful.
- Avoid communicating in any sense that the person is ‘on their own’ in their recovery. More and more professionals recommend that families and friends take an active role in the recovery process.
Positive Language to Use with Someone in Recovery
Check out the following examples to get an idea of productive approaches to conversations with a loved one in recovery:
- I understand that you’re suffering and that your addiction is a symptom of this.
This acknowledges the complexity of the person’s situation with kindness, empathy, and without judgment. It shows your understanding that addiction rarely just happens. It is triggered by a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
This affirms that the person’s mental health matters to you and should matter to them. It is something to prioritize–any sacrifices of time or money are worth the result of better mental health.
- I fully support you in your recovery.
Offer specific methods of support, such as being available to listen and talk; writing encouraging letters or emails; giving hugs; helping with childcare or housework; driving them to recovery meetings or therapy appointments, etc.
You can communicate with people based on their love language, giving physical touch or words of encouragement, or whatever the person needs to feel supported.
Positive Language to Use with Yourself in Recovery
Thinking harsh thoughts about yourself as a way to motivate your recovery does not, in fact, work. Instead of beating yourself up as a way to force yourself to change, use positive language to guide your inner dialogue. Talking to yourself in a positive way is a skill that we teach at St. Gregory Recovery Center. You can practice positive self-talk through the following activities we offer:
- Attending Outpatient Support Groups
- Prioritizing Health and Wellness
- Building Life Skills
- Participating in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy