Yesterday we looked at everything you would want to know about relapse. Today we want to look at how you can achieve serenity while still be able to push yourself to grow in your recovery journey. At times the two concepts may seem to oppose each other to some degree.
For example, let us imagine for a moment that you are perfectly content and serene in your life–nothing is bothering you, you have no outstanding issues or great moral defects, and things have been going smooth for a long time. You feel serene in your life and there is nothing really upsetting you or ruffling your feathers. In such a situation, how motivated are you to really change, to learn, to grow? Probably not very much.
On the other hand, imagine for a moment that you have all sorts of problems or issues in your life. Maybe you have a bad relationship or two with others, maybe you have some bad habits left over from your addiction that you would like to eliminate (such as smoking cigarettes for example), and perhaps you are not really happy with your current career path or job. Such circumstances may not be enough to motivate you at first (as such situations slowly creep into your life) but in the long run they may reach a point where they create enough suffering to motivate change. Therein lies one of the great truths of recovery: we are motivated to change mostly by pain. This is not always the case of course but 9 times out of 10 it is true for most alcoholics and addicts. We did not get clean and sober to pursue a better life (which many of us believed to be impossible for us anyway), instead we got clean and sober because we were sick and tired of being miserable. Pain was our motivator. So too this will often be the case in recovery. If you want to create massive changes then expect to be motivated by great amounts of pain, discomfort, or anxiety.
Of course even if you are facing pain (such as working a job that you can’t stand) you will still need to reach down and find the motivation from somewhere to kick yourself into high gear. Such was true of your initial thrust into recovery as well….there had to be a spark to start it all. Your “moment of clarity” if you will. We can experience many such moments throughout our recovery as we continue to learn, grow, change, and evolve. The alternative of course is to just stagnate and eventually run the risk of relapsing back to our addiction.
So the real question is not simply how to achieve sobriety–because no one wants to be sober just to find that they are miserable. Instead, we want to be happy, content, and serene….all while maintaining sobriety and enjoying a life without chemicals. How can we do this without jumping back and forth over this line, this line that separates pain from motivation, chaos from serenity, and acceptance from “personal growth?” How can we find balance between these concepts as we progress in our recovery? Let’s dig in deeper and see if we can learn the truth.
Pain and dissatisfaction leading to positive change
This concept is an extension getting clean and sober to begin with. Pain was always the great motivator to coax someone out of addiction. We don’t get clean and sober because we think it will make use happy–we do it because we are so sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Once we are in recovery we need to look at how we are sabotaging our own happiness, and start saying “no” to some of that stuff. For example, I was still smoking cigarettes early in my recovery, and continued to do so for a couple of years into my recovery. At the time, I could not see how this was holding me back, and how it was robbing me of both growth and serenity. My smoking addiction was creating pain and misery in my life in a subtle but very powerful way. Lots of little things added up to make this a really big deal. For example, I was not satisfied with my smoking habit in the following ways:
* I knew I was damaging my long term health.
* I knew that it was ruining the taste of foods.
* I knew that I would be stronger in recovery if I could kick the cigarette habit as well.
* I knew that I could learn a great deal of discipline and will power if I could overcome cigarette addiction and then apply those lessons to other areas of my life.
* I knew that I was wasting tons of money on cigarettes.
* I knew that I was looked down on and stigmatized due to my cigarette addiction.
* I knew that I was sick and tired of smoking and sometimes I would even look down at a lit cigarette and suddenly wonder “Why am I even smoking this thing? It is awful!” And yet I continued to smoke….
And so on. All of these issues were somewhat small (by themselves) but taken as as whole they were actually producing a lot of anxiety and discomfort in my life.
At some point, all of that negative stuff could no longer be ignored. When I reached this point I saw through my denial, realizing that I really did NOT want to smoke cigarettes for the rest of my life. And therefore I found the motivation to quit finally.
But here is the key: I did not find that motivation until the pain became great enough. The pain, anxiety, and discomfort of smoking had to become great enough for me to be motivated to change. I could not change just based on one of those factors, or even based on all of them until they became intense enough for me. Part of this may have been my push towards greater consciousness, to realize what I was doing to myself, how I was wasting money (and time) smoking, and how it was no longer in alignment with my other goals in life.
