Can Good Come from the Opioid Crisis?

More than 150 Americans die each day from painkiller overdose. Thousands upon thousands more are at risk of death as they find that they must increase their daily dosage of painkillers to experience the same level of pain relief that they did just months before.

Some have found the euphoria that Vicodin, Oxycontin, and other painkillers provide offers a wonderful escape from the stress and anxiety of daily life without the hangover associated with binge drinking.

As a nation, we are becoming more aware of the devastation caused by the current opioid crisis. It has tragic effects in the lives of those who are addicted and in the lives of family, friends, and colleagues who are indirectly affected.

So it is with caution that I say that there may be a glimmer of hope that some good can come out of the opioid crisis. That maybe from its tragedy we as a nation will become more willing to see addiction to painkillers and addiction in general as a concern for all us.

Maybe by looking within at our own addictive tendencies that we will have the empathy necessary to desire the social and healthcare reforms that will encourage those who have been relegated to the darkness of addiction into the light of compassionate and effective treatment.

Back in early days of AA, alcoholics were considered to be morally defective and weak. “Why can’t he just stop?” was the question for those suffering from this apparent lack of willpower. Society looked away from them with disgust.

That still occurs today but to a lesser extent because we have learned that alcoholism is a disease and that willpower is not the problem. Like other diseases, it is an equal opportunity destroyer because it does not discriminate between the poor and the wealthy.

And now, the opioid crisis is forcing Americans to see that even the outwardly successful are being sucked into the vortex of addiction. It has made Americans realize that addiction can strike down one of our children as easily as the guy who lives next door in the beautiful house.

The changes I see as a result of the opioid crisis is the expansion of our collective consciousness that addiction is much more common than we once thought. That hardcore alcoholics and drug users are just on one extreme on a continuum. They represent a small percentage of the problem our nation faces with addiction—a problem that the opioid crisis has awakened us to.

Recent figures from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that nearly 42,000 Americans die each year due to opioid overdose. Excessive alcohol use claims 88,000 American lives and steals 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year. Add to that the 480,000 deaths each year from cigarettes. Those numbers speak to the tragic loss of American life due to substance addiction.

Yet, there are many more Americans whose addiction is not to substances but to behaviors. These behavioral addictions include addictions to food, gambling, and pornography. Add to those the more socially acceptable behavioral addictions like excessive working, excessive spending, excessive gaming, and excessive use of social media, and we can see even though behavioral addictions do not frequently result in death, they take a tragic toll on the quality of our lives every day.

In short, addiction is huge problem that the opioid crisis is bringing to our awareness.

For the past decade, I have devoted my life to reading the wisdom of experts in the fields of addiction, recovery, and psychology. I am convinced that at the root of all addiction is the avoidance of discomfort. Carl Jung, one of the early fathers of psychology, said that all mental illness is due to the avoidance of pain. And that avoidance makes us all a little crazy.

Our addictions—to substances or behaviors—are a way to avoid discomfort. And at the core of this discomfort is a gnawing absence at the center of our being. In his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate’ talks about the “avoidance of the void” within us. That there is a hole that we are trying to fill with our drug or behavior of choice. As addicts we do what we can to avoid this black hole within.

In this light, addiction is our misguided attempt to avoid the void. And the reason that these behaviors and substances become addictive is that they seem to work—if only temporarily. “It’s hard to get enough of what almost works,” says addiction specialist Vincent Felitti, MD.

The tragedy of addiction is this: There is a void that all addicts are trying to fill with our addiction that cannot be filled by our addiction. I know this firsthand as a recovering alcoholic.

For me, that gaping hole at my core was a profound lack of connection to my true self. I have come to believe that we’re all spiritual beings having a human experience. At the core of who we are is not the brain but the soul or spirit.

As we are socially conditioned beginning at home and then in society, we become separated from who we are. This has its source in our early development as human beings. The need for food and water were contingent on us being alive, and we couldn’t survive as individuals without belonging to the tribe or otherwise we would become prey. For survival we continually compared ourselves to those in our tribe. Behaviors that prevented us from fitting in with the tribe either needed to be changed or we faced exclusion. In a real sense, either we conformed or died.

This need to conform ensures our survival, but the cost is a loss of connection to who we really are. This social conditioning allows us to unite with other human beings, but it creates separation from who we are at our cores. In this separation from our true selves, we also become separate from our relationship to the source of our being, whether we call that God, Spirit, Eternity, or Universe.

