Growth

How to Embrace the Change That is Before You

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Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth savin’

And you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’

—Bob Dylan

Dylan’s reflection visits every day. Times are changing. Wisps of nostalgia and recollection of times past do not slow the Change Train. I just watched my home team lose in the first round to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Phoenix Suns used to beat up on the Timberwolves year after year. But, no more. I used to be able to run twice a day every day of the week without struggle. But, no more. Father Time has influenced my capacity to bounce back and keep going. I enjoyed close to 30 years working with Psychological Counseling Services in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s been three years since it all ended. The times have changed. 

And so it is for you too! What worked yesterday is not what works today. People say that raising children today is a lot different than 20 years ago. They say that the family unit is more under attack now than before. Perhaps, but it just underscores that times change. The world economy, society, and culture simply keep evolving. Nostalgia is nice but it doesn’t prepare for the present moment.  We learn by reflecting on the past but we bring forth what lessons we have gained and let go of the past. This is what it means to embrace the change that is before you. 

Nothing remains the same.

Here are some considerations regarding managing the change that is before you today:

1. With success or failure, adjust your attitude to be hungry and curious about the change that tomorrow’s challenge will bring. In his book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck likens the journey through life to traveling through the desert. He said many people, desperate to quench their thirst, rejoice and celebrate when arriving at the first oasis in the desert. In fact, they are so happy that they decide to build an encampment and live there for the rest of their lives. He writes most people never adjust their sites to venture through the entire desert. There is nothing immoral or wrong about choosing to become an oasis-dweller. However, the flow of life brings the need for evaluation and change. What worked yesterday is unlikely to be as effective today. Some people say well I have been doing what I do for quite some time, why make significant change now. Recovery success lulls an addict to sleep. It will do the same to you with whatever pursuits are important to you. Yesterday is a word that reflects on the historical past. In order to thrive you must be willing to adjust to tomorrow’s change. I am not suggesting immediate wholesale change but I am suggesting always tweaking the edges and challenging the center toward becoming the best version of who you are. You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater but you will need new refreshing bathwater for tomorrow. When you have miserably failed it is not difficult to yearn for something more. When you know much past success, that is when change is difficult to embrace. Evaluate the times around you. It might be business, recovery, or your significant relationship. The passing of time is the shadow of change. If your attitude does not include a desire to embrace new pathways, you will not be hungry or curious to adapt to what is needed in your recovery or your business tomorrow.

2. Come to terms with your limits: I am aware that there is an emphasis on reaching beyond your limits. In many applications to life I agree. Another important consideration is that when you know your limits well you can pivot and focus on doing something very different which you failed at before. Some people think that “no limits” means you just beat your head against the same wall time and again. After you take medication for your headache, consider the term limit as a metaphor. When you know your shortcomings you can access the brilliance that lies deep within you. your limits are only a suggestion to do something different that can be resourced deeper within you. You can go as deep within as you choose. You are less likely to be open to creative change as long as you only focus on the limit that you think you should be able to overcome. Why not work with it and go deep? Active acceptance of what is opens your heart to the creative genius—your brilliance that is limitless within.

3. Lean into the experiences that life brings you to: If you fail in your pursuits and cannot comprehend what the results of your efforts are trying to tell you, don’t be too quick to run to the next application for the possibility of success. Even if you are cornered by great financial pressure to figure out how to get some dough right now,  take time to sit with your failure—all your feelings, your thoughts and process what brought you to this point. Be real! Sift and sort for meaningfulness in the presence of your daily experience (recovery, business, or both). Counterintuitively, leaning into your experience of struggle, emotional pain, loss, and failure will help you move forward. Allowing dust to settle helps to establish a clear pathway. Life’s purpose in time and space is revealed through your willingness to be vulnerable.

4. Trust the process of transformation. If you could just have a blueprint that shows you where you are and reminds you that on the other side of your struggle and trouble, it will all look like this! But, transformation in life does not work this way. You must know that you cannot know what is happening in the moment of your transformation. It doesn’t occur in an instant. Like the rising sun, it happens in its time!  It is impossible to see what is emerging in your life when opportunities, health, and people are taken from your life. It is hard to believe in transformation when the feeling of deprivation is in every corner of your life. Transformation brings you to a place where you cannot go back. You can no more go back and create what you hoped for than you can wear the same pair of blue jeans when you were in junior high! Those experiences have been scoured from your life.

When you do embrace the change that is real in your life, you will be given the invitation and the power to welcome the experience of something new that will transform the limits that you thought were insurmountable in your past endeavors. It is from the place of embracing change that the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was inspired to write “I have learned this at least by my experience: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours”.

Embrace the change that is before you and experience the transformation that is to be a part of your destiny. 

When The Load Seems too Much

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Someone remarked that Atlas was not forced to hold up the world, he was convinced that if he did not, the world would fall. This kind of magical thinking is a trademark for children between the ages of 3 and 11. If dad were to wake up and announce to his five-year-old that the sun was going to come up from the west and be bright blue, it is likely that son would say “OK, if you say so, Dad!” He would believe it because at that age he is highly impressionable and vulnerable to illogical conclusions. 

