A Fabulous Tool for AA Sponsors and Life Coaches

Change can be daunting for anyone.  Many of us immediately feel anxious just at the mention of the word.  This may be what Frederica Mathewes-Green had in mind with the quote:  “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.”

Addicts can relate because one reason we drank was that alcohol transformed us—without us having to do any work.   Tragically, this transformation is temporary and becomes increasingly elusive.   Instead, we must do the hard work change requires to experience the transformation—the miracle—the Big Book talks about.

And championing lasting change is a huge part of what we do as sponsors and coaches for the still suffering alcoholic and addict.

One of the most effective tools I have used in my life coaching practice and in sponsoring is motivational interviewing (MI).  This technique acknowledges that all people experience ambivalence to change.  They want to make a change. Yet, at the same time, they don’t want to make a change.

The power of MI is that the techniques empower sponsees/clients to arrive at their own reasons for making beneficial changes.  In a sense, they motivate themselves to change.   This is crucial because addicts frequently come to us harangued by the well-meaning spouse, family member, or friend to “get it together.”  From our own experiences as addicts, we know this only creates resentments, not the desire to change.

But there’s good news.  The fundamental tenet of MI is that we all possess the capacity for positive change. It’s only a matter of activating it.

Although I cannot do MI justice in a short blog, I want to acquaint you will some of it concepts.  These are taken directly from “Chapter 3—Motivational Interviewing as a Counseling Style.” To find the article, Google that title.   It’s published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US).

Motivational interviewing is a counseling style based on the following concepts:

  • “Ambivalence about substance use (and change) is normal and constitutes an important motivational obstacle in recovery.”
  • “Ambivalence can be resolved by working with your client’s intrinsic motivations and values.”
  • “The alliance between you and your client is a collaborative partnership to which you each bring important expertise.”
  • “An empathetic, supportive, yet directive, counseling style provides conditions under which change can occur. (Direct argument and aggressive confrontation may tend to increase client defensiveness and reduce the likelihood of behavioral change.)”

The primary task for those of you who want to use the MI approach is to help the sponsee/client to recognize how life might be better and then for him or her to choose the ways to make that happen.

When using the MI approach, keep these five general principles from the chapter in mind:

  • “Express empathy through reflective listening.” Because we have survived the same shipwreck of addiction, we have the capacity to be empathetic.
  • “Develop discrepancy between clients’ goals or values and their current behavior.” Your role is to help focus your sponsee’s attention on how current behavior differs from his or her own ideal or desired behavior.
  • “Avoid argument and direct confrontation.  The goal is to ‘walk’ with clients (accompany clients through treatment), not ‘drag’ them along (direct clients’ treatment).”
  • “Adjust to client resistance rather than opposing it directly.  Resistance is a signal that the client views the situation differently. This requires you to understand your client’s perspective and proceed from there.”
  • “Support self-efficacy and optimism. Clients must ultimately come to believe that change is their responsibility and that long-term success begins with a single step forward. The AA motto, “one day at a time,” may help clients focus and embark on the immediate and small changes that they believe are feasible.”

This blog is meant only to be an introduction to the Motivational Interviewing approach.  By seeing some of its key concepts, my hope is that you may become interested in reading more about MI.  By doing so, you will significantly increase your effectiveness as a sponsor/coach when addressing the often sensitive issue of change for the still suffering of this world.  May God bless your work!

The Glories of Gratitude

I first heard the phrase “develop an attitude of gratitude” in an AA meeting I attended in my first year of recovery.   My immediate reaction was “Isn’t that sweet.”  Then I dismissed it as one of those pathetic AA expressions.  Even though alcohol had totally kicked my ass Rodney King style, I was still carrying around with me this false bravado that placed me above gimmicky expressions.

Then, a few days later, I heard my sponsor say that he was “cultivating an attitude of gratitude.”  I stifled a gag and thought, “Hell, they’ve gotten to him to…although I like his word choice better.”

Here I am nine years later cultivating an attitude of gratitude.  What the hell happened to me?  Sobriety.  It works wonders—even on fools like me.  Yep, I’m kinda a gratitude junkie now.  I even got my girlfriend using now.  Before we turn off the lights at night, we take turns saying our gratitude out loud to each other.  I get a body rush of good feelings hearing each other go through the day, honoring the things that our Higher Power had blessed our lives with.

