How do you get honest with yourself?
And more importantly, how does being honest with yourself lead to successful sobriety?
How does lying to yourself lead to relapse, for that matter?
These are all important questions in addiction recovery. If you cannot be honest with yourself then you have no foundation on which to build a new life in recovery.
The first reason for this is that self assessment is absolutely critical.
If you want to improve your life you must first evaluate where you are now–failure to do so is denial
I believe it was the cat in “Alice in Wonderland” who told Alice that: “If you don’t care where you go, then pretty much any path will do….” or something to that effect.
When we make a decision to turn our life around and become sober, we are making a decision on “where we want to go.” We have decided. We have made a decision that we do not want our old life any more, and that we want to build a new life of peace and sobriety and contentment.
In order to get somewhere on a map you have to know your starting point.
Enter honesty. If you are not honest with yourself in early recovery (or even before you choose to get sober) then there is little hope of ever getting to where you want to go.
When I was in early recovery I was struggling for a while to figure out what my problem was. Everyone in AA meetings was talking about resentments and how they had to overcome those resentments. I was trying to do this same soul searching and yet I could not put my finger on any major resentments. Certainly none that were driving my addiction.
So I had to dig deeper. I had to get honest with myself. And in doing so I had to look at what my obsessive mind was really doing in order to justify my drinking.
And I finally figured it out. I was engaging in self pity. That was my think. I would feel sorry for myself. And this would justify my drinking. I loved to play the victim. This was how I fueled my addiction. This was how I justified my outrageous drug and alcohol addiction to myself.
So when I got into recovery, this behavior was still there. It was popping up in early recovery and I noticed it. But I had to get honest with myself in order to recognize this. I guess you could say that this was a “character defect” as they call it in AA. However you labeled it, the self pity was threatening to cause relapse and destroy my sobriety. Therefore it had to go.
You can’t identify these sort of blocks unless you are willing to take an honest look at yourself.
The state of denial is when we are not being honest with ourselves. When we are telling ourselves that we are happy when in fact we are miserable. When we tell ourselves that “it’s not that bad” when in fact things are pretty darn bad.
The only way to overcome denial is with the truth. We have to see the truth for what it really is, accept the truth, acknowledge the truth, deal with the truth. When we run away from the truth we are in denial.
Sometimes the truth needs to smack us upside the head a few times before we are willing to acknowledge it. Sometimes the alcoholic has to lose nearly everything, be sitting in jail or in the hospital, having pushed all of their loved ones away from them, before they can realize the truth. The truth that alcohol and drugs have cheated them out of a good life, and that self medicating every day is a dead end.
When we live in denial we are hanging on to the idea that we can drink like “normal” people, that we can use alcohol and drugs and somehow be happy, if only things would work out in our favor for once. What we need to realize is that the alcohol and drugs are causing our misery, they are the source. They are the problem.
Breaking through your denial and getting sober is only the first piece of the puzzle. It is a big piece and it is the most critical bit of honesty, but it does not stop there. In fact there is a lot more honesty that is needed in order to build a new life in recovery. This moment of surrender is just the beginning.
How to honestly assess your life and take corrective action
Once you are in early recovery from addiction your goal is to change your life by taking positive action.
Obviously the goal in recovery is change. And you don’t want things to get worse, right? You want to make changes for the better. Positive change. And in order to make these changes, we need to know where we are headed and where we are currently at.
Therefore we need to assess our lives in a very open and honest way so that we can get this road map for our recovery.
I believe there are two important facets to this sort of assessment. One is to look at your internal life and the things that hold you back on “the inside,” such as guilt, shame, fear, anger, resentment, self pity, and so on.
The second part of this assessment is to look at your external life and your life situation. So you would consider things like your roommates, your job, your significant other, your career, your housing situation, your education, who you hang out with each day, and so on. These are the “people, places, and things” in your life.
So in order to do an honest and thorough assessment of your life in recovery, you need to look at both of these areas. If you skip over one of them completely then you can expect a much tougher time in recovery and possibly even relapse.
