Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
 an Addicted Person

What to Do - and Not Do

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Expert's Council

  The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/addicted.htm

Updated  04-11-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on what you'll read on this article:

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you believe is addicted to something. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

  • An introduction to addictions


      If you know someone who you believe is - or may be - addicted to something or someone, keep them in mind as you read this.

      An addiction is a type of compulsion - excessive or repetitive behavior that can't be willfully controlled. When the behavior interferes with personal and family wholistic health, it can be called "toxic." Typical addicts use chemicals, activities, relationships, and mood-states to self-medicate from intolerable inner pain. True addictions follow a predictable multi-year course, and are now recognized as a symptom of family-dysfunction, not an individual "disease," "character flaw," or "weak will."

      Typical addicts are survivors of significant early-childhood trauma, and can be called ''Grown Wounded Children'' (GWCs). All addicts are GWCs, but not all GWCs are addicted. GWCs are often controlled by ''false selves,'' which often behave in irritating ways - like dishonesty, denial, defensiveness, unreliability, self pity, chronic lateness, "forgetting" commitments, insincerity, self-neglect, rages, and justifying these and/or claiming "I can't help it."

      You can choose to respond to these individual behaviors, or to the underlying cause of them all: the wounded person's psychological pain, unawareness, and low-nurturance (toxic) environment.

      Before looking at useful response-options, review these suggestions on...

How Not to Respond to an Addict

      The most harmful responses to an addict are scorn, anger, criticism, pity, lecturing, and/or blame. The best response is to see addiction compassionately as evidence of major inherited family dysfunction and unbearable personal agony Common mistakes that unaware people make with addicts are to...

  • assume that addiction applies only to alcoholism or other drug dependence.

  • take responsibility for ''saving'' the addict or their dependents. This often includes losing healthy personal boundaries and ignoring self-care (codependence);

  • assume they know what causes a true (vs. pseudo) addiction.

  • deny that compulsive eating of sugar, fats, and some carbohydrates ("comfort foods") is a dangerous addiction and sign of significant inner pain;

  • deny, minimize, or justify the wounded person's harmful attitudes and behaviors.

    And don't...

  • scorn, pity, and/or criticize him or her for "choosing" to be an addict. It is not a willful choice.

  • preach and moralize about addicts and addiction. This is inherently disrespectful, and breeds resentment, anxiety, guilt, shame, and anger (more pain).

  • assume addiction is a personal problem, It is a reliable symptom of family dysfunction.

    More unhelpful responses. Don't...

  • assume an addiction is a "character defect," "disease," and/or a "lack of personal will power." It is an uncontrollable, unconscious pain-avoidance compulsion.

  • assume that addiction is a genetic inheritance. It is for some (not all) male alcoholics. Otherwise the non-genetic ancestral inheritance is [psychological wounds + unawareness].

  • assume that addiction is a stable condition. It is usually progressive, and often life-shortening.

    And don't...

  • endure, excuse, or ignore an addict's self-destructive behavior - i.e. don't enable their compulsion;

  • focus only on the addict's troublesome behaviors, vs. the ancestral family pain causing them; and...

  • avoid trying to use logic, reasoning, and examples to convince the person to change their attitudes and behaviors. These inevitably increase an addict's guilt, shame, anxiety, and frustration (pain).

Better Responses

      This YouTube clip provides perspective on effective confrontations:

      Responding effectively to the vexing attitudes and behaviors of a true addict (a GWC) starts with (a) assessing yourself for psychological wounds. Then (b) learn addiction basics and options. If a false-self controls you, these options won't work well or at all.

__ 1)  As a foundation, select from these response-options to wounded adults and kids. Then...

__ 2)  Honestly assess your attitude about addicts. If you see them as sick, weak-willed, pathetic, pitiful, irresponsible, bad, or "losers,"  that puts them 1-down and you 1-up. That disrespectful attitude guarantees they will resent, ignore, or discount you no matter how good your intentions. A more helpful attitude is to view addicts as psychologically-wounded, unaware survivors of childhood trauma, unconsciously trying to cope with relentless inner pain by toxic self-medication.   

__ 3)  Be careful about mis-labeling a person as "an addict" or having "an addictive personality." These socially-shaming labels increase a wounded person's low self esteem and embarrassment (pain)!. It's more accurate and compassionate to say "S/He is "wounded and unaware," or "a Grown Wounded Child" (GWC).

__ 4) Learn the common symptoms of a true addiction, and assess yourself for symptoms of any of the four types of true addiction - chemicals (including food); activities; relationships; and moods. Addicted or not, assess yourself for psychological wounds and focus on healing yourself and achieving sobriety as needed.

__ 5)  If an addicted person behaves in a way that hurts or frustrates you, use respectful ''I''-message assertions to inform them factually how their behavior affects you. That might sound like...

"(Name), when you promise to _________ and then (don't), I feel hurt,  frustrated, and disrespected, and I lose trust in you. I need you to do what you say you'll do so I can regain my trust and respect in you." 

__ 6)  If you observe other people responding to an addict ineffectively (see above), decide whether to suggest that their behavior is harmful, and offer better responses. Note that many friends and relatives of GWCs are themselves significantly wounded and unaware.

      More effective response-options to an addicted person:

__ 7)  Learn what " ''hitting true bottom'' means and what causes it. If you agree that the best chance a GWC has to admit and control an addiction is to hit bottom, then help them do so without taking responsibility for that. Generally, that means (a) confronting them factually on the social impacts of their attitudes and behaviors, and (b) encouraging others to do the same.

__ 8)  Learn the 12 steps for recovering addicts. Use them to guide your responses to addicted people and their family members. Become familiar with how 12-step meetings work, and watch for chances to weave that into your interactions. Option - attend several "open" Anonymous meetings in your community as an observe and student.

__ 9)  Search the Web for addiction-management resources. There are many! Avoid "selling" or preaching about any you find.

__ 10)  Get creative about ways to "plant seeds" of relevant information about wounds, addiction, and "recovery" (addiction management). For example, watch for chances to weave "inner pain" into your conversations, and to suggest that addictions are unconscious ways to self medicate it. Make "inner pain" more concrete by describing it as a mix of normal (vs. "negative") emotions like shame + guilts + frustration + anxieties + regrets + hurt + despair.

__ 11)  Look for ways to apply these ideas in your situation. Include the possibility of convening an intervention. If the addict is a child, also see this for practical options.

      See Web resources like Hazelden and Phoenix House for more insight, options, and resources.

      Pause and notice your thoughts and feelings now. If you choose some of these responses with any addicts you care about, what will you change? Avoid expecting significant changes in the other  person, unless you commit to a formal intervention.


      This is one of a series of brief Lesson-2 articles suggesting effective ways to respond to annoying social behaviors. This article offers ways to respond effectively to an addicted (psychologically-wounded) person. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • learning addiction basics and avoiding common myths and errors,

  • clarity on your personal Rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

  This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful    

Share/Bookmark   Prior page  /  Print page  /  Lesson-2 study guide

site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  definitions  /  chat contact