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Setting Realistic Expectations in Recovery

Expectations are essential to motivate progress in addiction recovery, but having unrealistic expectations during the process does more harm than good. Setting realistic expectations during recovery helps set a stable foundation to succeed. Unrealistic expectations, on the other hand, happen when we expect recovery to turn out differently for ourselves or for others. Such expectations can focus on the treatment process or life after treatment or both.

The process of getting sober is typically a time of hope for someone with a substance use disorder and for their loved ones. Hope during recovery is necessary and important. However, having overly high expectations can end in disappointment. These expectations happen more often than not and are completely understandable. For instance, the addicted person’s family and loved ones watched for years in frustration as substance abuse destroyed their relationships. Having wanted their loved one to seek treatment for so long, they may be overjoyed when it finally happens. For this reason, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume their loved one will experience a completely healed new life and relationships.

Recovery is a Lifelong Journey

Pursuing a high-quality treatment program with a strong care plan for recovery creates a positive path for addicted individuals. The most important part of post-sobriety is to work one’s recovery and to understand that no matter how long they are sober for or how big their lifestyle changes, the addicted person will never be perfect and will never finish recovering. Keeping this in mind allows individuals in recovery to avoid unrealistic expectations for how their lives will be once they reach sobriety.

A successful treatment program will help an addicted person break bad habits and maladaptive patterns, distance themselves from negative influences, address co-occurring mental health issues, adopt new ways of thinking and coping, make positive lifestyle changes, and collaborate with other individuals who have battled the same demons. A treatment program that includes these aspects, along with a conscientious transition back to normal society, will help sobriety stick. During this transition, it is a good idea to keep expectations realistic.

Even with the right help and a strong support system, recovery from addiction is difficult and can feel like an uphill battle. There are a multitude of reasons that it is better not to expect too much too soon. In any life, especially one in recovery, it is normal and expected to have problems.

Sobriety Won’t Solve Every Problem

One of the biggest misconceptions is that alcohol or drugs were the problem. When an addicted person is struggling with a substance use disorder, it is easy for them to believe, or at least hope, that all their problems in life will be solved when they achieve sobriety. While it is true that many of the addicted individual’s problems are caused by substance use and that the quality of their life will improve in abstinence, getting sober will not — and cannot — solve all of the addicted person’s problems.

When they do get sober, it becomes easier for the individual to identify issues in their lives that they can actually control. In fact, addicted people may become aware of a whole different set of problems that they had not noticed before because of their blurred perception of reality under the influence of their substance use. The bright side of this is that treatment and recovery will help the individual stop creating unnecessary problems for themselves, inevitably improving their lives post-sobriety.

Although sobriety can help the addicted person stop creating new problems, it will not automatically resolve the problems caused by their substance use in the first place. This can be incredibly frustrating for both the person in recovery and for their loved ones who believed that when the substances disappeared, the issues they caused would magically disappear, too.

Expecting Old and New Problems to Surface

Those in recovery have put the work in. Now that they have stopped using their drug of choice, gone through therapy, changed their habits, and made new friends, they still have to clean up messes that may feel like they were made by a different person.

These messes generally occur on a spectrum that includes financial and relationship issues. Messes can include deep debt and cruel relationship hiccups. Like most issues, when putting the work in, time heals all. Messes made in active addiction might take a long time to overcome, which can be hard to swallow for those in recovery who have put immense effort into changing themselves from the person that made these messes in the first place.

Living situations may change too. For example, those who come back from treatment may be disappointed to discover that their families still are not welcoming them back to the family home. This may require them to find a new job or a new place to live. This should not be surprising because most addicted individuals have generally burned a lot of bridges in their past.

There could also be emerging or recently surfaced emotional and physical health problems as a result of the substance use, as well as the lingering effects of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome has been described as emotional numbness and can last a year or more. The positive news is that individuals in recovery have developed coping skills and can now deal with these problems much more effectively sober.

Maintaining Recovery Through Ups and Downs

Although every day is a new opportunity for individuals in recovery to tackle obstacles with a clear mind, not every day is going to be perfect. Recovery is not a straight line. Recovery is always up and down. Recovery can feel like a great day followed by a terrible day. If those in recovery stick to their program and are devoted to their recovery plan, their growth will continue to trend upward even if their day-to-day progress is often hard to see.

Usually, individuals experience a lot of progress in the beginning and over the first few months of sobriety. However, the transition from inpatient treatment to regular life is especially stressful and can be a time in which many people in recovery relapse. With this in mind, the transition back to normal life may cause a plateau in a person’s mood and their hope for recovery. This usually only lasts as long as the addicted person lets it. Every individual is different, and every recovery is different. The difference comes from action or the lack thereof. When individuals start neglecting a single step in their recovery plan, they soon fail to meet most positive post-sobriety expectations. In fact, recovery is not stable until about a year after treatment.

Real Change Takes Time

As mentioned, recovery from addiction is not just about abstaining from drugs and alcohol. Individuals in recovery need to make fundamental changes. For some, these changes should include

  • Tackling co-occurring mental health issues
  • Adopting coping skills
  • Developing life skills
  • Connecting with a support system
  • Improving family relationships
  • Positively adjusting patterns of thinking

These changes require maintenance and a lifelong devotion to reach successful sobriety.

One study found that changing just a single habit and making the new behavior automatic can take between 18 and 254 days, with an average time of about 66 days. With all of the fundamental changes being made in their lives, individuals need to level out any high expectations for immediate and automatic change. The study also showed the difficulty of changing more than one habit at a time. Since the addicted individual will probably have several major habits to change, and since all of these changes progress at different rates, it is reasonable to expect a stable recovery to take at least a year of guided effort.

Setting Realistic Expectations For Success

One of the expectations that often does not get met right away is fully healed and healthy relationships. Relationships are slow to heal and addiction is destructive to relationships. With this in mind, friends and family may be angry with their loved one, even after their treatment.

Loved ones now have the capability to share with the addicted person, who now has a clear mind, the hurtful things they did in active addiction. These wounds take a while to heal, and consistent positive actions speak louder than a simple “I’m sorry.” It often feels unfair to the addict who has been working hard on their recovery when others treat them like the same person they were six months or a year ago, but rebuilding trust takes time. In addition, it is important to create new relationships with other sober people who can support each other and hold each other accountable.

The addicted person and their loved ones should not expect all these problems to be solved immediately with ease. With overly high expectations, it is normal for individuals in recovery to feel disillusioned, pessimistic, or cynical when recovery turns out to be much harder than expected. Although it is important to expect life to get better in sobriety, expecting too much too soon can set individuals up for disappointment and failure. Anticipating problems, taking one day at a time, and working the recovery plan will make recovery realistic, tangible, and appreciated each and every day by the individual and their loved ones alike.

If individuals do not set realistic expectations, they are not doomed to fail, but they may find themselves unnecessarily struggling with treatment and recovery more than needed. Unrealistic expectations have a negative impact on progress. Patience is important. Preparing realistically for various aspects of addiction recovery helps individuals develop patience. If the addicted person or their loved ones have unrealistic expectations, they may feel impatient toward achieving goals. Taking a healthy, realistic approach requires knowledge, thorough research, and careful reflection.

To avoid such disappointments and setbacks, at Boardwalk Recovery Center we remind our clients and their families that addiction recovery is a process. We educate them on the treatment process and addiction itself in order to set realistic expectations and a sound mindset for post-treatment sobriety and lifelong recovery.

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