This is really another key concept (alignment). I was now in recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism, I was running and jogging on a regular basis, and I was moving toward greater health in my life. Smoking was falling further and further out of alignment with my other goals in life. Eventually this created more and more discomfort and anxiety based on my addiction to cigarettes. That discomfort and anxiety is what motivated me to finally quit.
This is the relationship between discomfort and motivation. If you want to create motivation in your life to do something, then you have to be a bit unhappy with the status quo. Put even more simply, if you want to change something in your life, you first have to be dissatisfied with that thing.
This then begs the question: How can you create more discomfort, anxiety, and dissatisfaction in your life (so that you can find the motivation to change)?
The answer is to start seeing through your denial. Recognize your denial for what it is.
Start telling yourself the hard truths that you normally shy away from and cover up in your mind.
Start measuring your happiness and your dissatisfaction. This is one way to break through denial and see the negative things in your life for what they really are. Start measuring!
For example, if you are a cigarette smoker and you want to stop, start measuring how many seconds of pleasure you actually get in a single day from nicotine. Seriously! Get out a stopwatch and start letting second accumulate when you are genuinely happy because of smoking. You might run it up for a minute or so on that first smoke of the day. But if you are honest with yourself throughout the day, you might only get about 20 seconds of pleasure per cigarette, and the rest of it is just sort of maintenance puffing. At the end of the say you may only get a minute or two of “joy” from your smoking habit. Find out for yourself and measure it.
Then weigh this against the full costs. Look at the dollars that it costs per year. Look at the cost per decade. Consider what that money would be if you invested it for 30 years. Also look at the time cost. Most pack-a-day smokers come close to smoking for a full MONTH out of each year. This is insane. So much wasted time. So much wasted money.
But this does not just apply to smoking. You could be disappointed in your job, your career, your relationships. Whatever. Start measuring what it is really “costing” you, and also start measuring how much “joy” it is bringing you. To do this honestly and thoroughly is to really see the truth. This is how to break through denial.
We are in denial when we only focus on the good parts of something and ignore all the negatives. When we break through denial we accurately see the negatives and weight them against the true benefits. If this is the case with drug or alcohol addiction then it is always a slam dunk that the negatives are FAR worse than any benefits that it brings to you. The key is to get honest with yourself and really measure what is going on in your life, so that you suddenly achieve that moment of clarity, and you realize that your addiction is never going to get any better, that it will always lead you to misery, and that it never really brought you lasting happiness in the first place. It was always a sham.
You break through denial when you finally see the truth. But of course you also have to see and accept the truth. Then you have to act on that new truth.
Serenity as your goal and how striving for it can create resistance to it
So how do you chase down serenity and make it your own? How do you capture a serene life?
The answer is a bit of a paradox. You certainly do not do it by trying too hard. This will only create resistance to the serenity that you are trying to create.
Think about it. If you are focusing all of your energy and attention on creating serenity in your life, then every little thing that comes along to INTERRUPT your serenity will become a huge focal point. Every problem in your life that comes up that can potentially threaten your serenity will automatically get magnified a thousand times, because your goal is to achieve perfect peace in your life and this stubborn outside event (over which you probably have no control) is just strolling right into your life to screw everything up!
Needless to say, trying your hardest to create peace and serenity is not the way to go about doing it. When you focus on creating peace and serenity, this will only cause you to become hyper aware of when something is disturbing your peace and serenity.
Therefore the answer is to sidestep the problem entirely. Rather than engaging in a direct battle with life in order to try to control everything and micro-manage your way to peace and contentment, you need a different strategy. Placing serenity as your number one goal and then striving to attain it is counter-productive. You will only find resistance to the serenity you are trying so desperately to achieve.
When most people think about creating more peace and serenity in their life, they are thinking about it from a tactical level. For example, they might think something like “oh gosh, I am so stressed lately because of this job of mine, that class, and this other person that I deal with, and if I could just eliminate all of those things, I would have peace and serenity.”
