You don’t necessarily have to make a big juicy resolution for the new year if you don’t want to. Just being clean and sober is generally good enough, right?
Well, yes and no. Of course it is a huge blessing and a gift just to be clean and sober on any given day. We should never take our sobriety for granted.
On the other hand, there are some really good reasons to set a goal or two in your life, especially something that challenges you to seriously work hard in order to improve yourself.
Purposeful growth as relapse prevention
First of all the idea of setting goals works really well with the idea of personal growth. In fact, it would be pretty hard to make the argument that you are going to pursue personal growth in your life unless you were setting some sort of goal. I mean, how can you aim to improve yourself if you are not aiming at anything in particular? You have to have some sort of vision for a better life, for a better you, in order to move forward and make progress.
My belief is that all of relapse prevention in recovery is essentially based on personal growth. If you are doing something in order to prevent relapse and it isn’t some form of growth then you are just fooling yourself. This might work temporarily but in the long run you need a strategy to overcome the threat of relapse. You can’t fight your addiction with a bunch of tactics that are thrown together. Instead it takes a cohesive strategy that involves you making improvements to your life in an ongoing basis.
There is this universal truth in recovery that you cannot just stand still. Either you are working on recovery or you are working on a relapse, there is no in-between. If you think you can stand between those two polar opposites then I have news for you: You are actually sliding towards a relapse. Stagnation moves you towards relapse.
The opposite of stagnation is growth. Personal growth. Personal improvement. Yes, you can improve your life and who you are as a person. Not only can you do this but you should do this. If you do this on a regular basis then it will protect you from the threat of relapse.
People don’t relapse when they are excited about the growth that they are making. Why would they throw away their excitement and opportunity? People only relapse when they are miserable, upset, bored, complacent. Those are the kinds of conditions that lead to relapse. We want to avoid those conditions.
Maybe you can set one big juicy goal for the new year, or maybe you will set several smaller ones. The size of the goal is important in terms of the challenge and the impact it has on your life. If nothing changes then nothing changes. We want to challenge ourselves a bit to create a real improvement in things.
Now some people may argue against this philosophy and say that it is pointless, that we should not seek to set goals and improve ourselves because it becomes an endless game. You are never satisfied because you just reach your goal and then you feel restless unless you set another, even bigger goal.
Such people may have a point in some cases but what is the alternative? The alternative is to NOT set a goal for yourself and just to live passively. Your addiction loves it when you live a passive life. Because then it can sneak up on you much easier. When you are active in your recovery and constantly pushing yourself to improve your life then it makes it much more difficult for your addiction to tempt you back to the madness. Personal growth is insurance against relapse. Positive action tends to strengthen your sobriety.
So some may argue that going from one goal to the next in recovery is a waste of time, but I would argue that it is generally a better way to live than what most of us were doing in the past. Perhaps there is another level after “goal oriented living” but for my purposes in recovery this works really well. I set goals, I work hard at them, and I get results from doing so. Sometimes the results are worth it and sometimes they are not. Therefore I move on with my life and find new ideas to test and new goals to chase after. There is a bit of a drive in this but it is OK because I am constantly trying to improve my life.
Improving your life versus your life situation
In my experience there are at least two different areas that you can focus on when it comes to goals.
I would separate them out like this:
1) Improving your life. Internal changes. Things like shame, guilt, fear, self pity, resentment.
2) Improving your life situation. External changes. Things like relationships, career, finances.
Both of these areas are important.
If you look at different recovery programs, very few of them will really give both of these areas the full attention that they deserve. For example, when I was introduced into recovery I was taught that it was all about the internal changes, doing the 12 steps, focusing on getting the internal stuff resolved, and so on. Most of the external changes were viewed as a distraction, something that I should not be focusing on or I would miss the important lessons about changing my inner self.
But later on I realized that these external changes were important too. So not only did I find it important to change my life, but I also found that it was important to change my life situation. You can do both. You can work on both. And I think that most people should work on both.
Of course that can be pretty overwhelming at first, which is why I suggest that you prioritize based on your biggest negative problem in your life first.
So here is how that works.
You may make a list of goals, some of them are positive things like “I want to go back to college” and some of them are negative things like “I want to eliminate resentment.”
The negative stuff in your life are the things that drag you down and hold you back. The things that create inner turmoil and stress. The things that drove you to drink or self medicate with drugs.
We all have stuff like that. But then we all want to achieve things, seek out happy experiences, etc.
So what I am telling you is that you should prioritize based on the negative stuff first and foremost. This is what you should focus on in early recovery.
When you first get clean and sober you need to figure out what all the negative stuff is, what is the garbage that is clogging up your mind, what are the things that are creating unhappiness in your life on a daily basis.
You need to make a list of those things, the negative things, and then put them in order with the biggest offender at the top of your life.
Then you need to get to work.
Don’t worry about the positive stuff. Don’t worry about chasing your dreams just yet. Because if you try to chase your dreams in early recovery you are going to be dragged down by all of the negative stuff while you are doing it.
You have to do it in the right order. You have to fix that negative crap first before you try to chase your dreams. You have to fix the resentment, the fear, the toxic relationships. You have to eliminate self pity and anxiety and you have to forgive yourself and others. If you hang on to any of that stuff then it will ruin your life while you are chasing your dreams.
