This is the final article in a series of the 5 reasons that people typically relapse in recovery.
One of the biggest reasons that people relapse in recovery is that they fail to keep challenging themselves and thus overcome complacency.
This is a “hidden” problem because most people see the real threats in recovery as being more tangible, obvious stuff. For example, the anger that they feel towards others or potential resentments in their lives. We do not normally think of complacency as being a “killer” in recovery but this is exactly what it can turn out to be for certain people who let it creep into their lives.
Early recovery is plenty challenging, but long term sobriety can become insidiously “easy”
Of course when we first get into recovery and are in our first week, month, or even year of sobriety, there is no lack of challenge. Just staying clean and sober is plenty challenging at this point.
Because of this, we do not tend to think of the long term. We do not really think that we might have a problem at five years, ten years, twenty years sober with the challenge of complacency or finding a way to push ourselves to keep growing. We are not concerned with that in early recovery and so we do not see the threat of complacency as being real.
Of course what happens over time is that we slowly get more and more comfortable with our recovery. For example, when I was in my first 30 days of sobriety, the fact that I was NOT drinking or using drugs every day was really quite strange. It was weird NOT to be getting drunk or high all the time. I was simply not used to it yet.
Years later, not self medicating and getting drunk or high all the time feels quite normal again. I have been doing it now for the past eleven years and counting, so being clean and sober has become my new “normal.” This was not the case during my first year or so of recovery. Sobriety felt very strange to me at first and so therefore the challenge of remaining clean and sober was very abrupt and in-your-face.
So over time recovery becomes easier. But in a way, this is a bad thing, because the intense challenge of sobriety takes a backseat to the rest of our life. Everyday living takes over again as we build a new life for ourselves in recovery. Instead of focusing on personal growth all the time, we may get a bit lazier and back off from the state of “super charged growth mode” that we had in early recovery.
Clearly, we do not have to attend three AA meetings every single day for the rest of our lives while continuously trying to improve our lives every second of every day. On the other hand, we do not want to find ourselves drifting completely away from recovery as we remain sober, and one day find ourselves relapsing due to complacency.
So the question becomes:
“How do we find the right amount of focus on personal growth in our recovery?”
In my opinion it is all about balance. The balance between:
1) Accepting yourself and your life situation and simply enjoying your sobriety.
2) Pushing yourself to grow and make positive changes to improve yourself and your life situation.
You can do a little bit of both, but you are going to have to consciously work to find a healthy balance between the two.
The formula for overcoming complacency is to find balance between acceptance and personal growth
There is a potential trap in recovery, and that is sort of the trap that this entire article is really addressing. That is the addict or alcoholic who says:
* I am practicing acceptance today, including my acceptance of self, and that means that I do not have to push myself to grow or make any sort of positive changes in my life!”
I have seen this happen many times throughout my recovery, where someone will use the idea of acceptance in order to justify a lack of growth. It has always felt wrong to me, but at the same time, they have a point. At some point you have to enjoy life, accept yourself for who you are, and enjoy your sobriety…..right?
I think the real truth is somewhere in between these two extremes. Pushing yourself to make positive growth every second of every day is clearly not the answer. We need to find a balance that involves real-world sobriety, enjoying yourself in recovery, and time for personal reflection.
The idea of personal reflection, I believe, is one of the major keys to finding this perfect balance in your recovery.
The way it works is this:
You are living your life in recovery and you decide that you want to make a positive change. Maybe you are still smoking cigarettes in your recovery, as I was doing for the first few years after I got sober. So, like me, you decide that you want to quit smoking cigarettes and thus make this positive change in your life.
You go buy some nicotine patches or maybe you get some advice from your doctor and you try to quit. You find it to be extremely difficult and so you struggle with the change. Maybe it takes you a few months or even a few years before you successfully make this change (as it did for me).
But finally you have success. You break through this great struggle and you achieve your goal and you are now nicotine free. A new level of freedom and a new goal has been reached. You set out to make this big positive change in your life and then you finally accomplished it after much struggle.
So what now? Do you simply wake up the next day and start pushing yourself to find that next important challenge in your life?
I say “no.”
I would argue that this is where the balance comes into play.
Here is where you need to pause for a while and enjoy your sobriety.
This is not just an excuse to pat yourself on the back and be lazy forever, however. Instead, you are going to pause, relax, and enjoy the growth you made, but also reflect on it.
In doing so, you can not only focus on acceptance again and enjoying your life for the present moment, but you can also start to consider on what the next important growth experience in your life ought to be.
Thus you can find this balance between growth and acceptance by pausing to reflect after you accomplish a worthwhile goal.
For example, after I had successfully quit smoking cigarettes, I took some time to evaluate my life in recovery and decide what I wanted. At that time I was exercising on a regular basis and I had successfully quit smoking and I felt like I could accomplish just about anything. My confidence was high because I was so pumped up from overcoming the smoking addiction.
In my case I turned next to my career and put my energy into creating a successful business for myself. This was just the right push at just the right time in my life where I had the time, energy, and right attitude to make something positive happen. I did not rush into it and I did not take unnecessary risk either. It was a very deliberate and calculated move on my part and I really owe this to the fact that I engaged in much reflection before I committed to the goal.
Holistic health should become your blueprint for future growth experiences
Someone might very well ask the question in recovery:
“What should personal growth consist of?”
