Boundary Problems in Dysfunctional Families

Have you ever had the experience of someone who stands too close to you when they speak? It’s strange how we can recognize right away when someone crosses that invisible boundary line into our personal space.

According to Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book Boundaries, boundaries are similar to property lines.  They define what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility.  They separate “me” from “not me”. 

Let’s use a fence in your yard as an example.   The fence line separates your property from your neighbor’s property.  You wouldn’t climb the fence and mow the lawn in your neighbor’s yard: it would be inappropriate to take on that that level of responsibility for him or her.  Similarly, you wouldn’t want your neighbor to use your property as if it were their own.

Emotional, physical, and relational boundaries work in much the same way.  They are intended to protect you from harm.  They help you to experience goodness in a way that feels safe.  If a lack of boundaries led to you to feel the need to mow the lawns of everyone on your block, you would likely overexert yourself and be unable to maintain your own yard.

Yet it is important for these boundaries to be permeable: in a sense, to have a gate.  That way, you can let your neighbors come over to visit and get out to spend time with your loved ones.  Without permeable boundaries, you’ve built a fortress and isolated yourself inside.

The structure provided by these boundaries offers safety to those inside of them.  It allows you to be confident in what you own.

Boundaries in our Families-of-Origin

The easiest way to see boundaries in action is to watch parents rearing their children.  Take a toddler.  Toddlers need limits.  They need to know that if they place their hand on a hot stove, they’ll be burned.  They need to be protected from harmful and dangerous activities.

At the same time, a toddler’s inquisitiveness about the world is a creative gift that can be quashed by strict rules based more on parents’ desires than children’s needs.  Good boundaries with children are intended to provide safety rather than punishment or control.

If a child is exposed to a certain type of boundaries during development, they’re likely to internalize those boundaries.  These can take the form of healthy boundaries and awareness of limits.  But in dysfunctional families, often boundaries are more problematic.  These boundaries can be too rigid, too loose, or an unpredictable combination of the two.

If you’ve been able to identify dysfunction in unspoken family rules or family roles in your family-of-origin, you may resonate with some of these descriptions below of the effects of unhealthy boundaries in your family.

Types of Dysfunctional Family Boundaries

Too Rigid/Strict

Parents who offer rigid boundaries use authoritarian parenting strategies or “helicopter” parenting.  They attempt to protect their children by exerting too much control over them, not allowing them the opportunity to learn through failure.

These boundaries can feel more like walls than a fence: they are meant to keep the bad out, but they also prevent any nurturing or good to get in.  These families may lack healthy affection and physical touch and struggle with intimacy.  They might be characterized by a lack of praise or affirmation, focusing more on criticism and judgment for decisions.  There is a tendency to hear more negatives than positives from these parents.

For the child, this style of boundaries can lead to dependency on the parents to define reality with a corresponding fear of risk-taking or failure.  Impossibly high standards can be internalized in a way that fosters shame when they can’t be met.  Perfectionism can develop, as this style of parenting associates a child’s value with their performance.  Adults raised in this environment can experience stunted creativity.

Too Loose

Parents who offer too few boundaries and allow their children to have an inappropriate amount of freedom in childhood are opening their children up to harm.  Similar to having no fence at all, the child has no idea where the limit of their responsibility are and are left vulnerable to harm.  In childhood years, this can lead to engaging in more high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use.  Children end up having to make adult decisions as children because they don’t receive adequate guidance from their parents.

Too few boundaries, while it might sound appealing especially to adolescents, can actually be scary for children, as they don’t know how to keep themselves from getting hurt.  They miss out on learning skills necessary to protect themselves from harmful behaviors or experiences, and therefore face confusion and uncertainty in childhood.

In adulthood, those who had few boundaries can struggle with responding well to “no.”  They may overindulge or have difficulty with discipline or follow-through.  They may struggle with emotional regulation, as parents with loose boundaries often give in to temper tantrums, preventing children from learning healthy ways to cope with emotions.

Unpredictable Boundaries

One of the worst boundary styles parents can offer is an unpredictable combination of both strict and loose boundaries.  This can happen when one parent offers strict boundaries while the other offers more loose ones, or when one or both parents alternate between the two extremes.  This is typical of families with alcoholism or other addictions due to personality changes surrounding using the drug of choice.

Children in these families are given confusing messages of what is right and wrong.  They alternate between the walled-in isolation of rigid boundaries with the fear associated with no boundaries at all.  Never knowing what they can expect is crazy-making.

These children have learned to always be on guard for how their parents will respond.  It’s easy then, as adults, to be wary of relationships and people-please to control others.  They may lack confidence in setting limits with others because if they attempted to do so with their parents growing up, they would be unsure of what type of response they would receive. 

Which boundary style was present in your family growing up?

Are you dealing with the after-effects of rigid or loose boundaries in your family-of-origin?  Do you feel like you always have to be perfect and despair when you don’t meet the high expectations you set for yourself?  Do you struggle with discipline and setting limits with yourself?  Recognizing the links between these present-day behaviors and past experiences is the first step toward healing.  At Restored Hope, I help you explore how your past influences your present, offering counseling to help change your future. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Understanding Ambivalence: How Recognizing the Push-and-Pull of Your Desires Can Set You Free


Think of the last difficult decision you had to make.  Maybe it was as simple as where you’d like to go out to eat or as significant as a change in career path.  What makes the decision difficult is the tension between the options: you might desire some more than others, or fear the downside if you make the wrong decision.  Eventually, the choice is made when one benefit outweighs the other and you feel confident enough moving forward.

But what happens when you get stuck between two desires?  Or worse yet, when you feel two opposing emotions about something at the same time?  Have you experienced loving someone and hating them in the same instant?  What about wanting closeness and intimacy, but pushing others away by your actions or words?

In these examples, what you’re experiencing is a phenomenon called ambivalence. 

What is ambivalence?

Ambivalence is often thought of as apathy or indifference, meaning you don’t care much about something or that it doesn’t matter to you.  On the contrary, ambivalence involves strong desires or emotions in opposition to one another.  You may feel pulled in two different directions at the same time, or you might flip-flop back and forth between two feelings.  This can take place in both simple decisions (where should we go for dinner?) as well as major desires (is this the person I want to marry?).

As time passes and you struggle to resolve these opposing emotions, you might find that you do experience a form of apathy.  The indifference is a numbing response to exhaustion from the tension of trying to balance both sides at once.

What in my story might cause ambivalence?

Ambivalence is common for survivors of sexual abuse or assault as they deal with the aftermath of their abuse.  In many cases, the abuser is someone with whom the survivor has a close relationship.  Positive memories and experiences with that person get mixed up with the abuse, and the confusion of feeling drastically different emotions toward the abuser can be overwhelming. The survivor may also struggle with aspects of sexual abuse that felt good when they confront the damage it has done in their lives.

