When we first get clean and sober we have to learn how to say “no” to a lot of things. Obviously in the beginning we have to say “no” to our drug of choice–that is our first major hurdle in recovery. But after that if you continue on in recovery you will notice that you actually have to keep saying “no” to a lot more things in your life.
Saying “no” to certain things means opening up room and space for new experiences
When you say no to anything in your life, it may feel like a negative at first. But actually what you are doing is creating space. You are creating an empty slot which you then get to fill with something more meaningful.
If you are stuck in a dead end job and there is no real hope of upward movement, perhaps it is time to say no to that job. And maybe you feel like you are trapped there because you don’t know how you can survive without the money, or where else you could possibly work that would fill in that gap. But people quit jobs all the time and they find other things to do and they find new jobs. Think about it like this: The person who is working “their dream job” at one point had to say “no” to a job that they did not like. They were not born doing their dream job. They had to go seek it out. It was a journey for them.
In the same way, just about everything in your life and in your recovery is subject to this same principle. If you feel like you are stuck in some regard, then you are definitely stuck. You may need to cut ties with something or let it go in order to move forward with your life.
The big problem in most cases is fear. When we are facing a decision like this it can be scary because we do not know what is going to fill the void. Finishing up my college education was a perfect example of this. I was nearing the end and I realized that this meant a transition, and moving on. What would replace education in my life? I had been going to school for so long that it was going to feel weird not to go any more. Would I really be happy working a job? And so on. Fear of the unknown keeps us stuck and afraid to move forward. But at some point I had to say “no” to more education and instead get out there and start applying what I had learned. This required change. I had to enter into a new world, and that meant facing the unknown.
At one point in my recovery I was reading recovery literature. I was reading every book I could get my hands on that was about recovery, life philosophy, and so on. I read the Big Book of AA and I read the New Testament. I read dozens and dozens of self help books that talked about addiction and recovery. I read books that talked about philosophy and how to live a better life. I read and I read and I read.
At some point–you guessed it!–I had to say “no” to reading. I really had to move on from it. Because it was out of balance and I was really using it as an escape, rather than as a platform for growth. If you read one book, or even just one chapter of a book, and then you go apply those concepts in your life and you make changes, then that is fantastic. If you do this, then keep reading! On the other hand, what I was doing was not really living well in recovery. I was just reading to read, and I could not possibly apply everything that I took in. I was accumulating knowledge but I had no time to use it. And so at some point I had to stop reading and instead start living in recovery. It was only then that my “real experiment” could begin.
Do not feel negative about saying “no” to anything in your life. It may seem like a negative event but you have to remember that you are creating a positive space by saying no. In order to create opportunity for something new in your life, you have to clear a path through the old stuff. Therefore saying no to something is really a positive opportunity. If you say no to television then you can invite healthy exercise into your life. If you say no to a toxic relationship then you can invite a healthy relationship into your life. If you say no to a bad habit or something that is self destructive (such as smoking) then you can invite healthier living into your life. By clearing out the bad stuff you make way for the good stuff.
Saying “no” to chaos and misery in your life
So what do you say no to?
I would start with chaos and misery. This is the first thing to start with because it gives you the biggest bang for your recovery buck. In terms of becoming happier, you can not do any better than to eliminate a “point of misery” in your life.
For example, I was a chronic smoker in early recovery and I knew that on some level it was making me miserable. In fact I suspected that it was actually making me miserable in more ways than one. It turned out that this was true even though I could not fully appreciate that until I had found freedom from cigarettes. So eventually I had to make a plan to quit smoking and then follow through on it.
One problem that I encountered on this path was that I failed repeatedly for a long time. I failed to quit smoking, over and over again. At some point I had to get sick and tired of failing at it and really become miserable enough so that I could find a deeper commitment to quit. This is what finally moved me into real action–I was tired of smoking and I was tired of failing when I tried to quit. It was a sad and tired old story. So at some point I got serious enough to take real action, and to follow through with my quit.
