How Can You Defeat Complacency in Addiction Recovery?

How Can You Defeat Complacency in Addiction Recovery?


The problem with complacency is that it sneaks up on people.

You never see it coming.

Complacency is when you are doing well in recovery and things are working out well for you. Good things are happening. The rewards of sobriety are kicking in.

Life is good.

And so you stop pushing yourself. You stop pushing to learn new things, to discover new things about yourself. You stop challenging yourself.

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Think about what it was like in your first 30 days of sobriety. Or your first six months. Remember how challenging that was, to keep learning all sorts of new things about yourself and about your life? You had to relearn how to live sober. You had to ask questions. You had to take advice from other people.

My theory is that if you want to be successful in long term sobriety then you need to keep doing those things. You have to keep learning, keep pushing yourself, keep finding new challenges. My theory is that this is what keeps us clean and sober. This is what prevents complacency.

If you instead choose to wait for complacency to kick in, and then react to it, this will lead to relapse.

Reacting to complacency is always going to be a losing strategy

There is an old joke in AA meetings that goes:

Newcomer: “How many meetings do I need to go to each week?”
Oldtimer: “Just keep cutting them down until you relapse. Then you will know for sure!”

It is supposed to be cute but it also illustrates the problem of complacency. You don’t really know how little you can get away with in recovery until you push the limits too far and relapse.

Only in retrospect can we see when we let our complacency go too far.

This should give you a strong hint as to what your strategy should be regarding complacency.

One, you should assume that you are constantly in danger of becoming complacent. No matter how hard you think you have been working on your recovery lately, it may just barely be enough. Do you ever get to truly kick back and put your feet up and rest in recovery? Do you ever get to just forget about all of this recovery stuff for a while and truly relax? When does that moment begin?

Do you get to “put on the brakes” in your recovery after you get a year sober? After five years sober? After ten years?

When is that magic moment when you have “arrived” in sobriety and you are pretty much fully cured?

That last bit should set of red flags in your mind. No one is ever cured. And therefore complacency is an eternal threat. It never goes away completely.

If you wait until you become complacent then it is already too late. You can really only see the complacency in retrospect.

Therefore the solution is to assume that you are always on the edge of becoming too lazy.

Think about this for a moment. What is the outcome of each mindset?

The complacency mindset is saying: “Let’s allow ourselves to relax a little and enjoy life. No need to keep challenging ourselves with this recovery stuff forever, right? Let’s practice some self acceptance and just enjoy life and be lazy for a while!”

Not only could this lead to relapse, but you also stop growing. You stop learning new things about yourself. You stop setting and meeting new goals.

The alternative is to take the opposite mindset: “I could be slowly becoming complacent, so I need to take a look at my life and determine where I have been slacking off lately. Then I need to make a special effort in that area so that I can experience some new growth. At the very least if I get honest and take a hard look at my life (again) then I will learn something new about myself.”

So obviously the second mindset is going to produce better long term results in recovery. Most people would rather be lazy and assume that they are “doing fine in their recovery.” But the better approach is to stay vigilant and realize that complacency is a constant threat, so you had better take a proactive approach against it.

Every recovering alcoholic is at risk for becoming complacent

Every alcoholic is at risk for complacency. It is the number one offender in long term recovery.

Ask yourself: What happens after you do all of the hard work in early recovery? What happens after you work through all of your resentments, take care of self pity, and work hard to eliminate your character defects? What happens after you clean up your life, make your amends, and also clean up your character? What happens after you put in all of that hard work and you feel like you have pretty much “arrived” in recovery?

One of two things can happen at that point. Either you can get comfortable, get lazy, get complacent, and possibly relapse. Or, you can push yourself to keep going, to keep improving yourself and your life, and to keep learning more and more about yourself every day.

One is a path of growth. The other is a path of stagnation.

The path of growth is the best form of relapse prevention that I know about. If there were an easier way to prevent relapse then I would certainly be doing it. But as far as I can tell there is no magic shortcut to long term sobriety. If you want to stay sober in the long run then you have to keep reinventing yourself, over and over again. This is personal growth. This is self analysis and learning about yourself. And it’s hard work. It takes guts to follow this path for years or even decades. You never get to pat yourself on the back and relax and say “that’s it, I am recovered, I am all done.” You don’t get that luxury. Instead, you keep pushing, you keep challenging yourself.

