Shadow work is scary stuff

I was about ready to scream.  I’d begun to work through a Ken Wilber shadow integration exercise when I could feel my frustration and anger reaching the shouting stage.   It was bizarre because I rarely get to this point.

 

Then it came to me: it wasn’t Wilber’s exercise itself that had angered me.  It was my ego-mind’s panic about what I was undertaking.  The ego does not want me to get into the shadow elements of my unconscious mind—you know, those parts you’ve hidden from yourself.   My ego likes things just as they are.   Even if the shadow is causing suffering in my life, my ego does all it can to keep me from shining a light on what it has kept in the dark.

 

I see the ego as a barrier between my conscious mind and my unconscious mind.  It’s like the floor between my living space and my basement.  My ego tells me that there is nothing I need from the basement so why go down there.

 

Over the years, I have come to respect how my ego tries to protect me and how it is key to my survival in the world.  But if I am going to thrive rather than just survive, I feel compelled to integrate all parts of myself.  This means facing the unsavory shadow parts of myself that I have locked away in the basement of my unconscious mind.

 

I was still torn though.  While my ego violently objected, Wilber’s words implored me on.  I was at a painful choice point.  Will I be a man or will I be a mouse?

 

Wilber says if you don’t own our shadow, you will be “owned by it.”  This means letting “your disowned drives and feelings shape your life outcomes, entirely apart from your conscious choices.”

 

“Dammit,” I said out loud. “I’m not going to let my shadow push me around!”

 

I continued to read Wilber’s words to steel myself:  “The energy it takes to animate and repress shadow elements and keep them out of awareness is the same energy that cannot be available for developing to the next stage of potential…we must come back into association with that quarantined aspect of the self.  In other words, we enter into relationship with that which was disowned.”

 

Like presenting an FBI profile on some crazed killer, Wilber had informed me how to recognize the shadow:  “It makes you negatively hypersensitive, easily triggered, reactive, irritated, angry, hurt, or upset.  Or it may keep coming up as an emotional tone or mood that pervades your life.”

 

“Crap! I’ve got this shadow stuff bad,” I said to myself.

 

Then I suddenly felt compelled to act.  With Wilber’s 3-2-1 Shadow Process in hand and the cry “I’m going in!” echoing in the room, I descended the “stairs” to face my shadow…And I am so glad I did.

 

Below is Wilber’s process as I have adapted it from his book Integral Life Practice.  I followed the process on my own and then took it to the men’s group I belong to where we took turns applying it.

 

The Shadow Process:

  1. Face it.

Imagine the difficult person sitting in a chair opposite you. Observe that person very closely, and describe the person using 3rd person pronouns like “he,” “him,” “she,” “her.”   This is your opportunity to explore what it is that bothers you about that person.  Don’t hold back—be raw and real as you state out loud your criticisms of this person.  Take the time to describe them fully and in as much detail as possible.

 

  1. Talk to it.

Enter into a simulated dialogue referring to this person as “you” and “your.”  Talk directly to him or her.  Bring a sense of curiosity to your questions.  You may start by asking questions like “Why do you treat people the way you do?  Why are you so defensive?  Why are you so hostile? What happened to you?”  Answer each question you asked by playing the role of that person.  Imagine what the person would say and say that out loud. Allow yourself to be surprised by what emerges in the conversation.

 

  1. Be it.

Now, using the pronouns “I,” “me,” and “mine,” become the person that is sitting in front of you.  See the world, including yourself, entirely from his or her perspective, allowing yourself to discover not only your similarities but how you really are one and the same.  Finally, make a statement of identification: “I am___________” or  “___________ is me.”  Take time to sit with that statement.  The statement will feel “wrong” because it is what you have been busy denying.  However, be willing to try it on for size since it contains at least a kernel of truth.  Find three examples of how that statement is true in your life.

 

The last step of integrating your shadow is to fully re-own it.  Don’t just see the world from the perspective of your shadow for a brief moment; deeply feel the reality of this new awareness for however long it takes to resonate clearly as your own.  Then engage it and integrate it until it becomes you.

 

Wilber says, “You’ll know that the process has worked because you’ll actually feel lighter, freer, more peaceful and open, and sometimes even high or giddy. It makes a new kind of participation in life possible.”

 

Those words rang true for me. I can say with confidence that this is a powerful process.  I really did feel a sense of peace and wholeness when I was finished with it.  Those in my men’s group found it very effective, too.