Gratitude softened me to life and strengthened my connection to it.  I was sleeping better and walked through my days with a heightened sense of appreciation.

About a month into it, the control freak in me raised its condemning head.  Alcoholism may really have a genetic link.  I thought of my drunken ancestor staring gloomily into the cavefire growing more and more irritated with his tribal homebuddies.   (In the picture above, my tribal ancestor is on the far left.)

“How long is she going to go on tonight?  That’s her seventh gratitude.  She’s like a gratitude relay runner who never passes the baton.”

With the patience that 10 years of sobriety can bring, I said to her, “You know, it might be better to just keep our gratitude to our top three for the day.” Realizing that I was sabotaging what I had created (What a surprise for an addict!), I decided to soften my comment with, “That way we can…uh…go into a little more depth.”

Fortunately, by the grace of God, I have been blessed with a girlfriend who laughs easily about herself and has taught me to do the same.  Just after the “more depth” comment, we both burst into laughter.  Yes, one of my most enduring gratitudes is for her.

Bill W. spoke of gratitude in the 12 x 12 suggesting a “genuine gratitude for blessings received and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we shall seek.”

Many times Bill W’s name has come up in my gratitude.  It’s like a verbal hug to Bill and to all my fellow travelers who have helped to “relieve me of the bondage of self.”

If you don’t already set a time aside during each day to practice gratitude, consider Bill W’s words.  Consider spending a few minutes in gratitude with your partner before turning the lights out.  Life can become pretty chaotic.  When it does, my girlfriend and I occasionally need to remind ourselves of the commitment we have made to each other by saying, “Let’s do some ‘tude.”

If you’re a single traveler at this point in your life, try writing in a gratitude journal before lights out.  When life grows dark, it will be a great way to realign your thoughts and heighten your awareness of just how blessed your life really is.

Well, night night to you, my fabulous fellow travelers.  May your path be illuminated by the radiance of God’s grace.

A new way of seeing life

Life has changed dramatically for me in the last three months. I haven’t won the lottery or become Time magazine’s Person of the Year.  And my spiritual life coaching practice has yet to take off.

Yet, I am experiencing a happiness about life that I have never experienced before. I’m so excited about it that I want to share it with you.

And it’s yours, too, free for the taking.

It began a few months back while I was reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth.  One of Tolle’s recommendations for a more joyful life was to “see the divine in all things” and to feel it in yourself.

The idea stuck with me for a while in all its glory but faded like a sunset. Then, while reading Adyashanti’s book Resurrecting Jesus, I came across a quote by Thomas Merton: “Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time.”

Bam! The lights turned on again. Merton’s quote reanimated Tolle’s words about seeing the divine in all things. And that light has remained radiant since.

Like undergoing Lasik, I’m seeing life with a clarity I haven’t experienced even during the “pink cloud” days of my sobriety. Its effect has transformed the way I see and react to life.  And my friends and family have experienced a ripple effect from this shift as well.

How has this shift in seeing expressed itself in my life? Simple: I’m excited about life.

By seeing the divine in all things, I’m no longer battling life. I’m finally able to put into practice the Big Book quote about “living life on life’s terms.”  Amazingly, this is true even during the moments when I would normally pick up the sword again to fight against what my ego perceives as threats.

I accept life now. Fighting life was what fueled my alcoholism. By fighting life, I was fighting God.  It’s not surprising that I sucked at life.

When I see the divine in all things and feel it within myself, I form a very deep and intimate connection with God through life. In this deepened relational state, I feel in sync with life as it unfolds…even the experiences that I perceive as negative.  All experiences are lessons for my ultimate good and growth.

By seeing the divine in all things, I also see people differently. As children of God, we each have the spirit of God in us just as a drop of ocean water contains the essence of the ocean. I now see people as divine beings first and their roles second.  Whether it’s chatting with someone in the line at the grocery store or dealing with a DMV agent, I am in contact with God.  How can this truth not be transformative—and exciting!

I invite you to adopt the idea of seeing the divine in all things. Consciously look for it in all things—at work, at home, and at play—in all the things that you do today and in all the people you come in contact today.  Look for “the divine shining through.”  Look at life through this new pair of glasses.   I would love to hear from you about what you see!

The connecting power of play

“God enters through the wound.”

Years ago I read this quote attributed to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The words have remained sacred to me, and I have applied their balm to even the most superficial of wounds.