We think that if we can just chase our dreams and achieve them that all of the negative stuff will just float away. Wrong. This is why recovery is actually work. If you could just jump right to the good stuff then it would be easy and everyone would get sober. But it’s hard work because you have to actually put in some effort.
And so this is rather tough at first. You work on this negative garbage in your life and none of it gets any easier for a while. Where is the fun? It takes time.
But the reward will kick in eventually. The rewards will kick in big time if you put in the hard work in early recovery.
The question is, how exactly do you do that? How do you “put in the work” in early recovery?
You ask for help.
Seeking feedback for new directions to travel in
There is nothing sophisticated about asking for help.
You just do it. Ask for advice. Ask for guidance from other people in recovery. Ask them to tell you how to live, what actions to take, what you should be focusing on right now in your everyday life.
Find people you trust in recovery and ask them for help. This is not rocket science. Find people who are living the kind of life that you want and then ask them for advice.
And now here is the real kicker:
You have to actually take their advice and follow through on it!
That of course is the hard part. Anyone can walk around and pretend to be humble and look for all sorts of advice. But none of that stuff will matter if you don’t actually change your routine and switch up your behavior. You have to do something different in order to get different results.
Someone shocked me when I was in early recovery when they said “Your best ideas got you here!”
I was like “what?”
They had to explain it to me. They said “look, your best ideas about how to live life and be happy got you into rehab and completely miserable.”
I had to think about that one for a moment.
At first I thought: “Well, how do they know I was using my best ideas about how to live my life and be happy?”
And then I realized, well of course everyone is using their best ideas all the time. Why would you use your worst ideas? Of course we are all trying to maximize our happiness in life. Alcoholics and addicts just happen to have fallen into a trap in this regard. We thought were happy and yet we were actually miserable. And then we hid this fact from ourselves using a device known as denial.
But truly, I realized that the guy was right. I had been using all of my best ideas about how to be happy, and yet I ended up hating my life and being miserable. Here I was in detox, hoping to somehow rebuild my life and be happy again while sober. I did not even think it was possible.
So this taught me an important lesson. My ideas don’t always lead me to happiness. I think that they will, because I like to think that I am “smart.” But being smart and being happy are not always paired up as frequently as you might think. And who is to say that I am smart anyway? I’m just another drunk, a bozo on the bus of life. Nothing special. And here I am, trying to be happy, and I end up miserably drunk and in rehab.
Therefore, you should take suggestions and advice from other people. This is a massive shortcut to happiness. If you do this for long enough you will feel like you are “cheating” at life because you will start to become happier and happier. And you will feel like a cheat because you won’t even be thinking much or worrying or having much anxiety. Because you outsourced your decisions to other people. You trusted in someone else to guide you, and they are leading you to peace and contentment. And you will think that it is unfair that you should be so happy when you are making such little effort, when you used to struggle so hard in your addiction and yet you were always miserable. The contrast is really amazing.
But in order to do this you have to abandon nearly everything and cast caution to the wind. You must make a leap of faith. You must abandon self to a very large extent. You must listen to other people and you have to do what they tell you to do.
Will you become a robot? Will you be boring? Will you be bored out of your mind? I feared that all of this would happen and worse. But in truth my life got better and better, and it was anything but boring. In fact it got really exciting. But I had to take the leap of faith first and throw caution to the wind.
The long term rewards of holistic health
If you want to make a goal for the new year then one of your themes for this might be “health.” Not just physical health either, but all areas of your health: Spiritual, mental, emotional, social, physical, etc.
One thing you might challenge yourself with is to write down one positive change that you could make for each month of the year. Then on the first day of each month you basically start a new 30 day challenge to incorporate some healthy new change into your life. So one month it might be daily meditation. You agree that you will meditate every single day for the entire month without fail. After that month ends you are free to forget about meditation forever if you like. This is a way to test positive changes and decide if they are a good fit for or not. Another month you might commit to walking for an hour each day. Another month you might agree to write in a journal every day about your emotions for the day.
If you keep doing this and testing new ideas to improve your holistic health then eventually the rewards of this will start to compound. This is because of two things:
1) Improving your health holistically is cumulative. So the gains that you make each month (if they are worthy) get “locked in” for life and then you build on those positive changes in the future. For example, if you start meditating then this might lead you to distance running which in turn might lead to you quitting cigarettes, etc. The benefits accumulate.
2) Improving your health holistically is synergistic. I know that sounds like a fancy word (“synergy”) but it just means that the sum of all the parts is greater than the whole. In other words if you improve your diet, improve your sleep, start exercising, and also start meditating daily then the outcome of this is not just one plus one plus one equals three. It is more like it equals 5 or 7 because the benefits of each single thing enhance the benefits of the other goals. In other words, if you set goals that all lead to greater holistic health then you will be living in alignment and good things will start to happen as if by magic. You will not be able to predict the outcome of this sort of living until you actually do it because the interactions between your positive goals will be somewhat random. And this is part of the journey of discovery that happens in recovery from addiction. Things get better and better and you don’t necessarily know exactly how it will all end up, but if you are working hard then the results are usually pretty fantastic. At least they have been for me.
Goal oriented living in recovery
So I would urge anyone who is reading this to set a goal for themselves in the new year. Challenge yourself a little. Find something that is going to get you really excited if you actually reach it, but also something that is going to make you work really hard in order to achieve it. These are the kind of goals that have given me the biggest rewards in my recovery.
Do you have a goal for your recovery in the new year? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!