This is the void.

And it is my hope that we as a nation become compassionately aware of the connection between addiction and avoidance of the void. I hope that through the pain, suffering, and loss inflicted by the opioid crisis, that we reach out to those in our lives and encourage them with kindness to seek treatment. And that we ask those in positions of influence at our jobs and in our schools to offer programs to help those who are suffering from addiction.

There are solutions to this epidemic of addiction. Many have found it in the spirituality of a 12-Step program while others through programs like Rational Recovery.

However, if we condemn and relegate to the shadows those who most need our help, then this crisis of addiction will continue.

May we as a society offer to those who are suffering our love and acceptance not because they have changed but so that they can change.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach.
Contact me for help at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com.

Habit Versus 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 acceptable. 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 pre-frontal 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 whereas 12 Step programs emphasize its behavioral roots.

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.

If you would like to work with me one-on-one on an addiction issue, we can meet in person or on Zoom. Reach out and contact me at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com. Walk with me and I will provide you safe passage to a place of wonder and awe beyond your addiction.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

The Best Stress Busters from the Mayo Clinic

We all have stress in our lives. It’s a part of being human. And we all have ways of dealing with it. Oftentimes, it’s with alcohol or opioid use. But all stress is caused by five factors.

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.

Such images would cast my mind back to the early days of my alcoholic drinking when that first drink actually worked to melt away the stress of the day.

Those movie scenes became my routine 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 now see how looking within myself for the source of my stress 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.

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 stresser 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 stressers are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

In my drinking days (and still to a 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.”

If you are interested in working one-on-one with me, reach out and contact me at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com. We can meet in person or on Zoom.

In Kindness,
RJ Handley, Addiction and Recovery Coach

A fugitive from myself

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 bristled at 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, Addiction Recovery Coach

12 ways you sabotage your recovery

I wanted to share with you a small book that has big things to say about recovery. It’s Dr. Allen Berger’s 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.

Berger is a psychotherapist and a recovering addict. 12 Stupid Things is a profound but very accessible book that informs us of behaviors that sabotage our sustained recovery. I have also found it to be invaluable to increasing my effectiveness as a sponsor.

What I found so helpful about the book is that Berger speaks to issues that we may not be aware of but that can certainly contribute to relapse—even for those of us who have years or even decades of recovery.

These are things that can blindside us, not because we’re engaging in behaviors that we are knowingly aware are dangerous, but behaviors that we are unaware of that are dangerous.

The book also contains amusing and poignant anecdotes from Berger’s own experience with addiction and years of counseling alcoholics and drug addicts.

Here is a breakdown of the 12 behaviors that can sabotage our recovery:

1. Believing addiction to one substance is the only problem
Berger says, “Most chemical dependency counselors warn their clients that using other drugs lowers their resistance to using their drug of choice.” Addiction changes the brain so that the person who decides to take that first drink or do that line of coke is chemically different than the person who takes the second drink or does the second line of coke.

2. Believing sobriety will fix everything
“If drinking were our only problem, then once we stopped drinking, all our problems would be solved,” Berger says. The beauty of the 12 Steps is that we come to realize that we have a living problem and a drinking solution. We drank or used to numb ourselves out to those problems. Then our drug of choice became a problem on top of the existing problems that we tried to look away from.

3. Pursuing recovery with less energy than pursuing addiction
Berger says, “Recovery is without a doubt the road less traveled. It is a difficult road to follow—impossible if we are not 110 committed to the process.” He goes on to say, “As if that isn’t challenging enough, we are also faced with the reality that we need to make this commitment without a guarantee of the outcome.”

4. Being selectively honest
“We need to lance the boil and let all the puss drain. We need to discuss all of the things that we don’t want to talk about, especially our secrets—the things what we believe we would never share with anyone,” Berger says. One of the most powerful things that my sponsor said to me is that we are only as sick as our secrets. These are the shadow elements that we have hidden—even from ourselves—that still exert a strong force on our behaviors, just as we don’t see gravity but it affects all that we do.