They are focused on a tactical approach. Find the stress points and eliminate them, one by one. That is how they are envisioning their future serenity. Of course this will never work because there are always going to be new challenges and new sources of stress in life.
Part of the problem is that such a person might picture someone else who does not have the problems that they have, and imagine that other people are totally 100 percent free, with no worries in life and no problems at all. And they might go so far as to resent such an imaginary person. Well, such imaginary, blissed-out people do not exist. Everyone has problems, even if they are different problems than what you experience. So the first part of the solution is to be realistic, to accept that a certain amount of adversity and challenge is always going to be present in life, no matter how perfect your circumstances become. Therefore part of your solution needs to be focused on acceptance.
But as we know from the serenity prayer, acceptance is only half of the answer. The other half is about action. “The courage to do the things we can.” This is where strategy comes into play.
Your life strategy should be based on the concept of alignment.
This is different than using tactics to try to spot-eliminate points of stress in your life. If you can think carefully about your goals and bring them into better alignment, then acceptance of the stress in your life will come much easier. This is because you will be earning much more benefit for the stress than if your goals were out of alignment.
For example, say that you are in recovery from addiction, but you continue to struggle with toxic relationships, you continue to abuse your body in some ways (no exercise, smoking cigarettes, unhealthy eating), and let’s just throw in a gambling problem for the sake of the example. Notice that even though you got clean and sober from drugs and alcohol, there are still some serious problems going on here. Specifically, your goals are not well aligned. You are creating LOTS of additional stress in your life because you are fighting against yourself in so many ways. Your decision to get clean and sober is a step in the right direction, a decision for better health. Yet there are a lot of decisions (we could label these goals if that makes it easier) that are fighting against this push for better health. On the one hand, you are trying to improve your life and be healthier by overcoming drug and alcohol addiction. At the same time, you continue to harm your body with nicotine and your financial problems are spiraling out of control based on gambling and the money you waste on cigarettes. The most intense source of stress in your life is probably going to come from the fact that these goals are not in alignment with each other.
Now realize what would happen if you adopted a superior strategy. You slowly begin to change your life and get your goals into better alignment. Your decision to get clean and sober is a good start. You can extend that idea by quitting smoking. You might start exercising and try to eat a better diet. You might just flat out walk away from toxic relationships in your life. You surround yourself with positive people who are all about making positive changes. All of your goals start to point to a healthier “you.” Positive change becomes your mantra. You start saying “no” to the stuff that is holding you back. Here is the key realization though: once you do all of this and adopt a better recovery strategy, you will STILL have some stress, challenge, and maybe even a little bit of chaos in your life.
And that is OK. You will deal with it so much better because now you will be on the right track.
Everyone has problems. No one is completely immune to stress in their life. But realize this: my problems today are a whole lot better than they were 15 years ago. And my problems today are even a lot better than what they were when I was halfway through my recovery journey.
I still have problems today, but they are so much better than what my old problems used to be. I used to be wondering if I would live through the night, or if I would end up in jail. Halfway through my recovery, my stress came from work, school, relationships, and so on. Today my goals are in such better alignment that my only stress comes from random external events–things that are completely beyond my control. And even then such events usually do not bother me much, because my goals are well aligned and I am fairly well insulated from sudden changes. My life today is more flexible and resilient than ever before. I am better at rolling with the punches than I was five or ten years ago. This is a result of having a good recovery strategy, one that has all of my goals aligned with greater health and personal growth.
The balance between acceptance and personal growth
The whole key for me has been the balance between acceptance and personal growth. You can still frame this entirely in terms of the serenity prayer if you like. Find a goal worth achieving in your life and then start taking positive action. Push yourself hard enough to realize incredible benefits. Then pause and reflect on your progress so that you can decide on your next goal to pursue.
If you embrace this cycle of personal growth then you will be consciously deciding to pursue “the things which you can change” while also ignoring the things that you cannot change. But this requires conscious thought and planning, such that you examine your life and your current goals, then set a new course for yourself that will get you the benefits that you are seeking. You might ask yourself “How can I grow in my recovery, or how can I become a better person?” Push yourself to take positive action, align your goals, and the stress that you experience will be “positive stress” that helps to urge you towards healthier living.