Similarly, many partners of sex addicts experience the addict’s behaviors as a sexual violation against the partner.  Confusion around staying in the relationship to work things out or leaving is common as they try to reconcile the person they love with the addiction that has destroyed their relationship.

For addicts, shame is a major factor in ambivalence.  Addicts live a double life, attempting to balance the addictive thoughts and behaviors with the normal, everyday self.  Breaking off into these two versions of the self helps to ignore or deny the tension of ambivalence around the double life.

Ambivalence can appear in depression and anxiety as well.  If you’re anxious, you may hate being alone but feel terrified of breaking into a group or connecting with others.  In depression, ambivalence can appear when you lack the motivation and energy for self-care and yet know that the way to feel better is through exercising, spending time with loved ones, or other activities to take care of yourself.

How can I recognize my ambivalence?

One common characteristic of ambivalence is all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking patterns.  The rigidity of thought patterns requiring a choice between two extremes is what makes the tension between them feel so difficult.  Sitting in the gray area of wanting two things equally and being unsure of what the right next step is can be stressful.  Often, that leads to a desire to escape.

That desire to escape is where apathy and numbness come in.  When alternating back and forth between the two desires or emotions becomes too much, you feel defeated by the struggle.  Rather than staying with the tension, you might just throw in the towel and numb out with addiction or distraction. 

How can I deal with my ambivalence? 

Acknowledge that there are gray areas.  Instead of the rigidity of black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking, allow yourself to recognize that you can (and are!) feeling or desiring two seemingly opposite things at the same time. 

Press into that knowledge and explore your ambivalence with God and others.  Talk about it with a therapist or trusted friend and explore what might be coming up with each of the desires.   

As a Christian, ambivalence leads to greater intimacy with God.  So many Psalms contain ambivalence: lament, pain, and crying out to God; followed by reminders of the goodness of God and his character.  Often the Christian life involves suffering while also seeking to place hope in God.

Name your desires, even if it hurts to put words to them.  The naming of desires is painful because it involves grief, in understanding that your desires aren’t met yet and you may never see those desires realized.  But recognizing and working through that grief leads to life rather than numbing or escapism.  Addicts in particular struggle to know their true desires, as addiction has offered immediate relief or numbing from desires in the past.  In owning and acknowledging desires, addicts receive freedom to seek out other ways to meet that need instead of through addictive behaviors. 

Learn to practice acceptance. Acceptance isn’t settling for the status quo or pretending that things are okay when they really aren’t.  Instead, acceptance involves recognizing the reality of where you are right now in this present moment, and reminding yourself that you’re okay.  If you aren’t satisfied with what you’re experiencing in the present, acceptance invites you to explore what you might like to change in the future.  Accepting your ambivalence helps you to begin to be curious about it and seek out the story behind your ambivalence.  Understanding your story opens you up to change.


Do you struggle with ambivalence often in your life?  Have you gotten to the point of numbing and indifference after a long struggle with ambivalence?  Or do you notice rigid and inflexible thinking patterns that make it difficult to make decisions or practice kindness toward yourself?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you understand your personal story of ambivalence and how you can move forward into greater acceptance and awareness of your desires.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

How Do I Stop Myself? Seven Ways to Cope with Triggers of Addiction


Andrea is walking through the mall when she hears a familiar sound playing through the speakers.  She can’t quite make it out at first, but she notices a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.  She stops in her tracks and listens, finally making out the melody.  It hits her – this was the song she and one of her previous affair partners had called “their song.”  Flooded with emotions of fear, anxiety, longing, and dread, she turns on her heel and exits the mall at close to a sprint.

What Andrea experienced in that moment is what therapists who specialize in addiction treatment call a “trigger.”  Often sensory memories, such as the taste of a delicious meal, the smell of perfume, or seeing a beautiful view can remind you of fond memories.  However, for addicts, triggers like these can bring back thoughts, memories, or feelings that have to do with the addiction.  These triggers often cause an immediate, visceral response in the addict.  This response can be accompanied by reminders of the drug of choice.  Triggers become particularly impactful when the addict is facing stress.

If you often find yourself in a spot where you’re feeling triggered, what can you do about it?

While the ultimate goal of recovery from addiction involves identifying triggers and planning for them ahead of time, as well as reducing the effects they have, you may come across a time where you are triggered unexpectedly and wondering how to handle the ensuing emotions and memories.  Here are some ideas of what to do:

Stop and ask yourself the question: “Do I want to get well?” 

Marnie Ferree, in her book No Stones, references the story in the Bible recorded in John 5 of a crippled man who had been waiting at the healing pool of Bethesda to wash himself in the waters.  When Jesus approaches him to heal him, He first asks him this question: Do you want to get well? 

Marnie names this as the most important question for recovering addicts, adding, “Your recovery will depend on how you answer this question on a daily basis.  Your yes will simplify many of the choices you’ll have to make.  Let your vision of sobriety and healing motivate and encourage you."

Questioning yourself in this way is a technique that comes from the theory of motivational interviewing, which has been shown in some studies to change a nicotine addict’s response to the trigger of tobacco.  It helps you to connect with the delayed consequences of your actions, rather than just being caught up in the immediate gratification that addictive behavior gives.

Practice quality self-care.

In our driven and self-motivated culture, self-care strategies are very often pushed to the side or forgotten about completely.  In fact, lack of self-care can a contributor to addictive behavior, as cravings are often worsened by stress or a desire to escape from the realities of life.

While self-care can include such activities as exercise and journaling, a self-care strategy that is particularly potent for fighting back against addiction is gratitude.  Practicing gratitude helps to slow the deprivation mentality that accompanies addiction, instead replacing it with joy in response to the good things present in your life.

Practice acceptance.

If you have struggled with addictive behaviors, your brain has been trained to respond to triggers by turning to the addictive behaviors.  Part of the reason this connection is so strong is because often, addictive behaviors met what they promised, even if it was only for a moment. Rather than shaming yourself for that tendency, offer yourself grace and remind yourself that these thoughts are normal for people in recovery.  Remind yourself that you’re re-learning new patterns, and take time to engage in those new patterns right then and there.  Accepting the past and making a choice to live differently puts you in a position one step above the addiction, as you reclaim your power and strength over the behaviors.

Engage with your desires.

Often, the underlying cause of addictive behaviors is a desire to fulfill a legitimate need, but the fulfillment is carried out in a way that is destructive.  The acronym HALT is often used with addiction: that triggers are more likely to affect you if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  Instead of choosing to run to addiction, take some time to slow down, name the desire (even if it’s just for a delicious meal!), and find ways to meet that desire in a healthy way.  For sex and love addicts, the underlying desire behind addictive behaviors is often intimacy and connection, which is why relationships with others in 12-Step groups or therapy groups can often provide a healthy way to meet that desire.  For Christians, engaging with desire can look like connecting with God in prayer, naming the desires you have, and seeking to trust him with the desires not yet met.

