Recovery Workshop: Lesson Sixty-One
Slips. Very likely, the single most overblown aspect of recovery on both sides of the fence. Those in recovery often see slips as proof that their struggle to manage their compulsive behavior is beyond their ability. That the behavior is somehow too powerful, too ingrained...too much a part of who they are and so, they are destined to continue acting in such ways. The partners of those in recovery typically see slips as proof of a lack of sincerity in their partner's desire and effort to change. And because complacency is the most common factor in slips (followed closely by a lack of experience), they are technically right. Not necessarily with the desire to change, but certainly the effort.
But slips are a byproduct in one's transition from compulsion to health. In one's development from immaturity to maturity. They are part of the learning process involved with eliminating an addiction. Not that slips should be expected, accepted or even minimized — the consequences of even a single slip in the recovery process can have a devastating effect on recovery. But the reality of slips must be acknowledged. They are symptoms of an individual who has not fully developed the skills needed to live a healthy, values-based life.
What are Slips?
On this site, the working definition of a "slip" is when a sincere and committed person finds that they have acted in a way that was in direct conflict with their highest values. Certain situations arise for which an individual is not prepared to handle in a mature way and so, they "slip" back to their previous strategies for handling such situations.
These 'slips' are part of the learning/growth process and they should be expected. Expected, but not openly accepted. Taking responsibility for 'slips' must still be a part of the planned reaction...and that responsibility should be directly related to the extent of the slip.
A perfect example of this was someone who finds themselves... Well, heck...I'll use myself as an example. At a Styx concert I attended several years back, there were many attractive, seductive women...dressed provocatively...and they were everywhere. Everywhere you turned, everywhere you looked. You couldn't get away from it. As my wife and I were standing in the waiting area, she excused herself to the bathroom and when she did...I found myself looking. Scanning. Searching. It was a natural, spontaneous reaction and I honestly wasn't even aware that I was doing it. Complacency rearing its ugly head once more! Then I looked up to see the balcony lined with men doing the exact same thing. I felt so stupid. It became obvious that what I was doing was allowing myself to get stimulated by looking at these women and so I walked over to the bathroom and waited for my wife to come out — mentally kicking myself for letting my guard down.
For me, that was a 'slip'. There was no conscious choice that I made to ogle these women. There was no preparation that I undertook. I did not send my wife to the bathroom, nor did I go to the concert alone so that I could be free to view these women. It happened, I caught myself, the behavior didn't fit with the life that I choose to lead and so I made a value-based decision that left me feeling stable and proud of my commitment to Christy. The next time I faced a similar situation, I was prepared. The 'slip' became a part of the learning process.
Because I have worked hard to develop a lot of experience in these areas, I know that once I become aware that I am doing something that contradicts my values, I can stop it with ease. That unbearable anxiety that used to accompany compulsive urges is no longer there. So for me, a "slip" is any time that I find myself behaving in such a way as to go against my values.
Slips are Genuine
There is another perception of a "slip" that is often based not in genuine conflict with one's values, but in manipulation. Be that manipulation targeted at themselves or others. This definition takes the understanding that, because a person is "an addict", they cannot control their behavior. And so, when they are caught engaging in a compulsive behavior, or when they want to purge themselves of the guilt from choosing to engage in that behavior, they openly confess that they have "slipped". They hold tight to the dogma that "slips" are an expected part of their "disease". That now that they have purged themselves of the emotions surrounding this slip, they are free to focus on 'doing the best they can' to manage their behavior in the future. In essence, the slip is the past and they want to focus solely on moving forward. They have openly accepted responsibility for the slip (in a delusional sort of way), but they have learned nothing from it — other than to have subconsciously reinforced the use of slips as as effective 'immediate gratification' source.
Can Permanent Abstinence be Achieved?
Can a person recover from an addiction without ever having a 'slip'? Well yes, they can. But this is rare. Extremely rare. And when it does happen, the individual will force themselves through a period of abstinence that will not feel natural to them — which is why so many commitments to 'absolute abstinence' fall short.
The great majority of people in recovery will slip. That does not mean that you should expect yourself to slip or that slips are inevitable. The healthiest perception of 'slips' is to avoid them by basing every decision that you make on how your values are prioritized. With six months of experience in such decision-making, this is a realistic goal. But now, after spending the majority of your life relying on emotions to guide you, to expect yourself to just 'flip a switch' is unrealistic. To expect you to maintain absolute perfection in your emotional management skills, in your value awareness, in your decision-making from the moment you are exposed to these concepts is unrealistic. And so, you will slip. You will find yourself facing situations for which you are unprepared and you will return to what has already been ingrained: managing the emotions of the situation in the most effective way you know.
Pursuing Abstinence; Not Measuring Success By It
Setting your goals for abstinence is a highly personal choice that will be determined by your personal values and the behavior in question. For starters though, let's assume we are talking about 'any' compulsive behavior. The great majority of people find that when they base their recovery on the goal of maintaining absolute abstinence, they have set themselves up in an 'all or nothing' approach that simply is ineffective in establishing long-term change. Instead, it lays the foundation for the very pressure and emotional instability in which addiction thrives. Early on, the emotions that surround positive choices (e.g. choosing to remain abstinent) are often powerful enough to overcome the intensity of the urge to act out. This choice of abstinence balances out what would have otherwise been balanced only through the compulsive act. Over time though — a with very few exceptions* — the intensity that is achieved by the pursuit of abstinence wanes, and eventually, it is no longer capable of achieving the intensity that the compulsive act produces. And so, a return to the compulsive act ensues. Often, followed by enormous guilt (aka even further emotional instability) and thus, the need for ongoing acting out to help control it. That destructive cycle continues until, usually out of desperation, the choice to again pursue recovery is made and the intensity involved with that choice is renewed.
*The exception to the above is when those rare individuals are able to continue building on the intensity of the emotions derived from the pursuit of abstinence — while at the same time developing a wider, more stable base of values to pursue. Here, the counting of abstinence days has the ability to produce more and more satisfaction — while the other values are being developed. But again, this is rare. For most, such a focus on the abstinence approach to recovery creates only increased pressure.
Does this mean that acting out is okay? Does this mean that abstinence should not be pursued? Of course not. The idea is to use every tool (sincerity, motivation, support, values, coaching, etc.) available to you to pursue such an abstinence. The difference is that you do not evaluate your progress in recovery based on that abstinence. Instead, you measure your recovery based on your motivation, sincerity, effort, honesty, etc. That you see your recovery not in the form of a black and white 'when was the last time that you acted out', but more so in an ongoing, 'where am I in the process of changing my life'?
Examine the Motivation Behind the Slip
Another issue involving slips involves the motivation for those 'slips'. Put simply, if you recognize that you are acting out knowingly and using 'slips' as an excuse to minimize that acting out, you are heading down the wrong path. For instance, if you face a situation where you experience the urge to act in a way that you know is wrong, but you consider things like, "It's been a long time since I've acted out, even if I'm caught it won't be that big of a deal." then you are not pursuing an active recovery. These slips are 'bad', and very little good can come of them. They tend to only create only chaos and instability in your life — whether you are caught or not. You are playing a game.
However, as we have determined, even in the sincerest of recoveries slips occur. Why? Because when a person has developed a pattern of compulsive behavior to help them manage their life, and especially when that pattern has developed into an addiction, that pattern has fused with their identity in many ways. And so, it is often not until they look back at their actions when the reality of a slip has occurred. This is when a complete assessment of the processes that led to the slip is needed and much growth can be achieved. But ONLY when the slip is sincere and not premeditated. Who can judge which is which? Only you. ONLY YOU. If you are going to lie to yourself — play games with yourself...your recovery is a farce anyway. But if you are sincere, and the slips occur because you lack the experience/skills to have acted differently — then take each realization that you have strayed off course and make the most of it. That is the progressive, positive nature of the recovery process. It does not always progress in a positive direction with every step you take, but over the long-run, the cumulative nature of 'five steps forward, one back...ten steps forward, one back...twenty steps forward, none back' will lead you away from addiction.
One final but important issue of slips involves the specific behaviors that people engage in. For one individual, masturbation may be considered a slip — due to their personal religious, moral or destructive patterns. However, for another, masturbation may be a completely normal, healthy part of their sexuality. So, there are such considerations to be made when it comes to slips...and you are the one that needs to identify which behaviors would fall into this category for you. My suggestion in this is to examine the consequences of those behaviors and the reality of them. For the latter, while having the goal of never again having a sexual thought towards anyone but your wife may be an excellent moral goal, is it realistic? No. You will never be able to completely control such behavior — and so, by defining the action as a slip, you are ensuring that the remainder of your life will be filled with guilt, shame and pressure. Masturbation and fantasy are probably the most common 'gray areas' in defining slips. So, unless you have very specific reasons for making such decisions (e.g. religion forbids it), allow yourself to take an open approach in defining these actions. Examine their ongoing consequences, roles and the way they reflect on your own identity. Then begin to make decisions to define the boundaries of such behavior. You can count on this: if you apply artificial rules to your recovery — rules that you do not truly believe in and are not motivated to pursue — you will struggle. Emotionally and otherwise.
How to Manage a Slip
The first step in managing a slip should be intuitive for you: you manage it proactively. You prepare, you anticipate, you practice, you visualize. You master your range of responses in the most likely scenarios that you will face, and you ingrain those responses into your head. You do this methodically, mechanically and relentlessly.
But as already noted, even in the sincerest of recoveries...it is likely that you will slip. That may be two years from now...it may be ten years from now...it may be next week. Chances are, there will come a time when your life grows so out of balance...or that you have become so complacent in managing that life...that you will revert back to making decisions based on your emotional reaction to the situation. What do you do?
Step One: Make yourself aware of the situation and immediately freeze all actions relating to that event. This awareness may come as the result of a crisis, it may come from the compassionate observations of a loved one, it may come spontaneously as you are engaged in the ritual...or it may come from genuine introspection while completing your health monitoring. No matter how the awareness is gained, once you have awoken to what you are doing: freeze yourself. Take no further actions — even if that means that you stop having sex with someone in the middle of the act. You need to take time to extract the emotions from the situation and consciously return to your foundation (your values).
Step Two: Manage the immediate situation. Your goal is to limit the damage that has already been done...and that is always done by ceasing all progression of this compulsive ritual. Consider the skills you learned in relation to measuring compulsive behavior earlier in the workshop. Your goal here is to extract no further stimulation from any element related to that ritual. That means if you are having an affair, you end that affair immediately, permanently and without mercy. To end the affair in such a way as to 'let the person down easy' is to derive additional stimulation from the ritual. To make them think, 'if only...' is to derive additional stimulation from the ritual. (Note: here we are talking about ritualistic, sexual affairs; affairs involving feelings of love, compassion, etc. are significantly more complex and cannot always be so easily dismissed. There will likely be additional considerations and consequences that need to be addressed).
Step Three: Anticipate the consequences of what you have done. With your work in decision-making, this should be straight-forward. Identify not only the overt consequences (e.g. loss of friendships, loss of trust, loss of respect) but the subtle consequences as well (e.g. loss of self-respect, loss of time, loss of potential, the effects of secrecy, etc.). Remember to consider consequences based both on your slip being discovered and it remaining secret.
Step Four: Accept responsibility for your actions. All consequences that have resulted from this 'slip' are yours to embrace — whether you deem them fair or not. Whether they are rational or not. When you make the decision to engage in potentially disruptive behavior...you must accept responsibility for any disruptions that occur. For instance, your wife tells you three years ago that if you ever bring porn back into your home, she will leave you. Yesterday, while using the computer, she comes across a folder containing porn that you had downloaded and she leaves you. You argue that she was being unfair. That it wasn't the same type of porn (Internet) that you promised to stop (magazines). You argue that it had been over three years since she made that threat and that to take such a drastic step is unrealistic. In all of these arguments...you are wrong. They may be reasonable. Heck, they may even be right. But you are still wrong. You are the one who chose to take the risks...and you are the one who must accept the consequences of those risks.
Step Five: Tell someone.
Should you confess it to your spouse? Your counselor? Your coach? Your support group? Your friend? Your brother? That depends.
Should you keep it to yourself? No. No. No.
Who you share your struggles with will depend on the recovery approach you take, and the boundaries/contracts set up with those involved in your recovery. There is no set answer for all. Most people should initially confess their slips to someone they know will offer support and encouragement. A recovery coach, support group or therapist, preferably. A spouse as a last resort (unless a pre-existing contract calls for it). That is not to say that you should lie to your spouse, or "omit the truth"; only that at this stage of managing your slip, you need to understand it first. Put it into perspective. Prepare yourself for not only the consequences of that slip, but for accepting those consequences with dignity. Eventually, you will want to share your slip with your partner. Perhaps not the details, but certainly the instability. Your partner has a right to know and, if you truly value partnership, your partner needs to know.
