When I first got clean and sober I realized that I had a big problem.
Everyone was talking about resentment. They were always talking about how “resentment is the number one offender” and how everyone was dealing with their anger.
Alcoholics who relapsed and then came back to recovery would talk about resentment. They would talk about how they had failed to overcome their anger and their resentments.
My problem was that I did not really feel like I had these resentments. I was in treatment and they told us to write down a list of our resentments. They told us “everyone has resentments.” We were to write them all down.
But I couldn’t really figure any out for myself. Was I really holding on to anger against others? It did not seem like it.
But I had other problems.
Recognizing the issue and the threat of relapse
I slowly figured out that I was taking my anger against others and turning it inward, focusing it into self pity.
This was what I would do. I would feel sorry for myself. That was my brand of poison.
And it was also how I justified my drinking. If I felt sorry for myself then I had all the excuse that I needed to go get drunk or high.
So self pity was really my tool of addiction. It was how I mentally justified my outrageous behavior.
I used self pity as a weapon against myself. It was my way to justify getting drunk all the time.
So when I was early on in my sobriety, I realized this very slowly, and I also realized that I was still doing this in my head. I was still looking for opportunities to feel sorry for myself. I was still looking for opportunities to create this little drama in my mind, because I knew that I could use that drama to fuel my drinking.
Now at the time I was not planning on drinking, mind you. But my brain did not know any better. It was simply used to doing this as a matter of course. It would look for opportunities for self pity all the time, just because. It was only doing its job, really. I had trained my brain to do this for years, and now that I was sober, my brain had to be retrained.
And so I realized this consciously at one point, that my brain was still seeking out self pity, but that I no longer had any use for that pity. I realized that the only thing it was good for was to justify more drinking or drug use. It had absolutely no practical application in sobriety.
I am sure that the same is probably true of resentment (if that happens to be your problem instead), but I honestly am not sure about that, as my problem was really not with resentment. My problem was self pity, and I had to come to understand what my mind was doing in order to fight back against it.
So if you have resentment and those resentments are threatening your sobriety then I would imagine the same technique I talk about here would help you to overcome it. I know that this works for self pity for sure.
The first part of the technique is that you must acknowledge that you have the problem. See? This is just like addiction! You can’t solve your problem until you acknowledge that it exists.
So that is always going to be our “step one.” You must realize that you have a problem with self pity and you must acknowledge that it exists.
Furthermore, you must realize that it has no use for you at all in sobriety. Realize that it only is helpful if you want to rationalize your drinking. And of course you have decided to stop drinking, so that no longer makes any sense for you. Self pity is now useless, so you don’t need it any more.
So you have:
1) Acknowledged that the problem exists, that your self pity is real.
2) Decided that it no longer serves you, and you want to eliminate it.
So far, so good. The next step is to raise your awareness of the self pity so that you can notice it automatically when it arises on a day to day basis.
Increasing awareness and paying attention to your own mind
Awareness is key. If you do not know that you are engaging in self pity then you are powerless to do anything about it.
Therefore you must train yourself to notice it.
How do you do this?
You are already at least halfway there by reading this article. I would recommend that you write in a journal each day and put down how you are feeling (are you happy?) and then also make a note if you noticed any self pity for the day. This will force you to become more conscious of the problem. You will train your brain to “watch” for it.
You know what self pity feels like. You know what the thoughts are when they start running through your mind. So you need to become sensitive to that moment so that you can recognize it instantly.
Speed is important here. If you notice that you are engaging in self pity after twenty minutes of stewing in your own problems, then that is not as helpful. We want to notice it right away, the second it begins.
So if you notice yourself engaging in self pity and you are beating yourself up for not being more vigilant about it, stop it. Stop beating yourself up. Just try to notice faster the next time. The quicker you can become aware of the problem, the better you will be at eliminating it.