5. Feeling special and unique
“This kind of thinking is based on the mistaken belief…that we don’t have to do what everyone else has done to develop a solid, robust recovery,” according to Berger. He draws the analogy to surgery. When we undergo a procedure, we can only hope that we respond like the average 80 percent who recover without complications. But in the twisted logic of the addict, we don’t want to see ourselves as average in our recovery. We see ourselves as special, and that has caused the relapse of the newcomer and the seasoned veteran.

6. Not making amends
When we justify our past behaviors because of the behavior of the people in our life, we fail to take responsibility for our life, our feelings, and our actions. By deflecting personal responsibility, we imperil our lasting recovery. Berger says: “To develop a strong spiritual foundation for recovery, it is essential that we accept full responsibility for our harmful and hurtful behavior and that we attempt to repair the damage that we have caused in our relationships with family, friends, and loved ones.”

7. Using the program to try to become perfect
Berger these perfectionistic traits in himself and in the addicts he has treated. It is a misguided attempt at gaining other people’s love by doing everything “perfectly”. He says, “Most of our life has been spent trying to be perfect. This has been a spurious goal. Instead we need to learn how to be more human.” He adds that he spent years using because he believed that being human was not good enough but that being imperfect was unacceptable. “This was the ultimate in self-alienation. It’s no wonder life sucked and I needed to get high.”

8. Confusing self-concern with selfishness
“Self-concern is different from selfishness. It does not exclude others; it is inclusive. Part of our self is concerned with cooperating with and pleasing others. These desires are natural and healthy, when they are balanced with our desire to be ourselves.” We need to practice standing in the center of the boat between pleasing others and being true to who we are.

9. Playing futile self-improvement games
At the heart of these games are using our new-found spirituality to avoid the character defects that continued self-discovery beyond our first 4th Step reveals. Instead, we pretend that our spirituality has allowed us to transcend our defects rather than confronting them in ourselves when they are surfaced. This is called spiritual bypassing.

10. Not getting help for relationship troubles
Relationships are the greatest challenge that any human being faces but is especially true for alcoholics and addicts. This is because we denied ourselves the very means by which all human beings mature emotionally by continually engaging our addiction. And that’s pain. Because we have avoided pain, we are all emotionally immature when we enter recovery. “Dysfunctional relationships are one of the top three causes of relapse,” according to Berger.

11. Believing that life should be easy
“Life is difficult. The sooner we are initiated into this reality, the sooner we learn how to deal with life on its terms rather than waste our time looking for the easy way.” We are continually bombarded by social media that tells us life is all lollypops and rainbows and that if it isn’t we are doing something wrong.

12. Using the program to handle everything
“No one can handle every personal issue with their program. Needing help is not an indication that something is wrong with our program,” Berger says. “The truth is quite the contrary: recognizing our need for additional help is an indication that we are working a good program.” Being defiantly self-reliant is certain to jeopardize our recovery.

What I’ve provided is a just quick introduction to Dr. Berger’s 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery. I encourage you to spend the 12 bucks to experience Berger’s wisdom for yourself. At just over a 100 pages, this book is a profound read. I’m confident that you will find Berger’s insights helpful and stabilizing to your recovery.

Contact me if you would like to work one-on-one on issues of addiction or issues in your recovery that are robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, confidence, and negative thoughts.

I’m at rjhandley.com. Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kind Regards,
RJ Handley
Spiritual Life Coach

The Secret Power of Shame

Though Bill W. was unaware of the power of shame, he was nevertheless a victim of it. No where in the first 164 pages of the Big Book is shame mentioned, but it is a pernicious presence that research has concluded is the source of our addictions and the frequent cause of relapses.

Shame is hate turned inward.  It’s the factory of our character defects.  It drives our suffering.  Yet, very few of us know this.  It’s a secret even to ourselves.  By becoming aware of our shame, we can greatly reduce the suffering it inflicts on us.

Only recently have I discovered how shame has infected my life like a virus.  It’s the furtive voice that is forever whispering its message that I am a bad person.

I grew up in a home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother.  They rarely drank.  My dad was an emotional drunk.  What would trigger my dad into explosive rage was forever unpredictable.  Every day, the hum of the bomber circled overhead, and the threat of bombardment hung in the air like toxic gas.

As a child, I breathed in his hate.  And, like any child, I didn’t yet have the boundaries in place to deflect it.  His hate became my own self-hate, and it lodged deep within my soul as shame.  Rarely could I figure out the reason for his rage, so what my mind couldn’t grasp, my soul embraced: I deserved it.

