When Winning is Losing

By Yolanda Adams, CAP and Jennifer Nelson, LCSW, CSAT

puppet with strings

When Winning is Losing:When a client comes into treatment, usually they aren’t seeking help strictly from an internal motivation of wanting to change every aspect of their life. More often than not, they come in due to an external force that has caused them to “surrender” to a certain extent. When the external pressures become overwhelming, the goal is to find relief in the short-term: housing, food, medical detox, freedom from jail, etc. These solutions are never long lasting, if the motivation is not accompanied by a deeper reason to stay sober.

For years, counselors have been serenaded with a chorus of misguided statements, such as: “I can beat this” or “I just made a mistake” and of course the mantra “I won’t make that same mistake again.” All these statements point to a belief system that they can win or outsmart their addiction or consequences if they just make minor changes to their behavior, or attempt to change others perceptions of how they are doing. At this point, life has become a game to protect themselves from further disappointment or hurt.

The game of life never began with the addict “winning” When someone is in active addiction, their life becomes a game where they seek the thrill of the “hustle.” Figuring out what their next move is, how to get more drugs, who to buy from and how to make more money to support their habit. People become obstacles or barriers to getting the end prize and relationships become more about what can you give me or what can you do for me, rather than what can I do for you.

Many suffering with addictive disorders often feel they are the ones being used or “played” with in life. Some grew up in homes with detached relationships, absent parents, a lack of structure and positive role models. Some feel like they were neglected and grew up with belief systems of “I am not good enough, smart enough or pretty enough.” As they grow older, these distorted beliefs begin to translate into “you cannot trust others in the world around you” –laying a foundation for a myriad of personality, mood, and psychological dysfunctions. They begin to attract others with the same belief systems and begin to look at how they can survive in this cruel world and how to gain control and power over their lives and others so they can stop the pain. This internal dialogue looks something like “hurt them before they have a chance to hurt you” or “don’t trust anyone” These statements take a person from building human connections to becoming opponents in battle.

Winning becomes about never having to show vulnerability. The battle creates a false illusion that they are in control as the world is falling apart around them, again a reminder of their childhood hurt or disappointment that they will fight to avoid at all cost, even to the “loss” of their sobriety. The misperception stems from being vulnerable as a child and believing that this follows you into adulthood; and that the only way to avoid feeling pain is to never show vulnerability which is translated into having power in all situations or “winning” One of the most important treatment goals when attempting to help a person with this distorted “winning” is to take the battle away by not engaging. This is a lot easier said than done. In order to create change, you have to redefine an entire belief system.

The way to do that is not be a player in the game. The counselor must be a mentor for how to reconstruct a life framework to show the client what “winning” truly looks like, and more than that, how it feels. There are a lot of pitfalls that counselors fall into when dealing with a client that sets treatment up as a game. If our goal is to build rapport, point out flaws in thinking or living, create solutions and change belief systems we need to be aware that a lot of times their goals are the same when interacting with us. The game plan is to make the counselor feel (and yes believe) like they are the “one” that understands. Once they have “gained rapport”, then the manipulation begins. They start to point out flaws–flaws in the current program, in their past programs, in other therapist, in themselves, in their peers, in their parents. Though they seem to be engaged in their treatment it is just a clever ruse. They are setting the stage to get what they want.

The counselor may feel that they are being held hostage…which… they are. The counselor is at the place of wanting to negotiate or compromise so that the client won’t walk away. The client knows this and oftentimes wins, based on the counselor’s fear of “losing” them. If you do not give them what they are asking for, they will turn on you, begin stating that you have not met their needs, you lied, you are not a good counselor, etc. Then the threats come of “I am leaving, I want someone who understands me.” This is where a counselor will engage in the battle. I have heard time and time again “isn’t it better to meet them halfway, than to have them leave?” My response would be, not if you are engaging in a win or lose battle. If they have set it up as a game, you will just be another player that they can conquer. If they have to leave to get it, they have to leave to get it. If you begin making deals, you are teaching them that life is a game. If you are thinking that “I can help them in a way that others haven’t” or you have what it takes, aren’t you playing the same game?

So what is the solution? Be human and vulnerable, set boundaries and show them that others are not objects but people who can help if they are willing to roll their sleeves and fight the true battle- -which is how to believe in themselves. This awareness comes when the individual is allowed to look at their choices, make a decision, act upon this, whatever it may be without interjection from another player (counselor, sponsor, treatment center) which they can use at any given time to keep the game going.

Jennifer Nelson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker that has worked in the field of addiction since 2007. Jennifer is a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist, EMDR trained, has extensive training using psychodrama and experiential techniques. She is the Clinical Director at Insight to Recovery.

Yolanda has an MS in Social Work and a BA in Journalism. She is trained in EMDR, addressing trauma-related issues, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. Yolanda is director of Utilization Management & Review at Insight to Recovery