During this time it is so important that parents recognize the vulnerability of their children during early susceptible years of childhood development. Often, children make up that they are responsible for adults in ways that are distorted. 

Children listen to the interaction between parents. When parents fight unfairly, the kids conclude it is their fault. Parents almost literally are God to young impressionable children. So when they fight, kids conclude that it is one thing for a child to have a problem but if God (mom and dad) have a problem it is untenable. So, they make up that the reason mom or dad are fighting is their fault. Or, they believe that it is their responsibility to fix the problem. Often, one or both parents seek out emotional support from the inadequate child. When parents lament about the other or use the child to be a receiver of everything that is wrong in the world, the child concludes that it is their responsibility to fix their parent. It could be that the parent complains about the other partner in the relationship. It might be that the parent pours out fear and anxiety about finances, health, world economy, politics, religion, dismal results about their favorite sports teams, or whatever. Like a vacuum, young impressionable kids suck it all in and magically conclude that it is their responsibility to fix the problem that mom and dad complain about. 

Subtlety, the parent-to-child role begins to shift whether intended by the adult parent or not. Children take on a role that they cannot fulfill. Even though they cannot fix the adult by their behavior, they still try.

When adults get stuck in immature childlike behavior, they are vulnerable to allow the child to fix the problem. They allow the child to attempt to fix the problem by letting them listen to them lament and/or depending upon the child to offer emotional support and love. This dysfunctional behavior cements into the brain of the child that it is their responsibility to be the parent to their adult parent. Children take on this impossible task and adopt a family role to be the fixer or hero in ways that never work. They lose themselves in their role and maintain the role in their adult relationships after they physically grow up. 

This patterned behavior contributes to intimacy-disabling behaviors in their adulthood. The lack of early child development of healthy boundaries created by unhealthy parents fuels dysfunctional adult behavior. The child grows up believing that the only way to be OK is that they have to fix everyone around them. They are set up to absorb everyone else’s hurt, disappointment, and difficulties, and that it is their responsibility to fix. They need to be the hero in order to be validated. So children who needed to fix their parents are prone to seek out heroic type jobs as adults. They become medical professionals, entrepreneurs, and CEO’S of companies with an emphasis to prove their worth by fixing problems. Their tendency is to find their identity in how well they can move mountains, fix problems, and conquer conflict because that is what was required of them when they were children. Dysfunctional childhood expectations are usually very subtle and unnoticeably powerful. It is a set up for desperate outside validation. The only way you know that you are worthwhile is that you are able to fix, conquer, or create solutions for problems that other people have. No matter how much money they pay you, if you do not fulfill this role of fixing others you will not be satisfied. Even though you know as an adult that intellectually you cannot solve other people’s problems, you have wired yourself that this is the fixated role you must play. Unnoticed, you become Atlas convinced that if you do not hold up your world it will indeed fall apart. 

Here are a few considerations to ponder if you feel stuck being Atlas.

1. There is a distinct difference between sharing someone’s pain and bearing it. Children from dysfunctional families learn to practice carrying mom/dad’s and other’s pain. In doing so, they succumb to overwhelm. They may grow up to be successful in their professional pursuits, but in their relationships they continue to believe it is their job to carry another person’s problems with the accompanying pain. They never learned to walk alongside and witness another person’s struggle without carrying their pain and compulsively needing to fix the problem. It is necessary to allow others to feel and have their own struggle without your interference. 

2. It is necessary to look backward and undo your dependency to your parents or caregivers around the dysfunctional roles you learned to play as a child. You will not be able to detach from your unhealthy role through simple recognition of what is happening dysfunctionally with your partner, friend, or professional endeavor. Recognition is a necessary beginning. Yet, to transform your behavior you will need to address the past parental/caregiver enmeshment. Grieving is necessary regarding the role reversal in relationship that mom or dad unintentionally did with you. Shame is the dynamic that keeps the old role in place. Empty chair work often is helpful. Sitting your parent down in an empty chair without them being actually present, and describing the impact of their past behavior is always helpful toward creating resolve. With this exercise, you can practice saying it straight without edit and move the energy of all your feelings from the parent/caregiver to the issue of injustice (you being their for them in an adult responsibility rather than they being their for you) and then further to your own personal empowerment to initiate healthy boundaries and self-actualized care. It is powerful to do this with your parents/caregivers in person as long as you are not expecting anything from them in their response or lack of response. 

3. Check to see whose baggage you are carrying. When you are traveling and check in bags at the airport you are given identification tags so that you are sure to pick up the right luggage at the end of your destination. More than once someone has mistakenly left with the wrong luggage. In relationships, you need to be sure that you are not carrying other people’s baggage. Sorting out what is truly yours and what is not is never-ending work. Some people don’t feel at peace until the emotions of everyone around them are managed and tended. If this is you, then you are walking out of the airport with someone else’s luggage. Bring it back to them. They cannot go home without it. Though confusing, you cannot be responsible for other people’s emotional response. Until you realize this you will continue to go home with someone else’s baggage, wondering how do you fit into their life expectations, solve their problems or essentially live their life. It is like opening the luggage once home and trying to fit into someone else’s clothing. It just doesn’t work!

