How do I help somebody who is living with an addiction?

Dr Lance Dodes MD, director of the substance abuse treatment centre at Harvard Maclean hospital, suggests that our traditional view of dependencies needs to change, if we are to help someone struggling, with an addiction. Furthermore, he suggests that the psychological drive to be free of pain, and be liberated from the sense of helplessness, is a driver behind all addictive behaviours.

Looking addiction this way one would realise that the idea of “tough love” makes little or no sense. If it were so easy for a person to stop an addictive behaviour after a good talking to, there would possibly be nobody with an addiction in this country. Furthermore, if addictions were some bad habit or even some form of moral weakness, it might make sense to give the person a good talking to. In fact, this becomes sensationalist television in the US. One only has to look at YouTube to find various “fly on the wall” documentary series of families of people with addictions, trying to help them. Indeed, one could say this is the worst form of sensationalist television. If a person was lazy or unfocused, giving them a good kicking the back side may work, but it unfortunately doesn’t a great many times.

If you take a different view of addictions a look at this, not as a bad habit, a moral weakness, genetic fault, or some personality trait but looking at addiction as a psychological compulsive behaviour. Indeed, traditionally, addictions are never considered as a compulsive behaviour, such the habitual washing of hands, cleaning, exercising or even compulsive shopping. However, looking on these, forms of actions, as emotionally driven behaviours in an effort to manage particularly challenging feelings, may shine a different light on how one can help someone with an addiction.

When someone engages in a driven, or compulsive activity, such as excessive exercise or cleaning this, primarily does not cause harm or pain to those around them. Furthermore, it is easy to empathise with that person, should this behaviour become excessive. Conversely, if a person actions are considered as harmful or painful to those around them their behaviour is often seen as selfish, self-centered inconsiderate, and in some cases immoral.

Those around people with an addiction, often feel they have the right to their feelings of anger, seeing their reaction to the addictive person’s behaviour in itself as self-justification, for the resentment and in some cases anger.

This can easily cause an entrenched position, and it is hard to maintain a calm and neutral perspective towards the person with an addiction; you might feel that is fair and acceptable to treat the person as “bad”. Therefore being tough on them may seem like a rational position.


Very often living with a person with an addiction can be soul destroying, frustrating, angry and in some cases depressing.

As you look your relationship with a person with an addictive behaviour, one of the things to bear in mind is is absolutely essential that you maintain your self-care. Both the safety of you and for the person you are trying to help will be dependent on your ability to maintain some form of normality.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Crawley RH10 & Horsham RH13

Written by Tony Larkin

Crawley RH10 & Horsham RH13

Tony Larkin: counselor/psychotherapist and founder of Eleos counselling. A counselling service in Crawley, West Sussex. Tony holds an honors degree from Greenwich University and also a foundation degree from Greenwich University. Tony is a registered member of the BACP.

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