addiction

Things We Need to Talk About But Don’t Touch

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“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” —T.S. Eliot

This is true about recovery. It is such a repetitive cyclical experience in so many ways. There are many portals to explore and understand about addictive behavior. Open one door and it seems to lead to the next. You learned how to end your addictive behavior and stop the out-of-control train going down the track. Desperation opened the door to a belief in a Higher Power that restored you to sanity. Yet, stubborn willfulness blocked the decision to turn your will over to the care of that Higher Power. It brought you back to where you started with your addictive mindset dominating your behavior, and you repeated the same experience as before. Each time you repeat, the pattern becomes an opportunity to know yourself for the first time. 

The recovery experience invites you to talk about things that you don’t touch. There are secrets. You are invited to open your deepest darkest hidden experience and expose it to the light of day. You are encouraged to get emotionally naked about reality, often in the presence of people you don’t know that well or for that long. 

The exploration doesn’t stop with the addictive behavior. The challenge is to explore all of our behaviors and our relationships. Some 12-step groups insist that you only relate to one identified addiction during your time to share. I have always found this limiting. Recovery is pervasive in its journey of research and examination. It requires that you turn over every stone and inquire, with curiosity, pathways you have not explored. Many in recovery choose not to open doors about intimacy and relationships. They limit their 12-step journey to remaining sober from their addiction. They know a lot about staying sober and less about intimacy and building relationships. 

Addicts talk about things with their sponsors and others but often don’t open their hearts to their partners. They become good about sharing vulnerability with those who are distant. They give good advice about how to be emotionally open but remain closed and distant at home. There is so much that needs to be talked about that is never touched at home. 

Feelings like stress, anxiety, and fear build on the inside. An addict becomes lonely and seeks escape from discomfort. H/She sits with a craving to escape through their drug of choice. It is powerful because it works for a while. The pain is so great and the relief is so powerful. 

Your partner also has anxiety, stress, fear, and loneliness building within. They also want to escape. It could be through their addiction. It often takes the form of a cocktail of other experiences like busyness, electronic games, children’s activities, running errands, or exercise. The emptiness in the relationship builds as both partners avoid what needs to be talked about but is never touched. 

An addict may talk about the experience in a 12-step community. Yet, if it is never discussed with your partner, the 12-step group becomes a lifelong partner of triangulation. You can avoid opening your heart to the partner you should be talking with by sharing instead with a third party. The void between you and that person grows as you lament to your 12-step group. This becomes particularly sad when that person is your romantic partner. 

To stop the fantasy about your addiction you need to tell on yourself to your partner who, in turn,  needs to talk to you about how they try to escape from their discomfort. When partners do this with each other, the void between them shrinks and the feelings of discomfort give way to the richness of emotional intimacy.  No third-party relationship has ever been able to replace the richness of intimacy that is created when you touch what needs to be shared with your partner about the truth of who you are. Each time you talk about what you don’t want to touch in a relationship you will arrive where you began and know the place for the first time. 

The Way of the Windigo

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The Windigo is a legendary monster of the Anishinaabe native American people. It
is the villain of a tale told on freezing nights in the North Woods. As the legend is
told, during cold freezing nights you can feel the Windigo monster lurking behind
you as you walk through the woods. It is a being in the shape of an outsized man, ten
feet tall, with frost-white hair hanging from its shaking body. With arms like tree
trunks, and feet as big as snowshoes, it travels easily through the blizzards of the
hungry time, stalking its terrified traveler. The hideous stench of its carrion breath
poisons the clean scent of snow as it pants behind. Yellow fangs hang from its
mouth that is raw where it has chewed away its lips from hunger. Most telling of all,
its heart is made of ice.

Windigo stories were told around campfires to scare children into safe behavior.
Windigos are not born, they are made. There are human beings who have become
cannibal monsters. Their bite transforms victims into cannibals.

Addicts, too, evolve into cannibals of life experience like the Windigo. They never
get enough of what they really don’t want. Addictive craving pushes them to care
more about satisfying their own addictive urge than anything else.

The truth is that there is a Windigo nature in everybody. We all need to learn to
recoil from the greedy part of ourselves. There is a dark and light side in
everyone’s life. It is important to recognize the power in the dark side of life and
to learn not to feed it. Habits that become overindulgent and self-destructive
represent the Windigo nature. Seeking out to fulfill lustful desires for possessions
and acquisition, not for the need but for greed, triggers the Windigo nature to
flourish. Ultimately, your heart will become more like ice and you will begin to
distance yourself with indifference to other people’s experience of life. The trials
and tribulations of others become simple facts and you become less connected to
others around you.

Compulsive overconsumption fuels the Windigo monster that lives within each of
us. People live their lives with the fallacy that human consumption has no
consequences. Indulgent living that was once considered wasteful is now
considered a success by many. A consumption-driven mindset is presented as a high-quality lifestyle but, it eats away at the core being within. People never get enough.
There is a craving for more and more. It is like a black hole in the stomach that
never gets filled.

If you are not careful you will allow the “market” to define what you value. The
common good depends upon lavish lifestyles that enrich the seller while
bankrupting the soul and the resources of the earth.

It is helpful to assess the Windigo thinking that exists within your life experience.
Addicts who have learned to come to terms with their own limits are signposts to
the rest of the world to manage the Windigo monster that lives within.

Ten Components That Cultivate Cherish in the Presence of Relational Betrayal

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Cherish is a dynamic in relationship life that adds richness and protects the integrity of love between two people. Cherish promotes protecting and caring for something or someone in a very loving way. You hear about athletes who cherish an old coach who has long since retired. The athlete now cherishes the memories and lessons learned. Memories of old mentors who have passed away are cherished by all of us. Cherish means that we hold something or someone dear to our hearts. Historians cherish the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, and other valued historic documents. Olympic athletes cherish the opportunity to participate with great hope for success. The word cherish represents magic that adds meaningfulness to romantic relationships. It is an important characteristic and life dynamic.

Cherish can be drained from the experience of life. Disappointment can stop the flow of cherish in a promising job when you are overlooked. Selfish living can kill the cherish that exists in a community. Abandonment and neglect can choke the cherish from the dynamic of any relationship. Yet, nothing destroys cherish in a relationship like betrayal. 

