Coping with Issues in Addiction Recovery
Everyone says you need to talk things out. "You need to talk to someone," people say. "Have you talked to anyone about this," they ask. But what if talking makes you feel worse?
It feels invasive. People pry into the tender, private, sometimes shameful moments of the past (and emotions!) and want you to resurrect them, and you unearth all this anger and pain … And then what? You’re just left with them. Now, you’re extra aware of all the wrongs in the world and from the past, and you’re left feeling victimized and uncertain and misunderstood and helpless or angry. It feels like tapping into all the negatives in life.
And I think that’s true that this is sort of the model in our heads for therapeutically approaching our issues, deeply rooted in our pasts. Ideally, we picture letting out all our secrets and icky feelings and shameful past acts and somehow being cleansed of them. Like confession, laying them at a “higher power’s” feet, doing penance and then being forgiven.
It’s hard to just let go of things, though, especially if we are constantly feeding our anger and dissatisfaction with ourselves or others over and over again. In practice, that often increases and strengthens those uncomfortable feelings. It feels good in the moment, but it leaves us feeling sort of deflated afterwards, at best.
Acknowledging something isn’t, necessarily, processing it. Being aware of our beliefs isn’t the same as understanding and honing solid beliefs that make sense to us, down to our core and in the world we observe around us.
So what are we supposed to do?
A lot of people recommend venting.
So I tend to think of that desire to unburden oneself, to talk and to rant and to get emotional about it all as venting. I think there’s some limited utility to it, because it helps to verbalize and feel our feelings to some degree. But I don’t think that works well unless it’s connected to some kind of process for working our way through these events that happen to us and our reactions to them, in the moment and after.
Our responses aren’t fixed. We can learn from these events and pick out the things that help and harm us in our endeavors. But, if we stay stuck in venting without any sort of processing or closure, then we can start to drown in all that.
So, what does that mean practically speaking? Once I have spewed forth all the events, from my perspective and have cried and ranted, maybe to a friend ,a therapist, at AA, then what?
Let’s take a break-up as an example. Initially, I may scream and cry. I may feel devastated by the unfairness of it all. I dredge up all my proof that the other person was a lousy partner overall, and a terrible person. Or I remember every mean thing they ever said to me, and I ponder them over and over and wonder if they really meant them and feel certain that they’re true and sink into my own insecurities and think about how I’ll never find someone to love me. I must be unlovable, worthless …
Now. Okay. Let’s stop and take a step back for a second. Deep breath. Let’s look at some of what I said in terms of overall thinking and beliefs. So what are the things I’ve touched on in there?
My ex is a terrible person.
They said ____, and that means ____.
Because they said _________, that invalidates every other feeling they’ve ever had for me.
Did they mean the negative things they said? If yes, that means ____________.
No one will ever love me.
Let’s take them one at a time.
Disputing faulty beliefs
Unfairness. There’s an assumption here. Life SHOULD be fair. Is this true? From my own experience or observing others? Who told me life was fair or would be, if only _________? What? You were a nice person?
He’s a terrible person. Well, maybe. But people are pretty complex. Likely, he was terrible sometimes, and amazing others, and mostly somewhere in the middle. Relationship dynamics affect the way people respond to each other. Maybe in time, I can see things from a more charitable perspective. I don’t have to demonize him in order to justify that the relationship didn’t work.
Because they said … Isn’t it true that people say a lot of things that they don’t mean, couldn’t articulate properly or wish they could take back? Have I done this? People can be mean when they’re angry or scared or feeling defensive or uncertain. AND just because someone says something, does that mean that it’s true? Or that they’ve suddenly identified my essence?
… That means they never loved me. Well, possibly. But what’s the benefit of thinking that way? We’ll never truly, truly know what’s in another’s heart, and so why not be charitable towards them and ourselves and assume that they did love us and that things change, rather than that they never did. We don’t have to blind ourselves if we were taken advantage of, and we definitely don’t want to repeat the same mistakes, but I’m okay with assuming basic good intentions and true feelings along the way, in spite of bad acts, toxic dynamics, etc.
If they meant it … That means I am a terrible person. Maybe I am really [selfish, childish, stupid, thoughtless …] And THAT means, I am no good and worthless. Now hold up! One person’s words do not suddenly change or define who I am. I can examine them for any truth, but whatever someone else thinks or says does not mean that’s who I am. Also, when people are being insulting or mean, it is often a projection of their own insecurities. Is this the case? If some of those things ring true, is there anything I can do about them? Can I look at them for truth and make adjustments without suddenly labeling myself as ________?
