One of the most important things that you can do in early recovery is to get incredibly honest with the people who are trying to help you. This can be very difficult to do because our pride, our ego, and our addiction itself will try to prevent us from making ourselves “vulnerable” in this way and getting the help that we really need.
In order to make true progress in recovery and start living an exciting new life, we are going to have to learn how to trust other people, how to get brutally honest with them, and how to make ourselves vulnerable–even when our ego is crying out against this.
Why you need to make yourself vulnerable in order to grow
One of the biggest hurdles that addicts and alcoholics face in their journey to sobriety has to do with their own self awareness and self assessment.
We all have issues and problems that we need to deal with in our recovery in order to be healthy. We all have things that we need to work on in order to keep making progress and moving forward in our recovery. And perhaps most of all, we all have to somehow clear the hurdle of seeing our addiction problem to begin with, and making that leap of faith into recovery itself.
Long term recovery is an exercise in continuous personal growth and development. If you stop learning and stop growing, you will tend to relapse….simple as that. So the key to recovery is continuous growth.
We can break this personal growth down into two basic categories:
1) Positive achievements or goals to pursue.
2) Fixing negative things about ourselves.
Believe it or not, #2 is far more important in recovery.
Because we get more “bang for our buck” by fixing our problems, eliminating negative behaviors, and reversing destructive habits than we do by forming new positive ones. It seems a bit counter-intuitive, but it is true.
Think about it for a moment: What would be a more beneficial goal for someone: Volunteering for a youth group, or getting off of heroin?
Right, getting off of heroin should really take priority! It is the better goal of the two to choose because achieving it will have a greater overall positive impact on that person’s life.
Eliminating negatives is actually more important than creating positives, especially when it comes to addiction.
And of course, ideally, you want to do both if you can, and combine the two strategies. But for now, realize that eliminating negative parts of our lives is really the first priority.
So, what does this have to do with getting honest with other people?
How does making yourself vulnerable help you to eliminate the negative parts of your life in recovery?
We are each other’s eyes and ears in recovery
Getting honest with other people in recovery is important because, as the saying goes, “we are each other’s eyes and ears.”
What exactly does that mean?
It means that we are not always able to see our own flaws, our own undoing, our own problems. We are too close to our journey to see when it may be leading us astray.
This is where other people can come in to help us. If we share our lives with others, let people in and let them know what is going on with us, how we are feeling, how we are dealing with life, what are ideas are for the future, then we can get some valuable feedback and insight into how we are really doing in our recovery.
This takes risk, of course. It is natural to be nervous when we share our innermost thoughts and ideas with others. Part of the early recovery is learning how to trust people again. Many of us lost our ability to trust due to our addiction–either because of our own behavior, or other’s, or both.
There is a back-and-forth process in early recovery that depends on being open, describing your feelings and thoughts to other people, and receiving feedback about those feelings so that you:
1) Know what to do in order to stay clean and sober.
2) Know that your feelings are OK, that you are normal, and that they will pass eventually.
Most people realize what they need to do in order to get clean and sober. They know that they need to abstain from drugs and alcohol and find support in their recovery. They know that they need to take action, do some footwork, and make some major changes in their lives. They know that they need to either take positive action every day or start working some steps or some sort of structured program if they are going to have any hope for long term recovery.
The thing that most people do NOT realize is in #2: “Knowing that your feelings are OK and that they will pass.”
This is really, really important in early recovery.
Because nearly every addict and alcoholic who has to go through the crazy process of entering recovery is in a state of total confusion, disarray, and hopelessness. They have just surrendered to their disease of addiction, probably are near suicidal, and are completely at their wit’s end about how they could ever live any kind of normal life again. They feel isolated and completely unique, like no one on earth has ever gone through the same sort of addiction that they are suffering. These feelings are intense and, quite frankly, are strong enough to keep most addicts and alcoholics trapped in the cycle of addiction.
Dealing with these feelings in early recovery will make or break your sobriety. At this early stage, it is not so much about knowing how to get sober as it is learning how to deal with this emotional train wreck of feelings that is going on.
There is only one way for a human to deal with this type of emotional turmoil: They have to share it with someone else.
That is the only way that the chaotic feelings of early recovery can be dealt with.
You have to share your feelings with other human beings, and that requires some serious honesty.
But what do we really mean when we say “honesty” in recovery?
“Cash register honesty” versus talking about your feelings
When we talk about getting really honest in early recovery in order to maintain sobriety, we are not just talking about “cash register honesty.”
That type of honesty is what we teach our children about: how not to tell an open and bald faced lie to someone. How to speak the truth plainly.
But when we talk about being honest in recovery, we are digging at something even deeper than this.
Something more important, more critical….so it is important that you understand this part.
Honesty in recovery is all about your feelings…..your emotions.
Specifically, the feelings that you need to identify the most, and then communicate to other people, are the negative ones.
If you feel fear, anger, hurt, sadness, shame, regret, or any of that negative stuff, then you need to get it out and share it with others who are in recovery.
Why is this so important?
The reason that this is important in recovery is because this is the stuff that drives people to relapse.
Most of the world does not understand this. They believe that relapse is caused by typical “triggers,” like someone walking into their favorite bar or bumping into an old drug buddy, or things like that.