 

If you’d like to engage this life-altering process, go to my Facebook page where I have posted an example session that also includes my recommendations for the process.   Go to https://www.facebook.com/RJHandleyLifeCoaching.

 

I would love to hear your feedback about the Shadow Process, if you have a moment, so I can make it better!

 

My Best,

RJ Handley

Spiritual Life Coach

 

Unhooking from Your Negative Thoughts

One of the biggest issues in life is dealing with thoughts that really push us around.  All of us have these. The most common is the thought that says, “I’m not good enough.”  There are variations on the theme like “I’m defective,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not worthy.”

 

These are all part of a story we have been telling ourselves for years.  For those of us new to recovery, these thoughts can really get crankin’.  (Stay with me to discover techniques that will cut the connection with these tormenting thoughts.)

 

The problem is not that we have negative thoughts; it’s getting hooked by them.  When we allow this to happen, we are immediately hijacked from what we are doing in the present moment.  One minute we’re talking with a loved one and the next we are miles away reliving a negative experience from our past.  All courtesy of these hijacking thoughts.

 

I know all too well how much anxiety and pain these thoughts cause.  So I understand the importance of getting out from under their spell.  So what do we do about them?

 

Some self-helpers will try to smother them with affirmations.  Others will argue with them or try to disprove them. Still others will roll up their sleeves and get in the trenches to fight them.  Research shows that these techniques produce a rebound effect that only  intensifies these thoughts later.  Then we find ourselves, one again, in the emotional dumpster.

 

At some point, we will say, “They’re beating the hell out of me.”  And in that moment, we have struck upon truth!

 

That truth is that these thoughts are like a playground bully, separate from who we are.  The key word here is SEPARATE.  We are not our thoughts.  Once that ray of light has entered our minds, we are ready for radical approach that allows us to be free from these tormentors and live a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.

 

Drumroll…This approach is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  And it has helped me as well as my clients tremendously.  Another tidbit of good news is you can do this with or without a therapist or coach.

 

The biggest concept that ACT deals with is fusion.  That’s what I have been talking about in this post.  It’s when we get hooked by a negative thought. In ACT language, this is called fusion.

 

All of us get pulled around by our mouths from time to time with thoughts that hook us.  What I want to teach you is how to get unhooked—or defused.  The way that we do this is to change our relationship to our thoughts so we’re not controlled by them.

 

Try this simple exercise to see what I mean.  It’s courtesy of Russ Harris, a leading practitioner of ACT.  It’s called Thoughts as Hands:

  1. Imagine that out in front of you are all the people you love, all the things you cherish, all your challenges, and all the tasks that you have to do.
  2. Your hands are your thoughts and feelings
  3. Bring your hands up until they cover your eyes and mask your vision. Keep your eyes open.
  4. Look around and notice the things that you’re missing out on because your hands are over your eyes.
  5. Notice how difficult it is to focus on, connect with, and engage with these things in front of you.
  6. Notice how difficult it is to take action—to do the things that make your life worthwhile.
  7. Now, lower your hands, and put them by your sides. See how much easier it is to focus, to connect, to act.
  8. Realize that our thoughts and feelings—our hands—still exist. They have useful information to tell you now that they’re just resting beside you rather than blocking you from your life in the present moment.

 

Through this exercise, you have created a new relationship with your thoughts: it is the  subject/object relationship in which you are the subject and your thought is the object.  As subject, you have become the observer self because you are watching your thoughts as though they are characters interacting on a stage.  It’s important to note that we are not avoiding our thoughts or trying to get rid of them—we are distancing ourselves from them so they don’t prevent us from engaging with what we truly value in our lives.

 

Harris recommends that you follow the Thoughts as Hands exercise up with techniques that help you to defuse from your thoughts. To begin, think of a thought that has recently hooked you and name it.  Then say, “I am having the thought that…” and state the name of the thought, such as, “I’m not worthy.” Follow that up with, “I notice I am having the thought that…”

 

Just saying these two sentences creates a little separation from the thought.  You’re now experiencing the beginning of the defusion process.  To increase the defusion, bring a little humor into play. Below are some techniques Harris suggests for any thought that has hooked you. Again, start with the two sentences from above to create some initial defusion and then do one or more of these exercises Harris suggests:

 

  1. Say the thought in a funny voice over and over again.
  2. Say it with a foreign accent.
  3. Sing the thought to the tune of one of your favorite songs.
  4. Project the thought onto a mental screen and imagine a karaoke ball bouncing along the words.
  5. Project the thought onto a mental screen and put it in some crazy fonts.

