When I finally became clean and sober I found myself living in a long term treatment center. While I was there I noticed that I was still battling some “inner demons” if you will. These were mental forces that were threatening my sobriety. I quickly figured out that if I was going to stay clean and sober in the long run that I was going to have to overcome these negative thought patterns.
Why you need to eliminate these destructive behaviors in recovery
If you are filled with self pity or resentment then eventually you will relapse. It is really that simple.
No recovering alcoholic can stay sober if they are constantly stuck in either resentment or self pity. Both conditions will cause them to self medicate eventually.
If you are filled with resentment then it is like poison to your system. The same is true of self pity. In fact the self pity is really just another form of resentment that is directed at yourself. Many people feel “justified” in feeling sorry for themselves but in reality the condition can be just as destructive as anger or resentment directed at others.
Even if you maintain your sobriety, are you really free if your mind and thoughts are consumed with these negative feelings? Not really. Therefore you need to clear out this excess baggage in order to live the happy life in recovery that you deserve.
But how exactly do you go about doing that? How do you eliminate self pity, anger, resentment, or negative emotions?
The process of eliminating a self defeating behavior
I can only speak from experience, but I have had success in removing a negative behavior from my life.
My brand of poison was self pity. But looking back on it now there may have been more resentment involved in this than what I realized at the time. Regardless, this technique can work on any negative behavior or thought that is doing you harm or holding you back in any way.
There are really only a few simple steps to doing this, but of course you have to actually do them.
For me, the steps break down like this:
1) Become aware of a negative thought pattern that you want to change.
2) Increase your awareness of it so that you catch yourself when it happens.
3) Make an agreement with yourself not to tolerate the thought pattern.
4) Stay aware, stay vigilant, and take counter-measures if necessary (such as practicing gratitude to overcome resentment, etc.)
That is the basic process for how I have actually eliminated a negative thought pattern from my life. It really works for me and I am sure that it can work for you too.
Become aware of the problem
There are some alcoholics out there who go through life extremely angry. Some of these people never even identify their anger or realize that it is consuming them.
Before you can eliminate a problem you have to know about it.
If you don’t know what your negative thought patterns are then you can identify them by talking with others in recovery. Honestly this is probably the biggest selling point of getting a sponsor in recovery–so that you can identify your trouble spots. If you cannot spot them yourself then you need to ask for help. Working through the 12 steps of AA is one way to identify these problems (though it is not entirely necessary if you know what to look for).
Anyone who is new to recovery and has been drinking for years is bound to have some negative thought patterns running loose. Your job is to identify them and eliminate them so that they do not drive you back to drinking.
How to increase your awareness
Once you have established what your negative thought process is (resentment, self pity, etc.) then you need to become hyper aware of it.
Just learning that it exists is only the starting point. Now you must train your brain to be able to recognize instantly when it is becoming a problem.
If you cannot learn to do this then you should (once again!) ask for help. You need to be able to “catch yourself” when you are slipping into resentment or self pity. If you cannot learn to catch yourself then you have no hope of overcoming the condition.
There are many ways to increase your awareness. One way is to meditate (or exercise). Pay attention to the stuff that bubbles up when you attempt to turn your mind off. Pay attention to the way your thoughts wander and where they end up when you exercise.
Another way to increase your awareness is to journal. I write every single day about recovery and I try to be honest about what is bubbling up inside of me. If you force yourself to write very day then the truth will spill out onto the page. You can learn a lot from this form of exploration.
You can also use your peers in recovery and/or AA meetings. Of course in doing so you have to be honest and you have to get down to “the real you” when you are communicating. Most people do not do this easily but they still get comfort from daily AA meetings. Honesty is critical.
What you need to ultimately do is to train your mind to be able to catch itself immediately when you start to engage in self pity or resentment. This is the goal of increasing your awareness.
Making an agreement with yourself (your zero tolerance policy)
So far you have discovered a negative thought pattern that you want to change, and then you have also made an effort to increase your awareness of it.
So you know what you want to eliminate, and now you are noticing it right away when it pops up.
