Yesterday we looked at how to conquer any challenge in recovery. Today we want to look at how you might make personal breakthroughs in your alcoholism recovery, what those might be and how you should go about pursuing them.
In my opinion, personal growth is essential to sustained addiction recovery. Without growth you are just staying sober on borrowed time, as the lure of relapse will become far too great at some point.
In my experience self esteem is created and built up as layers of successful actions. If you do not take any positive action in your life then you are not creating any new self esteem. The way to “build a protective moat” around your recovery is to start building up these protective layers of self esteem. If you feel genuinely good about yourself and about your life then you are not very likely to relapse. On the other hand if you are down on yourself because you feel that you have not accomplished anything lately then it will have a very negative effect on your recovery. The person who says “screw it, I will just drink or take drugs” is the person who is not happy with the way that their life in recovery is currently going.
This is actually a somewhat controversial method of relapse prevention. Many people in traditional recovery circles argue against this idea because it is basically saying that your success in recovery is tied to your achievement. The idea is that you have to actually do things and take positive action and make good things happen in order to be successful in recovery and to remain clean and sober. There are many people who would seek to disprove this idea and argue that your sobriety is based instead on your involvement in a program, your reliance on a higher power, your ability to follow instructions with the steps, and so on. I am not necessarily critical of these ideas except for the fact that I believe you have to be building self esteem and feel good about what you are doing in your recovery. If you do not feel good about your actions (and thus judge them as “positive”) then you are not going to get that extra layer of protection in preventing relapse.
Relapse prevention should be an exercise in building layers of self esteem. This is not based on magical thinking or the idea that you can just use mental exercises or even affirmations in order to overcome all of your problems. In fact this idea is really the opposite of the whole “magical thinking” or visualization theories. What we want to do in recovery is to build up these various layers of self esteem through taking positive action.
I experienced this in my own life through several accomplishments during my recovery journey. I was lucky enough to be living in a stable environment (long term treatment) and I was also lucky enough to be able to dedicate quite a bit of time to personal growth. For example, I was able to get a job and also to go back to college during this time. I realize that not every recovering addict or alcoholic will have that luxury or flexibility. On the other hand, I would argue that just about anyone who is determined enough can prioritize differently in order to meet the goals that they really want to achieve.
In my early recovery I did not have a lot of direction and so I sought feedback from my sponsor and other trusted people in recovery. I asked for advice and I sought direction. I was genuinely open to ideas because now that I was clean and sober I really did not know what to do with myself.
So my 12 step sponsor was very helpful at that time and even though he was very dedicated to the 12 step program he really did a lot to steer me in the direction of personal growth. I was honestly baffled by this at the time because I thought he would focus on 12 step work, study of the big book, and so on. But he seemed to be totally unconcerned with traditional recovery ideas and he pushed me to go back to school and also to start working again. He also suggested that I start exercising at some point and also to quit smoking cigarettes. I was getting most of these suggestions from people other than just my sponsor as well, so they carried a lot of weight with me. If one person suggests you do something, then that can easily be ignored, but if a whole bunch of people all suggest that you do something then there is probably some truth to it.
My early recovery felt like it was progressing very slowly and the idea of building up these layers of protection against relapse was a very slow process. But looking back I can see that this is really the best way and I would certainly do it all over again knowing what I know now. Many of my peers relapsed (in fact nearly all of them have save a tiny select few) and it is very difficult to decipher what the cause of their downfall was.
When I got into recovery I was still smoking cigarettes as many of my peers were. I experimented with trying to quit smoking and I failed quite often while doing so. It was a particularly difficult challenge for me. But I could also see that this was a form of relapse prevention if I could successfully quit smoking. Why? For a few reasons:
* If you quit smoking cigarettes and then one day you are on the verge of relapse you will likely go back to smoking rather than your true drug of choice. This is a better outcome than full relapse. So quitting smoking builds a layer of protection.