 

One of the best techniques for defusion it to imagine yourself sitting above a river and placing the negative thought on a leaf.  Just watch it move along the river.  Don’t talk to it.  Just silently let it float by.  Or put the thought on a cloud and watch it drift away.

It’s my hope that you experience a new relationship with your thoughts.  It may be that as you defuse from a thought that you can now also see the positive in a former negative memory that keeps generating the thought.  As you practice defusion, you will find that you become more and more present to your life. And you’ll find that you are increasingly empowered by what’s important in your life rather than being disempowered by your dark thoughts and feelings.

 

Have fun!

RJ Handley

Spiritual Life Coach

Relationships and Early Sobriety

Relationships with other people are one of life’s greatest challenges, especially for those of us new to recovery.

 

This is the reason why we learn in AA to avoid romantic relationships during the first year of our recovery.  Although establishing them may be one of our greatest achievements in recovery, the challenge of an intimate relationship is too great for us in our fragile first year.

 

Many of us have returned to the dumpster of addiction because we ventured into romance before we were ready. Recovery is as much about getting healthy as it is about getting real.  By getting real I mean facing the sources of our pain and misery.  For years—even decades—we have shielded ourselves from pain through drugs and alcohol.  The beauty of pain is that it provides the catalyst for change.

 

When that pain reaches a critical threshold, non-addicts summon the courage to finally change their ways.  For the addict, however, the pain that would normally provide transformation is numbed out by alcohol and drugs.  That is why—if we are being truly honest with ourselves—we addicts are all emotionally immature.

 

Bill Wilson was acutely aware of this.  In “Emotional Sobriety,” published in a 1958 edition AA Grapevine, Bill W. confides in us about his demands for approval, prestige, and security from others.  “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually.”   It took Bill W. nearly 20 years after his last drink to face the pain and suffering these demands caused himself and others.

 

By denying our pain, we have denied our own growth.  So how can we take on the ultimate life challenge—intimate relationship—when we lack emotional maturity, the very thing that makes relationships work?   And how can we be truly intimate with another when we have never been emotionally intimate with ourselves?

 

The answer is the AA meeting.  For many of us, we walk through the doors of AA for the first time very alone in the world.  If our friends and loved ones haven’t washed their hands of us, then we have done the job for them through isolating, one of the addict’s favorite defenses against pain—and growth.  One of the greatest gifts of AA comes from meetings. They are the classrooms for emotional maturity.

 

In them, we discover the power of connection.  We come to the truth that we can’t stay sober on our own.  But this discovery is the easy part.  Then we must do the heavy lifting.  And that is clearing away all the stones we have put in the wall between us and other people—to finally be vulnerable.  Without vulnerability, people cannot connect with us. Without connection, we cannot experience deep relationship, which is ultimately the source of all our cravings.

 

Yes, vulnerability involves heavy lifting. But we get the help we need in meetings when AA veterans show us through their sharing what vulnerability looks like.  And it is a thing of absolute beauty.

 

This modeling of vulnerability gives us the confidence to do the same in meetings.  And if we can be vulnerable in meetings, we can be vulnerable in our relationships outside meetings.  But before we venture into the advanced coursework of intimate relationship, we must get the practice in connection and vulnerability we need with the friends we meet in the classrooms of AA.

 

Incentive powers personal growth.  One of the greatest incentives is relationships.  And for good reason.  They are the fastest path to personal growth.  Other people are mirrors that show us how we are playing in the world.  Those mirrors reveal to us the blind spots that have created so much division within ourselves and between ourselves and others.  These blind spots are the reason we have continually stumbled on our path to emotional maturity.  Bill W. learned this lesson in his own life.

 

So we need to heed the advice of our AA elders to chop wood and carry water during our first year of recovery.  Through the 12 Steps and the friendships we form in AA, we develop the emotional tools we need to finally become successful in the ultimate challenge of our lives.

 

And the sublime beauty of intimate relationship is the ultimate payoff for all the blood, sweat, and tears it took to embrace it.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

My Fugitive Ways

During a recent conversation with my sister, she asked me why I devote so much time to studying psychology.  “Don’t you get tired of staring at your own asshole?’ At first I was taken aback by the blunt crudeness of my sister.  Then I laughed and told her this:

 

For so much of my life I have run away from my own issues.  It started in high school when I used alcohol to separate myself from myself.  In that space, I was able to distance myself from that hurt, lonely boy that I disliked to become the carefree, outgoing person I wanted to be.  Drinking was like climbing into a superhero outfit.   The introverted, troubled Peter Parker became the valiant Spider-man.  If only temporarily.

 

For the next 30 years, I would use alcohol to live in a fantasy world where my problems couldn’t touch me.  The more my buried pain cried out to be heard, the more I ran away from it.  I became a fugitive from my pain.

 

Finally, with my business in the dumps, with my wife threatening to leave me, and with bankruptcy looming, I stopped running and I walked through the doors of AA. There I learned that I was only as sick as my secrets.  And I had many.

 

The Fourth Step was a miracle for me.  It forced me to face a life I had put together with bullshit and scotch tape.  Rather than running away, I ran towards my problems. I felt the power that honesty and fearlessness had in freeing me from my pain and from my lies.  Now, years later, I live a truth:  The degree of my liberation is dependent on the depth of my investigation.

 

I ended my reply to my sister’s question by saying, “So, no. When I am aware of what is coming out of me, I am aware of what’s inside of me.”

 

My Higher Power has given me the fearlessness to continue looking within.   As Carl Jung says, “Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.”  When we run away from our Selves and try to avoid pain through our addictions, we are asleep to who we are.  When we embrace the Divine and open our Selves to the practical tools psychology has to offer, we can finally awaken from the false realities we have been living.

 

And to be wide awake in reality is to be wide awake in splendor.

 

Kind Regards,

 

RJ Handley

The Letter that Revealed Bill W’s Dependencies

One of the most influential reads in my early recovery was Bill W’s “Emotional Sobriety.”  Published in a 1958 edition of the AA Grapevine, Bill writes about his battles with dependency. This time it is not about dependency on alcohol but dependency on approval, security, and prestige.

These dependencies, as Bill reveals in this letter, created much suffering in his life. “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually,” Bill admits in this powerful letter.

Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, “Emotional Sobriety” allows us again to spend time with the man who Time magazine recognized as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century.

And little wonder.  Empowered by his own wounds, this is a man who led from the front and walked the talk that would save countless millions from the debilitating despair of addiction.  In “Emotional Sobriety,” Bill W. lives the values that he preached in the Big Book: honesty, humility, faith, and service.

In this letter, Bill speaks of the impossible expectations he held for himself and others that led to his severe bouts with depression. Torn between his unconscious “fears, compulsions and phony aspirations” and the spiritual awakening of the 12 Steps, Bill agonized over why the program didn’t work to release him from his own depression.

Finally, according to this letter, his answer came to him one day as he stared at a line from the Prayer of St. Francis:  “It’s better to comfort than to be the comforted.” Suddenly, in an epiphany, Bill realized the problem.

“My basic flaw had always been dependence—almost absolute dependence—on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like.  Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression,” as he says in the letter.

From his spiritual development and the “Grace I could secure in prayer,” Bill found that he would experience little joy unless he could cut away these “fatal dependencies.”

“Plainly, I could not avail myself of God’s love until I was able to offer it back to Him by loving others as He would have me.”  As long as false dependencies gripped him, Bill understood that the glimmer of emotional maturity and adult love would elude him.

In the light of this truth, Bill recognized that emotional stability came from offering love to the drunk stranger on his doorstep while demanding nothing in return.  Expectations, he discovered, are premeditated resentments.

“If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent demand. Let us, with God’s help, continually surrender these hobbling demands.”

Only then, he says, can we be set free to live and love.  Only then are we able to Twelfth Step ourselves and others into emotional sobriety.

As Bill confronted his dependencies, his letter encourages us to do the same.  “Emotional Sobriety” is really about clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of our emotional health, our conscious connection to God, and our service to the still suffering addict.

So you can experience the entirety of this two and a half page letter, I encourage you to locate a copy of “Emotional Sobriety” online.

As a recovering alcoholic myself, I will be forever grateful to God for choosing Bill W. as spokesman for addiction issues.  To me, the Big Book is a masterpiece, not only because it provided the first published pathway for recovery but also provided us with a truly exemplary guide who we meet again in this letter.

May you also find emotional sobriety.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

Understanding Addiction as a Habit, Not a Disease

There are many forms of addiction.  Though drugs and alcohol are the Big Two, there are people who suffer as well from addictions that society considers more benign.  They’re called shopaholics, workaholics, rageaholics.  Others would say that the ultimate addiction is to our own negative thinking.

