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What Addiction can Teach You about Personal Development

Posted Apr 30 2008 7:00pm 2 Comments

Editor Note: This is a guest post from Patrick Meninga of Spiritual River. His story is truly inspiring, and I recommend his blog for everyone, especially those who are struggling with any sort of addiction.

What can addiction teach us about personal development?

A lot. There is much wisdom to be learned by the addict’s journey from addiction to recovery.

I realize that many of you reading this now are probably not drug addicts and alcoholics. That’s fine – but you stand to gain great insight from the experience of those who have fought and overcome a serious addiction. There are several parallels between recovery and personal development. Many would argue that their paths are actually one and the same.

As a recovering drug addict and alcoholic with over 7 years clean and sober, one of my passions is exploring the process of overcoming addiction. While there are many different recovery programs, most of them share many of the same characteristics, so people who find success in recovery do so by following a similar path. Here are some of the things that lead to long term sobriety, while also having practical application for personal development:

Freedom from Addiction

Overcoming addiction requires overwhelming force

This was a huge awakening for me personally. It took me several tries before I realized just how strong of a commitment was required for long term sobriety.

Using overwhelming force is counter-intuitive. We don’t need it for 99 percent of our daily interactions. For example, let’s say you want to clean your living room. Would it really be necessary to individually dust and then hand wash each knick-knack, steam clean every square inch of carpet, wash and repaint the walls and the ceiling, vacuum all fabrics and drapery, and so on? Of course not. This is overwhelming force, and it’s simply not necessary in this situation. We get pretty good results (a clean living room) with only a modest investment (quick dusting and vacuuming). We can see this same example played out in a million different situations. Put in a modest effort, and get a modest return. Almost all of our common, everyday experiences reinforce this concept.

Addiction and recovery doesn’t work like that at all. A modest effort in overcoming addiction will always result in relapse. It is only through the use of overwhelming force that an addict can overcome the incredible pull of addiction. Half hearted efforts or even a fairly strong commitment will result in total failure. This is why many addicts struggle for several years, going in and out of treatment programs, only to someday (hopefully) figure out the intense level of personal commitment required to succeed.

For many addicts and alcoholics, addiction is a life-and-death condition. They are living on the brink of total destruction at the hands of these chemicals. Imagine if your goals in personal development were of a life-and-death nature. (hint: they are). So use this principle to dominate your personal development goals.

Beating addiction requires a strong push to keep growing

Everyone who is on the path of growth and development runs out of steam every once in a while. In recovery, we refer to this as complacency. What we have found with addicts and alcoholics, is that we are either progressing forward in our recovery, or we are stagnating our way back towards a relapse. There is no “treading water” when it comes to our progress – we must keep pushing ourselves to grow.

Again, this is something that many recovering addicts learn slowly over time, as they notice a pattern in which they slowly slide back into their old ways. They eventually find that the only way to make steady, forward progress in recovery is to continue pushing themselves to achieve new goals and accomplish new things. Examples of this include helping new addicts in recovery, going back to finish a college degree, or pushing themselves to get a better job. We can not stand still and be successful in recovery. Stagnating leads to relapse. Steady growth is a huge key to long term sobriety.

The implications of complacency regarding personal development are pretty obvious. While a lot of us might read literature every day regarding personal development, and a lot of us might also have our daily practices and routines that we’ve adopted in order to pursue a more spiritual life, how much have we really grown lately? Ask yourself: should I be striving for something more in my life right now? Will I be satisfied if I continue living the way I have been living lately?

The need to ask for help, interdependence – it’s not about using people, it’s about empowering each other.

There are a lot of stubborn drug addicts and alcoholics out there who have died in active addiction, simply because they refused to ask for help. Part of what defines addiction is the universal truth that the addict cannot beat it on their own. They must have help from other people in order to overcome addiction and live a life in recovery. This means that an addict has to ask for help. In some way, they need to reach out to others; to someone who can help them to find a life without drugs and alcohol.

This is not about using people. In recovery, addicts help each other. A big part of what happens is that we share knowledge – our experience of how we have managed to live a clean and sober life. The “old-timers” can pass information on to the newcomer – explaining to them what has worked for them and what hasn’t. The magic in all this is that the newcomer helps the old-timers, without even realizing it. This is because the old-timers need to be reminded of where they came from, and that the threat of addiction is still real; still out there.

The personal development applications for this are huge. Every person becomes a teacher if you adopt this type of genuine humility. We might see someone who we judge to be a stumbling oaf, and realize later – we are that stumbling oaf. Or we realize that we were at that same point just a short time ago. We are all on the same path, just at different points along it.

When we help others by sharing our experience, we are really helping ourselves as well. We reinforce and learn powerful lessons all over again; we see certain truths in a new light, and find deeper meaning in them.

Raising awareness is critical for overcoming addiction

It takes an awakening just to quit using drugs and alcohol. We have to break through a certain level of denial just to get clean and sober for a few days and let the fog start to clear. This is an awakening – a raising of our awareness.

But it takes much more than that to sustain long term sobriety. Why? Because denial creeps back into our lives, even as we continue to live clean and sober. Denial can attack us in any number of ways. For example, someone in early recovery might jump into a relationship that they know – deep down – is no good for them. The person they start seeing might be manipulative, sick, unhealthy in any number of ways – but the relationship feels good, so those red flag warnings are brushed to the side. This is denial, and it will kill a recovering addict just as quickly as the drugs themselves. Relationships are particularly tricky in early recovery, because the emotional stakes are so high, and the (almost) inevitable break-ups can be devastating.

