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.

Ways to Socialize Soberly

I’m going to make a fool of myself.  I’ll feel out of place.  People will see how anxious I am.  If I don’t say much, people won’t know how boring I am.

 

These are the things that I would tell myself when I thought of social situations involving more than just a couple people.  If you can relate to this, then welcome to the world of social anxiety.  And, yes, it can be a huge burden and, yes, there are ways to overcome it.

 

Amazingly, it has taken me a lifetime to come to terms with my own social anxiety.  Many people shield themselves behind friends in social situations. Others become wall flowers.  Still others avoid socializing at all costs and, sadly, live a very lonely life.  For me, I discovered a cheat for social anxiety in my junior year of high school.  And that was alcohol. Unfortunately, when we continually use any coping behavior, we never address the issue—we only hide from it.  Soon I was drinking whenever I socialized…and then when I was alone as well.

 

The fact that nearly all people experience social anxiety should be an assuring thought to anyone.  But it wasn’t for me.  When I looked around at parties, I saw everyone else appearing so relaxed and so confident with others.  Why couldn’t I be like that?  Then I discovered pre-party drinking and embraced the magic of alcohol.  When I drank, I became the person I wanted to meet.  The more I relied on this social crutch, the more weight I put on it.

 

Dinner parties with guests sitting around a dining room table gave me the greatest social jitters.  In these situations, people could too easily see just how much I was drinking. I felt that I had to limit my drinking which reduced the effectiveness of my coping behavior.  Eventually, all my decisions about social situations boiled down to this:  If I couldn’t drink freely, I wouldn’t attend.

 

That crutch, however, became as heavy as a boat anchor, and it plunged me into the abyss of alcoholism. From the clarity of recovery, I clearly see that social anxiety was one of the most powerful forces that drove my drinking. I had a living problem and a drinking solution.  Now, in my tenth year of sobriety, I still push myself to more frequently attend social gatherings. It’s amazing how confronting our problems reduces their power over us.  Does social anxiety still haunt me?  For the most part, no.

 

But that old phantom returned this week.  I have a fairly big dinner party I promised my girlfriend that I would attend with her this coming weekend.  These situations are my Achilles heal.  With the invitation came a rush of anxious thoughts and a tightening in my stomach.  Yes, I have made progress with social anxiety in my recovery, but I’m still not immune to it.

 

This time I finally decided to seek out the advice of professionals.  This time I would take a different approach. This time I decided to confront my social anxiety head on, armed with new techniques rather than just ignoring the issue.

 

In his wonderful article “7 Techniques for Overcoming Social Phobia,” therapist Mark Tyrrell provides easy to implement ways of relieving social anxiety.

Here are his suggestions:

  1. Prepare to relax

Tyrrell says worrying is self-programming.  When we worry about an upcoming social situation, we are projecting ourselves into that situation and seeing ourselves failing once again.  Little wonder we experience anxiety when we are actually in that social setting.  Instead, he recommends that we take a warm bath or sit in a comfortable chair and visualize ourselves in that situation looking relaxed and confident.  Repeatedly doing this will create positive associations with socializing.

 

  1. Seek out social situations

The more we avoid something the more we send the message to the unconscious mind that it is dangerous and should be avoided.  This is true of socializing.  The solution is to actively put ourselves in social situations both in our imaginations (visualizations) and in person.   Soon, Tyrrell says, our conscious minds will begin to see socializing as safe and normal for us—even something to look forward to.

  1. Look at your surroundings

Oftentimes, when we are socializing, it is like we are walking around with a mirror in front of us, continually viewing how anxious we imagine ourselves looking and telling ourselves negative messages like “I’m boring.”  Tyrrell recommends moving our focus outward to the people in the room and to the room itself.  Notice the color of the walls, the room décor, and what other people are wearing.  After all, social situations are about focusing our attention away from ourselves.

 

  1. Ask questions

Tyrrell says that social phobia is all about worrying what other people think of us.  So shift the focus to other people by asking them questions that go beyond “yes” and “no” answers.  Google “Forty Fun Icebreakers.”

 

  1. Switch off your imagination

Imagination is one of our greatest assets but not when it comes to imagining what people are thinking of us.  When we find ourselves trying to mind read, we need to shut it down.  Yes, we can influence what others think of us, but we can’t control it, so why try, Tyrrell says.