What happens next is that you must make an agreement with yourself. I made a very serious commitment with myself in early recovery that I was not going to tolerate any self pity at all. I thought of this as being a “zero tolerance policy.” If I noticed myself starting to feel sorry for myself, I immediately shut it down and redirected my mind elsewhere.
This is not hard to do. There is no real secret to doing this. If you complain that you cannot redirect your mind then I believe that you are fooling yourself. Anyone can redirect their mind. The only key that needs to be in place is willingness. You must make the decision to say “NO” to resentment and self pity, just as I made the decision in early recovery.
You may feel like you are depriving yourself if you make this stand with yourself. You may feel like you are giving up a “luxury” because you no longer allow yourself to sit around and stew in anger or self pity. Do not give into this desire. You are giving yourself a gift even if it feels like you are depriving yourself.
So that is all there is to it. You make this decision that you are going to be healthier and that your thoughts are going to be healthier as well. Then you make an agreement with yourself that you are not going to allow yourself to stew in anger or indulge in self pity. Ever. It’s over. You no longer allow yourself to do those things. This is a simple decision and anyone can make it. “How?” you may ask. By making a conscious choice to always redirect your thoughts if you notice the negative thought pattern.
Of course there will be moments when you don’t catch it at first. There will be times when you will realize that you were already angry and “indulging” in the thought pattern. That is OK though. Do not scold yourself. Simply move on and correct it immediately. So long as you do not consciously indulge in these thought patterns then you have no reason to beat yourself up. The only time that you should be hard on yourself if you knowingly choose to sit there and stew in negative thinking patterns.
You have to make an agreement with yourself. A pact. You agree that you will not let yourself dwell in these negative thought patterns. If they pop up, you notice them and you force yourself to move on. Correct the problem. Don’t take “no” for an answer.
Some people will undoubtedly complain that their mind is not cooperating with their intentions. That the negative thought patterns keeps popping back up in spite of their best efforts. To those people I would say: Be vigilant. Reaffirm your commitment to eliminating the negative thoughts. Resolve to stay in the positive. Don’t beat yourself up if you keep having problems, but do try to be positive and move forward. Tell your brain who is boss now. Don’t let it push you around. Take control back.
If you are really struggling to gain control of your mind back then you might also seek outside help. Go to an AA meeting and ask the group how they were able to move past resentment. Ask them to be specific and explain how the process worked for them in detail. Many of them will not be able to describe this in a helpful way but a few of them will certainly be able to do so. It is those people that you need to listen closely to and learn from.
Your negative thought pattern may be unique, but someone has already dealt with it before you. There is a solution for every “mind disease.” If you are wracked with guilt, someone in AA has dealt with that before. If you are dwelling in self pity, there are people who have overcome that as well. If you are consumed with anger and resentment then there are plenty of people who can help you to work through that process. You just have to reach out and ask for help. Learn how to take control of your mind back and if you cannot seem to do it then you need to ask for help from others.
Pursuing positive counter-forces
What in the heck does that mean? What are counter-forces? Are we super heroes fighting against evil here or something?
When I talk about counter-forces I am talking about the idea that you can take positive action to overcome a negative thought pattern. You can also take positive action on a daily basis in order to help prevent those negative thoughts from returning.
For example, let’s say that you find yourself stewing in negative emotions practically every day.
Nothing seems to go your way and you are constantly down on yourself. Maybe you are mired in resentment and self pity as well. Nothing seems to help.
In a case like this you need to start using the idea of “counter forces” to combat the negativity.
One of the biggest ideas in doing this that gets a lot of lip service is the idea of gratitude.
It is impossible to be resentful if you are grateful. It is impossible to be negative and relapse if you are being genuinely grateful. The two states of being are not compatible at all.
This is what I mean by “counter-forces.” If you are trying to avoid self pity, then focus on gratitude. Force yourself to practice gratitude.
The key word here is “practice.” I realize that you cannot just snap your fingers and become grateful in a split second. But with practice you will be able to do so.
And so you must make it part of your routine. Part of who you are.
This is why I call it a “daily practice.”
Because you do it every single day. It becomes part of your lifestyle.
