12 ways you sabotage your recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at FinalFreedomCoaching@gmail.com.  My clients are working professionals who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  We can meet for our sessions in person or on Zoom. 

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. Nowhere 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’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at FinalFreedomCoaching@gmail.com.  My clients are working professionals who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  We can meet for our sessions in person or on Zoom. 

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

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

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.

If you’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at ValuesBasedRecovery@gmail.com.  I work with people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  I work with clients in person or on the Zoom live video platform.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach