“If you don’t know someone who’s had a problem with addiction, you will.” –Dana Boente
Working in the addictions field is not easy. It is not predictable either. Some of the people who start treatment and sound like they are making healthy choices in their lives, end up relapsing, while others who struggle to start suddenly have a turnaround. Recovery is a journey and every person dealing with addiction and recovery need to forge their own road to determine what works for them. As I work with clients I discuss their window of choice and help clients to figure out what stretches it.
I define addiction as both a choice and disease. As I envision it, there is a window of time when a person has a choice, but once it reaches the threshold, it flips into a compulsion. At that threshold, the disease of addiction takes over and there is no longer a choice in the matter. During active addiction, the window of choice is minuscule. There is not much time from when the person feels the urge to the time they start using. Recovery is about stretching the window of choice.
So, what stretches the window of choice? Whenever a person does something that brings them peace and joy they stretch the window. When they feel connected with someone or when they are able to shift their perspective of a situation they gain more power to choose. Every time a decision to not use is made and honored the window gets bigger. I encourage my clients to make a list of things they can do to stretch the window of choice. They may listen to music, take a walk, journal or draw. It may take a lot of slow work to stretch the window of choice out enough to abstain or the window can seemingly stretch in the moment that the person hits rock bottom and decides that they need to change.
Recovery is about continuing to stretch out the window and adding more time of choice before hitting the threshold. Stress shrinks the window of choice. When someone has a setback or faces the pain of confronting the repercussions of addiction it causes the window of choice to get smaller, which leaves them closer to the threshold of relapse. Understanding this balance is critical. The window can shrink slowly or it can vanish the instant a certain person, place or thing appears. The key to recovery is understanding the window of choice and continually monitoring the growth or reduction of the window. When the window begins shrinking, self-care is critical to stop it. I encourage the clients to revisit the list they created and encourage them to choose at least one thing to try from their list. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, become curious about the window of choice and have a discussion about how to support its growth. It could be the key to change!
“Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.” Don Miguel Ruiz
The other day I was working with a client and he commented that the people around town are so rude. He went on to tell me a list of examples why, such as, people don’t smile at him or even say ‘hi’ when he walks by. He concluded that everyone was ignorant and judging him. I explored with him the story he was telling himself about the other people and then asked him why he cared so much about what these people thought about him. After a while, he discussed other times in his life when he felt like he didn’t belong. As mammals, we are social creatures. We have an innate desire to belong and to be accepted. When we feel like we are being outcast it is extremely painful.
All of us have our own filter, through which we interpret the world. Our brains are amazing tools. They take in information and store it. These memories can serve us well, but they also color the way we see the world. There have been studies which show that when we have a history of trauma, even neutral events can become charged with emotion. Our brains become sensitized to pick up on the slightest cue that there is danger. Other people may say that we are overreacting to a situation, but to our brain, which is remembering the past event and working overtime to protect us, it isn’t an overreaction at all.
If you find yourself taking comments personally, here are five tips:
- Take a step back from the situation. In the moment, when we feel we are being personally attacked, our brains flood with fight or flight chemicals and the rational thinking part of our brain shuts down. There is no way to have a rational conversation when someone is triggered, so take a break and allow the thinking part to re-engage. Go for a walk, take some calming breaths or listen to music.
- Once the brain has calmed down, become curious. What was the story that I was just telling myself about that situation. Write it down, so that you can objectively read back what you just wrote or say it out loud. It always amazes me how things sound so right in my head, but as soon as I speak the words out loud I can hear the absurdity of them.
- Ask yourself if the story that you just wrote or said aloud is true. Often our personal interpretation gets added in, when there may be no real evidence of what we are telling ourselves. What are the facts in the situation and what is a personal opinion that is being shared? When someone says something to us that feels like an attack, separate out the evidence from the beliefs. We all have our own preferences. Some people will like what I do, others won’t. We can’t please everyone and that is okay!
- Remember that you have bad days, too. Give the other person some grace. We don’t know what the other person is going through. When I get cut off in traffic, I make up a story about the other person. Maybe they are rushing to get to the hospital. When I picture what they may be going through, I can shift from anger to compassion for them.
- Have the courage to speak up. Often our thoughts about someone’s words or actions are not what their intention was. Is a friend really ignoring us when they don’t answer our message or are they just busy? I know that I will often read a text and while I intend to return it later, I forget. But, if someone doesn’t return my message, I tell the story that they are disrespectful for not giving me an answer. Ask clarifying questions if someone says something or does something that felt personal. It is not easy to clear the air, but it is healthy.
When we take something personally it is the story we are telling ourselves about the situation that gets to us. Other people have their own stories they are telling. When we take responsibility and own our stories, we are able to shift the way we see things and they become much less personal. As Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” What have you taken personally that may need to be re-examined?