I find it easy to confide in others about the deep wounds life opens. Yet, it’s these small, seemingly insignificant scratches that, for me, cut as deep as glacial ice.  Over time they have carved out my self-image.  These are the ones that I keep secret because I am embarrassed to show them.  But, as I have learned in recovery, it is what I keep secret that makes me suffer.

Today is no different. I have found that I have been living a lie.  It’s another one of those silly scratches that I struggle to reveal because I don’t want others to laugh and say, “Really? Is that what you’re upset about?”

Yet, silently, I am in awe how God enters the wound if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have, indeed, been wounded.

Just yesterday I was completing an exercise from the book The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.  It asked what values and goals I have in four facets of my life:  love, work, health, and play.

All was going great.   I was experiencing a flood of warm, glowing feelings of how much I have grown in my ten years of sobriety and my work as a spiritual life coach.  I was really patting myself on the back.

Yep, I was feeling like the Lebron James of love, the Wayne Gretzky of work, and the Hank Aaron of health.

Then I came to writing my values and goals for play. WTH! Crap!  I felt like I was hit on the head with a bat.  I came to the realization that I am the Pete Rose of play.  I have sabotaged my career as a player, the very thing that used to bring me joy.  I tried to remember the last time I went out on the town with a friend.

I came to the startling realization–a core truth:  The reason I drank was because I believed it was the only way I could feel a connection to others.

WTH! So I am sitting here today bleeding from the epiphany that I know as much about play as Donald Trump knows about public service.  I don’t just suck at playing, I haven’t even put on the uniform for what seems like years.  I have been so busy with my career and my commitments that I’ve forgotten how to engage in play with my friends.  I knew the power of play as a child, but my career and my commitments rob me of my play time.

At least that’s the lie I have been telling myself. The truth is that I find play to be uncomfortable.   It puts me right back into the story I have been writing over the years that I am socially defective.

I think about all the amazing people I have known in the past 20 years of my adult life. Many of those I have worked with.  But I poured myself into my work-a-day world so I went numb to my own needs and to theirs, neglecting the power of play to create the connection we needed between us.

So it grieves me to admit it, but I am suddenly—and consciously—aware that the reason I haven’t been doing fun things with colleagues, friends, and other loved ones is that it surfaces my own inadequacies.

As a child, I played fearlessly. But as I entered adulthood, I just sort of gave up.  I felt—and still do at times—that I am unworthy of play.  For years, I stood on the edge of my circle of friends, envious of the joy and laugher they shared, giving my social shame the power to keep me sidelined.

Is it any wonder that I worshipped the effects of alcohol? That it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself?  Instantly, without doing any work on myself, I could suddenly connect in play with others with just a couple of drinks.

It’s easy to blame my socially-isolated parents who never modeled for me what having friends over looked like. Yet, I promised my sponsor and myself to abandon my victimhood as I did the bottle when I became sober.  I know there are things that happened to me that I am not responsible for but, as an adult, I am responsible for healing them.

God really does enter through the wound. And it’s my commitment, just as it was with my 4th Step, to fearlessly look at myself and surface my character defects that keep creating the wounds.  And, just as before, I will get on my knees and ask God for the same miracle that got me sober.  Surely, if God’s grace could free me from the power of alcohol, then that same grace can free me from the prison of my own social fears.

I acknowledge to myself that play is crucial because it is how we, as human beings, connect. It will take time and courage to tear up the story about my social defectiveness.   In The Confidence Gap, Harris says that our problem is not that we lack social skills, it’s that we become fused with the story that we lack those skills.

Today, I am making a vow to call up a friend and ask him to join me in play. It takes practice to overcome any of our perceived defects.  Harris’ words hearten me in keeping me committed to this crucial project: “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”

I thank God that he used the simple exercise in Harris’ book to reveal to me a deep truth about myself that I have been hiding from for years.

God really does enter through the wound—even the scratches—and transmutes the pain into victory.

Living Life in Disguise

I was amazed to recently learn just how many men struggle to connect with other men.   When asked to answer the question, “What don’t you want other people to know about you?” a surprising number of the 24 men I had joined for a weekend training stated that they had difficulty creating deep and lasting friendships with other men.

I must admit that I was one of those men. And I was also one of those men who felt a tremendous sense of relief to be reminded that I was not alone in this struggle.

