Modeling and Learning in Alcoholism Recovery

Modeling and Learning in Alcoholism Recovery


Recently we looked at the idea of using “mapping” to overcome your addiction or alcoholism.

In particular, we first need to firmly assess where we are in our life before we can decide “where we want to get to.”

But after you have surrendered fully to the fact that you are a real alcoholic (and have thus broken through all remaining denial), you are ready to move forward in your recovery. You must decide what you are going to do, and in particular, where you want to go in life. Where do you want to end up? Every alcoholic knows that they are sick and tired of the misery and chaos, but this does not necessarily mean that they know exactly what they want to move towards.

It is very difficult to move AWAY from something. It is much easier to move towards something instead. This is why traditional recovery programs (such as AA) are actually a replacement strategy of sorts. You are replacing the addiction with a new sort of “dependency” if you will. Not that this is an entirely bad thing (though it can be in some situations), but you are definitely moving “towards” something when you dive into a program like AA and embrace it as part of your life. You are not just avoiding alcohol, as that never worked for an alcoholic anyway.

So in order to figure out what we really want in life, we need to look into the concept of modeling. This is one technique that can be a very powerful way to get started on the right track very quickly.

You know where you are. You know what you DON’T want in life. How do you figure out what you DO want?

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In order to figure out what you want in life, you can start by looking at examples of people around you.

When you observe other people and listen to what they have to say, you form opinions about them. You judge them. This is not a bad thing and you should never feel guilty for judging someone, as this can mean the difference between making a good or a poor decision on your part. For example, would you take advice on how to stay sober from someone who just relapsed less than a week ago? Of course not–no one would expect you to do so. That expectation proves that we do, in fact, judge others. If you want to take advice in sobriety then you should do so from people who have a proven track record in staying clean and sober. Hence the saying “stick with the winners.” Of course, you can learn something from nearly anyone in recovery, but that doesn’t say much really. Just because you want to avoid someone and not be anything like them does not really mean that they have taught you must of anything. They only serve as an example of what NOT to do. Such examples are a dime a dozen. Instead, we want to focus on “the winners.”

Who are the winners in recovery? They are the people who are steady accumulating more sober time, and who are actually “walking the walk” in sobriety.

It is easy to talk the talk. There is a lingo and a language that goes along with traditional recovery, and that does not mean that someone is a guru who can guide you to sobriety just because they talk a really good game. Unfortunately, the people who are working the best recovery are not always the most eloquent speakers. Therefore you will have to rely on careful observation in order to find people who “have what you want” in life.

The idea is simple: Just observe other people in your life and figure out who you would most like to emulate. Who is living the life that you want to be living? That is the person that you want to model.

If there is nothing else at AA meetings for you, at least there are people who are “winners” and may be good candidates for modeling. Even if you are not into the 12 step philosophy you can still find a lot of help by attempting to model successful people in AA.

One of the best reasons to dive into a variety of 12 step meetings in your area

The nice thing about established recovery programs is that they bring people together who have a common purpose. At least you know that they are all practicing abstinence and trying to improve their life in sobriety. Some of them may be doing a bad job of it but at least the common purpose is understood. And you may not agree with all of the tactics and strategies (such as dependency on daily AA meetings) but that doesn’t mean that you cannot find people to model at these places. At least they are all in recovery so your search is narrowed down a great deal.

What I did was to go to meetings and start watching people who seemed to have good things to say. What I learned after doing this for a while was that many of these people did not necessarily have the sort of life that I wanted to live (nor did they necessarily have the integrity that I thought they had). This is not to say that everyone in AA is a sham, because that’s not the case at all. There are plenty of good people. But you must realize that it is one thing to show up to meetings every day and simply “talk the talk,” while it is another thing to actually go home from the meetings every day and live out the recovery principles that you pay lip service to. Some people are not living the principles in all areas of their lives. These are not the people that you want to model.

