Yesterday we looked at what the most important thing you can do for your recovery is (hint: it involves relapse prevention!). Today we want to look at how we can stop visualizing and start taking real action in our recovery.
It is not that visualizing is a bad thing, because this is still a useful tool that you might be able to benefit from. It is just that at some point you have to leave this tool behind and start actually doing something.
When to avoid visualization
In my opinion early recovery and “pre recovery” is when you want to avoid visualization.
The problem with these times in your journey is that they are so largely dependent on taking action that the idea of visualization is just a distraction.
For example, someone who is trapped in the cycle of addiction may fantasize frequently about how they wish that their life was different. These visualizations do nothing for the person unless they are inspired to take massive action. But you need to understand that at this stage of their journey (pre-surrender), there is a strong aversion to taking action and the addict will cling to just about anything to stay stuck in denial. I know this is true because I have been there. In other words, it is so much easier to just “visualize recovery” than it is to actually go check into detox. In fact this is one way that we can fool ourselves in recovery–we can sit there are think about what it would be like to be clean and sober, and then somehow justify to ourselves that we are “trying” because we are thinking these thoughts.
I have news for you–fantasizing about being clean and sober is not anything like actually getting clean and sober! In fact it is just a distraction and therefore if you are at the point where you are struggling with addiction and have yet to surrender then your key word for the day is “action.” Stop thinking about recovery and start putting things into motion. Call a rehab center and take that first step towards a new life. If all you do is think about the future then you cannot create anything new in your life. The only way to create a new path for yourself is by taking real action in the present (not thinking about the future).
How to spring into action with a powerful shortcut
Perhaps I have convinced you that it is time to take serious action and attempt to change your life.
How do you go about doing that?
The key is to just do it. Get out of your own way and stop over thinking everything.
There is a shortcut for doing this but it takes a leap of faith. It takes real guts. Most people will not be able to pull this off until they are truly desperate. You have to be quite miserable in order to use this next technique because it takes so much courage.
The idea is simple: You ask for help.
That’s it. You just ask for help and then you follow through on it.
So you find someone that you trust and you ask them if they will help you to get clean and sober. Hopefully they will get on the phone and start calling up treatment centers to try to get you into a detox somewhere.
Then all you have to do is follow through. You asked for advice, now take it! Take the advice you are given and do exactly what is suggested to you.
It really is this simple. But it definitely takes guts to pull this off because normally we are so concerned with every little detail in our lives and we have to be in charge of everything.
You know what I am talking about–your EGO. It demands that it inspects every decision in your life and makes sure that you are not getting the short end of the stick in any way. Normally your ego would stick its nose into a decision like this (getting sober, going to rehab, etc.) and that is what normally screws it all up for the struggling addict or alcoholic. Their ego gets in the way and prevents them from getting the help that they need.
The ego will jump in with excuses like “But you deserve to use your drug of choice because you work hard!”
Or it might try an argument like “But if you don’t use your drug of choice you will be in too much physical pain!”
The ego is relentless and will try anything to be able to keep itself in control of your mind. The problem is that your ego is in heavy denial and it doesn’t realize this.
There is only one solution and this is the ultimate shortcut in early recovery: push your ego aside.
Push your ego completely out of the way so that you can start taking the right actions, without interference.
How do you do this?
Simple: by taking direction from other people (instead of your own ideas).
Your ego is messing with your mind. It is giving you ideas that only serve to sabotage your recovery effort.
The only way for success in early recovery is to cut the ego off completely by deciding to ask for advice and to follow through on it. This strangles the ego. When you ignore it completely then you take back all of the power for yourself.
This is tricky and counter-intuitive. It took me about a decade to figure out that this was the path to success. They have another name for this path: “surrender.” You cannot remain in charge during your early recovery and make everything work out. The ego gets in the way and screws it all up.
