Is Magical Thinking Necessary for Success in Recovery?

Is Magical Thinking Necessary for Success in Recovery?

Woman meditating

Yesterday we looked at how to reinvest in your recovery so that you can make continuous growth. Today we want to consider whether “magical thinking” is necessary for recovery or not.

What is magical thinking?

I want to be a little bit careful with the definitions here in order to not offend anyone. But I also want to present this in such a way that people are realistic about their recovery.

If you have ever heard of a marketing phenomenon called “The Secret” that is based on something called “the law of attraction” then you know what “magical thinking” refers to. It is the idea that you can use your conscious thoughts to create reality.

The new age idea behind magical thinking is that you can create changes in the physical universe just by using visualization and positive thinking, no actions required. Just by “strongly holding intentions” you are supposed to be able to create whatever you want.

The reason we call this “magical thinking” is because there is no real explanation given as to how the eventual benefits will materialize. You are supposed to be able to create good things simply with your thoughts and intentions, as if by magic.

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My belief is that if you buy into this idea then you are basically hoping for a shortcut. You are looking for an easy way to create the life that you really want, without having to put in the hard work and the action to get you there.

Not. Gonna. Happen.

Success in recovery is determined by actions

If there is one lesson that early recovery should teach you, it is that your success in recovery is determined almost exclusively by your actions. You do not get a free pass in recovery just based on wishful thinking.

We all know what it is like to be stuck in addiction, wishing that things were different. We wish that we had never been born, we wish that we were not addicted to drugs or alcohol, and we wish that we had never tried drugs or alcohol in the first place. We wish, we wish, we wish. At some point the struggling addict or alcoholic realizes that none of those wishes amount to a darn thing. Their intentions do nothing by themselves, nothing at all. If you want to “build a foundation” in recovery then you should stop making wishes and start taking action.

For example you may get rather extreme like I did at one point and check into a long term treatment center. Not only did I agree to go to long term rehab, but I committed fully to the idea that I was going to see it through and learn what it had to offer me. I was willing to take massive action whereas in the past I had not been willing to take nearly this much action.

I failed to get clean and sober several times (twice I went to inpatient rehab and then relapsed) because I was not willing to take any follow up action after leaving treatment. I was foolish enough to expect that rehab should just cure me instantly so that I could walk out the door and then never have to worry about addiction ever again. I was resentful of the fact that it did not work this way. If they cannot cure you then what is the point, right? You may as well just keep self medicating. At least that was my horrible attitude at the time.

Of course it does not work magically with some sort of instant cure that makes addiction go away. If anything all we have is a reprieve from addiction, nothing more really. If you do not respect the disease and realize that it is always going to be there in the background, lingering, then you are setting yourself up for relapse.

Many people have wished that they were clean and sober. Many people have had thoughts of wanting for things to be different in their lives. But it is the rare individual who actually steps up to the plate and agrees to take massive amounts of action in order to create their success in recovery.

Recovery is not a an event that just happens. It is a process that unfolds. Therefore you have to be willing to make that process unfold through your actions. If you just sit back and kick your feet up in early recovery then nothing will happen. You have to actually take action and learn by doing, by applying ideas.

In the beginning before I had truly surrendered and sobered up for good, I was quite misled about what it would require for me to get clean and sober. For example, I went to a rehab but I was not willing to attend AA meetings after leaving the treatment center. I thought it was a little ridiculous to have to keep doing something after leaving treatment.

They also introduced me to the 12 step program while I was in my first rehab. My attitude was “OK, let me do these steps and get them out of the way. I want to be done with them. How do I do them quickly and get them over with?” That was seriously my attitude the first time that I tried to get clean and sober. Obviously this was not the right approach.

Basically what I was trying to do at that time was to minimize my actions that I had to take. The idea of living in long term treatment was completely outrageous to me. I was simply not willing to put in the effort that was necessary to overcome an addiction.