 

  1. What do you want?

Our minds need positive instructions.  Tyrrell suggests asking ourselves, “How do I want to feel in these situations?”  He recommends closing our eyes and feeling how we feel when we were in the company of our loved ones.  Now, in social situations, bring those warm feelings with you and make a habit of sending them out to everyone.

 

  1. On being yourself

When we try to present ourselves as perfect, we come off cold and stilted. People who are willing to allow themselves to be a bit of a fool, Tyrrell says, are more socially confident.  People actually connect with us better when we are willing to show ourselves as flawed.  We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t.

 

 

And here is one of my own.  I have a habit of looking away immediately after someone asks me a question.  People can associate that with lying.  So lately I have been standing in front of a mirror and asking myself common questions I would be asked at a party.  I work on keeping eye contact with myself while answering.

 

All people suffer some degree of social anxiety. For alcoholics, we have relied on alcohol to provide us with the social “grease” to help us relax in social situations.  Other people become addicted to their own coping behaviors.  After the 12 Steps, we face the challenge of socializing cleanly. But if we take on this challenge with the same courage as we did our 4th Steps, and we apply these seven techniques, we can overcome our social anxieties.  We then look forward to socializing rather than dreading it. And what a feeling of accomplishment that will be!

Drug-free Solutions to Chronic Pain

One truth I have learned about chronic physical pain is the more you fight it the worse it gets. Another is that traditional methods for relieving pain often ignore a crucial player:  the mind.

After experiencing only partial pain relief from my spinal fusion 10 months ago, I became convinced that there was another issue that contributing to my chronic pain.  This led me to investigate solutions other than additional surgery or the use of medications to treat this pain.

In my previous blog titled “Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and Into Your Life,” I discussed the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in contending with pain.  In this blog, I am going to introduce you to physician Dr. John Sarno whose treatment of chronic pain was featured in a 20/20 segment.

 

As a brief recap of last week’s blog, it is our attempts to combat or avoid pain that keeps us in the trenches with our pain.  Like for many of you, pain killers only reduced my pain; they never eliminated it.  I also tried physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic.  Again, the relief was only partial and temporary.   What was constant was my preoccupation with that pain.  I was thinking about it continually throughout the day.  Sadly, this preoccupation with pain made my world smaller and smaller.  I avoided physical activities that I used to enjoy and withdrew from friends and family because of the pain.

 

ACT recognizes that total elimination of pain my not be possible for some of us.  So we have a choice:  we can live on the sidelines of our life with pain, or we can commit to re-engaging our lives despite the pain.  Amazingly, though, it is this re-engagement with life that allows us to experience freedom from our pain.  To test the validity of this, think of what happens to your pain when you are laughing with friends or fully engaging in a hobby.  For me, the pain disappears because I am not focusing my attention on it.

 

Like ACT, re-engagement in your life is at the core of Dr. John Sarno’s work.  In his New York Times bestselling book, Healing Back Pain, Sarno says that chronic pain is the result of suppressed emotions.  His term for this pain, regardless of whether it manifests in the back, neck, or other parts of the body, is Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).  The source of this pain?  Suppression of emotions.  For those of you who experience migraines, it is clear that the pain is not something structurally wrong with your brain but that it is brought on by stress and the negative emotions it creates.  So too it is with chronic back and neck pain, according to Sarno.

 

“TMS is a sideshow designed to distract you from what is going on emotionally,” Sarno says.   Because our minds do not want to deal with painful emotions, that pain is manifested in our bodies, just like stress is manifested as intense headaches for migraine sufferers.

 

Interestingly, if you randomly picked 40 adults from the streets and gave each an MRI, you would find that many of them have structural issues with their backs—like ruptured or bulging disk. Yet, some of those people are not experiencing back pain.  In fact, orthopedic surgeons who see these supposed structural “problems” cannot determine just from the MRI whether that person is in pain.  Interestingly, too, when an MRI for a non-spine related issue reveals one of these back “problems,” the patient often experiences the sudden sensation of back pain.

 

So how can TMS cause pain?  The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe.  One of its functions is regulating oxygen levels in the body.  It provides more oxygen to the muscles when an external threat activates the fight or flight response.  Just as the brain can oxygenate the body more, it can also deprive parts of the body of oxygen.  “The direct reason for pain is mild oxygen deprivation,” Sarno says in drawing the connection between TMS and chronic pain.