Rather than continuing to mimic Atlas in your life, discover the amazing freedom of letting down, letting go, and allowing the world to carry you.

Self Empowerment — Making Things Enough

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Addicts in recovery often struggle with knowing how to meet their needs in healthy ways. As a child, many developmental needs were left unmet because parents who never had their needs met when they were young and vulnerable failed to meet their children’s needs. They pass along the same dysfunctional patterns they learned from their parents. This is one way dysfunctional patterns of behavior are intergenerationally transferred. 

As a child, they learn to compensate in order to survive. They become very good at improvising—doing what pleases their parents and gets their attention. They learn to do and perform because the value of being is de-emphasized. Children learn to do anything to avoid neglect and abandonment which are terrifying experiences. This is when a child loses a sense of identity. Children mistakenly believe that whatever they do to get noticed is who they are. So they lose themselves in family roles (hero, scapegoat, lost child, etc) or in taking care of others. Sometimes they act out with negative behavior or through personal accomplishments to get attention. They hope to be noticed by caregivers. The result is that they are never able to do enough outside behavior to fill the empty space inside. That is when they create a cocktail of life experience to avoid the feelings of neglect and abandonment. 

The mistaken beliefs that come with abandonment are, I am not worthy, not enough, or don’t measure up to matter to those you most want to be noticed by. So they learn to numb out and avoid the extreme emotional pain and fear associated with neglect and abandonment. Addiction doesn’t take away the pain but it does give what it promises. It is like a warm blanket on a cold night that offers temporary relief and escape from the harsh reality of a world full of winter experiences. 

Every addict must stop the run-away train going down the track in order to get at the root cause of their destructive behavior. They learn to identify and express their feelings, which they were disconnected from in addiction. They have to be taught how to recognize needs represented in personal affect. They must learn how to assert meeting the needs housed within the emotions expressed. This journey requires education and a lot of practice. Ultimately, they must face their fears of neglect and abandonment. Most people are afraid to express what they feel or need because they fear they will be abandoned. As children, they have been abandoned emotionally, physically, or both. They learn to avoid this fear by the thoughts they embrace and the things they do. They compartmentalize what happened or did not happen as children. They protect those who have abandoned them with staunch family loyalty. They forgive prematurely, minimize results, and deny the impact of abandonment. They do everything possible to avoid facing the fear of abandonment. They learn to regulate themselves emotionally by trying to regulate everyone around them.

In my book, Dare to Be Average—Finding Your Brilliance in the Commonplace, I told the story about a little boy who loved PBJ (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). He would go to the pantry, take the jar of peanut butter, and spread it on his bread. Then he would slap the jelly and peanut butter together and enjoy his PBJ. When there was daylight at the bottom of the jar of peanut butter, he would pitch it in the trash and reach for a new jar. All was good until one day there was no backup jar in the pantry. So with disappointment, he resigned to do without. As he walked away, his father noticed and asked him to come back to the kitchen. He took the jar of peanut butter that was thrown in the trash, made sure there was no gunk on it, and then scraped the sides of the jar which provided for 1/2” thick of peanut butter rather than the normal 1” thickness. He then noted to his son that he was willing to go without when he could take what was and spread it around and make it enough. 

This story points to a skill set that many addicts fail to incorporate in their recovery program. When faced with the fear of abandonment in a relationship, they panic. Some insist that their partner fix the fear. They focus on their partner’s shortcomings. This is a subtle way to make the partner the identified problem. 

Others run from the relationship through an approved replacement addiction like work etc. Many refuse to face their fear of abandonment and resolve the pain. They look outside themselves to medicate their fear. If not through acting out with their drug of choice, they utilize schemes of manipulation and overcontrol impression management or a myriad of caretaking strategies to avoid facing their fear of abandonment. They perceive their relationships through the view of a terrorized disempowered child. Consequently, they look for others to fix what they can only fix from within themselves. It renders them ineffective to take what is in a relationship and do their part to make it enough. Paralyzed in neediness, addicts look to others outside to fix their fear of abandonment.

Managing the fear of abandonment requires empowering an adult perspective in the following areas:

1. Recognizing your fear. In reactivity, we can cover our fear of abandonment by focusing on the injustice behavior of a partner. Since we cannot fix our partner when he or she complains or is unhappy, we become defensive and become embroiled in a circular argument trying to fix the blame. What gets lost in the skirmish around who is at fault is the reality that you fear abandonment from your partner at some level.

2. Address the childhood fear of abandonment. This requires taking time to identify ways that you were abandoned in childhood. You will need to dismantle family loyalty by taking your parents off the pedestal in order to perceive the ways you were abandoned. You will know you have your parents on a pedestal by the feelings of guilt you experience when you speak to the times they abandoned you physically, emotionally, or both. You will need to grieve for the young impressionable part of you that was abandoned. In your grief work, you will need to move the energy of what you feared from your parents to the issue of abandonment. You will then need to transfer this energy to the empowered adult self to provide the safety you need in the here and now. This is not a one-and-done life experience. Rather, it is an adult skill set that must be honed and practiced throughout life.

