Recovery Workshop: Lesson Twenty-One
You've heard the saying, "If you don't know where you're going, how do you expect to get there?" In relation to a long-term, healthy recovery, this statement speaks volumes. By the time many are ready to end their destructive patterns, the point has already been reached where they no longer care where they end up — as long as it's far away from where they've been. If they could take it all back and start again, most would in a second — as the consequences of their behavior have caused (or threaten to cause) seemingly irreparable damage. The pain associated with these consequences becomes too much to handle and something — anything — needs to be done to end that pain.
This "I'll do anything to stop acting this way!" approach to recovery is associated with a principle called immediate gratification that will be discussed in more detail later in the workshop. The difference here is that instead of referring to the immediate emotional gratification that comes with compulsive actions, we are talking about the emotional gratification that comes from turning oneself over to recovery.
The development of most people's addiction patterns begin with an initial desire to feel better than they do or to temporarily escape the reality of their lives. Often, there is an emotional pressure that exists and conventional means for managing that pressure are not yet developed. Enter some other means (e.g. relationships, fantasy, sports, alcohol, etc.) that, along with its primary stimulatory value, has a secondary value as well: it provide a means for gaining a temporary emotional reprieve from that underlying pressure.
As months/years pass and this artificial behavior* becomes more and more solidified as an emotional management strategy, a more complex motivation for continuing the addiction evolves. No longer is this secondary behavior (e.g. sex, love, porn, gambling) being used to make oneself feel better...it is now being engaged in to keep oneself from feeling worse. This is when the pattern of addiction has become ingrained into the core of the individual, and only a comprehensive recovery strategy will allow this pattern to resolve.
*Note: the term 'artificial behavior' is not technically accurate — as many target behaviors of addiction are quite natural; the term is being used here in the context of applying a secondary, learned behavior to manage an emotional state that is initially unrelated to the original pressure.
Often, the addiction will move into the final stage, where emotional pressure is felt because of the addiction itself, and the motivation then becomes to end the addiction. In other words, the addiction has taken on a life of its own. It has become bigger than the issues that it protected the individual from.
Recovery Motivation: Why a Negative Approach Often Fails
Unfortunately, the inevitable result of such negative motivations for recovery (e.g. ending the addiction to avoid negative consequences) is that the addictive behaviors often do change (at least temporarily). But because the core of the person has not been altered; because their basic life management skills remain immature, they are still left with the only known outlet to emotional management: addiction. Except now, new behaviors must be introduced to fill the void of the existing patterns that are being changed. So, instead of being addicted to pornography, you may now find yourself addicted to online chatting. Or instead of affairs, you may now find yourself relying on masturbation for comfort. Or food. Or alcohol. Or religion. Or recovery. Or...well, you get the picture. The longer the pattern of addiction has existed in your life, the more behaviors that you will most likely have experience in using to fill the void that is experienced in early recovery.
The point to this is that when the immediate consequences of your addiction (e.g. the potential loss of your marriage, an inability to parent effectively, your career being put in jeopardy) begin to outweigh the immediate benefits (e.g. emotional relief, emotional 'actualization'), the motivation for initial recovery can be strong. But they are based on avoiding/resolving negative aspects of your life. Once those consequences are no longer a factor (which often happens after the initial crisis subsides), the motivational pendulum swings back in the other direction, and unless an effective life management strategy has been established, addiction will again be the management tool of choice.
When the consequences of acting out do outweigh the benefits (i.e. thoughts of suicide; the loss or jeopardizing of an important relationship; the realization of how far you have gotten away from your values; a traumatic event that was triggered by the acting out — rape, abortion, arrest, lost job, etc.), emotional relief requires the immediate stopping of those destructive behaviors. Where you go from that point on does not matter. All that matters is that the behavior has stopped. That you have made a step in the right direction — although you are not entirely sure where that direction is headed.
Learning in the Blink of an Eye
As you might be starting to realize, when your focus of recovery is planted firmly in the stopping of the behavior, you are setting yourself up for relapse. Should you pursue a policy of absolute abstinence of all destructive compulsive behavior? Absolutely. Especially in early recovery, when the foundation for your life management skills are being developed. But abstinence should only be a single part of a 'healthy, well-balanced breakfast'. By focusing solely on abstaining from the behavior, we create a pressure that is similar to trying not to blink. A human can realistically keep their eyes open (without blinking) for about a minute. Try it. Try not to blink for one minute. Physically, you certainly are cable of not blinking for 60 seconds. Just like physically, you are certainly capable of not masturbating. Or not having affairs. Or not viewing porn. As you continue not to blink, feel the pressure of your wanting to blink. Feel it build with each passing second. Feel it go from wanting to blink, to needing to blink. Notice that the more you focus your efforts on not blinking, the more focused you become on the absolute need to blink. Compulsive behaviors are not entirely different. Once you begin to focus on not masturbating (or some other sexually compulsive behavior), you create a pressure that will eventually lead to your 'need' to engage in that behavior (or some similar behavior that will provide immediate emotional relief).
Developing a Recovery Plan
Because of the nature of compulsive behavior, you cannot simply stop destructive behavior without having a plan in place for how you are going to manage the subsequent pressure that will result. So, when the goal becomes to change the behaviors, without giving much thought to the roles those behaviors were playing in your life, and how those roles will be replaced, your road to a permanent recovery ends. This is the "immediate gratification" approach to addiction recovery and one of the reasons why twelve-step programs are initially successful for many, but end up providing long-term, sustained success to relatively few. They initially succeed in distracting people away from their current behaviors by providing a new focus. They provide recovery structure, socialization, knowledge, hope, information...all potentially wonderful and beneficial aspects of recovery. But only those who learn to generalize the concepts being presented in the steps themselves and apply them to their underlying patterns tend to achieve a true transformation. Otherwise, after a certain amount of behavioral abstinence, the pressure to act out in one way or another begins to build, and from that moment on, it's just a matter of time before some compulsive behavior breaks through.
There is a reason why you are encouraged not to set abstinence as a primary goal in the early parts of your recovery. To achieve a permanent recovery, you are going to come face to face with the processes and emotions that trigger your compulsive behavior. This is good. This is healthy. You are going to look at these processes and see them for what they are: not some horrible character defect that uniquely exists within you; but rather, an addiction which is comprised of relatively simple behavioral patterns that affect millions of people in exactly the same way. There is no mystery about addiction, or for that matter, addiction recovery. The only real mystery is why so many people continue to struggle needlessly. Why so many continue to remain stuck. And even that isn't a mystery. It is because their primary focus is on stopping their behavior. You are not going to achieve the fulfillment you seek by stuffing your compulsions in a corner and hoping that you can muster the strength to keep them there forever. That's preposterous. By the time you have completed this foundation workshop, you will no longer fear your compulsive behavior. Additionally, you will realize that relapse does not need to be an option for you.
Setting Recovery Goals
So, how does this relate to setting recovery goals? Simple. In the upcoming lessons, you will be developing and assessing your own short, medium and long term recovery goals. Goals that will help you to map out your road to health. By the end of the foundation workshop, you will have gained experience in effective goal management and will be able to see, on paper, that what you might have had doubts about in terms of your recovery, are realistically attainable. Or, they are not — which is just as important of an awareness to gain. Before going on, do understand that the goals being developed in this area are for developmental purposes only. You are not expected to complete these goals, but to use them in gaining experience in the mechanical aspects of goal management. This should significantly reduce the amount of pressure that you might have otherwise put on yourself to 'succeed'. As you proceed in the actual transition to health, you will want to expand these skills as necessary.
There are certain things to know about setting goals. Apologies ahead of time for those who already know this:
I. A goal must be specific. Selecting goals that are too general will not provide the guidance that is so valuable in recovery. "I want to have a healthy marriage." is an example of a general goal. A more specific goal would be, "I want to be faithful to my wife for the next twelve months."
II. A goal needs to be measurable. You must be able to tell when a goal has been achieved. A poor example: "I want to do what it takes to feel better about myself." A good example: "I will meditate for fifteen minutes each morning." The second example can easily be measured.
III. A goal should be stated in a positive way. It is a fact that you are more likely to succeed in reaching a goal when it is positive, then when it is negative. For the most part, goals that have "I will not..." or "...have no..." are negative goals. They focus on your avoiding or "not doing" something. In almost all cases, these goals can be easily restated into the positive. Example: "I will not cheat on my husband." can be changed to "I will remain faithful to my husband." Same meaning, but one is positively stated, the other negatively stated.
IV. All long-term goals should be important to you. You will be the one faced with achieving these goals, and to set goals that you really aren't interested in will be to guarantee your failure. Recovery is a good example. Many people set the goal of recovering from their addictions, but have no real desire to recover. They are happy with the chaos and lack of responsibility that such a life brings with it.
V. A goal should be consistent with your values. Having a long-term goal of running a marathon — when you can't stand to exercise — is to again, guarantee failure.
Lesson 21 Exercise:
A. What large goals have you attempted in your life and failed? Why do you suppose you failed?
B. What large goals have you attempted in your life and succeeded? Why do you suppose you were able to succeed?
C. List one recovery goal that you have and break it down into as many smaller, measurable tasks as necessary for you to manage it successfully. If you find this difficult, then you are probably starting off with too general of a recovery goal. Make it specific.
"I want to end my addiction by January 1st, 2009." This is too general. There are too many variables involved with 'ending my addiction' and to write them all out would be an overwhelming task.
"I want to have completed the recovery workshop by June 1st." This is specific and manageable. You can then potentially break down the lessons into smaller chunks...assigning checkpoints along the way to make sure you are on track.
Post your responses in your Personal Recovery Thread.