But in fact, our most dangerous triggers are almost always emotional. Our greatest urges to use come from our feelings that go left unchecked, that spiral out of control, that threaten to consume us if we are not more careful about communicating them and getting relief from them.
It may sound like a crazy thing to say, but one of the most important parts of staying clean and sober is in learning how to communicate our feelings with other people. The stuff that goes on deep inside our head, the stuff that makes us feel like we are going crazy, or feel trapped, or feel like we are going to explode in frustration or anger–those are the things we need to talk about and get honest about.
It is not that you have to vent to others, or gripe and moan about your problems in order to achieve success in recovery. That would be a misunderstanding of this critical process. Instead, this is about dealing with the negative emotions that we have….the core feelings that are usually based in either fear or sadness.
Now here is the thing: If you ask most people in recovery if they can be honest with other people, they will tell you that this comes easily for them. But if you ask them to get honest with other people about their deepest fears, you are probably going to get some dodging and surface-level answers. That is what we have to get beyond when we talk about honesty in recovery. We need to get down to the real nitty-gritty, those negative emotions that most people would like to keep buried.
How to get honest with yourself first and foremost
Your first step in learning how to communicate honestly in recovery is to figure out what your current emotional state is.
You cannot communicate your feelings until you know what they are.
Keep in mind that we often label our opinions as “feelings.” This is a confusing mistake.
When you want to get honest, ask yourself this question first:
“Am I sad, mad, glad, or scared?”
If you are mad, try to go underneath the anger and see what it driving it. Anger is almost always driven by some form of fear. Also, many times you can be angry because another person has hurt you maliciously or intentionally. But realize that your anger is being caused by another emotion underneath of it, in addition to it.
This is really the first and only step in getting really honest with yourself about anything. How do you actually feel?
The answer should always be an emotion, a feeling. If you are troubleshooting your feelings in recovery, then it is probably a negative emotion of some sort. You are either hurt, scared, or angry.
Once you figure it out, give yourself time to process that feeling.
Learning how to trust others in recovery
The way to start building trust with other people in recovery is to share your feelings with them.
Again, make sure you are not sharing your opinions. You want to share a feeling with them, such as by stating:
“I am sad because….”
“I have fear in my life today because of……”
“I am angry today and this is what is driving my anger….”
The key to building up your ability to trust others is to share these feelings with them.
Now you might be objecting to this, and saying something like “Why do I have to share my feelings, can’t I just share some other things about myself, like how I am doing in my recovery program, or what my plan is for recovery, or something like that instead? Can’t I build up trust by sharing something other than my feelings?”
The answer is NO, you cannot build up trust by sharing things other than your feelings.
Because all of that other stuff is just surface level stuff. It’s not important.
The thing is, we rarely admit this to ourselves, but it is true. We don’t actually care about all of that surface level stuff, and we don’t mind one bit sharing it with each other. But real trust and real meaning is generated when we share our true feelings with each other–not our opinions, but our emotions. Our fear, our anger, our sadness. When we share these feelings openly and honestly with others in recovery, it gives us incredible strength.
We get feedback from other people about how they dealt with the negative emotions. This is not that important really.
We also get the identification with the other people in recovery, because we realize that they have been right where we are, that they have gone through those emotions in early recovery as well, and that they made it through without using drugs or alcohol. This is important. This identification that we get from sharing our feelings is the important part.
That is why we have to learn how to trust others in recovery, so that we have a mechanism to deal with our feelings through identification. Without this identifying, we feel isolated, alone, unique, and hopeless.
Identifying gives us hope. We have to open up, get honest, and share our true feelings if we are going to identify with others.
What happens when you shut others out and try to recover alone
The problem with isolating in recovery is that the addict or alcoholic tends to be their own worst enemy. Our natural solution for many years has been to self medicate with our drug of choice, so this is going to pop up as a ready solution at the first sign of a problem.
Every addict and alcoholic in early recovery will eventually have a day, a moment, or an experience that could potentially make or break their sobriety. It will be a situation with intense feelings. It will not be someone shoving their drug of choice in their face that triggers them, but instead it will be their own feelings and emotions that they will consider medicating over.
This moment is inevitable. It will happen, given enough time in recovery. Everyone is tested sooner or later. The trick is that we almost never realize how it will happen, and we believe that “cash register honesty” can protect us from relapse.
The truth is, the “cash register honesty” is not how we can get tripped up. Instead, we need to watch out for an emotional storm, when we get trapped in our own thoughts and then we start to isolate. This is where we need to be in the habit of being truly open and honest with someone else.
You may even get a friend or sponsor in recovery and do a regular “emotions check” with them. It may sound ridiculous, but nothing could be more helpful for your long term emotional health in recovery. How are you feeling, and why?
Just identifying our feelings is half the battle…..communicating them honestly is the other half. What happens next though?
Nothing, actually. Your feelings are fine. They just ARE. Let them be. You do not have to “fix them” necessarily.
But you do need to identify them, and get honest enough to share them with other people. This is the key to staying emotional sober in recovery. And your emotional sobriety is going to be absolutely critical in determining your overall success in recovery and your quality of life.