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

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. 

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?

How to Tell Safe from Unsafe People

Relationships are one of life’s greatest challenges.   We all struggle with them.  Even  healthy relationships can be difficult at times.

This is especially true for people who are in recovery from abuse, addiction, depression, or trauma as they begin again to reach out for companionship.  Yet healthy or safe relationships are an essential element in reconnecting and participating in life.  They can provide the healing and growth necessary for a purposeful and meaningful life.

 

Regardless of where we are in our own relationship readiness and health, we need to remain alert and cautious about the people we are letting into our lives, especially if we are just getting back on our feet.

 

In their book, Safe People, authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend have come up with 10 ways for you to determine if the people in your life are safe or unsafe for you.

 

  1. Unsafe people think they “have it all together” instead of admitting their weaknesses.

For a period of time, you may admire the person who seems to have it all together.  But as the relationship continues, you may come to feel weaker or inferior to this person.  You may even become dependent on this person.   As you begin to see this person’s “togetherness” as a facade, you may become angry or even hostile towards this person or grow tired of being the open and vulnerable one in the relationship. Unless this person can get real, it may be best to pull away.

 

  1. Unsafe people are religious instead of spiritual.

These are the people who use religion as a means of feeling superior to others.  They seem to have all the answers. These people may also be critical of you for the mistakes and errors of judgment that are a part of being human.  Spiritual people, on the other hand, are authentic and genuine about their own shortcomings and problems.

 

  1. Unsafe people are defensive instead of open to feedback

“All close relationships hurt, because no perfect people live on the earth,” say Cloud and Townsend. But the safe people are the ones who have a genuine desire to improve themselves.  They are open to feedback and “own” their own bad behavior. Unsafe people deny, minimize, or blame others when their own issues arise.

 

  1. Unsafe people are self-righteous instead of humble

Unsafe people will never identify with others as fellow human beings because they see themselves as above others.  Generally, they judge and condemn those they deem less worthy.  Safe people are humbly aware of their own issues and are forgiving of other people’s.

 

  1. Unsafe people only apologize instead of changing their behavior

You know these people well.  Often, they apologize for a behavior but that behavior continues to surface time and again.  They may be quick to apologize for a mistake but over time you become aware that they do so only to get back into your good graces rather than committing themselves to the change that would make the problem go away all together.  Apologies are often stated as “I’m sorry but…” rather than “I’m sorry and…”

 

  1. Unsafe people avoid their problems instead of facing them

Problems and the pain they cause us are sure signs that there is something within us that needs to change.  When we face our issues rather than avoid them, we can make those changes that make us more emotionally mature and skillful.  Unsafe people look away from their pain and problems.  As a result, they are frequently emotionally immature. And because they lack awareness of their issues, they “act out of their unconscious hurts and hurt others,” according to Cloud and Townsend.

 

  1. Unsafe people demand trust instead of earning it

Anger is often the response of unsafe people when their trustworthiness is called into question.  Regardless how that anger is expressed, the unsafe person is essentially saying, “How dare you question my integrity!”  Safe people recognize that “none of us is above questioning, and to take offense at it is prideful,” say Cloud and Townsend. Unsafe people are generally insecure and so when a behavior or action is questioned, they become defensive or confrontational.

 

  1. Unsafe people believe they are perfect instead of admitting their faults

According to Cloud and Townsend, “Unsafe people are on a mission to prove that they are perfect.  Using their work, family, abilities, or religion, they try to project an image of perfection, and their image becomes more important than the relationships they are in.”  Love, trust, and respect are the benefits you experience when you can admit and own your faults.  Unsafe people can be hurtful because they will “fight, blame, and point fingers” to maintain their delusion of perfection.

 

  1. Unsafe people blame others instead of taking responsibility

As long as they blame other people for their problems, unsafe people do not have to do anything to change themselves.  Instead, they expect all those around them to change. Denial is favorite defense mechanism for unsafe people.  They have convinced themselves that things are not their fault. When pressed to take responsibility, they often lash out.

 

  1. Unsafe people lie instead of telling the truth

Does anything more need to be said here?

 

 

What I believe are valuable about these 10 traits of unsafe people is becoming aware of them not only in other people but also in our selves.  Certainly, we can never become too safe.  When working with my life coaching clients, I value the opportunity to help them become safer people as I also increase my own awareness of what I need to work on to become safer myself.

 

I suspect that we can identify some unsafe behaviors that Cloud and Townsend may not have been aware of when they published this book.  Let’s increase each other’s awareness by sharing these examples of unsafe behaviors.  Please add those to the comment section below so we can all benefit from your observations.

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

 

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

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

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