Power and Control Struggles–Self-Sabotage in Treatment and Recovery

opioid addictionPower and control struggles are not uncommon in addiction treatment and recovery. They occur for many reasons, some that are not directly related to addiction, but others that certainly are. For example, there are personality traits and patterns that develop apart from substance use. Such personality issues yield behavior problems and interpersonal problems. One might have little empathy for others, for example, and treat others poorly, or even abusively. And, one may not be able to maintain long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.

On the other hand, however, addiction can directly cause power and control struggles. And, an impulse to exert power and control over others and situations can persist into recovery efforts, causing problems and sabotaging those efforts. A desire to for power and control in addiction is typical as result of feeling overwhelmingly powerless and having a life that is out of control.

When Things are Overwhelmingly Out of Control

Compulsive substance use is a powerful biological and psychological force. It overwhelms willpower, desperation, rational thought and moral values.  And, it is the perfect example of how overwhelmingly out of one’s control addiction can be. People lose everything to the power of compulsive use. It is only in fleeting moments of clarity that the true degree of unmanageability is seen. However, long before denial falls away, the unmanageability is felt. Anxiety, fear, panic, depression, despair… all are chronic feelings during active addiction, and all reflect the profound unmanageability of an addicted person’s life, inside and out.

The Fight for Power and Control

The urge to have power and control in a situation is deeply tied to survival. And, consequently, it taps into very deep and often unconscious processes. Survival mode is designed to save us from threat and danger. Our perceptions trigger it, and our perceptions can be accurate or not. For example, we can be mistaken, thinking someone intends us harm when they do not. However, the survival mechanisms in us don’t care that we are mistaken. They respond anyway. Also, a psychological threat can ignite our survival mode. Our defenses go up. Even though we may not experience physical danger at all, we can respond as if our lives depend upon protecting ourselves. For instance, we can be triggered by perceived abandonment or humiliation.

However triggering of our urge to protect ourselves occurs, it can push us to exert power and gain control through some sort of ‘fight’ response. If not, our other choices are to run or to collapse, but in situations where we have no known exit, a fight is usually our option. When we are triggered by normal treatment and recovery dynamics, for example, we tend to sabotage ourselves through resistance, acting out with those we perceive to be in authority, or to somehow have greater power and control than we do. This can waste valuable time, becoming a significant detour from recovery. However, if handled correctly, this can also be a time to correct underlying misconceptions that sabotage in many areas of life.

Resisting Authority in Treatment and Recovery

Authority issues can come in a variety of forms. One of the most basic is the resentment of another person’s expertise, or greater status in some situation such as a workplace, school, or treatment setting. Often problems arise because we feel ourselves to be less than others in a situation where we take instruction or guidance. Of course, this is problematic when we need help from others in our attempts to overcome addiction, and later to sustain recovery.

Such resentment involves basic mistrust, difficulty accepting help, inability to rely on others, and fear that others’ intend harm when they are kind, helpful and extending themselves. Naturally, experiences in early life with abuse, abandonment, neglect and profound disappointment will color any future situations in which we might depend on others. Many who develop addictions have had such early life experiences and so will struggle with getting help although they need and want it.

Oftentimes, being in great need cripples us even more when we need to rely on others. The greater need we feel, the more vulnerable we feel. An increased vulnerability can leave us anxious, fearful, suspicious and preoccupied with scrutinizing others’ intents and agendas. We muddy the waters… forgetting our original need for help, and focusing instead on the pain of relationships, our past trauma, and our resistance of the helping relationships in front of us. Power and control struggles ensue and we lose valuable treatment and recovery resources and time. We truly can become our own worst enemies.

Self-Sabotage is Often Unconsciously Motivated

It truly is an unusual person who wants to fully and consciously sabotage their own success. Although self-sabotage is common, particularly among people with addictions, it is by and large an unconscious process. Most recognize the pattern of self-sabotage and agonize over it, searching for the insight that will ‘break the spell’. Typically, however, the answers are often buried deep into the unconscious, acting as a program always running in the background, but rarely noticed. The self-sabotage program has deeply ingrained beliefs about one’s self, others and the world. They are biased toward us never succeeding and we buy into to them without full and Withdrawal Symptomsconscious consent.

These self-sabotaging beliefs are given to us by early training, and our later experiences that ‘validate’ early training. Over time we look for validation that we, others and ourselves are how we believe them to be. If I feel unworthy of love, for example, I will look for proof. I may even enter a relationship with someone who will prove me right–someone who will consistently communicate how unworthy I am. Of course, since these things are largely motivated by unconscious programming, we won’t fully recognize what we are doing in such a case. We will think we have fallen in love and are simply having a love relationship.

Power and control struggles will emerge in any such situation we are led into by unconscious programming. We want to be in love, feel worthy of love and be happy for instance. But, on the other hand, we have to find the feelings of unworthiness, and the validation of unworthiness coming from a rejecting or abusive partner. Whenever we strive for the ‘prize’, we come up against the fight.

Power Struggles in Therapy and Support Groups

Self-sabotage from underlying power and control issues can surface rather dramatically in both therapy settings and support groups such as 12 Step programs like AA and NA (Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous). The self-sabotage factor is highlighted in these situations because they affect very little except one’s own progress.  Often, however, they manifest as resistance to what is presented, and even can be acted out in disregard of help offered and dismissal of the validity of the help available. Often too, one may reject that help is even needed or is effective, while staying in the therapies or the groups. Sometimes self-sabotage can seek to disprove the worth of such help and can seek to undermine the process for others or to target particular individuals in a helping position. In other words, the entire healing process can be derailed for the individual who is in the throes of these types of unconscious patterns.

Correcting the Underlying Dynamics of Self-Sabotage

Fortunately, all forms of self-sabotage can be corrected with the right help and right approaches. In fact, while time can be spent in treatment and other recovery efforts fighting helpers and even fighting the structure of helping environments, a great deal of healing can occur through such processes. And, many successfully recovering people have such stories to tell. In fact, there are many who engaged multiple times in efforts to get well who were derailed again and again by their need to engage in power struggles and to fight for some kind of control instead of getting better.

These issues need to be resolved or they wouldn’t be so tenacious. Identifying self-sabotage working out in one’s life is important, as is identifying the origins of these patterns. Then, one can work to resolve the original issue. Frequently, these patterns were established in some sort of traumatic interactions with important people in our lives. They are likely to have been adaptive in some crisis situations, but have long lost their helpfulness and become anything but helpful.

If you think about it, our original ‘authorities’ were the adults in our lives when we were children. Damaged relationships then teach us painful lessons about trust, closeness, openness and relying on others. While the particular people in our lives who caused pain could not be trusted or relied upon, and closeness to them caused more pain, we have to understand that our lessons were about particular people in particular situations. We also have to learn that other people, relationships, and situations can be very different. Consequently, when there are ingrained patterns of self-sabotage, it is wise to look for past trauma that still needs to be healed and to work with people who are trained to address those issues.

If You Need Help but Self-Sabotage

If you need help but self-sabotage the help you get, consider working this out with professionals trained to do so. You may have a traumatic reaction that has not been resolved, or you may have ingrained personality traits and patterns that can be altered with the right help. Give us a call today for a free consultation. We can help clarify the type of help you need and match you with appropriate treatment resources. We will also clarify your insurance coverage for you and help smooth the way so you can get the help you need.