In a 2015 study by the NIH, it was estimated that, at any given time in the US, 4% of Americans were experiencing some form of substance use disorder and that as many as 10% of all adults in the US will confront addiction at some point in their lives (1). In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers are only expected to increase (2, 3). Despite how common substance use disorders (SUD) are, all too often addiction is surrounded by a cone of silence. The truth is, there is enormous power in words. Learning to communicate effectively and to speak your truth may well be your most potent weapon in your fight for recovery.
Speaking Your Truth
One of the most difficult aspects of addiction isn’t the dependency itself. It’s the shame, blame, and stigma (4). It’s perhaps little wonder, then, that those who face addiction so often retreat into a fog of secrecy and silence, as if to be quiet is never to be “found out.” But it is precisely that desire to seek seclusion in silence that also leads those who suffer to avoid or abandon treatment. Indeed, it’s estimated that of the tens of millions of Americans who will face addiction each year, more than 75% will receive no treatment (1). The old adage that we are only as sick as our secrets is true. Not talking about a malignancy won’t make it go away. And not talking about an addiction won’t make it go away either.
Finding the Words
By no means do we suggest that opening up about your struggles is easy. If it were, then silence would not play such a seductive and deadly role in the disease of addiction. Since secrecy and silence are characteristic of SUD, you shouldn’t expect to simply break the pattern yourself, nor should you allow yourself to fall into the familiar cycle of blame and self-recrimination when you find yourself wanting to retreat back into silence.
Instead, recognize this desire for what it is–an aspect of the disorder–and treat it as such. Create a strategy for dealing with this symptom as you would any other symptom of the disorder and build a plan for integrating communication into your recovery. That often begins with learning to identify the safe spaces and relationships where you can start to learn to communicate effectively.
Therapeutic environments, including residential recovery centers, can help those in recovery engage more effectively both with the recovery process and the people involved in it (5). At the heart of engagement in a therapeutic environment is communication, the ability to articulate your experience of addiction and recovery in an atmosphere of acceptance, understanding, and healing.
Using Communication to Establish Boundaries
Learning when, how, and to whom to speak your truth also means learning how to establish the personal boundaries that are critical to recovery. This means setting limits and rules of engagement in relationships and learning to recognize those who you can trust with your truth and those who you cannot. And, by extension, learning to build a life in which you are surrounded with healthy relationships.
This isn’t just happy talk or magical thinking, though. In fact, studies show that your environment, and the quality of your relationships, have a significant impact both on instigating and worsening addiction and on getting, and staying, clean (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16). And when you’re cultivating your communication skills, it’s not just about learning to speak and be heard, it’s also about learning to listen and to hear.
Good communication is a two-way street, and once you have cultivated the network of trust, surrounding yourself with people to whom you can entrust your story, even when it hurts, then maintaining those relationships will mean becoming the person whom your trust network can entrust in return. This will require you to develop the skills of reciprocity, giving your loved ones the same opportunity that you expect them to give to you to speak their reality without fear or judgment. In this way, communication becomes a tool not just for expressing experiences but for creating new ones, for partnering with the people you love most and defining your shared priorities, your life goals, and your vision for the future (17).
The Power of Language
At Bayshore, we offer both group and individualized counseling with our in-house team of mental health and addiction recovery experts. Our counselors and therapists specialize in helping clients learn to build strong, supportive recovery networks that are based on open, honest, and productive communication between each client and their trusted network of friends, family, and healthcare providers.
For many of our clients, at the heart of this process lies cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps those in recovery learn to identify destructive thought patterns that often fuel addiction. Studies have shown that in both group and individual settings, CBT helps reduce the risk of relapse in those dealing with drug and alcohol dependency (6). CBT has also been shown to be effective for those coping with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other mental health disorders, all of which are also often strongly associated with substance dependency and abuse (7, 8, 9, 10).
As the name suggests, CBT centers on patients’ thoughts, and centering on thoughts inevitably means centering on language. The cornerstone is identifying those destructive thought patterns that so often contribute to addiction and replacing them with patterns of thinking–and speaking–that are true, helpful, and healthful.
Some of the most important conversations we will ever have are the ones we have with ourselves. This, in fact, lies at the heart of cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT helps you learn to relanguage your thoughts in ways that are positive, productive, and affirming (18). It is difficult to learn to communicate effectively until you develop the skills you need to cultivate more productive and mindful self-talk. And effective communication is the cornerstone of helping you establish personal boundaries, forge healthy relationships, and construct the fulfilling and empowered life you want and deserve.
But it’s not only about how your language shapes your sense of self. Your language also shapes how you perceive others. For example, if you are constantly telling yourself that your spouse never helps around the house, that will color how you see them, driving how you interpret their actions, and even shaping what you notice, and don’t notice, about them. In fact, there is a term for this. It’s called confirmation bias, and it refers to our unconscious tendency to notice those things which support our beliefs and perceptions and to ignore those things that don’t. So, if you tell yourself your spouse never helps around the house, you’ll likely notice that they’ve left dirty dishes in the sink, but fail to recognize that they’ve walked the dog or done the laundry. And with every negative thought, resentments build until, at last, they explode into conflict–and such conflicts may, in turn, trigger you to relapse.