“My goal is to make space for my selfhood. All of it. All of me, not just the parts I like or think that others like but all of it.” –Tracee Ellis Ross
We all have parts to us. Part of me may want to go out to eat, but another part wants to stay home. Part of me wants to clean the house on a Saturday morning, but another part wants to sleep in. It is normal for our parts to be in conflict with each other, but when they don’t agree, how do we decide who wins? I envision all of us to have many different parts within. These aspects of our self all have their own personalities. We all have a lazy part, but when the lazy part constantly wins we begin to define ourselves as lazy. When the addiction part constantly wins, we define ourselves as an addict. I envision each part to have a counterpart. The lazy part is balanced by an energetic part. The responsible part is balanced by an irresponsible part. So, what do we do when our parts are in conflict?
I recently had a session with a client who was frustrated with her habit of procrastination. She discussed how whenever she had a project to do in school, she would wait until the last minute and then rush to complete the assignment, often getting poor grades. She was aware that other people in her class were working on their projects from the moment they were assigned. She wanted to know why they could be disciplined, when she couldn’t. We discussed how she has a disciplined part as well, it is just being overshadowed by the procrastination part. We talked about the power that the procrastination part had been given over the years and why her procrastination part felt the need to take control whenever she had a project to complete.
The key to controlling our parts is to increase our awareness of the parts. We are not our parts. Our awareness is the director of the parts. It is our authentic self who is actually in control of our parts. When our director is able to recognize that a part has taken over it can decide if the part’s action is in alignment with who we say we want to be, or not. It is the director’s job to decide which part wins when our parts don’t agree. Our authentic self knows what our goals are and what actions we need to take to be true to ourselves. It can then choose which part will win when the parts don’t agree. How much control does your director have, or are the parts running amok?
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.” John Maxwell
We think we know what we want. We have our sights set on a goal and we know what needs to happen to make it. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always cooperate with our plans. Instead of success, we experience ‘failure.’ These so called ‘failures’ are often anything but a failure. I recently heard an old story which puts this into perspective.
There was once a poor peasant who lived in China with his son. Their most prized possession was their horse. One day the boy left the gate open and the horse ran away. Everyone from the village told the man how terrible it was that his horse escaped. The man simply responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’ Two days later the horse returned and there were six wild horses who followed him. The villagers all exclaimed how wonderful it was that the horse returned. The man again responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’ Several days later the boy was taming one of the wild horses and he was thrown off, injuring his leg. The villagers told the man how terrible it was. Again, the man responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’ Several days later the Emperor’s army came through their village, taking all the young men to fight in the war. Because the boy was injured he was not taken. The villagers returned to tell him how wonderful it was that his boy was spared, to which the man responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’
This story is a wonderful illustration of letting go of attachment to an outcome. The wise man knew that what looked like a ‘failure’ could turn out to be a blessing and what appeared to be just what he wanted, could in fact turn out to be trouble.
Life is filled with ups and downs, blessings and disasters. While it is important to set goals and take action, sometimes life has other plans. Going with what is and letting go of our attachment to how life is supposed to be, is a blessing. Is this experience what you wanted? Maybe yes, maybe no….
“We search for happiness everywhere, but we are like Tolstoy’s fabled beggar who spent his life sitting on a pot of gold, under him the whole time. Your treasure–your perfection–is within you already. But to claim it, you must leave the buy commotion of the mind and abandon the desires of the ego and enter into the silence of the heart.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
One of the comments I hear repeatedly in sessions is that people just want to be happy. While it seems like a simple request it is elusive for many. Why is happiness so hard to find? I believe that people aren’t looking in the right place. They spend their time searching for something to bring them happiness. Our media has sold us on the belief that we need their product in order to be happy. We can only smile when we have a Coke in our hand or when we are eating a Big Mac. Contrary to what most people believe, getting the perfect job, finding a soulmate, or moving into the dream house are not things that will bring happiness. There are plenty of people who have those things and are still miserable.
Happiness is something that we all have. If you are able to bring happiness and joy to others it is because you have it within you. We can only give what we already have. The problem is that we are often good at giving happiness, but are blocked to receiving it. It is like we are only ever able to exhale without being able to inhale. It just doesn’t work. What we need is to be able to complete the circuit. We need to open ourselves up to receive the joy and experience the happiness that is already ours. Happiness is our default programming, our natural state of being. Our thoughts, worries and ruminations are like a wedge that is driven down, cutting off the return flow of happiness. As long as we are stuck in our head we are not able to feel our natural happiness. When we take time for ourselves, when we slow down and enjoy the smell of the flowers or look in awe at the night sky, we open up the flow. We can also become curious about what the blocks in our lives are. Working to understand and push through the pain of the blocks allows them to dissolve and returns us to the natural state of happiness and joy that is our birthright. Are you ready to look at the blocks to happiness and open up to joy?
