Early in recovery, many people discover that fear drives addiction. What seems like anger, worry, or depression is in fact fear. Three fears common to those stuck in addictive behavior are fear of abandonment, fear of ineptitude, and fear of vulnerability. Being able to indentify these fears, understand their source, and know how to overcome them has proven critical for many seeking long-term sobriety.
The Fear of Abandonment
The fear of abandonment is rooted firmly in childhood where separation from the parent, or perceived separation from the parent, results in insecurity. When Mary was four or five, her father thought it would be funny to play a trick on her. Disguising his voice, he called her on the phone to say that he was a sheriff on his way to arrest her mother. Mary reported initially running hysterically to the reassuring arms of her mother, and later experiencing nightmares—into her teens—about her mother’s death. As a “ghost from the nursery”—a term used by Karr-Morse and Wiley to describe early childhood traumas which haunt into adulthood— this event impacted Mary’s developing notion of personal security by creating doubt in her mind about the integrity of the relationship she believed she enjoyed with her parents, and by extension, authority figures. This wound to Mary’s budding security, established uncertainty about her ability to trust herself and those with whom she would be intimate, and laid the foundation for Mary to unreasonably expect that her intimate adult relationships could redeem the security she lost in childhood. The fear of abandonment represented more for Mary than just a fear of being left alone. It also represented for her a doubting of her ability to care for herself in a world where others could not be trusted to provide her what she believed she needed. For Mary, two questions needed to be answered for her to overcome addiction: “How might I resolve the fact that I believe I cannot count on someone to always be there for me?” and “How might I regain the sense of serenity which I believe was stolen from me during childhood?”
The Fear of Ineptitude
The fear of ineptitude is learned from parental messages, explicit or inferred, that the child is inadequate. Thomas sought treatment from alcohol addiction and also complained of low self-esteem, procrastination, and a general sense of malaise. Although he reported believing that his parents loved him dearly and wanted only the best for him, he reported anger toward his father for whom “it was never good enough.” Thomas’ father, an apparent Jack-of-all-trades, possessed an analytical mind and was exceptionally skilled with his hands. According to Thomas, his dad was the kind of man who “could do anything.” Desiring excellence in his son, Thomas’ father encouraged him to “think, think, think” and intuit the correct solution to problems, real and hypothetical. Unfortunately, Thomas’ father always seemed to find Thomas’ solutions inadequate, leaving him with the conflicting emotions of admiration for his father’s abilities and resentment for his father’s lack of intellectual concurrence. As an unintended consequence of the father’s insistence on there being a right way to do “everything,” Thomas demanded from himself perfectionism, but recognized only inadequacy leading to the following internal message: “Why bother.” As a wound to autonomy, the perceived lack of parental acceptance established within Thomas animosity toward authority figures and a general fear of failure, specifically the fear of not measuring-up or of being a fraud. For Thomas, the questions needing to be answered were: “How do I find within myself the acceptance not given me by my father?” and “How do I become comfortable with doing nothing more, or less, than my best?”
The Fear of Vulnerability
The fear of vulnerability stems from a breach of childhood trust. Its most common cause is sexual violation, but may also occur from significant physical or emotional abuse. When Brad was thirteen his minister sexually abused him over a period of several months. Brad and his family were very involved with their church and Brad felt that he wanted to use his talents in some church ministry, perhaps even become a minister. Brad received no counseling after the violation was made public, and the minister was permitted to simply “go away.” Brad was left to wrestle with the unresolved emotions of excitement and shame, and the guilt of being sexually excited by something seen by his church as sinful. The event even stole from Brad his ability to enjoy physical contact from his father, who not understanding what was happening with his son, began to emotionally withdraw. Brad continued to participate in his church, but with the sense that he was no longer worthy—that he was living a lie or playing a role. Two years later, Brad became the object of his aunt’s flirtations which ultimately led to the loss of his virginity and exposure to alcohol and pornography. Rather than fulfill his dreams of entering the ministry, Brad joined the Marine Corps and entered boot camp upon high school graduation. The wounding of Brad’s trust through early sexualization created conflict in him; Brad’s body told him that what he experienced was pleasurable, but his intellect and emotions told him that it was inappropriate—a sin. “I don’t know who I am” is the common refrain heard from people suffering with this fear, and because they do not know who they are, having a healthy relationship with another is impossible. The questions needing to be answered by those suffering with the fear of vulnerability are: “How can I love myself enough to find out who I really am?” and “How do I establish healthy boundaries to protect myself without building walls that isolate me?
See you in group.