And it’s not so bad. When I put it like I did above, it probably sounds like an awful lot of work. But it’s not so bad. I mean, it is work, of course. But it’s not just meaningless work. You actually get rewarded for your efforts. Life keeps getting better and better when you live this way.

You might think of this as the one percent improvement rule. Let’s say that you are working really hard on personal growth and you sustain that over the next three years, the next five years, the next ten years. Well, nothing much happens from one day to the next, even though you are working really hard on making positive changes. But ultimately if you are pushing yourself then you might be one percent happier and more successful with each passing month. Maybe about a ten percent change per year or something.

And of course, it all adds up. The rewards of sobriety start to accumulate. And in reality it is not linear like I am describing above. In fact it is exponential, which makes it even more amazing. So in other words, the first six months of your sobriety might start really slowly, and you will see very little changes at first. But then from six months to a year sober you will start to see amazing changes. And then maybe each month after that one year mark you will be amazed at all of the positive changes you see happening in your life.

This is because there is a long term effect in recovery. When you put in the hard work, it takes time for the benefits to kick in. It doesn’t happen overnight.

So you have to give it time. You have to keep pushing, keep challenging yourself, keep making positive changes in life, even if it seems like the rewards are not coming to you. Because they do kick in eventually and there is a multiplicative effect down the road.

And of course, if you become complacent at some point then you rob yourself of all of these long term benefits instead.

You can become complacent at any point in your recovery. Length of sobriety is irrelevant

Anyone can become complacent. It doesn’t matter if you have six months sober or 15 years sober. Either person can become complacent.

As such, you need to assume that you could, at any given moment in your recovery, be sliding into a comfortable complacency that might eventually lead you to relapse. You must always assume this and act accordingly.

So the question is, what is the strategy to battle complacency? How do you go about doing this on a day to day basis?

An ongoing strategy to always be battling complacency

Personal growth is the strategy to overcome complacency. The question is, how do you address the issue of personal growth? How do you prioritize? How do you take action?

First of all, break your life down into the five major categories of your health:

1) Physical health.
2) Spiritual health.
3) Mental health.
4) Emotional health.
5) Social health.

Now, every day, you must ask yourself if you are taking care of yourself in each of these five areas.

At some point you will review your life and realize that you have been neglecting one of these areas for far too long. And that is a huge red flag.

If you continue to neglect one of these areas of your health then this can lead to a sort of complacency. This can lead to relapse.

So the key is to review. Look at your life and figure out if you are neglecting your health in one of these five major areas.

If you have been neglecting an area then you need to take action.

Another suggestion is that you need to use your peers in recovery to help you with this process of analysis. You can ask your sponsor, your therapist, or your peers: “What do you see that I need to be working on in my recovery right now?”

There are many different ways to ask that question. Another way is: “What do you see as being my biggest weakness right now?”

And then you take that feedback and you act on it. You take action. You identify problems and weaknesses and you attack them.

This builds strength.

This builds the type of strength that will directly prevent relapse.

Because you see, the disease of addiction has many different avenues of attack. The disease of addiction has many different ways that it can try to attack you and trip you up in your recovery.

So when you look at your overall health (not just physical or spiritual but all forms of your health) and you identify the weakest part, that is likely where your addiction will try to attack you next. That is where you are becoming complacent.

So another way to say this is: “How am I becoming complacent in my life?” Not just in your recovery, because many people in AA will look at your situation and say something like:

“Oh, well, you are going to meetings every day, and you do sponsorship and I see you are also going to church and so I think you are doing great, no complacency to be found!”

But this can be misleading. Don’t just look at your “recovery activities.” Don’t just look at AA meeting attendance. That is just one tiny measure of complacency.