My next suggestion in doing this sort of assessment is to consider the most negative things in your life first and take action to correct them. Prioritize based on the biggest negatives. That probably sounds a bit weird and maybe even counter-intuitive. Why start with the negatives?
Because those are the biggest wins. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say you are addicted to alcohol and your life is a mess. The goal is to turn your life around and be content again and at peace. You want to be happy without all of the chaos. You want to live a better life in recovery.
So at some point you figure out that drugs and alcohol are the source of the problem. They are actually causing the misery and the chaos. So you make a decision and you go check into rehab. You sober up and start on the path of sobriety. There is one problem down.
So after a few weeks in sobriety you are now on a path of positive change. Using the tool of self honesty, you ask yourself: “What is the one change that I could make in my life next that would have the biggest positive impact?”
In order to answer that question you may have to seek out some advice and feedback. So go ask people in AA, your sponsor, a therapist or counselor, and close friends or family the same question. Ask them: “What is the one change that I could make in my life right now that would have the greatest impact for me?”
Not everyone will give you awesome insight of course. But some people will probably have some really good suggestions. You should listen to such suggestions. And furthermore, you can also answer this question for yourself, though in early recovery I suggest that you defer to the advice of others rather than to follow your own ideas.
For me, when I was in early recovery, the answer was “quit smoking cigarettes.” Notice that this is a negative thing that was still in my life, everyone knows that “smoking is bad.” And indeed it was bad for my recovery and it was not making me happy. So it was a huge opportunity for personal growth. It was a huge opportunity to improve my life. And at that point, it was the answer to the question: “What is the one change that I could make right now that would create the greatest impact for me?”
So after a few people had suggested it, I set my priorities straight. I would quit smoking. It was tough and I needed a lot of help to do it. I had to focus all of my energy on the goal. In fact, in some ways it was even more difficult then surrendering to drugs and alcohol! But eventually I was successful at quitting and the positive impact that this had on my life was absolutely massive. It was a very positive change for me.
And so after I accomplished that goal I realized that this was an iterative process. I had eliminated a major negative thing in my life and it felt really good to do so. Now I had to do it again. I had to get really honest with myself by asking that same question again–what is the next goal in my life that will have the biggest impact for me? So this is how I had to start living my life in recovery. By getting really honest with myself and focusing intensely on the next important change to be made.
Taking suggestions from other people without putting up barriers or making excuses
If you want to achieve long term sobriety then there is a formula that goes beyond just quitting the booze.
If all we needed to do was to stop drinking then sobriety would be easy. But it takes so much more than that. So we have to push ourselves to make positive changes that go above and beyond mere abstinence.
How do we do this?
I can tell you right now that it is fairly simple to do it, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy for most people.
So the most straightforward way to start making these changes in recovery is to seek advice and feedback from others.
When you first get into recovery and go through treatment, there will be a strong desire to figure it all out on your own. You may go through detox and then suddenly start feeling really good about yourself again. You may get overconfident. The sometimes refer to this as “the pink cloud syndrome.” Everything is good and you feel great now that you are sober. You feel like you can conquer the world and that nothing could possibly force you to relapse.
This is a dangerous place to be in. Many people have felt this euphoric state in early recovery only to relapse shortly thereafter. So how can we avoid this fate in early recovery?
The key is to take action. If you are taking positive action every day and following directions then you will naturally be protected from relapse. But you have to do the work. Most people are not in gear to do this sort of work. They are not in gear to raise their effort to this level of intensity.
Pride gets in the way as well. We want to figure it all out for ourselves. We don’t want to be told what to do.
In early recovery you will vastly increase your chances of staying sober if you get out of your own way. What I mean by that is that you need to follow directions from other people. They tell you what to do and you do it. Not very enticing, right? No one wants to be told what to do. We like to think that we are smart enough to figure out things on our own.
Early recovery is NOT the time to be proud. It is not the time to defer to our own ego. It is not the time to figure it all out on our own. All of these things will lead you to relapse.
No, in early recovery you should listen to other people. And this ties in with honesty. If you are honest with yourself then you will realize that you do not have the keys to your own happiness in early recovery. If you did then you would not be alcoholic. But the fact is that you have chased happiness in the bottle for a long time and you have failed to find it. You do not know what to do in order to be happy. This is what you must be honest with yourself about in early recovery.
