How can we go about building confidence when fighting addiction? What are the steps that lead to a healthy and confident attitude in recovery?
Let’s take a closer look.
First of all: you don’t want a lot of confidence right off the bat in recovery
Before we get too carried away, realize that in very early recovery you do not necessarily want to have a large amount of confidence. Being over-confident in early recovery is one of the biggest causes of relapse, in fact. This is especially true if you have never had any experience with recovery before (your first time attempting to get clean and sober).
Therefore confidence is not something that you should be chasing just for the sake of being more confident and cocky. Instead, building confidence is something that should happen naturally as you strive for more personal growth. As you accumulate clean time your confidence will naturally rise so long as you are also pushing yourself to make positive changes in your life. It is entirely possible that you will skate by in recovery for a while without making any real growth and therefore you will be forever poised on the brink of relapse. This is not “real” recovery and just because you are maintaining abstinence does not mean that you are making real growth. Abstinence is a baseline for success but it is not the entire solution. Many people “tread water” in recovery without really making positive changes, and eventually end up relapsing because of it. Obviously this is a fate we want to avoid. We can do so by taking action, making positive changes, pushing ourselves to grow, and as a result of this healthy path our confidence will naturally rise in the long run. But it takes time for this to happen and it is certainly nothing that we want to try to force.
The three pillars of confidence in recovery
Like I said you do not want to try to force it (in building confidence) but on the other hand you do not want to just kick back and put your feet up either. The key is to take action and make something happen.
Building confidence in recovery is a result of three core concepts:
1) Continuous sobriety. Every day that you remain clean and sober is another victory. Clean time is obviously part of the equation here.
2) Personal growth. Every positive action you take yields benefit and reward in your life. This builds self esteem and a “moat” around your recovery. You are less likely to relapse if you have positive things happening in your life and a reason to stay clean and sober. Growth protects you.
3) Support. If you have the help and support of other people then you will naturally have more confidence in your journey. Especially true in early recovery.
So the question is, how can you incorporate each of these ideas into your recovery journey?
Obviously there are no magic secrets to be had when accumulating clean time. You have to simply grind it out and put together day after day of sobriety. If you use addictive drugs or alcohol then all progress is instantly erased and you are back to square one.
In some regards I almost feel like I “cheated” a bit in terms of continuous sobriety because I chose to live in long term rehab for the first 20 months of my journey. This made it relatively easy for me to maintain sobriety for that time period. On the other hand I had many peers who lived with me in long term treatment who also relapsed, so perhaps I should give myself more credit. At any rate I got a huge boost from being able to stay in this (relatively) safe environment and accumulate almost two full years of clean time before I had to face the world on my own. To me this felt like a big boost of confidence and I was grateful to be able to have stayed in long term treatment for that time.
Now obviously treatment is not a requirement in order to accumulate sobriety but it can certainly help. The amount of treatment services that you need will depend on your unique situation. I had already been to rehab twice (short term) and had failed to remain sober at all. Because of peer pressure and environmental factors, the younger you are the more treatment can probably benefit you. There are plenty of exceptions to that rule and anyone who wants to get a fresh start in their life should definitely consider going to get professional help. Treatment can help people who otherwise would never be able to get clean and sober at all.
Maintaining continuous sobriety does not insure continued success. You don’t get to a milestone (say 5 years sober) and then you are suddenly home free. People can relapse after any amount of clean time. However, this does not mean that accumulated clean time is completely worthless. It is still meaningful and it is still important. And obviously the longer you have sober the better. Some people in 12 step meetings try to invalidate clean time. They will say things like “I don’t care how many years you have sober….whoever got up the earliest this morning has the most clean time!” I think such people have missed the point–clean time still matters, it is just not the only thing that matters. If you can accumulate several days of sobriety in a row (or weeks or years) then this has a powerful cumulative effect. To discount that entirely is a mistake, in my opinion.
That said, it takes more than just stringing together days of sobriety in order to make your recovery a success. There are at least two other critical elements: Growth and support. Let’s move on and consider the idea of support and networking with others.
