Archive for November, 2010

Permission to Exist, Part 1: The Guilt of Getting Better

I’ve been surprised in my clinical work by the phenomena of guilt in relation to becoming psychological healthier within a dysfunctional or codependent relationship or family (or “system”). It’s almost as if the person is doing something wrong by becoming more appropriate with boundaries, stating needs, pursuing self care, and so forth. For instance, a former client of mine described an exchange she had with her longterm boyfriend, who struggled with sex addiction, telling him that her stumbling upon his porn collection led her to feel demeaned, rejected and lonely. He became embarrassed, angry and/or ashamed when she related this to him and pled with him to get help. This was fueled by a sense of urgency, since she sensed his addiction tearing away at their relationship.

But then, and here’s the tough part, she began to feel guilty when experiencing his reaction, as if she were responsible for “making” him feel these things; she questioned her actions, wondered if she should have just kept quiet (the usual code of conduct in her family of origin). This self-doubt and sense of “wrongness” grew acute when he reacted defensively by stating, “Quit trying to control me” or “It’s not hurting anyone, you’re overreacting”. The exchange got heated and usually ended in shouting, tears and one of the partners storming out of the house, sometimes for hours or even days.

I currently see a man in his mid-20’s whose girlfriend is newly clean from opiate addiction but refuses to go to NA meetings or therapy. She is clean but not really sober emotionally. As a result she is often sullen, rude, and sarcastic or critical whenever he tries to initiate appropriate emotional or romantic intimacy. He feels pushed away by her remarks (“this isn’t a good time” or “I need my space”) and struggles with how to respond. He wants to say something, but feels guilty when she withdraws, with sulking or silent scorn; he feels it is “all his fault” and that he has somehow injured her fragile ego by being demanding.

Another client of mine, the single mother of a newly sober teenage daughter, initially told me that she was worn out by her kid’s drunken calls asking for financial or even legal help due to her “escapades”. She related that this cycle left her overwhelmed, drained and resentful. She shared these feelings with her at a family meeting – an informal intervention – and said she would no longer bail her daughter out, which helped convince the daughter to get sober. Now she is healthier and making progress, but keeps distant from her mom. Mom tells me she is feeling neglected, almost as if she has “done something” to push her daughter away. She wonders if she was too hard on her at that family meeting, if her complaints created this distance between them. Mom struggles with an appropriate course of action: her daughter is nearly an adult (17), but they used to be close and this new arrangement is disorienting.

In each of these cases, I have found the “co-addicts” to be, by and large, very appropriate with their behaviors and boundaries. In fact, in most cases I feel that the remarks, while hard to hear I am sure, are long overdue! They are often watered-down versions of the hurt and angry feelings they’ve shared with me in our sessions.

What I think I am hearing, when it comes to the addicts’ withdrawal and/or defensiveness, is a highly sensitive reaction to the pain of their partner or loved one. They feel so guilty or ashamed of their behavior that they counter-attack, blame others or distance themselves. It’s likely that they hear hurt or angry feedback as an attack. Most addicts carry tremendous shame, tend to have poorly developed emotional skills (such as non-defensive listening) and are quick to run at the first sign of discomfort. Fortunately, those who continue to work on themselves, to grow and heal, can improve their relationships by acknowledging the hurt their behaviors have caused, commit to changing those behaviors, and hearing such feedback without crucifying themselves or fleeing.

This is also true for the co-addict. The more they work on themselves, the less they’ll blame themselves for doing the “wrong” thing by setting appropriate boundaries. Though it’s far more complicated than what I’m presenting in this short article, my hunch is that the co-addict’s guilt is probably a transference reaction, by which I mean it is a reaction to a “taboo” instilled in childhood, within a dysfunctional system that disallowed the person from stating their own authentic feelings or needs. Quite often it is an alcoholic or empathically-challenged parent who shames their child for saying something too truthful to bear, i.e. “mommy, you drink too much” or “dad, why do you hit mom and me” or some variation therein. The parent often reacts angrily or shames the child into silence. This child is taught that their own worth, value and emotional truth (among other things) is “bad” and needs to be squelched, as it jeopardizes the connection with their caregivers. The child learns to pursue, even into adulthood, the permission to feel what he/she feels, speak these feelings and share them the hope of being heard, of genuine connection. What he or she seeks, really, is the permission to exist. If the loved one does not hear or validate these feelings, the speaker will assume, as if by habit, that they are probably selfish, wrong, etc. Self-blame ensues, and their pursuit ends in failure. Such a pursuit will always end in despair and frustration until the co-addict finds his or her own support to heal, grow and live authentically, with or without permission from anyone else.

©Copyright 2010 by Darren Haber, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Article first published on This article was solely written and edited by the author named above.