3. Make amends when you fail to empower the adult. Insight does not create perfection. You will backslide into giving the reins to the child within to negotiate decisions that require an adult mindset with your partner. When you recognize this to be true, take a deep breath, step back, gather yourself, and make amends. Then request a do-over. Practice will not make perfect. Yet, the combination of practice and a willingness to make amends will provide the incremental progress necessary to grow intimacy and reduce the fear of abandonment. 

Don’t forget the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Always remember that as the adult in charge, you will have the power to take what is in a relationship spread it around, and make it enough. You do not have to be dominated by the fear of abandonment. 

Bitter or Better? Living in the Broken Places of Life

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People with disabilities are often professors to the world regarding coming to terms with broken places in life. We all experience broken places in our lives–some less obvious than others, some less socially judged than others. Yet brokenness and limitation are universal challenges all humanity must face. When we don’t, we contribute to life imbalance. At this point, addicts can be triggered by addictive demands and take up too much space in relationships by wanting what they want when they want it. Life imbalance can become extraordinary in terms of how people contribute to global warming in its many forms of polluting our world and becoming insensitive and ignoring other people’s needs for survival. The COVID-19 pandemic became worse when people ignored limits, choosing to not practice responsible living, and endangering more vulnerable and susceptible people around them because they too, want what they want when they want it.

People with observable disabilities often learn how to incorporate limitations within life because they have no choice but to come to terms with their restraint and challenge. When you don’t come to terms with your limitations in life you will succumb to becoming bitter which becomes an obstacle to learning how to become better. Today many addicts are stuck and unwilling to surrender to the acceptance of their limitations. They resent not being able to have whatever it is they cannot. Addicts are not alone. Many non-addict people are stuck in the same place. 

One of life’s challenges is to figure out how to live meaningfully in the broken places of life. When you embrace your limitations, immediately you will feel lonely and obscure. Within there is an urge to do or be what you cannot. When you face your limitation there can be panic, fear, frustration, and resentment. These feelings are threatening, painful, and will stir much discomfort. Reactively, we want to escape or numb the feelings through distraction or minimization. Yet, the key to living with restraint is to learn to embrace your broken places in life. We all have them. Here are a few suggestions.

1: Accept what is. This doesn’t mean roll over and let the powers that be have their way. It means what Fritz Perls said, “Nothing changes until it is real”. You must face the reality of what is before you can change inside in such a way that changes the outside. Eldridge Cleaver once spoke of a “territorial imperative,” suggesting that when people know their surroundings, they know how to survive their environment. You have to know and accept your environment to thrive within it. This means that you must come to terms with your own limitations. To do this, you will need to grieve by leaning into the sadness and loss of what otherwise might have been. To accept certain deep losses of privilege, people, and position, it will be necessary for you to create a supportive group of people to help you through these very painful experiences. 

2: Dare to Struggle. Struggle is a common-thread experience that holds within the capacity of human brilliance. The reason people with observable disabilities can teach so much about broken places is that many who have dared to struggle have discovered meaningfulness and the seed of brilliance within the limitation. Many people choose to curse their restraints or limitations all their life. Nelson Mandela wrote that by embracing the struggle of solitary confinement, he could emerge from prison undiminished. He was able to conserve and even replenish his own beliefs. Malcolm X taught that it doesn’t matter where you start out but where you end up. George Jackson taught that if you are not willing to die for what you believe in, then you what you fundamentally believe in is not deep enough. 

To the world, these people are considered radicals. To people who face their disabilities, they represent words that they have chosen to embrace and have uncovered brilliant meaningfulness through their personal struggles. Many in the world scoff at broken places. Many would like to bury and forget the reality of those who suffer from disability–which in truth is everybody. The Zapatistas have a wonderful proverb: “They tried to bury us but they forgot we were seeds”. There is a fear of being buried by the limitations manifested in broken places of living. Transform your “curse” of brokenness into a blessing by daring to embrace the struggle. 

3: Find meaningfulness in the broken place. Not one of us would sign up for the broken situation we face. I have never known an addict who said they would have signed up for their addiction. People joke about “if sex is an addiction I’ll sign up for that”, until they experience the heartache and excruciating pain that results from sexual out-of-control behavior. The reason many therapists treat addiction is that they are recovering addicts themselves. It’s a way of making meaningfulness from all the madness that exists in the broken place of addiction. Addiction stunts self-realization. People can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread. Frederick Douglass wrote, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. The power that dominates in your personal life will concede nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.” Finding meaningfulness in the broken place of life will require your willingness to struggle. Every struggle with defeat, heartbreak, and loss contains its own seed and lesson about how to make life better and not bitter. Tom Van Arsdale, a friend of mine, wrote, “Peace doesn’t come when everything goes right. Peace comes when you’re right with how everything goes.” The only way to replace bitterness with peace in the presence of limitation is to find meaningfulness in the broken places of life. 

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. 

The Rendezvous with Traumatic Relationships

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Take time to think about times you felt hurt earlier in your life in ways that resurface over and again. Traumatic relationship experiences have a way of recycling throughout the course of life. For many, trauma is like being lost in the woods and walking around in a circle. It is deja vu all over again.