Support and networking
In early recovery support from others is especially important. After you have a few years in recovery this will not be as true, but during your first few critical months or years of recovery you most definitely want to have support in your life.
There are several reasons for this, and having this support will only serve to move you forward in your recovery and also give you more confidence:
1) Support helps you to relate. This is at least 50 percent of the entire value behind 12 step programs–the simple ability to relate to other people and realize that you are not crazy. This is really what made AA such a revolutionary event: For the first time, alcoholics could come together and realize that they had a common problem, and that they were not just going crazy. So when an alcoholic tells their story in AA and the newcomer sits there and listens to it, the newcomer can identify with parts of the story and realize that they are not as crazy as they thought they were. They can then realize that they are also not as unique as they thought they were, and that since this other person has obviously recovered, that there is hope for them. This is really the whole point behind the 12 step program and resulting experience. Identify, relate, and gain hope.
If you never reach out to other people or find any kind of support then you miss out on this chance to identify and relate. You’ll never really know that you are not crazy.
2) Ideas for living. When you first get to recovery, you have been living under self will for a long time, trying to use your own ideas about how to be happy (through self medicating). These ideas have failed you. Your quest to find eternal happiness in your drug of choice ended in misery. Therefore you came to recovery and asked for help. You need new ideas in order to recover. Your old ideas about how to be happy in life did not work. Where are you going to get these new ideas? Where are you going to get a new design for living? Where are you going to find a new strategy for how to live a good life and be happy again without drugs or alcohol? You need new ideas in order to recover and they cannot come from your own mind (at least at first!). If you try to use your own ideas in early recovery then you will likely just sabotage your own efforts and end up relapsing. Other people have ideas that are working for them. Therefore we need to look to other people for guidance and suggestions.
3) Immediate support. Sometimes it is all you can do to keep from picking up a drink or a drug, and your last line of defense is to pick up the phone and call your peer in recovery (or your sponsor if you have one). Sometimes the only way to avoid relapse is to sit in a coffee shop and talk for hours on end. Sometimes you need your peers to come physically pick you up and put you in their car and take you to meeting, and this is the only thing preventing relapse. Sometimes we need that immediate support that can only come from our friends and peers in recovery.
4) Support builds confidence. If you have people in your life who are helping you to find the right path in recovery then this can only help to strengthen your sobriety. Seeking feedback from others is a strong way to inspire personal growth. Having support and actually using that support creates confidence.
If support is the key to early recovery, then personal growth is the key to the next phase of your journey.
Many recovering addicts and alcoholics fall short in this leg of the journey. They may do well with the networking and the support but then they fail to follow through and take action.
At some point, you have to look at your life and make positive changes. Abstinence was just the baseline to get your started on your journey, now you have to actually make something positive happen. Failure to do so will eventually result in relapse. This will still be true even if you have plenty of support. Positive changes are still required.
At the core of building confidence is the concept of self esteem, and nowhere is that more effected than when you set goals, make positive changes, and achieve those goals for yourself. This is definitely the most powerful way to build confidence in recovery, and it is also most directly under your own control. Personal growth does not necessarily depend on other people (like support and networking does).
So what is the path of personal growth look like in recovery? We already know that continuous sobriety is the baseline for success–if you cannot remain drug and alcohol free then you need to take a step back, ask for more help, and get that stability in your life first. But after you have achieved sobriety and stability it is time to examine your life more closely and create positive change.
The way to do this is to start with the negative elements of your life and seek to correct them. This can be counter-intuitive so you may want to seek guidance and advice from others as you make this transition into “personal growth.” So you might ask your peers or your sponsor: “What is the most important change that I should make in my life now that I am clean and sober?” Or you might ask: “Now that I am clean and sober, what is my next step in life?” If they don’t have an answer for you then seek feedback from other sources (that you trust).