Unfortunately, our endless capacity to adapt often has tragic consequences.  Few of us escape unscarred from the battlefield of a dysfunctional home.  My youngest sister died as a casualty of heavy smoking and drinking.  Fragments of rage and anxiety have embedded themselves into the lives of my other two sisters. And I, 10 years in recovery, find myself surveying the devastation, hobbled by shame.

Sources of Shame

Shame is universal.  Its seeds are sown in childhood.  Whenever we are powerless to deflect another’s hate—whether in the form of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse—it becomes internalized deep within as shame. “We believe we ‘should have’ been able to defend ourselves.  And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless,” according to Beverly Engle, in her article “How Compassion Can Heal Shame from Childhood,” published in Psychology Today.

“This powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated—which leads to shame,” Engle says.

Shame can result from any situation that causes us to feel shunned by others. It can also be the by-product of regret, especially after hurting a loved one.  If we fail to make amends to that person, regret often converts to shame.

The Secrecy of Shame

It’s mystifying to me that after years of working the program of AA, sponsoring, and pouring myself into recovery literature, that I have remained unaware of shame’s covert operations.  But I don’t think I’m alone.  Being unaware of shame is very understandable.

For many of us, our textbook for recovery has been the Big Book (BB). However, shame is not mentioned anywhere in its first 164 pages (containing the entire AA program as Bill W. first conceived it).  For the ranks of us who are traumatized by shame, this is a critical omission.

I believe the BB is a masterpiece. Yet, as acutely attuned as Bill W. was to our malady, he was not yet aware when penning the BB that shame is the father of our character defects—resentment, selfishness, and unworthiness being its children.

We Climb to Recovery on the Rungs of Words

Words have the power of revelation.  Think of the word “resentment” as Bill W. used it, and see how much light his discussion of that word brought to the understanding of our addiction. The same can be true for the word “shame.”  Once we shine the light of awareness on it, we can identify it as the source of our character defects.  We see it for what it is, and there is great power in naming. Mark Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says labeling our emotions is key to their treatment. “If you can name it, you can tame it.”

As addicts we know there is something at the root of our addictions.  In the hundreds of AA meetings I have attended over the years, the word “unworthiness” is frequently heard. What we call unworthiness, though, is really an expression of shame’s much deeper and darker domain. Other character defects—defensiveness, criticalness, anger, resentment, and emotional withdrawal—also bubble up from the depths of shame.

Amazingly, in the same day, shame has us toggling between feelings of inferiority and its paradoxical mask of superiority.  It creates a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that resides in the background of all we do.  It fuels our drinking.

Invariably, we cross the invisible threshold between heavy drinking and alcoholism.  Drinking then becomes a desperate coping strategy, cycling back on itself.  We drink to numb us to the pain of shame and then we feel shame because we find ourselves drunk again. On and on, over and over, day after day.

Shame Versus Guilt

Shame is often confused with guilt. Brene Brown, a professor of research at the University of Houston, makes a critical distinction: “Guilt is I did something bad.  Shame is I am something bad.”  Guilt focuses on the behavior; shame focuses on the person.  Brown’s research finds a high correlation between shame and addiction but virtually none between guilt and addiction.

Providing the first link between shame and relapse is a 2013 study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.  The study, conducted by Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles of the University of British Columbia, involved 100 middle-aged men and women from the rooms of AA with less than six months sobriety.  Tracy and Randles found that “people who feel shame may blame themselves for negative events and view their ‘bad’ behavior as an unchangeable part of who they are. Thus, shame may actually be a risk factor for certain behaviors rather than a deterrent. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for guilt.”

The study also found that “one reason that certain sobriety programs may be effective is because they encourage people to see their behaviors as something they should feel guilty, but not necessarily shameful, about.”

The amount of shame participants displayed strongly predicted not only whether they relapsed but also how many drinks they had if they did relapse.

Good News

We don’t have to remain shame sufferers.  Recent scientific breakthroughs reveal that the brain has a nearly endless capacity to rewire itself.  “Due to what we now know about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections—we can proactively repair (and re-pair) the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion,” Engle says.

