The non-medical approach to recovery

The non-medical approach to recovery

If you have been thinking about attempting to recover from your addictive behaviour, it’s possible that you have not even considered what approach you will be taking. The medical model of addiction has become so prevalent in our (western) culture that you may be assuming that it is both the correct view of your ‘condition’ and the only way to bring about a recovery. I am here to tell you that there is another approach, and it may work much better for you!

The relational or non-medical approach has been developed through the amazing work of neuroscientists and has, over very recent years, offered us a greater understanding of the way our brains work. This knowledge could only have been dreamed off when the medical model was first developed almost a hundred years ago. 

So let’s be clear from the start. I’m not saying that your addiction does not fit the criteria of an illness. Much cleverer people than I have concluded that it does. Things like recognisable symptomatic behaviour and typical physical emotional and mental patterns lead us to this idea of ‘illness’. What I am saying is that, like any other ‘condition’ that is attitudinal and mental in its presentation can also be usefully viewed in other ways. I have been working in this field professionally for well over twenty years and I want you to know that what neuroscience has discovered in the last ten has changed the game forever.

Understanding your behaviour relationally

Imagine, at least for a minute, that all the problems you are experiencing have originated because your brain is working very well! Not because you are ill or broken. I know, this is a radical idea, right? You may be in so much trouble as you read this that the idea that you are operating well seems like a sick joke. But stick with me for a minute and see if I can’t convince you to give this approach a try.

The first thing I want you to do is separate ‘pre’ and ‘post’ difficulties. What this means is that you need to recognise and separate problems that originated with your vulnerability and problems that have developed because of your vulnerability. They are quite different and need to be understood that way. Take the typical alcoholic drinker. They start drinking because of their vulnerability to alcohol and the effect it has on them. But once the habit takes hold, post problems develop because they start lying and covering up their habit and spending etc. 

Step two would be to see the post problems as a consequence of the ‘pre’ problems. This will help you to understand that post problems will simply dissolve once the pre problem is dealt with. I know that some of you will be reading this and realising that you are spending all your time dealing with post problems since things got worse. But suddenly it seems obvious that this is getting you nowhere since the pre problem is not even getting a look in. But the size and nature of the post problems are convincing you that you must be really ill or spiritually sick.

Or you may have been trying for ages to overcome your ‘sickness’ using various forms of ‘cure’. I won’t go into these forms here because my assumption is that if you are reading this, it’s because they are not working for you. Well, be encouraged. There is an alternative. It is based on the latest findings of neuroscience and the practice of IFS therapy. It is a relational approach and the first relationship to work on is the relationship with yourself.

The Relational Approach

When a person has a vulnerability towards alcohol, drugs, or behaviours, there is always an accompanying difficulty in the relationship with themselves. Just think about the way you talk about yourself to yourself. You know, that stuff that goes on in your mind that no one hears? If you work on improving your relationship with yourself, your relationship with everyone and everything else will automatically improve. 

Essentially, neuroscience has shown that the two separate parts of you (your mind and your brain) can either work together harmoniously, or they can be in conflict. The first hurdle you will have to get over is to understand that this difference within you is perfectly normal! The medical approch has trained us all that this difference between our parts is indicative of an illness, and that is why you have never herd of this apprach, until now!

The second hurdle to get over is to be able to accept that your brain is not going to change until you provide evidence for that change. In other words your brain will continue to offer you solutions that you have trained it to offer you, until you produce evidence that you would rather have something different.

The best example of this comes from your own experience. How many times have you told yourself that you did not want to drink again or do X ever again? But you did didn’t you? The decision to stop was conscious, in your mind. But the training was unconscious, in your brain!

Improve your relationship with yourself

The first and most important relationship to work on is the one with yourself. Ask yourself this, would you be happy if everyone could see what you say about yourself, to yourself? Would you talk to anyone else like that? In order to recover, you need to grow. In order to grow you need to learn. You will not learn much in a state of self loathing. Don’t poo poo this idea, it is going to take real courage for you to stop judging yourself and to stay calm and relaxed enough to learn from what just happened! Remember, the main comittment is to learn from everything that happens. 

Your relationship with yourself will improve once you see a good enough reason to work on it. Well here it is. You need your brains agreement with your mind. You probably cannot force it, so you need to negotiate it. I have a three step process for this which will help you practice.

