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.

My Own Solitary Confinement

I have come to realize why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments that the criminal justice system can inflict on its prisoners.

It’s because I had lived it firsthand.

Embracing the truth of who we are is not for the meek. Oftentimes, it takes a personal crisis for us to do so. But can we really know what we want in life if we don’t know who we are? Can we really know what is meaningful to us when we are living in self-delusion? Can we ever feel the power of connection with others when we are disconnected from ourselves?

Eleven years ago, I lived in the dark and lonely abyss of my alcoholism. During those days, I suffered in my own self-imposed solitary confinement when I had decided to isolate myself. I existed in the hell of my own making, disconnected from myself, from others, and from life.

The truth is that I lived my 20s, 30s, and part of my 40s sleepwalking through life. I lived in a dream state. Because I blamed other people for all my problems, I never looked within myself for the source of my problems. I lived as a fugitive from myself by always running away from myself. Alcohol was my way of hiding.

As a stranger to myself, I had no idea who I was. I lived my life in disguise. And though I was a master at dressing myself up in my successes and accomplishments, I was just an actor playing my own part.

Things changed when the pain of my alcoholism became greater than the fear I had of looking within myself. I crawled through the doors of AA. There I found a sponsor, and I began working the steps.

It was the 4th Step that finally forced me to see who I was for the first time. It was the power of that searching and fearless inventory that allowed me to see the scared and frightened child under all the rumble of my life.

Since then, I have devoted my life to studying the masters of recovery, psychology, and spirituality. And that led me to undergo a rigorous certification program to become a spiritual life coach. Now, in my practice, I enjoy the camaraderie of working with addicts who I believe are the poets and sages of this world.

A few years ago, I read Be Here Now by spiritual author Ram Dass. He saw in his own life how he had been living life in disguise. And as a challenge to himself and others, he posed these two questions, “Are we always going to meet on this stage? Don’t we ever take off these costumes?”

When asked why he cherished working with people who were on their deathbeds, Ram Dass said that the power of death forced people to finally shed their costumes and to step off the stage into their true selves. That experience of being present to another’s truth and authenticity was what brought him back to the bedside of the dying time and again.

Today, I am so grateful that I didn’t die like so many have to my disease. I am so grateful to have stepped out of my costume and into myself. By the grace of my Higher Power, I woke up from my sleepwalking, from the self-delusion, from my own unconsciousness, from my own unawareness.

I must remain vigilant, though, about maintaining the rich connections I so often feel with friends, family, and life or otherwise I can easily slip back into my old patterns of isolation.

To those who have never suffered the devastation of addiction, it may seem ridiculous that we, who have found new life, would be grateful to our addiction for waking us up to the splendor of life—to the splendor of our true self.

Yet many of us don’t want to remove the costume because we have invested a lifetime in creating it. Others may believe that living the illusion is more exciting than living the reality of who we are.

These to me are the “still suffering” that the Big Book talks about. These are the people who are addicted to their roles and to their stories. These are the people addicted to the dream state.

It would also have seemed ridiculous in my early recovery to say these words: That as a recovering alcoholic, I have tremendous power to help others find their way out of the dream and off the stage. We all have this power. We have the power to save lives.

And it’s by sharing our experience, strength, and hope with others.

Kind Regards,
RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach
If you’d like to work one-on-one with me, reach out and contact me at http://www.rjhandley.com. If you’d like to learn more about me, Google my name.

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

A Warrior’s Tale

I engaged.  I battled. And I triumphed.  So it was with my own hero’s journey this past weekend. My family and friends say that my eyes are now warmer and that I carry myself with greater confidence.

These are the outer signs of a dramatic inner shift. They are just a few of the gifts from my 48 hours as a participant in the ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure.

The ManKind Project (MKP) is a men’s global nonprofit that hosts personal development events, challenging and transformational trainings, and sponsors local men’s groups.  It is not a religious organization or a cult but an international collection of men committed to becoming more self-aware, and in the process becoming more emotionally mature and more skilled in relationships at home, at work, and at play.

