Successful addiction recovery requires some amount of challenge. If you are bored while being clean and sober then there will be a natural tendency to seek out drama, tension, excitement, or just about anything to make your life interesting again.
Therefore it makes sense to seek personal growth in recovery so that you are always being challenged a bit. Of course, too much challenge can become overwhelming and discouraging all at the same time, and may even lead to relapse eventually.
But the greater danger, I believe, is that you do not challenge yourself enough in recovery.
The greater danger is that you get too comfortable in recovery.
You get complacent. Recovery is now “figured out” for you, and so you get lazy.
And that is where the real danger comes in–complacency and a serious threat of relapse. As a matter of fact, complacency is thought to be the single biggest threat to people in long term recovery. After you get past the initial hurdles in early recovery, the only thing left that can really screw you up is complacency. It is the final enemy of the recovering addict or alcoholic.
So how do you find the perfect rate of challenge in recovery, and how do you go about keeping yourself on a path of steady growth?
How to notice complacency setting in
If complacency were easy to recognize then it would not be such a problem.
That may seem obvious, but consider again the idea that this is the number one killer of “successful” recovering alcoholics. It is such a big threat because it is so sneaky, and because it is difficult to detect when we might be falling victim to it.
The key, therefore, is in awareness. You must be fully aware of the concept, first of all, which of course now you will be after reading this article. Second, you must be willing to give the concept the mindfulness that it deserves, and recognize complacency as being a valid threat. If you simply dismiss this idea as something that can never happen to you, then you are already setting yourself up for failure!
In all reality, most all addicts and alcoholics who stay clean and sober for decades or longer will eventually go through brief periods where they become somewhat complacent. This is sort of a normal human cycle. We wax and wane in our recovery. There are times when we are “fully plugged in” to our recovery and we are working closely with other addicts and we are pushing ourselves to make new growth, but then there are also times when we sort of drift away from our recovery a bit, we might not be very conscious of it for a while. There is nothing necessarily alarming about this, it is just the normal flow of life. Every recovering addict and alcoholic will naturally have periods of time where they are “really into their recovery” and then times when they are sort of just coasting along.
Now think about this carefully because it is very important to your long term sobriety. Every recovering addict and alcoholic will naturally go through some periods where they find themselves sort of “coasting along” in their recovery, not really pushing themselves to make huge changes, and they have just sort of fallen into a pattern in their recovery, almost fallen asleep in a way.
Increasing your awareness and prompting yourself to think about complacency on a regular basis will help you to realize when you are in these passive transitional states. If you have never heard of the concept of complacency or if you never bother to think about it then you will not be able to realize when it is happening to you.
Therefore the first thing you have to do is to heighten your awareness and be vigilant about recognizing when you start to “coast” in your recovery. The 12 step program has a specific step that can help address this; it is step 10 and it involves taking a personal inventory on a daily basis. This is a valid concept regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the 12 step principles or not. You need to become vigilant and attempt to evaluate your life and your recovery on a regular, ongoing basis. Without doing so you will never be able to tell if you are starting to “coast” and potentially becoming complacent.
What is complacency like?
The state of becoming complacent might be a bit different for various people in recovery. But most likely it will involve some of the following symptoms:
* You are bored with your life.
* You are sick of your recovery routine (most likely daily meetings for most people).
* You have not felt challenged in a while.
* You have not felt uncomfortable in making any changes lately.
* You have not pushed yourself lately, in any way.
* You have not become excited or passionate about anything lately.
* You have not made any deep connections with others lately.
If you start to coast in your recovery then it just means that you are sort of going through the motions, and that you have stopped growing as a person and are merely maintaining your current state.
The key in recovery is that you want to keep pushing yourself to grow.
Now this does not have to be an “all day, every day” kind of growth.
It is perfectly natural for people in recovery (and people outside of recovery too!) to find themselves coasting for a bit, and just enjoying life.
However, this is a warning signal for the recovering addict or alcoholic that they need to “get back to growth.”
It is fine to notice that you are coasting. I am not suggesting that you have to have 3 different projects for personal growth going on at all times. All I am suggesting is that:
* You become aware of the cycle in recovery–periods of personal growth, followed by “coasting” and a resting period.