* If you quit smoking during your recovery it will be a huge win for you and a massive boost in self esteem. You are basically immune to relapse while you have this feeling of triumph and achievement. Because you feel good about yourself you are not just going to throw your life away on a relapse. Things are going well for you in recovery.
So you can build these layers of protection against relapse through achievement and reaching your goals. The more you make positive changes the better position you will be in to resist relapse. Your success in recovery is cumulative. It builds on itself and it also has to do with momentum. You want to create a “win” in your life by taking positive action, and then you want to do it again very soon. If you sit idle for too long then you run the risk of being down on yourself due to lack of activity.
This is all about how you feel. Do you feel good about yourself and about your life? If so then you are well protected from relapse. If not then you obviously have some work to do. You can create good feelings about your life through positive action. This requires effort and initiative on your part. The investment is well worth it.
How to stop fighting against yourself in recovery
Many people who are struggling in early recovery are actually sabotaging their own efforts without realizing it.
First of all you need to get a huge amount of clarity on your priorities in recovery. Your number one priority needs to be physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol each day.
In early recovery my belief is that you should really push everything to the side and not worry about this achievement stuff or making positive growth for at least 30 days, possibly even as long as 90 days. Your immediate goal is to stay clean and sober each day, period. This has to be your number on priority and it must also become the highest truth in your life. Do not put anything above this goal of sobriety, ever. You need to get really clear with yourself about this. For the first few months just focus exclusively on sobriety and abstinence, period.
This is how to stop fighting against yourself in early recovery–get clarity about your true purpose. Sobriety is the number one priority. Nothing fancy about this. Just get really clear.
Now after you get through your first few months it is time to start taking positive action in other areas of your life. You have some stability in recovery by now and it is time to build on that stability. If you go in the wrong direction at this point then relapse can happen very quickly because even though you have some stability you are not well protected from relapse yet. You need to build up those protective layers of self esteem and that is going to require you to take some action.
The way to avoid sabotaging yourself is a bit counter-intuitive: you have to tackle the negative stuff first.
That’s right, before you can start chasing rainbows and setting positive goals in your life you have to eliminate all of the garbage first. The 12 step program alludes to this idea with “cleaning up your side of the street” and I believe that this is important. However, the 12 step program frames this discussion in terms of relationships and I would tend to frame it in terms of personal habits. So in other words, if I had written the 12 steps I would have made one of them something like:
“Made a list of our bad habits and negative behaviors and then made a plan to eliminate them each, one by one, until they are all gone from our lives.”
So this step would address something like self pity (which is a negative behavior that I had in my life) but it also would address something like smoking cigarettes (which is also something that I had to deal with in early recovery).
When I look back at my early recovery I knew that I had to deal with self pity. What I did at the time was to realize that my tendency to feel sorry for myself was only going to hurt me, and that it could never be of any real benefit to me. Therefore it was as poisonous as resentment and I should eliminate it at all costs. So what I did was to simply increase my awareness so that I could catch myself when I was drifting into “self pity mode,” and then I simply shut it down. But I had to increase my awareness so that I could even be able to recognize when it was happening. After that it was pretty easy to eliminate the habit. It just took conscious effort and a firm decision.
The nicotine habit was a lot harder to eliminate but I knew that it was of critical importance. I also knew that this was a way that I was “fighting against myself in recovery” if I continued to smoke. So over the years I made several attempts to quit and eventually I was able to do so. This was a huge win for me and it was also the last of the truly negative stuff in my life.
My biggest negative in terms of mental behavior was the self pity. My biggest negative in terms of external behavior was the smoking. I made a conscious effort in my recovery to eliminate both of them and these were both huge wins for me. Before I had done this, I had been fighting against myself and holding myself back. This is because even though I had been trying to do positive things in my recovery, the results of those actions were always tarnished by the fact that I still had these negative forces in my life (smoking and self pity). You can’t really make huge progress in other areas of your life if you are being held back by these other negative things.
Therefore your plan is this:
Eliminate the negative stuff in your life as your first priority. If you don’t then you will just struggle and hold yourself back from making real growth.
Build momentum with positive action
Momentum is a critical factor in your recovery. If you go too long without taking positive action then it can be difficult to get back into the swing of things. Therefore you should seek to consistently push yourself to always be exploring the edges of that next breakthrough. This does not mean that you have to burn out from constantly trying to do too much. There is a healthy balance here. But you should use the concept of momentum in order to create positive change in your life.
You can do this by having a follow up goal. For example, at one time my goal was to start running and exercising on a regular basis as a means to help me quit smoking. So the first goal was exercise and the second goal was quitting smoking. I was able to build momentum because after I achieved the first goal (exercise) I was able to build on that by achieving the second goal (quitting smoking). After reaching that second goal I had a feeling like I could conquer the world and I felt some sort of lack because I had not planned another challenge for myself at this point, which felt like a mistake. If you just had two “wins” in a row then you should seek to push yourself a bit more and keep the momentum going!
Get serious and figure out your biggest and most immediate goal in recovery
If you really want to create serious momentum and protection from relapse in your life then you should create one big goal.
Rather, this goal does not have to be created per se, it should already exist and hopefully it is staring you in the face.
For me in early recovery this was “quitting smoking.” I tried to avoid it for a while but it was obviously the most important thing on my plate at the time. Tackling that goal was thus a major win for me. It was the biggest deal in my life at the time.
So it is with your current approach to life–you should seek to find your highest impact goal. Ask yourself:
“What is the one goal that, if achieved, would change everything for me?”
What would be your biggest possible “win” in life right now?
And if you can identify that, why are you not dedicating every moment of every day to achieving that goal? This is the path to rock solid relapse prevention.
These goals in early recovery will almost always be about eliminating a negative habit in your life. Once those are cleared then you will start to chase positive goals and pursue your dreams. But before you can do that you have to clear away the things in life that may hold you back.
Changing your reality with focus and persistence
If you want to change your whole world (whether you are in recovery yet or not) you have to use both concepts of focus and persistence.
Using focus means that you concentrate all of your efforts on a single goal at one time. I highly recommend this technique and I think it is especially necessary in order to overcome addiction. I also found it necessary to use extreme focus when quitting smoking.
If you want to achieve a really big goal then you need the power of focus. If you are not achieving big goals in your life then it is likely that you are not making use of this great technique.
Ask yourself: “What could I accomplish if I were to block everything else out and just concentrate on one important goal for a certain length of time?” The answer is probably “more than you think!” Focus allows you to do some amazing things.
The flip side of this coin is persistence. Just having a laser focus is not enough in many cases unless you also have persistence.
Some of my biggest “wins” in recovery were based more on persistence than they were on “having a smart approach.” In other words, some goals in life require more of a brute force approach than others. You cannot solve everything by being clever. Sometimes you just have to be really determined and persistent in order to achieve something.
Knowing what to focus on and where your next growth experience is
I would seek advice from others. Find trusted individuals and ask for feedback.
Alternatively you could try to look objectively at your life and figure out what is holding you back from experiencing joy and happiness. Your goals would then be to eliminate those things. After clearing out all of the negative stuff from your life you will arrive at some point at the “blank slate” stage. This is where you get to create the positive things that you should have been doing before you fell victim to addiction. This is the life that you were really meant to live and so it is now time to start creating what you actually want. If you try to embrace this positive path too early in recovery then the negative stuff in your life will hold you back, and you will find yourself “fighting against yourself.” If that is the case then you need to change your goals and eliminate the roadblocks first.
Never stop pushing yourself to learn new things
If you stop learning then your recovery is essentially over. This would be dangerous because then you are “cured” and susceptible to relapse. The key is to keep learning more about yourself so that you can continue to build new layers of protection against relapse. Each positive action and every new positive change in your life is another “win” that can help protect you from relapse. This is how my own recovery has worked for the last 11 years. Recovery through personal growth.