“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” –Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Working with couples is always interesting. Two unique individuals cannot spend a significant amount of time together without bumping into each other from time to time. There are bound to be disagreements or arguments, but how they are dealt with can make the difference between a healthy relationship and a rocky one. One of the things I often see is that the partners are sailing in two different directions. When couples are stuck, it is because they are not able to communicate clearly the destination that they are working towards. The relation-ship becomes divided and mutiny abounds. Whether it is because they have not clearly decided on the ship’s destination or that they have envisioned different docks without communicating where they are going, trouble looms when all hands are not on deck. By the time they come to my office, some partners have already boarded the lifeboat and are ready to set sail in their own direction. In order to work out disagreements, both partners need to get on board the ship and decide the direction it is heading. When they agree on the port, it becomes much easier to steer the ship and navigate through rough waters.
In order for couples to get onboard a unified relation-ship they need a clear vision of what their goals are. Do they want to save for a house in the country or rent a condo in the city? Do they want to have a large family or only pets? Do they want to take vacations to Europe or go camping in an RV for the summer? When couples share common goals the destination is set and they can help each other navigate when they start to drift off course. Having a common destination does not mean that each partner can’t take their own excursions. It is critical for each partner to have their own hobbies, friends and interests, but they return to their home base, together. One partner’s excursion is no more important than the partner’s. In a family, everyone’s needs are equally important and no one sacrifices their own needs for the other. Needs can be negotiated and compromised, but there is always give and take in order to provide balance. When everyone is on board and working together, it is smooth sailing and you can reach the destination with much less stress. Take a moment to assess the crew on your current relation-ship. Is the navigation on course? If not, take some time to re-assess and verify that you are both heading for the same destination.
“Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.” –Desmond Tutu
We are often told to ‘forgive and forget.’ I don’t believe these two words should ever go together. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what happened. Whatever happened did happen and we do not have a magic eraser to clean it from our mind. We remember what we did or what someone did to us and forgetting the event simply, does not happen. The work of forgiveness is challenging. There are many layers to it. I often hear people say that they have forgiven themselves or someone else, but if there is still something about the situation that continues to bother us, the work is not complete. I once heard someone say that there were some people who were not safe to walk the streets of her mind. Whenever she thought of ‘that person’ or what they did she would attack them. I love that visual and whether it is someone we are rehashing an argument with or beating ourselves up for something we did, as soon as the thought occurs, our brains go into attack mode.
Forgiveness is something we do to release the anger we are holding. This is for both self-forgiveness and the forgiveness of others. The Buddha compared holding onto anger, to holding a hot coal with the intent to throw it at someone. The problem is that while you are holding the hot coal you are the one who is getting burned. We need to drop the coal, because we are only hurting ourselves. Releasing the anger does not mean saying that what happened was okay. It does not mean that we condone whatever happened. What it does mean is that we can move forward. We have not yet developed the time machine, so none of us can go back to change the event. We can decide to release the anger over the event though and that is powerful. Choosing to forgive is to accept our own and other’s imperfections. It is to acknowledge that what was said or done was painful, but we don’t need to carry the pain indefinitely. It is a choice to say that we have suffered enough and we are ready to forgive. It is a personal choice that can have a profound effect. Who are you ready to forgive?
“If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?” –W. Somerset Maugham
We all have our own way of being in this world. Some people are optimistic and ‘happy go lucky,’ while others are pessimistic and constantly waiting for the next stroke of bad luck to hit. We all fall somewhere on that continuum and that is our baseline experience of the world. It is our default internal programming that keeps us stable in life. When we are on our baseline, life feels ‘normal’ or routine. When events happen, they sometimes throw us off our baseline. We can tell when things are off. We either have a feeling of being down, below our baseline, or things are going well and we are above our baseline. Resiliency is often discussed as being able to get back to ‘normal,’ or baseline after an event occurs.
While getting back to baseline is comfortable, this doesn’t always serve us. I often use an example of someone who has been living in poverty their whole life and they suddenly win the lottery or inherit a fortune. Many times, these people spend the money in excess and find themselves right back at their poverty baseline. It doesn’t have to be that way though. If they are able to raise their baseline and see themselves as a wealthy individual who respects the money they have, they can budget and invest to remain wealthy.
In order to raise our baseline, we need to see ourselves differently. This comes from doing the work of self-compassion and forgiveness. It comes from questioning our beliefs about who we are and what we want in our lives. Working in the addictions field, I frequently see people who start doing well once they get clean. For a period of time, things seem to be improving and changing. Then suddenly something happens which causes them to relapse. While they tell me that they have bad luck, what I often see is self-sabotaging behaviors. Their baseline beliefs about who they are have not caught up with the changes that are happening in their lives. They often feel unworthy of good things happening, or feel that they need to be punished for choices they made. While intellectually they want the good, their underlying beliefs are stuck on seeing themselves as ‘broken’ or ‘dirty’ because of what they did. Their baseline beliefs are still low, so their behaviors bring them right back to baseline.
In order to grow, our baseline beliefs about ourselves need to change. When we go through a difficult period, many people emerge stronger than before. This is referred to as post-traumatic growth. The baseline of how they see themselves shifts during the low point and they have more confidence and awareness once they get through. When we go through joyful times our baseline can raise as well. Knowing that we are deserving of the good and worthy of the blessings allows our baseline to float up and become our new normal. The key to growth is recognizing our baseline and questioning the beliefs that hold the baseline down. What are your baseline beliefs?
“”Why?” is the most useless question in the universe. The only question with any meaning is “What?” Asking “Why is this happening?” can only disempower you. Asking “What do I want to make of this?” does exactly the opposite. Here is a great secret: the Why of anything is to produce the What of everything.” — Neale Donald Walsch
One of the favorite questions of every curious child is ‘why?’ When my son was going through the ‘why?’ stage I remember how frustrating it was to come up with answers to some of his questions. While some answers were easy to explain, really thinking about why things happen is often baffling. There are times when asking ‘why’ can be helpful. There are cause/effect relationships. By understanding how two objects or events are interrelated we can learn and grow. Once we learn why, we can make predictions and better control our environment. The problem is, many questions in life do not have a satisfying answer to ‘why.’
When we begin to ask questions like; ‘Why do some people have lives filled with suffering and hardship while others have it easy?’ or ‘Why do some people die so young?’ or ‘Why doesn’t God bring peace to our planet?’ or even ‘Why didn’t I get the dream job I was applying for?’ there are no simple explanations for ‘why?’ These are the big life questions that defy simple answers to ‘why?’ When people get stuck in the ‘why’ questions it becomes disempowering. It begins to feel like we are the victim of life and are powerless to control everything. Then the big question becomes, ‘Why even try?’
There is another question that is more powerful. Instead of focusing on why, instead ask, ‘What do I want to make of this?’ The shift from ‘Why is this happening?’ to ‘What can I do about it?’ creates a different energy in the question. ‘Why’ is passive, ‘What’ is active. When we ask what we want to make of a situation, we have a choice. We have the power to define how we handle every situation. Asking ‘what’ instead of ‘why’ takes no more effort, but it can create different results. What will you do with this information?
“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” –Leo Buscaglia
Joy is an emotion that we all say we want more of. The pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. But, what happens when we find the happiness and joy that we say we all want? If you are like most people, when things are going well, we say that things are ‘too good.’ We wait for the other shoe to drop. As crazy as it sounds, thanks to the research of Brené Brown, we now know that joy is the most difficult of all emotions for most people to stay with for any length of time. When things are going well, we forebode the joy. I remember standing over my son’s crib when he was a baby and as I looked at him in wonder and amazement, feeling the joy well up in my heart, I had a sudden image of him dying. I was sure that he stopped breathing and began to panic as I didn’t see his chest move. Of course, he was fine, but in that moment of pure joy, the brakes were applied and it was back to reality. Whether it is due to Hollywood sensitizing us, or our own innate nature it is difficult for us to stay with joy. When my son was going to a high school dance, a group met at a friend’s house for pictures. He was then riding with his friends to the dance. I couldn’t help but have a moment on the ride home, when I was alone, to think about whether the photos of him laughing and smiling could be his last. Images of a terrible accident and headlines flashed across my mind. This should have been a moment of joy, but instead I was worried.
Joy is an emotion that we have fear of. In many ways it is scarier when life is going well then it is when things are falling apart. Misery loves company. It seems you can always find something negative to talk about with other people, and they will commiserate with you. People try to offer support and help when it is obvious that there is a need. When things are going well, everyone seems to assume that there is no need for support. One of the points that Brené Brown makes is that people in recovery need to go to more meetings and be with more people when things are going well, because joy can be a trigger for relapse.
While it seems counterintuitive to think of joy as being a dangerous emotion, in many ways it is. Joy is pure vulnerability and whenever we feel vulnerable, fear sets in. Become aware of foreboding joy and remind yourself to enjoy the moment for what it is. Challenge yourself to feel the pure joy of life. Take some time to soak in the joy.