Improve your relationship with people


It is well known and universally accepted that people with strong family ties do better in life. Stability and solidity are generally improved by better connections with the living world. Of course there are some of you that need to break off all ties with your family. This is an exceptional circumstance which general comments cannot cover. For the vast majority of us, improvements with the family will result in improvements in your recovery. This is mainly because when we reconnect with our close ones, we are reconnecting with the living world. The idea of addiction and the dead world is a very powerful one. When you first started to practice any dependent behaviour you were escaping from the real world into the dead one. How many times have I heard addicts say that “alcohol is my only friend”. 

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Understanding and working with your parts

Understanding and working with your parts

Not considering your parts may be restricting your progress

After nearly forty years working in the field, I am in no doubt about the biggest difficulties you face when trying to make positive lifestyle changes in your life. It is not considering the complex nature of the human condition. You are complex, and you need to take this into account! Learning to understand this complexity and work with what we call your ‘parts’ will offer you the best opportunity for the growth and progress you have been seeking.

There are several reasons why you may have not considered your ‘parts’ when attempting to recover from addiction, dependence, or make spiritual, financial or relational progress in your life. Here are two of the most important.

You may not have heard of the idea

It’s not that long ago that Richard Schwartz developed the idea of taking what we knew about how to work well with families. Things like the dynamics, relationships, and struggles. And to then apply these ideas internally. That the same relational dynamics that existed in a family also existed within a person. The idea of Internal Family Systems was born when he discovered that these same principles relationships and pressures were also present internally, within each person. When he applied these ideas he found that they worked! As people developed better relationships with themselves they managed their ‘parts’ better and created more harmony and less internal conflict, just like we had been doing with families!

You  may have thought you were ill or mentally strange

Because the medical model has had us thinking about ourselves as unified or ‘just one thing’, you may have been embarassed or ashamed about your inner ‘thought’ life. How you sometimes think, what you seem to believe. Especially when it comes to your behaviour and how it stacks up with what you see others doing. They may have seemed much better than you in the way they appear or behave. You may have proceeded on the asumption that there was something wrong with you and that you just had to put up with it, or, worse still, that you had to fight it. It is this failure to ‘beat’ this part of you that frustrates people the most. I want you to know you have been on the wrong track!

Your parts are a healthy and normal human component

The storing of traumatic and problematic experience in your brain is what we are calling your ‘parts’. It is your brains reactions to perceived threats and its way of protecting you. So there are essentially two hurdles to get over before this understanding can be useful.

Number One – This is normal and healthy!
The activity in your brain that watches out for you and acts to protect you is not happening because you are broken or malfunctioning. It is hapenning because you are functioning well. You are not  suffering from multiple personality disorder or have evil spirits living in you.

Number Two – This is useful and necessary!
Imagine being in a dangerous situation without your brain acting to protect you! No fight or flight reactions! You would be very vulnerable to almost any danger. Your brain will always get you out of danger better than your mind will. For brain think reaction, for mind think response.

Your parts are constructed through your experience

So the problem is not that we have parts, that’s normal and useful. The problem arises when your lived experience trains your brain that certain things are a threat to you when they weren’t, or are no longer threatening. There are lots of things that feel threatening to a baby, a toddler or a young child, that would not be threatening to an adult. Let me give you an example. When I was about five or six, I remember standing on my Grandmas back step. She was washing clothes in the kitchen and getting on with her day. She didn’t seem to sense the danger! You see it was raining, hard! The rain was bouncing off the garden path and the puddles were growing visibly. I could see the rain across the feilds, for miles, and I was scared!

So what was the problem? At my age I did not have the experience to know that the rain was not a danger to us. I did not understand that it would stop soon and the water would drain away. In my childs imagination I saw the rain never stopping and everyone drowning. This type of thing is typical of childrens experience as they do not know the limits of the natural world.

Your parts are in sequence

As you develop your relationship with those parts of you that you have recognised, you may not remember exactly when and how they were constructed. What experiences shaped them and formed them. Don’t worry about this, this approach does not rely on psychiatry or even psychology. Think of yourself as an explorer rather than a detective. Your brain already knows everything about this, and will work with you as you make progress.

Having a sense of how old a part is is a good start, and give your parts names so you can distinguish between them ( and your self). Becoming curious about certain ideas like “what is this part protecting me from”? And “Is there anything I can do to give this part confidence that I can handle these situations”? Are good ways forwards as you develop better relationships with these parts of you.

One of the main ways to develop your understanding of the way your brain creates these parts is to realise that they are constructed in sequence.


Each part covering the one before

Just like the Russian doll set I have pictured here, your parts are covering each other. If you picture the smallest doll as your earliest moment of suffering or trauma, the next doll in the sequence covers that pain and protects you from the suffering of the first part. Being slightly older, each subsequent part offers a more sophisticated strategy or distraction in order to cover the previous issue. As the parts get older and bigger, there is more to cover and needs more and more radical strategies.

When we get to the larger, older parts we tend to see the typical startegies of addiction, dependence, gambling, affairs and control. It is these startegies that are so confusing to people, given the radical nature of the behaviour and the disastrous results. When first trying to understand the strategies of these older parts and to separate them from your true or authentic self, always remember that these strategies  will be radical, naive and immediate.

Basically, this means that the future will not be taken into account when developing these strategies. It also means that they will not be wise or caring in their construction. It also means that they will be extreme in what they have you doing. It is from this perspective that you can start to understand your drug taking, drinking, gambling or poor relationship choices. Once you understand that your brain has no sense of time ( it’s always ‘now’ in your brain) then it’s easier to understand why it develops ideas that seem to help in the moment but are often disastrous within a day or two.

Your parts are protecting you

In order to make the most of this approach it is essential that you understand this key idea. Your parts are trying to protect you! Take some time now to consider what ideas you are going to have to let go of before you can approach your parts from this perspective. Let’s look at two of the main ones.

You are not ill

You will have to let go of the idea that you have some sort of mental illness and that this is why you do these things. How long have you been fighting this apparent illness or ‘spiritual malady’? How long have you been fighting with these tendencies as if they are your enemy? How much have you hated yourself for being ‘flawed’ this way? It should come as a relief to you that you can now let this idea go.

You do not have an evil spirit

You will also have to let go of the idea that you have some sort of evil spirit that is controlling you and making you do these things. How long have you been seeking spiritual guidance on how to rid yourself of these things that came from outside of you, that attacked you, that hate you and are damaging you? How long have you been wondering why others seem to have improved whilst you are still the same? It should come as some relief that you can now let this idea go.

Appreciating your parts

Once you let go of these ideas, you can start to work with yourself instead of against yourself. You can start to appreciate your parts for what they are trying to do, rather than just keep lamenting the results. Your parts are doing the very best they can with what they have. Imagine asking a six year old what to do about an adult issue! What do you think you will get? Now you see where the radical, naive and immediate comes from.

Also remember that the ‘self’ they are trying to protect is not the grown up you, it is the younger self that they first saw. They do not know what happens after them, they only know what happened before them, the smaller part that they are covering.


How does understanding help us to work with our parts?

The main shift you will make with this understanding of what neuroscience has shown us, is that you will now start to work with yourself instead of against yourself. One of the main ways you will do this is to understand that you are in charge! Think of your self like a family car, Your family is in the car with you. They all have ideas and motivation, they all have ideas about what should happen next, and they all have ways of protecting the family. But there is only one steering wheel!

No matter what ideas are emerging from the back of the car, or even from the passenger seat right beside you, you have the steering wheel. It is ultimately up to you which road you go down. The main difference now is that you will be explaining you reasoning to the others in the car differently, since you now know they are just parts of you and that they are trying to help.

 Working with overwhelm

Here is only one time when having your hands on the steering wheel does not help you. This is when you are ‘overwhelmed’. Anyone who has suffered with addiction or compulsive behaviours knows this well. It is the moment when you are going to do something you should not, when you are going to do something you do not want to. But you cannot seem to stop it! There are two versions of this moment, one is where you go ahead and there seems to be no other opinion present, it’s almost like you have decided to do this, even though you have probably said quite recently that you never would again! The other version is where there is another opinion present but it doesn’t seem to have any strength to it. You may have heard yourself saying “why am I doing this”?

The difference between these two versions is that the first one is a complete overwhelm, whilst the second version is where there is some core self present but not in any strength that can influence behaviour. These two versions are both examples of the strength of your brain and its ability to ‘take over’ your body. You will still get the results you want, even in these cases, if you are patient and understand that your brain is following the training it has been getting for years. Remember, this part of you believes that it is protecting a younger self. Ask yourself this, if you believed that you were protecting a younger sibling from danger, would you be talked out of it?

Learning to work with your parts

The approach with overwhelm is to work in advance as much as possible. Remember that there is no timeline in your brain (the neuroscientists say that the amygdala cannot tell the time). This means that your brain doesn’t see much difference between when you think about these difficult times and the real thing. This is why we have real feelings even when we are watching a film. Even though we know in our minds it’s just actors. lighting and scripts, with a little music thrown in.

So when you think about the next time you are likely to face a situation where you will be overwhelmed, talk to the part that will be protecting you. You will probably find that just thinking about this time will ‘trigger’ the part to some extent. This is the best time to speak to it. The process is ‘appreciate, educate, request’ and the more you practice, the better it will work. Ask your part to trust you. Assure your part that you are willing and able to deal with this situation.

Be patient – go for the long game, not the quick fix

As you practice this more and more, you will notice yourself reacting differently to situations. Not because you demanded it of yourself, but because your brain has rewired itself to the new training. It’s always a good idea to congratulate and celebrate such moments. Even though this can feel a little ‘over the top’, it is really good for retraining the brain to build new pathways. These neural pathways lead to behaviour and are often where the overwhelming experiences come from. When you celebrate these ‘different and better’ experiences, you give valuable information to your brain that you like this new way of understanding things. Your brain is brilliant at picking up new learning, so give it all the encouragement you can!

You will soon be experiencing different and much better reactions to circumstances which used to floor you. As you learn to work with yourself the inner harmony you create will produce a state of calm clear confident courageous compassion towards yourself and especially your younger parts. Thanks for taking the time to read this today. If you want to know more about this approach or discuss the idea of working with me personally, please contact me at


Art reflecting Life

Art reflecting Life

Addiction and reverse addiction in film

It always amazes me when I see art reflecting the deeper things in life, particularly in film. Patterns and themes that can often take therapists years to learn and recognise are often portrayed by artists with no training or apparent expertise. These themes and traits are often included in their work primarily as observations from the life of the artist themselves and are all the stronger for that. In this post I am going to take a look at the main theme of my work, which is the family pattern of addiction and reverse addiction. And the way I see this reflected in storylines of Films and TV series. Particularly in the way people caught in this pattern, attract each other, live with each other, affect each other and frustrate each other.

Addiction and reverse addiction as relationship patterns

Years before my own recovery, it was obvious to me that certain people would react to me more favourably than others. Whilst some would clearly be affected by some form of empathy around my ‘problems’, others would be unaffected (I thought they were cold) and would say I had a ‘chip on my shoulder’. I also noticed a tendency to ‘flip’ or change my personality depending on who I was with. When I was with someone who was very giving and generous, I would tend to take advantage, whilst also developing a state of hoplessness. On the other hand, when with people who acted more selfishly, I noticed a tendency to feel responsible for their welfare, even down to shopping, cooking and cleaning

 Although I did not understand it yet, and was still some years away from my own recovery, I was experiencing part of the pattern of addiction and reverse addiction. Years later, after I had recovered from my own addiction, I studied and became a therapist. This led me to an understanding of narcissistic tendency and co-dependence as medical terms. However, being trained as a systemic therapist, I did not see these things as conditions. Instead, I learned to use communication theory as a way of recognising patterns and themes around the way people engage in relationships.

Moving away from simple medical diagnosis

 Using my own experience as well as my training, I learned to see issues as things co-created in relationships, rather than immutable personal traits or conditions. In other words, that the way we are is, at least partly, contingent on who we are with. It is from this perspective that we can relate the positions of addiction and reverse addiction more closely together. As opposed to unrelated ‘conditions’ such as addiction and codependency. 

As I started to develop these ideas in my practice and rehabs I worked in, I started to notice a great deal of consistency in the way people were attracted or repelled by each other. So this started to make sense to me based upon their history and tendency. For instance, an addict that had been extreme in their behaviour will tend to attract an extreme reverse addict. Whilst a more high functioning addict who has no history of drifting into chaos, will tend to attract someone with a milder form of reverse tendency. In other words, there is a form of unhealthy balance here which is unconscious but extremely consistent.

My main aim in this post is to look at the examples of this pattern in film and TV. There are many examples so I will restrict myself to three, one film, one TV series and one book. Finally I will look at the greatest example the world has been given, which is the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 in the Bible. The purpose of introducing these ideas through mainstream media projects is to help you to see the patterns more clearly for yourself, and to use this understanding in your own recovery. There is no better way to gain a better understanding of something than to see it as part of a story. Let’s first look at a very current series Happy Valley, with the amazing Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran.

The purpose of introducing these ideas through mainstream media projects is to help you to see the patterns more clearly for yourself

Happy Valley

The pattern of addiction and reverse addiction is strongly present in the BBC series Happy Valley. There have been two seasons already produced with a third due to be aired on January the 1st. In the story Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire) is a Police Sergeant in a small Yorkshire Town. Her Sister Clare (played by Siobhan Finneran), lives with her along with her grandson Ryan (played by Rhys Connah). 