And it takes practice. If you have not been doing it then you will build this awareness slowly. You will get better at it. Keep doing it and keep writing in a journal each day. You don’t have to write a lot. Just put down how happy you are (be honest) and also write down if you experienced any self pity for the day. Both of these things will help you tremendously if you are writing them down consistently.
So at this point you have:
1) Acknowledged that self pity is a problem in your life and could trigger a relapse if left unchecked.
2) Made the decision to eliminate self pity.
3) Increased your awareness of self pity so that you can catch it as it is happening on a day to day basis.
The next step is to implement a solution for the problem when it arises. How do you react when you find yourself feeling sorry for yourself?
Making a decision to stop tolerating the mental game
During your early recovery you made a decision. You decided that you were not going to drink or use drugs no matter what. Zero tolerance.
You understand what the “zero tolerance” part means. It means that you are not going to sneak a drink in one day, then go back to this recovery stuff. It doesn’t work like that and we all realize this. Therefore you made an agreement with yourself that you would not tolerate even a single slip-up. You realize that if you do slip up it will mean disaster. All of your progress will come crumbling down.
The same intensity can be applied to this self pity problem. You need to make a decision in your head to eliminate self pity with that same level of intensity. In other words, zero tolerance.
This is how I was able to overcome self pity in my life. I made up a policy for myself that I was no longer allowed to engage in self pity, period. I called it a “zero tolerance policy.”
So the way it works is this:
1) You make an agreement with yourself, in your mind, that you will not tolerate any self pity. Ever. For any reason. It is simply not allowed.
2) When you notice yourself engaging in self pity, you simply shut it down immediately and gently correct yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. Just dismiss the problem and move on, keeping your new policy in mind. Stick to your guns and be firm with yourself.
If you struggle to do this then there is one more piece of the puzzle that can definitely help you: Gratitude.
How to replace negative feelings, thoughts, or emotions with one simple trick
Gratitude is the simple trick that can help you to do just about anything in recovery. It is like magic.
There is a lot to learn when it comes to gratitude and I am still learning much of it myself.
But here are some of the basics that can definitely help you:
First of all, if you encounter self pity in your day to day life, you need to instantly shift your perspective. The ancient stoic philosophers had a way of doing this that seems a bit counter-intuitive.
The way it works is to imagine something worse, and then be grateful that this worst case scenario is not reality. So maybe you are feeling sorry for yourself because you are out of work and you struggling to find a job in recovery.
Well the stoics would say: “Did you eat today? Do you have shelter? Are you alive and breathing? You could be struggling so much worse!” Imagine yourself in those situations for a brief moment, really picture yourself in those struggles. Then be grateful that this is not reality.
Now some people object to this and say that they do not want to be thinking any negative thoughts at all. They argue that they need to think positive thoughts instead.
To that, I would say: “Well, how is that working out for you?”
The stoics new a trick, and they used it to help them gain perspective and gratitude. You can experiment with the trick as well, and see if it serves you or not. Try it for a week and if it is not helping then simply discard it and move on. Remember to keep writing in your journal every day so that you have a good map of your true progress. If you don’t write it down then it can be difficult to track.
Another important point: The exercise above of “negative visualization” is not the only way to practice gratitude. It is just one way that can be use on an immediate basis when self pity strikes you in the moment. But there are other ways to practice gratitude.
How to practice gratitude on a daily basis
If you are trying to achieve long term sobriety then one of the most important things you can do in my opinion is to practice gratitude every day.
The first and perhaps most powerful technique is the simple gratitude list. If you have ever had a sponsor then no doubt they have made you write out a gratitude list in the past.
It’s a powerful technique to be sure. You might try going a bit nuts with it and taking it to the next level. For example, don’t just write out a list and then be done with it. Instead, make it into a 30 day challenge where you write out a list of 50 things every single day that you are grateful for. Each day, throw away the list. But then each day, write out a new one. Don’t worry if you repeat yourself. And if you cannot come up with 50 things, then come up with 100 instead.
