Does recovery from addiction and alcoholism demand optimism?
I would say that optimism most definitely helps. Of course in early recovery we might want to have what is called “cautious optimism” instead.
Don’t confuse optimism with arrogance
A first point of clarification is that we do not want to confuse optimism with arrogance. I have watched this happen many times in early recovery and it almost always leads to relapse.
There is a serious danger in early recovery from addiction and alcoholism and perhaps this is the greatest danger of all–that you will underestimate your disease while also overestimating your chances in maintaining sobriety. The whole idea of “optimism” can feed into this problem by causing you to ignore the reality of the situation.
And what exactly is that reality? That the odds are stacked heavily against you. Of those who try to get clean and sober, only a slim percentage will still be clean and sober after a year. Out of all those who make it to a year sober, only a small percentage will make it to to ten years of continuous sobriety. Recovery is a long and difficult road.
The point is not to scare or intimidate people (though people in 12 step meetings often use statistics like these to try to do so), but instead to help you to be realistic. Don’t be scared and bitter about these statistics, instead be motivated and cautiously optimistic. There is a difference and in order to increase our chances of recovery we need to embrace this cautious optimism so that we have the right attitude.
In recovery, attitude is everything. Really, think about that for a moment. Picture the struggling addict or alcoholic who suddenly reaches their breaking point and decides to relapse. “Screw it,” they say “I am just gonna go get a drink.” This is the point where their cautious optimism has now been thrown to the wind. They struggled to maintain a positive attitude for as long as they could, but their disease finally won out. When their disease won this internal battle the attitude shifted to one that said “screw it all, I am going to relapse.” Before this moment the addict cared. After this moment they stop caring. It has everything to do with attitude and mindset.
Recovery is essentially a decision to maintain abstinence and to have a good attitude about doing so. Both are required: the physical abstinence from chemicals and also the healthy attitude towards life and recovery. If you don’t have the healthy attitude then the physical abstinence thing will quickly fall apart. One might even say that it takes more than just a decision to get sober; it takes a decision followed by enthusiasm. The idea of “enthusiasm” speaks of a healthy attitude and also of continuous action, or follow through. You can’t just decide to get sober one day but then go back to having a bad attitude after that. It just won’t work.
Therefore we need to carefully define what our attitude in early recovery should be. We do not want to be so overly optimistic that we put ourselves in danger of relapse, but we also do not want to fall into a negative attitude that prevents us from taking positive action in our lives. There is a healthy path here and we are referring to that path as “cautiously optimistic.” Let’s try to define it a bit further as it pertains to addiction recovery.
How to be cautiously optimistic – a four part strategy
If your goal is to become optimistic in a healthy way during your recovery I would advise you to adopt a four part strategy. Perhaps you already use some of these techniques but maybe you have not really embraced one of them and so therefore you will have a new idea to try to focus on that might help you:
3) Negative visualization.
4) Overwhelming force and massive action.
Let’s take a look at how each of these can tie into a healthy attitude of optimism.
Planning in recovery
There are two ideas that can help you to be realistic when it comes to planning in your recovery.
The first is that you should try to plan positive actions for yourself without planning the outcome. This is nearly impossible but you can still remind yourself that this is the ideal. What we are trying to do is to prevent ourselves from too much disappointment in the future.
Therefore you may want to run a marathon some day and you may picture yourself winning that race. Plan for the race and put in the training and effort that goes along with it. But do not set yourself up for disappointment by planning the outcome. You may not win the race (in fact, you may be lucky to even finish!). The process is what is truly important here, not the outcome. The goal inspires positive action (training and getting into shape) and that is what is really important here, not the final outcome. You can make plans but try to leave the outcomes out of your plans. It is still worth getting into shape and training even if you do not win the race. Positive actions!
Second of all you can plan for the worst and then hope for the best. This may sound counter-intuitive but much of recovery is this way. In “planning for the worst” you have to entertain negative thoughts. Is this a good idea? In my opinion it absolutely is a good idea, and will lead you to greater happiness in the long run. In fact much of our happiness in life actually comes from contentment and avoiding negatives rather than chasing positive things. This sounds totally foreign backwards to most people at first and this why it can be very counter-intuitive.
