Everyone knows that the foundation of recovery is to eliminate drugs and alcohol. Moderation is a nice idea but if you try to moderate your drug or alcohol use and you end up miserable then this is basically what defines addiction. You can’t stop on your own and you need help.
So recovery is about elimination. We stop putting chemicals into our bodies and this gives us a chance to recover. But obviously we have to do much more than just that or we are never going to remain clean and sober in the long run. It has to be about more than just quitting drinking. Most alcoholics have experienced this as well. Just removing the alcohol is not enough.
It’s about making life changes. It’s about taking positive action. It’s about building a new life and reinventing yourself in recovery.
The path in recovery to happiness is not clear at first. This is because the alcoholic has been trying to chase happiness directly for so long, and it obviously has not worked out for them. If it really worked to chase after happiness directly then the alcoholic would have no need to sober up, as they would be happy. But of course we all know that this isn’t the case. Likewise, you cannot just chase after your happiness in recovery either and expect for it to work.
The counter-intuitive path to happiness
Happiness remains elusive, even in recovery, if you try to chase after it directly. This is how we approached living in our addiction and it doesn’t work. We need a new approach in recovery.
Now you would think that chasing after your dreams or your happiness would be the right path forward in recovery. And to some extent that might be true in the end, but in early recovery it is far from ideal. If you try to chase your dreams in early recovery you will probably relapse and fall flat on your face.
Instead, you should seek to eliminate the negativity from your life. You should work on your problems. Your issues. Your guilt, shame, resentment, and self pity. You should work on the things that stress you out and drag you down. A job that you don’t like. A relationship that is toxic.
The key is to eliminate.
We want to find everything in our life that is bad in some way and seek to fix it. To eliminate it.
This is why it is counter-intuitive. You would think that they would tell us to chase our dreams rather than to focus on the negative.
But it is true–if you work hard at eliminating all of the negative stuff in your life then you will find happiness. You will find peace and contentment through seeking to eliminate all of the garbage in your life.
Just take a look at the 12 steps of AA. Why do you think they are set up that way, to examine your life, find the defects, and then eliminate them? Because this leads to real freedom and contentment.
Most people don’t like the idea of focusing on the negative. They would rather chase after their dreams, or seek happiness more directly. They don’t generally like the idea of having to do this sort of work in order to eliminate things from their life. Isn’t there an easier, softer way?
Why chasing after your dreams will still leave you miserable in the end
Think about it for a moment: If you chase after your dreams in early recovery and you actually achieve them, where will that leave you? All of us come into recovery with some good things and some bad things in our lives. All of us have negative traits that could stand to be corrected. This is especially true if you have been suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction for several years. I can assure you that you have some negativity in your life that is holding you back.
Every alcoholic or drug addict has defense mechanisms or rationalizations that they used to justify their drinking. Every alcoholic and drug addict has resentments in some form or another. Every alcoholic or drug addict either has guilt, shame, or self pity in their life. Every single one of us who walks into recovery has some sort of negative garbage going on inside of them.
Furthermore, every alcoholic and drug addict who seeks recovery has things going on in the outside world. External problems. Maybe they have bad friends, bad relationships, stress at work, a toxic relationship, too much stress, and so on. Every person in early recovery has a few environmental factors that are likely working against them.
So all of these negativity is there in the life of the struggling alcoholic. It may be a bit different for each person but all of us have a laundry list of negative issues going on.
Your job in recovery is to stop putting drugs and alcohol into your body and then to start tackling this list of negative issues. Of course you have to identify the issues one at a time and then take action to correct each item.
If you fail to do this then what will happen? Misery will result. You will be unhappy in the long run if you leave these negative issues in place. For example, when I got clean and sober I was prone to self pity. I did it all the time. And so very early in my recovery I had to recognize this and do something about it. I said to myself “What is the point of self pity every day if I am not going to drink over it?” And there was no point to it, it was only there because I used it to help justify my drinking and drug use. So I had to get rid of it. It was no longer serving me in recovery.
