What if your addiction developed from an act of love?

It seems like a counterproductive question, doesn’t it? Many of us have been taught that our addictive behavior is the worst part of ourselves; that we should be ashamed of our dependency on drugs or alcohol. But what if our self-sabotaging patterns developed from a place of wanting to put others first? Would that understanding help us drop some of the shame and stigma associated with addiction?

Let’s look at this idea with Nicole. The oldest of four, Nicole had to take care of her siblings after her mother passed away. While her father worked long hours to provide for his children, Nicole was busy making dinner, doing laundry, and washing dishes.

Nicole grew up very quickly, and by fulfilling this maternal role, she developed the belief that her needs were not important. In a way, she had to believe this – if she didn’t, her life and her siblings’ lives at home would have crumbled.

Year after year, her environment at home reinforced the idea that everyone else’s needs should come before her own. She learned the way to be important was to constantly be of service to other people.

As an adult, Nicole still believes that her place is to help others, which means she always falls to the bottom of her list.


One busy weekday morning, Nicole and her husband Kyle are divvying up their tasks for the day.

“Okay, so I’ll get the kids lunches ready – oh, I have to grab Sophie’s science project from the garage, it’s still drying from last night. And then I’ll take Cameron to soccer practice after school. And while he’s there I can pick up Sophie’s costume from her dance teacher…” Nicole lists off.

“Do you want me to take Cameron to his practice? I can take off a little early today,” Kyle cuts in.

“No, no, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” Nicole quickly replies with a smile.

That afternoon, after a hectic day, Nicole is reaching into the backseat to grab Cameron’s cleats for practice. She stretches a little too far and pulls a muscle in her back for the third time this week. She groans and sits still for a moment, closing her eyes. She reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out the pain medication she was prescribed for her knee. She takes a few more than she should, but she tells herself she can’t afford to be slowed down right now.

Carefully, she gets out of the car and hands the shoes to her son. Then, she’s off to her next stop.  


We can see why Nicole developed her underlying beliefs and behaviors, and how these traits translate into her adult life. But you may be asking, “How does this relate to addiction?”

When she was a child, nurturing for Nicole didn’t exist. All that existed was Nicole being there for others. Out of that consistent, reinforcing environment, she developed a false identity that told her that what makes Nicole important is supporting others.

Unconsciously, Nicole doesn’t realize that when she constantly gives, it’s not sustainable (on multiple levels).

  1. When she’s going-going-going without a break, Nicole’s body can’t keep up. The only way to keep going is to pop pills to relieve herself from the pressure.
  2. When someone does offer her support, like her husband was trying to do, Nicole doesn’t know what to do with it. Instead of considering the option, she shuts it down. It’s almost like entering a foreign country. She sees it as strange, and even dangerous. Every time help is offered, this creates more tension in her body. And how does she escape this uncomfortable feeling? By taking pills.  

The next day, Nicole’s exhaustion is painfully apparent. While volunteering at her daughter’s bake sale, she can barely keep her eyes open. Her lack of sleep is catching up to her in the form of a nasty headache, and she has to take a seat to collect herself for a moment.

One of the other moms, Julia, comes over and takes a seat next to Nicole.

“Long day?” Julia asks.

“I can’t remember the last time it wasn’t a long day!” Nicole replies with a sharp laugh to her friend.

“You’re always the first person to sign up for these things, and then the last one to leave. How do you find time for yourself?” Julia asks.

Nicole straightens up in her chair uncomfortably. “Oh, I gave that up when I became a mom,” she quietly jokes.

Julia looks at her with wide eyes. “I don’t know how you do it. I’d be a wreck if I didn’t have my spin classes.”

Nicole takes a hard gulp and shrugs. She can’t bring herself to look Julia in the eyes.

Julia leans in. “I mean it, Nicole. Are you – you know – okay? If you keep burning the candle at both ends you’re going to fall apart.”

Nicole clears her throat and abruptly stands up. “Thanks, but I’m fine. I’m gonna go check on the girls.”

Nicole can hear Julia sigh as she briskly walks away.

Nicole’s Monkey Mind starts shooting off angry thoughts. “‘Are you okay?’ Who asks someone that?! She’s only asking because she feels guilty for not doing enough. She’s hardly ever at these things.”