Gone is the protection and the care for the integrity of love in a relationship. Past memories of cherish are now sullied with deceit and lies. Meaningfulness in a betrayed relationship is demolished with chaos and confusion from gaslighting. Hope is destroyed with dupe and double cross.

Relational betrayal is a societal travesty. The basics of how men learn to treat women begin with role-modeling in the home between mother and father. When dad treats mom as if she were a utility (responsible for all the domestic duties and for providing good sex) then it carries forward in the lives of the boys into adulthood. The seed for sexual objectification are planted in the minds of children by the way dad objectifies mom and how mom colludes with being a utility. 

Objectification eradicates cherish. When one partner betrays another, objectification is the culprit that permeates the thoughts and behavior of the betrayer. The grass seems greener somewhere else. 

When betrayal is exposed through disclosure, the betrayer most often will want to fix the problem with an apology and move on. Yet, broken hearts don’t heal this way. It becomes a feeble attempt to restore cherish in the relationship.

At the moment of disclosure, both partners are unable to move forward toward rebuilding trust with a simple apology. Trauma ignites a systems failure. Unpacking broken trust and gaslighting truth requires a detailed healing process. Honesty moving forward from disclosure about every behavior is necessary. It is important for the partner to experience this reality from the betrayer.

When both parties in a relationship ignore this understanding the efforts made by the betrayer to fix the problem will most likely be unsuccessful. A betrayed partner can heal when their experience is validated and their truth is respected and supported. Those who betray must offer this support toward healing. Betrayers who rigorously commit to honesty in all aspects of life in recovery create a healing environment toward rebuilding trust with their wounded partner. Working with an experienced therapist who has been trained in working with betrayal can be helpful. Partners who attend a self-help group for betrayed partners will steady their journey toward healing. Addicts who try to avoid their partner’s pain will slow the healing process in relational recovery.

Here are ten suggestions to consider around healing betrayal in a relationship and restoring cherish:

1. Accelerate your own commitment to your own healing. Whether you are an addict or a partner stay in your own lane. An addict must focus on doing everything possible to heal themselves, getting clear about why they cheated, with a commitment to radical interventions to prevent betrayal behavior in the future. Many betrayers get lost in finger-pointing, doing whatever their partner wants them to do, while avoiding what is necessary for their healing. So, take your eyes off your injured partner and concentrate on restoring your values.

2. Practice telling on yourself. To heal betrayed trust, each person in the relationship must understand that they will not be perfect in recovery. Mistakes will be made by both parties. It doesn’t mean that addictive relapse is automatic or inevitable but it does mean that both parties are human and backsliding on commitments made will exist along the journey toward healing. It will be important to tell on yourself and commit to making amends. Any time you hurt your partner, make amends. It all begins when you tell on yourself. Avoid being defensive or explaining your behavior and actions. You do not need to clarify your intentions. Simply acknowledge and admit that your partner is hurting. Tell on yourself when you have done something that hurts the other person. 

3. Practice not making assumptions. Making assumptions involves human error. You cannot know what you don’t know. Insecurity and shame accelerate the temptation to make assumptions. You can assume that your partner only sees you as disgusting. You can build an entire system of sabotage behaviors based on false assumptions you make about what your partner thinks of you. Intervene by stopping to check things out with an honest inquiry. Don’t bait your partner with hurtful behavior to repeat your false assumptions.

4. Don’t personalize your partner’s behavior. Your partner’s response to healing is not about you. This may be hard to wrap your arms around but true nonetheless. Their behavior is about them and their pain. You may have hurt your partner with betrayal action, but, your partner will only heal when they are guided to embrace their pain and walk down that path toward healing. If you are the one who has betrayed, you will need to establish internal boundaries that help you detach from your partner’s healing. It’s not about you. What is about you is offering support and validation to your partner for your betrayal behavior. If the partner who has been betrayed becomes verbally, physically, and/or emotionally abusive, external boundaries will need to be established. Boundaries must have consequences to provide care for the person setting them, not to punish the other party. The strategy for healing is not that you become a pin cushion for your partner’s pain.

5. Stop saying you’re sorry and validate. Sorry is a hollow word around betrayal behavior. So stop! Validation is about supporting your partner in pain with agreement and affirmation. “You are right, I was selfish, inconsiderate, and insensitive!” “I didn’t think of you and you have every right to be angry and hurt!” “I know you are hurting. How can I best support you right now?” These are compassionate and caring examples of validation that will require you to anchor yourself in the powerful adult that you are and can operate from in your relationship.

6. Stop looking for a pat on the back from your partner as you work hard to maintain sobriety. If you are an addict, providing sobriety is a ground-zero expectation. Your partner did not commit to you thinking fidelity would be an added benefit. It’s assumed that you would preserve faithfulness. When you break your partner’s heart you cannot expect them to be your cheerleader. Your 12-step community and others must provide support at this level. 

7. Know your partner’s love language and zero in on that behavior. Focus on being sensitive to what your betrayed partner needs from you. Making promises and giving your partner what you would want for comfort usually is not healing. However, when you focus on what is considerate and caring from their perspective, it can create emotional pain relief and soothing support.

8. Ask for permission to express love to your partner in non-sexual ways. Taking the initiative to do nice things for your partner without first asking is often seen as inconsiderate when healing betrayal and building cherish. Doing what you think your partner needs without checking in with him or her is another way of taking up too much space. Asking for permission and framing it as “Would this be helpful to you” is a way of practicing dignity and respect that ultimately leads to healing.

9. Pay attention to codependent responses while navigating through relational betrayal. Understandably, you want to please your hurting partner while both of you attempt to heal from betrayal behavior. However, when the primary motivation to do recovery is to satisfy your partner, it seldom works for the long haul. It is not sustainable. Sometimes the partner who was betrayed by an addict’s behavior wants to determine the particulars of an addict’s behavioral contract for sober living. This seldom works well. Oftentimes an addict will codependently abandon his or her truth in order to appease their betrayed partner. When this happens an addict often loses his or her way in recovery which ultimately leads to a relapse. Both addict and partner must cultivate healthy self-assertion regarding wants, needs, and expectations in the relationship. When this is not done a shallow recovery life is pockmarked with unhealthy codependent response. 

