New Year, New Awareness

The New Year is a time of change. We make resolutions to inspire us to live fuller, more meaningful lives. Whether we are in recovery or needing to change the way we respond to life, becoming aware of our resentments and our shadow side can transform our lives.

Resentments are not just a problem for addicts but for all people. They can rob us of our happiness by returning us time and again to past unresolved pain. The AA 4th Step—“made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”—is a time-honored means of clearing away the debris of our past for both addicts and non-addicts alike.

For those of us who are seeking even greater transformation, combining the 4th Step with shadow work can bring tremendous healing and wholeness to our lives. Not only are we doing some much needed psychological housecleaning in the 4th Step, but also uniting parts of ourselves together through shadow work that have been fragmented since childhood.

Let’s begin with the 4th Step—known as the housecleaning step—and then move into shadow work.

If we have the honesty that AA Co-founder Bill W. modeled for us, there is a lot of house cleaning each of us must do. This is true in early recovery and beyond. In fact, we probably will never finish cleaning house since life has a way of pointing out new rooms we need to clean.

When we begin our spiritual house cleaning, we do so by trusting God. Steps 1-3 created that trust. We came to believe that only God’s guidance could help us sort through the things in our lives that were worth keeping and the things that needed to be thrown out. And, if you are like me, that meant most things had to go. The heaviest lift was the obsession with our selves.

This self-centeredness kept us hypervigilant to other’s wrongdoings but blind to our own. We held onto these like they were sacred. They festered into resentments that filled us full of infection. Daily, someone in our life would step on one of our infected toes and our minds became filled with words and images from past imagined injustices we suffered. These became our personal stories. And the tighter we clung to them, the deeper we plunged into our addictive behaviors.

What Bill W. called our “number one offender,” these resentments nearly killed us. Because of this, they create an urgency for us to begin our 4th Step house cleaning. Soon, many of us will collapse in tears, so overwhelmed by the realization that we have been the creators of our own misery.

As we sift through the shambles of our house, we discover the “hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity” that caused us to “to step on the toes of others” and to suffer their retaliation” (BB, 62). Tragically, we had been trapped in the delusion that our thoughts, beliefs, and opinions were sane and rational. And we had continually justified our version of reality despite the suffering it caused us and others. The fact that we were surprised when others reacted harshly toward us only reveals how dysfunctional our house had become.

But our cleaning is not yet done. There exists in the dark corners of our inner basements things we have sensed and always feared. They are the boxes that contain all the qualities and traits that we dislike and have disowned in ourselves. These are elements that make up what psychologists call the shadow. And it takes tremendous courage to face what we have so long pushed away into the cellar of our unconscious minds.

Yet, it is our fearless commitment to our 4th Step that gets us down the stairs. There we come to realize that our resentments were the cries of shadow elements that we had kept hidden from ourselves in those basement boxes. When we refused to listen to them, we cast these shadow elements onto other people by what psychologists call projection. What we disliked in people were actually the traits we disliked and disowned in ourselves. And, like onto a screen, we projected them onto others. Maybe it was that guy you can’t stand because he always has to be right. Follow this link for a step-by-step approach to shadow work: https://wordpress.com/post/blog.rjhandley.com/450

A thorough 4th Step leaves us with an incredible feeling of accomplishment. It gives us the confidence to continue our house cleaning. With self-compassion, we take the 5th Step by admitting to ourselves, to God, and to all we have harmed. The power of this step is that in admitting these flaws to others we make a verbal commitment to do the hard work to change.

In the 6th Step, we recognize that the only think worse than our character defects was defending them. New light has dawned, and we see that they were things that we had done, but they are not who we are. With that separation, we begin to loosen our grasp on these defects. We have made ourselves ready for Step 7. Here we ask God to help us do what we could never do before: to put down these self-destructive traits so we can open the door to freedom.

The miracle has happened. We have cleared the clutter and chaos from our house. For the first time in our lives, we can see with clarity who we truly are. This new found vision has brought us to Step 8 and has allowed us to clearly see who we have harmed.

We make the list, and we are now ready for the 9th Step. Through making amends to the people we have harmed, our house is now clean of past debris. A giant weight has been lifted. And now, through Steps 10-12, called the maintenance steps, we keep our house picked up and clean of what formally caused us so much suffering.

The amazing power of the 12 Steps has transformed us. Each step has empowered us to move from the fear-based operating system of the ego to the love-based operating system of our Higher Power. We have given up our selfish obsession with being the center of the universe. And with it, our frantic desire for control and power that had given us neither and had only made us best friends to loneliness. As we shed this toxic skin, we become more sensitive—more conscious—of the divinity within ourselves and in others; and we become more finely attuned to divinity’s voice that now inspires our thoughts, words, and actions.

Now, too, we find peace and deep comfort in the orderliness and sparkle of our newly cleaned house. We embody a vulnerability and a desire for connection that leaves the front door of our house unlocked to those who are now delighted to enter.

Reach out to me if you’d like to work one-on-one with the shadow process or with your addiction issues.

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