Recovery is nothing if not change.
That is the whole point–you change something. You change your life. You change your habits. You change how you deal with reality. You change what you do for fun. You change what you do to relax and unwind. You change how you communicate with other people.
In order to do all of this you have to start with internal changes. You must change your inner dialogue. You change what you say to yourself, and how you say it. You reach a new level of self honesty.
If you hold on to an old part of your life then they call this a reservation. This means that you are refusing to change something, and this may end up costing you in the end. It could even cost you your life. The stakes can be rather high with addiction and recovery.
After you make big changes and enter the world of sobriety, you would think that you can now prop your feet up and get some much needed rest. Unfortunately this is not the case by any means! Once you get clean and sober the real work finally begins. Stopping is not the problem; staying stopped is the problem. Therefore the initial change that actually creates short term sobriety is really just a drop in the bucket. It is one tiny change out of a remaining lifetime of changes that will eventually have to be made. You can’t just make a short lived effort at “being good” and expect your recovery to work out for you. It takes a sustained effort over years or even decades.
The idea of “continuous change” really points to the idea of “continuous growth.” What is growth if not change? In order to grow or make any sort of progress in your life, something has to change. If things stay exactly the same then you have made no growth and no progress.
Therefore one of the keys to continuous growth in recovery is the idea of continuous change. You can’t have one without the other. Therefore, you might take a glance at your overall life and see if things are remaining the same, or if you have been pushing yourself to make changes. If you are stagnant in your life then you are not making growth.
Now the key to this whole thing is that your long term success in recovery depends on continuous growth, and therefore it depends on continuous change as well.
You don’t get to coast. If you are coasting then you are headed downhill. Towards relapse.
If you are fighting and struggling and pushing yourself to make difficult changes, then you are moving uphill, away from relapse.
One of these states feels easy and light and carefree. The other is hard work. But it is through this hard work and persistent effort that you can create long term success in recovery.
The cycle of growth and reflection
So what is the solution? Are you just going to have be pushing yourself constantly to the point of burn out? Is this the only way to success in recovery, to become so addicted to personal growth that we burn ourselves out?
Obviously that is not what we want. Instead, we want to seek a balance, while still being fairly aggressive in how push ourselves to make changes.
One such way to find that balance is to embrace the cycle of personal growth and reflection. The way this works for me is this:
I make a point to list out all of my current goals in life. Out of this list of goals I then attempt to prioritize them. Some goals have a bigger “payoff” than others. I tend to ask myself “What is the one goal in my life that, if achieved, would change everything?”
Then I focus. I push all of the other goals to the side and focus on the one that I determined is most important. The goal with the biggest potential payoff. I zero in on that goal and then I focus all of my energy on achieving it.
In doing so I may ask other people for help and feedback. I may try to find other people who have achieved that goal in the past and I ask them for advice and guidance.
And I focus. I ignore other goals (temporarily) at the expense of this one single thing that I want to accomplish. The idea of focus is very important, and it allows you to accomplish things that may have been too difficult otherwise. For example, when I finally quit smoking cigarettes, I did it because of extreme focus. I blocked out all other tasks for a while (took a vacation) and focused only on quitting smoking for a few weeks. This is what it took for me to overcome that particular addiction. I had to use extreme focus in order to meet that goal.
Now this is the “growth” side of the equation. You list out your goals, choose the most important one, then you focus all of your energy on that goal until it is accomplished. This is the big push for personal growth.
After you achieve that goal, what happens next?
If you are smart, you will pause. Stop for a moment. You have been working like a madman in order to reach your goal, and you finally made it. Just pause for a moment and reflect. Look back on your progress and appreciate it. Dissect your efforts a little. Learn from what you just accomplished.
Do not rush out at this point and keep pushing yourself relentlessly, because you do not want to burn out. Remember that this cycle of continuous growth has to last forever while you are still alive! So don’t necessarily rush things.