And guess who likes to visualize the future and try to make big plans for it? The ego! Therefore you should probably push the idea of visualization aside during your very early recovery. You can get into visualizing later on when you are more stable (and your ego is less of a threat).
Using visualization in recovery
The only time that you would want to use a technique like visualization is if it can be a catalyst to help you spring into action.
As mentioned above this is not usually the case in early recovery. However, as you maintain sobriety and start to get some stability in your life, the technique of visualization becomes more and more valuable. Once you are in long term recovery the technique becomes even more valuable as you are in a better position to make use of it.
Think of it like this: You use visualization to explore where you want to go in life and what you want to achieve. It is a glimpse into a possible future so you can decide if what you see is something that you would like to try to create.
In early recovery and “pre-recovery” this technique does not really work well. Sure we know that we wish things were different when we are suffering from addiction but there is this idea that if we just visualize a change it will happen on its own. This is a self defeating mindset for early recovery because it is then that we need massive action, and we are blocking ourselves with denial. We are stuck at that time, and visualization is the wrong tool to get us moving again.
But once we are stable in recovery things change a bit. Now we have learned a great deal of discipline because we were able to make it through early recovery. Therefore we know what it means to take massive action and apply hard work to a problem that involves lifestyle changes.
For example, let’s say that you are a recovering alcoholic and you now have a few months or a few years of sobriety under your belt. You are still smoking cigarettes and you decide that you want to quit those, too. Well, you know what to do, and you just have to do it! The thing that you really learned when you quit drinking was how much effort and discipline it takes in order to make that sort of lifestyle change. You learned what it meant to change your life to that degree and so you now have a good idea of how much effort it will take to overcome the cigarette addiction as well.
As you maintain sobriety the power of visualization becomes more and more powerful. Why? Not because you have magical powers or anything, but simply because:
1) You continue to accumulate more and more discipline in your life as you maintain sobriety and achieve new goals during your recovery. You accumulate discipline and can use it to achieve new things.
2) You become better at estimating your true boundaries for what you can and can not realistically accomplish. This will be true only if you push the edges and attempt to grow in your recovery (you cannot sit around and be lazy and expect to get better at predicting personal growth, you have to actually push yourself to keep growing!). In other words, you will get better at choosing your goals in recovery so long as you keep practicing at it.
The art of setting goals in long term recovery is nothing more than applied visualization. If you set a goal it is because you have pictured the outcome of that goal and you like what you see. Visualization and pursuing goals are fairly synonymous with each other.
Set a time frame for evaluation and reflection
One technique that you might use in recovery is to separate out your visualization from your “push for personal growth.” In other words you can set aside a specific time to reflect on your past goals and therefore you budget time to visualize what you want to accomplish in the future as well.
This makes sense because if you do not do this then you are likely to just burn out on the idea of “personal growth” in recovery. There is a balance that must be achieved because part of recovery is in simply accepting yourself and enjoying life at times. On the other hand you don’t just want to completely kick your feet up and never push yourself to make any positive changes ever again, right? There has to be a balance between acceptance and personal growth.
The way to find that balance is to set up time frames for yourself for reflection.
Here is how it works in the real world: Set a goal for yourself that is exciting and motivating for you. Something significant that would “change everything” if you achieved it. Now, push like crazy to meet that goal and work hard at it. Persist until you reach this goal.
Once you have done so, give yourself time to reflect on it. Maybe you will designate the entire next month for “acceptance and reflection.” No pressure during that time to make future changes. No pressure during that time to keep pushing for personal growth. You can just kick back and enjoy your life for a while without harping on yourself to make big changes.
So you set a date when this time period of reflection is over. What do you do then? During your “time of reflection” you should start considering what your next goal in life should be. You should start laying out a possible plan for what you want to accomplish next. This is the time to use visualization.
If you are stumped for ideas then talk to other people and seek feedback. Your peers in recovery can help you to visualize a better future. Ask them “What do you think I should be focusing on in my life journey?” Or you might ask “What changes do you think I should make that would have the biggest positive impact on my life?” Keep asking other people for advice and feedback until you get some direction on where you want to go. This is “collaborative visualization.” Your peers, friends, and sponsor could help you to visualize a better future for yourself.