10. Subconsciously, don’t make your partner your parent while recovering from destructive betrayal behavior. When betrayal is uncovered in a relationship, it is easy for the betrayed partner to put the betrayer in the basement of the relationship. Shame accelerates negative images and messages about the betrayer. This frequently triggers old pattern behaviors that resemble trying to gain approval from a parent early in life. A partner cannot be the other’s parent. Pleasing your partner from this framework of thought and behavior will never restore healthy intimacy. Recovery may trigger awareness that unresolved family-of-origin issues need to be addressed. When this is true, address it so that you can anchor healing that fosters equal loving care for yourself and your hurting partner.

Rebuilding cherish in the appalling presence of infidelity and betrayal is a difficult undertaking. These ten suggestions are among many that can help make a healing difference as you navigate the treacherous waters of mending betrayal behavior.

Chronic Relapse

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Over time I have observed addicts who have miraculously transformed and changed their lives. The changes have been like night and day. They are the ones who make 12-step meetings seem powerful and therapists look good. When you listen to their recovery program and see their results, you walk away wondering why doesn’t every addict do their program like that. 

Then you find some who do a similar program but don’t have the same results. Many times it is obvious that those who fail in their program do not “go to any length” to maintain sobriety and cultivate recovery growth. For those, the issue is whether or not they are willing to up the ante in their program to make it work, do more meetings, do a deep dive with 12-step work, increase therapy to resolve underlying issues of trauma and emotional pain, etc. In this mix, there are those in recovery who mean well and do well, but somehow don’t get the necessary traction to establish long-term sobriety. Essentially, they engage chronic relapse. 

Some “chronic relapsers” struggle to maintain 24 hours without their addiction. Others can go a week, month, or several months and not relapse. Some get to the outer limits of time in their sobriety and almost as if an alarm goes off and they tell themselves “It’s time to act out” and relapse occurs. Others can establish long-term sobriety in one addiction, like drugs or alcohol, but experience chronic relapse in other areas like sexual addiction. 

In discussing this pattern of relapse in recovery with a pioneer researcher and therapist around sexual addiction, the seasoned veteran stated that while partners of sex addicts demand absolute sobriety from their sexually-addicted partner, seldom does this prove the reality for the addict. 

There have been many attempts to address chronic relapse in 12-step programs such as moving the chronic behavioral failure from a bottom-line category of acting out to middle-circle behavior. However, there is no hiding from the problematic behavior, regardless of category placement. The behavior that is against values continues to progress and linger. People who truly shift their value system to include the behavior that was once considered relapse and is now considered high risk, usually are at peace with themselves regarding the behavior. However, if the experience of chronic failure is addiction behavior, it doesn’t matter what category you put the behavior, relapse and destructive behavior will continue to progress and intensify emotional pain. It’s a lot like trying to get a new look in your house by taking the old furniture and rearranging it but in the end, you still have old furniture with a different look.

Coming to terms with failure is an age-old problem for the addicted and non-addicted as well. I don’t have an answer as to why some addicts struggle more than others in establishing long-term sobriety. For sure there are many factors to consider. A key to addressing chronic failure in relapse is to focus on the task of self-care. For an addict, self-care is counterintuitive in the presence of relapse. When you have just acted out and screwed yourself in so many ways, the first thing you need to do is the last thing you are prone to do. Treating yourself with gentleness and being your own best friend seems preposterous when you simply want to scream and beat yourself up. Why? Because you failed. It’s common for some to scream and self-destruct in a cloud of smoke while others more subtly self-sabotage. 

In life, people work so hard to avoid facing failure. Yet failure is a part of every aspect of being human. We fear the judgment, the perceived ridicule, and the alienation that happens when we fail. In addiction, what is more important than a continued day count is the capacity to employ resilience when you fail to maintain sobriety. It’s the capacity to bring yourself back to the center of your values when you drift or act out. Knowing your resources and how to bring yourself back to your values is most important. Being able to stem self-criticism and re-focus on the next right thing is invaluable. Many addicts who work a strong program and some who white knuckle their way through the day, hang on without a protocol to bring themselves back to center when they act out. When this happens, they free fall toward oblivion in addiction. It’s been shown that those who free fall in this way have a much greater struggle with re-centering. Repeated failure with sobriety is the result.

Here is a suggested protocol for chronic relapse.

1. Admit your failure, do the next right thing which is always to take yourself out of harm’s way. Simply get away from your addiction. Destroy the substance, get away from the relationship, turn off the computer, etc. If you are sitting in the middle of a busy intersection and you just got run over by a bus, the first thing you need to do is to get out of the intersection.  Most likely you will need to reach out to a support person to get this done. 

2. As the Buddhists say “put yourself in the cradle of loving kindness.” Addicts live in self-deprivation even when they are sober. It is by grit and determination that many addicts stay sober. So when there is a failure, the energy of grit and determination is funneled into beating the hell out of yourself. Simply, it doesn’t work. It’s like dumping kerosene onto a fire. Yet, somehow addicts and other people who fail who are not addicts, think they have to continue eating the poison. So they abuse themselves with hurtful remarks and treat themselves with ongoing deprivation. They deprive themselves of gentleness, and support from others and covertly become mean to themselves embracing mistaken beliefs that spiral into repeated addictive or other destructive behavior. The slippery slope of relapse becomes black ice when an addict eats the poison and tells themselves they are a failure, a piece of shit who cannot do what others do to maintain sobriety. Depriving yourself of care and kindness leads to entitlement toward acting out in addiction. Sometimes you must take yourself by the nap of your neck and be kind to yourself even while kicking and screaming against it.

3. Affirm yourself. You say well “If I just shit all over myself, it’s pretty hard to tell myself to feel clean.” In 12-step work, there is talk about “fake it till you make it”. Overcoming chronic relapse means that I must treat myself in the way in which I aspire to be. I must act the way in the present that I hope to be in the future. To do this I must not allow feelings to dominate my actions. I affirm myself even when I feel like shit. I act my way into a new way of being. I cannot feel my way into this experience in recovery. When I am discouraged, I can afford the time to feel it but not when I am lying in the middle the intersection of addictive act out. I have to pick myself up, drag myself out of the intersection, and affirm myself when all I feel like doing is giving up. Affirmations are beliefs that must be practiced and conditioned regularly in my life, particularly when faced with failure. They are intended acts of self-care that are conditioned in unspectacular moments, often in the presence of despair and discouragement of chronic relapse.