* Once you notice yourself in a “coasting period,” you start to plan your next major challenge, your next growth experience in recovery.
So ultimately you need to get at least three things from this idea so far:
1) Realize that complacency exists in recovery and it is a threat.
2) Make the decision to become aware of when you are coasting in your recovery.
3) Make the decision to take action and nudge yourself in the direction of personal growth after you notice yourself coasting.
So the natural cycle of growth and “coasting” will continue for you in your recovery. All you are going to do is to become MORE AWARE of this cycle, and make sure that you prompt yourself to keep taking positive action in your life, rather than falling into a permanent habit of laziness or inaction.
So then, how do you push yourself to take positive action once you realize that you may be coasting a bit?
Make a list of problem areas to target to improve your life
Start with the negatives in your life.
This is counter-intuitive.
You would think that it would make more sense to chase after positive goals, and things that you want to accomplish.
But the truth is that you get MORE benefit by seeking to eliminate negative habits from your life FIRST.
If you think about this enough you will realize that it is true. Just consider your drug or alcohol addiction as the primary example. When you were still self medicating with drugs and alcohol, what was the single biggest positive change that you could have made in your life? Of course it was to get clean and sober!
Similarly, if you happen to have any other negative habits once you are in recovery–such as smoking, gambling, being out of shape, overeating, poor diet–you will do far better to eliminate these bad habits then you would be to try to seek a positive goal (such as learning a new skill or traveling to a new destination).
The reason for this is because the decision to be happy is actually very simple, and contentment and happiness is actually very easy to attain. Mostly it is just a decision that you make in the present moment rather than a bunch of goals that you might seek to attain. So all of that negative stuff that seeks to hold you back is your greatest source of unhappiness. Eliminate those things, and you will naturally become happy and content.
Furthermore, if you have things that you want to experience in life (such as traveling to new places or learning new skills) then your bad habits in life will tend to hold you back from such goals as well as to corrupt your enjoyment of such things. In other words, even if you chase after those positive goals first, your enjoyment of them will suffer because you still have negative habits in your life that hold you back. You can chase a positive goal but you will not find true happiness in attaining it, because you have so many negative disturbances still in your life.
Therefore your goal should be to examine your life in recovery and identify the problem areas first. Are you still smoking cigarettes? If so, then that is almost certainly your biggest challenge and therefore will be the most rewarding thing to tackle first. Eliminating that one thing will bring you more happiness than any other goal that you might pursue.
Similarly, if you have other negative habits in your life, you would do well to target those first as areas of change that you can pursue.
My philosophy of change has always been to pick just ONE single goal in recovery, and focus on it exclusively until I have mastered it. So if you are going to try to quit smoking cigarettes, do not try to also change your diet, lose weight, start exercising, and quit smoking all in one weekend.
Doing so will probably result in becoming overwhelmed and you are likely to give up and just go back to coasting again.
Instead, the right approach (for me anyway) was always to tackle just one major goal at a time, and to focus on it exclusively until I fully mastered that goal and locked in the gains.
This careful approach insures a couple of things:
1) That you do not get overwhelmed trying to take on too many changes at once.
2) Because you always pick the biggest impact goal in your life FIRST (such as a smoker trying to quit smoking), you are always challenged just the right amount, because you are still taking on a challenging goal.
3) You follow the natural rhythm and cycle of recovery and allow yourself to make personal growth, then rest for a bit and regroup before you become aware of your “coasting,” only to set out to make your next deliberate change in your life. So you are not frantic or rushing or forcing lots of awkward changes.
Obviously the key is that you have to think about this stuff rather frequently, so that you maintain enough awareness to be able to objectively gauge just how much you are pushing yourself, and how often. If you are not paying attention to the idea of complacency then you can not do anything to fight against it.
On the other hand, if you are constantly exerting yourself to make changes and going 100 miles per hour all the time then you run the risk of burning out or becoming overwhelmed. So focus on just making one change at a time, but always make sure that it is the biggest impact change that you could be making.
For example, do not fall into the trap of believing that you are making real progress in recovery by making the little changes that are not significant. I had a close friend in recovery who was overweight and still smoking cigarettes in his recovery, and he had tried to address both of these problems but failed to make any progress.