It’s been just over a week since I attended what’s called the New Warriors Training Adventure hosted by the ManKind Project, an international nonprofit that seeks to empower men to become more self-aware, and in the process become more emotionally mature and more skilled in relationships at home, at work, and at play.

During that weekend, one of the most transformative of my life, I realized at a deeper level that I can survive but never thrive without connection.

I remember the show Cheers with its theme song saying, “You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”  I felt a temporary connection with Sam Malone and company while watching, but it also left me feeling hollow in the absence of those connections in my real life.

It wasn’t until I entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous ten years ago that I began to witness the power of connection. Yes, our troubles were all the same, and we learned from the old timers in the group that you can’t save your ass and save your face at the same time.

Facing death by alcohol has the power of waking a man up to living life by honesty.

Like with my experience with AA, the ManKind Project has helped me realize that I have a choice: I can live life fully by allowing others to really see me as I am or I can live life partially by pretending to be who I am not.

I admire the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. He said as a challenge to those who live their life playing a role rather than themselves, “Are we always going to meet on the stage? Don’t we ever take off the costumes?”

When asked why he cherished working with people who were on their deathbeds, Ram Dass said that imminent death had a way of removing the mask of who we pretend to be to reveal the beauty of who we are.

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.

I was moved recently by learning the top regrets of people who are in hospice care. In the top five was the regret of not allowing others to truly know them, to experience the truth of who they are.

I’ve learned that it’s an impossibility to live our lives with any deep connection if we hide from others who we really are. We need to “get down from the stage so that we live out, not act out our lives,” says Joyce Block in her book Family Myths.

We must dare to be vulnerable if we dare to connect. In our early days together, my girlfriend expressed her frustration with trying to read me.  She said I was often opaque to her.  She asked, “So RJ, you don’t like small talk and you don’t like being emotionally intimate.  How do people connect with you?”  Ouch.

But I ask you that same question. How are men or women going to connect to you?  Are they going to connect superficially to the actor? Or are you willing to take the risk of removing your costume and descending the stage into your genuine self?

Help another person out by sharing in the comments what you have done to shed your costume.

The Ultimate Addiction

The ultimate addiction may be to our thoughts.

Everybody is aware of that voice in the head. You know, the one that urges you to action, the one that you argue with, the one that criticizes you, the one that narrates the movies you make in your head.

A friend of mine joked that the only difference between the people he sees on the streets arguing with themselves and himself was that he didn’t make public the dialogs he creates in his head. I laughed a little uneasily about this, and I was reminded of a passage from Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth in which he makes the same observation as my friend.

One of the things that non-addicts get grumpy about is hearing addicts in recovery say time and again that everyone would benefit from reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. As a recovering alcoholic, I was guilty of this in my early recovery.

Yet, as I read more and more spiritual psychology, the more I learn about the voice. Tolle makes a cogent point that we are all addicts…addicts to our own thinking.   Part of it, particularly for those who love drama (and we all do to a degree), is that creating these mental movies is like the rush of crack.  There is a release of hormones and an adrenaline rush that is…well…addictive.

The majority of us have come to believe that the voice is ourselves speaking to ourselves. What psychologists say is that the voice is really a collection of voices from parents, caretakers, and people who were influential in our lives back as early as childhood.  We have internalized these voices into a composite voice that is constantly chattering away in our heads.

Because it is so familiar, we consider it to be one that “has our back,” that is looking out for our best interest, that is like a best friend. We sometimes forget that this voice is the one that drags us over the coals for the blunders we have made.

If we have the courage to really step back and listen to this voice as if it is someone we are sitting down with having coffee, we would begin to notice that frequently it is a very critical voice. It cruelly takes us to task about who we are and what we do.

Can we really call this voice a friend? Friends love us, support us, and say encouraging words. They remind us of our strengths.  Does the voice really “have our back”?  In my experience, no.  Why do I listen then?  Because I always have.

That is the addiction.

One of the most life-changing realizations I have made during my years reading books on recovery, spirituality, and spiritual psychology—and the one that was so tough for me to grasp—was simply this: we are not our thoughts, we are not our behaviors, and we are not the roles we play. These are things we do. They are not who we are.

But there is a part of us that is at the core of our being. It is that part of us that has remained the same from the time were in diapers, from the time we were children, from the time we were in middle school and high school, and throughout the entire span of our adult lives.   In spiritual terms, this is the soul.

