Assertive communication is important for addiction and alcoholism recovery for several reasons. It is also a skill that can be learned and improved with deliberate focus.
So let’s figure out exactly what it means to be assertive, and then figure out how we can practice and implement this kind of communication in our lives.
There are really 3 main styles of communication when it comes to your interactions with other people: Assertive, passive, and aggressive.
If you are aggressive then it means you are a demanding bully and you basically steamroll other people in order to get what you want out of life. This is not ideal and it will quickly lead an alcoholic back to relapse as a result of walking all over other people and hurting them.
Passive communication is equally bad. When you are passive in recovery then you are essentially not communicating enough with other people and you are secretly hoping that they will just do what you want them to do, and then you get to be extremely frustrated internally with your poor results, because people are not mind readers. So the person who is overly passive can get themselves into just as much trouble as the person who is aggressive in recovery. Passive communication is a recipe for maximum frustration, and it can certainly lead to relapse.
Being assertive is the sweet spot in between these two extremes, and it is exactly where you want to be in addiction recovery. So when you are assertive you clearly state what you need to other people without being a bully about it, and without being demanding about it.
Of course in order to communicate this way you have to do a bit of soul searching for yourself so that you actually know what you want. If you don’t know what you want then you cannot communicate that to other people. So you have to be able to take an honest assessment of your own life and figure out what it is that you need before you can engage in assertive communication.
Now why is this important, and what does it have to do specifically with alcoholism or drug addiction recovery? Why does it matter specifically in recovery that we need to be assertive?
There are 2 main reasons. One, codependency is a huge issue for a lot of people in recovery from addiction, and you are basically able to overcome codependency if you adopt an assertive style of communication. Meaning that the solution for someone who is struggling with codependency begins with the language they are using in their communication. Note that this is not the only solution, and it is really just the beginning of the solution, but it should start with your communication style.
So what happens for a lot of alcoholics and drug addicts is that, during their addiction, they fall into a certain relationship in their life and they find someone who is willing to enable them in their addiction. So maybe this person bails them out of trouble frequently, or this person provides enough resources that allows them to continue on with their addiction. At any rate, this codependent relationship becomes part of their addiction itself, because they depend on this other person and the dynamic between them as part of how they function as an alcoholic. If the codependent partner goes away suddenly then the alcoholic has to scramble to find another relationship, or their lifestyle is at least temporarily compromised because they were depending on that other person to enable them in certain ways. Those ways may be financial, they may be emotional, or they might be in some other way.
Codependency is a huge problem for many alcoholics and addicts and it is often a problem that they don’t even know about. The alcoholic is often in a codependent relationship and they don’t even realize it or know what the term means in the first place. They are just living their life as best they know how and struggling to make it all work in spite of their addiction. Using other people to help them accomplish this goal just comes naturally to the codependent person. They are just doing what they can to keep the whole charade going; the charade that is their juggling act of keeping their life intact while they continue to slowly self destruct through alcoholism.
So the first step is in being able to correctly label codependent behavior when you see it. Identify unhealthy relationships, be able to identify unhealthy communication such as passive or aggressive, and get better at figuring out when these patterns are in play around you. This is an important part of your addiction recovery process, because as you remain clean and sober for longer and longer, your role in recovery is going to reverse at some point.
What do I mean by that?
When you first get into recovery you yourself are the alcoholic, you have the problem, and you are the one who is seeking help.
At some point, if you succeed in recovery, you will be the strong and sober person who others are looking to for help with their addiction or their alcoholism.
You will accumulate peers and fellow people in recovery over time, some of whom will relapse. Think about that for a moment: You will be the strong sober one, and they will have relapsed and be coming to you for advice or help. And you will have to figure out how to help such people without enabling them, without being codependent.
The alcoholic goes to AA to get help while the family member goes to Al-anon to get support. Those are the normal roles.
But after the alcoholic has been sober for a while, and after the alcoholic is recovering and is now helping other alcoholics to try to recover, that alcoholic can get a lot of benefit by going to Al-anon themselves. Suddenly, recovery is not really about how to not pick up a drink of alcohol, but it is about relationships and how to engage in healthy behavior.
If you want to avoid codependent behavior and learn how to engage in assertive communication, then you should really consider going to a few Al-anon meetings to see what you can learn about relationships. This can be more vital and more important to your own sobriety than you may realize at first. Because it turns out that, in the long run, sobriety is really all about relationships. No man is an island, and this is especially true in long term sobriety. Good luck!