It is familiar for some to consistently pick emotionally unavailable people to partner with and then wonder why they cannot connect or get their emotional needs met. This pattern becomes solidified throughout life. They marry someone who is emotionally unavailable to them. They work for a dysfunctional organization, they allow that employer to use them, thinking that if I go above and beyond then I will be appreciated. Eventually, they quit both the marriage and the job and then go find another job and partner and reenact the same dysfunctional relationship without realizing what is happening. Unresolved validation and unmet developmental needs from earlier times in life are played out in unhealthy repetitive relationships throughout life. As a therapist, I listen to people who are now in their fourth marriage relationship, all with abusive addicts who are emotionally unavailable!

Here are a few suggestions for ending this destructive relationship pattern.

#1: Drain the pool of pain by scrubbing the wound. As long as you clutch past hurtful experiences you will sully your present relationship experiences with misgivings. You must scrub the wounds of past experience and drain your pool of pain. It feels like wallowing in yesterday’s misfortunes. But, it is not. Attempting to ignore or avoid the pain will take you back to wallowing in yesterday’s mud hole. By scrubbing the wound, you embrace the pain and give back the shame that was perpetrated on you by a significant person in your life. You simply grieve the loss of protection and kindness, calling out the shameful message with the decision that you will not be dominated by the accompanying mistaken belief but instead, choose to move forward and act with self-empowerment. This experience is not a one-and-done event but a chosen lifestyle. Metaphorically, putting down the stones you throw or the gun you grasp for protection is the only way to give up the storyline that creates unhealthy relationships. You will begin to heal by establishing relational boundaries that empower healthy connections with care and love in relationships.

#2: Lean into the pain. This suggestion seems far-fetched! But, think of the Chinese handcuff. I remember as a young boy sitting in church trying to work my way through another long tedious worship service. In my pocket, I had a Chinese handcuff. I took it out and began to explore. So, I put my left and right index fingers into the ends of the handcuffs. The handcuffs were cylinder in shape and made of a straw-like material that was flexible. The more I tried to pull my fingers out the tighter the cuffs held me. A surge of panic struck and I pulled harder. But, the small cuffs would tighten further. But, then when I did the opposite and leaned my fingers into the middle of the problematic cuff, the small casing slackened and I could gently and slowly work my fingers free!

With relationship challenges, often the pulling in panic only handcuffs you further and tightens the grip of fear in your life. Running from the pain only deepens and complicates matters. Trying to think your way through only thickens the mental wool that snares you. Geniuses like Einstein or Edison when befuddled and stuck would take a break or take a nap and in surrender to the problem they discovered a solution. Leaning into the pain is facing what is real and allowing it to be, without panic. Sitting with the pain provides the eventual solution. Leaning into the problem that is gripping you will allow you to work your way free.

#3: Practice Forgiveness. Many of you have experienced painful past trauma. It was indescribable. The struggle to survive and the enduring suffering will never be forgotten. Sometimes it seems that if you heal it will mean that you will allow what happened to evaporate from the memory of those who need to be held accountable for your agony. So you believe the only way is that you must commit to reliving the awful experience daily or your suffering will be for naught.

However, you do not need to define yourself by past trauma. To give up this part of your storyline, you will need to forgive those who were responsible and those who could have intervened but did not. Without forgiveness, you will remain stuck in resentment which is a cancer that grows and will dominate your existence.

Forgive means to give and to receive. You begin with receiving forgiveness. Often people wonder what I need to forgive, it was the other person who hurt me. However, it is important that you be able to identify in principle, not in like kind, how you have hurt others like you have been hurt. The one who hurt you wanted what they wanted when they wanted it, right? Think of a time that you wanted what you wanted, when you wanted it, regardless of its impact on others. Seek forgiveness for that. It might be something as obscure as forcing your way while changing from one lane to the next on the freeway. It’s not about comparing whose selfish want is greatest but just owning your own selfishness and forgiving yourself, which means not holding it against yourself. To do this you must sit with the awareness of how your hurt impacted others. This is defined as scrubbing the wound. Being able to sit with the pain of another because of your selfish behavior is necessary to create forgiveness of self. Once you do this you make a conscious choice to not hold your selfish behavior against you.

Now, for the one who hurt you. Once forgiven, you offer the same to the one who egregiously harmed you. Forgiveness does not mean you forget what happened. Rather, it means that you will not hold it against the other person but walk in the opposite direction of resentment to the freedom of thought about the past hurt. Rather than hate, you send positive loving energy to that person. You do this so you can be free from your own emotional prison. Forgiveness is a daily action before it becomes a reality of feeling. Seldom is forgiveness a one-and-done experience in life. You practice forgiving the one who hurt you every day, as it comes up.

You don’t have to engage by making friends with the person but letting go and walking away from resentment is your responsibility. When you learn to lean into the pain and scrub the wound through forgiveness you will end your rendezvous with trauma and stop building intimate relationships with emotionally unavailable people.