 

Whatever the addiction, we all know that they can wreak havoc in our own lives and those of our family and friends.  The concepts behind Rational Recovery, a relative newcomer to the addiction scene, combined with those of Alcoholics Anonymous can be a powerful one-two punch for overcoming addiction.

 

As a recovering addict myself, I have been puzzled why it is that I became addicted while those around me appear free from them.  In AA, I learned that my addiction is a disease.  Rational Recovery, on the other hand, says that my addiction is a function of my brain’s wiring.  It is, therefore, a habit, not a disease.

 

Although I often feel compelled to take a side in this debate, I believe that it is vitally important for me to remain open and willing to listen to both sides.  This is because I have a passion and commitment to helping others overcome their addictions as I have been helped to overcome my own.  I will use whatever ethical means to bring relief to the still suffering.  If this means that I embrace an approach different from the one that saved me from my addiction, then I will suggest it to my clients or sponsees who I am committed to helping.

 

As I have learned from my Buddhist brothers and sisters, often the best solution to a problem is not choosing one side over another but choosing the door between them—the middle way.

 

I am convinced that if I hadn’t walked through the doors of AA a decade ago, I would be dead today.  But, at the time, that was the only solution I knew.  And I know through my work with addicts, that AA has saved their lives, too.  Yet, there is merit in considering what Rational Recovery has to offer.  After all, there may be great power and value in learning from both so that I will be better able to extend a hand and help lift addicts from the trenches of their addiction.

 

Just recently I read The Little Book of Big Change, by Dr. Amy Johnson.  In it, Johnson explains the concepts behind Rational Recovery and provides her wisdom on the topic of habits in a very easy and entertaining way.  Rather than trying to condense its 200 pages into this blog, I will present the concepts that I believe are the most helpful to addicts.

 

  • Addictions are habits.

 

  • You weren’t born with your habit. Your habit isn’t natural to you; it is artificial, innocently created by you as a function of the way you relate to and act on your thoughts.

 

  • We engage in what becomes habit to help us avoid pain and make us feel better. Habits provide distractions from addressing issues within ourselves that we don’t like.

 

  • Urges (cravings) are thoughts. Habits/addictions are created because you act on your urges.

 

  • The difference between a person for whom a particular thought or behavior is a habit and the person for whom it is not is that the person with the habit entertains, takes seriously, and ultimately acts on some thoughts that others do not.

 

  • Each time we obey an urge, we strengthen the brain (neural) circuitry that supports the habit.

 

  • Neurologically, your urges live in your lower brain—the amygdala—also called the lizard brain because it is the oldest part of the brain.

 

  • The first few times you experienced an urge and obeyed it, you strengthened the connections in your brain between your habit and positive feelings. Your lower brain saw that when it produced an urge, you acted on it and felt good, which told your brain, “This works”…So the urges continue. Each time you gave in to them, they became stronger.

 

  • The amygdala’s chief concern is our survival. That’s why urges seem to have the power of life or death over us.

 

  • When you mistakenly view urges as dangerous, personal, unbearable, or somehow permanent, you naturally give in to them.

 

  • Urges are actually only a temporary experience made of nothing but conditioned thought.

 

  • All thoughts are temporary—even urges—and they settle just like the snow settles in a snow globe if we don’t continue to shake it up.

 

  • When we take urges seriously and very personally, we try to reason with them, debate them, and problem-solve them. We are shaking the snow globe. Our mental and emotional entanglement with these thoughts only encourages them.

 

  • When we don’t indulge the urge, the neural connections to those urges weaken and fade on their own from disuse. This defies our programming from childhood because we have learned that problems require action—not inaction. So inaction seems very counter-intuitive, but it is what’s needed.

 

  • The higher brain, located in the prefrontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lizard brain’s urges or not.

 

  • We don’t make the lizard brain the villain. It is like a machine that is programmed to do its job.  In that way, it is like an alarm clock.  The amygdala sounds the alarm because we continually reset it by indulging its urgings.

 

  • We don’t have to say yes to urges from the lizard brain. Our higher brains provide the free will to exercise free won’t.

 

  • Knowing that there is no thought or urge in the world that can make you do anything is a game changer.

 

  • When your new normal is urge-free, your habit will have no reason to exist.

 

After reading about Rational Recovery, I have come to believe in its truth.  And I find that its concepts are actually invaluable to the treatment of addiction  because Rational Recovery explains the neurological roots of addiction.