When treating shame, we must remember to be good to ourselves.  After all, shame entered us through others’ hatred.  Self-empathy and self-compassion are crucial in combatting shame.  In a 2012 TED Talk, Brene Brown said, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

By employing the fearlessness and thoroughness that we used in our 4th Step, we can surface the pain of being hated that created our shame.  Once we become aware of the source of our shame, we can grieve the pain and suffering it has produced.  We can cry our response to the hatred, and we can cry about how unfair it is.  Finally, we come to a place of peace and give shame back to its rightful owner.

I leave you with this self-compassion exercise, courtesy of Beverly Engle, in hopes that it helps you as it helped me.

  1. Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience.  What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at the time?  Write this statement down.
  2. Image that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears.  Take those words into your heart.  Notice how those words make you feel.
  3. Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words.  How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel?

You might receive a real sense of healing and peace from the words that you hear while doing this exercise.  Exploring shame can be a journey that requires courage and self-honesty, but the reward is recovery that goes beyond the mere absence of addiction—recovery that is a deep healing of your past and a life of real happiness and peace.

If you would like to work one-on-one with me regarding shame issues or issues related to addiction, relationships, negative habits, anxiety, or depression, please visit me at rjhandley.com.

The Secret Power of Shame was originally published in The Fix. 

Behavior, not thought, is the key to change

Conventional wisdom tells us that if we want to change a behavior we must first change our thinking.  However, that wisdom turns out to be incorrect, according to a new theory.

 

Behavioral Activation is a relative newcomer to the field of psychological theory. The central idea behind Behavioral Activation is this: Change the way you behave and you will change the way you think.

 

Authors Dr. Michael E. Addis and Dr.  Christopher R. Martell make the point in their Behavioral Activation workbook that we do not have control over the thousands of thoughts that tirelessly create our daily mind chatter or the feelings those thoughts produce.  Yet, we do have considerable control over our behaviors, many of which are influenced by the past.

 

“Your past is extremely important in shaping who you are now.  However, the quickest way to remove the effect of the past is to begin to act differently,” say Addis and Martell in Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time.

 

Because we do have control over our behaviors, changing them is the most effective means of generating the change we desire in our lives.  Though the workbook is devoted to the treatment of depression, I have found that it is a powerful tool for my clients suffering from a wide range of issues including relationships, addiction, anxiety, and negative habits.

 

The reason for that is simple.   It is our behaviors that impact other people and ourselves, not our thoughts.  Thoughts are hidden until they are expressed in our actions.  And our actions are behaviors.

 

But in order to change a behavior, we must first be aware of it.  One of the reasons why I believe in the power of relationships is that we are often unaware of our behaviors and the impact they have on others.  We need other people because they are like mirrors that allow us to see the effects of our behavior.

 

The importance of other people in promoting self-awareness is reflected in Addis and Martell’s three principles of behaviors.

  • Much of your behavior is so automatic that it occurs outside of your awareness.
  • You do much of what you do out of habit.
  • To change behavioral habits, you must first recognize the behavioral pattern, so you can know when and what to change.

 

For those of you who have come to this blog post from the recovery community, you have often heard in AA meetings the saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

 

The idea here is that we act our way into different thinking.  And this is also true of our feelings.  Psychologists tell us that we feel our thinking.  So changing a behavior can have a profound effect not only on our thinking but also our feelings.

 

Although our past has been a crucial element in shaping who we are in the present, it doesn’t mean that we must become acutely aware of everything that happened to us since we were kids.  This is why life coaching has advantages over traditional therapy.  Life coaches typically work from the present to the future rather than from the past to the present.

 

“Change does not require that you develop complete insight into the workings of your childhood but only that you begin to learn new ways of being an adult,” say Addis and Martell.

 

One of the greatest hurdles that we need to surmount in addressing change is the incessant message our Western culture speaks to us: that we must feel motivated in order to accomplish anything, including change.

 

Addis and Martell make the observation that when we wait to feel motivated to do something we often avoid it.  And avoidance is one of the greatest contributors to stress and bouts of depression.  Motivation is not our natural starting point for accomplishing tasks.  Instead, motivation is the result of first undertaking a task, including the task of changing our lives.   Put in the effort and the motivation will follow.

 

Avoidance can take on subtle forms.  Worry is one of them.  When we worry, we distract our minds from dealing with strong feelings of sadness. “Often the more you avoid experiencing negative feelings, the longer the negative feelings remain,” according to Addis and Martell.