 

So how do you treat TMS and the chronic physical pain it produces?   In Healing Back Pain, Sarno suggests a series of exercises that will get you in touch with the unpleasant emotions that cause TMS.  Often these emotions are in the form of anger or rage that the mind has suppressed, keeping us unaware of their presence.  Frequently, these suppressed emotions are rooted in childhood trauma, Sarno states.

 

If working through these exercises on your own doesn’t eliminate your chronic pain, Sarno recommends seeking out a therapist to guide you through them in order to  surface and release these pain-producing emotions.

 

Overall, the connection between ACT and Sarno’s work is freeing ourselves of the thoughts and emotions that create our pain and suffering. For those of you who are experiencing chronic pain, consider asking yourself this question: “Am I going to live my thoughts and emotions and the pain those create or am I going to live my life and the joy that can bring?”

 

Together, ACT and Sarno’s work can be a very effective way of treating chronic pain.   So if you are experiencing chronic pain despite surgery, pain medications, and other treatments, consider getting to know ACT and Sarno’s approach.  The 20/20 segment that features Sarno is available on YouTube.  An excellent resource for the ACT approach is the workbook Living Beyond Your Pain by Joanne Dahl and Tobias Lundren.

Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and into Your Life

Chronic pain is very discouraging.  Ten months ago I had a spinal fusion because of a back injury I suffered.  I had been in pain for two years prior to it. And now, as I’m supposed to feel the relief of full recovery, I still have back pain and nerve pain in my feet.

 

Like some of you, chronic pain has robbed me of my zest for life.  And it has left me feeling very discouraged—even hopeless.  But at 57-years-old, I am not willing to spend the next 20 years marooned by medications, living in an opioid stupor.

 

It’s time to get out of the preoccupation with pain and to get into my life.

 

Living an inspired life means making inspiring choices.  One of the most inspiring of those choices was to embrace the power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

 

At the core of ACT pain therapy is an essential truth:  elimination of chronic pain is not possible for some of us.  But it doesn’t have to sideline us.  In their Internet workbook called Life with Chronic Pain: An Acceptance-based Approach, Kevin E. Vowles, Ph.D.  and  John T. Sorrell, Ph.D.,  apply the core processes of ACT to pain.

 

They acknowledge that pain, thoughts and mood, and basic functioning interact in a way that contributes to increasing problems and decreasing quality of life.  As so many of us who suffer have come to realize, treatments often fail to provide us with long-term decreases in pain.

 

Trying to change our thoughts and moods also becomes problematic.   “If you wake up in a sad mood, does telling yourself, ‘Don’t be sad anymore.’ lead to any change in your mood?” ask Vowles and Sorrell, knowing, too, that trying not to think about your pain only increases its hold over you.

 

Functioning, though, may be the area where your efforts will have the most impact, according to Vowles and Sorrell.   It’s about deciding what is vitally important to you and pursing it despite pain.  I have found that if I remain on the sidelines trying to avoid anything that may incite my pain, that my pain still exists.  On the other hand, when I am actively engaged in my life, I often forget about my pain.  Consider this: when you are laughing with loved ones, what happens to your pain?  Exactly!  It disappears.  Remember, we give power to whatever we give attention to.

 

Breaking ACT Down

 

The “A” in ACT is about acceptance.  It’s about becoming comfortable with discomfort. “It is not the same as defeat, helplessness, quitting, or resigning to a life of unhappiness, struggle, or misery,” Vowles and Sorrell say.   Acceptance of chronic pain, then, is living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.

 

The “C” in ACT is about commitment.   By combining acceptance with commitment, you begin  living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.  “Values are what you want your life to stand for,” according to Vowles and Sorrel. “Values are what you want to be remembered for by loved ones and close friends after you have passed.”

 

ACT is about accepting the fact that we all face difficult challenges that we cannot control, alter, or eliminate.  It’s not about “throwing in the towel.”  We, instead, commit to a life in which we are engaged in the present moment with things we value in the here and now.  We live a life, not in the absence of pain, but knowing that there is something more important than pain.

 

I leave you with words that you can say that will help you keep your mind centered on acceptance and commitment.  It is called the Serenity Prayer:  Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.