One of the most important ideas in long term sobriety is that you should fight complacency with personal growth and development.
In the early years of AA and the birth of sobriety itself, it was discovered that one of the biggest culprits in terms of relapse was resentment. People relapsed because they were hanging on to anger and it was destroying them from the inside.
Today we can look back and gain more perspective. Today we have people who have been sober for years or even decades. And so we start to see that some people who relapse in long term sobriety did not do so because of resentments.
Indeed, a person who has been working on a recovery program for over a decade has essentially dealt with all of their resentments by now. They have no remaining resentments. They identified them all and worked through them and they have released that anger. Granted, some recovering alcoholics do not do this work and eliminate all of their resentments, but certainly some of them do.
And of the people who have worked through their resentments and eliminated them, some of them still end up relapsing. So the question is–what is going on with such people? Why do they relapse if they have worked through all of their major problems, character defects, resentments, fears, and so on? How and why are the relapsing in long term sobriety?
This is something that they were not able to predict or anticipate when they wrote the Big Book of AA. They did not have predictive powers back then to look several decades into the future and see what kind of problems might pop up. And the problem that popped up in the future was “complacency.”
It turns out that, in long term sobriety, complacency is as big a threat (if not bigger) than resentment. And so when people who have five, ten, twenty years sober end up relapsing, they usually do so because they became complacent. In a rare case it is because they did not deal with one of their core issues such as fear or shame or guilt or resentment, but in most cases it is because they simply got complacent. They got lazy.
This is the silent killer. We all know about resentment and we are all painfully aware of our character defects in recovery. We know about these obvious threats and so we generally take action to confront these risks.
But complacency doesn’t work like that. We do not generally see complacency as an immediate threat, because it isn’t one! It is, instead, a long term threat. It is a creeper threat, not an immediate threat. And so it is easy to overlook the danger here.
Doing so is a huge mistake. The threat of complacency is real, and it causes people to relapse. In long term sobriety it is the number one threat that you need to watch out for.
And not only that, but it is also a rather tricky problem. Complacency is tricky because it is only easy to identify it in retrospect, after it has happened. But going forward and anticipating it or identifying it when it is happening is very, very difficult. And even if you can identify that you are complacent at the time, it can be extremely difficult to pull yourself out of it.
One of the pitfalls that I have noticed in my own life is that I am an expert at justifying my recovery program to myself. So I can look at my life and even if I am actually fairly complacent at the time and I am not making much growth, I can justify things to myself and convince myself that I am doing more than it really seems. I can talk myself into the idea that I am working hard on my recovery, even if I am not. I am good at reassuring myself.
The truth is that others have better insight into my own actions than I do myself at times. For example, a good friend of mine recently looked at my recent past and identified how I was being complacent in my life. I had to agree with her even though, when I was actually going through that complacency, I would have argued against her opinion and tried to convince her that I was actually doing OK. The truth was, in retrospect, she was clearly correct in her assessment. I was being complacent in a way and I needed to acknowledge that and “step my game up.”
If this was your only recovery strategy–overcoming complacency–then I believe it would be enough. But you can’t sugar-coat it. You can’t lie to yourself, which I believe we all do at times. You can’t just reassure yourself every single day and tell yourself that you are going to be just fine. Because that attitude will eventually get you into trouble, especially in the long run. The key is that you need to find a way to keep pushing yourself to make personal growth on a continuous basis.
If you want to stay on top of your game in recovery, you have to push yourself a little. If you are just coasting then the vulnerability in terms of relapse goes up quite a bit.
Why you need to keep pushing yourself to grow in recovery
Personal growth is relapse prevention.
You can read and learn all sorts of things about “relapse prevention.” But the bottom line is that preventing relapse is all about taking positive action and moving forward in life.
Unfortunately there are only two possible states of being when it comes to personal growth in recovery:
You are either engaged in personal growth, or you aren’t. Period.
There is no “coasting.” There is no middle ground. You can’t just sit idle in recovery and expect for your recovery to produce middle-of-the-road results for you.
