I am basing this short series on a belief about wellness which I have long held, that meeting your needs is key to recovery.
Wellness awaits each of us. We choose the time once we start to choose our own needs as part of our healing.
In Part 1 , we explored three insights into Wellness Await Each of Us: Why Is It That Only Some People Chose It? We learned about pain, perspective, and purpose.In addressing this belief, I am referring to individuals who are capable of choosing psychological, emotional, and relational wellness. In other words, their level of functioning or severity of diagnosis does not hinder their accessibility to resources or to recovery. So, why is it that countless numbers of capable individuals remain stuck in their unhealthy ways of being? Why do they live from crisis to crisis or from one costly consequence to another? Why are some people existing in a constant flux of drama and dysfunction? What is going on when and are your needs being met?
Wellness awaits each of us. Why is that some people don’t choose it?
In lieu of discussing some of the more commonly known and valid explanations such as defense mechanisms (denial, repression), brain chemistry, personality disorders, etc., we will examine three insights which are based on my personal experiences and in my findings as a Marriage and Family Therapist. However, they are also well-documented in psychological literature. These three insights are intriguing and interesting, and although many people can relate to them, it can be a bit uncomfortable admitting to them or talking about them.
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Let’s get started with Needs, Norms and A New Normal, and A Network of Enabling.
In discussions around the topic of therapy and in understanding clients, many clinicians often use the phrase, “dysfunction fills a void” or “dysfunction serves a need.” In other words, when working with an individual, couple, or family who has been struggling chronically with the same issues, therapists or clinicians often ask themselves some of these questions: Who or what is sustaining this behavior? And why? What is this person getting from continuing this attitude, belief, or action? How is the person who is manifesting the behavior or how are those in relationship to him/her benefiting? And as therapists help clients and/or loved ones peel away their layers of pain and shame, they discover…
There are always unmet needs, fuelling a pattern of destructive behaviors.
Over the years, many of the my cases involved clients where the need being served was quite obvious as was the resulting dysfunction.
Two very common examples include the following:
- Individuals suffering from alcohol and drug dependency struggled chronically to meet both their psychological and physiological needs of the disease. Family members and loved ones, usually caught up in the cycle of codependency and enabling, also meet their needs through desperate attempts at rescuing, controlling, or managing the dependent individual and/or the ongoing damaging effects.
- In the areas of domestic violence and other forms of abuse, I worked with deeply injured victims of trauma. Without minimizing the abusive behaviors of the perpetrators but with an awareness into how the perpetrator’s behaviors were driven by an insatiable need for power and control, countless victims were able to release any responsibility, self-blame, or guilt on their part. Their understanding of their abuser’s unmet needs was often times a turning point in their healing journey.
And still, there were cases where although the need being served was not as overt, the consequences were no less injurious.
Let’s take a look at an example:
A number of years ago, a vibrant woman in her late forties came for counselling regarding her marriage. I will call her Cheryl. Suspecting that her husband of over twenty-five years might be having an affair, Cheryl was frantic and fearful. As I began taking her history, I also learned that even though Cheryl professed to have a close, loving family, she had a very strained relationship with her two adult children. As we worked together, I began to understand how Cheryl’s rigid, authoritarian, emotionally absent upbringing created an extremely deep need in her to be loved and accepted. Unfortunately, in her efforts to fill her void, Cheryl was quite demanding and controlling of those she loved. With her unrealistic expectations and her constant interference into her adult children’s lives, they distanced themselves from her. And without defending her husband’s infidelity, he too turned his affections elsewhere to escape Cheryl’s domineering nature. Although Cheryl worked hard on acknowledging her past wounds, she was not able to move beyond her need-driven behaviors and her family continued to detach themselves from her.
Unmet needs propel individuals towards unhealthiness. Unhealed needs keep them there.
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Norms and A New Normal
Almost every family has a set of rules (usually unwritten) or norms which are clearly evident in how the family functions. Some families are easy going and very flexible. Others are more structured and rigid. Some are a combination of both. Family traditions, customs, and belief systems are a part of a family’s norms. Therefore, it is not uncommon when one family member deviates from a family norm to experience resistance from other family members. A silly example of this is when a family member wants to change an ingredient in a long-standing recipe. Wow! That can cause a huge problem. Or someone wants to go away for Thanksgiving instead of following a fifteen year custom of staying home! Ouch! That too can cause major upheaval in rigid family systems. The point is when a family is accustomed to a certain way of functioning and/or following a pattern of behaviors, it is often extremely hard to change it without meeting resistance.