 

For those of you who are in recovery, you are keenly aware how our addictions numbed us out to issues in our lives that could only be addressed by change.  We became experts in avoiding anything that created discomfort.  And change so often involves the discomfort of uncertainty.  As a result, our problems piled higher and higher, and we became sicker and sicker.   Sadly, some of give up,  preferring  the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty.

 

For those of you inspired to change, Addis and Martell came up with fitting acronym for putting Behavioral Activation into effect:  ACTION.  And here’s how to apply it:

 

A = Assess your mood and behavior.

C = Choose alternative behaviors.

T = Try out the alternatives.

I =  Integrate these changes into your life.

O = Observe the results.

N = Now evaluate whether to keep the behavior or choose another alternative.

 

In parting, there are no guarantees that when we change our behaviors that the results will be the fulfillment of our fantasies.  We cannot control how people will respond to the changes we make.  But heartening to me is that our behavior is one of the things that we do have control over.  By asking those in our lives to help us identify the behaviors that are creating suffering for us and others, we can put into action the change that can transform our lives for the better.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, spiritual life coach

How to become more spiritually awake

We have busy lives. This is a blessing of our recovery.  And many of us have experienced the spiritual awakening promised in Step 12.  But what do we do after the 12 Steps to expand this awakening so it brings greater meaning and joy to our busy lives?

This question is so important to me—and maybe to you too—that I decided 10 months ago to launch my blogging website with the title After the 12 Steps. In my blog posts, I address ways we can awaken more and more from our initial spiritual awakening.

I have a passion for spirituality and psychology.  And it drove me to undergo an intense 18-month certification process to become a spiritual life coach. As a spiritual life coach, I get to share with my clients—some of whom are in recovery—many of the insights I have learned over the past decade reading widely the work of awakened masters.

I particularly admire the work of the author Adyashanti. He has a deep and profound understanding of both Christianity and Zen. His approach to awakening can be applied to your own life regardless of your spiritual leanings. And applying the three core practices that he presents in his book The Way of Liberation have worked in profound ways to further awaken me—and my clients.

These core practices are inquiry, contemplation, and meditation. As with anything you practice, these practices become more and more intuitive as you use them. Let’s take a look at each.

Inquiry
This is going to sound paradoxical at first. But inquiry is more about discovering who you are not than who you are. It is about fearlessly looking at the ideas, beliefs, and opinions that you have adopted, often unknowingly, into your life.   It is not about answering your questions but questioning your answers. And it requires the same fearlessness that you used in your courageous 4th Step work. Basically, it’s about challenging your own bullshit.

The question that we ask in practicing inquiry is simple. Yet, it requires willingness and great courage: “Do I know with absolute certainty that this current thought, belief, opinion, interpretation, or judgment is true?”

Adyashanti’s question is about Truth. As survivors of our own addictive shipwrecks, we know the power of honesty. After all, it was the tool we used in our stepwork that revealed to us just how insane our lives had become. It is also the means by which God performed the greatest miracle in our lives—and that is saving it.

So it is with that same honesty that we ask the question: “Do I know with absolute certainty that this current thought, belief, opinion, interpretation, or judgment is true?”

But when do we ask it? As I tell my clients, it’s the moment when you feel yourself tightening—when you suffer a disturbance as the BB says. It’s in that exact moment that you stop and drop the question.

By doing this, you can begin stripping away your old, repetitive, negative patterns and open yourself to what is often a new perspective. Look at your own life and see if you can identify painful experiences that happen to you again and again even when they involve a different cast of people. Then drop the question into the pain.

We can also use inquiry about statements. For example, a popular one is “The only constant is change.” So I begin by asking myself if I can be absolutely certain that idea is true.

When I challenge the statement with the question, I can see it is true as it relates to outward appearances. In nature, rivers change landscapes. In my home town, new businesses have changed its character, and in my life, time has caused my hair to gray. But is it absolutely true for me inwardly? Have I changed how I respond to life? And to that I would have to say, “Not entirely.”  Inquiry helps me identify the beliefs and behaviors that are carryovers from my drinking days that still cause me suffering.

Whether I’m working with clients or with my own issues, the results of inquiry can then become the subject of another of the three core practices: contemplation.

Contemplation
According to Adyashanti, contemplation is the art of holding a word, phrase, idea, or belief in the silence and stillness of your awareness until “it begins to disclose deeper and deeper meanings and understandings.”