You can’t make an “average” effort in recovery and expect to get “medium” results. It doesn’t work that way.
There is no middle ground in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. There is no middle path. The middle path leads to relapse.
Think about that for a moment. “The middle path leads to relapse.”
That is a piece of wisdom that I had to learn over the first several years of my sobriety while watching my peers very carefully.
“The middle path leads to relapse.”
And of course, if you are not even making an average effort in sobriety, forget it. You are headed for relapse for sure.
So the only sensible alternative is to push.
To push yourself to make an “above average effort.”
Think about it like this too:
Based on recovery statistics, the average person who is trying to get clean and sober ends up failing. They relapse.
And in fact, something like 90 percent or so will fail within the first year.
Of those who remain sober for the long run, who enjoy years and even decades of sobriety, what is their recovery effort like?
What does it tell you when only about 10 percent or less make it to a year sober and beyond? Or to five years sober?
If you want those sort of results, then you have to try harder than 90 percent of people! Your recovery effort has to be in the top ten percent. Maybe even in the top five percent.
What does this have to do with complacency?
Well, how hard are you pushing yourself? Are you taking suggestions and advice from others in recovery? Are you pushing yourself to reach new goals, to transform into the person you are supposed to be, to take positive action on a daily basis?
Or are you just coasting?
Figure that about 90 percent of people who try to get clean and sober end up just coasting, or worse. And they relapse. The ones who achieve long term sobriety have found a way to push themselves, to go above and beyond, to really try harder at making a positive effort.
Overcoming complacency means that you are always looking for that next growth experience.
How to get yourself out of a slump
Say that you notice suddenly that you are complacent. How do you get yourself out of that?
My first suggestion is to start keeping a journal. Start writing it down every single day, just a paragraph or so, about how you are feeling and what you are doing. This is one way to keep yourself accountable. “I know I am complacent in some ways, I know I have been slacking off a bit, and I want to correct it.” Start writing in a daily journal and keep a log of what you are doing in order to take action. The very act of logging your efforts will help you to remain conscious of them.
Think about what complacency actually is: You start coasting through life, through recovery. You stop paying attention. It is a lack of awareness. You stop making conscious growth and you start to coast. This is bad.
The solution to complacency is to make an effort at conscious growth. One way to do this is to set a goal for yourself and to write it down. Once you write down a goal it becomes conscious for you. Now you are suddenly on a path of personal growth. Let’s say you stopped exercising a long time ago and you know that you will feel better about yourself if you start doing it again consistently.
So for me, the first step is to decide. Make the conscious decision. Then I can solidify that decision by writing it down and putting in a daily journal. “I have decided that I need to start jogging again, so I went for a jog today and it felt good to do that. I’m going to keep it up for at least the next 30 days and then evaluate again.” Or something like that. So I took action, made a decision, and then I wrote it down. I made a plan to keep it up for 30 days and put it in writing. This is conscious growth.
Compare that to someone who just casually thinks “Oh, I used to exercise more, and I really should start doing that more often.” This is still a certain level of awareness, but it is not exactly conscious and deliberate growth. The first example where you write it down and make a commitment is much more deliberate. It is more conscious. The level of awareness about the goal and the personal growth involved is much higher.
Now it is easy to get overwhelmed. It is easy to say, “OK, I know that I need to take care of myself holistically, so I am going to start exercising and going to AA meetings and eating right and fixing my relationships” and all of these other things.
Don’t do that. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Sure, we want to change all of those things and a whole lot more.
But I would caution you against making too many changes at once.
Instead, focus on one change at a time. Go for quality rather than quantity.
This is how I built up success in my own recovery–with one change at a time. I started by getting clean and sober in a treatment center. Then I started to look at my life, evaluate my options, and get feedback and advice from other people. And then I started to make one deliberate change at a time.
I don’t remember ever having more than one major change on my plate at any one time.
For example, I once tried to quit smoking at the same time I was starting to exercise. This was overwhelming. I could not manage both of those changes at the same time.
