Women Face Unique Challenges in Addiction Recovery
From outside influences telling them they have to be perfect to inside motivations to shut out emotions, young women face a number of unique challenges when seeking treatment for a substance use disorder. It’s critical to break down barriers and empower women to embrace themselves and their own recovery.
A return to vulnerability
Often, women who come into my office suffering from a substance use disorder have become adept at separating themselves from their emotions. They don’t allow themselves to experience their true feelings. They’ve built a solid wall between themselves and their feelings because they feel it’s not safe on the other side of that barrier. A lot of people abuse substances because they’ve reached a place in their lives where life is too much and they need outside help to not feel as much as they’re feeling.
When a woman is seeking help, and she doesn’t know how to experience those emotions in a genuine way, it’s challenging. Sometimes I try to get clients to dial back to earlier points in their lives when they were vulnerable, before that wall came up. That’s one of the first steps in healing, is to re-feel those feelings. It’s vital to teach ourselves that we can feel those feelings and stay safe, admit that we’re a valuable human being, embrace our imperfections, and still be a capable and wonderful woman. It’s scary to step on the other side of that wall into that vulnerable space again, but it’s necessary to create lasting change.
Pressure to be perfect
A lot of women are sent messages that we need to do everything and we need to be good at everything. Those signals make it extremely difficult for many women to embrace their own imperfections because women wonder how they can be imperfect and still do everything and be pleasing to everyone. That conflict makes it really difficult to show up in any relationship and be vulnerable. So one of the first things I do with many of the women who come into my office is to help create that safe place for them to become vulnerable.
One of the things I love best about my job is that I get to sit in a room with someone and say, “I see you.” I think that is probably my own gift that I do really well, and I’m blessed that I have the opportunity to sit and do that in a way that makes somebody feel safe and valued and seen. That safe space allows young women, and older woman, to begin to develop a secure, safe relationship with another resilient adult. It allows them to practice and experience what it’s like to be vulnerable and to stay safe. But more than just staying safe, that vulnerability allows them to grow and to become more than they were before. It’s vital for progress that women begin to feel safe by embracing their imperfections.
As a woman, I struggle daily with feeling like I’m not good enough at everything that I’m trying to do. And I’m very open about that with my clients. When they walk in I’ll say, “You know what? Last night I sat down in the middle of the floor and I cried. I was exhausted, I had worked all day, I have three young, demanding kids. There are always dishes to be done, laundry is never ending, and I can’t physically do all of these things.”
It’s very easy for me to construct a false narrative about myself. My story is always: if you just tried harder at life, you would be better at life. That’s my struggle. Some days I do it better than others, and consciously remind myself that I am succeeding. Every day I’m trying hard, every day I show up, and every day I make an effort. Sometimes I have to make a list in my head of everything that I’ve done that day to remind myself about everything I’m capable of.
Women get really good at self-manipulation. Sometimes even when we do something well, we tell ourselves it wasn’t good enough. Our pain and insecurity often feel more comfortable than our success because it’s what we’re used to. We can self-sabotage our successes by continuing those false negative narratives that tell us we’re not good enough. If we’re not conscious of that, we will miss the times where we tried hard enough, where we were good enough, and where we were successful. We’ll miss celebrating those moments and we’ll miss growing from those moments. It’s a struggle for all of us and as a therapist, I share that struggle with my clients.
Making life manageable
It’s enough of a daily struggle to be a woman or even a human being. Add in a mental health issue, substance use disorder or past trauma, it creates a complexity that requires professional help. We need someone else to look at what’s happening in our life and in our family, and point out where we’re unconsciously adding to those struggles.
The goal of counseling isn’t to never feeling sad again. It’s not about never feeling insecure again. It’s about taking the edge off so that sadness is manageable, so that insecurity is manageable, so we can start to experience our emotions in a more moderate way that we can manage on a day-to-day basis. We want our feelings and our insecurities to become productive emotions in our life, not destructive emotions.