I have suffered chaos and misery at the hands of my job in the past. Therefore I had to take action in order to find a new way to make a living. This did not happen overnight and I had to plan for years in order to escape a certain level of misery in my employment. I talk with some people and they complain that they are trapped and how it would be nice to just be able to up and quit their job, but they are not in a position to do so. Well, neither was I. I simply made a commitment to myself that I would not stop working my tail off until I was in a position where I could create more freedom. So I did that and after several years I was able to say “no” to that chaotic and miserable part of my life (the part where I work hard for a boss in a crazy environment). I made a long term plan to be able to say “no” to that part of my life. Now it is filled in with some amazingly positive things and a much smoother and happier experience.
Therefore what you should do to start out with in recovery is to identify your “points of misery.” These are the things that are making you miserable or driving you crazy. These things may be situations, they may be other people, and they may be blocks or limitations in your life. In each case, you probably have the ability to make a plan and to overcome that limitation. Or you can work hard to put yourself into a position where you can eventually say no to the chaos and eliminate the misery from your life.
You may think that this is a waste of time, and that you should be “pursuing happiness” instead of trying to eliminate misery or say “no” to something in your life. I am here to tell you that I have tried to do both, I have used both paths in my life, and the one that results in more happiness is the path where you eliminate chaos and misery. You must learn to say “no” to things first before you can start enjoying the true benefits of recovery. Part of the reason for this is because if you try to pursue happiness directly it will be fleeting. If you try to chase after your happiness by achieving or doing something, and you have not said “no” to something in your life first in order to make space for that, then the experience will be fleeting and you will only be disappointed in the end.
We are happiest in recovery when we eliminate misery and chaos. This is how we move towards greater happiness. In truth, we do not need a lot of things in order to “be happy.” We just need to avoid chaos and misery and we will essentially return to a baseline of moderate contentment. This is what you should strive for in recovery. Doing so requires you to say “no” to all of the chaos and misery in your life.
Saying “no” to a tactic that is a seven out of ten
If you stick and stay in recovery then you will undoubtedly take a number of suggestions from other people and try to apply them in your own life. This is just part of how recovery works and therefore you will seek feedback from others and try new ideas in your life.
Now obviously you have heard the saying “take what you need and leave the rest.” Some of the ideas that we get from other people will work out well, and some of them will be duds for us. So we just discard the duds and move on with our lives. We go seek out new ideas, try other new things, and so on.
The problem is, how do we know when a tactic or an idea is a dud, and when we should move on and try something else? This is a tricky problem and it becomes even trickier because most people do not even think about it this deeply.
For example, I was in early recovery and many people were encouraging me to meditate. They all told me to meditate. It’s really great, they said, it will help to calm your mind and you will feel so much better each day. You should totally meditate, they said.
So I started to meditate. I got some books about it and read them. I read about meditation online. And I really got into it, and gave it a fair chance. I was meditating about 30 minutes each day. And I experimented with meditating at different times during the day. I was really into it for a while, and I was still learning more and more about it.
Now in terms of personal growth and recovery tactics, I am going to call this a 7 out of 10. The meditation was helpful, but it wasn’t really life changing for me. Perhaps I was already getting many of the benefits from meditating from other sources (for example, sitting quietly in meetings and school all day gives you some of the same benefits, even though it is not exactly the same thing as real meditation, etc.).
Now fast forward a few years in my recovery. I have taken on new suggestions from other people to start exercising. I am now running six miles every day. I have been doing so for a while now, and I continue to do it, and it is having a huge impact on me. The impact is so great that I find it difficult to communicate it to others. I would rate it as a 9.5 out of 10 in terms of the positive impact on my recovery. This is like “finding your big thing” in recovery. And in many ways the daily exercise completely replaced the concept of meditation. It included nearly all of the same benefits, plus some.
So this is an example of how we might settle for a 7 in our lives. You don’t want to settle for a 7. If I was still meditating instead of running, I would have settled for a 7 and my life would not be as good today.