So what happened? I backed off a bit. I said “OK, wait a minute. Let’s forget about the smoking for a moment, and just get the exercise habit down.”
And so I did that. I was amazed that I did that, because everyone told me that I should quit smoking at the same time. But that wasn’t working for me. It was too much. It was too overwhelming. And so I continued to smoke cigarettes while I built up my exercise habits. And I established this new habit in my life, and I became a distance runner while I was still a regular pack-a-day smoker.
Crazy, right? But that is what I had to do. I had to take on one goal at a time. And after I was firmly established as a regular exerciser, I was then able to tackle the goal of quitting smoking. And I was finally able to quit. But my point is that I had to isolate the goals and take them on one at a time.
Did the one goal help the other one? You bet it did. But I couldn’t do them together. I couldn’t pull them off at the exact same time. I had to focus.
So the way to get yourself out of a complacency slump in recovery is to:
1) Figure out what your next goal should be. Get feedback and advice from other people on this too. Ask people in recovery that you trust: “What is my next move in recovery? What should be my next major goal in life?” Figure out what change would have the greatest positive impact for you.
2) Write down your goal and start a journal about it. This will help you to stay accountable. This will force you to make conscious growth, rather than just coasting through recovery.
Building on your success in early recovery
Once you start hitting a few goals in early recovery, your whole world transforms.
It is really amazing. Of course, most of us don’t realize just how amazing it us until we can look back a few months or even a few years later and really gain some perspective.
In other words, it is difficult to see personal growth when you are going through it.
Always remember that:
When you are going through the personal growth, you won’t be able to see it. It will just feel like a worthless struggle at the time. You won’t see the value in it until later. Sometimes much later.
After a few years in early sobriety I was able to look back and see how far I had come. And one thing that really struck me was that my progress was cumulative. In other words, my success in recovery was always based on building upon previous success.
That may sound obvious, but it was a major revelation for me at the time.
Think about it: In early recovery you are just building a foundation. It might even feel pointless at times. For example, you might go to AA meetings every day after going to rehab. And you may not really see the point of it all at first.
What you are doing is building a foundation. You are setting a baseline of personal growth. You are making positive changes in your life, and then later you will build even further on these positive changes.
Some people try to skip the foundation building. They want to go right to the point of making “castles in the sky.” They want the rewards of sobriety without having to put in all of the hard work in the beginning.
Does it work? Of course not. It can’t possibly work.
And I will tell you why it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because the person in sobriety who has not bothered to do the hard work in building a foundation will always be unhappy.
You see, the gift of long term sobriety is that your life becomes a blank slate again. One of the biggest benefits is that you are not miserable. You are not unhappy.
That probably sounds like a strange way to define it. To be “not unhappy” rather than to say that you are just plain happy.
But it’s true, and this is a critical lesson that many people miss out on.
In early recovery you basically identify the problems in your life. You identify the negativity, the fears, the resentments, the self pity, the anger, and so on. And then you work really hard to work through that stuff and eliminate it.
And this gives you the blank slate. This allows you to “not be unhappy.”
And my point is that a lot of people who are racing into sobriety just want to go right to the happiness. They want to be sober and happy without laying the foundation, without doing all of the hard work, without looking at all of that fear and resentment and anger and self pity and so on. They want the rewards of recovery without doing the work.
And in order to truly be happy you have to eliminate all of that negative stuff. And that is what happens in early recovery when you are building the foundation.
Complacency sets in after you have done this foundation work and eliminated the negative stuff from your life. That is when people get complacent and are in danger of relapse.
The solution is to never stop seeking, to never stop looking for that next positive action.
There is always more room to grow. There is always another step that we can take to improve our lives or our life situation.
If you are complacent than that indicates a poor recovery strategy.
The solution is conscious growth.
Get back to the basics: Set a goal, set a priority, then write it down. Put it into your awareness. Personal growth doesn’t happen by accident, it must be conscious growth.
So wake up to your goals, to your purpose, and get conscious about it!
What about you, have you used conscious growth to overcome complacency? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!