Some people treat the 12 steps of AA like they are an event. Like they are something you do one time and then forget about it forever.
I don’t see recovery working that way. I see recovery as being about process. It is all process.
This is what makes the concept of the “daily practice” so important. If you are going to master a new way of living then you must practice it each and every day. Consistency is key.
Our alcoholism is a pervasive disease and it wants to lead us back to the bottle. The solution is to keep moving forward, away from the threat of relapse. But the threat it always there. It never goes away completely. And this is why you need a daily practice. So that you are always fighting back against the threat of relapse.
If you find yourself slipping into negative thought patterns on a regular basis then you need to take action.
Not just any action, but you need to take the appropriate counter-measures. My method of doing this was to focus on gratitude in order to overcome self pity. If your negative thought pattern is something else (such as shame, guilt, resentment, etc.) then you may need to seek out a different countermeasure. My big problem was always self pity and so I had to focus on gratitude.
I did this by taking action. I sought feedback from others. My sponsor had me writing out gratitude lists. I focused on abundance in my life. Not on getting stuff, but on appreciating what I had. I studied the concept of gratitude. I got a point where I felt grateful for the earth beneath my feet, marveling at the fact that I simply existed.
Now I admit that I am not bursting with this same level of gratitude every single day. This is why we practice gratitude. We never fully master it. And it is easy to slip back into the old thought patterns and behaviors if we are not vigilant. This is why I strongly recommend that you give careful consideration to the idea of the “daily practice.”
Whatever your countermeasure is, you need to incorporate it into your daily routine. If you need to practice gratitude then you should be doing it every single day, right when you wake up. If you say that you don’t have time for this then simply set your alarm clock ten minutes ahead. Wake up and then write down 5 things you are grateful for today. Force yourself to do this every single day and you are now “practicing gratitude.” It may seem silly to sit there and force yourself to think and then write things down. So what? Be silly. Force your brain to appreciate what you have and you will be cultivating gratitude. It is a practice. You get better at it with time.
If your big stumbling block is resentment or guilt or shame then you will need to seek out different countermeasures. I don’t necessarily know what those are because my battle was with self pity. I had to practice gratitude so that I could overcome my negative thought pattern. If you do not know what to do in order to get help then you need to ASK. Ask others for help. Ask others for guidance and direction. If you are really stuck then go to an AA meeting and say “I have a problem with resentment” (or shame, or guilt, or whatever it may be that is threatening your sobriety). Then say “If anyone here has experience in getting past that problem, please talk to me after the meeting. I need some help.”
If you do this at just one random AA meeting I can assure you that you will get some valuable advice. If you do this at a few completely different meetings then you will probably get a ton of collective wisdom. But the key is to then take that advice and act on it.
How your life will improve as a result of eliminating negative behaviors
Believe it or not, the best thing that you can do in early recovery is to work on eliminating negative stuff.
This is counter-intuitive. Many people believe that you should be chasing positive goals instead. “Focus on the positive things” they will say. This is wrong.
It’s wrong because the good stuff comes later. You can try to subvert this and go chase after your positive goals first in recovery but if you have not cleared away the garbage in your life first then you are just going to be held back.
For example, say that you get clean and sober and you have this problem with self pity. You tend to feel sorry for yourself all the time. You also have this dream of going back to school and becoming a doctor. So you go to rehab and you get dried out and you leave the rehab and it is time to start living your life. Now you could focus on fixing the self pity or you could accelerate right past that and go chase that new career. What do you think is the correct path in this case?
If you try to go right to the “positive goal” then you will be stuck. You will find yourself spinning your wheels. And you will probably not understand what you are doing wrong. But the fact is that you did not clear up the negative stuff in your life first. Therefore your self pity (or resentment, or shame, or guilt, or whatever your negative thought pattern is) will be holding you back from true success. It may even cause you to relapse at some point.
Therefore, order of operations is important in recovery.
Don’t start with the “good stuff” (like chasing your dream career, for example).
Instead, start by eliminating your negative thought patterns. These are what hold you back and sabotage your efforts.
After clearing away these problems, you will then be free to chase your dreams in recovery.