Failure Friendly

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It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default. —J.K. Rowling

The Oxford Dictionary defines failure as the lack of success in doing or achieving something. Really! Somehow, with so much emphasis placed upon not failing in our world, you would think they would come up with something more pronounced than that. If that’s what it is, who doesn’t fail, not once but dozens of times every day? I didn’t brush my teeth twice today, I ran two not three miles. I didn’t clean the house, wash the car, read 50 pages from the book I committed to wade through, meditate, and stop eating yogurt! Some days it seems that I don’t achieve anything that I committed to do! Does that make me a failure?

There is such emphasis upon hiding the “don’t be’s” that the things you achieve get overlooked or minimized. You did put your goals down on paper. You did run two of the three miles on your goal sheet. You did brush your teeth one time of the twice-a-day goal. You did read 10 of the 50 pages you committed to read. While there are many things you can do to adjust your focus, strategy, and effort to achieve more, you are less likely to maintain perspective without a more friendly view of the word failure.

Baseball great Mickey Mantle once reflected on the 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 1700 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 commonplace experiences of struggle enabled him to look back at his Hall of Fame career and create a meaningful perspective from his experience of professional failure.

Here are a few things to reflect on when addressing failure in life.

1. Everyone experiences daily failure. It is one of the common threads of everyday living.

2. Make sure you underscore what you did do when you highlight what you didn’t.

3. Fail forward. Wallowing in the mud of failure only gets you more muddy and in need of a bath.

4. Take time to grieve. It’s a bummer to come up short after all that effort! Feel shitty! Embrace the bitterness, anger, disappointment, and emptiness that come with failed results. Express it fully! Philosophical reflection can come later.

5. Funnel your grief into action. Don’t act prematurely. When you embrace your feelings around failure, you will know when it’s time to get off your duff and act. Don’t allow negative self-talk to stymie your view of future destiny. Most achievements are completed amidst the roar of negative talk from the conniving inner critic that attempts to sabotage destiny. Learn to ignore the negativity within like an athlete learns to block out the hostile heckles and catcalls in a stadium.

6. Be a heart champion. Model how to go from blight to beauty. Know that failure is a part of life. Determine never to let an outcome define who you are. Instead, let your definition be determined by the vision of destiny you have within that supersedes any result.

7. Chisel out a North Star focus. Cultivate support from others around you to maintain an “eye of the tiger” pursuit of your purpose and plans of fulfilling your destiny.

8. Re-define prosperity. Rather than scaling back your vision, transcend your pursuit and go beyond concrete results that ultimately you don’t control. Embrace the unconditional confidence that no matter what you experience, you can go down and come back up.

9. Clarify what growth means toward the goal you seek to achieve. There are many definitions of growth. If you only know growth by measuring the end result, you will miss the incremental steps that are necessary to get to the end result. Carefully clarify each step needed in your journey. It will help you to enlighten what you can and cannot control.

Strength and inspiration come through the experience of failure by sharing and connecting with the human spirit of others. You will experience a genuine depth of human connection when you learn to stay in the presence of overwhelming discomfort triggered by failure. The human spirit is resilient and has the capacity to transform agony into poise and healing peace when the discomfort and heartache of failure is embraced and shared.

Ignoring the Obvious While Embracing the Improbable

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“Who so loves, Believes the impossible” — Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Addicts ignore the elephant in the living room. It is obvious to everyone that dad, mom, brother, or sister is acting out in addiction. Yet, nobody confronts the issue. Everyone pretends that there will be a better day. Nobody admits that addictive behavior is running rampant. You drink the Kool-Aid of denial and project that the family is good and everything is going just great. 

Families with untreated substance addictions are not the only ones who ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. There are families who project being very religious while ignoring that dad is a serial philanderer. There are couples who project the image of harmony and happiness in public but who privately barely speak to each other. Is it hypocritical? Sure! Yet, over time those who ignore the obvious gradually learn to believe the improbable is real. There really isn’t a dead dog in the living room!

Businesses and institutions also ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. There is a certain type of game that is played. Once I worked as one of the ministers at a large dynamic church. It was promoted as the largest of its kind. The lead minister avowed and reported that several thousand people attended his church each Sunday. It was questioned so he asked that I organize a count of worship goers for six weeks. After the allotted time, I reported that there were 1000 fewer people attending the worship service than he boasted. He was very angry and insisted that his estimate was correct and my count was wrong. So we pretended that 1000 people were there that were not. Eventually, the infrastructure of embracing the improbable implodes and reality deflates perception like a deflated balloon. When you ignore the obvious it will eventually become devastating. 

Everyone is tempted to embrace the improbable. We don’t want to face the obvious when the reality is disappointing. 

Historically, many did not want to think of John Kennedy or Martin Luther King as philanderers but they were. Many wanted to ignore that steroids in baseball were a problem, but they were. I wanted to believe that Lance Armstrong was an unbelievable athlete who did not cheat, but he did. What is obvious, and that which is improbable, bump up against each other throughout life.  How do you sort or sift what is real in your life?