I am not saying that to be funny. I am serious. If you really cannot come up with 50 things to be grateful for then you are not thinking broadly enough. The solution is to force yourself to come up with 100 things instead, and this will force your brain to search harder for solutions. You want to make your brain work a little here. That is the whole point.
Gratitude is a powerful form of relapse prevention. You don’t relapse when you are grateful. It’s not possible. So you want to be good at this. Don’t just write out a list of 13 things that you are grateful for and then never make another list. Instead, go nuts. Practice. Gratitude takes practice. Write down 50 things every single day and do it for 30 days straight. At the end of that you will be a gratitude ninja. And you will have a new line of defense against relapse.
Relapse is not going to just pause and wait for you to find a reason to be grateful. When relapse tries to attack you in the future (and it will try, give it time!) you have to be ready for it. How can you be ready for relapse to strike if you are not practicing every day? This is your training. If you can become grateful at a moment’s notice then you have a powerful defense against relapse.
You might even add a new thing to put in your journal each day: “Am I grateful?”
The more advanced method would be to put “I am grateful for _______.”
Again, this is just another way to force yourself to make a list, to practice gratitude.
This is ultimately what will help you to overcome self pity and leave it behind forever.
If you practice these techniques for a few months (or even just a few weeks) then they will become automatic.
Seriously, I have completely eliminated my problem with self pity. I have not had a problem with it for over a decade now. It is a non issue, because I retrained my brain to avoid it completely. I simply don’t allow myself to engage in that “luxury.”
I imagine that the same technique could be used for resentment against others. And perhaps instead of practicing gratitude you would practice forgiveness instead. Forgiveness of yourself and then forgiveness of others too. I am just guessing on that though because that was never my big problem in recovery. My problem was self pity and this was how I solved it.
So in summary:
1) Realize that self pity is a problem for you.
2) Make a decision to eliminate the problem.
3) Raise your awareness of self pity, so that you can catch it quickly when it is happening. Practice awareness.
4) Make an agreement with yourself that you will not tolerate self pity at all, ever again. Zero tolerance.
5) When you notice self pity happening, use negative visualization to shift your perspective and realize some gratitude out of the situation. Turn a negative into a positive by imagining a worse case scenario.
6) Make a habit of practicing gratitude every single day. Do a 30 day challenge where you write down 50 things you are grateful for each day. Throw the lists away. Practice, practice, practice.
That is the process by which I was able to overcome my own self pity. Since I did those things the problem has never come back and it appears to have been completely eliminated. The bonus of this method is that you will be much happier as a result of practicing gratitude on a daily basis.
One more suggestions that is not directly related is the idea of a daily journal. If you are writing down your feelings each and every day then this can be a seriously powerful tool for your recovery. We cannot change what we are not conscious of, and keeping a journal will force you to be more conscious of what is really going on inside.
Keeping a daily journal probably sounds like a lot of effort, and it is. But if you do it every day for a while then it becomes automatic. The same is true with practicing gratitude. There is a theme here that you should recognize by now: Recovery takes work! It is not easy. You have to put forth real effort in order to get results. But the results are well worth it.
We could talk about other things in recovery as well, such as how to improve your relationships, how to deal with and manage stress, and so on. Those are all themes that have the same basic outline as what you read about in this article. Focus on the problem, figure out the solution, and then put that solution into a daily practice. If you are not working to fix the problem every single day then you will not make much progress. Consistency is key when you are tackling these sorts of issues in recovery. In order to make these sort of changes over time you have to build momentum by taking consistent action.
The key to successful addiction recovery is taking action. You can’t just listen to ideas about how to overcome something like self pity and say “oh, that is nice, I bet that might actually work if you tried hard at it!” Don’t just sit back and try to think your way to a strong recovery. Instead, take action and do it! Build it. Create the life that you really want by taking consistent action every single day. The gratitude list suggestion is a good a start as any.
What about you, have you been able to overcome self pity in your recovery? How did you do it? Did gratitude play a role in this? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!