4. Separate your sense of self from the relapse behavior. When you introduce yourself as an addict to a 12-step group, you are describing your behavior, not your sense of self. In truth, the behavior represents a small part of your life, albeit, a most destructive piece.  Relapse is always about behavior and never about who you are. Yet, shame says that relapse is about who you are. Your behavior and your sense of self are the same. Separating behavior from personhood is an art form that can only be curated through conditioning.  Experiential therapies can help create breakthrough experiences of release and relief, but you must do the unspectacular conditioning of separating behavior from self. This will require a lifetime commitment and a willingness to fail forward. It demands that you practice affirmations as a regular lifestyle. In all my years of recovery, I don’t know any other way. The benefit is self-acceptance in the presence of human failure. There’s a deep satisfaction of living in your own skin. There is an abiding awareness that I can go down and face failure and come back up. Some identify this experience as unconditional confidence. No matter what the result may be, I can accept and love myself. This requires daily practice not perfection. 

Chronic relapse can become a great teacher of spirituality in life. Some have suggested that spirituality is discovered by embracing the wounds in life. Wounds reveal vulnerability, weakness, and the capacity to recognize limitations. Chronic relapse is a wound that deepens authenticity when you accept that the wound contains the same common shared brokenness that everyone else in the world experiences. Self-acceptance in the presence of chronic relapse is the essence of human brilliance.

Hangovers

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Fred has been a recovering sex addict for 5 years. Sexual acting out used to be an organizing principle in his life. He woke up everyday thinking of numbing out with porn and hooking up with whoever he could find on the internet. It nearly cost him his family, his job, and even his life. One day an escort and her pimp robbed him of everything he had. At gunpoint, they forced him to go to his bank and withdraw $10,000 from his account. He was told that there was a gun pointed at his head throughout the entire bank transaction and would be killed if he did not bring them the exact amount. This was hitting bottom for Fred. He promised that if he escaped this predicament, he would seek help and change his lifestyle. And he did. He sought out a certified sex addiction therapist. He began going to 12-step meetings, worked the steps, changed his life, and experienced healing within and in his marriage and family. That was 5 years ago! 

Moving forward he managed sexual addiction cravings with the tools that he had learned in therapy and 12-step groups. Things were headed in the right direction. Then COVID hit. He was laid off from his work and had to scramble, doing anything to pay the bills. There was a lot of stress and anxiety that persisted throughout the 2 years since the COVID lockdown. Eventually fatigue, stress, and anxiety wore him down. One night while driving home he pulled into the parking lot of a strip club, drank, and paid for several lap dances. The next morning he woke up with a hangover not only from the alcohol but from the reality that he surrendered all the vestiges of meaningful sobriety and serenity that he had accumulated in his recovery program the 5 years before. He was sick to his stomach, dulled with brain fog, and profound loneliness and emptiness. The emotional pain was indescribable. Alone, he screamed in despair. He was suffering from the hangover of relapse behavior. 
Hangovers suck! Hangovers always deliver what they promise—headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, irritability, and other symptoms. Most people associate hangovers with drinking too much or other drug abuse. But, hangovers are the result of many behaviors. Other than its relationship to chemical abuse, the dictionary defines a hangover as something that remains from what is past. Its the letdown that follows great effort and excitement. Hangovers follow every act out and trigger further use of a substance or process.

Every addict knows the pain of a hangover that follows an addictive behavior. Addicts who succumb to relapse are highly susceptible to repeating the destructive behavior until the old addictive lifestyle is once again in place. It happens amazingly fast! Hangovers play a significant role in the reconstitution of addiction. Surprised by the relapse, addicts fall victim to the power of shame and the staggering emotional pain that is part of the hangover aftermath. 

Most addicts relapse in their attempts to gain control of their addiction. Listed below are suggestions to consider in working through the hangover that accompanies relapse behavior.

1. Get out of harm’s way. You may have to drag yourself away but don’t let the bus of addiction run over you repeatedly with added relapse behavior. Call someone in recovery. The risk of further addictive behavior increases exponentially on the heels of a hangover. Loneliness, shame, depression, failure, etc are intense feelings that overwhelm and tempt you to medicate with addictive behavior. You must take the power away from the junkie worm with a radical behavioral pattern interruption. Examples include going to a 12-step meeting, calling a recovery friend (even in the middle of the night), throwing your keys down a storm sewer to keep you from driving under the influence, or whatever you need to do to remove yourself from harm’s way.

2. Surround yourself with support. When you relapse, shame wants to force you into isolation. Rather than isolate, you must insulate yourself with people who you know love you, understand, and will support you no matter what. Addicts in recovery who engage in a 12-step meeting with openness and vulnerability create connections that are helpful during a time of crisis in their recovery. It is critical to reach out to other addicts in recovery when you face relapse. You will falter. Create a community that will be there and help you restore yourself to sanity and centered living.

3. Practice sitting with the pain that accompanies relapse failure. No matter what you do after a relapse, you cannot escape the pain of the hangover. You can mitigate its effects with self-care and reconnecting with your program. That said, relapse always produces intense emotional pain and disappointment. Rather than try to escape, which might increase the possibility of relapse, practice accepting and leaning into the emotional pain. Leaning into the pain of relapse differs from choosing to wallow in the failure of relapse which quickly becomes a way to escape and avoid doing the next right thing in self-care. It hampers a mature response to failure. Leaning into the pain is accepting what happened and moving forward with the next right recovery steps toward re-centering yourself in a healthy life balance. The good news is that the hangover does wear off in time.

4. Divorce yourself from the behavior. You are not your behavior. You will have to condition yourself during this moment of discouragement and shame. Put the shame on the behavior and not your sense of self. Separating the behavior from your personhood will help you nurture compassion for yourself and those you hurt with your destructive behavior. There is no greater prevention for further relapse than compassion and empathy.

5. Learn from every relapse failure. While you are not a failure, you can learn something about yourself that can cement future sobriety in every failed experience. The lessons you glean from your failed experience are the gold you create to fulfill your recovery destiny. Allow yourself to be a mistake-making person. Take away the treasure of wisdom from each mistake before you throw away the rind of failed behavior.

