As an interventionist, I often encounter enormous resistance to “ultimatums.” Many — whether it’s parents, spouses, or clinicians — think ultimatums are outdated, or “bad psychology.” But addicts need to hear how their choices impact others. And often the only thing friends or family members can do is to draw the line. As a clinical interventionist, I encourage families and friends to define clear boundaries and issue an ultimatum both for themselves and for their loved one. “If you refuse treatment we will cut you off!” is precisely what an addict needs to hear.
But an ultimatum can also be thought of as a way of making what I call an “emotional priority shift.”
Friends and family members often don’t realize they’re harming themselves by enabling the addict to continue disrespecting and dishonoring them. But instead of placing the addict’s feelings first, an ultimatum in the form of an emotional priority shift can come as a huge relief. “We love you, but we love ourselves, too!” is the message. It’s difficult to convey, but it has to be said. Addicts are consumed by their own feelings and needs. They become masters of manipulative condemnation when trying to protect their access to drugs. Unfortunately for all, friends and family members with wavering boundaries are easily swayed. But an emotional priority shift allows family members to reclaim their agency. And it allows the addict to understand how their behavior affects others.
In many ways, the addict in your life has already issued his or her own ultimatum: “Continue to enable me, or I’ll cut you out of my life.”
An emotional priority shift is simply a way of saying that you’re no longer willing to place the needs and emotions or your addicted loved one above your own.
Until you realize how much you’ve neglected yourself and take action, things won’t change.
Yes, a family that undergoes an emotional priority shift will often draw a line and reduce the amount of material, emotional, and spiritual support that their loved can receive from them. Yes, it’s an ultimatum. But caring for yourself does not mean that you’re abandoning your loved one. It means that you are finally acknowledging and valuing your own needs.
Yes, the hard language of an “ultimatum” alone may sound like an “Or else!” A closed, dead-ended “or else” lacks the substance of an emotional priority shift that can be achieved with professional, objective guidance. Yes, your addicted loved one will hear the announcement that “things are going to change” with disdain or even contempt. But the resolve and conviction that your emotional health is just as important will be unmistakable & immutable when a committed circle of family and friends offers their conditional support under the new terms of the emotional priority shift.
If you are addicted, welcome the ultimatums that are increasingly coming your way as emotional priority shifts. No, it’s not all about you! In work, society and family, these priority shifts are milestones in your decline, and you should be paying attention to them.
If you are attached or related to an addicted person, issue your ultimatums with courage and assistance from those who are professionally trained to recognize and diagnose the medical necessity of intervention.
David Petersen LCSW, LAC June 10, 2016