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The Power of Perceptual Shifts in Addictive Family Systems

"It can be startling what happens when even just one person in the family consciously shifts their perception of the addict from a lens of fragility to a lens of resilience."

In working with families, I am so often reminded of the power and implications of how we perceive each other in families. How do we perceive the member of our family who is affected by alcoholism, addiction, an eating disorder or other mental health condition? (For the purposes of this article….the addict or symptomatic individual) Do we perceive them as fundamentally fragile or broken? Do we look down at them with pity, contempt or judgment? Do we protect them from truths and consequences we might otherwise permit if we perceived them as more resilient? Do we tiptoe around them so as not to upset them, believing them fundamentally unable to cope with uncomfortable experiences?

All of these ways of relating to the addict are completely natural and make perfect sense. They are however, very often part of the problem. Descartes idea that ‘I think, therefore I am’ is as old as the hills, but it also seems that ‘they think, therefore I am’ also holds sway in families. For example, research suggests that just perceiving a child as vulnerable or special in some way, rather than resilient, changes their outcomes. Perceiving a family member as inherently fragile or vulnerable alters how we would otherwise interact with them, what we expect of them, how anxious we are about them, and consequently, how they experience themselves, what they believe they are capable of, and the role they take in the family.

How it comes to be that we perceive a certain family member as more fragile is complex and comes into being through a multigenerational family process in which every family member plays a part. The person themselves plays an active role in inviting and reinforcing this perception. But families often underestimate what power this perception has, and the degree to which this is not only created by the symptomatic individual, but also creates them. It can be startling what happens when even just one person in the family consciously shifts their perception of the addict from a lens of fragility to a lens of resilience. When families start seeing their affected loved one as a capable human being who has the capacity within them to sort out their own problems, this shift in perception, and consequently behaviour, can be a real invitation to the addict… into resilience, capability and self-responsible adult functioning.

Another equally powerful shift in perception is from an individual lens to a systems lens. If the symptomatic individual and family view the addiction as a problem that is located in the person…beginning and ending with him, that reinforces a number of things….firstly that that person is the problem (the weight of which is unbearable), and secondly, that the place to fix the problem is in him (leading to a lot of functioning for that person/care-taking/enabling/pressure/over-involvement in his problems by the family), all of which can fuel the problem.

If it can be understood that the symptomatic individual is not the problem, but rather that he has absorbed and is expressing the problems of the family, then family members have the opportunity to see their part in the family process, and the individual has the opportunity to leave some of the problem with the family and take responsibility for only his part (a much more manageable chunk than he had previously been grappling with).

I always find it interesting that the addict perceives themselves as too much for everybody else in the family, and sometimes the family ARE experiencing him as too much, but what has actually been happening is that the family problem is too much for the family, and the family has become invested in seeing the problem as being ‘in the sick one’. What is almost always more true for the addict than ‘I am too much for my family’ is that ‘the issues in my family have been too much for me’.

Addicts are so used to experiencing themselves as the problem, and being experienced by others in the family as the problem, that it is rarely acknowledged that their behaviour, no matter how insane it may seem at face value, reflects their best effort at managing their exquisite sensitivity to the family emotional process. Their struggle to function reflects a disturbance in the family emotional process, not a disturbance in their fundamental self.

Far from being a defective character, the person in the family who ends up with addictions is so often an incredibly attuned, sensitive and intelligent person with enormous capacity for a full and satisfying life. Anybody who has spent time with people in long-term recovery could testify to this. Their strengths can be eclipsed by their struggle/addictive process when chronically caught in the family relationship process, but if they, or another family member, can employ these perceptual shifts, they can be freer to emerge into that more capable self that we often see in recovery.

Attitude is almost equally as powerful as perception. An attitude of kindness and respect that is free of blame or criticism is profoundly more inviting of recovery in a loved one than is an attitude of contempt. Our attitude and our perception are often fairly inextricably tied together so that each flow from the other. I find that once the above perceptual shifts have really deeply occurred for someone, they are freer to look across at their loved one, rather than down on them, and love, compassion and respect flow freely.

These powerful perceptual variables are not only relevant within families, but also apply for treating professionals in relation to their clients. We do our clients a serious disservice when we relate to them through a lens of fragility rather than resilience and when we underestimate their strengths and resiliencies. The same is true also when we underestimate the multigenerational family process which is being expressed in their behaviour and level of functioning. We have a real opportunity to support people well when we are considered and thoughtful in our attitude and perception.

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