The loneliness and emptiness that is core to the experience of relapse hangover paralyze many addicts who have relapsed. The way through the hangover is to fix your eyes on re-centering your vision of recovery. Move through relapse behavior by anchoring your heart with actions of recovery practice. The hangover will wear off provided you do the necessary self-care. 

Curse or Blessing: The Transformative Metaphor Every Addict Encounters

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Meaningful insights in recovery addiction often surface in paradoxical metaphors. “To be in control you must let go”; “in order to win you must lose”; “To know God you must be willing to embrace what you don’t know”— are common anomalies that contain significant wisdom and understanding. Sleuthing wisdom from the intensity of addictive craving requires the capacity to sit with addiction and not run from its claws of control. In order to transform addiction into sobriety and serenity, an addict must cultivate the capacity to sit with the struggle. In this manner, he/she can know how to manage the intensity of impulsive desire. It sounds so nonsensical. Many times addiction management suggests that you do the opposite of what seems compelling. Recovery is often counterintuitive.

Addiction recovery can be like bushwhacking when hiking. The term “bushwhacking” is when you go hiking off the trail and make your own way. My son Sam will do this at times. Once, he worked with one of my colleagues and a family in the wilderness. My colleague described that Sam took them on a long hike off the trail. They made their way through briar patches, hiked over boulders, down creek banks, and up over brush piles. It seemed that the entire hike was experienced as one big obstacle. As they made their way, irritation, uncertainty, and growing insecurity began to mount in my colleague and members of the family who followed. However, Sam appeared to meander casually without much consternation as he made his way seemingly aimless through the brush. What seemed acceptable to him was one big obstacle course for those who followed behind! Finally, they reached a place of clearing where there was a break from the brush, even a nice little stream that provided beauty and a breather from the tension of bushwhacking. Family members began to chuckle about the journey and engage in the profound subtle experience of peace in an outdoor space that they would not have known had they not bushwacked with Sam on that day. Suddenly, arriving at a desired destination wasn’t so important anymore. In the moment, the boulders and brush that had been such an obstacle were now experienced as a terrain that set free the pent-up emotions in exasperated relationships and opened each family member’s heart to new experiences of bonding to each other. The obstacles that were challenges on the course of bushwhacking became opportunities for closeness and family connection.

Addiction recovery invites us to reframe our experience with obstacles as something that flows in the universal stream of life. When we see our addiction as only an irritation or obstacle—like a boulder in the way that must be climbed over—we miss the insight and wisdom that the obstacle or addiction would share.

The curse of addiction is an obstacle in life that is designed to be transformed into a blessing. Most addicts are at first dumbfounded by this thought. How can intense addictive craving ever be a blessing? It seems so antithetical. Many curse the addiction and hate themselves for being an addict.

I like to think that addictive craving is the voice of God trying to communicate legitimate needs that must be met in a healthy way. When an addict craves for a drug of choice, it is important to listen to what is going on underneath the addictive urge. In other words, there are legitimate needs and feelings that must be addressed. For these needs to be met, an addict must tune into his/her feelings. Typically an addict will disconnect from unwanted feelings like shame, anger, disappointment, resentment, etc. Most likely an addict would rather numb out with a drug of choice than to sit with the intensity of discomfort of an unwanted feeling. Immediately triggered, an addict will move in the direction of acting out or curse the addiction while asking for help in some way. Either way, the addict will be unfriendly to self and the addiction in particular.

We talk about “the addict” within. Many times I hear guys say how much they hate their addiction but are glad for their recovery friends. They live in an adversarial relationship with their addiction. It makes sense. You want to live free of destructive behavior so why not hate your addiction. My concern is that I don’t see that working toward long-term serenity. Treating your addiction as a curse has proven helpful for short-term sobriety for some. However, it is my experience that addicts rob themselves from long-term serenity by hating themselves for being addicts. It leads to more of a “white-knuckling” mentality.

Buddhists speak of cultivating unconditional friendliness toward oneself. Serenity requires self acceptance of all of yourself, warts and all. Addicts who learn to work with their addiction through deeper acceptance become more aware and acute to listening to their addiction with effective dialogue. Running from addictive urge fuels ignoring needs that must be met in healthy measures. It’s not like saying “I’m fine with my addiction, no big deal” or “I just love being an addict!”. None of us who know addiction would ever sign up for that torment. Yet, working with addictive urge and listening to decode what need is left unmet is critical toward emotionally growing yourself up by using that which would be destructive and transforming it into something constructive. Addiction recovery is another form of growing yourself up to the adult that you are destined to be. Everyone, not just addicts, have the assignment of emotional maturity.

Growing yourself up sounds sophomoric. Befriending addictive urge is not about giving yourself a pass or rationalizing addictive behavior as “OK”. It is about deepening Step 3—“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him”. The goal is that through surrender and acceptance, you work to transform addictive response to a healthy self-parenting response. Hating and despising yourself is always counterproductive. Addicts who stay stuck in this mindset agonize over every temptation and destructive behavior and usually don’t change in the long term. They usually settle for painful cyclical lapsing behavior.

Rather than hate yourself for having the urge, practice listening to the craving, accept it, and choose responsible self-care. This involves removing yourself from a high-risk situation and asking your “wise mind” what need must be met in a mature way. Build strength through consulting your outside support for clarity of immediate intervention. Figure out what is going on underneath the addictive urge. Once you identify what you are feeling and what need must be addressed, surround yourself with encouragement to cultivate intimacy rather than isolate through addiction behavior. When you do this effectively you become a mature adult meeting your needs through healthy self-parenting. This strategy is simple but not easy. It takes a lifetime of conditioning and training yourself. You never reach perfection but throughout life, you just get better and better. Essentially, addiction is an intimacy disability. By listening to your addictive urge you become capable of transforming an intimacy disability into intimacy ability when you parent yourself and meet the need with intervention and self-care. It comes back to the reality of a paradoxical metaphor of being able to take what is experienced as a curse and transforming it into a blessing. This is the way of mature recovery.

The Secret Life of Long-Term Sobriety, Part 1

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For many in recovery sobriety is a mystery.  A 12-step group usually starts with a prayer and often ends with clasped hands in a circle repeating in unison “It works if you work it and you’re worth it”. Over the years I have heard many addicts testify that in those same meetings, after all the good-declared intention, they acted out before they got home and sometimes even before they left the parking lot.