I don’t want to give away details about what happens on a NWTA weekend because entering the experience without preconceptions or mental rehearsal is part of the program.  Let me just say that the weekend brought many physical and emotional challenges to overcome. There were points during the weekend when I wanted to cut and run.  But I stayed…I stayed with the other 23 men who, like me, burned for something to bring freshness and vitality to our safe and stale lives.  We stayed because we knew that what we hungered for was more important than fear.

And we were right. The intensity of that weekend shook us awake from the sleep of society’s conditioning.  In the fires of MKP’s training, we emerged re-forged as men.  This is the efficacy of the ancient initiation ceremonies that for millennia have powered the rite of passage for boys to become men.  Tragically, they are absent in our culture except in the often sadistic initiation practices of gangs and fraternities.

But they find renewed expression in MKP.  More specifically, the weekend brought to life for each of us the hero’s journey that American Mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized.  Campbell was credited by George Lucas as the inspiration behind Star Wars.

Simply put, the hero’s journey is about departure, initiation, and return. In honoring this journey, the MKP staff empowered us to depart the work-a-day world, to awaken the warrior within, to enter the arena of our fears, and to battle our self-defeating beliefs.   As I returned from the journey, I felt transformed as I proudly proclaimed to my fellow warriors, “I stand victorious in the truth of who I am.”

Campbell said, “The cave that you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”  For me, that treasure was coming to terms with the shame that my rageholic father burned into me as a child.  I have always felt less-than others because that shame taught me I was a bad person…that I deserved his verbal abuse.

I was not alone in living with dysfunction.  Each of us brought to the weekend wounds that have kept us sidelined to our own lives.  It was absolutely awe-inspiring to be present to the sights and sounds of these 9-5 men breaking through their barriers to cross the threshold from ordinary to extraordinary.

I have walked away from that weekend ready to engage in life with a new sense of purpose, appreciating myself for who I am, trusting myself, and believing that I can make a difference in this newly expanded arena that I now celebrate as my life.

In parting, I highly recommend the amazing YouTube video called Finding Joe that pays homage to Campbell’s hero’s journey.  If it resonates with you, then what is keeping you, my friends, from reaching out to MKP and reclaiming your inner warrior?

Finding meaning and purpose for yourself and others

We have experienced times in our lives when we have lost our sense of meaning and purpose.  For some of you, you may be experiencing that right now in your life.

Sometimes it comes from a series of setbacks or disappointments or rejections or a general sense that your life has become bland and boring.

I was there last week.  I felt like I was Tom Hanks in Cast Away, drifting about on my raft, lost in the sea of my life.  And making it worse was a sense of powerlessness to do anything about it.

Fortunately, these episodes occur with less frequency in my life, partly because of a simple activity that I have been using that gets me back in touch with what is meaningful to me.  It helps me to stop drifting aimlessly.  Instead of being tossed about by my feelings of purposelessness, it allows me to find direction and meaning.

The activity comes courtesy of Russ Harris, a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.   It takes just a few minutes to do.

Are you ready to begin?   Let’s go!

Start by answering this question: If someone were to interview your children or sisters or brothers on national TV years from now and ask them what were your greatest qualities, what are three things you would love them to say?

Jot down these three qualities.  These are things that are deeply important to you.  I suggest writing them down on a notecard  so you can display them somewhere prominent—like above your desk in your office.  These all-important qualities will serve as visual reminders to get you back on course when you find yourself drifting.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), these qualities are called values.   They are like the North Star that keeps our life heading in the direction of what is meaningful to us.  Instead of being steered by our feelings that come and go and change constantly, we are navigating through our lives steered by the constance of what is most important to us.

And these values will be different depending on the part of our life where we feel we are off course.  These parts of our life are called domains.  The question I asked about what you would want a loved one to say about you relates to the domain of family.  Other domains are work, friendship, and play.

To find your North Star for any of these domains, just make a simple adjustment to the question above.  So for the domain of work, think of someone at your place of employment that you admire.  Then adjust the question: If someone were to interview this person at work, what would you love him or her to say are your three greatest qualities as an employee or boss?

Again, jot your answers down so you can display them as a reminder of what is important for you in your work domain.  Do the same for the domains of friendships and play.

