The Fear of Rejection in Addiction

Addiction wants to leave loved ones in the dark as long as possible.

Posted Feb 01, 2019

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Father and son talk
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The first step in recovery is hard because the truth of the addiction is hard. It’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room. The addiction is so powerful and dominating, it sets the agenda.

People can resist taking that first step, confronting the gorilla, out of fear. To take a step, a person must change position, leave where they are, and move somewhere else. An addiction is a known position; somewhere else can be a frightening and unknown destination. The addict is confronted with thoughts such as I know where I am now. If I move, where will I go? I also think the unspoken thought is If I move, will I be in more pain?

Admitting an addiction to yourself can be extraordinarily difficult because of the terrifying possibility of rejection. Admitting that addiction to others can seem like walking over hot coals—a prolonged journey of excruciating pain as you watch their incredulous, agonized, or disgusted reactions. Whether it’s pornography, or prescription drugs, or bingeing and purging, or sex, having to confess the truth to someone else can feel impossible.

Exposure has a shame aspect to it, but shame isn’t the end of the fear. The rest of the fear is that you’ll also be abandoned, rejected by those you love because of what you’ve done and who you’ve become. Rejection is another word for abandonment, one of our deepest and earliest fears. At the time when you most need others to rally around you, to support you and give you hope, you fear that disclosing the truth will sabotage any chance of them doing so and you’ll be left alone to struggle with your addiction.

Family members living with the consequences of an addiction are not always aware of the pathology of addiction and can consider the addiction a moral failure. Telling an addict to “just stop it” implies the person doesn’t have the willpower to change their life.

While willpower is certainly a large component of recovery, it alone is not enough to overcome the tidal wave of forces pressuring the addict to continue. Just as the addiction becomes a “family affair,” so does recovery, because the heavy lifting involved requires a group of people dedicated to honesty, encouragement, and support.

Addiction wants to leave loved ones in the dark as long as possible. To keep you from admitting and seeking help, the addiction assures you, “If they know, they’ll leave.” This is such a cruel torment, especially when you consider that the farther a person goes down the road of addiction, the more likely rejection is to happen. Even loved ones have a breaking point—such as when the toxicity of the addictive relationship crosses over a lethal line and, for personal safety or survival, the loved ones must sever the relationship. Fear of rejection is so powerful because rejection is real.

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