Recovery Workshop: Lesson Thirty-Four
Obstacles to Emotional Maturity
The following are some common obstacles that you will need to address on your way to developing emotional maturity.
One of the most common and destructive obstacles in your path is immediate gratification. Immediate gratification can best be understood as the feeling you get when you are faced with a decision — and the option you choose is the one that will provide you with immediate emotional relief with little regard to the future consequences of that decision. It is an almost universal trait observed in those who struggle with compulsive behavior and its influences can be seen far beyond the addiction.
Now, it is important to understand that everyone makes decisions based on immediate gratification at times. Some of the greatest human achievements have been made by those with such a debilitating reliance on immediate gratification that they completely neglect future consequence for the focus of what they desire today. In essence, they sacrifice a life of stability and progression for a life of intensity and focus. It reaches debilitation when that life can ONLY be managed through the immediate gratification process. This is typically seen only in cases of severe obsession and/or extraordinary brilliance. Most of us do not fall into either of those categories and so, our goal is to comprehend immediate gratification as an obstacle to our decision-making processes, rather than as a life value.
So, while grandiose accomplishments can be achieved with immediate gratification as the driving force, more often than not it becomes an obstacle to that person reaching their life's full potential. Ideally, a transition takes place in childhood and continues on through early adulthood. A transition from emotional gratification in the here and now, to emotional gratification across the life span. This means involving the past, present and the future in one's decision-making process.
For many though, this just doesn't happen. Instead, a reliance is built upon immediate self-gratification as the primary force in life management and the more mature perceptions — the more mature context to place those decisions in — is simply never developed. There are many reasons why...but be careful not to distract yourself by searching for them. The reasons why do not matter. Not now. To focus on the 'why' can actually be detrimental to your long-term health — creating distractions and delays in what could be an otherwise straight-forward process. Wait until you have developed a healthy foundation with which to process things. Wait until you have developed functional tools to rely on. Wait until you have developed experience in your ability to consider the long-term consequences of your actions. And then, as this foundation becomes stronger and stronger, you will be in a much healthier (and safer) position to explore the 'why' of your shortcomings. For now, when it comes to developing emotional maturity, all that matters now is identifying where you are...and where you are headed.
Observing Immediate Gratification
Consider a woman who has always wanted to get a college degree. Over the years, she has had to weigh the sacrifices she would need to make in order to achieve her goal, and consistently concludes that the immediate sacrifices would be too great. And so she instead opts to postpone her enrollment for one year. Then another. And yet another. Before she knows it, it's been ten years and she adds this goal to yet another major goal that she has failed to accomplish. Why? Because when she looks ahead to the long-term commitment that she must make, she doesn't "feel" the long-term benefits that come with the successful completion of that goal. All she "feels" is the stress that such a pursuit would bring to her immediate life. Naturally then, she bases her decisions on what will provide her with the immediate relief (in this case, the relief of not adding more stress to her life).
The seeking of immediate gratification begins in infancy and should transition to a more mature, delayed-gratification pattern by late adolescence. When this transition does not take place, it is most often a result of either abuse or parental neglect. The most common reasons for emotionally stunted development are extremely controlling parent(s); hyper-religiosity; severe lack of nurturing; and physical, sexual or emotional abuse. In such situations, the child is not exposed to the more advanced decision-making processes that come with necessary developmental elements like being allowed to make mistakes or being encouraged to take risks. Some who are raised in an other-than-ideal family are lucky enough to learn these skills through friends, mentors, teachers, counselors or other family members and that is wonderful. Most however, don't. People raised in such environments have never had the opportunity to be taught with compassion and interest by those who are closest to them. They have never had the opportunity to share their long-term goals with family and have those goals valued. Most often, such dreams were met with negativity and/or doubt; or by approval "as long as the long-term goals are in accordance with the parents' wishes". Of course, this doesn't apply to everyone struggling with compulsive behavior, but it is common to the majority.
And what did we learn as a child in such an environment? That we were responsible for finding ways of comforting and nurturing ourselves. That we were on our own to comfort ourselves in whatever way we could — as soon as we could. And until the pattern of wanting to make ourselves feel good — until immediate gratification — is understood and changed, it will continue. Why wouldn't it? Let's look at one more example of immediate gratification as it applies to a real life situation.