Inquiry is about actively challenging things whereas contemplation is more about passively reflecting on things.

You can take the subject of change from the inquiry work above and use contemplation to reflect on an inner change that you want to make.  When first practicing contemplation, it is suggested that you begin small by focusing on words and phrases. For example, if you wanted to use the Serenity Prayer to contemplate change, you may choose to just focus on the phrase “the courage to change the things I can.” Hold that phrase in the silence and stillness of your awareness and let the wisdom flow from it like tea from a steeping teabag.  This is contemplation.

Meditation
According to Adyashanti, meditation is the art of allowing everything to simply be in the deepest possible way” by letting go “of the effort to control and manipulate our experience.”

To me, meditation is like bathing in being. It is my spirit immersed in God’s spirit. It is about surrendering, about effortlessness, and about openness.

So we can take the wisdom that we have learned from our contemplation of the Serenity Prayer and sit with it in meditation. Adyashanti says, “In meditation, you are not trying to change your experience; you are changing your relationship to your experience.”

When meditating, it is recommended that you use a chair or cushion in a place that is free of distractions.   Relax, let go of the concerns of the day, and “just be” with the wisdom revealed to you in contemplation.

In your daily schedule, try setting aside time for these core practices.  All three could be done in one sitting or spread over three days.  Regardless of how you implement them, they are powerful tools in stripping away your old patterns and social conditioning and opening yourself to Truth.

Soon you will discover that the spiritual awakening that you began with your 12-Step work has expanded into more and more facets of your life. And with that expansion comes a new level of joy, peace, and understanding.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Be Bold,
RJ Handley
Spiritual Life Coach

Live a New Year Free of Negative Habits

Habits can be good or bad. It’s the negative ones that cause us problems. These are self-sabotaging behaviors. And whether we are aware of them or not, all of us have a negative habit or two.

Negative habits are anything we continue to do despite the negative consequences they create. Maybe the habit is overspending, procrastination, complaining, gossiping, talking excessively, or social media.

Or maybe it’s a more dangerous habit like smoking, drug use, gambling, or excessive eating or drinking. Regardless of where you are on the continuum, negative habits typically get worse over time and cause us suffering.

Negative habits form when we do something that brings us temporary comfort from things that create discomfort for us. They provide short-term gain but cause us long-term pain. So how do any of us get over our negative habits?

First, we must be aware of them. Second, we must want to be rid of them. And third, we must learn how negative habits begin because that is the key to their end.

The first step takes some courage. This is the awareness step. Even non-life threatening habits like gossiping, complaining, and criticizing can damage or even end important relationships. People who we trust can really help us become aware of our negative habits. We just need to summon the courage to ask their help. We all have blindspots.

For those whose negative habits are more destructive and self-sabotaging, like drinking and drugging, awareness of the habit comes from the extreme suffering they cause. But in the early stages, a person may not be fully aware of the issue. Again, friends and family can help us see it.

So awareness brings us to the second step: the readiness step. It requires honesty. Do we really want to stop indulging this habit? I have the clients I work with answer a simple question: Does the habit come between you and the life you want for yourself? Ask yourself this question. If the answer is yes, then you are ready to move to step three: learning about habits.

All habits are powered by thought. And that’s the key. To end a negative habit, we must change our relationship with the thoughts that created the habit. To do this requires a little more understanding of how negative habits begin.

Habits are a way of alleviating discomfort. We are stressed after a hard day at work, and we have a drink to relax. The lower brain—the amygdala—notices that we feel better because of the drink. It creates a neural link to that pleasant feeling. Each time we take that drink after work, the neural connection strengthens. That neural connection creates the habit. This is true of other habits like procrastination in which we do something that brings us pleasure to avoid what brings us discomfort.

The amygdala is not only responsible for our survival, but it also regulates routine. It becomes like an alarm clock that rings in the form of an urge or craving. And this is where the habit becomes tragic. Not only do we feel the stress of our daily lives, but now we feel the stress of the craving. What once brought us comfort now compounds our discomfort. It’s like a pet dog that now bites us.

Because the amygdala is responsible for our survival, satisfying the craving feels like a matter of life or death. It tells us that we have to have that drink or that smoke or that Vicodin or that pie. The craving seems bigger than us. And the only way to get rid of the tension is to give in to it. That’s the message the amygdala sends us.

