While speaking with a young woman who is newly in recovery with more than 100 days clean, the topic of change arose. She said that she was unhappy with who she was. I inquired further and asked what she was distressed about in her life. She went on to tell me her history and all of things she had done over the years that caused pain and sorrow, dysfunction and addictive behaviors.
We delved deeper and explored the catalysts for those choices. What became apparent was that she had internalized behaviors and saw them as a reflection of her identity. Her sense of self worth was in the basement, despite having turned her life around. She is not alone. This description could fit any number of people who find themselves on the upside of addiction.
She had determined that where she was heading was clearly not where she wanted to end up. I asked if she could tell the difference between who she was and what she did. Looking puzzled for a moment, she was able to share her finer qualities and still recognized the need for altering her self-perception and her relationships. I reminded her that even good people make poor choices that are not of benefit to themselves and those around them. Recovery encompasses far more than refraining from indulging in her substance of choice, but rather that “searching and fearless moral inventory,” Step 4 of the 12-step model. She had never had so many days of consecutive sobriety and never so much hard-won wisdom.
We took it further as I acknowledged that, although 12-step programs with which she was involved caution taking recovery one day at a time, it was possible to imagine sustained recovery. I asked her to describe how she wanted her life to be in 10 years. She smiled and shared what that vision would look like. She imagined being happier than she is now. She visualized healthier relationships with the people she loves. She was at least moderately willing to see herself in a positive light, despite the haranguing voices echoing from her past.
When I look at my own life, I see that I have fallen into the same chasm that she had. I take my own inventory every day and review my choices and behaviors, some fueled by my twin addictions of co-dependence and workaholism. I have regrets and remorse for what I wish I had done differently. Who I was and how I was were conflated throughout much of my life. I believed that I was only as worthy as my deeds and the caretaking I did for those I loved.
Walking the talk became an addiction, too. While keeping commitments and being in integrity are admirable traits, when taken to an extreme, they can become burdensome. I have since learned that it is acceptable to re-negotiate agreements so that they remain of mutual benefit. If I have needed to postpone, it has been accepted by those with whom I had initially made an agreement. I have come to understand that I need not be all things to all people and that saying no can be a positive statement.
When I can own my yes and no, I am true to myself and therefore, trustworthy. All of these choices help me to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. My relationships are far deeper and more intimate as a result and what I feared has not come to pass. No one has abandoned me or disapproved of my decisions. No one has expressed feeling let down. The floor didn’t open up and swallow me and lightning didn’t come crashing down. I’m still standing.
Some of my best revelations come in the shower. This morning while standing under the cascading water, I fell back into self-deprecation over ways that I had interacted with my husband. I was not the assertive, internally motivated, take charge person I am now. I emotionally sleepwalked through my marriage and had allowed for dynamics that I would never accept now, 20 years after his death. By the time I dried off with a big fluffy towel fresh out of the dryer, I reminded myself that I had made amends to anyone I had hurt in the throes of those behaviors, including myself. I know I am a work in progress and am now living as the woman we both wish I had been back then. I can differentiate between who I am as a growing and stretching human being and what I do out of expedience — and the need for approval and love.
Many therapists would refrain from sharing their personal experiences with clients. I divulge when it feels appropriate and has therapeutic value. When I let those whom I serve know that I face some of the same challenges they do with regard to authenticity and confidence, they are initially surprised and then relieved when they realize that no one is immune to self-doubt. That is when many are able to open up since they know I am creating a safe container for their discomfort and not joining them in their crushing self-judgement. When they are not able to hold that belief for themselves, they are welcome to borrow my belief in them. They generally smile when I tell them that and it bolsters their ability to love the person in the mirror.
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind