Reality vs Expectation in Addiction Recovery – Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

Our relationships with family are the relationships that we have the most expectations from. When we’re young, we looked up to our parents; no matter what, they’re perfect in our eyes. As we age, when we start to see our parents faults. We start wishing that they would be someone different, like our neighbor’s parents, or like a family on TV. We have similar expectations for our siblings as well.

As we grow into adulthood, it’s normal to see our parents as flawed people. But we nevertheless hold onto expectations that they become different from who they truly are? So, if Dad drinks too much, do we accept that he has a disease, or do we think he should have been a better father?

Expectations and More Expectations

We extend this feeling of “should” to our children, brothers, and sisters. They “should” know what I mean, they “should” act differently, they “should” know what I want. Thus, we expend a lot of emotional energy hoping that people will act differently. So, we have expectations for our family members that they may not be able to live up to.

When acquaintances behave in ways that are not congruent with our values, we may choose to view them differently or even end the relationship. However, we rarely expect them to be someone or something else. Hence, We don’t think, “They should be like this,” or “They shouldn’t have done that to me.”

Helpful Questions

It may be helpful to ask ourselves the following questions when dealing with family:

  • What unreasonable expectations do we have of this individual?
  • How would we view this person if they were a friend?
  • Can we accept their flaws?
  • Has this person done the best they can, given their circumstances?

Managing expectations in close relations can be a struggle for people with substance use disorder. Consequently, may even use the gap between expectation and reality to justify some of our using behavior. We tell ourselves, “If only my father was better, I drink because my partner does…” or “I drink because my partner doesn’t.”

Let’s look at the example of an imperfect parent. Some people justify their use well into their thirties and forties over the damage that a parent caused. There are a lot of bad parents out there, and there are a lot of parents that suffer with their own emotional, mental health, and substance use issues. We drink because we think that they “should” have treated us differently. Today, many people forget how rough our grandparents had it. We have unrealistic expectations of them.

To fully recover from a substance use problem, we need to look at the places where our expectations don’t line up with reality. As we move through recovery, we can review the situations that our parents or other family members were in. Parents often raise their families the way that was modeled to them. Young parents were often born to young parents themselves, and alcoholic and abusive parents were also raised in similar situations.

A Case Study with Our Parents and Grandparents

When I work with clients, I always ask what age their parents were when they were born. (The answer is usually their twenties). If we take it up one more generation to the grandparents, and we look at their lives, there was often real emotional trauma. Marriages happened right out of high school and children were born just out of war. Grandpa may have turned to drinking to deal with PTSD, or perhaps just a rough life, homesteading a farm at a young age.

Many of my clients are people in their thirties, struggling with a dependency on alcohol or drugs, unable to maintain a relationship and financially insecure. I ask them if they can see that their parents may have had the same struggles that they did. If you can’t figure out life at thirty-five, why do you expect that your parents had it figured it out at twenty-two?

To recover from our resentments, from our “shoulds,” we need to look at how our parents and grandparents were raised. I believe that most parents try to do the best they can. We expect something totally different than what they can or did give us. But can we start accepting them for who they are? Can we accept them for trying the best they knew how?

About Adam Banks

Adam Banks is a certified interventionist and the owner of Adam Banks Recovery. After receiving an MBA from the University of Chicago, Adam built a company that was later acquired by United Health Care. His discipline and attention to detail comes from his former career as an airline pilot, holding an ATP, the FAA’s highest license.

Today, Adam is dedicated to helping others achieve long-term sobriety. His work has guided executives, pilots, and physicians on paths to recovery. Adam brings families together through a loving and inclusive approach.

Adam has authored four books on addiction. His recent work, Navigating Recovery Ground School: 12 Lessons to Help Families Navigate Recovery, educates families on the entire intervention process. He also offers a free video course for families considering an intervention for a loved one. 

Adam is available for alcohol and drug intervention services in New York, Long Island, the Hamptons as well as nationally and internationally. 

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