Reach out to your social support.

If you are in recovery, it is important to link yourself up with people who can support you and who know the whole story.  While this support network may begin with just your therapist, your therapist will likely encourage you to join a 12-Step group (like Sex Addicts Anonymous) or support group in order to find others with whom you can empathize and receive help.  If you notice a trigger, call your sponsor or a trusted friend from your support network to be able to talk you through it or be with you in it.  The most effective way to interrupt your addictive cycle is to talk through it with someone.

Take a mindful moment.

Mindfulness helps you to re-center yourself on the present moment, rather than getting caught up in memories of the past or desires for the future.  Practicing mindfulness forces you to slow down, pay attention to your emotions, and acknowledge what you’re experiencing.  It also helps you to identify how your thoughts and actions are being influenced by those emotions.  Take some time to practice this grounding exercise that engages your senses: notice five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste in the environment around you.

Use affirmations to remind yourself of truth.

As you begin to walk through recovery, you’ll realize how your self-image and negative core beliefs about yourself have influenced your behavior as well as your response to triggering events.  Find words that you can repeat to yourself in the moments where you feel weakest that are in direct contrast to the negative self-talk you use in moments where you are triggered.  These statements can be something along the lines of “I am strong enough to overcome this” or “I am loved.”  Scripture can be used as affirmations as well, with verses such as Philippians 4:13 (“I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” NLT) or Psalm 23:1 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” NLT)


Ultimately, you will not be able to avoid or eliminate triggers altogether in your recovery from addiction.  You cannot control the sights, sounds, and smells that are around you on a daily basis.  What you can do instead is learn to cope with those triggers and put supports in place so that when you are facing a trigger, you know how to best handle it.

This article was originally posted on April 20, 2017.


If you’ve been fighting back against triggers toward sex and love addiction for a long time, or if you are realizing you don’t have the support system in place to handle those triggers that come up, we are here to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based counseling office that specializes in treating sex and love addiction.  We’d love to help you on your journey of recovery to find freedom and healing from addictive behaviors.  To hear more about how we can support you, give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to contact us.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

Breaking Free of the Drama: How Stepping Off the Karpman Triangle Improves Your Relationship (Part 2 of 2)


Part 1 introduced the dynamics of the Karpman Drama triangle in relationships.  It explored how the power struggles and dynamics of victim, perpetrator, and rescuer can keep you caught in a toxic dance with your partner.   

Now, we’ll turn to focus on creating change in your relationship through jumping off the Karpman triangle into a healthier way of relating.  Each of the three roles of the triangle has an alternative counterpart that allows you to experience freedom from the dysfunctional dance of power in the drama triangle.  These three parts must be experienced in the order that follows. 

Taking Responsibility

The counterpart to the victim role is taking responsibility for the adult self and approaching yourself with kindness, empathy, and courage.  This is the most important step: the following two steps cannot be achieved without completing this step first.

Taking responsibility requires getting in touch with the part of you that feels like a victim.  Typically this part of you feels young, like a child version of yourself.  Often this is because the victim role reacts to your unmet needs or desires from childhood.  Working through these unmet needs in therapy can help you understand why you react so strongly to situations in your present-day life.  Therapy will help you learn to establish self-care routines and healthy communication in relationships to soften these strong reactions.

Our reactions to distressing situations relate to coping mechanisms or survival instincts picked up in childhood that we now repeat as a way of protecting ourselves.  Those old patterns often don’t work in the way that they used to, yet we go back to them because they are familiar.

As an adult, you no longer have to be beholden to these patterns of coping.  You can choose a new way of living instead of just surviving, which is what taking responsibility is all about.  It involves reminding yourself that, as an adult, you can make different choices.  Oftentimes as children we felt powerless.  This step is a way to reclaim a sense of power and self-assurance to work for what you want instead of feeling powerless.

Come up with a mantra or statement that embodies a different way of viewing yourself.  For example, in the victim role, you might see yourself as unlovable or worthless.  Instead, in taking responsibility, you’ll acknowledge and own the reality that you are lovable and of great worth.  As you acknowledge these realities, you’ll notice the fog of shame lifts and you’ll be able to see your path out of the drama triangle more clearly.

Examining Options

Once you’ve taken responsibility by acknowledging the impact of past wounds and your capabilities and power as an adult, you can then move into examining the options in front of you.  This counterpart to the perpetrator role is a healthier way of coping with feeling trapped in the victim role.

After acknowledging your adult capabilities, make yourself a list of all the different options in front of you.  Remember in this list that you are only in control of yourself: your actions, thoughts, attitudes, and responses to emotions.  You cannot control other people. When your choice hinges on the actions of someone else, this is a setup to get caught up in the drama triangle again.  Instead, look at what you have control over and what changes you can make. 

Brainstorm in this step: write down everything you can possibly think of for different options, even if they seem “out there” or impossible.  If you’re doing this with someone else, such as your spouse, know that you don’t have to agree 100% on these: you’re just getting ideas on the table.  Once you’ve brainstormed several ideas, you might notice a cohesive theme starting to form that will lead you toward the next step. 

One important note: if you find yourself feeling like a victim again or re-entering the drama triangle, notice this and know that it is normal to slip back into old patterns.  Pause and go back to the core of the victim role you identified earlier and repeat the process of taking responsibility for yourself.

Negotiate to Make a Choice

Once all your options are laid out, you’re prepared to make a choice with the knowledge in front of you.  Rather than attempting to take on the world through the rescuer role, negotiating requires inviting relationship and enlisting the help of others.  Identify which of your options is the best possible outcome with all the information you’ve gathered.  Make a plan on how to implement this choice.  Take an action step as soon as possible to get this choice moving so that you don’t forget and slip into old patterns. 

This choice will likely involve some difficulty or change in your life, and you may be tempted to jump back onto the drama triangle to return to something that feels familiar.  Remind yourself of your vision for ending the drama of feeling trapped and the experience of the victim role.  You may have to learn to set boundaries or ask for what you need more readily, but the hard work will be worth it.


Do you feel stuck in the drama of the Karpman triangle?  Are there pieces of your past that seem to resurface in arguments with your spouse?  Are you tired of constantly feeling like a victim and want to regain a sense of power and control over your life?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help empower you and move you into more healthy ways of relating to others.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment.

Power Dynamics in Love: How Understanding the Karpman Drama Triangle Can Save Your Relationship (Part 1 of 2)


Here we go again.

The familiar scene plays out as you hear your spouse’s voice rise in anger.  They’re targeting you and criticizing you again for something you’ve done wrong.  Why is it always my fault?  I never see other couples fighting like this.  You feel beaten down, exhausted, and maybe even a little ashamed.