But there are exceptions...
What I share with you on Recovery Nation is not intended to be politically correct. It is what I know to be true after witnessing tens of thousands of individuals and couples heal (and not heal) from sexual addiction. There are rare times when the severity of the behavior in question would dictate that you keep this behavior from your partner. That ongoing secrecy is necessary to avoid the certain and immediate destruction of the marriage. Or, when the stability of the people involved would be incapable of handling that information. But again, these times are rare. Partners who come to understand sexual addiction in a functional way, have the ability to put even the most bizarre sexual behaviors into perspective. So don't underestimate their capacity for compassion and understanding. And, don't ever make the decision to 'keep it a secret' on your own. Share your behavior with a person that you trust to offer you objective feedback...and explore this option if you are considering it. But, be forewarned, maintaining secrecy from your partner — even when those secrets never come to light — comes with great cost. And should those secrets come to light? Forget it. The potential for building a healthy partnership is nearly nil.
Step Six: Learn.
Examine what factors led to the slip...and learn from them. Examine the decisions you made while engaged in the slip that allowed it to continue...and learn from them. Examine how others that you respect might have handled that same situation...and learn from them. Slips are not necessary for learning to occur, but learning from slips is an absolute requirement.
Lesson 61 Exercise:
The further you get in the workshop, the less and less you will be asked to share with others. This is not because you shouldn't share these things, it is only to ease the transition of independence and self-guidance. And so, you share whatever thoughts, experiences and/or efforts you have with managing slips. Or, share nothing. It is completely up to you.
1. Establishing a healthy vision for one's life is the single most important tool a person can develop in their recovery. That single vision — when backed by clarity — is capable of serving as both the beacon for change and, a means of contrasting what is healthy and what is a threat. Most people's visions, unless they put forth an extraordinary initial effort, require feedback in one of the following ways:
i) Their vision is too limited in scope
ii) Their vision is too idealistic
iii) Their vision is too general/specific
Those with a limited vision will focus on two or three main areas of their life (e.g. career, marriage and family). By this time, you should know that no life can be sustained with stability and fulfillment by such a limited, top-heavy approach. Instead, a foundation of separate values must be established.
Those with an idealistic vision will list many of their top values as abstract concepts such as 'integrity', 'honor', 'respect'. These are indeed values — and important ones. But if this is all their vision consists of, it will be very difficult for them to gain practical clarity in pushing their lives forward. Instead, practical values such as "my relationship with X" and "spirituality" and "being in the outdoors" are far more useful in establishing clarity.
Those with a vision that is too general is one that, if you read it, could potentially have come from just about any stranger off the street. It is full of staple values with very little personality. A vision must be personal. When I read visions, I want to get an idea for the life that this person wants to live. I want to get a sense that I am inside their head — getting a peek at their unique personality. "I want to be honest. I want to live a healthy life. I want my family to respect me." These are too general — when these are all that is shared. On the other hand, "I want music to play a part of my life every day. I want to write a book of poetry that I can give to my kids as a means of teaching them about life. I want to coach my daughter's softball team. I want my wife to know that I cherish her." These are all practical and specific.
Finally, those visions that are too specific are tailored predominately towards a few main values. This is a bit different that their vision being limited in scope — as here, they tend to take those few main values (wife and kids, for example)...and base most of their vision on expanding the values associated with those two entities.
An ideal vision needs to be both general and specific, idealistic and practical. Very few are and so, it provides us with many teaching opportunities. The idea here isn't to demand academic perfection, but to get people thinking about their vision as a useful tool, not just an exercise.
2. Consider your current vision. See how it has evolved from it's initial state (Lesson Two). See which areas of this vision continue to guide you, which you have come to evolve, which you have come to neglect and which are now irrelevant.
3. Use the insights from #2 to offer feedback to at least two people's visions. It doesn't matter if they are new to the workshop or not. If they are new, offer direct feedback relating to the practicality and clarity of their vision. If they are far beyond Lesson Two, spontaneously encourage them to examine their original vision to see how connected to it they remain. The only people you should avoid here would be those who are within one to three weeks of posting that original vision — unless NO ONE has previously offered them initial feedback on that vision.