There is a great divide in reality at 12-step meetings. There are the haves and have-nots. Those who have sobriety and those who don’t. For many, sobriety is elusive. At times, after working hard to achieve sobriety, it can slip through the fingers in the blink of an eye, or so it seems. How are some able to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety while others cannot?

Over the next two blogs, I want to propose 11 keys that are vital to creating long-term sobriety:

1. A decision to stop no matter what it takes. This, like the ten other keys, seems like a no-brainer. Yet, through observance of the meetings I attend and the addicts I counsel, this key is often missing. I ask many addicts who come to do work at PCS if they are done with their addiction. I often get the reply “I’m here, aren’t I?” It’s almost as if somehow showing up to the PCS building would be magical and that the building and all the therapists will transform him or her from a raging addict to zen-like sobriety. Addicts can make a great therapist look inept or an average therapist into a rockstar. It all depends upon the attitude that he or she chooses. I recall my wife Eileen and I saying to each other that “we would hock our socks” to get healthy. That was about the reality that we had no funds for treatment. The decision was to do whatever it takes. Many addicts come to a 12-step meeting without a “white hot” intensity to transform their lives. They look for someone to give them something or to take care of them. It is common for some addicts to show up with an attitude of entitlement. Long-term sobriety requires something very simple: You must want to stop more than anything else in the world.

2. Be humble. You would think that an addict’s life of frustration and failure would result in humility. Yet, often this is not the case. Addicts present most frequently with arrogance. Some are full of conceit and presumption while others seem demure on the surface, but underneath are full of disdain and hubris. The truth is that practicing humility is a lifelong challenge. It requires charting a recovery course that includes holding your attitude and spirit accountable to group members. It demands that you put people in your life who role model humility. It is common for addicts in recovery to assume they won’t need to practice humility and lose their hunger for it. Often, addicts fall into a trap that they have done this work for so long that they do not need to embrace this fundamental component of recovery. This is where you fall into lapse or relapse behavior. You might not act out but for sure you will stop growing deep without humility.

3. Be coachable. I will never forget my earliest days in 12-step recovery. I would question the purpose of each step and present as cynical of the overall process. My sponsor, Chip, who was for the most part mild-mannered, cleared his throat and said “Ken, I think it would be in your best interest to shut up and just do what you were told to do”. This admonition hurt my feelings and was used to save my own life. It is rare to find an addict who is hungry to take guidance. Most of us think we can do this by ourselves. You can be inspired by others who testify about reaching out, but most of us don’t do this very well. This is true even though your best thoughts and actions got you into the addict-behavior mess you are in. With stubborn inflexibility, many addicts refuse to listen or take action from what they hear in a 12-step meeting. The doctor can write the prescription, but you have to take the medicine.

4. Live your recovery in consultation with accountability. There is an oft-repeated saying around 12-step groups, “If 8 or 9 people tell you that you have a tail . . .check your ass in the mirror!” Though humorous, there is important recovery wisdom here. Addicts don’t want anyone telling them what to do. They bristle with direct feedback. Yet there is no other way to establish long-term sobriety. It requires a shift in spirit and attitude. The reason a sponsor tells a sponsee to call them every day is to create the habit of living in consultation. Most addicts won’t do this. It contributes to shortsighted relapse. There is a difference between consultation and dependence. Recovery becomes a paradox. You are taught to consult, and in the end, every action you take in your life is about your choice and decision. Be accountable. Live in consultation with others. It cements long-term sobriety.

5. Don’t just do the steps. Learn to live them in commonplace experience. Addicts get overwhelmed trying to do the steps. Perfectionism is a contributing reason why some addicts stop before completing all the steps. Step 4 is particularly difficult. More addicts get stuck in Step 4 than any other step. Addicts think they have to do this monumental undertaking. It’s as if you must walk through burning coals and stay there until your sponsor permits you to step out. Step 4 is difficult. We don’t have to make it harder than it is. A thorough Step 4 is never complete. So, address a character flaw, even a few. Sit with it. Learn what you can in the moment of focus and then move on. It is important in recovery to understand we don’t do the 12 steps but we learn to embrace and apply them in the common places of everyday living. 

What Can Be Learned From Those Who Do Not Make It

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Every blog post I have ever written addresses tools to help addicts avoid relapse, rebuild their lives, and deepen intimacy with themselves and others. I have worked in the field of addiction recovery for 28 years. There have been many inspirational success stories. There were some I thought would maintain long-term sobriety for years but left the program and went dark. There were others who I swore didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to maintain sobriety, who became a source of inspiration for healing in the world they live. It’s impossible to know who will stick to a recovery program and who will not. 

Today’s post is about those who didn’t make it.  If you work in the field of addiction recovery you become conditioned to know that some addicts seeking recovery will respond and others won’t. It is tough when someone does respond and makes solid progress, then tragically goes back to old destructive behaviors. They disappear from group attendance and you don’t hear from them again.  It’s disappointing! Once you were close in communication and knew more about their life than anyone else on the planet. Then suddenly they’re gone, never to be heard from again. The situations that are most difficult are those who lost their lives in the fight against their demons.  It is difficult to let go of these tragedies. Over time there have been many in my professional life I never forget those whom I have worked with who lost their lives to their drug of choice.  I want to dedicate this blog to those who lost their battle with addiction and their lives. Part of me left this world with them when they lost the fight. I would like to share a few stories about those who tragically lost their battle against addiction. Of course, I have changed the names to protect their anonymity. 

Max was a truck driver. He was tough, burly, and an all-or-nothing type of thinker. He meant what he said and with determination would follow through with his recovery commitments. His weakness was gin and tonic. His wife Martha loved him and codependently tried to please him. When Max wasn’t drinking he was great. When he drank he was mean, unpredictable, and volatile. He was also bipolar and when he drank gin and tonic he would stop taking his medication.  Max routinely worked a 12-step program and credited a new-found faith in God for deepening his commitment to program work. All went well for Max during the many months I worked with him to overcome his addiction. However, throughout the course of time tension grew between Max and his wife. He began to struggle with the long over-the-road hours that his job demanded. He shut down communication with his wife and pulled away from others who had been helpful. 