There are also people who are not addicts in recovery who are still living in some degree of denial. For example, someone might be toughing it out at a job they are truly miserable at, and have a million reasons and rationalizations why they should keep working there. Denial is a subtle foe, and we don’t like to think that we are capable of fooling ourselves. Even the wisest old man knows that they have been in denial at points in their life; it is part of the human condition. We overcome it through awareness. Raise your awareness through self examination in order to see the truth clearly. It is only after we have honestly assessed ourselves that we can start to make positive changes in our lives.

Gratitude

Gratitude is so important in recovery that some AA meetings are devoted to nothing but gratitude. The implications here should be obvious. Practicing gratitude on a daily basis embraces the power of positive thinking. It is easy to stay grateful during the good times – that’s why we practice gratitude – so that we have the chance to put a positive spin on a potentially negative situation. Practicing gratitude allows us to stop wanting for a minute and be at peace with what we have. Gratitude is a powerful tool, a way to shift our perception. Instead of reacting to anger and frustration by picking up a drink or a drug, we can use gratitude to remind ourselves that it’s worth it to stay clean and sober.

Anyone can benefit from practicing gratitude. Change your mindset. It’s about appreciating existence itself. Why do you exist at all? Embrace the fact that you are even aware. This is a gift! You can appreciate anything now; the world is your playground. Take it all in with joy. The ungrateful ones create their own misery by what they don’t have. You, on the other hand, are blessed to be alive!

Forgiving others and letting go of resentments

Addicts can’t remain angry and stay clean and sober for any length of time. The negative energy consumes them until eventually they go back to medicating themselves. So what happens when a recovering addict has genuinely been hurt in the past by someone? Their anger is justified. But even so, this anger consumes them all the same. What is the answer?

The answer is forgiveness. There is great power in forgiving someone who has hurt you. The goal is to free up your own mental energy. The answer is to let go of the anger. Resentment is when you continue to feel this anger over and over again. It becomes a mental prison of sorts – for you. The only solution is to let go of the anger. That is the path to freedom.

If you are harboring anger at someone then find a way to let it go. Realize that most of us are doing the best that we can and don’t genuinely want to hurt people. Sometimes people lash out in anger or seem to be just plain mean. They are dealing the best way they know how. Realize that you, too, have probably lashed out in a mean and hateful way before, at some point in your life. None of us are perfect. Find the willingness to forgive your past transgressors and embrace the peace that follows from it.

Clearing the wreckage of our past

Recovery is a long road. When we stay clean and sober, our past comes back to us eventually, and we have to deal with it. Perhaps we have ill feelings towards someone from a past experience, and we don’t think we will ever see them again. But over the long haul of recovery, those people tend to pop up eventually. That creates a potential problem for the recovering addict.

Recovery programs address this problem by suggesting that the addict clears up these past issues. They have a series of suggestions for making peace with such people, and for making any restitution when possible. This just makes sense as far as healthy relationships are concerned. No person recovers on a deserted island, and any major triggers that lead an addict to relapse are going to stem from relationships with others. Addicts don’t relapse because it’s raining outside, or because their favorite sports team lost the game. The drama in our lives (and the danger for addicts) occurs in terms of our relationships with others. We should strive to not have a chip on our shoulder towards anyone – it’s just negative energy that we don’t need in our life.

Open up to constructive criticism

Opening up to criticism is another big tool in recovery. We cannot always defend against denial through self examination alone. We need help. We get that from our fellow addicts in recovery. Remember the example of the recovering addict who is venturing into a dangerous relationship? Friends, family, or fellow recovering addicts will see the danger in this first, long before the person themselves can see it. Naturally, such a suggestion (”You are making a mistake to pursue that person…”) will be met with defensiveness at first, but this type of advice is usually right on the money. It is up to us, as recovering addicts, to open ourselves up to this type of criticism. It has been said that we “become each other’s eyes and ears”–because we can not see through our own denial at first. That’s what makes it denial! So opening ourselves up to this type of feedback can result in a wealth of introspective knowledge, so long as we can get past our initial defenses and actually listen to the criticism.

While most readers of UrbanMonk.Net are probably not drug addicts or alcoholics, many of you might know of someone who is. In that case, you might want to learn more about how to help an addict.

Patrick Meninga is the author of The Spiritual River website.

Comments (2)
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Thank you Nirmala! Yes I do notice that quite a lot of people also see spiritual people as somehow different, or sometimes seen as strange. I really appreciate all your support here on Wellsphere :D
Thanks for this post. Actually, I have met many drug addicts and alcoholics who have either turned to spirituality as a way of coping with their addictions or who have been addicts at the same time they were part of spiritual communities (which makes sense, since the spiritual high itself can be kind of addictive). I've seen how much shame this has generated within these people, to the extent that they couldn't even turn to their communities for support. I feel that there's this misconception that spiritual people are somehow more pure or have worked through their issues better than other people, but I don't think this is true at all. Using your experiences as a starting point for knowledge and deeper and deeper levels of wisdom is crucial. After all, it's the painful experiences that have the power to enrich our lives and help heal ourselves and others.
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