How to Really See the Elephant in the Room During the Holidays

How to Really See the Elephant in the Room During the Holidays

Generally speaking, festive occasions are when people are more generous and accepting. This offers a nice opportunity to reach out to a loved one we feel could potentially have a problem with alcohol and/or drugs. Every year, it always seems like there is the same individual who uses the holidays to overindulge. This creates an obvious uneasiness for everyone when their behavior becomes inappropriate. Many families are reluctant to say anything because they may only see each another during the holidays, and simply decide to tolerate it. It’s this individual, who everyone is aware of, but whose behavior is overlooked—who is the elephant in the room.

However, when we think of approaching someone with a drinking or drug problem where family and friends are gathered, we think in terms of an intervention. No one wants to ruin their holidays by addressing a potentially volatile subject matter in this way. But it’s not an intervention. We know that we can’t force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. We know that confrontation, coercion, and criticism does not influence the necessity for self-motivation nor encourage ongoing help-seeking. Rather, we can use this time of love, giving and togetherness, to rethink what we think we know about problematic drinking and drug behavior and really see the elephant in the room differently.

There are nearly 25 million people in the U.S. that meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, but only around 10% who actually seek help. Since the preconditions for addictive behaviors include chronic stress, anxiety and depression, millions of people are living lives of quiet desperation. But why do so many people who need help not seek it? We are used to saying they are in denial, or they don’t realize how serious it has become. However, they are certain about some things. They are not experiencing fulfillment, satisfaction and peace of mind. They are not having a very pleasant experience of themselves. One reason for so many people to avoid help, may be tied into our conventional way of thinking and how we treat every type of addictive behavior. Conventional language use, is disempowering, deficit-based, emotionally charged and has negative connotations. This old-school colloquial language scares people away by compounding and reinforcing negative self-talk, stigma and shame. A course of action we can take is to rethink and reframe how we use language to change and help influence a loved one’s self-identity and encourage their self-empowerment. Such rethinking would change the way they view themselves and their own subjective life experiences without labels.

It’s more useful to view someone preoccupied with a potentially overwhelming and detrimental kind of behavior as the result of early learning experiences, a failure to normally process and regulate emotions, and as a coping strategy which reinforces both pleasure and removes or avoids emotional distress…temporarily. In this way, we know someone can unlearn these automatic stored responses, and relearn healthier ways to address the challenges and circumstances in their lives. Since we are basically “downloading” what we see and hear from others as we grow up, we are influenced significantly by social learning and language use.

For example, in Wired for Culture: Origins of The Human Social Mind, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel contends that culture is the driving force of change in human history. In other words, culture has exerted more impact than genes on human civilization. In Pagel’s view, social learning has created culture and language has a subversive power too. How so? Because social conformity is powerfully enforced through language. For example, when our behaviors produce feelings of guilt and shame, these words induce–as Sigmund Freud would say–an intra-psychic discontent. Similarly, words like compassion and empathy, learned and expressed, generate different feelings involving intra-psychic contentment.

For decades we have only focused on believing “addiction” was a biological illness and genes determined our destiny. However, today in medical science our understanding of genetics has changed. Current research and new school thinking indicates even though we are born with genes which “run in the family,” these genes respond to our unique subjective world. Everything we think, feel and do, affects gene expression. In this sense, we can influence and control much of our behavior. By making lifestyle, environmental and language changes, we become self-empowered and self-determined.

Knowing this, we can speak to someone we are concerned about over the holidays with an open mind and open heart. We all suffer in our own way. We don’t need to label this as something other than being part of the human condition. Our suffering may look similar but can never be identical because we all process our thoughts and regulate our emotions in our own unique way. We also perceive reality and subjectively experience life differently.

Compassion is an amazing trait and a core virtue. When someone actually notices and can tune in to another person’s suffering and provide some form of kindness, care and support, this is truly a mutually fulfilling and satisfying human experience. It also allows the other person to know they are not alone. People can learn to be self-compassionate, which is more likely to occur when they are interacting with others who are open, receptive, kinder, and less myopic.

We can attempt to disrupt someone’s patterned behaviors by the way we speak to them which might have greater influence on their self-motivation. Since individuals preoccupied with drinking and/or drug use have learned to use these behaviors as a way to cope with their life challenges and problems, their subjective experiences are filled with self-condemnation, negative self-talk and negative rumination. When friends and family express frustration, anger, judgment, criticism and freely use labels to reference and describe someone they care about, they are actually reinforcing the individual’s internalized narration and suffering.

When we approach individuals in this way, they become self-protective. This is why they learn to lie and manipulate, which further reinforces stigma and shame. We can’t remove the stigma without changing the language we use to better understand an individual’s subjective life. If we stop approaching the individual with disapproval, clichés, labels, and criticism, but rather engage them with more kindness, compassion, empathy, and nonjudgment, we can better determine if they might want to seek help if given options and the right kind of support for them. In this way, we can really see the elephant in the room and have a more profound influence on their overall well-being, which would make a wonderful gift to give during the holidays and anytime.

Tony Bevacqua