In that same way, I need to be open to the idea that my regular exercise and my running may actually be a 7 in disguise. For example, maybe I will discover weight training and add in some other forms of exercise and suddenly take everything to that next level. In that case I may discover that my running was actually a 7 when I thought it was a 9.5. There was another level of growth there and I had to be open to discover it. I had to be able to say “no” to what I thought was my perfect solution, so that I could see beyond that and try new things.
How many things in our lives that we do out of habit are actually a 7 out of 10? If I am honest with myself then nearly everything in my life was a 7 during my first year of recovery. I was pulling things out of the air and simply using the feedback that people gave me. I was following the averages. I was following the masses. I was doing what I was told, and that was usually what was “good enough” for most people. And that was nearly all stuff that I would eventually replace in my life, because there were actually better solutions for me that were a better fit for my life. But I had to be willing to say “no” to a lot of things, and to explore further solutions.
Saying “no” to toxic relationships and negative people
As mentioned before, sometimes the thing that you say “no” to will actually be a negative person in your life.
Again, you may feel bad about this or have feelings of guilt involved. For example, there have been a few people that I have known in my recovery that I really wanted to help. People that I tried to help. But in the end I had to realize that a few of these people were not really trying to help themselves. They said that they were, but their actions told a different story. You can’t keep making the same mistake over and over and continue to cry wolf and then suck the life and energy out of good people like myself. That is not fair. That is taking advantage of someone who is simply too nice to say no.
Well that has to stop. You may be a nice person (much like myself) who has to learn how to say no to the “energy vampires” of the world. You may know what I am talking about when I say the term “energy vampires.” They are people who just seem to suck the life and the energy right out of you, and they give nothing back. They are selfish and they take, take, take. They never give anything back. They need a lot of help and the more you try to help them they more they take advantage and abuse that help you are offering.
The question you must ask yourself is “How long will I feed the energy vampire?” The new answer that I want you to have for yourself is “not at all, once I realize that they are toxic and negative.” This may make you feel guilty because it requires you to pass judgement on people. In order to say “no” to a toxic person in your life you have to judge them. Don’t feel bad about doing this! They are judging you, and others, to see who can give them the most help. They are making judgments themselves about other people in order to take advantage of the nice ones. You are collateral damage because you happen to be nice. Therefore your only defense against toxic and negative people is to become aware of their game and to actively say “no” to it. In order to do that you have to pay attention and you have to pass judgement on the people in your life.
Do not be afraid to judge others, as your serenity depends on it!
There are lots of people in this world and there are plenty of people who will have a relationship with you that is based on mutual respect. There is no need to allow someone negative and toxic to take up lots of your time and energy. Simply push those people out of your life and make more space for healthy relationships.
Saying “no” to unreasonable demands on your time
This is a tricky one for me because I am in the business of helping others. At some point you may have to put up some boundaries and protect your life and your sanity. Your time is your own and if other people are valuing your time at zero then you have to ask yourself how much they really respect you. If people make unreasonable demands and offer you nothing in return then you should move away from those situations and do more to protect your free time. You have a blank slate in recovery in which you can help others and pursue your own personal growth. Don’t let other people hijack your life and manipulate it for their own purposes.
Why I eventually said “no” to AA meetings
When I was making my journey through early recovery I felt a growing unease about the AA meetings that I was attending each day. I knew that something was wrong but I could not put my finger on it easily because I was experiencing quite a bit of inner conflict over the issue.
On the one hand, I was constantly hearing about how the meetings were my salvation, and how important they were, and how anyone who left AA would relapse and die. I heard this over and over again in early recovery.
On the other hand, I knew that meetings were not a good fit for me and they were not a good use of my time. I had personal growth projects and other angles in my recovery that were waiting for my attention while I was sitting in a meeting.
Eventually I left the meetings and challenged myself to engage in even more personal growth. I pushed myself to live a better life in recovery while finding my own path. I said “no” to daily meetings in order to make way for personal growth in my life.