I wanted a shortcut. If you told me that magical thinking was the shortcut that I needed at the time, I probably would have believed you. I was not ready to get sober, I was not willing to take massive action, and I simply wanted an instant cure of some sort. Otherwise I was going back to self medicating every day.

Your thoughts are just one kind of “action”

In all truth, your thoughts still matter. They are not completely without any value at all, but on the other hand, we need to keep them in perspective. They are not the creators of the physical universe.

Your thoughts are really just one more type of “action” that you might take.

But to believe that your thoughts are the only kind of action that you need to take in order to reach your goals is just insane. If you believe this then you are just making reality a whole lot harder on yourself.

In fact there are times in this life when it is actually better to sort of ignore your conscious thoughts and instead just dive into taking action instead. Believe it or not, early recovery from addiction is one of those times.

The reason that this is the case is because of “self sabotage.” Recovering addicts and alcoholics are notorious for this condition.

What happens is that in early recovery from addiction we realize that we are not getting our drug of choice anymore, and so we will (sometimes subconsciously) sabotage our recovery efforts in order to relapse. Thus we sabotage our own recovery effort in order to be able to drink or use drugs again. This happens on a much more frequent scale in early recovery than what most people realize.

The way that self sabotage happens is when the recovering addict or alcoholic is thinking too much. That pretty much describes the problem in a nutshell. They get to thinking too much and they more or less talk themselves into a drink or a drug.

The solution for this should be obvious–don’t think so much! The way to accomplish this is through taking action. In particular, the best way to do this is to take suggestions and get involved with other people in recovery and take lots of action with them. This is why they suggest immersing yourself in a program such as AA or NA in early recovery, going to lots of meetings every single day, and so on. This is also why they suggest that you should “stay busy” in early recovery and also why “idle hands” are not a good thing to have in early recovery. It all points to the same idea–relapse will come to someone if all they do is sit around and think all day!

So your thoughts are not evil per se, and there is even a small amount of value in the idea of visualization, but ultimately none of this matters much for the newcomer in early recovery. What it is important for the newcomer to realize is that they cannot think their way out of addiction. If they could then they would not need any help in order to recover, and obviously that was never the case for them. They needed help and that is why they ended up in treatment or asking for help or seeking counseling, etc.

How magical thinking can distract you from the real work that will keep you sober

Your goal in early recovery is to make a commitment to take certain actions, and then to follow through with those actions. That is the prescription for success in early recovery. If you try to mess with that formula you are probably only going to lessen your chances of success and increase your chance of relapse.

In most cases then, using visualization or magical thinking is probably a distraction at best, and outright misleading at worst. What you want to do is to ask for advice, take suggestions from other people, and then follow through with those suggestions. This is how to build a strong foundation in early recovery.

The idea of magical thinking sort of puts you back in the driver seat, exactly where you do NOT want to be in early recovery. Magical thinking asks the individual “What do you want to have in your life right now? What do you most desire?” And then the idea is that you can attract that into your life by simply obsessing over it and focusing on it. As I indicated, this is basically a huge distraction at best.

One of the unique things about the recovery journey is that you are not going to know what is in store for you. This is why the concept of exploration is important in recovery. I would go so far as to say that you need to ask for advice and feedback from multiple people in early recovery so that you can better discover the things that will eventually keep you sober.

For example, it was suggested to me at one point to go back to college and finish up my degree. If I had depended only on the “law of attraction” then I do not think I would have taken that exact path of going back to school. Thus I would have missed out on this part of growth and new experience that I got from my education.

Another suggestion that I took was to start exercising and running on a regular basis. Again, I never would have done that if I was simply trying to attract good stuff into my life using visualization. Magical thinking could not have produced this course of action that led to a lifetime of fitness and running. But it turns out that regular exercise has become one of the most important aspects of my recovery journey.

Likewise, I have taken many suggestions in my recovery that turned out to fizzle out eventually. This is all part of the process of exploration. I took advice, I took suggestions, and some of it worked well for me. Other things did not work out so well, and so I dropped those things. You do not get this sort of variety if you just rely on your own wishful thinking to direct you in recovery. Asking for advice and feedback is much more powerful than using visualization alone because then you are drawing from the wisdom and experience of others. You can benefit from their experience directly, but you have to ask for that advice in order to tap into it.

