other people’s unhealthy choices


unhealthy choicesIt is very difficult when someone close to us continuously makes unhealthy choices – choices that lead to increased depression, anxiety, dysfunction, and suffering. Whether their decisions are related to a toxic relationship, substance abuse, finances or something else, the result is the same: Again and again, we find ourselves bearing witness to decisions that boggle our minds, leaving us in a state of shock, confusion and frustration as we think this cannot be happening again. When the person has, yet again, taken steps down the path of self-defeat, the ball is then in our court. Now what do we do? Below are several options that exist for us in such situations.

maintain the status quo by being the “advice-giver” or the “savior”

The most common approach human beings exhibit in response to other people’s unhealthy choices is advice-giving. While our hearts may be (somewhat) in the right place, the truth is that more often than not we end up being condescending, heaping shame upon the person and engaging in our own emotional catharsis at the other person’s expense. Our approach becomes less about actually “helping” the person and more about unburdening ourselves of the exasperation and frustration that come with a loved one’s self-destructive behaviors. In response to these feelings, we often launch into self-righteous sermons and proselytizing sessions masked as “discussions” designed to “help.” Naturally, the person gets defensive, and thus we find ourselves caught in the same dynamic we’ve been in with the person for months or even years.

When we relate to our loved one in ways that perpetuate the existing dynamics of our relationship, we are subtly (yet powerfully and unmistakably) communicating our support for the status quo. In essence we are saying, “You are the sick one and I am the savior. This is how things have been and this is how they shall remain.” While this approach doesn’t help our loved one at all, there are payoffs for us:

(1) The savior role fuels our own adrenaline, ego and feelings of self-importance. If we are not careful, this role can become addictive, giving meaning and purpose to our lives at the expense of others.

(2) The savior role allows us to keep the focus off of OUR choices, behaviors and relationships. Instead of really looking at ourselves, which can be deflating, we prefer to confess the sins of someone else, which serves to temporarily inflate our own self-esteem.

The downside of the savior approach is that it perpetuates the behaviors of the person and it leads to resentment, confusion and despair in us. In this scenario, everybody feels trapped in the status quo and nobody wins.

detach with anger

This is not ideal, but sometimes it is necessary. Anger is a normal human emotion and we can use it in ways that are healthy or unhealthy. In situations where a loved one continuously engages in self-destructive behavior, using our anger to detach and take space can be the healthiest thing for all involved. Anger has power and force to it, and there are times when we need it to bust ourselves out of the atmosphere of the status quo. We need not be mean, blaming or aggressive; the point is to be assertive and clear about what WE need to do for ourselves: “I refuse to participate in this any longer, and I will not stand by and watch you hurt yourself over and over again. I need space, and I am taking some time for myself.”  If this is what we need to do for ourselves, it is crucial that we get the support of other friends or family. We should not detach with anger alone. When the situation has reached a boiling point, the kind we can feel in our bones, we need to remove ourselves fast in order to maintain safety and sanity for all involved.

detach with love

This is often the healthiest and most effective approach we can take in response to a loved one’s unhealthy choices and self-destructive behaviors. Once we see that our helping efforts are getting us, again and again, into an all-too-familiar cycle, it is likely that the time has come where we need to do something different – both for ourselves and for our loved one. Detaching with love does not mean that we are forever ending the relationship; it means we are taking space to let some air in.

A week, a month, six months?

You decide, depending on the situation and the guidance you get from others whom you trust. When we detach with love, we are not blaming the other person for how we are feeling. We are taking responsibility and modeling self-care. The most important aspect of detaching with love is that we do so with full recognition of our own humanness and our own history of falling short of ideals and breaking promises to ourselves and others. Acknowledging to ourselves and to the other person that our love for him/her is strong and genuine AND that we are taking space is a powerful message for each of us.

When we detach with love, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that there is a guarantee it will have a healthy impact on our loved one. It is scary to detach with love precisely because it means that we are giving up the illusion that we are in control of the results. Even thinking about giving up control often leads us to obsessively ruminate. What if he/she gets worse or dies. I’ll feel so guilty, as if I didn’t do enough. I need to try harder. Once we’re into this level of thinking, it is clear we need to step back, get some perspective and give up our controlling ways in the situation; they are simply not helping. We have to quit playing savior and just be loving to the other person and to ourselves – and take the space needed. Again, it is crucial not to move into empty space but to seek maximum support from and connection to others during such times, and to process the experience as much as we need. It is a time of reflection on ourselves, a time to clean OUR side of the street.

All of us have, at some point, been caught in a destructive cycle of unhealthy choices of one kind or another. Having opinions and judgments about other people’s choices and behaviors is hardwired into us – we can’t not have them; it would be unnatural. The key is what we choose to do with those opinions and judgments. We can use them to hit others over the head as we endeavor to control them or whip them into shape. Or, we can use them as raw material upon which to reflect, learn, and better lead by example. This is the path of growth, and it involves deepening our experience of the complexity of life. If we pursue this path, the chances of us impacting positively on others are greatly increased. Paradoxically, we will know deep down that even while others may be helped by our example, we are not in control of the process.

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3 responses

  1. Nancy says:

    I love this: this is the path of growth, and it involves deepening our experience of the complexity of life.

  2. Leonard Marks says:

    This bears contemplation and discussion. Here are some points:

    1. Just a semantic one but people don’t make choices, they are presented with choices. They make decisions.
    2. What appears to be a bad decision to you may be a necessary coping mechanism for someone else. I’d suggest that before we consider detaching we inquire as to the effect of the decision and behavior on the part of the person affected.
    3. While I agree that many people offer advice and suggestions to meet their own needs it’s also becoming painfully clear that in the Twenty-First century an even larger problem is indifference. Condoning and suggesting detachment as a necessary part of survival probably feeds into the psychopathic tendencies of many who say – as do the ex-offenders I work with – ” Hey, man, I got to do me.” They are more than content to allow the Department of Social Services, ACS, Medicaid and the Food Stamp Administration to care for their loved ones and children. Should that be encouraged or should we instead encourage people to feel that “we are all in this together so when you see someone who’s hurting or in trouble, don’t turn or walk away.”

    Waddaya think?

    • Chris Kingman says:

      1. I’m glad you have “chosen” to give my blog some thought, or if you prefer, “decided” to do so.
      2. Yes, I would support you 110% to think through what was right for you in a given situation, not only regarding what ‘feels’ right but also what is ethically sound (“doing the right thing”). I think I am agreeing with you when I say that each of us is responsible to do just that – and that to do so enhances personal growth AND good citizenship.
      3. Yes, detaching (with anger or with love) can be used both in healthy and/or unhealthy ways, depending on the people and context involved. Therein lies the importance of point #2 upon which we agree. In my own lived experience there are moments when “doing the right thing” involves detaching and there are other moments where it involves staying engaged. EACH OF US is continuously choosing this or that direction in life and in doing so we create our lives and influence others’ lives as well. Your point is well taken that consideration of how our decisions impact others (and the world) is an important and valuable investment. Of course the danger exists that we would ‘over-think’ and thus paralyze ourselves, but that is material for another blog.

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