But on the other hand, you do not want to become completely idle, either. Therefore the reflection process needs to include some forward thinking. You just accomplished a goal, and it was a very important one (in fact, if you prioritized like I suggest you do, then it was the most important goal in your life). Now it is time to reflect on that progress a bit and see how it might open up even more potential for you. You accomplished this, what else might you accomplish? You met this big juicy goal, what else might you achieve? This line of thinking and the reflection process should lead you into your next possible move in life.
Always be thinking forward in this manner. Go back to your list of goals. Can you add anything to it based on your recent success? Would you prioritize the remaining goals any differently now that you have achieved some recent progress? How does your recent success affect your next move in life? Has it changed your priorities?
If you are engaged in this cycle of continuous growth, the threat of relapse becomes almost non-existent. How can you move so far backwards when you are pushing yourself to move forward? This is why personal growth protects you from relapse. You are not likely to sabotage your success when you are experiencing so much of it. The positive results and the benefits of personal growth act as a protective barrier against relapse. If you are not building up this barrier on a continuous basis then your addiction will find new ways to creep back into your life and threaten you.
Therefore recovery and personal growth has to be a continuous process. The reason for this is because the addiction never goes away, and it continues to evolve and find new ways to threaten you. Therefore if you stop in your recovery efforts then eventually the addiction will overtake you again–somehow, some way. You cannot prevent the threat of relapse with a static plan. You cannot just stay put where you are in life and expect to be protected from the ongoing threat of relapse. Successful sobriety will always be a forever moving target. The only way to achieve it is to “be achieving it.” You never fully reach this particular goal (sobriety) until you finally die sober. While you are still alive you are only striving for a better life in recovery, but you never fully reach that goal. It is in this striving that you become protected from relapse. Stop striving and you become vulnerable to relapse again.
Incremental improvement and long term benefits of recovery
In very early recovery the growth that you achieve will be fast and furious. You will make positive changes that have an enormous impact in very short time periods. For example, you will start with the concept of surrender and a full detox. You will rid your body of addictive drugs and alcohol and this will be the starting point of your journey. Let’s say that you attend short term rehab as well. So you are suddenly fully detoxed, in rehab, and going to groups and meetings every day in an effort to change your life.
This is a whole lot of positive change! Some people really thrive on these early positive changes and then they become disappointed in the future when their rate of personal growth slows down.
The solution for this is to practice gratitude as you remain clean and sober, so that you can have an intense appreciation for the little changes that occur on a day to day basis. For example, say that you have been clean and sober for 3 days. The difference between day 3 in your sobriety and day 4 is huge. It is enormous. In fact, you may be miserable on day 3 and start feeling a whole lot better on day 4. So it may be pretty easy to find the gratitude in that.
But say that you have been sober for six months. What is the difference between being sober for 6 months, and being sober for six months plus one day? Not a whole lot, for the most part. Therefore you may have to try a little harder in order to see and appreciate the growth that you are still making at 6 months sober. The same will be true at 5 years sober. Or 20 years sober.
In very early recovery, the changes that you make have an immediate and enormous impact. In long term sobriety, you have already made all of the obvious big changes that you can make. You have already eliminated your major “points of misery.” There is still growth to be had, but it is not going to be huge-impact, immediate results kind of growth. Instead, it will be incremental growth at times. You have already made all of the big changes in life. Now it is time to celebrate the small changes.
Therefore you must learn the art of gratitude. You must learn to celebrate the tiny victories in life, because your long term sobriety is going to have lots of incremental growth. If you do not get excited about it and appreciate it then you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
There is this transitional period between short term recovery and long term recovery, and it is sort of a dangerous no-man’s-land. In very early recovery the big changes yield big rewards, and it is easy to see positive growth. But during this transitional period you may feel like you are slowly trudging uphill for a long time without seeing much progress. This is partially due to the fact that recovery is holistic in nature–you have to make positive changes in many different areas of your life in order to be successful. At the same time you will make changes most effectively if you focus on the one that you deem to be most important. Therefore it will take significant time in order to cycle through all of the major changes that you want to make in your life. You can’t just fix everything overnight. And while certain problems remain in your life, you are not going to feel like you are making real progress even though you are constantly chipping away at things. It is only when you have accomplished nearly all of these “transitional goals” that you can look back and feel like you have really made significant progress.