The soul has a voice. It is often called the “small voice” within us.  The reason it is small is because we have allowed the cacophony of voices of our social conditioning to dominate it.

The soul-voice is the one that is who we really are. It is our essence.  And it truly is our most loving friend.

In order to hear it, we must no longer identify ourselves with the critical voice. We must step back from it, again recognizing it as the composite voice of our parents and caretakers.  Experts call this taking the “witness-observer” position.

Being able to assume this position will dramatically change the way that you respond to life and all the people who make up your life.

With practice it becomes easier to dispel the noise of the critical voice and to hear the small voice within. Just take a few moments every day to sit in stillness.  Visualize stepping back away from the critical voice you are hearing like backing away from another person.  Remain still and listen.  See if you can’t begin to hear the loving and compassionate of your small inner voice.

It is there, and it is the voice of self-compassion, love, and acceptance.

It is the voice of your true Self.

I would love to hear your personal experiences doing this. Your comments are welcome!

Recurring Painful Experiences

 

One of the greatest spiritual truths I have learned after the 12 Steps is that we will repeatedly experience the same painful situations until we drill down to the root of the problem.

If you are like me, you know that we often see the small stuff we need to work on, yet we remain blind to the big stuff.

Even after eight years of AA, I had not come to terms with my unhappiness with life. I was unaware that my greatest battle was with life itself. Like some Roman gladiator armed with a mace, I swung at life believing I could stand unscathed from its inevitable pain.

Only after learning the futility of trying to control life and learning instead to surrender to it did I finally grasp the Big Book principle of accepting “life on life’s terms.” How foolish I felt not practicing this truth after my 12-step work with my sponsor and then with my sponsees. And I missed the essence of the Serenity Prayer that I had been dutifully reciting with my fellow AAs for years at the opening of meetings. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” is ultimately about accepting life as it is.

I realized that I had still been investing my time and energy in an attempt to fix all the externals in my life—my wife, my home, my colleagues, my friends—so that I could feel more comfortable with my everyday life. I failed to understand that the only way I was going to experience true happiness was “to have the courage to change the things I can.” What can I change? Not other people, but only myself. But how? By asking God to allow me to see the things within myself that needed to be changed.

With the same courage it took to complete my 4th Step years ago, I plunged into a “searching and fearless” inventory of all my thoughts and behaviors that repeatedly sabotaged my relationships with other people.

God is a wonderful teacher who won’t allow us to go on to the next lesson in life without learning from the lesson at hand. When we don’t learn the lesson, God keeps offering it in a different context. The entire cast of characters changes, but the same pain keeps recurring. Only when I stopped and looked deeply within to the core of each problem did I experience transcendence from the problem and the pain associated with it. In the next blog, I will focus on why relationships are so crucial for our spiritual growth and why they are so difficult for us AAs.

My Story

rjhandley.com

It was nearly 10 years ago that a Big Book quote came true for me: “Someday the [alcoholic] will be unable to imagine life with alcohol or without it.  Then he will know loneliness such as few do” (BB 152).

It may have seemed to others that my life was like a Lexus, but inside I was really a rusted out AMC Pacer.  I was on the brink of bankruptcy after my business partner lost all our working capital in the stock market. My reaction was to descend deeper into abyss of my drinking.

I was literally a fall down drunk. Despite tearing my rotator cuff and then later breaking seven ribs in two drunken falls, I was too prideful to seek out AA for the help I desperately needed.  Although I knew I was an alcoholic, I could not tolerate the stigma of being labeled one.

With my wife set on leaving me, my friends having abandoned me, and my credit card debt reaching $60,000, I lived a life of loneliness and despair that few non-alcoholics experience.  In agony, I finally reached out to my alcoholic sister who encouraged me to attend an AA meeting.  It is through AA and the grace of God that I got sober and remain so after 10 years.

So this blog is really my way of giving back to a program that literally saved my life.  Like many of you, the 12 Steps were my portal into a spiritual awakening.   Sponsorship keeps me involved in the program, but I continue to hunger for more inspired texts like the Big Book to nourish my spiritual growth.   I have read many, and a year and a half ago I went back to school to become a Spiritual Life Coach.  Through this blog, I hope that I can share some of the spiritual truths that have brought a wonderful sense of joy and contentedness to my life.