Instead, look at the whole picture. Look at your exercise, your eating habits, your sleeping patterns. Look at your relationships. Look at your emotional stability. Look at your stress levels. Look at your progress at work, school, your career. Look at you connections with others in recovery. Look at your step work or the “internal work” that you may be doing on resentments, anger, fear, shame, guilt, and so on. Look at all of these things and find where you have been weak, where you have been slacking off lately.

Find the complacency. Find where you have been lax. Get input from other people. Ask your sponsor, your peers, your family and friends. Do they see you slacking off in any way? Do they see you getting complacent? Do they notice things that are not as they should be in your life?

And turn it around, ask them about the positive things too. “What goal should I pursue next? What is the next challenge that you see me taking on in life?” And so on.

Find your next step. Analyze yourself, but also ask for input from other people. Find your next project, your next growth experience. Then dedicate yourself to the goal and attack it.

Do this over and over again. Keep seeking. Keep searching. Keep pushing yourself. This is the path of personal growth. This is how you avoid complacency.

A few suggestions to keep yourself on your toes

Here are a couple of suggestions to help keep yourself moving forward on a path of personal growth.

One, you can join a sponsorship group. So you can find a sponsor in AA who actually has sponsorship meetings each month. So you all get together and you talk about how each person is doing and that brings some accountability to the table. It helps to keep you motivated because you know you are going to have to update people on how you have been progressing. Of course this all depends on your level of self motivation. If you find that you need help to get motivated then this is a great way to go.

Two, you can establish daily habits that become part of your daily practice. Exercise is a big one for me, I have to have a routine for exercise or I just won’t do it consistently. So instead of just trying to exercise on a regular basis, I had to make a commitment to myself that I was going to do it every single day without fail. I had to commit to it first and then establish the habit second. And now that I have been doing it for so long it has become automatic for me. I just do it every day automatically and it has a huge impact on the quality of my health in recovery.

There are other things that you could incorporate into your daily practice. Meditation is a popular activity for this. Some people meditate every day and they do this no matter what the circumstances are in their life. In much the same way as exercise, this can have a very leveling effect on the emotional “noise” that may be present throughout your day. For example, if you meditate every day for 30 minutes straight or you go run hard for 45 minutes or an hour, then this has a very calming effect on the rest of your life. Suddenly the normal everyday stress that you experience doesn’t seem like such a big deal because you have these other things to help balance it. 30 minutes of intense meditation is not a trivial event! It is a big deal. Likewise, running six miles on steep hills (my old routine) is not a trivial matter either. When you get done with such exercise, you know that you just exercised. It is not like taking a casual five minute walk. It is much more intense than that and this has a profound effect on your emotional and mental health. It is sort of like a way to reset your mind, to reset your emotions. Running or jogging for several miles is cleansing. It is meditative. It is a powerful way to turn the volume down on the rest of your life, because when you run (or meditate) for significant periods of time, it is very intense. Hopefully that makes a bit of sense and if it doesn’t then I would suggest that you probably have to experience what I am talking about in order to really appreciate it. In other words, people who are avid joggers or who are really into yoga or meditation tend to be very dedicated and enthusiastic about it. This is because those things have tremendous benefit when you establish routines with them and turn them into part of your lifestyle, but it is almost impossible to properly convey those benefits to other people.

You might try writing in a journal on a regular basis as a way to prevent complacency. Most people do not immediately see how writing their thoughts down every day is going to help them in recovery, but it is one of those things that you have to experience in order to appreciate it.

For example, if you write in a journal every single day and then after a year or six months you go back and read some of your early entries it will do at least two things:

1) It will remind you and illustrate just how much growth you have made over this time period. We don’t typically see the personal growth because we are too “close” to it.
2) It will remind you of the challenges you were facing in the past and the goals that you had set for yourself. This will prompt you to consider your current goals and set new ones.

Writing in a journal is also a good tool because then it gives you an excuse and a platform to write your goals down in the first place. There is a lot of research out there on goal setting and one of the big pieces of data is that if you write your goals down you are much more likely to actually achieve them. So keeping a journal gives you an excuse to write them down.

What about you, have you been able to overcome complacency in long term sobriety? If so, what has your strategy been to do so? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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