Now comes the hard part.  It takes courage and honesty.  Reflect on your answers for a particular domain and ask yourself this question:  When was the last time you felt you were truly living each of these three great qualities/values?

If the answer is “It seems like ages,” that may explain why you are feeling like you are drifting in your life right now like Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away.

But there is great hope.  It’s never too late to find your North Star, to discover the values that will provide you with purpose.  The power of such discovery will be transformational.   And it will lead to a richer, fuller, more meaningful life for you.  When others in your life are drifting, ask them these same questions to help them find the purpose and meaning you found through them.

I wish you all well on your journey to greatness.

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.

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach

Presence is the Present

I know this sounds a little wacky after we have all been steeped like tea bags in the waters of holiday commercialism. But the best gift we can give our loved ones is our presence. To be the gift.

It’s a simple decision to put aside our roles as brother or sister or as host or as student home for the holidays. To put aside all our expectations. To put aside resentments against family members. And to just BE with them. To show up as our presence.

Roles, behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and opinions are what we create. They are not who we are. When we take off these costumes and just let who we are become visible, we will be the luminous beings we truly are to all those who have honored us with their presence these holidays.

Some people associate the term presence with the same effort it takes to become a Jedi master. Kinda sad. To me it is as simple as just noticing. When we notice all that is around us, we are no longer in our anxious, work-a-day world thoughts and roles. We have become available to the vitalizing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the holidays. We have become available to our families. We have become the gift.

And therein lies true beauty. And there is so much beauty to notice during the holidays.

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.

Happy Holidays to you all!!

RJ Handley

The wonder and awe beyond addiction

I am a big fan of Alcoholics Anonymous. It literally saved my life. When I finished my 12th Step, I had achieved what Bill W. promised: a spiritual awakening. And to me that was the miracle we talk about in AA. I was transformed. My family saw it. My friends saw it. My colleagues saw it. And I saw it.

The 12 Steps brought me to a place of wonder and awe—a place that spiritual awareness opens us up to. It was a fabulous place to be. And, like many of you, I hungered for more.

So what do we do after the 12 Steps to expand this sense of wonder and awe? That’s the question that powered my spiritual quest beyond the 12 Steps. It became such a passion that I spent a year and a half becoming certified as a spiritual life coach. It was an intense, amazing, and transformative journey into greater spiritual expansion.

One of my favorite parts of my life coaching practice is to guide clients to greater spiritual awakening. Though I work with clients on issues such as addiction, relationships, depression, anxiety, negative habits, and grieving, I find that all the work benefits when clients are open to adding spiritual development into our sessions together. My practice differs from other life coaches because it is not only about growing up emotionally but also waking up spiritually.

Bill W. himself realized his need for more than AA offered. Years after the publication of the Big Book and the 12 x 12, Bill W. wrote a letter for the AA Grapevine called “Emotional Sobriety.” In it, he shares his own issues with spiritual and emotional growth. “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops…because of my failure to grow up emotionally and spiritually.” It’s clear that Bill W. realized that the Big Book did not hold all the answers to overcoming our old, repetitive, self-defeating thoughts and stories.

As with the tornado metaphor in the Big Book, Bill W. understood we can never clean up the ravages of our character defects if we remain unaware of the psychological issues that continue to wreak havoc in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God—even after working the 12 Steps.

He foresaw the need for a spiritual psychology to carry us beyond the “spiritual awakening” mentioned in the 12th Step. To help us in this task, we now have writers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Ram Dass whose words are like an inspired friend walking beside us, informing us of the empowerment of self-discovery.

The Big Book awakened us from the big sleep of our addiction. Now, in recovery and attuned to consciousness, we continue on the path of spiritual and personal growth. In my journey down my own path, I have read widely from the works of spiritual sages. With their encouraging presence, I turned to face my own dysfunctional thoughts and behavior patterns that continued to create obstacles to my own happiness and potential.

So I created this blog called After the 12 Steps and have been writing about how all of us can integrate current psychological theory, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Behavioral Activation, into our spiritual growth. Spiritual writer Ken Wilbur speaks of “enlightened neurotics” who have experienced deep spiritual awakening but remain as children emotionally. He argues that we need to mature both emotionally AND spiritually if we are to live richer, fuller, more meaningful lives.

