In the field of addictions and in most recovery communities, it is commonly accepted that the point in a person’s life at which we began abusing substances is the point at which we stopped growing mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We refer to this as “arrested development” and it explains the emotional immaturity that is common among those in active addiction and early recovery. We are relatively self-centered people who are resistant to change.
The overwhelming majority of addictions are rooted in our inability and/or unwillingness to identify, express, and cope with our full range of emotions. Even as we maintain enormous responsibilities externally, most of us, if brutally honest, would admit to feeling like scared little kids in overgrown bodies. This explains in large part why we’re so successful as chameleons–in the absence of well-established and mature identities, we adjust our personas to suit each situation. We become who others want us to be.
Where It Starts
Children emulate the behavior of their caregivers. This is natural. The most efficient means of seeking approval is to behave as those we seek approval from. In healthy families, the child is accepted and loved unconditionally. As such they are free to progressively develop a strong sense of self, independent of their family unit. This process occurs through the normative adolescent developmental stage of rebellion.
Unfortunately, many of us grew up in families in which developmental stages were impinged upon by the presence of other’s addictions and/or abuse and neglect. Some of us rebelled silently and self-destructively, while some of us never rebelled at all and became caregivers.
In the absence of healthy individuation processes, we were never free to consciously chose our own beliefs and values. Rather, our identities and guiding principles became things like, “Don’t be like them. Be the opposite of them.” Of course, there is no freedom in this approach. Worse, the only way to be the opposite of an extreme is to go to the contrary extreme. Even more devastating is the fact that through the course of addiction, many of us became exactly what we hated.
In the Absence of Chosen Beliefs & Values
I worked with a young man recently who in a sense represents us all. He maintains two perspectives, two ways of judging, and two ways of treating others: One for himself and a second for everyone else. He rejects the beliefs and values of his family of origin and yet applies them in evaluating and critiquing himself. He refers to it as, “being hard on myself.” When I ask him to imagine judging and speaking to someone else the way he speaks to himself, he sees that it would be abusive to do so.
The goal then is to have one lens–one way of judging and assessing. Every addict and alcoholic has strong intuitive skills. Our ability to see who others truly are is uncanny. It is only ourselves we see through a distorted perception.
The Simple Solution
In the midst of early recovery, we find that we barely know our true selves at all. Folks often tell me they need to “find” themselves. What this means is to believe that we once knew with significant clarity who we were and that we can regain that sense of self. In most cases, this was in another lifetime, if ever. I believe George Bernard Shaw said it best: “Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
There’s a wise recovery adage that says, “We need to get out of ourselves in order to find ourselves.” This works in two powerful ways. First, by being of service to others, we learn about ourselves (there is far more that unites us than divides us and most of us are “terminally unique”). Second, we learn to accept and integrate the insights of healthy people about our worth and our character in the belief that they see us far more accurately than we do.
The Hardest Part
The most challenging aspect of recovery for many of us is, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” We became accustomed to pretending that we know what we’re doing. In early recovery, we’re frequently confronted with everything we don’t know. If we can muster the humility to simply ask for what we need, we won’t waste time reinventing the wheel and can readily adopt the skills and insights needed to be successful in all of our affairs.
Shame is an addict/alcoholic’s worst enemy. It will leave us pushing away the very people who want to help us. We must keep at the forefront of our thoughts that regardless of how we feel about ourselves, it helps our peers to help us. Bear in mind too that our peers are not saints; they have pasts similar to ours. Give them the chance to pay it forward. Just like love, the only way to keep recovery is to give away.
Jim LaPierre LCSW, CCS, is a recovery ally, clinical therapist, and addictions counselor. He publishes weekly for the Recovery Rocks section for the Bangor Daily News and welcomes your questions and concerns via email@example.com.