1. Don’t play games. Face what is real in your personal life. There are payoffs for people who play games. The games that I reference are not “Ha-ha” games. They are games that you keep you safe in a dysfunctional family. Every family creates rules and gives messages about what is OK and what is not. Family is the cocoon in which children learn to interact with the outside world.  When a family is unhealthy, a child will not know the difference between what is hurtful or not. The sphere of their family world is all they know. Unhealthy families become rigid so their rules and regulations become gospel and make it difficult for new information from the outside to penetrate the protective sphere of family influence. So if dad gets drunk on Fridays and screams at everyone or slaps mother because she said something he didn’t like, it is easy for a child in that environment to interpret that all families live like this and that walking on eggshells around dad, with fear and anxiety, is a normal part of everyday living. It takes time and deliberate action to demythologize your parents and the family rules that dominated you. You must first recognize how unhealthy family rules and messages impact you in a negative way. Without this deliberate action, your tendency will be to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. The process is unnerving and likely will trigger guilt for questioning the fundamental beliefs that your parents taught, depending upon how dysfunctional your family of origin is. If you learned that you are not to question the authority of your parents, then be prepared to struggle with guilt.  You may need the help of a therapist to detach from the guilt and the rules of your family. They are powerful.

2. Once detached, train in observing your behavior around authority figures and the culture you engage at work and other organizations. It is normal to want to please those you work for or with. When things don’t go your way, pay attention to how you respond. Notice when you become triggered and overreactive. Pay attention to what goes on emotionally underneath the surface about the issue that triggers you. If you have a patterned history of struggling with authority figures, it is a signal that you have unresolved family-of-origin issues to address. Maybe your struggle is that you tend to go along to get along. It might mean that you won’t address a principle that you believe in for fear of rejection. On the other hand, you might find yourself quibbling and irritated without knowing why. What you think is a personality conflict might be an issue of unresolved family-of-origin work with your parents. If you don’t address these issues you will repeat ignoring the obvious and embracing the improbable. You must pay attention to your behavior and the games you play as well as the rules of the games other people play. When you learn to detach from both, you will respond from a position of strength and not weakness.

3. Embracing the obvious opens the potential for the impossible. Nothing changes until it becomes real. When you identify the elephant in the living room, you can do something about it. You can separate destructive behavior from the person. You stop playing a game and identify the destructive behavior for what it is. You transform behavior that is experienced as nonproductive to being a curse and destructive into a blessing of resolution and relational connection. This is the essence of what love is about. It is not ignoring what is hurtful but it is leaning into the obvious. Seeing the obvious with mature compassion and love is the way to responsibly create a different world. Love teaches you what is beneath the surface. It helps to see what is hidden to the eye but known to the heart. When you embrace the obvious you can allow the wisdom of love to work its magic in transforming relational dynamics in family, work, and the culture at large. Breaking through denial and facing the dead dog in the living room is necessary to heal unhealthy relationships. This form of love is the dynamic that transforms the impossible within you and creates possible healthy relationships with those whom you engage. 

Nine Thoughts that Shape Recovery

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I have been in recovery from addiction for 31 years. I have been reflecting on the 9 thoughts that have shaped and governed my recovery life. I want to share them in hopes that perhaps I can offer hope and strength to those who struggle with maintaining sobriety today.

1. Attitude is your greatest stock-in-trade. Sometimes people think they have to pay an exorbitant price to work with the best-known inpatient facility or a perceived guru in order to address addiction. Sometimes this attitude wreaks of entitlement. They have the money so they feel entitled to demand the best. One time this guy came to see me and said I heard you were the best and I want to only work with the best. I responded by saying “Why do you need the best therapist, you are not the best client.” What is far more important than finding the best therapist is to bring with you the best attitude you can manifest. When I got into recovery, I did not have any money. It took some time but I created a great attitude about recovery. My wife and I decided to embrace the mantra that we would “hock our socks” and do what was necessary to be healthy and sober. We found many resources that were free including 12-step programs which offered free cassette tapes and books. I learned to look for what would help me develop and grow my sobriety. I found individuals in 12-step rooms who were serious about living a sober life. I would sit or stand in the parking lot talking to them about recovery life. When confronted by others in 12-step meetings, I did not always receive helpful feedback. I learned to latch on to what was helpful and let go of what was hurtful. It was a good attitude that helped me to keep coming back again and again. Thirty-one years and over 3500 meetings later, the number one reason that I am sober is because I learned to live with a good attitude toward growth and recovery. I have to work on it every day. The greatest investment I ever made was not for a therapist or an inpatient facility. It has been my determination to be coachable and have a good attitude. It serves me well.

2. Be hungry. Let the world be your library. What does it mean to be hungry about recovery? Literally, the physical craving for food is a motivation to satisfy the need for nourishment. It’s not different in addiction recovery. When you don’t have a white-hot intense hunger for sobriety, serenity, and recovery, you miss out on what others get. Some people think they only do recovery when they attend a 12-step meeting, do the steps, or sit in a therapist’s office. Not me. I have learned that recovery is all around me. I have greatly appreciated the different therapists who have helped me throughout my journey. Yet, if I limited my resources to identified recovery sources I would have stunted and stifled my recovery growth. Being hungry for recovery growth means that you bring this mindset to all that you are and all that you do. I have gained great insights from the imagination of children and the persistence that I have observed from people who live a hardscrabble existence. I have walked alongside very wealthy people and have learned recovery principles. I have experienced even more wisdom from the poor and homeless. I have learned spirituality from my depression, impatience, and dire failings in my life. Emotional and physical pain have been great teachers. Recently, sitting next to Sequoia trees in California helped me to keep my vision for change to extend beyond my own time and onto future generations. When you are hungry for insight and understanding, you find it all around you. Let the world be your library to stretch yourself and grow.