What he needed to do was to pick one of the problems and focus on it. Instead, he started working on lowering his salt intake due to his high blood pressure. This did not work out so well for him and in the long run he might have done much better to address his cigarette smoking first, then his weight problem, then finally his salt intake.
This is why I suggest that you make “the biggest impact change FIRST.” In the above example that probably would have been the cigarette smoking. That should have been the first challenge, and the outcome would have been much better if he had addressed that change first and mastered it before moving on to his other issues.
Consider the holistic health angle and weigh your options
If you are lacking for changes to make in recovery then you should consider the idea of holistic health.
You may not have any glaring problems such as nicotine addiction, obesity, or poor nutrition. But this does not mean that you cannot find positive changes to make in your life that will have a serious impact on your recovery.
As indicated above you should attempt to examine your entire life and seek out any problem areas first. What is your greatest source of stress? What holds you back from being happy, if anything?
Whatever those things are, they should be your first and biggest challenges to address in your life.
There are almost always more things that we can do to improve our life in recovery. There are nearly always more positive changes that we can make that will improve our overall health.
You may consider the following areas of your health when thinking about what you might want to change next:
* Physical health – quitting smoking, exercising, getting into shape, eating a healthier diet, losing weight, etc.
* Mental health – seeking higher education, getting counseling or therapy if you see a need for it, etc.
* Social health – finding new connections, working with others in recovery, interacting with people in recovery, etc.
* Emotional health – working deliberately to improve your relationships, focusing on maintaining emotional sobriety, decreasing your stress level through changes.
* Spiritual health – seeking a deeper connection with your higher power, seeking a spiritual path based on helping other people, etc.
If you go through all of these areas of your life and you decide that your entire life is totally perfect then you are probably not looking deeply enough or holding yourself to a high enough standard.
Basically there is a trade off that can always be made between two things:
Acceptance of your life like it is right now, and the desire to make positive changes to improve your life in the future.
It is a constant trade off and therefore you are always seeking a HEALTHY balance between these two things.
Of course we want acceptance in our lives and “acceptance” is a big part of our recovery. Learning to accept the things we cannot change is obviously an important part of our recovery.
But in the land of personal growth, “acceptance” is often the enemy. Why?
Because we can use “acceptance of self” as an excuse for inaction. Being lazy and complacent serves no one, and is a threat to our long term health in recovery.
Therefore, you need to find that healthy balance between acceptance and personal growth. You can do this by following the ideas outlined in this article, and consistently pushing yourself towards better holistic health, in all areas of your life.
Another thing that you might do is to question what part of your life you have been neglecting lately. For example, maybe you have been heavily focused on diet and nutrition for a while and you are very healthy physically, but you realize that you have not done anything in terms of spiritual growth for a long time. So you may prompt yourself to seek a new growth experience or push yourself to do something positive in this area based on this lack.
And realize that in order to do that, the key was that you needed to have that heightened awareness. This is why periodically examining your life and trying to take an objective look at where you are making progress and where you are just coasting is really important. If you cannot identify when you have stopped making personal growth then it will be impossible to prompt yourself to start up with it again.
But when do I get to enjoy my recovery?
Enjoy your recovery right now, this very moment.
Choose to be happy right now, regardless of which point of the cycle you are in (pushing yourself to achieve a new growth experience, or merely “coasting” for a bit).
Realize that it is a continuous cycle and that you are always going to be pushing yourself to make new growth in recovery. Accept that and enjoy the process.
Do not wait to be happy at some point in the future. Choose happiness today with the knowledge that you are always going to face another challenge in recovery.
It is nice to have something to work towards. And it is also nice to achieve a goal in your life and relax with the satisfaction of a job well done. But at some point after propping your feet up, you have to say “OK, what challenge am I going to tackle next in my life?” This is the natural process in recovery and this is where you have to find your joy. Not in the challenges necessarily and not in the coasting part, but in the process itself, in the ebb and the flow, in the natural progression of growth in recovery.
True happiness and contentment is available to you right now if you can embrace the lifelong challenges that recovery presents to you. Beauty is in the process itself. We are always growing.