practicing change

As addicts, part of our experience of powerlessness was our inability to change ourselves. This failure to change, I believe, resulted from looking for change in the wrong places.

One place we looked for change was in powerful experiences. We would go on retreats, make large purchases, move house (or to another country), change our relationship status, go on an exotic and spiritual expedition, bring ourselves to the point of painful and emotional tears, put ourselves through extravagant therapeutic or other sensory treatments, and on and on. But we eventually found that, as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. We would eventually still take on the same addictive habitual behaviour…

Another place we sought transformation was in superstition. We would see ‘that person’ at just ‘that time’ or just ‘that place’, and felt the universe was giving us signals. We would seek to cease our addictive behaviour at particular dates, such as birthdays, new years, or such novelties as the 11th of the 11th month in 2011 (at 11:11pm, of course)! But these shallow coincidences masquerading as milestones turned out to have no power to bring any difference to our behaviour either…

Still another solution we looked for was in intellect. We would read books – even properly academic or scientific or theapeutic ones – on addiction. We would watch endless videos and documentaries online. We would usually share our vast new understandings of such things as neuroplasticity and brain chemistry with anyone who would listen. But once again, however valuable such knowledge was, and is, this information was not itself the same as formation…

Recovery, it turns out, is a programme of action. We had all kinds of bad habits. Habits of thinking, feeling and of course acting. In recovery we learn new habits that are life-giving. We practice honest and positive thinking. We practice paying attention to and sharing how we feel. We practice all kinds of good positive actions, like fellowship, confession, self-critique and service. This is why “it works if you work at it.”

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on shame and guilt

Both Shame and Guilt nearly always accompany addiction.  How are they different, and what is a healthy approach to both?

Eradicating Shame

Shame is social.  It is not merely the acknowledgement or awareness of doing wrong, but the – often intense – feeling of being wrong.  Shame simply does not help us get sober or stay sober.  Shame never helps.  Shame only fuels isolation and despair.

Most of the time, we cannot change the opinions of others.  Sure, society or our social groupings can and need to learn about the unhelpful nature of shame, and the way that they can engender it.  Sure, it would be nice if more people had a posture of understanding rather than judgment towards addicts.  But as the serenity prayer reminds us, we have to focus on what we can change – ourselves.  We have to resolve to stop giving time and power and voice to the messages of shame, whether from inside or outside us.  We really and truly can change how we respond to shame.

Sharpening Guilt

Guilt is personal.  It is not the same as shame, because one can admit guilt and responsibility for actions or behaviour whilst not feeling the sting of shame. Shame breeds hopelessness, but guilt unlocks transformation.  Let’s be clear, we’re talking about healthy guilt, not unhealthy guilt.  Yes, there is inauthentic guilt: where we wrongly accuse ourselves with respect to things we did not do.  But we are talking here about authentic guilt: where we rightly take responsibility for things we did do.