Modeling is essentially “monkey see, monkey do.” If you want the same results that another person got, then you have to take the same actions that they did.

How do you do this?

You ask them what actions they took. Then you take their advice and you act on it.

Easy in theory, difficult in practice. It takes work.

Effective modeling techniques

I would offer a bit of advice when it comes to modeling.

The first suggestion is to ask your sponsor (or whatever you want to call the person that you are modeling) to help you prioritize.

So don’t just ask them what you should be doing. Ask them what you should be doing FIRST. What is your most important order of business in your life, right now at this very moment, given your current situation?

The answer to that is going to change drastically over time. But many people do not really prioritize, and they don’t necessarily know how to go about doing so either. They either follow a pre-ordained path in recovery (such as with the steps) or they may simply mimic the order that they went through their past growth experiences in.

But depending on your situation you may need to give prioritizing a bit of thought. For example, I tried to quit smoking once in my recovery, and that was the wrong order for me. I failed over and over again until I realized that I had to embrace daily exercise FIRST. It took me a long time to figure this out and I wish that I would have consulted more ex-smokers in recovery in order to model their success for myself. Instead I wasted several years trying to figure that one out on my own.

This is another reason that you might consider AA meetings if you want to model the success of others: You will find a wide variety of stories and experiences in a single AA meeting. For example, if you just take 3 recovering alcoholics in AA then none of them may have gone through the process of quitting smoking. But if you ask an AA meeting of 25 people for advice on how to quit smoking then you will probably get at least a 4 or 5 individual success stories with this that you can then attempt to model for yourself. In essence you are “trying on” each person’s solution and this is a solution that they actually used themselves successfully to overcome a difficult problem. Thus you can benefit from their experience without having to endure the same pain that they did.

If you want to know how to model someone else successfully then here is the real secret:

Do what they tell you to do and get out of your own way.

What does that mean? It means that you have to let go, all over again. You have surrender again just like you did in your early recovery from alcoholism. You must stop trying to manipulate things or control the situation and just trust in others.

When we model someone else we are putting our faith in them, that they can guide us to a solution. But in order to be guided to that solution we must let go entirely so that we are not taking back control. As soon as you take back control you are going to sabotage your efforts and get the same old results that you used to get in life. Obviously we do not want that. It is simple to model others but that does not mean that it is easy to do.

Your long term strategy in recovery for personal growth based on modeling others

In recovery you have a long term goal of incremental growth over time.

Of course in the beginning your personal growth in recovery will not be incremental. Instead it will be drastic. This is why many people feel like they are on a “pink cloud” in early sobriety, because things are changing so rapidly and life gets a whole lot better in a short amount of time.

After a few years (or even months) in recovery you will have made all of the big gains that there are to make. What is left after that? Smaller gains. But you must still make more gains, because if you stop making growth then eventually this will cause you to relapse. This is the definition of complacency, when you stop growing and learning in recovery.

Therefore after a few years in recovery you need to make sure you are still pushing yourself to grow, still celebrating the tiny victories, and still learning new things about yourself on a day to day to basis.

If you feel yourself running out of steam in terms of personal growth then there are several things that you can do:

1) Refocus on your daily practice and check off where you have been slacking off lately (physical health, emotional, spiritual, social, etc.). Find what is lacking and then make a plan to redouble your efforts in that area.
2) Make a gratitude list every single day and list things that you are grateful for when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. Let the middle of the day take care of itself.
3) Find someone new to model, someone who has what you want, or someone who has conquered a goal that you also share with them. Approach the person and ask them for advice. Then take that advice and create a plan to follow through with it and act on it.

These are the basic strategies that you should use if you feel stuck in your recovery.

Better yet, you might make a habit of employing all of these techniques on a consistent and recurring basis. For example, you might do a daily or weekly review of your life to see what sort of negative impacts you may have been experiencing lately. Try to figure out what these negative impacts are and what the root cause of them is. Then you can go to your mentors in recovery and ask them for pointed advice on how to overcome these problems. You cannot fix your problems unless you identify them first.

