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Terry was clearly stuck in his recovery program. He had been doing weekly therapy for 5+ years. In the beginning, his sessions were life-saving. He clung to every word his therapist uttered. He would often tell his recovery buddies that his therapist saved his life and that he wouldn’t be able to remain sober without his counselor’s guidance.
Over time the newness and glitz of insight began to fade. Terry noticed that he lacked enthusiasm to employ interventions suggested by his therapist. He began to isolate and not talk much about his feelings to anyone, including his therapist. Fantasies about masturbating to old images of internet nudity popped up with intense euphoric recall. At first, he allowed the inappropriate thoughts to linger. He would try to distract himself to avoid further dwelling on them. However, without consultation and accountability, he began to fuel the behavior by surfing “eye candy” on the internet, described as women wearing scantily clad clothing. It wasn’t frontal nudity but the images did trigger uncontested sexual arousal. From there was a short slide to masturbating to full-blown pornography. Terry had identified that this behavior was clearly against his values, and historically he had been powerless to stop his compulsive engagement with porn. Of course, he kept it all secret from his recovery peers and his therapist. He was stuck!
Relapse is predictable and probable in recovery from addiction. Preparing to manage relapse is an essential modus vivendi for every addict in recovery. Those without a plan to address relapse are individuals who are inevitably vulnerable to a long-term slide into old and familiar destructive addictive behavior.
In recovery, building lengthy sobriety is a worthy admirable goal. However, I have learned that what is more important than never having left the center of recovery is having skills to return to the center. Bringing yourself back to center is a skill set that requires discipline and conditioning.
You will need to learn to manage your inner critic whose intent is to discredit and undermine who you are and every effort you have ever made to achieve sobriety or fulfill a worthy goal in life.
Here is a list of desirable skills that will help you tame your inner critic and return to center whether you are an addict in relapse or simply out of balance and need help getting centered.
#1: Condition yourself with focused breathwork. It is important to slow things down when you drift from center. We often don’t because it is uncomfortable to reign in your energies when your mind is racing, your heartbeat is pumping fast and your breathing is short. The good news is that breathwork is simple, not complicated. When you concentrate on the breath it is difficult to fail.
You may not be an accomplished Wim Hof or other noted breathwork gurus, but you don’t have to be them in order to achieve benefit. Simply close your eyes and inhale and exhale to the beat of every second— one thousand one—one thousand two, etc. As you breathe, notice the rise and fall of your stomach as you inhale and exhale. When you are distracted in thought, simply bring yourself back to focusing on your breath without criticizing yourself for the distracted thought. It will calm you.
There are many gurus to help you. I suggest that you utilize Apple Music, Spotify, etc, and download Jason Campbell’s music which is a musical arrangement designed to help you breathe. Just exhale and inhale each time you hear the bells or chimes. When the arrangement is over, notice how your breathwork helped you to slow your mind and heart. This is a simple exercise that requires regular daily discipline.
#2: Focus on what you love in life. When your inner critic is activated, you magnify everything you ever did wrong, including all the flaws about your life. For many this experience is paralyzing and accelerates anxiety. Rather, practice focusing on things in life you love. It can be a sunset or sunrise, the beauty of trees, and all forms of plant life. It might be the energy of a small child playing on swings at a public park. It might be a kind act that you witnessed as it unfolded toward an elderly person. Practice being grateful for all the things you love about the life that exists around you. It will take your mind off the mistakes you made and serve to help you return to center.
#3: Simply, do the next right thing. As I write this I sit on a plane, that I barely made, from Nashville to home in Phoenix. It was an early flight and we had spent time with my sister during the weekend. We got up extra early to make the flight. All was well until my sister noticed that she had locked her car keys in the condo and that she did not have keys to get in to get them. We were stuck. She apologized prolifically but we were stuck. Doing the next right thing meant calling an Uber which took an eternity to arrive. We made the flight albeit I was the last person to board the plane. I had to adjust my attitude and accept the reality that I could not do anything about the predicament except focus on doing the next right thing. Cursing the predicament, victim posturing about life, or running around like a chicken with my head cut off would not resolve my dilemma. When your inner critic tries to have its way with you, simply focus on doing the next right thing.
#4: Practice acceptance without dwelling on feelings of inferiority. Whether you want to admit it or not you are no less valuable after a relapse than before. You gave up your sobriety, not your value. You are an unrepeatable miracle of God whether you have relapsed or not. The challenge is that your inner critic is persuasive. It will convince you otherwise by beating you up over mistakes you made.
You must understand that you will never beat yourself up to a better place. So, why not practice acceptance? Accept that you are a mistake-making person. Accept that relapse happens. Accept that when you make a mistake that hurts someone else, repeated apologies are not necessary and tend to bury you in the hole of shame. Simply accept the circumstance as is and let go. Surrender promotes acceptance which provides peace that will lead you back to the center of your life.
#5: Practice forgiveness. Forgive those around you who have hurt you by first forgiving yourself. When you have relapsed there is a tendency to lash out toward others and the universe with anger. Anchor yourself in your predicament. Realize that you have done to others what they have done to you, not necessarily in like kind but in principle. Therefore focus on forgiving yourself first. Forgiveness means that you have embraced the pain that you have caused when you wanted what you wanted when you wanted it, and you have consciously chosen to not hold your egregious behavior against yourself. Seldom is this one and done. It is a discipline that you must invoke on a regular basis and walk in the opposite direction that your inner critic would suggest. Rather than beat yourself up for flawed behavior, practice self-acceptance and treat yourself with love. Forgiveness requires training. When you do the daily work of self-forgiveness, you can forgive those who have hurt you. Essentially, you will let yourself out of your own emotional prison.
#6: Cultivate the art of reframing life experience. The art of mental reframe is powerful. Rather than wallowing in the shame of failure, relapse, or forgetful mistake, reframe your thoughts so that you can participate in the best part of the party of life for you. Lamenting and shaming won’t change anything! Look for the meaningfulness in your mistake, failure or relapse. Concentrate your focus on that! Initiate a pattern-interrupt by reframing your experience that empowers you to climb out of the mud hole of relapse. Don’t let your critical voice dominate. Rather reframe your struggle into precious lessons that promote self-acceptance and personal peace. In this way, you can make real meaning out of every red flag experience in your life.