When a family member is caught up in addiction, you may find yourself taking on more responsibility – and with it, more stress, pressure, and anxiety. Watching someone struggle can activate a fixer mentality in many individuals. Before jumping in and trying to run your loved one’s life, ask yourself: “Why do I feel the need to fix everything?”
The Chaos of Addiction
Addiction is best described as a whirlwind. When someone becomes dependent on drugs and alcohol, they begin to behave erratically. As their condition worsens, so too will the state of their finances, job performance, relationships, and self-sufficiency. Because substance abuse sabotages a person’s decision-making abilities, they will bring the “whirlwind” into the home, the workplace, and into every situation they encounter.
The following events typically come along with addiction, with upheaval and chaos in their wake:
- Losing one’s job
- Legal issues, like DUIs or public intoxication charges
- Neglecting important obligations, like paying the bills
- Increased fighting and tension in relationships
The consequences of ongoing substance abuse can be severe. When you love a person who is at risk of experiencing homelessness, incarceration, or destitution as a result of their addiction, you probably feel the need to step in. How does the whirlwind chaos of addiction create a fixer mentality in the family unit?
The Fixer Mentality Explained
Within the addicted family, individuals will generally assume specific roles. Some find themselves enabling their loved one by denying that a problem exists at all. Others cope through humor, via capers, deflection, and “class clown” behavior. Perhaps the most interesting – and unhealthy – role a family member can choose is that of the hero.
You can think of the hero as a white knight. They’re type A perfectionists who want nothing more than to make everyone else’s problems disappear. As a result, they take on more than their fair share of stressors and struggles. While it seems noble to want to help a loved one, it can actually be a sign of poor mental health (and a setup for disaster).
Researchers Marilyn Krieger and Mary Lamia of UC Berkeley were the first to coin the term “white knight syndrome.” They determined that those fixers who devote themselves to rescuing others may have the following characteristics:
- They experience high sensitivity and emotional vulnerability
- They have a strong need to feel useful
- They are highly critical of themselves and others
- They like to help those who are “bordering on failure”
Interestingly, Krieger and Lamia also found a common thread amongst those with this condition: fixers tend to have their own past of abandonment, abuse, or the loss of a caregiver. Anyone with an addicted family member can relate to these experiences – perhaps this inner issue is what drives us to feel like we need to fix everything.
Being a Fixer May Come from Poor Boundaries
Helping a loved one to recover from addiction is a fantastic goal; however, without proper boundaries, it is possible to get swept up in the whirlwind yourself. This level of codependency and enmeshment can actually prevent your friend or family member from having the crucial realizations needed to overcome substance use disorder.
For example, say that your sister is on the verge of having her car repossessed. If you jump in and pay all of her outstanding bills, you are really only enabling her to continue using drugs. In addition, you will probably lose hundreds or thousands of dollars in the process.
Other ways you may be unconsciously enabling an addicted loved one include making excuses for them, taking over their chores, loaning them money, and helping them out of legal trouble. While these actions feel right in the moment, they only serve as ways to insulate your loved one from the consequences of their substance use.
How can you stop being a fixer and enabler? The answer lies in the establishment of healthy boundaries.
When you interact with a friend or family member who is caught up in the cycle of addiction, you have to remember to prioritize your own mental health, inner peace, and physical safety. You can do this by drawing clear lines about behaviors you will (and will not) condone or participate in.
Good boundaries are clearly communicated with your loved one. Sit them down and let them know that things will be changing – that while you will support their recovery efforts, you can no longer shield them from the consequences of their choices. By deciding not to be a “safety net” for the addicted person in your life, you are helping them to make informed decisions about their substance abuse and future recovery.
Fixers: Learning to Help Yourself
Whether your loved one is in treatment or active addiction, it’s important to remember that your wellbeing matters. You don’t have to be a fixer.
We encourage you to participate in Al-Anon or other family recovery groups on a regular basis. This can help you to gain perspective and learn how to detach with love. If you need any support along the way, Lakeside-Milam is here for you. Contact us for more information about addiction treatment and family recovery.