In other words, it makes sense to plan for the worst in recovery. Your goal should be to prevent negative outcomes. This is in contrast to what most people would think–that they should be chasing their dreams and trying to focus on only positive ideas. Instead we get a lot of value in recovery out of avoiding negatives and in fact this is where most of our growth and happiness comes from.
Embracing gratitude as part of your optimistic attitude
Gratitude is perhaps one of your biggest tools when it comes to having a healthy optimism in recovery. If you are truly grateful then is is almost impossible that you would relapse at that moment and your attitude will be one of contentment.
Early recovery demands learning if you are to remain clean and sober. You have to relearn how to do nearly everything in your life without self medicating. This constant learning requires the right attitude in order to embrace each new lesson that you may face in life. If you have a poor attitude then when a new life lesson comes along you will refuse to learn anything from it and instead just cast blame and point fingers at others.
If you are grateful then you will not react in this negative way. Instead you will try to find the good points in whatever has happened to you and that will force you to find the silver lining in any “bad” situation. Therefore you can turn something negative into a learning experience. You are going to be doing a ton of learning in your recovery journey and the more lessons you can extract from each day the more your life will improve. Being grateful will allow you to keep learning in spite of any new circumstances that may arise.
Being overly optimistic is to be happy “beyond your gratitude” and therefore a bit reckless in terms of your position and strengths. Being grateful is a better attitude to have because then you are content with your current resources and where you are at in your path of learning and you are hopeful for the future. Instead of “knowing” that things will work out you are hopeful that they will. Thus you can still motivate yourself to take serious action in your life because you know that the outcomes are not guaranteed.
How negative visualization can be a form of optimism
How can you be more grateful in your life, and therefore practice a healthier form of optimism? One way is by using a technique that is called “negative visualization.”
Many people who hear of this technique immediately think that it must be a bad thing, because it involves picturing negative circumstances. Such people believe all of the modern ideas about visualization and how all of our thoughts create our reality and that everything must be positive.
But negative visualization is a powerful tool, and it can increase your happiness. It essentially amounts to the idea of saying to yourself “well, things could be much worse,” and then picturing in detail exactly how things might be worse for you. Sounds negative, right? It is!
But you would be surprised how much engaging in this mental practice can lift your spirits. Instead of allowing the negative visualization to drag us down, our minds instantly compare our present reality to the more negative one that we are creating mentally. Our brain cannot help but make this comparison. And when it compares it finds that we are in a better present reality. This creates gratitude instantly. You may dismiss this technique and believe that you will not be able to “fool yourself” in this way, but I can assure you that if you practice negative visualization then you will find more gratitude in your life.
The originators of this technique (the ancient Stoics) believed that you should do a bit of negative visualization every single day. In doing so you will better appreciate your current station in life and your existing circumstance. Indeed, you are a lucky bunch of atoms to even exist right now! If we start to take life for granted then this attitude will lead us closer and closer to relapse.
Negative visualization is a powerful technique for creating gratitude in your life. If you practice this technique then it will encourage you to have a healthy optimism toward your life and towards your recovery.
Use overwhelming force and take massive action
The idea of taking “massive action” kind of goes along with the idea of “planning for the worst and hoping for the best.” This is a strategy that you can use in your recovery (and in life) to help you get better results.
There is not a lot that we need in order to be happy in this life. We may believe that we need a lot to be happy but in reality we just need to eliminate most of the negative things from our lives in order to find true peace and contentment.
Most people overestimate their ability to overcome addiction. At the same time they underestimate the power of the disease.
In long term recovery, people may try to make positive changes in their life in order to learn and to grow. Each change is probably more beneficial than we realize at first, and it is also probably more difficult than what we first estimate.
Small corrections can add up in your recovery journey. Think of the plane that takes off towards a destination that is thousands of miles away. If the plane is even pointed one single degree in the wrong direction, it is going to end up out over the ocean somewhere.