No one will ever love me. Well, this is probably a gross exaggeration. People have loved me. I have a lot of people who care for me, even if I haven’t found that ONE romantic love. Isn’t it true that my family loves me? My cats?
I am unlovable. There are people who love me, so that can’t quite be right? Are there things about me that even I think are lovable? How about likable? What makes other people likable or lovable, to me? Is it even possible to be 100% unlovable? Who would fit that? A mass murderer? Am I really putting myself in a category like that?
Albert Ellis's ABC Tool
All right. Now that’s a lot. What we’ve really been doing here is an ABC. The ABC is an exercise developed by Albert Ellis, Ph.D., a founder of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Below is a simple worksheet I designed some years ago for SMART Recovery:
Here’s the formula for Ellis's ABC, applied to our example:
A = Activating event - something happened, the breakup
B = Beliefs - all the things we first talked about, the venting, culminating in that list of beliefs we came up with
C = Consequence - the result, we feel terrible about ourselves and angry at the world (I didn’t identify this, above)
D = Dispute - We take a step back and ask ourselves some questions about those beliefs
E = Effective new beliefs
Let’s look at that last one now. Effective new beliefs follow directly from the questions we raised in those disputes. They can be taken one at a time or summarized more broadly. Let’s go through them individually here.
Effective new beliefs
Unfairness - I have no good evidence that the world is fair or unfair, personally, to me. I’ve had good things and bad things happen, both undeserved. I probably come out on the good side of that equation overall?
My ex is terrible - Maybe. But dwelling on their negatives doesn’t really help me get past anything. There were a lot of things I liked about them at one time. Two things can be true. People can do terrible things and still have redeeming qualities to them. That also doesn’t mean that I have to welcome or keep them in my life.
They said _____, and that means _________ - People say lots of things that aren’t true and that they don’t really mean. Even if they meant it and even if there’s truth to it, that doesn’t mean I am a terrible person. No one is always at their finest. I can make allowances for myself and work on what I can.
I will never find love - Well, this is definitely assuming I can predict the future, when it seems clear that the world is wildly random all the time. Just because I didn’t find “true” love with this one, flawed human being doesn’t have anything to do with what might happen in the future, unless I completely close myself off to it?
I am unlovable - No. I believe that people are lovable and deserving of love, just because they are human. I am not the worst of the worst of humanity. I can cultivate the lovable parts of me. And not to mention that other people love me, there are different kinds of love. I have experienced lots of love throughout my life, even if it wasn’t always expressed the way I wanted.
Closing the Loop
Feelings and Goals
Now, there are two extra pieces of an ABC that not everyone includes, and there are some variations on what they stand for. I like to wrap up with:
F = Feelings
G = Goal
Usually after writing something like this out, I feel at least a little calmer. A little more grounded. That’s F for Feelings. Just take note of those. Any little reduction of exaggerated, unhelpful feelings is a victory, and taking a minute to recognize that small bit of relief is a good self-reinforcing habit.
And then the last letter is G for Goal (singular, keep it simple).
So in our example, I might write out something brief that I can remember, like, “Even though this relationship ended, I can hang onto the good memories and work on not letting the bad ones affect how I feel about myself.”
The goal of Ellis’s ABC in therapy and in addiction recovery is to reduce our upset enough so that we can think and respond to situations more thoughtfully.
The above is just an example. These work when we use our own situations, language, thoughts and beliefs.
I’ve found this, specific, ABC exercise and process to be the most enormous gift. Writing it out was part of it for me. And I had people help me in mutual help group settings, too.
It took me some time, not so much to learn the ABC, but to practice enough to be able to fit the things I was experiencing into this structure, and I found it very frustrating for quite some time. But when things really started to click, this process of thinking started to make a huge difference in my ability to look at life with clearer eyes and a lot greater contentment and acceptance.
The ABC tool and was designed for self-help. However, it can be hard to spot our own assumptions and suspect beliefs.
A coach, a counselor or therapist can help you walk through a process like this so that you are not just unearthing bad feelings and past events, but looking at them and putting them into a perspective that you believe and can live with as you move forward in life.
If you’d like to learn more, give me a call or send me a message! I’d love to talk with you.