Or, put another way:
“What direction should I take when I pursue personal growth?”
For me, the answer to this question should start with the idea of holistic health.
I have a couple of recommendations when you are considering your next potential growth experience in recovery.
1) Think in terms of holistic health. This simply means that you consider your overall health in recovery, including your physical health, your mental health, emotional health, spirituality, and so on. Do not think in just one dimensional terms of only your spiritual health, or only your physical health, and so on.
Addiction is a complex disease and it affects EVERY area of your life. Therefore, your efforts at making personal growth in recovery should address every area of your life as well. Do not limit yourself to just one type of growth in recovery (as many traditionalists do when they focus on spiritual growth exclusively as their solution).
2) Look at the negative parts of your life FIRST, and seek to fix those. This is counter-intuitive for most people.
Let’s say that you have a list of goal. Some are things like “quitting smoking” and others might be things like “travel to Europe.” One goal is essentially “eliminating a negative” while the other goal could be thought of as “pursuing a positive.”
What I am suggesting here is that you seek to eliminate the negatives in your life FIRST, before you attempt to pursue your other goals.
Because you will be happier that way.
Like I said, it is counter-intuitive. But what the studies have shown is that people get the most “happiness per effort” by eliminating the negative things from their lives rather than pursuing other, positive goals instead.
So if you are a smoker, quit smoking.
If you are compulsive gambler, quit gambling.
If you are physically idle and out of shape, quit that and start exercising.
If you are struggling with your weight, address that issue.
All of these sorts of goals offer a huge bang-for-the-buck when it comes to return on your effort.
If you try to pursue other goals instead that you think might make you happy, you will probably find that you will NOT become any happier. The reason is because you neglected to take care of these “negative forces” in your life that are holding you back from experiencing real happiness.
People are basically content and happy on their own, without having to have lots of positive stimulus or goals in their lives. It is the clearing away of all the negative stuff that brings us back to our normal, contented, and joyful selves.
Take the alcoholic who also smokes cigarettes, is overweight, out of shape, and gambles compulsively. They also dream of traveling to Europe. Send them to Europe and they will still be relatively miserable. On the other hand, get them clean and sober, have them quit smoking, get them into shape and get their weight under control, and guess what? They are happier than they have been in years, even without the trip to Europe.
So it is the elimination of negatives that can make the biggest impact.
When looking for your next personal change, focus on that first and foremost.
3) Make one major change at a time, whatever has the biggest impact.
When I was clean and sober and had about a year into the program, I started to think about what other positive changes I wanted to make. I quickly decided that it made sense to go after the change in my life that would have the biggest impact on me. At the time, for me, that meant I had to quit smoking cigarettes.
Later on in my recovery, the one single goal that would make the biggest impact would obviously change. At one time it was to “get into shape” and develop the exercise habit. Another time it was to start a business.
I think part of the key too is that you do not want to overwhelm yourself. If you try to take on too many goals all at once then you could very well get overwhelmed, fail to change, and then give up on everything.
A better path is the one that I personally found success with, and that was to make one major change at a time, lock in my new success, and then pause to reflect on that for a while. Don’t rush through your recovery thinking that you have to change everything overnight.
If there is one thing you have in recovery, it is time. You have plenty of time to make positive changes. But, keep making them, slowly and deliberately. This is the path to sure growth and also to best fight complacency. Slow and steady wins the race. If you try to rush through your recovery and make too many positive changes at once you will just burn yourself out.
How people relapse in long term recovery
Anyone who relapsed who has long term sobriety definitely had a problem with complacency. They stopped growing in their recovery and they got lazy and started “coasting” for too long.
After accomplishing something in their recovery, they paused to reflect on it, and they never got back to the point where they said to themselves “OK, what do I want to change next? What positive change do I want to make in my life next?” Instead they just continued to coast along until suddenly they find themselves slowly reverting back to their old thinking patterns. Then eventually those thinking patterns lead them back to their old behavior patterns. And suddenly the possibility of relapse becomes very real again, even though nothing in particular precipitated the idea of relapse.
If you go to AA or NA for long enough, you will eventually bear witness to people in recovery who have significant sobriety and then suddenly relapse. When they come back to the meetings and tell their story, it is almost always the same basic idea: they stopped growing, they stopped challenging themselves to make positive changes, and eventually this led them back to their drug of choice.
For me it is a question of excitement and passion in my life. If I am just coasting along and enjoying sobriety for a time, this is satisfactory and I can enjoy my life. But at some point this become boring and I feel the need for challenge, for growth, for most positive changes. That is when I need to take action, take inventory of my life, and make a decision as to what I want to work on next.
The point is not to be entirely idle and just enjoy life like some sort of robot, nor is the point to be some over-achieving recovery guru who just pushes all the time for more growth and never even comes up for air. Instead, the key is balance.
Seek growth, accomplish something, then reflect on it. Rinse and repeat. Take inventory periodically but do not obsess over it. Find a positive change to work on, then tackle it and make it happen. Pause again and reflect on your life for a while. Enjoy yourself. Eventually, seek more growth.
This is the pattern that I have found that works best for me, and it is the only way that I have found that has led to any sort of real balance. Appreciate the periods of personal growth, but also appreciate the periods of reflection and self acceptance. Be grateful for the process itself, and know that your life will always be a work in progress.