And to do that I had to take action. I had to go ask questions and seek advice from others in recovery. I learned how to put a stop to self pity through raising my awareness and practicing gratitude. And as a result of this I became happier in life, because I was no longer feeling sorry for myself all the time in order to justify drinking (that I was no longer doing anyway).
But note that I had to:
1) Identify this negative issue. I had to raise my awareness and evaluate my life to find the problem.
2) Make a decision to eliminate the problem.
3) Take advice from others and get feedback.
4) Put their ideas into action.
In the end this is a lot of work. And you have to keep doing this over and over again. You can’t just do this process one time in early recovery and expect for your life to be magically better. It will be better, but only in relation to the one issue that you just corrected.
You have to keep doing it. You have to keep living this way, to seek out the positive changes.
The goal of happiness versus the theme of contentment
Everybody wants to be happy. So our goal is happiness, right?
But don’t have a goal to be happy. It never works that way. If you chase after happiness then it will always remain elusive.
Instead of a goal, chose a theme. A theme is slightly different than having a goal.
When you have a goal of being happy, it is a destination. You arrive, at some point, at happiness. And then of course it will be gone shortly after that. At which point you will hope to arrive there again at some point. It remains elusive, even after you achieve it.
A theme is a better approach, in my opinion. And if you set your sites slightly lower than “happiness” then I think there is added benefit there as well. If you set your sites on “contentment” rather than on “happiness” then you get to be delighted at times. If your goal is to be happy and you finally get there then you will be like “It’s about time I achieved some happiness around here!” But if your goal is peace and contentment in your life then you get to be delighted every time that happiness falls into your lap. And the rest of the time you will be striving for peace.
This is counter-intuitive. Most of us believe that we should never settle for less, that we should strive for that which we deserve, and that we all deserve to be blissfully happy all of the time. This is setting yourself up for failure though. No one is going to achieve bliss all of the time. So you should try the counter-intuitive approach and “aim lower.” See what happens when you just strive for peace and contentment instead.
And in doing this, in having a theme of contentment, it goes well with the idea of eliminating the negative. Now it becomes a priority to eliminate the negative issues. Because those are what disrupt your peace and contentment. You are not lacking peace because you haven’t achieved your dreams yet. You are lacking peace because of resentment, fear, guilt, shame, etc. You have to go within and find the problems in yourself and work hard to fix them. This is how you achieve peace.
If you fix your external world but you haven’t done this internal work, will you ever have peace? Of course not! If you are in inner turmoil then it doesn’t matter what you have fixed in the outside world. If you still have resentment or self pity or guilt or shame swirling around inside of you then it doesn’t matter what is going on in your outside world, you will still be miserable.
Therefore the solution is to do the work. You have to figure out what is negative in your life and eliminate it. This is how you have a theme of peace and contentment.
Prioritizing the negative things to fix in your life
If you decide to strive for peace and contentment then you need a strategy to achieve this. You should start out by prioritizing what it more important to fix in your life.
You might actually sit down and make a written list as if working through the 12 steps. Or you might simply go find a sponsor and work through the steps with them.
Take a look at all of the negative issues in your life that are holding you back today. You may not even know what all of them are when you first get clean and sober. In order to find them out you might try to do some meditation. And you also might talk to other people in recovery that you trust. Ask them: “What do you see as my biggest block to happiness?” or “What do you think is my biggest problem or issue right now?” Go ask that question of at least a half dozen people and record all the answers you get. After that you should have a good idea of some of the bigger problems in your life.
Then you prioritize. Figure out which problem is causing you the most misery. Figure out what your biggest block to peace is right now. Then you need to focus.
The problem with early recovery is that we have so many different things that we might be working on at a given time. So many different issues that we want to fix.
