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Stopping Addiction in the Family: Welcome to the “Blame-Shame-Game”

If you are someone who is dealing with addiction of any kind in your family, you know what a nightmare this can be. So many different dynamics are at play all the time – you often may not know whether you’re coming or going! One of the most popular dynamics that shows up in families struggling with addiction is the “Blame-Shame-Game” which, until a family begins to relate in healthier ways with each other, can go on and on for years.

As its name would suggest, the “Blame-Shame-Game” occurs when addicts – and their loved ones alike – blame and shame each other for the problems in the family. The purpose and aim of the ‘game’ is to somehow convince another person to take the responsibility away from the person who is actually the one creating the problems – with blaming and shaming generally reaping the best results for this. In the “Blame-Shame-Game,” family members hook each other in with unhealthy – and often completely untrue – accusations, intended to cause the other person to feel badly about themselves.

How the “Blame-Shame-Game” Works

For example, an addict or alcoholic who is choosing to stay in active addiction instead of making the decision to go into some kind of active recovery, might say to his partner, “It’s your fault that I’m drinking /using /gambling /cheating/over-spending/watching porn” – or whatever manifestation the addiction happens to be taking. What they’re basically saying is, “If you didn’t always nag me and mistrust me, I wouldn’t have to find a way to escape from you!”

Or an addicted child, regardless of age, may decide to blame their parents for their addiction by holding on to resentment after resentment and taking no ownership of how they themselves are contributing to this dysfunctional dynamic. “If you would just get off my back and stop trying to control me, my life would be much better. Just leave me alone!”

In both examples, the addicts are attempting to blame someone else for the choices they are making. If they can convince the other person that they themselves are not in any way to blame – that it’s always someone else’s fault – then they figure they can continue their addiction without interference or interruption.

At least, that’s what they’re hoping will happen.

How the “Blame-Shame-Game” Affects the Loved Ones of Addicts

The loved ones of the addicts – the partners, parents, siblings, friends, etc. – have generally been on the receiving end of the “Blame-Shame-Game” for a very long time, and are often not discussing their own feelings honestly with someone who could truly help. As a result, many have come to believe that they indeed must be the problem. They get hooked in by the addict’s words and, somewhere deep inside, come to believe that it must actually be their fault after all. They ask themselves, “What other explanation can there be? I must be a terrible person and a totally inept parent/partner/friend.”

This is rarely, if ever, the whole truth. And because it really does take at least two to tangle in this way, the fact is that everyone in this situation bears responsibility for their own choices. But the deep, powerful shame that loved ones feel about the addict’s words – and actions – can overtake them, often to the point where they allow the addicted person in their lives to get away with negative, destructive behaviours again and again. Sometimes the game gets turned around and the loved ones begin to blame and shame the addict – “If you weren’t in my life, then I could be happy.” This generally plays out in a circular fashion and ultimately leaves everyone in the equation feeling miserable, mistrustful, and victimized much of the time.

If you are the loved one of someone who is in active addiction of any kind, you are probably quite familiar with the “Blame-Shame-Game.” Sometimes, as this dynamic becomes progressively worse over time, addicts do things like yell, steal, punch holes in walls, and even physically hurt those around them. When that happens, the loved ones build up huge, horrible feelings of resentment – some even wish their addicts would go away permanently, and they feel exorbitant shame about experiencing those thoughts and feelings.

As you can see, the “Blame-Shame-Game” can take on some pretty horrific proportions.

What You Can Do to Halt This Dynamic

This can – and in fact it often does – go on for years, until someone in the family finally shifts the dynamic in a positive way by deciding to get some help to change the situation. And because most addicts are not going to be the ones to approach their family members and say “Somebody stop me!” – like Jim Carrey’s character in the movie The Mask – it usually falls to those who love an out-of-control addict to be the ones to reach out for assistance for themselves first.

The great news is that it only takes one person to stop this game and get their family on the right track. When one person opts out and says, “I’m done, I don’t want to play anymore – I want us to become healthier with each other,” that is when change is truly possible.-Candace Plattor

That’s where most of my clients are when they first come to see me. They understand they’ve been enabling the addict they love so deeply – sometimes for many years – and they can also see that they’ve been playing that “Blame-Shame-Game” for a long time. In fact, many loved ones often admit to having become experts at giving back as good as they get. By the time they come to their first session with me, they have the mistaken belief that this can never get any better – that their family will never become healthier.

The great news is that it only takes one person to stop this game and get their family on the right track. When one person opts out and says, “I’m done, I don’t want to play anymore – I want us to become healthier with each other,” that is when change is truly possible. And when others in the scenario are on the same page and they all want this to change, those positive results are usually quick to show up. When we finally admit that we’ve been contributing to damaging dynamics, we can shift this. We can’t change what we won’t allow ourselves to acknowledge, and often what it truly takes is the courage to change ourselves first. In my personal and professional experience, when loved ones possess that courage and begin to tap into it, the addicts almost always follow suit – and then the “Blame-Shame-Game” can come to an end.

As the loved one of an addict, will you be the one to stop this disturbing game in its tracks? Will you care enough about your addict – and respect yourself enough – to finally say, “I give up and I need some help”? Remember that if nothing changes, nothing changes. Think about how life will be for you and your family in one year – or five or ten – if nothing changes. The fact is that you don’t have to go on this way. You actually have more power in this situation than you think. If you become that person to stop playing the “Blame-Shame-Game” – and allow someone to help you do that when you feel you need assistance – you can actually be the key to ending the pain and suffering of addiction in your family – forever.

Images Courtesy of iStock

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