05/25/2016 06:07 EDT | Updated 05/26/2017 05:12 EDT

How To Practice Self-Care When Loving An Addict

Francesco Carta fotografo via Getty Images
Depressed teenage girl

Recently, while working with a client (I'll call her Jane) who is the loved one of an addict, she made a significant discovery. We were talking about the importance of Jane's self-care, an important subject I frequently discuss with all of my clients. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, "I don't feel like I know how to take care of myself -- I don't know what I want or how to ask for it."

"I don't know how to set healthier boundaries because I don't even know what those boundaries are," Jane explained. "I've been steamrolled over for my whole life, mostly by family and friends who expect me to take care of them. No one takes care of ME! How would I know how to take care of myself? No one ever taught me that!"

I could appreciate Jane's frustration. I was actually gladdened by her anger about this situation -- because anger is a step up emotionally from the depression she'd been feeling. Many loved ones tell me they never get angry -- or if they do, they don't show that anger to anyone for fear of the rejection they'll receive.

Instead, they spend their time pleasing others, doing their bidding, squashing down their own feelings instead of sharing them -- which often leads them to a place of anxiety, resentment and quiet despair. And because they don't talk about these feelings, they're unaware of how common they are among other loved ones who are caught in those same people-pleasing traps -- often for their whole lives, remaining miserable and unhappy while those around them seem to benefit from the care being shown to them.

Something is very wrong with this picture!

Jane is absolutely right -- no one taught her the importance of taking care of herself or how to do that. Could it be that the others in her life were subconsciously afraid of being left in the dust if Jane began to put herself first?

I like to name that particular dynamic as 'People Having an Investment in You Staying Sick' so that their needs will continue to be met. It's not that those around you don't care about you. But the truth is that we attract from where we are, from an energetic, spiritual perspective.

What generally happens is that people-pleasers attract others who want to come first -- those who are primarily self-absorbed and perhaps even somewhat narcissistic. In a strange way, these two types of personalities mesh really well--the people-pleaser takes care of the self-centered person's need to be put first. And this dynamic can go on for a very long time, sometimes for the duration of the relationship -- until the people-pleaser finally becomes resentful enough to want things to change.

But it doesn't have to be that way. As the loved one of an addict, it truly is okay for you to look after yourself first and then give to others once you are filled up. I'm very aware that many loved ones cringe at the thought of being accused of selfishness, so I prefer to call it "self-care" -- which is really what it is anyway.

When we give so much to those around us without first giving to ourselves, we run the risk of hurting them more than we're helping. All of us need to feel our own resilience -- it's an important human need. When we decide to give more than is healthy, we often take those feelings of resiliency away from others.

They may want us to do everything for them, but that is actually not a loving act on our part. When we work harder than others on a continual basis, we take away their belief in themselves and they begin to exhibit a form of "learned helplessness." I'm sure many of you have seen this occur in your relationships, as you crossed over the line and gave too much to others.

Can you see how this is nothing but a lose-lose situation?

Reflect back to the last time you were on an airplane and heard the flight attendant's voice informing you about the oxygen masks. You were reminded to never attempt to put on someone else's mask before putting on your own. There is a reason for that -- if you can't breathe, how can you help someone else breathe?

You can ask yourself "How can I start taking better care of myself?" The trick is to see self-care holistically so that it is all-inclusive. Physically, we need to nourish ourselves with predominantly healthy food, even while allowing ourselves that piece of chocolate now and then. We need to tend to our hygiene and sometimes do something extra like getting a mani-pedi or buying something new to wear.

Emotionally, it's imperative to have someone to talk to, especially when you're in the throes of loving an addicted person -- perhaps an understanding friend, a spiritual advisor, a support group, a therapist -- any or all of the above. It's just not healthy to keep it all inside.

Mentally, we need to keep our brains as sharp as possible so things like puzzles, scrabble, or learning a new language can be very helpful and also fun to do.

Last but definitely not least, discover what feeds you spiritually. For some people, a like-minded community or a walk in nature with their dog fulfills that need. Start by identifying what brings you joy and then do as much of it as you can!

Remember: It's never too late to practice healthy self-care. If you're already doing this, please don't stop -- maybe add even more to what you're doing. If you're just starting out, the magic word is: ENJOY! Be the role model of what this looks like, and maybe others in your life will decide to follow suit.

Instead of resenting others for needing too much from you, allow yourself to be that change you want to see -- and to have a little fun in your life!

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