He complained that the trucking company he worked for cheated him of his earnings.  He was resentful and angry that they reprimanded him for inaccurately documenting driving hours while on the road. His backslide was shockingly rampant. He became sporadic with his program. My contact with him became more crisis-focused around fights with his wife and less focused on vulnerability toward addictive cravings.  He stopped taking his meds and became more combative in our conversations. Then, one night his wife called me and said that Max had gone off the deep end. She said he holed himself up in a hotel with a couple of bottles of gin and tonic and a gun. She wanted me to call him so I did. Though Max was glad I called, he was very reactive and agitated. Someone had called the police because of erratic behavior witnessed by others at the hotel. When the police arrived they knocked on his door and he panicked.  He began screaming obscenities with irrational thoughts about his wife and the world around him. The police entered the room with a management key. Instantly Max picked up his gun pulled the trigger and shot himself in the head. I will never forget walking down the concrete corridor of the morgue at the hospital with his wife to identify his body. When they pulled the curtain back from the window in the room where his body lay, screams from his wife echoed throughout the concrete corridor of that hospital. Max was a dear man. Without the meds, he lost his reasoning. Without the support community, he lost his way, his self, and his life. I often wonder how many like Max remain in the bubble of self-destruction unable to tame their demons of addiction.

Steve was a medical professional, a family man, and a sex addict. He struggled with perfectionism trying to please his wife Wendy. When he failed to do so, which was often, he responded by shutting down with denial, half-truths, and lies by omission. Shame dogged him like a pack of wolves chasing him relentlessly through the woods. He just couldn’t handle the failure. He tried to beat himself up to a better place, and that never works.   His public persona was quiet and even keel. However, inwardly he was deeply troubled with visceral turmoil. His inner struggle began to explode at home. I worked with him and his wife for a season of time. There were many hours that I walked alongside while Steve languished in turbulence and unrest about his defensiveness and deceit. During that time he made good progress but would chronically relapse. He sought support through a 12-step recovery and made a few connections. He worked hard and demonstrated hope for healing. However, over time his gains faded into failure and he wallowed in shame and guilt. He began to isolate himself with bitter disappointment. Slowly, he began to cut out most of his therapy and 12-step support. The relationship with his wife that he prized and hoped would heal ended in divorce. He spiraled into uncontrollable depression and defeat. Shame ate away at his core self till nothing was left to build on. He lost sight of hope and help. He made one last effort in treatment with failed results. Steve wallowed in immense emotional pain.  In desperation to escape the pain and emotional struggle, he took his life while in close proximity to others who were trying to help him fan the flame of hope and resilience.  Overwhelmed with shame, misery, and mental illness that accompanied his compulsive sexual behavior, hope was snuffed out once and for all. Steve was a sensitive soul. He was not a hardened playboy with a long resume of sexual infidelity. He simply was unable to stop masturbating to porn and find a way to forgive himself. The hounds of shame had cornered him, and suicide was his only way out. 

Why is it that some people face the adversity of addiction and seem to transform their lives while others are unable to get back on their feet and even perish from the same challenge? Here are a few considerations gleaned from the stories of Max and Steve.

1. Shame dominated both men.  A rigid embrace of sobriety is not sustainable. Both men were clear about their bottom-line behaviors that indicated acting out. Neither knew how to bring themselves back to the center when lapse or relapse behavior occurred. They struggled with being stuck in the mud of shame and self-criticism. Staying stuck in shame without knowing how to crawl out of the muck and mire of failure distorts perspective and increases the mistaken belief that you can never recover right. Both men were perfectionists which is like throwing gasoline onto a fire of dry tinder. Many addicts in recovery never learn to stalk their shame in order to separate their behavior from their sense of self. So, if they do shitty behavior it means they are a piece of shit. Ultimately, if an addict stays stuck in a mistaken belief, h/she will produce results to support the distorted belief. Max always contended that he was not normal and would not be able to measure up to others. Steve was mired in perfectionism from day one. The harder they tried to get out of their own way, the deeper the hole they dug striving to do recovery perfectly. It was a major force that influenced their demise.

2. Both ignored developing self-parenting skills.  Recovery is about successfully learning to do self-care. The term “self-parenting” fits because subconsciously addicts try to fulfill parental needs, that were not met in childhood, through significant relationships in the present. Yet, what happens is that when you try to fulfill individual wholeness from a partner, the opposite occurs. It’s the old adage that 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/4 when you thought it would make a whole. To fulfill your quest for happiness and safety, it is required that you take responsibility for making yourself whole by addressing your own childhood neediness. The only way to become whole is to practice being your own parent. When Max came home physically and mentally exhausted because of his cross-country truck run, he expected Martha to fill his empty cup with attention and care. Martha ran around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to make Max comfortable and glad to be home. But, Max was a perfectionist and when he was needy no one on this side of heaven would possibly be able to fulfill his needs in the way he wanted. Steve was determined to do things just right to get the smile of approval from his wife. But in his mind, he always screwed up. To cover his shortcomings, he thought he needed to minimize hurt or lie about what seemed unsatisfactory. Both men’s attempts to rely on their partners for approval and self-care had a short shelf life. They were destined to fail and they did.

3. Both men wanted their partners to be emotionally close and then pulled away in isolation. Both Max and Steve were intimacy-disabled which is the essence of addiction. Each had plans to approach their partner with open hearts. We talk about different strategies to make it happen. Yet, mired in perfectionism, each was stymied. when the results did not turn out exactly as they had hoped. Max was disappointed after surprising Martha with dinner at a favorite restaurant. Martha was exhausted from cleaning and preparing the house for his return home from the road  She was too tired to be sexual after dinner. Max pouted and thought he screwed up and withdrew. The next day they fought about something small and silly cementing isolation between the two. Steve was under pressure the entire week with numerous surgeries in succession every day. His wife engaged a ladies’ night out on Thursday. By then Steve was totally exhausted, functioning on fumes. He decided to go to bed early. While checking his email, he gave in to the urge to look at porn and ended up masturbating. The next day when his wife asked how he did with his sobriety he lied and denied any challenges. Locked with shame he left for work isolated and lonely. He began to think he could not stop the porn, the masturbation, and the lies. Both shrunk from open-hearted confession with their 12-step groups. In the end, both were alone, isolated from themselves, their partners, their support, and their world. It drove both men to the edge and over. 