But as your spouse’s criticism digs deeper, your tone subtly starts to shift.  You raise your voice in response: “You think I’m the problem?   It’s not like you’re helping!”  You then launch into your own volley of criticisms, anger causing you to yell and berate your spouse, saying things you know you’ll later regret.  In your rage, you might even break things or throw an object across the room.

As you unleash your anger, you notice a look of fear cross your spouse’s eyes.  Suddenly you get hit with a wave of guilt.  What am I doing?  I shouldn’t be yelling.  Why did I let my temper get out of hand?  You start to backpedal, looking for ways to make your spouse feel better.  You make promises to change, to be more loving and kind, to help out around the house more often, whatever it is to appease the situation.

And perhaps you succeed at this for a day or two, but eventually you feel taken advantage of once again.  You see yourself trying to change, but your spouse hasn’t changed at all.  As your annoyance rises, you decide to bring it up again, and your spouse reacts in anger.

And so the cycle begins again.

The Karpman Drama Triangle

Does this sound familiar to you?  The scene above describes the power dynamics at play in the Karpman drama triangle.  Stephen Karpman ( a psychiatrist specializing in transactional analysis, developed this model to describe the constantly shifting power dynamics in relationships.  These dynamics are common in addictive relationships.   

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We all play each of these three roles in our relationships, but you may tend to start your spiral around the triangle in one of the three types: victim, persecutor, or rescuer.  Where you join the triangle stems from your experiences in your family-of-origin.  You might even find yourself experiencing all three roles internally, as you use internal criticism to try to motivate yourself (persecutor), only to become exhausted and overwhelmed (victim) and attempt rescuing yourself from your pain through addiction or numbing behaviors (rescuer).

Taking on any one of these three roles provides a distraction from your own issues that need to be addressed or the true problem.  While these patterns are learned in childhood from watching others interact and communicate, they may no longer be serving you. Eventually, all roles lead back to the victim, which adds to feelings of powerlessness to change.

Let’s learn about how these three interact.

The Victim

The victim is the “one down” position in the triangle.  In the victim role, you feel like a child or overly needy.  You might feel targeted or blamed with accompanying feelings of shame.  This shame often originates in past trauma.  The victim has unrealistic expectations of others and therefore is often disappointed when others don’t come through.

Often these expectations have to do with nurture or care, which victims feel incapable of providing for themselves.  In fact, the victim tends to feel unable to handle any stress or negative circumstances, as their shame-based low self-esteem and negative beliefs about themselves limit them from any agency to change.  Their lives happen to them rather than due to any power of their own.  However, they still feel resentful from always being “one-down” and incapable of helping themselves. 

An important note: the victim role is NOT equated with being a true victim of harm or abuse.  Many victims (or as I prefer to say, survivors) or trauma or abuse in childhood or adult years are empowered, responsible, and strong individuals who are taking ownership of their lives in mature and assertive ways.  If you are a survivor of trauma, abuse, or a spouse’s addiction, you ought to be treated with compassion for your experience of trauma.  You did not ask for the harm done to you, nor did you deserve it in any way.  The word “victim” here is meant to represent a role that is played in a relational dynamic that serves a protective purpose but ultimately doesn’t allow you to live into your true, authentic self. 

The Perpetrator

The perpetrator role, in contrast with the victim, feels and acts like a teenager.  They act out to deal with their discomfort or pain and protect themselves from the world, which they have learned is harmful and dangerous.  Experiencing abuse in family-of-origin can often lead to learning to bottle up anger in a way that comes out int he perpetrator role later.  Their behaviors are tied to feelings of shame, worthlessness, and fear.

This role is constantly defensive and has to be right, living in survival mode and lashing out at others.  Their defensiveness is a way of regaining power when they’ve been victimized or harmed, as they fear being powerless in situations like they experienced in childhood. Viewing themselves as the true victim, the perpetrator’s behaviors are motivated by a desire to have the other person feel their pain.  They often view the individual in the victim role with contempt and believe that their retaliation toward the victim Is simply giving the other person what they deserve.  Perpetrators may think, “I have to hurt them before they hurt me.”

In a relationship with addiction present, this is often the addict.  They are caught up in denial of their behaviors and have a difficult time admitting to their own experience of harming others.  This can be understood in light of the shame they feel: to admit that they are the perpetrator would be devastating to their need to be strong in the face of feelings of powerlessness.

The Rescuer

The rescuer is the “one up” position, typically characterized by feeling like a parent and superior to the two other roles.  Another way of categorizing this role is as a caretaker, which is often where many rescuers find their identity.  In addictive dynamics, this person is the enabler of the addict.  They often don’t like conflict or confrontation, and would rather smooth things over.

The rescuer’s “help” is meant not to truly benefit the other person, but instead to assuage their own anxiety and allow them to feel valued.  They believe that if they don’t help, everything will fall apart.  The rescuer can related to the victim in a codependent manner as they try to fix or save others.  In fact, they need to have someone to save, and can assume others can’t handle something and then take over. 

Rescuers don’t have needs – or at least, they deny that they do.  Since they are the one who helps everyone else and their value comes from this identity, they either don’t admit to their own needs or don’t see them as important.  Similar to the other roles, this tendency begins in childhood.  Eventually, however, the endless helping turns into feelings of resentment and bitterness, as they expect affirmation and appreciation for all they’ve done for others.  Yet they believe that if they are needed, they are loved, and are fearful of being abandoned if they stop helping.

In the next part, we’ll go into more depth about how to escape from the drama triangle through taking responsibility for yourself and your choices and setting boundaries.  For now, notice these patterns in your interactions with others.  How did your family interact with one another while you were growing up?  Where have you seen examples of these dynamics play out in your life or in the lives of others?


Are you exhausted from helping others all the time, but find yourself unable to ask for what you need?  Are you always feeling like the victim of your circumstances or of others’ actions?  Or maybe you’re recognizing the addictive patterns in your life that cause you to harm other people.  Wherever you find yourself on this drama triangle, I can help you learn to break free from the trap of these power dynamics.  I offer counseling services to overcome these patterns at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up your first appointment today.

Roles in Dysfunctional Families


In a previous article, we discussed the effect of unspoken family rules on your present-day view of the world and of yourself.  Those family rules set up or reinforced relational dynamics in your family that placed each member in a different type of role.  If your family subscribed to the “don’t talk” and “don’t feel” rules, these roles provide distraction and denial from problems the family is facing. 

These roles aren’t necessarily dysfunctional within themselves: they are natural and common to family systems.  There is nothing wrong with drifting toward one of the roles, so long as they are flexible.  But just like the unspoken family rules, dysfunction occurs when they are rigid and unchangeable.  You’ll notice this when shift from the role you typically play in your family and it seems like things start falling apart.