Your life in recovery is the same way. Ten years from now you are going to be at a certain place in your life and in your recovery, and the subtlest changes that you make today can have a huge impact on where you end up.
Seemingly small and insignificant choices can add up over time. What does smoking a single cigarette do? No real damage. But smoking a pack a day for forty years? That is a different story.
Obviously if you can make that correction early on (and stop smoking every day) then this will have a significant impact in the years and decades to come. Instead of arriving at a certain destination you may end up thousands of miles away because of this one single change. But because this change affected your daily behavior, it adds up to have an enormous impact.
This is why the holistic approach to recovery is so important. Why is nutrition important in recovery? Is it important to the outcome of your sobriety over the next 24 hours? Probably not. It is a lifestyle change–the kind of thing that adds up over a lifetime. Eating just a little bit healthier every day is like correcting that plane route by one degree on the thousand mile journey. It makes a big difference in the end even though the daily change in outcome may seem insignificant.
Regular exercise is exactly the same way. Is it going to make a different tomorrow if you work out today for 40 minutes? Not really. But work out every day for 30 years, and then play that 30 years back with no exercise at all. Now we are talking about two vastly different outcomes. The small daily changes add up over time.
I used this same technique in order to build a business for myself during my recovery. I made a conscious choice to take action every single day (consistent action = massive action) and therefore I was able to build something that brought real value to a lot of people. It did not happen overnight and in fact it took several years. But because I was persistent it led to a positive outcome.
Your social life and relationships can be described in this way as well. If you hang out with “the wrong crowd” for one day it may not change the outcome of your life. But if you continue to have negative people in your life for the next 30 years you can imagine that this will have a huge impact on where you end up. The same can be said for emotional stress and your mental health. Tiny decisions each day can add up over time and greatly affect the final outcome of things. This is why it is so important to purge toxic relationships from your life. It is not that you cannot handle it for a single day–it is that the relationship slowly wears you down over time. If it is not healthy then you need it out of your life. Otherwise it will negatively affect your destination much further down the road.
Take everything that you did today and then multiply it by ten thousand. That is your 30 year destination right there. If you are eating healthy and exercising then multiply those healthy choices times ten thousand. If you have negative or destructive habits in your routine then multiply those by ten thousand as well.
How your daily habits shape you
The way to build a new life in recovery is to change your daily actions. Start taking positive action every single day and the destination that you reach in five years, ten years, etc. will be much more positive that what you might have experienced.
Perhaps more importantly than taking “positive action” is to eliminate the negative ones. This is the starting point of recovery as you eliminate the most negative habit of all, which for most people is self medicating with their drug of choice. After eliminating this destructive habit they may move on in recovery to find and eliminate other negative habits as well.
If you could glimpse into the future and see how your daily choices affect things in the long run then you would clearly see that your first order of business is to eliminate the negative stuff from your life. If bad things happen in your life every day then those are the priority to be fixed first and foremost. Trust me, you can chase your dreams later. Right now your first order of business is to correct course so that your daily actions are not fighting against you.
Seeing the good in everything is a way to enhance your learning experience in recovery
Being cautiously optimistic does not mean that you need to be unrealistic. You can still be realistic about your recovery while entertaining this notion of cautious optimism.
The key is to combine attitude with action. The trick to recovery is that you have to have both. If you just make the decision and then fail to follow through on it then you have nothing. If you just take reckless action without having the proper attitude and perspective then this will have you spinning your wheels as well.
The key is to combine the two: positive attitude, positive action. Negative visualization may sound like it could bring you down, but you should try it for a few days before you dismiss the idea. Being able to appreciate your current circumstances is always a gift. It can be hard not to attach ourselves to outcomes while striving to improve things, and to be honest I am guilty of not being perfect at this myself. But we can still find gratitude in each day and we can still push ourselves to make positive changes.
Remember the idea of the thousand mile plane journey. Your life is the same way and a small correction today could have profound changes down the road. This is especially true if you are changing a daily habit or a daily behavior. Taking consistent action in changing a daily behavior is a really big deal. That’s why we call it “massive action.”
Do you have a healthy amount of optimism today? Are you making positive changes and correcting course for your life?