Instead of getting overwhelmed or trying to take on too much, we need to focus. And in order to focus in on one issue we need to prioritize. So we need to take a look at this list of all of our blocks in recovery, all of the negative issues, and ask ourselves:
“What thing could I fix from this list of issues that would have the absolute biggest positive impact on my life right now?”
Our measuring stick is peace and contentment. Because that is our overall theme when it comes to recovery. We strive for peace and contentment.
So we prioritize our issues in life based on which one would give us the most relief. Not which one would make us the happiest, but which one would reduce our misery the most if we were to eliminate it.
In other words, we seek to eliminate misery rather than to chase happiness.
Once you identify the biggest priority in your life then you have your direction. Now it is time to take action. Either eliminate the issue or go get advice on how to do so. Take immediate action and really commit to following through with this.
This provides an instant feedback loop because of the way that you prioritize. Because you are choosing your biggest negative issue and eliminating it, you get instant relief and it makes a huge impact on the quality of your life. Start with the biggest impact item and you will really notice the difference. This provides momentum and incentive to keep pushing forward and fixing more issues.
We all have negative habits in recovery and if you can eliminate one of them then your life will improve bit by bit. The key is to repeat this process over and over again so that your life continues to improve little by little. In the beginning the gains are enormous as you tackle the really big problems: Eliminate alcohol and drugs, work on your resentment, get rid of guilt, eliminate self pity, and so on. For my own journey I also eliminated cigarette smoking fairly early in my recovery and I also felt bad about not treating my body better, so I got into shape. These were all part of the positive momentum that I was building up in my life. But in order to meet these goals I had to scan my life for the negative, and then seek to eliminate it. I had to look at my life and say “what is my biggest problem right now, what is really holding me back from freedom and happiness?” Then I had to take action. And many times I had to get help or seek advice on how to eliminate something.
The baseline of true happiness
After living this way for a while I started to become happier and happier. And I eventually reached a point where I said to myself: “Is that it? Is there nothing left that I need to eliminate?” And this was actually the case. I had reached a point where it was time to chase my dreams. So I was able to turn my focus and my goals towards something that I wanted to pursue, something positive, something that I wanted to create. And I could finally do that and be happy with my life.
And I had to do it in this order. If I had started off in recovery by chasing after my dreams then I never would have been happy. Because I had too many problems holding me back in life, I had to too many issues that were running counter to peace and contentment. In order to build a foundation where happiness could later occur I had to do the hard work and clear out the negativity.
Elimination is the key to happiness. We don’t find the happiness directly from eliminating the negative stuff, we just create a foundation where happiness can later arise. But it takes work in order to do this, and honestly I am not sure that everybody will want to do the work. And this is why there is such an issue with surrender and denial in early recovery. It is not enough to surrender to the disease, you must also surrender to the solution. And that means being willing to put in the hard work on changing yourself, doing self analysis, seeking advice, and so on.
Most people who first entertain the idea of quitting drinking are not yet at this point of surrender. They are miserable and they realize they have a problem but they are often not yet willing to take massive action. In order to recover you have to be willing to take massive action. That means that you are willing to ask for help, that you are willing to squash your own ego and get out of the way, that you are willing to listen to others.
And this is where the hard work comes in. It is not enough to merely sit in recovery and listen to others and nod politely at them. You have to actually put in the work. You have to listen and then apply yourself. You have to take the ideas and put them into action. This is the part where many people would prefer to just be lazy. But being lazy causes us to revert back to our old self, and we all know where that will lead us.
Peace and contentment comes to us when we are willing to put in the work. It takes real effort to strip all of the negativity out of our lives and be left with a blank slate. But it is this blank slate that allows us to be delighted with happiness when we are not even expecting it.
But we have to be willing to face the truth. We have to be willing to take an honest look at ourselves and at our lives and do the hard work to fix it. We have to be willing to listen to others and take their advice.
What about you, have you found peace and contentment through eliminating negative things in your life? What has your experience been with striving for peace? How did you go about doing it? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!