Then after your “month of reflection” has passed, it is time to get back to work. It is time to get busy again. Kick yourself back into high gear and quickly decide on which goal you are going to pursue next in your life. Break your vision or goal down into actionable chunks and put those actions into a written list. Then take the first action on the list. That is really all there is to it–have a vision, design a plan, then take the first step towards that new goal in your life.
If you are not doing this then it is my opinion that you are missing out on a great tool in recovery. Setting a goal is just a way to focus your energy. If you want to achieve a certain vision in your life then you need to focus your energy on achieving that outcome. Setting goals and then taking action is just a way to help focus this effort. Without this extra focus (goal setting) you would not likely move toward your new vision in life.
In fact it is possible to completely outsource your visualizing and goal setting and let others do it for you entirely. Of course you still have to put in the legwork and take all the action yourself, but it is possible to let other do the visualizing for you.
I actually did this for the first two years of my recovery. I took advice from other people rather than creating my own vision of the future. This worked really well and if I had to do it all over again I would definitely do the same thing again. During the first two years of my sobriety I took advice from counselors, therapists, peers in recovery, my sponsor, and my family. I never did anything that was my own idea for about the first two years. Instead I simply asked for advice and feedback from all of these sources on a regular basis and then set my goals based on the ideas that I was hearing.
This is particularly powerful if you have multiple trusted and independent sources in your life. For example: My sponsor, my therapist, and my family never interacted with each other. Those 3 parties never conferred with each other in any way. So when I found that all 3 parties were suggesting that I go back to college and finish my degree, I had to admit to myself that this was probably a good suggestion. If just one party had suggested it then I could easily dismiss it. But since all three were saying the same thing (independently, without knowledge of the others) this was much more powerful.
You can use this idea in your own life by seeking feedback from multiple sources before you make a big decision. It can help you to get clarity in your life because you can get so much confirmation from other people. This same phenomenon happened again for me later in recovery with the suggestion of quitting smoking. Nearly everyone said that this was my next important step and so I could not deny it any longer. It is very much like when we are in denial of something and the whole world can see our problem, but we are still stuck in denial and refuse to change. It is at that moment when we need to look at the overwhelming evidence and say to ourselves: “I thought everyone in the world was wrong except for me, but this must be mistaken. I should listen to what everyone has been telling me.”
You can use this powerful concept in your own life by seeking advice and feedback from multiple sources. Find people you trust and seek their advice. This is a powerful way to change and grow in recovery.
Is it necessary to always have a goal regarding personal growth?
My belief is that recovery is a cycle of personal growth and reflection.
During your time of reflection it is not necessary to have a goal in life. Simply enjoy your recovery and reflect on the progress you have made.
That said, you need to set a specific length for this period of reflection. It is like you are on vacation for a while but will soon go back to work. Start thinking about what you want to do when you finally go back to work, and have a date picked out for when that will be.
Therefore I believe it is necessary to always be in this process of personal growth. If you step outside of this process permanently then you are becoming complacent in recovery. The only way to defeat complacency is to keep challenging yourself to grow and make positive changes.
1) If you are pre-recovery or in very early recovery, forget about visualization for a while and focus on taking action. Accelerate your progress in recovery by asking for help and doing what is suggested. Don’t visualize, act. Go to rehab, go to meetings, go get help. “Just do it.” Stop hesitating.
2) If you are stable in your recovery then embrace the process of personal growth and reflection. Feel free to visualize and set goals for yourself. Use peers, sponsors, family, friends, and people that you trust to help you goal-set and visualize.
3) Set specific ending times for reflection and “get back to work” on your next goal. Personal growth is a process that must continue indefinitely, as your sobriety hinges on it. Never stop learning and growing.