It is uncommon for most addicts who relapse to become so profoundly stuck that their only choice is to take themselves out. That said, it occurs more frequently than most realize. For sure, every addict who is stuck in the muck and mire of shame, who fails to practice healthy self-care and is isolated from support is destined to relapse. Without addressing these key areas of recovery you will not create long-term sobriety. It is important to learn from the pitfalls and failures of those who have hurt themselves and did not make it.

Perfect is Never Part of the Plan

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“She’s not perfect. You aren’t either, and the two of you will never be. But if she can make you laugh at least once, cause you to think twice, and admits to being human and making mistakes, hold onto her and give her the most you can. She isn’t going to quote poetry or think about you every moment, but she will give you a part of her that she knows you could break. Don’t hurt her, don’t change her, and don’t expect more than she can give. Don’t analyze. Smile when she makes you happy, yell when she makes you mad, and miss her when she’s not there. Love hard when there is love to be had. Because perfect people don’t exist, but there’s always one person that is perfect for you.” ― Bob Marley

When addicts come to recovery, there is always a desire to do it perfectly. On the one hand,  their ego tells them they can. “Twelve steps, twelve days, knock it down, what’s next!” I’ve heard it more than once.  On the other hand, “failure, missing the mark is so painful I don’t want to get up and try one more time” is a common lament from many.  More than one addict can testify that they have a drawer full of chips reminding them of commitments made and broken. Why try if I can never reach the mark, never measure up?  Recovery becomes like the life they have always lived. Somehow I should be able to do this perfectly and I cannot because I am woefully imperfect. 

Baseball great Mickey Mantle once reflected on the average experience of his Hall of Fame baseball career. He said, “During my 18 years of major league baseball I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out about 1,700 times and walked another 1,800 times. You figure a ball player will have about 500 at-bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.”

The average experience of a baseball player is making an out, not getting a hit. In the presence of striving for success, even for someone as great as Mickey Mantle, there is a compelling story of difficulty and strife to share. Mantle’s authentic willingness to connect with his intimate battle with failure forced him to practice the fundamental basics of self-care. As a result, these common-place experiences of struggle enabled him to look back at his Hall of Fame career and understand how to put imperfection in its proper perspective. No matter who you are, transforming meaningfulness from mundane moments of struggle and failure requires accepting imperfection. It is necessary to embrace the benefits of average commonplace struggles.

When you don’t measure up to what you expect, you then scale down your expectations of achievement which can be helpful or disastrous. Moving acting out behavior from your inner circle to your middle circle and denying that it is any longer acting out but just high-risk behavior is disastrous for sobriety. You just practice old destructive behaviors you did before recovery with a different label. In your attempt to be perfect, you end up accelerating more shame. No one ever beats themselves up to a better place.

However, when you fail to measure up to what you intended, it is important to adjust the way you treat yourself. Rather than criticize and judge your failed behavior, it is transformative to recognize the mistake and then focus on the next right behavior which always anchors being centered. Centered living involves grounding yourself in your values. When you blow it, either by relapsing into addictive behavior or falling short of treating yourself and others with respect and dignity, you will need to practice ignoring the inner critical voice, bring yourself back to the center, and anchor yourself to your values. You will feel hypocritical, discouraged, and dejected because of your failed behavior. You will need to embrace your imperfect behavior by positively affirming who you are. This takes practice and everyday conditioning. You will need to create healing affirmations that you engage in as frequently as you brush your teeth before they consistently transform your imperfect behavior into empowerment.  Slowly your new relationship with imperfection will emerge. Being able to bring yourself back to center is more important than never having left center in the first place. 

Imperfection contains the secret message the universe would like you to have to live life in harmony. Striving to be perfect deafens your inner ear to the message of the universe. When you persist toward perfection, you will hide inevitable shortcomings and run from the message they have for you. Managing imperfection requires that you listen to the pain of failure and shortcomings. For example, as an addict when you crave a fix from your drug of choice, after you take yourself out of harm’s way, listen to the legitimate need that must be met with healthy self-parenting. Your imperfect craving will contain a message from the universe to take care of yourself in this extremely needy moment. Perfection will try to deny the craving and thus miss the message from the universe. By embracing your imperfection you will transform the curse of craving into a blessing of personal care and intimacy. Imperfection teaches you to listen to your feelings and become present in the present moment. 

Managing imperfection means that you will need to recognize when you have handed the reins of control over to the small child within. As a child, you become emotionally stuck around the needs that did not get met and are fueled by neglect and abandonment. When that perception is triggered as an adult, the inner child seizes the moment and flees or freezes with fear. At that moment, you give power to the little boy or little girl to address an adult decision and you render your powerful wise-mind adult inoperative. The results of this interaction are dismal. Perfection denies or becomes overwhelmed with the failure. Managing imperfect moments means that you take the reins respectfully from the child and assert your adult-wise mind to address the need or situation. This, too, will require training and practice. Again, perfect is never part of the plan.

Managing imperfection requires that you cultivate the concept of Velvet Steel. This recovery skill is an art form. Most addicts are hard or harsh (steel) where they need to be gentle, and soft (velvet) where they need to be steel. The misapplication fuels addictive behavior. In striving for perfection you will miss cultivating velvet steel. Likely, you will become stoic and stern in your endeavor to live a sober life.  

Managing imperfection requires learning when to apply the strict letter of the law about your behavior and when to be gentle. Parents must learn this as they guide children through the stages of life. Rigidity around failure and imperfection is a breeding ground for shame. 

You will develop the art of living when you learn to make imperfection your teacher.  Allow your difficulties to become your learning and source for growth. Set recovery goals that challenge rather than defeat you before you begin. Be realistic. Accept imperfection and stretch yourself from there. Your imperfect feelings will help you grow in self-care and understanding toward others. 

Your choice in recovery is not whether to use affirmations. We’ve been affirming thoughts and beliefs since we were old enough to speak. The choice in recovery is what we want to affirm. Whatever thoughts you give energy to, empower you. Are you willing to release, or let go of, negative thought patterns and replace them with positive ones? Will you choose to affirm imperfection and make it good? Remember, perfect is never part of the plan.