When you’ve become accustomed to playing one of these roles in your family-of-origin, you’re likely to either repeat the same patterns in your adult relationships or carry out the drastic opposite of the role you played.  Take a look at the roles listed below and identify which roles you played, as well as those of your other family members.  Often this will shed light on current family dynamics or strong, negative reactions to your significant other or friends. 

Common Family Roles

Golden Child/Hero/Saint

This child is the favorite, the one who can do no wrong, the perfect child.  All other children in the family exist in comparison with this child.  The golden child allows the family to ignore any problems beneath the surface because of his or her accomplishments and success. This child is proof that they’ve done something right, even when there’s been dysfunction present.

The saint takes the positive aspects of the golden child and adds a spiritual twist, as this family member may be the most devoted Christian.  This particularly comes into light when there are siblings who have “fallen” and are no longer of the same faith background as the parents.

As an adult, the golden child often doesn’t feel as if he or she can make mistakes or mess up, because the whole family would come crashing down if they do. They may also become accustomed to being in the spotlight and feeling special.  The saint may have their identity or value associated with religious behaviors and church service.

Troublemaker/Scapegoat/Black Sheep

In opposition to the golden child, this is the child upon whom all the blame falls for the family problems.  It may take the form of acting out behaviors or disobedience, or it could simply be the effect of illness, mental health issues, or other “abnormal” features that draw attention.  It may be that the black sheep has no problematic behaviors, but is simply different from the rest of the family members and therefore is ostracized.  Their behaviors are seen as the source of any problems in the family, such that more major problems can be denied or ignored.

Lost Child

The lost child naturally coincides with the golden child or troublemaker.  When the attention of the family is taken up by the larger presence of one of these two roles, the lost child receives less attention and feels left behind.  Sometimes this is a natural consequence of having a sibling who is physically or mentally ill, or even the byproduct of being in a large family.  They may live by the unspoken rule of “children are meant to be seen and not heard.”

The lost child wrestles with strong feelings of loneliness and cravings for love and attention which may extend into adulthood.  They learn to take care of themselves, not to need or want anything, and may have trouble later in life asking for or receiving support or care from others.


The peacemaker is often found in the middle of arguments.  As a child, he or she may be pulled into taking sides between opposing parents, as is the case in contentious divorces.  It could also occur as the mediator seeks to keep peace between a troublemaker sibling and parents.  Similar to the lost child, this role requires the peacemaker not to have personal needs or become confrontational themselves, but instead to always be “reading the room” to identify how others are feeling and adjust or adapt accordingly.


The mascot is the family member who lightens the mod when things are getting tense or family problems are rising to the surface.  They’re the funny one who makes jokes that facilitate denial or minimization of the real problems.  This is another role, like the peacemaker, that requires reading the room and gauging levels of tension.  In adult years, the mascot may have difficulty connecting with negative emotions or conflict, instead deflecting with humor.


A caretaker is someone who takes on the responsibilities of others in the family and tries to save them from the consequences they might face.  A common example of this in today’s world is the “helicopter parent” who wants to protect his or her child from harm.  Usually this desire is well intentioned, but it actually causes more harm, as the child does not have to face the consequences of their actions and learn from their mistakes.

When addiction is present in the family, the caretaker role shifts into one of an enabler.  This individual makes excuses for the addict, denies any problems despite their obvious effect on the family, or struggles with lack of boundaries with the addict. 


This member of the family takes action and gets things done.  Often this is the stereotypical mother who coordinates the schedules of her children, cooks meals, and handles household chores.  This can also happen with older daughters whose mothers have passed away or are not able to be emotionally present, as they take on the responsibilities of a parent.

As adults, doers struggle to rest and are constantly feeling exhausted.  Allowing themselves to just “be” instead of “do” is not an option for them.  They may become angry or resentful as they struggle to say no.


Taking the doer role a step further, the martyr makes sure everyone knows how much he or she is sacrificing for the family.  This role often involves guilt-tripping others or sarcastic comments that leave family members feelings as though they owe the martyr something.  If you have a martyr in your family, you may notice vague feelings of guilt when someone helps you, reminiscent of how you would feel guilty for the same with a parent or sibling.

What do I do now?

Read through these roles and ask yourself: which roles have I played in my family?  What about my other family members?  Have they changed over time?  How are they still affecting me in the present day?

When you’ve identified these roles and how they’ve impacted your behaviors today, experiment with breaking the mold.  Ask for what you need.  Say no.  Speak up.  Recognize feelings of guilt for what they are: echoes of the past.  Step into whatever action opposes the dysfunctional role you played in the past.  Talk with others about how you’ve played these roles and seek accountability and help in changing the scripts.


Do you feel stuck playing out the same patterns of relating that were present in your family growing up?  Do you struggle with vague feelings of guilt when you have to set a boundary or say no?  Are you feeling exhausted all the time by constantly achieving and striving and you just want to take a break?  I’d love to support you in letting go of past scripts that are no longer serving you and living a more wholehearted life.  I offer counseling sessions at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment and hear how I can help.

Recognizing Denial: How to Differentiate the Addict Brain from the Healthy Brain


“I don’t have a problem.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“It doesn’t hurt anyone, especially if they don’t find out.”

“I deserve a break.”

These are classic statements of denial: distortions of truth that justify your decisions or compulsive behaviors and offer self-protection.  They often pop into your head automatically and outside of conscious awareness.  Even though they are distorted, they often feel true or carry some grain of truth, so it can be hard to discern whether they are true or false. 

How does denial keep you in addiction?

Denial keeps you stuck in addictive behaviors as you to turn a blind eye to how your actions impact you and others around you.  For sex and love addicts, denial functions as a way for your brain to justify your addictive actions and protect yourself from the guilt or shame you may feel for your behaviors.

Shame is a hallmark of addiction, and denial is a way for your mind to psychologically protect yourself against that shame.  Typically, addiction stems from past experiences of trauma, which communicate shame-based beliefs about your identity.  These shame messages are  uncomfortable and often painful, with words such as “I’m a loser,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m unlovable,” or “I’m worthless.”  Denial serves as a way of blocking these negative thoughts.

Yet while your mind is using denial to try to protect you from these harsh words, the denial statements inevitably lead back to your addictive behavior. The more times you engage in addictive behavior, the more your shame messages are reinforced, and you have to cover over the shame with denial again.  Denial may prevent you from being found out by yourself or others, but it also prevents you from getting the help that you need.

The Addict Brain

I like to think of these denial statements as the addict brain at work inside you.  There is a part of you, which we’ll call the “addict self,” that wants to remain in your addiction because of the benefits addictive behavior gives you, like a false sense of intimacy.  This addict self will tell you that you need to act out in your addiction and will therefore justify those behaviors.  It will repeatedly tell you that you don’t have a problem and that it’s not a big deal.