Consider the happily married man who is facing the decision as to whether or not to have an affair. On the one hand, he can choose to have the affair and experience the immediate emotional/physical satisfaction that would accompany that decision (or in a compulsive situation, to rid himself of the emotional discomfort that has been triggered by the object of the affair; or, some other entrenched emotional reaction). Or, he can choose not to have the affair and use the consequences of this decision to further strengthen his value system. Usually, compulsive affairs tend to be short, passionate and sexually objectified. They are a temporary escape. By choosing to have the affair, the man will achieve immediate emotional pleasure (immediate being: for as long as the affair remains intoxicating), but at what cost? His family, his reputation, his health? It doesn't make sense, does it? Why in the world would he make such a choice? Why would he jeopardize such important elements of his life for a temporary emotional escape? Because it is how he has learned to stimulate intensity in his emotions. Achieving emotional comfort in the here and now — through immediate gratification — is at the center of his emotional management skills.
Immediate Gratification in Recovery
This workshop is structured in such a way as to require the application of long-term emotional management skills. Much of what you learn will provide you with little immediate use, but rather, it will be the cumulative, ingrained effect of this learning that will provide you with the greatest value. By completing one lesson at a time, while being told that a palpable recovery is still months away...well, that just isn't acceptable. It's not how the compulsive mind works. It's frustrating. And it causes stress. If there are no immediate emotional benefits from participating, then it must be a waste of time. You need to comfort yourself NOW!...by learning everything there is to know about addiction recovery...NOW!...and you want to know how you are going to recover from these addictive patterns...NOW! Naturally, you will want to know if this workshop is capable of getting you to change your compulsive patterns — so you can then make the decision as to how much of an investment you should really make. Some may even quit the workshop in the next few weeks because the "newness" will wear off and you will have not yet satisfied your need for immediate gratification. That lack of satisfaction will be interpreted by your brain as "another failure", when in fact it is not the case at all. You will have been on the right path, you will just have left the path because you couldn't see where it was heading.
So, when it comes to your desire to know everything and know it NOW!...relax. The need for immediate gratification is at the cornerstone of addiction — and these principles (like most presented in the first month) will come back in more detail and in situations that are more specific to you in the coming months. People who struggle with the reality of living based on immediate gratification are those who invariably live their lives from paycheck to paycheck, or from day-to-day (and for some, hour-to-hour). Their "one-day-at-a-time" philosophy feeds right into the patterns associated with immediate gratification. When you manage your life on a solely day-to-day basis, you make tremendous sacrifices in terms of your long-term potential, confidence in your life management skills and in your ability to develop the emotional maturity that requires the consideration of long-term consequences in the decision-making process. When your window of consequence is no more than, "Well, I fell off the wagon, now I have to start over..." you lose the tremendous emotional stability that can be gained from seeing the behavior in the scope of your entire life.
The "All or Nothing" Principle
The pattern of all or nothing thinking occurs when you view things in their extreme. This is a common tendency among those struggling with addiction and one that significantly affects the way that you perceive your life.
The all or nothing principle can be seen in just about any life situation and its root is based in perception. It can be found in people ("my father was a horrible person because he molested me as a child"; "this woman I met is perfect — she's "the one"); it can be found in situations (my mother was emotionally abusive to me when I was growing up — I had a bad childhood; I got written up at work last week — I'm a bad worker); and, it can be found in yourself — which is where the majority of our focus will be.
When the all or nothing principle guides your perceptions, you tend to view your personal qualities and the situations that involve you in terms of everything being in black-and-white. All good or all bad. You are overweight — no one can find you attractive. You have a dream to play professional sports, but you don't make it — your life is a failure. You promise to save money, yet you continue to live from paycheck to paycheck with overdue bills piling up — you can't manage your finances. The truth to each of these is not nearly as extreme as they are being perceived. Take the issue of being overweight. The reality is that there are many, many more characteristics that people find attractive beyond a person's weight — and many of those qualities are actually more important to others than weight. But when one's self-perception is so extreme in believing that their weight is the overwhelming factor in how others perceive them, they lose perspective of their overall attractiveness. In the case of the person with overdue bills, the reality is not that they are incapable of managing their finances, it is that they lack the basic skills and experience to succeed in those areas. They have not taken the time and effort to develop those skills (immediate gratification rearing its ugly head once more).