For those of us who are addicts, we know how difficult it is to overcome addiction.  For me, I needed the strength and wisdom of my Higher Power to free myself.  I also needed the support of my AA brothers and sisters to remain committed to that freedom that sobriety brings.  So the spiritual solution and support that AA offers combined with the deeper understanding of addiction that Rational Recovery offers are powerful tools for recovery.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

Why Advice Hurts Others

Unsolicited advice implicitly says, “I’m offering you a solution because you’re incapable of coming up with a good one on your own.”

 

Yes, it’s very difficult to watch loved ones make a mistake.  Often, we rush in with both guns blazing, trying to save a person from what we perceive as an error in judgment.  It’s especially difficult for those of us who have a long history of advice giving.  It seems like there is an unstated moral imperative that we use the wisdom we’ve learned from our own mistakes to save others from their mistakes.

 

And that’s a problem.  When we offer others unsolicited advice, we are not only implying they are incapable of making good decisions for themselves but also depriving them of an opportunity for personal growth. The hidden power of mistakes is that they are the very ore from which wisdom is produced.  It is the alchemy of turning the base metals of error into something precious—and lasting.

 

Before offering unsolicited advice, we may want to ask ourselves, “Would I really want to deprive another of what created my own wisdom?  And can I really be confident that what I believe is right is also right for another person?”

 

Consider this as well.  When we offer unsolicited advice, two things may result: shame and blame.  People may feel shame because unsolicited advice is inherently saying that the other person’s decision making skills are poor.   Also, unsolicited advice can harm a relationship because when someone takes your advice and things turn out badly, who are they going to blame?

 

For those of us who are ambivalent about unsolicited advice, we often rationalize our decision to give it by combining it with one of our “pearls of wisdom.” However, wisdom is contextual and, therefore, subjective because it is based on our own limited interactions with life.  Even though wisdom feels like ultimate truth, it really conforms to a formula: my knowledge + my experience = my wisdom.  Not anyone else’s. 

 

So what’s the alternative?  After all, we want to help those we care about.

 

Spiritual author and self-help guru Byron Katie says that whenever she is asked for advice, she responds: “I have no idea what you should do.  I can only share what worked for me.  Are you interested in hearing that?”

 

The honesty and humility inherent in Katie’s response invites others to consider our experience as a possible solution without the pitfalls of unsolicited advice.

 

Another useful technique in avoiding unsolicited advice comes from my own work with the ManKind Project, an international group of men committed to developing greater emotional intelligence (EQ).  I have learned that when someone has given me the honor of listening to his or her issue, I briefly pause to ask, “Do you want me to just listen or to listen and help you come up with solutions?”

 

As a former “advice provider,” I have been seduced by my desire to solve other people’s problems.  It’s easy to assume that when sharing a difficult issue with us, people want our advice.  Men are especially prone to the temptation to immediately fix the person or situation.  Although we have heard women say from the advent of language that they “just want to be listened to,” we find it extremely difficult to avoid jumping in to solve the problem.

 

As an enlightened male, Buddhist monk and Nobel Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, says that we listen to others with compassion rather than judgment in order to relieve another’s suffering. We listen with only one purpose: to allow that person to “empty his heart.”  And we remember that we “are helping that person to suffer less even if what he is saying is full of misperceptions or bitterness.”

 

Then what about the misperceptions?  He suggests that we set aside another time to address those—if, in fact, that is what the person is seeking from us.

 

There is also great wisdom to be found on the advice frontier from support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.  Members are taught to share their “experience, strength, and hope” rather than their advice when working with others who are still suffering. Addiction to our own negative thinking has a way of making us all members of the “still suffering” whether we consider ourselves addicts or not. Key to their approach is valuing and respecting other people, recognizing that “we are all equals, but we are not the same” (Al-Anon’s Twelves Steps & Twelve Tradition).

 

When operating from the belief that others are equal but not the same as us, we are less likely to impose our advice on them.

 

But habits are often difficult to break.  And advice giving is no different.  To prevent us from slipping back into automatic advice mode, Katie suggests asking ourselves three-questions: “Am I in their business? Did they ask me for my advice? And, more importantly, can I take the advice I am offering and apply it to my life?”

 

A motif common to all the advice-busting techniques presented here is time.  When feeling the urge to give unsolicited advice, pause and take a moment to consider its pitfalls. That momentary “time out” is all you need to apply the technique that will help bring about the greatest good for each person —friend, family, or colleague—who has honored you by confiding in you.