But when the addict brain is running the show, you are being controlled by your addiction rather than by your true self.  Getting in touch with your healthy brain requires a focused process.  Patrick Carnes talks about grabbing your frontal lobe (the part of your brain that facilitates impulse control and healthy decision-making) with reality and not letting it go as part of addiction recovery. 

Common Areas of Denial

Both Patrick Carnes in Facing the Shadow* and Rob Weiss in Sex Addiction 101* talk about the most common areas of denial.  Here are a few you may have experienced in your addiction.

  • Minimizing: claiming that the addiction has less impact than it truly does. “It’s not that big of a deal.”  “I can stop anytime I want.” “It’s not hurting anyone.”

  • Rationalizing: coming up with reasons why the addictive behaviors are okay or justifiable. “Everyone has needs.”  “I’m just expressing myself sexually.”

  • Comparing yourself to others. “I’m not as bad as he/she is.”  “I can’t be an addict because I haven’t done (fill in the blank).”

  • Blame-shifting: blaming others for why you need to engage in your addiction. “I wouldn’t have to watch porn if my partner were more sexual.”  “I need a release after my boss/my spouse gets on my case.”

  • Victim mentality: justifying your behaviors with feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. “I’m a lost cause.”  “I’m never going to get over my past sexual abuse.”  “When will my needs get taken care of?”

  • Ignoring key details: not admitting the worst parts of your behavior to yourself or others.

  • Living a double life: compartmentalizing the parts of you that are addicted as separate and not affecting your life. “Watching porn doesn’t affect my marriage.”  “My sexual behaviors don’t impact my day to day life.”

  • Entitlement: feelings of deserving a break or reward. “I deserve this.”  “I’ve had a tough day at work and I need this to unwind.”  “I’ve made it a week without looking at porn, so I can watch some as a reward.”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?  What are your go-tos?

How to Deal with Denial

When you’re in a space where you are clear-headed and not in addict brain, write a list of your common denial statements.  Add to this list as you walk through recovery and listen to your addict brain.  Each time you are drawn toward your addictive behaviors, use that as an opportunity to hear what the addict brain is telling you.

Once you’ve compiled this list of addict thinking, write down affirmations or words of truth that respond to these distortions.  Use your healthy brain to respond to the addict.  Your 12 Step group or sponsor can help you in this process.  Sometimes the words of others jar you out of your own experience and remind you of truth.  Write down quotations from recovery literature or books that remind you of both the seriousness of your addiction and the hope you have in recovery.  Create a toolkit of positive words to come back to and read when denial is echoing in your brain.

When you’re noticing automatic thoughts of denial popping up, pause.  Review your list of healthy coping statements, write in your journal, call a support individual, or read recovery literature.  Ask yourself what you truly need and see if you can offer that to yourself in the moment.

Overcoming these phrases of denial is a major step in your recovery journey.  As you grow in awareness of your “addict thinking,” you can begin to rewrite your narrative with a recovery mindset and find freedom from addictive patterns.


Are you struggling with addict thinking?  Do you have a hard time quieting those words in your mind? Have you felt stuck in your addictive behaviors without hope of change?  At Restored Hope, I seek to help you achieve freedom from your addictive patterns, replacing them with a wholehearted and fulfilling life.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

Journey Through the Twelve Steps: Step Twelve


This year, we have a monthly series discussing ways to engage and work each of the Twelve Steps.  Stemming from the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition, the Twelve Steps have made their way into the treatment of many addictive behaviors.  My specific focus will be on sex and love addiction, particularly in Christian women.  If you’re interested in finding an in-person, online, or phone meeting for sex and love addiction, check out Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.  Before you read this post, check out my introduction to the Twelve Steps to learn about support and resources.

Step Twelve:  Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all areas of our lives.

Through the work you’ve done in recovering from addiction, it has become clear that addiction is an intimacy disorder.  When you are cut off relationally from others, inauthentic with yourself and the people around you, and living a double life, you are unable to be intimate with anyone.  In sex and love addiction, disordered intimacy is obvious as you seek addictive behaviors that provide relief from loneliness.  Building relationships with others working the 12 Step program and seeking to help them helps create a network of positive, healthy relationships to carry you through your recovery. 

As you meet individuals in the beginning of their recovery, you’ll be reminded of your desperation in the early days.  By helping them, you’re “paying it forward” from how you’ve been helped.  Passing along this work to others is inspiring and encouraging.  As an addict who has completed the steps, you are uniquely positioned to help others.  You’ve experienced what they’ve been through, and you can communicate that they are not alone.

You’ll also be ready to take the insights you’ve gained from your recovery journey and apply them to all areas of your life, including career and family.  Bringing authenticity and openness to all areas of your life allows you integrate your life in a way that is vastly different from your previous double life. 

How to Work Step Twelve

Reflect on how you’ve changed since Step One.

How have you become humble as a result of your 12 Step work?  Have you learned to admit your faults and failings?  What insights have you had about your character weaknesses, and how have they changed the way you live?  In what ways have you become more forgiving and less resentful, or more apologetic and quick to ask for forgiveness?  How have your relationships changed as a result of the 12 Step work you’ve been doing?

Reflect on some of the work you completed in early steps, looking through old journals or remembering stories you’ve told at meetings.  Look for evidence of change in your character.  Be grateful for how different you are today than when you started. 

Volunteer at a meeting.

You’ve likely seen other group members take roles to help out, whether that involves bringing coffee or snacks, setting up or tearing down chairs, or even leading a meeting.  12 Step groups are intentionally designed without a leader, which means there are many tasks that require volunteers.  Ask the trusted servant at your meeting how you might be able to volunteer to help in the upcoming months.  Often committing to be a regular attendee of the meetings helps to serve the community by creating consistency for newcomers.

Tell your story.

What do you remember from your first Twelve Step meeting?  My guess is it has something to do with the stories of others.  If you haven’t already shared your first step with your 12 Step group, consider doing so as a service to other group members.  This will allow others to relate to your story.  You can also share your story in a one-on-one setting with a new member of the group or sponsee.

Write a list of gifts you have to offer.

Through your recovery process, you may have become aware of talents or abilities that were masked by your addictive behaviors.  Your sponsor or other trusted individuals may also be aware of positive traits you have to offer.  Ask your sponsor or support people to tell you some gifts they think you bring to the recovery community.  Write these affirmations down and review them often.  Seek to fill roles within the community that allow these gifts to be used for the good of others.

Sponsor a new member of your group.

At this point, you have the opportunity to turn around and share the insights you’ve learned with a new sponsee.  Your insights can help someone else who is struggling with the same questions or doubts in their own journey.  But not only will you be helping them: you’ll find that your relationship with your sponsee will often help your own recovery as well. 

A few cautions before you start: consider the cost of sponsoring another addict prior to taking on this role.  Talk to your sponsor and ask if they’ll serve as a mentor for you with your first few sponsees.  It is recommended that you have at least one full year of sobriety under your belt before you sponsor someone, as sponsoring challenges your sobriety in new and unexpected ways.  When choosing a sponsee, limit yourself to one person at first, and make sure to choose someone who doesn’t remind you of former acting out partners or trigger addictive thoughts in you.

Attend a retreat or conference.

Changing up the structure of the standard group meeting and receiving inspiration and motivation from time away can help you re-focus on your recovery and learn new tools to help yourself or your sponsees.  You may also find yourself motivated to speak or offer your story at a conference.  Look for listings of yearly events (like those for SAA or SLAA) and invite a friend from your recovery program to attend with you.

Be conscious of when recovery begins to feel “boring.”

Boredom in your recovery can be a trigger to fall back into the temporary thrill of acting out.  When you notice feeling bored or apathetic in your recovery work, explore what’s leading to the boredom.  Identify dissatisfaction in your life or avoidance of a thorny issue that’s uncomfortable to think about.  Talk with your sponsor about next steps you might take to address these areas.

Another great way to combat boredom is walking through the steps again, perhaps trying out a new sponsor who may have some additional insight.  If you’re struggling with more than one addiction, it is helpful to go through the Twelve Steps with the other addiction and see what new insights you can gain.

Carry your new authenticity into all areas of your life, including sexuality.

Is there a major life change that you’ve been putting off, like in your career?  Is it difficult to apply your insights from recovery into more mundane, daily tasks?  Consider how you might use what you’ve learned in recovery to influence the areas of your life that seem unrelated.  You’ll be surprised to find how applicable these skills are in new contexts.

During this time, you might consider what non-addictive sexuality looks like.  Resources like a couples counselor or an individual counselor trained in treating addiction can help you in this process.  In particular for sex and love addicts, re-integrating healthy sexuality involves a slower journey, learning to embody your masculinity or femininity without necessarily expressing it through sex.  Resources like A Couple’s Guide to Intimacy* or Erotic Intelligence* can be helpful tools to explore this area. 

The End of the Road?

At this point in your Twelve Step journey, you’ve walked through incredibly difficult steps that have proven to be ultimately rewarding.  But moving through the Twelve Steps is meant to be an ongoing process.  You have not “arrived” when you reach Step Twelve.  Instead, you are called to start back at Step One and examine new areas of your life and well-being that you may not have been aware of when you first began your journey.  Continually working through these steps can lead to significant life change.  You will gain new perspective as you explore your story in new ways.

Pause for a moment now and recognize moments of happiness and joy you have in your life as a result of recovery.  As you acknowledge and express gratitude for these gains, you’ll be motivated to continue.  Make a list of all the accomplishments you’ve made while working through the Twelve Steps, and plan a celebration with your sponsor or trusted individuals to celebrate all the hard work you’ve done to get here!


Are you hoping to work the Twelve Steps?  Have you completed each of the steps and are looking for where to go next?  Are you continuing struggling with addiction despite your work in your 12 Step group?  At Restored Hope, I believe you can experience freedom from addiction, and my role is to give you the tools you need to make that journey.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 today or email me to schedule your first appointment today.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

How Do We Come Back From This? Rebuilding Trust in a Broken Relationship


If you’ve faced betrayal in your marriage or long-term relationship, you know the devastation that broken trust creates.  Trust can be broken through affairs or infidelity, either sexual or emotional.  Sex and love addiction is a major factor that comes up in destroying trust in relationships.  Other addictions, secrecy around financial decisions, or secrecy around work can create similar experiences of broken trust.  But a common factor in all these cases is deception.   

Trust requires safety, and if your perception of reality is influenced by the lies or insincerity of another person, it becomes unsafe.  You might ask yourself questions like, “How will I ever know if my spouse is telling the truth?” or “How could I have fallen for their lies?” 

Shame also comes up for the betrayed partner.  You might be wondering if it’s your fault, blaming yourself for not being able to see the warning signs of the deception.  You might feel embarrassed and like a fool.  You might also be struggling with loneliness, as issues such as sex and love addiction can be difficult to share about with friends, or you can be protecting your spouse’s privacy.  Regardless, this shame is based on a distorted view of reality put forward by the partner who deceived. 

What should I expect in rebuilding trust?

Rebuilding trust is an incredibly slow process, and it requires patience and time to heal.  Usually I notice impatience in couples who come into my office feeling stuck.  The partner who committed the betrayal is recovering more quickly than the betrayed partner.  They might be feeling relief due to the fact that they are no longer carrying the burden of the secret addiction, and they can finally get the help they need.

Meanwhile, the betrayed spouse is wrestling with the new information he or she has received.  They are trying to integrate this new truth into the months or years of deception that have taken place, rewriting the narrative of their lives.  They are trying to re-evaluate and re-integrate their whole world with this information.  At the same time, they are faced with making decisions about the future of the relationship.

How do we rebuild trust?

Have you ever built a sand castle?  Some professional sand castles can be beautiful, with turrets and sculpted carvings.

Think of your marriage like a sand castle.  When the betrayal was discovered, it’s as if a giant tidal wave came and destroyed it.  Rebuilding trust involves moving sand back to rebuild that castle.  Some days it involves moving just one grain at a time, and other days you’ll move shovelfuls.  Sometimes, if the foundation is shaky or the wind from outside blows in a certain way, parts of the castle may crumble or topple and need to be built up again.

You likely won’t be building the same exact castle over again.  You’ll change parts of it to make it new and better.  Having learned from your previous experience, you’ll likely make a stronger foundation and more beautiful or intricate carvings.  You’ll consider how you will approach the marriage after the betrayal, which involves moving into a new phase that will be decidedly different from the pain that now colors the first part of your marriage.  

Rebuilding trust requires that both spouses have an active role in this process.  It is impossible for just one of you to be doing all the work.

The Deceiver’s Role

For the individual who has betrayed their spouse, the simplest way to rebuild trust is to continually match your words up with your actions.  The first step involves honesty.  You will need to be more truthful about your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors than you ever have before.  Allow your spouse access to private accounts and information.  Some spouses need this level of transparency and others don’t, but your willingness to offer it regardless of whether it’s needed or not rebuilds trust. 

Particularly in the case of sex and love addiction, formal disclosure of acting out behaviors is a major step in rebuilding trust.  In order to establish a foundation of trust before you move forward in the relationship, you will need to have a formal disclosure of all your behaviors with your spouse.  This is a major step of honesty that will lay the foundation for the other rebuilding actions to stick.

Each time you are honest about your behaviors in the future, you will move some sand back into that sand castle.  Every time you carry out an action you said you would, you build more trust.  When you are honest about difficult, negative emotions and responses, that builds trust even stronger, as it allows your spouse to see you take ownership of your feelings and actions. 