You would be surprised at how powerful this technique is at creating personal growth. When we seek feedback from others like this we benefit directly from their experience and wisdom. It is like a shortcut to success, but you have to actually take advice and follow through with it in order for it to be effective.
Why start with the negative stuff in your life? Because those are the things that are holding you back from happiness and success. It is a bit counter-intuitive, but you have to eliminate the negative forces before you can experience the life that you really want. It is far more effective to “eliminate misery” than it is to “chase happiness.” Most of us struggle to try to do exactly the opposite of this–we ignore the stuff that makes us miserable (like addictions) and then we continue to chase after things that we believe will make us happy (but which really won’t!).
Our journey in recovery should be like creating a blank slate with our lives. The start of this is abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol. But we need to take this a step further and eliminate other things in our life that may be causing unhappiness. If we fail to do this then recovery will just be a struggle and we will never find enough happiness and contentment to sustain sobriety in the long run. Personal growth should be driven by a need to clean up our lives and make positive changes.
Get an early win in order to get a starting point for confidence building
If you want to feel good about yourself early in your recovery journey then you need to get a “win” under your belt. Remember not to rush things too much. Confidence will come in its own time, but this does not mean that you should not take positive action.
My recommendation to anyone who is struggling to find a new path in life is to start with inpatient treatment. If you have struggled to get clean and sober in the past then this is typically your best starting point. There are other ways to get clean and sober but none are as comprehensive or effective. Of course this does not mean that going to rehab insures your success, but it does give you the greatest possible advantage.
After you leave rehab then you should follow through with the advice and guidance that you have been given. It was most likely suggested that you get yourself a sponsor and you should try to do exactly that. Find someone who appears to be living the kind of life that you want to live in recovery, and ask them if they will help guide you. If you cannot find such a person then go to some AA or NA meetings. Even if you are not big on the meetings you can still find people in them who are willing to help you.
This is how to get an “early win” in recovery. Establish your sobriety, ask for help from others, then follow through on the advice that they give you. If you do this then your confidence will grow as you take positive action.
Push yourself beyond what other people are doing for recovery
One of the unique things about the recovery journey is just how intense it needs to be in order to be successful. Most struggling addicts and alcoholics who first attempt to get clean and sober have no idea just how challenging it is to make recovery work for them. They underestimate the difficulty of staying sober and they overestimate their own ability to succeed. If you look at the typical success rates for overcoming addiction and alcoholism you can see the effects of this in terms of raw numbers. Most people fail to remain clean and sober in the long run and in fact most people do not even make it to 30 days clean. The odds are stacked against you because recovery is really hard work.
You can take this information and use it to your advantage. Realize that getting clean and sober will be the hardest thing that you have ever done in your life before, therefore you should try harder at this than anything you have ever tried to do in your past. That is the kind of intensity that it requires to be successful in recovery. Some addicts and alcoholics believe that they can keep living their old life but just avoid their drug of choice and sort of slap on some recovery techniques like a band-aid. This doesn’t work because the entire lifestyle is the problem, not just the drugs or the alcohol. You can’t just change one or two things and get sober, you have to change everything. Therefore the correct approach is to redesign your life from the ground up, focused around sobriety and recovery. Your effort at staying clean and sober cannot just be an afterthought. You can’t just say “OK, I am going to go live my life now, but I will just do it without the drugs or the booze involved any more.” That will never work. Your entire life has to revolve around this new recovery effort. Recovery has to become your primary focus for the foreseeable future. It cannot just be an afterthought. It as to be your entire purpose in life (at least during early recovery).
I lived in long term treatment for the first 20 months of my recovery so I had ample opportunity to watch what other people were doing in their recovery. Since most of them were relapsing I decided that I had to do more. But more of what? That basically boiled down to the concepts outlined in this article: More support and more personal growth. How committed are you to recovery? How willing are you to actually push yourself to make positive changes on a daily basis? Are you willing to go beyond what other people seem to be doing in order to recover (show up to meetings every day and live fairly passively)? If so then you can build confidence in your recovery through positive action.