 

In sharing this blog with you, I hope I haven’t violated my own intentions.  It seems that it’s an inescapable irony that in writing about unsolicited advice that I have given it.  But it is my hope that by joining me in this article, that you have implicitly given me permission to share these insights and techniques regarding uninvited advice.  You may find that as you become more sensitive and skillful in helping those who have confided in you, that they may return the favor.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

 

 

 

 

Finding Joy in the Routine

My life used to be a very on again off again experience. It was like my life was on pause when I did routine tasks such as grocery shopping, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or paying bills.  When these tasks were over, my real life would resume.  These were commercial interruptions to the meaningful things of my life.   As a result, I suffered through these tasks or, at best, endured them.

 

The reality is that our daily lives are often filled with routine tasks.   And this was a problem for me because I didn’t like doing those things. Consequently, a large part of my daily life was joyless.   I was doing things just to get them done.  When these chores were done, then I would have a few hours left in the day when I could feel I was actually living my life.

 

My perspective changed dramatically, though, about six months ago when I read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth.  And that book connected to something my AA sponsor said to me years ago.

 

In A New Earth, Tolle addresses the way many of us live fragmented lives.  Life is not about what we are doing, Tolle says, but how we are doing it.  Whenever we see what we are doing as an impediment to our real lives, we approach it with resistance.  And that causes suffering.   Reality conforms to our thinking, so what I dread becomes dreadful.

 

Oftentimes for me, I don’t integrate ideas, even powerful ones, into my life until I connect them with other powerful ideas.  When they come together, it is an epiphany.  And these are life-changing events for me.  This happened while I was reading Tolle.  I remembered my sponsor’s words to me.  I was complaining about having to go home and mow the lawn.  I had nearly lost my job, my wife, and my house because of my drinking.  My sponsor said to me, “Instead of thinking that you have to mow the lawn, think that you get to mow the lawn.  You are blessed to have a lawn to mow.”  Those words got me through that task and many others for a while, but as time passed, I forgot them.

 

Then, as I was reading Tolle recently, my sponsor’s words came rushing back to me.  As Tolle’s words and my sponsor’s words converged into an epiphany, their wisdom found a permanent place within me.  Because I am no longer dying to my drinking, I get to do the tasks that are before me.  That was what my sponsor was saying. Tolle takes it a step further.  Don’t just do a task; pour your consciousness—your full attention—into it.

 

What I have discovered is that when I pour my consciousness into what I am doing, I immediately turn the stage lighting up on it.  I become more and more aware of all the wonderful sensations involved in the task.  For example, I used to hate grocery shopping.  Now, I look forward to it.  It’s because I have poured my consciousness into the present moment at the grocery store rather than thinking about what I could be doing instead.

 

Now when I am grocery shopping, I am in awe of all the produce that comes from so many different parts of the world, their vibrant colors, the wonderful smells of these fruits and vegetables, the appealing display of all these things.  It’s really is a thing of beauty.  But when I am resisting the shopping and withdraw my consciousness from the experience, it loses its luster and fades to drabness.

 

The key here is to pour your consciousness into whatever you are doing.  And that begins by noticing.  Notice the sights, the sounds, the smells, the texture of all the things associated with the task.  Feel your body respond and delight in the work.

 

So how can you get your consciousness to pour into what you are doing?  Tolle says there are three ways:  acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm.

 

Acceptance is the opposite of resistance to a task.  And just moving from resistance to acceptance can be a life-changer.  “Our performing an action in the state of acceptance means you are at peace while you do it; it is surrendered action,” says Tolle.

 

When we move from acceptance to enjoyment, the stage lighting turns up some more.  We become more attuned and aligned with the task. We perceive what we are doing with a sense of joy.   In a sense, we are consciously joined with the task.  We are no longer just enduring it; it becomes what we want to keep doing.

 

This sense is further expanded and intensified when we move from enjoyment to enthusiasm.  “Sustained enthusiasm brings into existence a wave of creative energy, and all you have to do then is ‘ride the wave.’” Tolle says.