If you are interested in expanding your own development beyond the 12 Steps, check out my previous post titled “What is Life Coaching?” It’s a companion piece to this one that describes the differences between traditional therapy/counseling and life coaching.

Please visit my webpage at rjhandley.com if you would like to work one-on-one with me on an issue that is keeping you from living the life you would love.
My Best,
RJ Handley

20 Ways to Move from Loneliness to Friendship

I’m not good with people, I’m too shy, I’ve got nothing to offer, I’m not a people person.  Sound familiar?   Regardless of our age, we have probably suffered a few of these thoughts.  But take comfort.  You are not alone in this thinking.   A whopping 72 percent of Americans admit to loneliness, according to a survey done by the Harris Poll in 2016.

Personally, I was shocked to read that statistic.  Are nearly three-quarters of Americans lonely?  Then again, since leaving the super social world of public school teaching, I have felt the pangs of loneliness.  The truth is that so often in jobs that require us to be around many people, we confuse quantity with quality of relationships.  Whether we are younger or older, many of these relationships quickly fall away after we leave our current job.  Often this is because we don’t socialize with our colleagues outside the bonds of work.

Our story is not unusual, as relationship experts tell us: “After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with,” says Marla Paul in her book The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore.

We must push and prod ourselves, regardless of our age, to seek out others.  This is especially true when our children have left, and we feel the emptiness of our home. Start this process of seeking out others with compassionate self-honesty.

Right now, journal your thoughts about what relationship baggage you are carrying.  Everybody has some.  When we become aware of these things, we become more connected to ourselves.  And self-connection is necessary for connection to others.

After you have done this, inventory your passions.  Margaret Manning, writing for the Huffington Post, says to “chase your passions, not people.”  Operate from a position of strength, not weakness.  Know what fires your passions and then get involved with others whose passions you share, she says.  This way we meet people on an “equal footing.”

This next step requires courage and may be the reason why our lives are filled with acquaintances but not friends.   We have to move from being around others to “inviting others in” as Manning says.  We need to initiate, inviting people to join us for dinner or to attend an event or to participate in a project.  If we play it safe and wait for others to act, we will be waiting a long time.

“Become a joiner,” says speaker and workshop presenter Dr. Kathy Jordan.  Many people say that they “don’t join groups.”  Her recommendation: “Accept your discomfort, and do it anyway.”

The good news! According to Diane Cole, of The Wall Street Journal, there are “a surge of people” who are “not only eager to make friends and develop relationships, they’re actively pursuing these social interactions.”

Places to meet people regardless of your age:

  1. Take a class at your neighborhood rec center.
  2. Form a book club—even if it’s only you and another person.
  3. Join a church or take a meditation or yoga class
  4. Join a support group: tackle your fear and get the help that you need to overcome an addiction.
  5. Go on a sight-seeing tour or culinary tour in your area.
  6. Visit Meetup.com. This is a great online resource. You may be surprised to find that there are others who share your passion who are already meeting together.
  7. Volunteer at a shelter.
  8. Join a non-profit.
  9. Invite people over for dinner. If you’re not a great cook, make it a potluck.
  10. Neighbors: Invite one of them to do something and move from acquaintance to friendship.
  11. Join an online forum: this may lead to meeting other people who share your views and interests.
  12. Head to the dog park.
  13. Attend conferences, especially those that involve an overnight commitment.
  14. Join a hobby group.
  15. Facebook: make a play date with a Facebook friend.
  16. ManKind Project: work on self-improvement with men who are seeking the same.
  17. Join a gym: workout and join a class there.
  18. Work on your landscaping in the front yard. Passersby are always curious.
  19. Get involved in a cooking class or a wine-tasting group.
  20. Take walks on public trails. Start a conversation with a fellow walker.

Your efforts to “put yourself out there” will pay big dividends.  Remember, that you need to be seen to be known.  So make the commitment to engage with others, and you will find the vital freshness that new friends can bring to your life.

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.

RJ Handley, Life Coach

Unhooking from Your Negative Thoughts

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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.

Have fun!

RJ Handley, Life Coach

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.

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