Avoiding complacency through consistent feedback and adjustment

Even if you do not have a mentor or a sponsor it is still helpful to be actively engaged in the feedback process with someone.

You may have a peer or an equal in recovery who you can bounce ideas off of. You may have someone in your life who you trust who can help to be “your eyes and ears” so that they may catch when you are on the verge of making a poor decision.

Imagine this experiment right now:

* You go approach the 5 most influential people in your life that you trust (do this separately of course) and ask each of them the following questions, being sure to take down notes of all their answers:

1) What do you think I should be focusing on in my recovery right now?
2) What is the most important change that I need to make in my life right now?
3) What do you see as being my biggest weakness? How can I fix that?
4) What would you warn me about if you could see anything you want to me without me getting upset? I promise not to get upset by your feedback or insight.
5) I really look up to you and your ideas. What advice do you have for me?

If you actually go through with this and interview the 5 people in your life who you really trust and look up to, then you will get a ton of helpful knowledge and direction from actually DOING this exercise (it doesn’t help to just think about doing it, you have to actually go do it!).

Now imagine that after six months you do it again. You have already taken much of the advice, followed through on it as best you can, and now you go ask 5 more people (perhaps the same people, perhaps different) the same 5 questions again.

Now lets say that you keep doing this every six months for the next ten years or so.

What do you think your life will be like then? If you honestly and earnestly seek out the advice of people you look up to, and then do your best to follow through on that advice and execute on the ideas.

I can tell you exactly what your life will be like, because I have done this myself (only I admittedly did a lot less of it then what I outlined above): Your life will be freaking amazing. Your life will get better and better.

I know this for a fact because I did it myself in early recovery. I forced myself to keep doing it for a long time, and things just kept getting better and better.

I thought to myself at the time “these people cannot possibly know what is best for me, yet I keep doing what they tell me and my life just keeps getting better and better. It is almost unfair!”

This is the gift of recovery, that you can model the success of others (very easily, in fact) and thus you can take a “shortcut” to success. It is not really a shortcut because you still have to take action, you still have to put in the hard work, but on the other hand it really is a sort of shortcut, because you do not have to think. You rely on other people to do the thinking for you, as their results speak for themselves. You put your faith in their words because they have the results to back their words up.

Conversely, if you are at an AA meeting and someone relapsed the day before and they are talking their mouth off for 20 minutes, my suggestion is to ignore them. I know a lot of people who get upset with that idea, but lived and breathed recovery for a very long time, and I have decided what is valuable to me on my journey and what is not. I want to model the winners in recovery, not the losers. Can I still learn something from someone who relapsed yesterday? Sure. But it is not worth my time, because that time is better spent modeling the winners in recovery. My 2 cents anyway, I know many who disagree that idea.

Beyond modeling others?

Once you have followed the path of modeling others in early recovery for a while, your life will continue to get better and better.

At some point you will probably start to realize what the difference is between a “good idea” and a “bad idea.”

At this point you can, in fact, start experimenting with your own ideas about how to improve your life rather than relying on others so much.

But I would caution you to take your sweet time in adopting this final strategy. Much better to model others for too long than to try to use your own ideas too early and fall flat on your face.

Somewhere around the 2 or 3 year mark I really started to generate my own ideas outside of mainstream recovery and then I started experimenting and applying those ideas for myself. At that point I was no longer depending on other people for my recovery. But if you try to do this too early in your sobriety then you will surely relapse. Traditional recovery suggests that you never do it at all (that is, listen to your own ideas and trust yourself).

Stay tuned for more techniques in recovery that go beyond the idea of modeling others. In the meantime, think about someone in your life who is living the sort of life that you want to live yourself, and figure out if there is a way to approach them and ask for advice. It may seem simplistic but it is extremely powerful.

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