 

Like all tasks in our lives, we have a choice about what attitude we bring to them.  Whether we love or dread the task, we still need to do it.  Why not choose to accept it and pour yourself into it?   You may find that it becomes something that you enjoy—maybe even something that you become enthused about doing.  And that can bring a great deal of joy to all the parts of your day.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ

Five stress factors that can lead to relapse

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.  Oh, that wonderful vicarious feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

 

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living.  All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

 

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted.  So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work.  On and on.  Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood.   It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it.  When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it.  This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

 

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components.  The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

 

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power.  To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.  When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level.  I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad.  They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stressor is fighting change. There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.”  That was me until a few years ago.  Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering. During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.”  I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

 

The three external stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people.  Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation.  Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned.  I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

 

The second external stressor is lack of control.  That was a huge one for me.  I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it.  The desire is understandable.  Humans have an aversion to pain.  Yet, control is an illusion.  In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person.  Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

 

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it.  As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others.  People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power.  It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

 

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance.  It is a potent antidote to stress.  And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer.  When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its  three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation.  Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

 

Embrace Your Mistakes

The difference between the wise man and a fool is that a fool’s mistakes never teach him anything.

 

I believe that at the heart of this popular expression is personal responsibility.   The wise man takes personal responsibility for his mistakes; the fool blames others for his own.

 

The most powerful lessons we learn are from our own failures. The hidden power of mistakes is that they are the very ore from which wisdom is produced.  It is the alchemy of turning the base metals of error into something precious—and lasting.  We arrive at a higher level of consciousness when we take personal responsibility for our mistakes.

 

Equally important are the insights into our characters that mistakes can provide.  Mistakes, especially those that cause others pain and suffering, are like mirrors.  They reflect back to us moments when we were too self-absorbed to respond thoughtfully to others.  For example, failing to express gratitude for a friend’s help.

 

How can we change if we are unaware of our weaknesses?  We can’t fix what we can’t see.  Mistakes offer us a chance to discover our weaknesses and an opportunity to change.

 

All of us will experience lapses of awareness that lead to mistakes.  We are all flawed beings and that is a part of our shared human experience.  It is the way that we respond to mistakes that is the difference between the wise and the foolish.  It is the fool who will find a way to blame others to cover for his or her own social unconsciousness.   The wise person avoids excuses and will promptly take responsibility for his or her errors.

 

In Alcoholics Anonymous, we learn that honesty in “all our affairs” is what gets us sober.  When we look at the problems we create for ourselves and others, we see where we were at fault and we promptly admit our mistakes to those we have wronged.

 

As long as we blame others for our problems, we don’t have to change anything about ourselves.  No personal responsibility, unfortunately, means no wisdom, no growth, no emotional maturity.

 

In my life coaching practice, I have found that clients who struggle the most with personal relationships are those who are emotionally immature.   And that immaturity is because of an unwillingness to hold themselves personally accountable for their character flaws and the mistakes in judgement they cause.

 

Psychologist maintain that the average adult is really only about 14-years-old emotionally.  Many of us are really adolescents in adult bodies.  One of the greatest contributors to living in an extended adolescence is a failure to learn and grow emotionally from our mistakes.

 

And this is understandable in our current culture that places so much emphasis on self-esteem.  In her book Self-Compassion, Kristen Neff states, “People who are focused on maintaining high self-esteem will not look at themselves honestly because doing so will lower their self-esteem.  They, therefore, blame others for their own problems rather than taking responsibility for creating them.”

 

Self-esteem is dependent on forces outside ourselves.  It is based on the approval of others.  In the social media world of Facebook, people live and die according to how many “likes” they have received from a post.  Self-esteem then becomes something determined by popular vote.  This pre-occupation with building and maintaining self-esteem is not only the domain of social media but also finds a strong presence in our classrooms, our school-sponsored athletics, and in our families.

 

When we refuse to accept personal responsibility for our mistakes, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become more skillful and competent people.

 

Instead of self-esteem, Neff recommends self-compassion.   Self-compassion is internalized, and it is not about excuses but acceptance.  It is about treating ourselves as our best friend.  Unlike self-esteem, its pursuit doesn’t shy us away from our own personal responsibility   In practicing it, we hold ourselves accountable while, Neff says, reminding ourselves in moments of falling down that failure is part of the shared human experience.  We embrace our mistakes rather than looking away from them.

 

Though mistakes feel unpleasant, they offer a powerful catalyst for change, for self-awareness, and for emotional growth.  By having the courage to admit our mistakes, we open the door to learning and emotionally growing from them.  In doing so, we cultivate the capacity to respond more maturely and more skillfully in relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.  And that’s one of the beautiful things about life.  It continually offers us opportunities to move from living as the fool to thriving as the wise.