3. Tell on yourself. The hardest thing in recovery I have ever had to do was to get emotionally honest at a deep level and tell on myself. That meant to tell on myself about times I was insecure and unsure. It meant that I needed to learn to live with being “emotionally naked” to those who I identified as support. This is much easier to write about than live. It meant that in order for me to show up at a 12-step group, I had to be honest and lead with the last thing I wanted people to know about me and let that be the first thing I said. I have pissed people off, said things I wasn’t comfortable saying, and put up with blowback from others because of what I said. I don’t do this everywhere I go. Yet, when it comes to recovery groups, the only way I have been able to always get something from each group is for me to show up and tell on myself. This mentality has conditioned me to cultivate deeper intimacy with my wife and those I care about and who I have invited to be close. Practice telling on yourself.

4. Do the next right thing no matter what it takes. We say this all the time in 12-step work. When you screw up, make a relationship mistake, or act out, the hardest thing is to face the consequences and do the next right thing. You feel shitty about yourself and getting up out of the mud hole you created for yourself is really hard. Sometimes it feels impossible. It requires that regardless of how you feel, you have to force yourself to move in the right direction, not perfectly, but you’ve got to move! While the voices are screaming that you can’t do recovery, give up, just numb out, and get high, you have to take yourself by the nape of the neck and do the next right thing. This move is not spectacular and there is no glory in it. The war with addiction behavior is hammered out when you drag yourself from wallowing in the mud and pick up the phone, tell on yourself, and go to a meeting. You can never get away from doing the next right thing no matter what it takes.

5. As an addict, what you think is most important, seldom is. In my addiction, what I thought was so important never was. John Prine wrote this great song about Sam Stone who became a morphine addict in the VietNam war and lived out the rest of his days addicted. He wrote, “When he popped his last balloon… there was nothing to be done but trade his house that he bought on the GI-bill for a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.” That’s always the result of addictive demand. There are times, even now, that I can be so damned insistent on wanting what I want when I want it. The next day it didn’t even matter. After the build-up of addictive craving and you too have popped your balloon, what you thought was so important on the other side seldom was.

6. Be your own guru. Activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote a book when she was 98 years old. In the book, she said “We are the leaders we are looking for.” This applies not only about our country’s destiny but is also true for those in recovery. I lead several groups of men who gather on weekends to work through addictive behavior. The tendency in groups of all kinds is to look to someone to be the guru. Usually, it is someone who has a way with words, is charismatic, or who just simply talks a lot. Guru is synonymous to being a teacher, master, or sage. The idea of being a teacher is great. However, it is common for group members to look to a teacher and build them up and put them on a pedestal. I find this very annoying! I can teach you and you can teach me. There is no need to pedestalize anyone. In religion, we make saints out of people. We do the same thing in recovery groups. Perhaps, out of insecurity, we put others on a pedestal and make gurus out of them. I find it detrimental to recovery growth. I suspect that this is done because we don’t want to grow ourselves and become our own guru. Recovery growth in my life has required that I become my own guru.

7. Addicts change only when the prospect of not changing is more painful than the change they are facing. This has been said by many regarding the change of behavior. It certainly has been true for me. Only when the pain of remaining stuck in old behavior—addiction, procrastination, lack of exercise, healthy eating habits, etc, became intolerable did I transform myself around these behaviors. Many talk about change. It will require that you increase the pain of hurtful behavior to an intensity that change is less painful than remaining the same. Personal growth throughout the rest of your life will demand that you make decisions around this experience of tension.

8. What is more important than sobriety is bringing yourself back to center. Sobriety is sacred. It is hard won by all of us who experience it. However, throughout the years I have learned to value the skill of bringing myself back to center to be more important. No one does sobriety perfect. In the world of sex addiction, few have ever put down the addictive process and never returned through relapse. Even among those who do, lapses into high-risk behavior is common. Bringing yourself back to center is a way of managing your humanity. You will make mistakes. You will need to cultivate the concept of velvet steel if you intend to maintain long-term sobriety. When – not if – you blow it and make a big mistake, you will need to know how to bring yourself back to center with humility and gentleness. You will need to know how to assert necessary firmness and resolution that will ground and help you to be true to your heart.

9. Be who you are – don’t try to be someone else. Musician and poet Van Morrison wrote, “Live the life you love and it will bring the blessings from above”. So many people try to be someone they are not. It is not necessary to try to live life through another’s persona. It’s an impossible way to live and extremely painful. Recovery flows and is rich when you commit to being your authentic self. You will never remain lost in your recovery when you practice being true to yourself.