Effective Communication in Real Life–Actionable Advice
As we’ve seen, one of the most significant challenges of addiction is the impact it has on your relationships, often creating unhealthy patterns that contribute to dangerous codependence. Learning to communicate effectively with loved ones is an essential step in replacing destructive relationship patterns with healthy ones. Here are some practical ways to begin communicating effectively.
The 4 T’s – A good rule of thumb when learning to communicate effectively with your loved ones is to practice the “4 T’s” of good communication:
- Timing: When it comes to communication, there is a time and a place for everything. Cultivating your communication skills means learning to identify when it is safe, productive, and necessary to speak up. Ask yourself if speaking out at that moment will be in your own best interest and the best interests of your loved one. Important conversations need to be given the time, attention, and respect they deserve. So before you settle down to have a critical talk with a loved one, make sure that the timing and the environment are right and that you both are prepared to speak openly and to listen productively.
- Tone: When it comes to effective communication, it’s not about what is said, but about what is heard. So no matter what you say or how well-meaning your intentions may be, if your partner hears criticism, anger, mockery, or something else negative in your tone, even if you don’t realize or intend it, that will likely shut everything down. So pay attention not just to what you say but how you say it. Consider how your words and your tone may be received by your loved one, and focus on clarifying your meaning and your intention through your inflection, your facial expression, and your body language as well as your words.
- Technique: Believe it or not, effective communication is both a skill and an art. And there are techniques you can learn to become a more productive and empathetic communicator. Above all, you should keep the conversation relevant. Don’t dredge up mistakes and misdeeds that have no bearing on the issue at hand. Don’t bludgeon your partner with an argument that happened 20 years ago. And don’t use generalizations such as “you always” or “you never.” Instead, stay focused on the here and now. And, whenever possible, avoid making the issue about the other person. Instead of using the second person, “you,” focus on the first person, “I”. For instance, instead of saying, “You hurt my feelings,” say, “I felt hurt.” This allows you to take ownership over your own experiences and emotions without automatically blaming your partner or putting them on the defensive.
- Truth: Learning the techniques you need to frame your conversation in a way that is productive doesn’t mean you can’t, and shouldn’t, speak the truth. Quite the opposite. In fact, if you’re not being honest, you’re not actually communicating effectively. And that means you will never heal yourself or your relationships. So it’s imperative that you give yourself the permission to speak your entire truth, using the appropriate timing, tone, and techniques to do this in a way that is healthful and helpful.
Learning to Listen – As we’ve seen, effective communication isn’t just about speaking. It’s also about learning to listen. And that, too, takes skill and strategy.
- Active Listening: When you’re talking to someone, do you find yourself actually listening to what they’re saying, or are you just waiting to talk? Good communication means learning to practice active listening, learning to focus, really focus, on what your partner is saying, rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next.
- Reflecting and Repeating: Reflecting and repeating often go hand-in-hand with active listening. In this technique, when one person stops speaking, the other repeats what they have said back to them in their own words. This way, partners can ensure that they’ve been heard. Not just that, but repeating and reflecting helps partners ensure that what has been heard is what was actually said or intended. So often, miscommunications, and conflicts, arise when people misinterpret, misunderstand, or mishear what has been said. Reflecting and repeating gives partners the opportunity to seek confirmation and clarification. It leads to more, better, deeper, and more effective and expansive conversation between partners.
- Ask Questions: Perhaps your best tool for communicating effectively with your loved ones is to become great at asking questions–and really listening to the answers. There’s no better way to cultivate your active listening skills while you develop a deeper understanding of people in your life. And, as a bonus, by showing interest, you’ll make the other person feel valued and important.
- Practice Empathy: Some conversations are difficult, especially those that take place in the context of recovery. And that means that empathy needs to be the cornerstone of every communication, especially the hard ones. That involves showing empathy both to your loved one and yourself. It means making the concerted effort to understand and to acknowledge the feelings, experiences, and needs of others, even when it hurts and even if and when the other person may not be communicating in the most productive way. Addiction impacts the entire family, and it can be difficult to listen to the stories of how your loved ones were impacted, especially if those stories are told with anger or judgment. Yet, practicing empathy in even these most difficult of contexts can help you and your loved ones move forward with understanding, acceptance, and compassion.
When you are facing addiction, learning to communicate effectively may feel like the last thing on your priorities list. In reality, though, learning to hear and to be heard, learning to shuffle off the silence of shame, may well save your life. At Bayshore, our team of addiction recovery specialists and mental health experts can help you learn to build your communication skills, to recognize your right, your authority, and your ability to use these skills to build a life in which you thrive.