This message, however, is a thought. And thoughts cannot harm us or force us to do anything. As we all know, the thousands of thoughts we have in a day are like vapors that come and go. It’s the ones we pay attention to that we give power to.

So it all comes down to changing your relationship with the thoughts that are giving you trouble—the ones that are creating your urges. The truth is that these thoughts are like a playground bully, separate from who you really are. The key word here is SEPARATE. You are not your thoughts. You generate your thoughts, but they are not you just as I am not the words I am now writing.

Realizing this is profound. It changes your entire relationship to your thoughts. You are the subject and the thoughts creating the urge are the object. Now these thoughts become like characters on a stage and you are watching them from a seat separate from them.

When you are aware of this relationship, you can benefit greatly, as my clients have, from the insights Dr. Amy Johnson provides in The Little Book of Big Change.
These are:

• 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 pre-frontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lower brain’s urges or not.

• We don’t make the lower brain (the amygdala) 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 lower 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.

Some thoughts are more difficult to defuse from than others. In my life coaching practice, I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with clients because it provides powerful tools for overcoming negative habits. You can apply these ACT techniques on your own with an ACT workbook to guide you. One I would recommend is The Wisdom to Know the Difference. If your habit is particularly dangerous, then a support group like Alcoholic Anonymous is highly recommended.

Another alternative is seeking out my help. We could work one-on-one either in person or on Skype on a negative habit that is keeping you from living a richer, fuller, more meaningful life. Go to my website at rjhandley.com. To find out more about me or to read some of my articles published in The Fix, the AA Grapevine, or Addiction Unscripted, just Google my name.

Here’s to living free of negative habits in the New Year!!

RJ Handley
Life Coach

What is life coaching?

Life coaching has become increasingly popular in recent years. More and more people are seeking out the services of life coaches to guide them through life’s challenges. But for many others, what life coaching is remains a mystery. As a life coach, I want introduce you to what life coaching is so you may feel more comfortable about reaching out to one of us for help.

Life coaching is a powerful alternative to traditional therapy or counseling. It helps clients with many of the same issues that counselors or therapists usually handle. One difference is that life coaches work with client’s current thoughts and behaviors that are creating problems for the client in the here and now whereas counselors typically examine a client’s past to explain the client’s problem in the present. In other words, life coaches work from the present to the future, whereas counselors often work from the past to the present.

Another difference is that life coaches are less concerned than a therapist about diagnosing a client’s problem and more concerned about developing skills and strategies so the client can effectively deal with the problem. Just as sports coaches work with athletes so they become better skilled at a sport, life coaches work with clients so they become better skilled at life.

Anxiety is a problem many people face. As a life coach, my approach to treating it would be to focus on what situations in the client’s current life trigger anxiety. It may be giving that presentation or attending that large holiday get together. I would ask the client to tell me the thoughts that go through his or her head as the event approaches. Anxiety is always future-based. It is always about what MIGHT happen, not what is happening. I would work with the client on creating a different relationship with those anxious thoughts and then on employing strategies so that the client’s attention is focused fully on the situation rather than on the anxiety. A counselor, on the other hand, would place more emphasis on the client’s history with anxiety.

The best life coaches also incorporate current psychological theories that empower clients to face rather than avoid issues. In my practice, I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Behavioral Activation. These provide powerful tools so clients can respond more skillfully to the challenges life throws at us today and tomorrow and next week. If looking to the past helps a client see patterns of behaviors, I am all for that, but the client and I only glance at the past—we don’t stare at it.

In my practice, I coach clients on a wide range of issues. These include relationships, addiction, depression, anxiety, habits, grieving and loss. My practice differs from that of other coaches’ because I also offer clients guidance toward spiritual awakening and emotional development. Few coaches offer both. I help clients to not only wake up spiritually but also to grow up emotionally.

I encourage you to reach out to a life coach. Many life coaches, like myself, offer a free introductory session. Take the coach up on this offer. If you feel that it is the approach you want to take, then book another session. If not, at least you have a better idea of what you’re looking for and you have satisfied your curiosity about life coaching.

Contact me if you would like to work one-on-one in overcoming an issue that is robbing you of your happiness. I’m at rjhandley.com.

It’s my hope that through this post I have made you more aware about what life coaching is. Please leave any comments or questions in the comment section below.

Kinds Regards,
RJ Handley