So the solution is to throw up your hands and ask for help. “Show me how to live.” You do not know how to create your own happiness in life at this point. And that is fine. People can show you. You can go to rehab or AA or counseling and simply follow directions for a while and they will teach you how to be happy again. This takes real humility. You cannot allow your pride to get in the way if you want to learn how to become happy again. You must force your ego to stand down for a while so that you can relearn how to live.
Others can see our strengths and weaknesses better than we can sometimes, so feedback is critical
It is often the case in recovery that we cannot properly assess our own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes we can see some of them but it is rare for a person to be able to accurately see the entire picture. Sometimes we are too close to the problem and it is right under our nose and we cannot even see it.
Again, this speaks to the need for feedback from others. In the NA basic text it talks about how “we are each other’s eyes and ears in recovery.” If you try to do it all alone then you miss out on this feedback from other people. You will miss things about yourself that need to be addressed if you are to remain clean and sober.
I tend to be pretty stubborn myself and I don’t always listen to the advice that is given to me. But I also forced myself to talk to different people in recovery, people who had more sobriety than I did and that I looked up to. So maybe one of these people would make a suggestion to me and at the time I really did not want to take action on it. But then later on I would maybe hear the same suggestion from a different party. Now I had to wake up pay attention, because if multiple people are telling you the same thing then it is very likely to be true (and significant). This was the case for me with quitting smoking. People were telling me that this was my next step in life, the obvious next positive action for me to take. I had to hear it from more than one source before it would really sink in.
The same thing happened in terms of going back to school. I had some college under my belt but no degree when I got sober. So I had to hear this suggestion to go back to school from multiple sources as well. Finally after enough people encouraged me, I started to listen.
This is why it is important to build a network of support in recovery. You can go to AA meetings, or maybe you have a group of positive people that you know from rehab. Or perhaps you have a different support system that you get through a church. Whatever the case may be, you need to have people in recovery that are willing to help you and give you advice. And it is even more helpful if the people giving you advice have been in addiction recovery themselves.
Again though it always goes back to self honesty and being open to the feedback. If you are not being honest with yourself then you will probably not be open to any feedback, nor would you take action based on any feedback that you receive.
The only constant is change
I have been sober now for over 13 years and the only constant in my recovery now is the fact that I keep changing. I try to keep asking myself the question, even today, “what is the one thing that I can change in my life right now that will have the biggest positive impact?”
I also try to frame that question in terms of personal growth and holistic health. So this means that every day I try to tick off the check boxes of my holistic health, saying something like:
Have I done everything that I can today in order to take care of myself….
And if I am answering “no” to any one of those categories then I know that I have to get to work. I know that I am lacking in that area and I had better start taking action soon. Because if I don’t then it will start to create a hole in my life, a deficiency, and this will allow room for relapse to sneak back into the picture. The key to recovery is continuous growth. The only way to insure your continued sobriety is to constantly be reinventing yourself. Otherwise you will get stuck and fall victim to complacency.
Complacency happens when we get lazy in our recovery. You cannot be complacent if you are asking yourself the critical question: “what is the one thing that I could do today that would have the greatest positive impact on my life?” If you consider the holistic approach then the answer to that question will keep changing. If you neglect your physical health for too long then the answer will shift to being something like “exercise” or “eating healthy.”
Building a new life in recovery is based on taking positive action. But you have to keep taking this action so that the benefits of it will accumulate over time. Once you have done this for long enough you will one day look back and realize just how far you have come. Without realizing it, you will have “turned your life around” and you will suddenly realize that you are happy again without drugs or alcohol.
But it is a process. And you need to have faith in the process itself, so that you can take positive action every day and know that there is a payoff if you keep going. It doesn’t happen overnight. But if you keep moving forward and pushing yourself to make that next critical change then everything will fall into place eventually. Life gets better and long term sobriety is truly awesome. But it takes real work and sustained action.
What about you? Have you found self honesty to be of critical importance to your recovery as well? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!