Sadly, not too long ago, some family friends were devastated when they found out their daughter had relapsed again. After almost twenty years of dealing with drug and alcohol issues, rehabs, legal problems, and countless other consequences, our friends felt they were on a better track with their daughter. Observing from the sidelines over the years, I witnessed how the parents never sought out any professional help, guidance, or support. After each and every catastrophe with their daughter, they picked up the pieces, patched her up, and put their lives back together, sort of. A few times over the years, a close relative of the family reached out, offering recovery suggestions, resources, and interventions. And although there were complaints of exhaustion and frustration, once the crisis at hand was averted, the family re-secured their alliances to one another and settled back down into its norms of dysfunction.
Even when the norms include long-standing or chronic unhealthy behaviours, family members will challenge interference, defend their positions, and re-embrace their rules.
Unfortunately, as the occurrences of relapse or other patterns of behavior become more destructive and without appropriate interventions, any family’s level of functioning – and its norms – become more and more unhealthy. And what was once a completely intolerable and an unacceptable way of living is now a new normal from which to navigate the chaos and consequences within.
Norms of a family can create a culture of wellness or unhealthiness. Resistance to embracing their challenges and to healing them guarantees the later.
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A Network of Enabling
Although at first glance, a network of enabling might appear to be the same or similar to norms, it is actually quite different and deserves attention. Many people remain stuck in their unhealthiness because it feels comfortable there. As I have discussed, their needs are being met and the norms of their family culture support their unhealthiness. And, as with most of us who want to feel accepted and valued for who we are, we gravitate towards people who will affirm us, and we place ourselves in situations and circumstances which will reinforce our behaviors. And so, when asking why some individuals don’t choose wellness, it is important to understand…
They choose a network of enabling – an environment which nurtures their unmet needs and normalizes their unhealthiness.
Reflecting about this insight over the past week, I thought about myself as well as so many past clients, friends, and family members who not only have been stuck in unhealthiness but who have struggled with relapse (of some kind) in their own recovering journeys. In almost every case, a network of enabling contributed to their decision to abandon a recovery program or healing practice; to fall back into a toxic relationship; to reject a long-held belief system, ritual, or custom; or lastly, to walk away from an important accomplishment or established goal.
I don’t have a lot of regret in my life. I choose to look at my poor decisions as well as ensuing struggles as valuable life lessons. However, there is one unhealthy decision that I made many years ago which set my life on an extremely painful course for several years. In my junior year in college, I achieved a goal which I had dreamed about for eight years – attending school in France. Studying French since 7th grade, working really hard in high school, getting accepted to the University of California, and then making it into the study abroad program for my junior year was an incredible feat. Why then, almost two-thirds into the year did I leave the program early to return to the U.S? I could give all kinds of excuses, but the bottom line is that I chose it. And when my healthy friends told me I was making a mistake and when my best friend tried everything possible to convince me to stay, I turned to a crowd of negative, unhealthy, lost individuals to hear what I wanted to hear, not what was best for me. I let go of my healthy circle of support. Instead, I listened to the lies of a network of enablers, including a toxic boyfriend back home. Before long I was on a plane, leaving my dreams far behind me and landing right smack at failure’s front door.
It wasn’t until a number of years later when I deliberately chose to embrace a path of wellness regarding all aspects of my life that I realized the cancerous effect of a network of enabling.
It surrounds our healthy parts and suffocates them. It smothers out the voices of truth replacing them with lies.
In closing, I wouldn’t be in the recovery field if I didn’t believe that knowledge is power. And that many times it takes naming our pain in order to recognize there is a way out of it. I hope these insights –needs, norms and a new normal, and a network of enabling – may have created an understanding into why some of us get stuck. And perhaps for a few, naming them ignited a longing into the workings of wellness. Wellness awaits each of. We choose the time.
Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children” In “Breaking Through Betrayal: And Recovering The Peace Within 2nd Edition”*, a new section has been devoted solely to self- betrayalor relapse with a compassionate step by step process for recovery!