The Betrayed Partner’s Role

While it may seem that the action of change rests in the hands of the deceiver, the betrayed partner actually has a significant role in the trust-rebuilding process.  In order for trust to be built, the partner be willing to take the risk to trust.  You will (understandably) be self-protective and you won’t be ready to fully trust for quite some time.  In fact, if you were ready to trust immediately after discovering the betrayal, I would caution you against it!  But the long-term goal is to help you find ways of offering trust as the two of you heal.

When you first find out about the deception and broken trust, you ought to spend some time building up your network of support individuals and self-care so you can practice self-care and be kind to yourself as you heal.  Establish safety for yourself that isn’t dependent on your spouse’s behaviors, as they will certainly not be able to meet all your expectations at first.  Create boundaries as a way of seeing if your spouse is willing to change and adapt.

Once you’ve decided to move forward, take small risks to trust.  Acknowledge or praise your spouse when you see their actions and words lining up.  Choose to focus on the progress more frequently than the past betrayal, as it can be easy to lose sight of positive changes.  However, if the deception is still going on or if you haven’t seen actions on the spouse’s part to substantiate their commitment to rebuild trust, tread cautiously.

As mentioned earlier, rebuilding trust requires that both spouses take an active role.  But even if you do, you might feel like you keep hitting roadblocks that set you back.  When you are stuck and need a way to move forward, seek out couples counseling.  In counseling, you’re able to further discuss those areas of conflict in a way that creates change.  You’ll set goals together and consider how you’ll approach this new season of your marriage. 


Are you still hurting from the betrayal you experienced due to your partner’s actions?  Are you in recovery for sex and love addiction and wondering how your spouse will ever trust you again?  Do you keep running into roadblocks to rebuilding trust that leave you hopeless for change?  At Restored Hope, I help individuals and couples to walk through rebuilding trust after it’s been broken.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or email me to hear more about how I can help.

Step Eleven: Journey Through the Twelve Steps


This year, we have a monthly series discussing ways to engage and work each of the Twelve Steps.  Stemming from the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition, the Twelve Steps have made their way into the treatment of many addictive behaviors.  My specific focus will be on sex and love addiction, particularly in Christian women.  If you’re interested in finding an in-person, online, or phone meeting for sex and love addiction, check out Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.  Before you read this post, check out my introduction to the Twelve Steps to learn about support and resources.

Step Eleven: We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. 

Step Eleven builds on the Tenth Step work of taking a daily inventory of your life, as it integrates your relationship with God into that inventory.  The spiritual growth you’ve experienced through the 12 steps has helped you come to depend on God as your source of life, rather than turning to your addiction to feel satisfied.

This step differs from previous spiritual steps by shifting your relationship with God beyond just intense dependence on Him in establishing sobriety into acknowledging God as the guiding force in all areas of your life.  It requires a deepening of your faith and relationship with God in a way that extends beyond empty religious actions.  You will need to find spiritual practices that work to help you build regular conscious contact with God.

How to Work Step Eleven

Create a sacred space.

Where have you had your best experiences with God?  Maybe it’s while you’re out on a walk in the woods, or when you’re wrapped up in a blanket sipping a cup of tea or coffee.  Is there a place in your home where you feel most connected to God?  Is your church a haven to you?  Designate a place that represents closeness in your relationship with God and visit it often.

Sacred space can be created in any physical location.  You might imagine a place in your mind where you feel peace or calm.  You can make a space sacred by lighting a candle, turning on soothing music, or practicing a breathing or meditation exercise.  Whatever you do, seek to set aside the stress of your daily life and enter into a space where you can experience God. 

Another way to cultivate this space involves creating sacred objects associated with a milestone in your recovery or spiritual journey.  For many, the surrender chip they received at their first 12 Step meeting serves this purpose.  If you’ve gone through a particular trial and experienced the closeness of God, choose an object that reminds you of that experience.

Keep a prayer journal.

You may have picked up journaling as a habit during your recovery work.  Use this new practice to engage spiritually.  Write down prayers that you have and review them regularly to see the ways in which God has answered them. 

Be curious about the ways in which God may be answering your prayers in a way you wouldn’t expect.  As an example, you may have hit rock bottom in your addiction, which led to a way out.  God could be using difficulties in your life circumstances to grow you closer in relationship to Him or others.

Connect with God in the morning.

What is the first thing that comes to mind in the mornings for you?  Is it the stress of the day ahead, the dream you had the night before, or wishing you could just drift back off to sleep?  Starting your day in dependence on God can set the course for how the rest of the day will go.

Ask God to be with you during the day.  Pray through the events of the day and any challenges you anticipate coming up in the next several hours.  Use a few minutes to read Scripture using apps like First 5 or Read Scripture.

Pray throughout your day.

Paul exhorts in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to pray without ceasing.  This might seem impractical if you’re splitting focus between work, family, or other tasks.  But you can use this simple Scripture to remind you to talk to God throughout your day as if he were a friend sitting beside you.  The Serenity Prayer can be a helpful, short prayer to memorize and repeat to yourself throughout your day to remind you to focus on God. 

End your day with God using nightly examen.

In discussing Step Ten, examen of consciousness was introduced as a way of reviewing your past day to identify where God was present or where you felt distant from him.  This helps to identify where God was at work in the daily, mundane experiences of your life, reminding you that God doesn’t just work through monumental events.

Taking the examen a step further involves asking God to point out areas where we’ve made mistakes, need to apologize, or could love others more fully.  Allow God to guide these reflections and reveal to you the areas where you can be focusing your attention in the days to follow.

Practice meditation.

Meditation is a popular topic right now, and there are several different ways to meditate.  Scripture meditation involves reflecting on a passage of scripture and allowing God to speak to you through it.  Reading meditations, as mentioned in the Step Ten, involve engaging with recovery literature to help remind you why you’re in recovery. 

Another form of meditation involves setting aside distractions like TV or phones and allowing yourself to connect to your breath in the present moment.  There are several different guided meditations and apps you can use to help in this process. Know that this will be difficult at first, especially if you are prone to anxiety.  The more you practice, the easier it will become. 

Meet regularly with a spiritual mentor or director.

While walking through the earlier steps, you may have identified a spiritual guide, such as a pastor, church member, or spiritual director, to help you through the Twelve Step process.  Now you have an opportunity to ask that individual to help you in your journey to transform all areas of your life.  You can ask that guide to hold you accountable to the changes you want to implement.

Sometimes it can be hard to see God at work in your own life, but others around you may be able to shed more light on His role.  Your spiritual mentor can observe your life and offer you reflections and encouragements, as well as pointing out blocks that are getting in the way of connecting with God.


Are you facing sex and love addiction and feeling hopeless to quit?  Do you believe in God, but feel too ashamed to bring your addiction to Him?  Are you having a hard time connecting spiritually in your recovery?  At Restored Hope, I take a Christian-integrated approach to recovery from sex and love addiction, and I’d love to help you walk through your own journey of change.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment.