Self Sabotage: The Common Undoing of Every Addict

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“You know, it’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”
— James Baldwin

Through the years of working with addiction, self-sabotage offers the most common cause of why recovering addicts relapse. First-step stories are replete with examples of addicts committing blatant behaviors that clearly describe someone desperately wanting to be found out. Self-sabotage comes from what we learn to believe about ourselves. It comes from the thousands of hours of thought introjects that our parents have told us during the young impressionable years of life. These are the beliefs that are formed by our family, our religious beliefs, and the culture that we grew up in. Baldwin is correct that if you are treated by a certain behavior long enough and embrace a lifestyle effective enough, you will begin to do the same things to yourself and others because your worldview and personal beliefs will make it so. What you think about will expand. It’s the very property of thought.

The concept of “stinking thinking” that so characterizes an addict’s thought process around his addiction is developed very early in life. Many addiction specialists contend that the environmental influence experienced by the mother during the period of gestation has a formative influence on “stinking thinking” that later appears in the life of addiction. This pattern of thought is often traced from the deprivation of developmental needs in early childhood to an impending mentality of entitlement in adulthood. While this dynamic is not the only contribution to the development of addiction, its prevalence can be clearly seen with a rationale that fuels addictive behavior.

In recovery, an addict is challenged to confront the “stinking thinking” that sabotages sobriety. 

Immediately, changing the way you think, how you see the world, and experience relationships with community transforms your behavior and you begin to accomplish what was thought impossible—-the capacity to live one hour, one day, etc, without addiction dominating as the organizing principle of your life. The euphoria of that moment, experiencing the release and relief from the grips of addiction is remarkable. In recovery, we call it “pink clouding”. The crash on the other side can be devastating when overconfidence produces slippery unchecked behavior that leads to relapse. At this point, I no longer need my parents or the world around me to oppress me. My own addictive thinking becomes my oppressor. I am stuck in my own self-sabotage.

A way out: Self-sabotage behavior is so profound and powerful that addicts need help to get out of their own way. Twelve-step communities have been so liberating for millions over the years, helping so many get out of their way of self-sabotage thinking and behavior. Yet, many more have attended and left unaffected, continuing their self-sabotage and destructive behavior.

Here are some suggestions to help release the grip of sabotage.

1. Be coachable: Though bruising to the ego, surrender control of your recovery to someone who knows the way out. Do whatever that someone tells you to do. Often, that someone is identified as a sponsor. I won’t forget the early days of my recovery when I questioned every step of the way. My sponsor cleared his throat and spoke “Ken, you should shut up and do what you are told”. Though this advice was blunt, once I got over my hurt feelings, I used it to save my life from self-sabotage. 

2. Rely upon collective wisdom: While I don’t believe that a 12-step group takes the place of therapy when needed, I have experienced the depth of wisdom that comes from the collection of community wisdom. The way out of self-sabotage requires that you have a consultation community who will tell you straight and confront all forms of self-sabotage thought and behavior. Many maxims express this view but the one I like is “If 8 people tell you that you’ve got a tail, then check your ass in the mirror!” Honest, frank feedback is the deepest form of love to guide an addict out of self-sabotage. 

3. Unearth mistaken beliefs that fuel self-sabotage: This is where therapy can be so helpful. Unpacking mistaken beliefs developed in early childhood from neglect, abandonment and all other forms of abuse will help trace the trail of shame that must be exposed if self-sabotage behavior is to be re-wired. You will need to work through tendencies to minimize, defend, and dismiss the impact of parental influence. There is a difference between understanding where self-sabotaging beliefs originate and placing blame. Understanding the origination of mistaken beliefs will create the possibility of letting go of shame and reversing self-sabotage.

4. Cultivate a lifestyle of self-affirmation: Belief is an Anglo-Saxon word that means to “live in accordance with”. Self-sabotage behavior is overcome when an addict carefully composes a vision of living life that is not dominated by an addictive response. Rather, when an addict chooses to live a life that is aligned with the call and vision of inner destiny, self-sabotage thoughts and behavior release their grip. They fall away like in the movie of Forrest Gump when the braces fall away from young Forest as he runs from the bullies whose intention was to dominate and pick on him. Thoreau put it this way, “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. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”  

    This becomes a reality when I bathe myself every day with positive affirmative thoughts that condition toward positive fulfillment and weed out the “stinking thinking” so prevalent in self-sabotage behavior. There is quiet empowerment bestowed on the addict who learns to practice the skill of affirmation. Baldwin is correct. If you create a world in recovery in which you tell yourself what you want to believe and act on long enough and effectively enough, you will begin to make that part of your world free from oppression.