For most life experiences, there is no need to put forth the effort to fully develop the necessary skills to excel in these areas, because they just aren't important enough to you. That's understood. With 50,000 potential areas to develop in your life, to master fifty of them would be quite an accomplishment. And so, the issue we are exploring here is not that a person does not possess the skills to succeed, it is when that person identifies their never having developed them as a failure. "I can't sing. I can't draw. I can't do crossword puzzles. I can't...(enter skill here)." Not having learned to do something is not the same as being unable to do it. Where this concept really comes into play is in recovery.
Let's take a look at some of the more direct ways that the all or nothing principle applies to the sex and love addictions. Do you know that feeling when you meet someone new, and believe that this person is perfect (until they do something to pull you out of your fantasy — and then they become "just like all the rest")? That is associated with this principle — especially when the target of your feelings is someone you have never met, or have met just briefly. Another example? Let's say that your wife has had an affair — and you believe that you will never be able to trust her again (or, women in general). Another? You have a history of sexually compulsive behavior — you believe that you are somehow damaged and that you will never change (or that others cannot change). When you have tried to stop your compulsive behavior but continue to relapse — and believe that since your perception of recovery includes abstinence — you have failed in recovery...you are engaging in all or nothing thinking.
Nowhere is this principle more prevalent than in the perception of who you are and in the perception of how others see you. In the perception that, because you have struggled with immoral behaviors, you are an immoral person. Or that because you have struggled with infidelity, you are incapable of committing yourself. Or because you have tried recovery and failed, you are not capable of recovery. Such self-defeating thoughts make it very difficult to succeed in any long term change, because they keep you from fully committing yourself to it. When you believe you might fail, you prepare yourself for that failure. You might even have developed a "learned helplessness" approach to life and have simply resigned yourself to the fact that your life is not going to get any better, no matter what you do. So why try?
Of course, there are thousands more examples of all or nothing thinking, and most will not apply to you. In fact, the principle itself doesn't apply to everyone struggling with addiction — just most. But, if you are sitting there thinking, well, this example or that example really doesn't apply to me, so I must not have a problem with this type of thinking — that, too, is an example of the all or nothing principle. You are utilizing the pattern of making rash judgments without taking the time to consider other perceptions.
As you might be starting to realize, EVERYTHING in your life is determined by your perception. When you perceive life events in the extreme, you also tend to live a very chaotic and impulsive existence. People who perceive things in the extreme tend to look at life's events with the immediate effect of the event only. Why? Because they have never learned the skills to properly evaluate the deeper consequences of their emotional situations. Please take note of the word emotional in that sentence. Where you may have excellent analytical skills and phenomenal project management skills...where you may be the most thoughtful, compassionate person on earth...where you may have the ability to excel in the deepest, most philosophical discussions known to man — you still lack the basic skill of understanding the true role of emotions in your life. And I'm not talking about merely identifying them — anyone can do that. I am talking about understanding their effect on your thoughts, your motivation...and your compulsive behavior.
Once you fully comprehend the role that emotional management plays in your life, the actual "recovery" from the behavioral compulsions becomes little more than a game of connect the dots. The transition plan will be there, the skills will be there, the experience will be there...and then it will then come down to whether or not you really want to change. And that is something that you can only answer for yourself.
I hope that you feel guilty. I hope that you are ashamed of yourself for your past behavior. Why? Because with this guilt and shame comes proof that you have both a value system in place and the ability to connect those values to your conscience. With this already in place, you need only to learn how to derive enough stimulation from your actions so that your values-based behavior is capable of sustaining fulfillment and managing crises. A complex task to be sure, but one that can be accomplished by taking small, secure steps.
It is those who have never felt guilt or remorse for what they have done that have little hope of change. So, if you are feeling bad, don't fight it. Let the guilt and shame flow. Allow yourself to experience the gut-wrenching anguish — if it is there. Soak in demoralization. Feel how it zaps your will and leaves you feeling hopeless. Kick yourself in the ass again and again...wallowing in the self-pity that comes from knowing that you can never take what you have done back. It will always be a part of you.
Experience this for about thirty seconds more...and then let it go.
There is a major difference between feeling sorry and being sorry. Allowing your guilt and shame to continue will be a major obstacle to rebuilding a life without addiction. Your goal in early recovery is to build a strong foundation for a healthy life and this can only be done through active effort. Guilt and shame are the main saboteurs of that effort.
Letting go...for now
Letting go of guilt and shame does not mean that you are letting go of taking responsibility for your actions. Or that the consequences of your actions are somehow less significant. Quite the opposite. The goal of temporarily letting go of such feelings is to ensure that you take the ultimate responsibility for your actions: making core changes to the foundation that led to those actions in the first place. Such a commitment to change will offer to those you have hurt more proof of who you are as a person than ten-thousand apologies, pleas for forgiveness and promises to change. No apology is accepted as sincere when the person apologizing is not committed to changing the offending behavior. When it comes to the intimacy and trust issues often surrounding sexual addiction — this is especially true. Making amends to people whom you have hurt in the past means little when you do nothing to assure them that those behaviors won't be repeated in the future. Taking sincere, progressive action so that those (and similar) behaviors are not repeated is the single most powerful way of showing remorse. It is not through suicide or self-deprecation or self-sabotage...it is through the willingness to put forth the effort to change those areas of your life that you can change. That is how to show the world, especially those you have hurt, how sincerely sorry that you are for your past. And, that is the best way to deal with guilt and shame — by committing to personal change, as opposed to wallowing in self-pity or emotional misery.
"But I didn't hurt anyone..."
Some of you who have struggled with love addiction or more subtle sexual addictions, may never have had your behavior recognized/confronted by others. You may have managed to keep it secret to this very day and so you believe that you have nothing to feel guilty about. No one to make amends to. No external consequences to take inventory of. And, you may be right — at least in relation to direct consequences.
So, it is entirely possible that some of you may be thinking, "Well, I only masturbate." or, "I only look at pornography." or "I only fall in love." You think, "No one gets hurt." and again, it is possible that you are correct. But make sure that such a judgment comes only after giving serious consideration to the effects that this behavior has had on your own life, your ability to fulfill your own potential, your ability to establish and maintain friendships, to establish and maintain intimate relationships, etc. If, after considering all of the effects your behavior has on your life and those around you, you still come to the conclusion that "nobody is getting hurt" then you must ask yourself, "Why are you participating in this workshop?" For everyone else...you must make the responsible choice: which is to not hide behind a cloak of "feeling sorry" for what you have done, but to begin (or continue) your march towards a healthy life and a permanent end to the underlying patterns which lead to the destructive behavior.
As we have discussed, recovery is not about living a tortured, miserable existence. Recovery is not about sticking a label on your forehead telling the world that you are an addict. Or, demanding to the world that you are not an addict because you no longer engage in such behavior. Recovery is a process of change. Once you have committed to actively participating in this change, you have earned the right to be treated with respect. But, as you probably already know, you are often treated in the same manner in which you project yourself...and few emotions project the "struggling addict" label to others so clearly as when you continue to hold onto your feelings of shame and guilt. They eat at the very core of your identity. They destroy your ability to feel good about yourself, to comfortably engage in casual conversation and to establish long-term, intimate relationships. Overcoming these emotions then, becomes one of your first true challenges on the road to recovery.
Choose the Next Step on Your Recovery Path
You now face a choice in heading down one of two very different paths. The first path is lined with guilt and shame which may allow you to feel good (in an emotionally immature way), because you feel bad. You should read that again to fully understand its meaning — experiencing guilt and shame allow a person to feel GOOD because they can openly project their pain and sorrow to others — thus purging themselves of the responsibility for committing to active, long-term change. How does it deflect responsibility? It does so by putting up a defense that is hard for others to demand accountability from. There are not many people who will outwardly kick a dead horse — aside from those who you have directly hurt at the height of their crisis, and even then it is rare. By professing your own sorrow and self-hatred, you create a safety net that protects you (in the short-term) from most direct attacks on your character. Statements such as, "He's an addict" or "He wants to stop, but he just can't help himself" are frequently used by others (and yourself) as a justification for not only your past behavior, but any future behavior as well. That's a hard thing for a confused, hurting, emotionally unstable addict to pass up. It's a "Get out of Jail Free!" card for recovery. Except that it is a superficial pass only. The core issues that need to take place for permanent change to occur are rarely addressed.
The second path — the one that leads to not just behavioral abstinence, but to your transition to a healthy life — is lined with a variety of options and only one certainty: that no matter what happens, you will continue to move forward. It provides you with the opportunity of experiencing a wide range of emotions immediately — and then to learn from those emotions. A wide variety of decisions to make — and then to learn from those decisions. A wide variety of goals to reach for — and then to learn from the progression towards those goals. With this path, you have the ability to see yourself for who you are and who you are becoming...as opposed to who you have been. You are able to feel a sincere, healthy, motivating pride in the commitment that you have made towards changing your life. When the whole world is willing to accept that you are an addict who cannot control herself/himself — and yet, you chose to prove them wrong; that is something to take immense pride in. When you choose to attack your behavior and change the patterns which led to it; that is something to take pride in.
Now, the true power of such a commitment comes with someone who genuinely wants to change their destructive patterns — as opposed to someone who feels they must change them. And if your motivation is based in the former, allow yourself to experience the self-respect that comes from such a commitment. Keep this in mind as you progress/regress through recovery. Self-respect should be derived from every sincere decision that you make that is based on wanting to recover — whether that decision was triggered by positive or negative decisions past. And, it should be derived with EVERY such decision. When someone reaches the most efficient state of mind for long-term recovery, they develop an inner pride that provides them with emotional strength and allows them to project an image of self-respect to others. In return, respect will come from others as the healthy changes begin to take root. Others may not know about these changes initially, but as you continue to grow, that will become irrelevant. You will have changed, and it won't matter one bit who thought you could, or who thought you couldn't — all that will remain is the fact that you changed. And that reality will be projected to everyone and there won't be a damned thing that anybody can do except to respect you for choosing the better path.
Only the ruminations involving guilt and shame can stop this healthy transition from taking place. Only the belief that you don't deserve to live such a life.
A Different View of Guilt and Shame
Another way to look at the role of guilt and shame is to imagine yourself attempting to fill a bucket of water that has a hole in the bottom. You scoop and scoop and scoop the water (e.g. healthy values, decisions, boundaries), only to have it flow right on out again. Attempting a permanent recovery while holding onto guilt and shame is similar. You can learn all there is to know about recovery, perform all of the exercises and make all of your amends...but if you continue to hate yourself for what you have done, you will achieve only temporary recoveries rather than a single permanent one. Guilt and shame trigger intense emotions — which is the key trigger in relapse. It's a fact.
Okay, it's easy for you to say, but just how do I let go of the guilt and shame? I mean, my feelings are natural — I can't control them.
Excellent point. But you are wrong. You can control your feelings, at least to the extent that you can look at them objectively and make the decision as to whether or not they are appropriate for a given situation. And if you aren't able to do this, it is a skill that can be learned fairly easily. Feelings are nothing more than a natural response to a perceived situation. The key here is "perceived". Often people feel a certain way because they are trained to feel that way. They are expected to feel that way. Someone dies — you mourn. Someone is hurt by your actions — you feel guilt. Someone betrays you — you feel angry. It's natural. Or is it? Let's take the example of death. Without offering up an anthropological background on death and dying — it is customary for people in our society to mourn death. But, it is just as customary for people in other cultures to celebrate it. We look at suicide with disdain and cowardess. Other cultures look upon it as a sign of moral virtue, in certain situations. It's all in the perceived context. And by reexamining that context, especially as it relates to the consequences of addiction, one might find that their feelings are actually betraying them when it comes to recovery. How does this relate to guilt and shame?
Most likely, you expect yourself to feel guilt and shame for your behaviors. They have most likely hurt others, and most certainly have hurt yourself — either directly or in potential. There is nothing there to feel good about. Because there have been negative consequences as a result of your behavior, our society states that you make up for it by being sorry. Unfortunately, much of our society also states that the problems which triggered these behaviors (the addiction), are ones that you will have forever. That you will always struggle to control these patterns. This perception is wrong, but it is there just the same. In dealing with sex and love addiction, the pain and consequences are often life-long. The effects that sex/love addiction has on marriages, families, businesses, etc. will have a ripple effect throughout the course of many people's lives. Across multiple generations in extreme cases. It is easy to translate that lifelong effect into the need for lifelong guilt and shame. It is almost an expectation. You hurt me and it will affect the rest of my life; therefore, you need to suffer for the rest of your life, too. If you believe this perception, you will not succeed in making a healthy transition. You can't. Like a cancer, you are committed to rooting out all of the patterns that feed this behavior — and for you to hold onto one part of the pattern is to leave part of the cancer inside of you. Sooner or later, it will begin to spread and you will be back to the beginning...or end.
How to let go...
Of course, it is not enough to simply say to yourself, "Okay, I won't feel guilt or shame anymore." Obviously. Just thinking such a thing won't make it happen. If you had that kind of control over your emotions, you could end your addiction in minutes. Instead, you will have to come to the honest revelation that letting go of such intense feelings is best for everyone — yourself and those who you have affected — that you don't hold on to the guilt and shame. You have to look at the worst of your behavior, the worst consequences that have resulted from your behavior...and begin to sincerely forgive yourself. Even if this forgiveness is more of a 'forced suspension' of your feelings until after you have developed your foundation.
You must come to the realization that you were struggling with issues that you weren't prepared to handle. That your life evolved beyond your ability to manage it. You may think that you should have been able to, which triggers the very guilt we are trying to let go of — but the fact remains, you were not able to manage your life. Not with the current tools that you had available to you at the time. Once you learn how to use these tools, you'll begin to understand why you struggled with addiction in the past. But until then, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for making poor choices. Forgive yourself for acting in ways that, if you had it to do over again, you wouldn't. Forgive yourself for not committing to recovery sooner. Forgive yourself for not developing into the perfect person. Then, when you have begun to experience this forgiveness, allow yourself to begin moving forward with strength and respect. This isn't to suggest that you implement some artificial means for generating false pride. Instead, begin to look at your good qualities — not the least of which is your active commitment to take control of your life — and begin to feel real pride in that decision. Even if that is all you have to be proud of, it is more than enough to begin. Day by day, you will continue adding/stabilizing other areas of your life and these healthy feelings will continue to grow. As you transition, there will come a day when you no longer need to take pride in recovery, but will take pride in the other areas of your life that grew as a result of your decision to recover.
Letting go is just the first step...and it is temporary.
Just as controlling your behavior is not enough to ensure a healthy recovery, merely eliminating guilt and shame is not enough to maintain emotional balance. You need to feed off of the emotions in your sincere decision to recover. And then continue to feed off of these emotions with each healthy decision that you make. As you learn effective urge control and healthy decision making, this will be much easier to do. When you make the switch from a shameful, repressive recovery to one where you are taking pride in yourself and what you are accomplishing — you will have made the switch from a short, tumultuous recovery path to one that will smoothly guide you away from recovery altogether and towards a life of personal growth and balance.
One final thought. Know that you 'letting go' of guilt and shame is a temporary measure only. In early recovery, guilt and shame can be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. But in a healthy life, guilt and shame can play an important role in emotional management. Here, we are concerned only with early recovery. Later, we will again broach the subject of guilt and shame, except then, it will be on the healthy application of it in your life.
Lesson 34 Exercise:
Immediate gratification plays the primary role in the lives of most people who struggle with addiction. In your Personal Recovery Thread, share the following:
A. Describe a time in your life when the "Immediate Gratification" principle has come into play:
Example: When I was twenty-two, I was approached by my best friend's wife, who wanted to have an affair with me. I knew that I shouldn't, and I knew that it wasn't worth the possibility of losing my friend or my marriage, but I did it anyway. Somehow, the feeling to have sex with her was just overwhelming, and it would have caused me great stress if I had said no.B. As best as you can, describe the anxiety you feel when you are trying to NOT ACT on a compulsive sexual thought or behavior. Be specific. Compare it to other feelings of anxiety that you experience. The purpose of this exercise is to begin to define the limits of your emotions — and where your compulsive urges stand within those limits.
C. As best as you can, describe the feeling that you experience while you are engaging in a certain compulsive sexual thought or behavior. Is it a trance-like feeling? Is it a hyper-alert feeling? If someone could get inside your mind as you were experiencing such a ritual, what would they find?
D. Share these insights in your recovery thread.