Yet, beneath these harsh judgments, Nicole can feel that lump in her stomach. Deep down, she knows Julia is right.


While many of us share this pattern of always putting others first, we’ve been doing it for so long that we think it’s normal.

Those close to us can help us see that this behavior actually isn’t doing us any favors.

Try to truly listen when people recommend you try something different. Notice even if they joke about something you do – these comments are likely rooted in truth, and their observations can help you change your behavior for the better.

On her drive home, Nicole starts thinking about what Julia said again. Now she’s calmer and can more objectively look at what her friend was telling her. Nicole decides to set up a lunch with Julia for the next week.

“I’m so sorry for how I acted last week at the bake sale. You were just trying to be nice, and I was so rude…” Nicole begins.

“Oh, don’t worry. I know it can be hard to hear,” Julia comments. “Actually, the only reason I mentioned it at all is because I watched my sister do the same thing you’re doing.”

“What do you mean?” Nicole asks.

“Well, she used to volunteer for every school event and church event, really anything she could sign up for. But then last year, she started getting really sick. She went to her doctor a bunch and they couldn’t find anything, so then she started drinking quite a bit… finally her doctor referred her to a therapist. And that was exactly what she needed.”

“She was really making herself sick, huh?” Nicole asks.

“Big time. And it really was all a mental game. After she went to the therapist a couple times, she started telling me what she was working on. A lot of it had to do with how young she was when she started working. Our dad has a farm, so we were out feeding the pigs when we were, I don’t know, 5 or 6,” Julia says nonchalantly.

“Wow, that sounds pretty intense,” Nicole affirms.

“It wasn’t too bad. But there was always this unsaid message that everyone else, including the animals, comes before you. The pigs got breakfast before we did, you know? And Vicki took this mantra to heart a little more than I did.”

Without realizing it, Nicole has started nodding along. She catches herself when Julia gives her a quizzical look.

“Oh! I can just relate that’s all,” Nicole quickly replies.

“You come from a farm family too?” Julia asks.

“No, but my mom died when I was young. I had to help out with my brothers and sisters quite a bit after that,” Nicole explains.

“Sorry to hear that,” Julia kindly replies.

“Thank you. But going back to your sister… you said she was able to stop being sick?”

Julia’s face lights up. “Yeah! It’s really interesting actually – it turns out that whenever someone offered to help Vicki, she would get all this anxiety. Because she had learned that she wasn’t supposed to get help – she was supposed to help everyone else! All that anxiety finally caught up with her, and her body just wasn’t having it anymore.”

“Wow. So she learned to say yes when someone offered help?” Nicole asks.

“Yep. Because she realized that, ironically, what she desperately wanted was for someone to take care of her,” Julia nods slowly. “So now, when we go over there for dinner, she lets me help clean up the dishes. She says she always feels anxious when I grab the first plate, but she breathes through it and feels a lot better by the time we’re done.”

“I can’t remember the last time I let a guest help clean up dishes!” Nicole says with a chuckle.

“Maybe you should try it,” Julia gently replies.

“Yeah, maybe I should.” Nicole takes a deep breath. “Thank you, for telling me all this, Julia. And pointing it out in the first place. It… means a lot,” Nicole acknowledges.


For many of us who grew up in homes similar to Nicole and Julia’s, we unconsciously took on the role of caregiver to everyone. We learned from our environment to believe that putting our own needs first is wrong. This eventually developed into the idea that anytime we think of putting ourselves first, or consider accepting help, our bodies became very anxious from this foreign idea.

When we listen to those around us who can see our weaknesses, we can begin to recognize the self-sabotaging patterns our Monkey Minds have created and continually reinforced in our lives. Eventually, we can learn how to accept support in loving ourselves.

 

Exercise:

Nicole thought the way to be loved was to care for everyone else, and leave no room for herself. Many of us have developed a similar maladaptive way of showing love for others by hurting ourselves.

Can you identify your misguided pattern of behavior? The easiest way to spot it, is that when it shows up, you feel anxiety.

Maybe your style is to not rock the boat – you don’t want to offend anyone, so you don’t say what you think. This makes you kick yourself later for not speaking up.

Simply developing awareness can help you create a more balanced love for all those in your life (most importantly, yourself!)

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