Dealing with Difficult Emotions

Confusion, fear, disappointment, anger, and hurt only begin to describe the myriad of painful emotions that family members feel when a loved one becomes involved in addictions. These feelings are legitimate and common in this situation.

Painful emotions associated with addictions can imprison a family. If not addressed, these painful emotions can lead to family members developing hatred for their family system. Apathy and indifference may result as ways to escape. This doesn't have to happen. With help, family members can work through painful emotions.

When painful emotions seem to dominate one's life, it's time to take action. Family members also need support, encouragement, and, many times, professional help. Recovery is not only the desired result for the addict, but also for families. Once family members recognize their own need for recovery, the process may begin.

In dealing with difficult emotions, family members must be able to separate their own emotions from those of the addict. As hard as it may be to accept, family members have no power to control what the addict feels or what she does. This brings up the idea of sympathy versus empathy.

Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. It carries the implication that “we'll all sink together.” While this may provide companionship in one's misery, it's not helpful. Empathy is imagining oneself in another person's situation as much as possible, recognizing the problem, offering to help, but refusing to become part of the problem just so the one in trouble doesn't feel alone. An empathic person maintains his own well-being, staying on emotional solid ground, while at the same time offering support and practical help to the one suffering.

Family members of addicts must become empathic, avoiding the pitfalls of being sympathetic. This will require strengthening their own emotional, psychological, and physical health. From this position of strength, they are better able to help their loved one when she's ready to enter recovery.


Overly sympathetic family members inhibit the addict's recovery rather than help it. Sympathy gives the addict permission to feel sorry for himself. It implies that recovery is just too hard and unattainable. This is not true. Family members need to let the addict know that, although recovery is hard, it is possible, and they are there to help.

So how do family members enter recovery? First, acknowledge the painful emotions. They're real, they're justified, and they have a purpose. Ignoring them, hiding them, excusing them, and pretending they don't exist only make painful emotions worse. It doesn't make them go away. Do not be ashamed or embarrassed about painful emotions. Get help to deal with them if necessary.

Professional counselors and/or spiritual leaders are trained to help people with difficult emotions. Support groups, such as Al-Anon, provide opportunities to hear that others in similar situations are experiencing the same problems. It can be a relief to realize that one is not alone or strange. This is also a time for self-examination. Recall that addictions and mental health disorders often have a genetic component. Family members may need to face troubling behaviors and moods themselves. Consult with a medical professional to see if medications might be helpful.

Remember the old adage “misery loves company.” It's true. When an addict is in the midst of her addiction, the tendency is for her to want to share the misery. Family members need to learn not to accept that misery as their own. Again, this is where boundaries come into play.

What are emotional boundaries?

Emotional boundaries, like physical boundaries, involve limits. Emotional boundaries do not keep one's emotions trapped within, but rather, allow for the honest expression of one's emotions and the prevention of the emotions of others from encroaching. Family members do not have to take on the addict's emotions of anger, depression, and discouragement as if they were their own.

Emotional boundaries are just as important to establish as physical boundaries. If an addict is angry or depressed in relation to his addiction, family members do not also have to feel angry or depressed. The feelings of the addict need to be his feelings. They do not need to be treated as a virus, an infection to be spread around to anyone in the vicinity.

When the addict is ready for recovery, he will have to deal with his own difficult emotions. Once family members have acknowledged, faced, and dealt with the understandable painful emotions they have, they are in a position to move forward in their recovery. They are also in a more solid position to help their loved one in recovery.

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