How can you live your highest values in long term sobriety? And is it even necessary to have values or think about them at all? Let’s take a closer look at these ideas and how they relate to alcoholism recovery.
How to adopt new values in early recovery from addiction
When I first got clean and sober, all of my values in life were left over from my life in addiction. Therefore I had to rebuild my life from the ground up and figure out what was really important to me in recovery.
So for example, in addiction I valued getting drunk and high every day. That was what I held to be truly important to me. The ability to get really messed up and not have to face reality. That was one of my highest values during my addiction to alcohol.
There were other values as well though that I did not even realize at first. Because my addiction got progressively worse and my behavior became so much more outrageous, I started to value isolation rather than being around other people that I enjoyed. I would rather be alone so I could drink myself silly and not have to worry about offending anyone. This happened slowly enough that I did not really realize the insanity of that new value, of wanting to be isolated from others so that I could drink more easily.
So upon entering recovery my values were all screwed up. The only thing I really cared about was getting drunk and high all the time, and that was the only way that I could enjoy myself or have fun or achieve any sort of positive feelings in my life. It was all about the buzz. That was my core value.
Therefore I had to adopt a new set of values if I was going to remain clean and sober.
First of all, realize that this takes some time. You don’t just quit drinking and then the next day you magically decide on what all of your new values in life are going to be. It doesn’t work that way.
In my addiction I never used to value socializing with others or having a nice meal with friends or family. That was not something that I put any value on during my addiction. Over time, in my recovery, this became something that I really valued a lot and enjoyed. I had to grow into that value somewhat slowly though.
Another value that I adopted in recovery was that of my own physical health and fitness. Eventually I wanted to take care of my body. Of course this is in stark contrast to the way I felt about myself during my addiction, when I was constantly abusing my body with chemicals and I really did not care much about myself or my health.
But again, this value took time for me to discover and implement. I can remember having a few months sober and my counselor at the time suggested that I start exercising. So I did, and this had a small effect on me, but it wasn’t enough for me to be off to the races quite yet. So I actually gave up on the idea of exercise and fitness at that time. Years later I would come back to it when I was “ready.” So why wasn’t I ready when I had just a few months sober? What was holding me back from adopting that value of better physical health?
I think the answer has to do with self esteem. It has to do with how you are feeling about yourself and how much you value your own life. So when I had just a few months sober I was not yet in a position to be able to love myself enough to push through and commit to daily exercise just yet. That is a big commitment and it takes a lot of effort (at least initially, it gets easier later on of course).
In other words, if you have some substantial time sober and you are really starting to feel better about yourself and you feel good about the things you are doing and some of the people you may be helping along your journey, then you are much more likely to want to take good care of yourself. This is strictly a self esteem issue in my opinion. If you are not feeling better about yourself then it is much harder to make the difficult lifestyle changes that allow you to take care of yourself in recovery.
Another great example is quitting cigarettes. Many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are still addicted to cigarettes in early recovery from addiction. And of course they all know that they should quit and that this would be the healthy thing to do, but it’s not easy. I struggled with this myself for the first 5 years of my sobriety journey. And I finally was able to kick the cigarettes for good when I got to 5 years because I finally loved myself enough to be able to do that. I couldn’t do it at 2 years sober or at 3 years sober because the challenge was just too great and I was not quite to that point where I was willing to gut it out in order to be healthier. Again, for me this all comes down to self esteem. When you care enough about yourself and your own life then you will be more motivated to make the hard changes in terms of taking care of yourself. Those changes are never easy to make and that is why addictions can be so tough to overcome. They are a lifestyle change (just like losing weight, for example) and so such changes do not come easy. Therefore you have to be really clear on what you want and what you truly value because overcoming any addiction is going to be very tough at times.
Should you even consider what your values are and how to achieve them?
I think it makes sense to consider what your values are in addiction recovery because then you can direct your life in terms of getting what you want. If you don’t know what it is that you value in life then how are you ever going to achieve it?
You may have a specific goal in life (such as “run a marathon”) and that would reflect the value behind it (“be healthier physically”).
What gets interesting when you start to think about these things is how it all ties together. Certain values work really well with each other while others do not. That is when we start to talk about congruence and whether you are living in alignment or not.
For example, maybe there is an alcoholic who used to steal money in order to get enough to be able to drink and use their drug of choice. At some point they decide to get sober and they are doing well in sobriety, but they still have the stealing habit left over.
So now they have some conflicting values going on. They are going in one direction with their sobriety which seems to be positive and healthy, but they are still clinging to this old value of stealing things which is negative and is destructive. If they don’t let go of the old ideas then it will probably lead them to relapse eventually. Their values are not in congruence with each other. They don’t align.
What’s amazing in recovery is when you start to live your values and then everything comes together and enhances each other. What do I mean by that: “enhances each other?”
I am talking about the effect that everything has when all of the cylinders in your life are firing in perfect unison. This is when all of your values are in alignment and working together.
For example, you are physically healthy and you are eating good foods, getting plenty of sleep, and working out and exercising every day.
But then you combine that with healthy relationships, a deep practice of gratitude, and emotional balance.
So you are working on these various parts of your life and they all start to interact.
Because the health and fitness may not seem to be related to your relationships at first, or to your emotional balance.
But then later you can look back and see how your daily exercise and the quality sleep that you are getting was helping to bring you just the right opportunities in your relationships that you otherwise would have missed out on. Or the exercise that you do helps to keep you emotionally balanced in a way that you could not have predicted. Or the people that you reach out and help in early recovery have a huge impact on your self esteem, making you feel better about yourself, and causing you to want to take better care of yourself physically. So in that example you might start by working with newcomers in recovery and this eventually leads to increased self esteem and more physical exercise.