When visualization is most helpful in recovery

There is a time and a place for magical thinking and visualization, and early recovery is NOT it. So when does this technique actually play a helpful role?

I believe the time for creative visualization is in long term sobriety. This is defined as the time when you have already established a strong foundation in early recovery and you are now living a life of positive change.

Recovery can be mentally broken down into two basic stages: the first stage is “repair and clean up,” where you are basically picking up the pieces of your broken life in addiction and getting things back to normal. The second stage might be thought of as “personal growth and incremental improvements.” This is where you have already fixed the major problems in your life, and now you are seeking out positive goals and making positive changes in long term sobriety.

Quitting smoking is a first stage change that you might make. Getting a degree to be an addiction counselor would be a second stage change. See the difference? The first stage is about repairing your life. The second stage is about creating the positive changes that you want.

Visualization and magical thinking have no place in the first stage, in my opinion. In fact, most struggling addicts and alcoholics do not have any real hope to be able to visualize a happier life in recovery anyway. They get clean and sober on blind faith, if at all. This was true for me in my own recovery journey. I could not have visualized a happy recovery if you told me to do so directly. I was too miserable in my addiction to be able to do so. When I surrendered and agreed to try to get clean and sober, I did it on blind faith, not really believing that I would ever be happy again. So much for visualization.

Long term recovery is a completely different story. Now that I have established myself in recovery and have cleaned up a lot of the negative stuff in my life, I am free to chase down some more positive goals. After quitting smoking and becoming a regular runner, I realized that I had the power now to chase down more positive things in my life, rather than just cleaning up the old problems. My old problems were mostly gone at that point anyway. And so that was when the idea of visualization and magical thinking started to actually become useful to me–only after I was firmly established in recovery, only after I had taken TONS of advice and direction from others, only after I had long since gotten out of my own way and simply followed through on what I was told to do. It was only then that visualization started to play an important role in my recovery journey. Had I used it before then, I believe it just would have distracted me from taking the actions that I needed to take.

How to get out of your own way and take massive action

This is about timing. In early recovery, I would urge you to forget about creative visualization for a while and to simply focus on taking the right actions. You can do this most effectively by asking for help and then taking the advice that you are given.

This takes a great deal of humility in order to follow through with it. Our ego wants us to believe that no one could possibly know a better path for use than ourselves. We do not always trust other people to care about our own lives as much as we do. Therefore it can be difficult to let go of our need to control and allow ourselves to take advice.

But this is the path to quick success in early recovery. Or rather, it is a path to slow success, which is the only speed at which anyone can ever be successful in recovery. If you achieve success quickly in early recovery then it means you have missed something. Go back and start over. Your addiction will likely do this for you automatically. Think back to how I was in rehab (before I had truly surrendered) and I wanted to just work the 12 steps and get them out of the way. This is not an attitude that leads to long term success. Recovery lasts forever and you never officially graduate. The learning never ends and so therefore you can not try to rush through it. There is nothing to get to at the end anyway, so why hurry? Slow down and enjoy the learning process.

Creating positive change in your life without relying on magic, wishes, or intentions

Ask for help. Ask for advice. Ask for feedback and direction from others. Use other people’s wisdom to help guide you in early recovery.

Then, take action. Take lots of action. Take massive action. This is how to create positive change in your life. This is the path to success in early recovery.

There will be plenty of people who tell you that the odds are stacked against you in early recovery. If you take direction from others and follow through with massive action then you can safely ignore this doomsday crowd. Their statistics do not apply to you because you are in the top 1 percent of people who try to recover. You are following through and taking reckless action, making positive changes every day with an unstoppable enthusiasm.

This does not require secret gimmicks or magical thinking. It requires dedication and hard work. Put your head down and do the work that is required of you. Show up. Follow through. Do what you are told to do. This is how to succeed in early recovery.

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