Recovery can be viewed as a long slow road to positive change. And it happens at a rate that can be agonizingly slow at times. You live day by day, and you make tiny positive changes each and every day. During this transitional phase you feel like you are not making any progress. You may keep pushing every day to make more positive choices but at the end of each day you cannot really see your progress. This is because you lack the perspective to be able to see the long term growth. When you have 5 years sober you will then have the perspective that you need in order to see the growth. But you cannot see it when you have 90 days sober and you are trying to do the next right thing each day. You cannot see it then because you have not accumulated enough positive benefit yet to make a huge difference.
Your recovery slowly accumulates over time. Or rather, the benefits of your recovery slowly accumulate over time. It is difficult to see this while you are living through it and to appreciate it. The only way to fully appreciate these long term benefits is to live through the transitional period, reach long term sobriety, and then look back on your journey of growth. It does not happen overnight and therefore you must be patient with yourself. Learn to celebrate the tiny victories. Learn to celebrate the efforts that you make rather than the outcomes. The outcomes will come later, in their own time. The outcomes will take care of themselves. It is the process of positive change that you must embrace. It the process and the daily actions that you must recognize and celebrate. We want so badly to achieve the results, but the results of our efforts are really beyond our control. They may show up tomorrow or they may show up next year. It is a mistake to tie our happiness and satisfaction to those results. Therefore we learn to tie our satisfaction to the process, to our daily actions. To the little victories.
How complacency can creep in and create relapse
In long term sobriety the biggest threat is known as “complacency.” This happens when you stop making positive changes every day, and you stay in this state of stagnation for a long time.
It does not happen overnight. It takes a very long time for successful sobriety to unravel. Once you have built up long term sobriety and successful recovery, it does not just disappear overnight. It happens slowly. And this is part of the problem–complacency happens so slowly that we often do not notice it.
If you feel confident in your recovery but you are just going through the motions, then you might be at risk of complacency. If you forget how to celebrate your daily actions and see the tiny victories, then you might be at risk of complacency.
Complacency is the end of growth. You have arrived at your destination, and therefore you stop moving forward. You lose the inspiration to take positive action each day. This is the beginning of the end.
Obviously we want to avoid complacency.
Protecting yourself from complacency
You cannot solve a problem like complacency the same way that you solve most problems in your life.
For example, at one time you noticed your addiction was a serious problem in your life, and so you took action in order to fix it. Notice problem, seek help. This makes sense, right? Most of our problems in life follow this pattern. First we notice the problem, then we take action in order to fix it.
Protecting yourself from complacency does not work that way. You cannot notice the problem and then fix it. This will fail. If you try to do this then you will simply become complacent, relapse, and then realize that you were complacent. This is no good. We do not want this outcome. The relapse may even kill you outright.
Therefore we cannot simply react to the problem of complacency and expect to overcome it. Instead, we must take a proactive approach.
So how do you use a proactive approach? What does that even mean?
It means that we must make an assumption. Normally we are told that it is a mistake to assume things, but in this case you may want to take note. In this case we are simply assuming that complacency is a threat to our recovery. In this case we just want to assume that if we do not take action in our lives that complacency will eventually lead us to relapse. This is a pretty safe (and helpful!) assumption to make.
If you assume that complacency is going to try to kill you one day, then you can formulate a strategy that helps prevent against it. That strategy is one of continuous growth and change.
The cycle described in this article is the solution. You want to make continuous growth in your life without burning yourself out. Therefore you must learn to pause and reflect after reaching a major goal. If you have not reached a major goal lately then you need to get to work. Write out a list of all of your goals, then prioritize it. Focus on the most important goal until you have achieved it. Then pause and reflect on what you have accomplished. Start thinking about what your next major change might be.
You are either living in the process of continuous change, or you are stuck and stagnant in your recovery. There really is not much room in between the two paths so it is up to you to choose one. Decide that you are going to embrace positive change on a daily basis. Decide that you are going to celebrate the process itself, and to celebrate each tiny victory. In the end the results and benefits will come to you. In the meantime you need to keep fighting the good fight and know that it will all pay off in the end.