Those are just random examples and I am not suggesting that you try to go duplicate them. You don’t have to try those things exactly because your values may be different than those.
But what you can do is to think about what you value in life, then start outlining goals and ideas about how to achieve those things and work them into your daily practice. If you value your physical health then you should create daily habits that allow you to work on that. If you value the boost that you feel from helping a newcomer in recovery then you should make an effort to incorporate that into your daily routine.
And then you start doing these various things and pushing yourself to improve your life and your life situation in these various ways, and then the elements start to interact.
This is the concept that I want you to understand. Not that you live your highest values, but the synergy that results when you do this.
“Synergy” is when the sum of many things is greater than the parts added up together. So you get a multiplicative effect when you are living all of your values and they are in congruence with each other. It is like a massive bonus that become unlocked when your values are in alignment with each other.
The bonus comes from the fact that your values work well together and they enhance each other. That’s how you get this “synergy” stuff. That’s how your happiness and peace and contentment skyrockets in recovery when you are doing all of the right things, and taking care of yourself in all of the right ways.
You can only control what you can control. Life is going to happen to you and it may be random and chaotic at times. So you get to choose your daily habits and you get to choose what you value in terms of those daily habits. And this is where you build your power in long term sobriety. One day at a time, through the power of positive habits.
So it might pay to think about what that daily practice should be, and what it is that you really value in life. And whether or not you are currently living those values.
Living in alignment and how it feels when something is off
If you are living in alignment then it means that all of your values and all of your actions play nice together. You are not working against yourself in any way.
At some point I realized that my cigarette addiction was not in alignment with my value for better health in recovery. Of course I knew and understood this all along, but it is all about internalizing the values. At some point I could no longer ignore it. It was too obvious, to painful to continue smoking and betraying myself. Life was good again in recovery and I wanted to live again, I wanted to enjoy life and be around long enough to make a difference and to help others. That was my new value and the cigarette smoking no longer worked with that. So I finally was able to quit.
To me, when I am not living in alignment with all of my values, I get anxiety. That is the best word that I can use to describe it. It is a feeling of dis-ease. You don’t feel good about yourself.
If you are in a toxic relationship then you may be feeling this discomfort in the back of your mind. Maybe it is comfortable and “safe” to stay where you are right now with it, but you still won’t feel good about yourself until you make the difficult changes.
And it is always difficult when it comes to shifting your alignment and fixing these value issues! It never seems to be something easy or quick to fix. It takes work. Because we are almost always talking about some part of our lifestyle, or some recurring habit, or something that is deeply ingrained in ourselves.
I used to be stuck in self pity mode, that was how I fueled my addiction. And when I got sober I realized that this was still left over, it was still there, and I was still feeling sorry for myself even in my sobriety. I had a few weeks sober at the time.
And I stopped and I realized one day: “Hey. I can’t keep doing this self pity thing. It doesn’t help me one bit. It is sort of nice and comfortable to feel sorry for myself, it feels good for a moment, but it doesn’t change a thing and it doesn’t help me. The only use for self pity is to justify a relapse. And I don’t want to relapse any more. I am done with that old life.”
So I realized that I had to change. I no longer valued that old thought pattern, that old loop of constant self pity. I had to replace it with gratitude. And that took some work. I had to figure some stuff out in order to make that happen. I had to ask for help in order to pull myself out of that negativity. I had to get advice, take direction, try some new things (daily gratitude list anyone?), and so on.
Finding the anxiety in your life in order to focus in on fixing the negative issues
I would recommend that you listen to your anxiety in order to start living your highest values.
This sounds like it is a bit backwards. But I think it is an important path in early recovery that eventually will lead anyone to their highest values in life.
So you get clean and sober. You ask for help, maybe go to rehab, you start becoming sober one day at a time.
And you start to take advice from other people and you are making positive changes in your life.
At this point, you don’t necessarily need to jump right into thinking about your values. It may be too early for that in a direct sense.
But what you can do instead is to start living it, start taking positive action and advice and start living some of these new values in order to test them out.
And when you do this, much of the work that you do in early recovery will be in fixing the negative issues in your life. You can do this by working through the 12 steps of AA, for example (though that is not necessary for everyone, you can “do the work” in other ways too).
My primary example of that was with self pity. I had to identify and eliminate that massive character defect from my life if I was going to stay sober.
I had other defects as well. And in working with a sponsor to identify those things and work on them, my life got better and better.
If you are doing this sort of work on yourself, the kind of work where you get honest with yourself and strive to make the really tough changes inside, then your highest values will begin to reveal themselves to you.
Because what you will be left with is a healthy self esteem. You will be left with a better life, positive habits, a healthy daily practice, and you will slowly learn to care deeply for yourself and for others. And this will reveal your highest values to you. But you have to do the work first. You have to clear away the garbage and the negativity that is left over from your addiction (or even from before your addiction in some cases) so that you can find those higher values.
If you don’t do the work then you will never reveal all of your highest values to yourself. You will remain stuck and you probably won’t be very happy with yourself or your life until you get honest with yourself and become willing to do the work.
Overcoming complacency through constant personal growth and refinement
The key to beating complacency in long term sobriety is through personal growth. That means change. You have to keep pushing yourself to make new changes in order to maintain sobriety.
In early recovery these are big changes. After a while in sobriety it becomes more about refinement. So the changes may become smaller and smaller but you are probably more aware and more tuned in to personal growth so they may seem like they are still very significant changes.
There is always another layer of self honesty and resulting growth that you can explore in your recovery. This is just as true after 2 years sober as it is after 20 years sober. You can always get honest with yourself, listen carefully to the inner landscape, and find a source of anxiety or discomfort that can be explored. And that is where you find the growth, which leads you to your higher values.
What are your highest values in recovery? Are you living them every day? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!