Initially not much is made of Clare’s addiction, it’s only later in the series (series two, episode two) that the complexity of the sisters relationship is exposed through the vulnerability of Clare when she is left at a funeral by Catherine for several hours. She gets drunk with the daughter of the deceased Anne Gallagher (played by Charlie Murphy) who is also alcoholic. This begins yet another chaotic night

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Components of the theme

There are many recognisable components of the above mentioned theme present in this series. Notice that when Clare gets drunk, it is when she is left for five hours at a funeral because Catherine is so busy trying to meet many other obligations. This weight of responsibility for others, felt by the ‘reverse tendency’ is a strong component of the theme and one of the main ways that reverse addicts become burned out. There often seems to be no defence for the reverse addict against the consistent needs/demands of the addict., and the continual pressure of meeting others needs.

Familial construction

This pattern is primarily seen inside a family and we always remember that Catherine and Clares attitudes were both born out of the same family, the same parents, the same upbringing. Any dysfunction in the family tends to pressurise the children into one or other of these extreme patterns. The interesting thing is why do people in the same family tend to go in apparently opposite directions? Whilst Clare became a heroin addict and did not manage to make any progress in her career, Catherine grew up with the huge burden of responsibility for others. This led to a career in the Police force and an unhealthy pressure of responsibility to be looking after others. 

In the series Catherine is holding down a difficult Police Seargents role in a small Yorkshire Town. Underfunded and unsupported from upstream, she has chosen to step back from her detectives role in order to look after her Grandson. Left when her daughter commited suicide. She is also housing her sister Clare who is volunteering locally but not yet secure in her recovery. You might ask, “who made Catherine responsible for everyone else”? What makes Clare sometimes give up on everything and return to the drugs whilst her sister cannot leave her post? It is this bifurcation along family lines that is not natural, they were not born this way. It is the effect of dysfunction in the family.

Relationship construction

How we build relationships, and who we build them with, form another strong theme. Addicts and reverse addicts are like magnets, forming very strong attractions and repulsions. Because of the subconscious nature of this attraction, the unhealthy aspects of the bond are often not apparent until much later. If you ask someone who struggles with these things why they do what they do, they will often answer vaguely or with a somewhat glib reply. Those of you who have watched the series will see this in Catherines responses. The moral sense that they are supposed to do something is a force that is present in the brain more than the mind and, as such, is not easy to get to grips with. The good news is that the brain can be rewired.

It’s also important to review how you think about yourself. If your thinking is built on ideas like “I’m like this” or “I’m too much like that”, then there isn’t much you can do. However, if you can start to think of relationships as the way of understanding yourself, then you are opening up all kinds of possibilities for growth and development. Think about who you are in this, or that relationship, and why. It’s very noticable in this series that Catherine is very different depending on who she is with.

The moral sense that they are supposed to do something is a force that is present in the brain more than the mind and, as such, is not easy to get to grips with.

Intensity explosions

Explosions often become inevitable in the intensity of such unhealthy, unbalanced relationships such as the Sisters in this series. What the reverse addict sees as caring, helpful and necessary, the addict eventually experiences as restricting, smothering and controlling. Notice in the drinking scene how Clare is desperate for Catherine to “leave her alone”. This pattern or theme naturally strangulates over time to become an unbearable tension for both. The more the reverse addict notices the addict’s problems, the more they act to help. The more the addict perceives the help as controlling, the more they attempt to be free of it, and so on.


Flipping as a relational phenomenon

Following the intensity of the explosion in the relationship, the typical way Catherine and Clare relate is itself reversed, in other words they can ‘flip’ or swap positions. It is part of the pressure of the unhealthy balance. So, following the explosion we would tend to see reflection on behaviour. The addict might be concerned about the extent of their selfishness, the reverse addict eventually cracks under the pressure of meeting everyone else’s needs. Flipping then, is something that happens not only within an intense relationship but also, as a natural consequence of who we engage with.


Only when I laugh

In the 1981 film “only when I laugh” adapted from the play of the same name by Neil Simon, Georgia Heinz (played by Marsha Mason) is recovering from alcoholism. The story covers Georgia’s return from rehab and her attempts to return to her acting career. There are many great observations in this piece and several themes are present.

Notice in this clip from the movie, how the friend and the daughter go from lively animated chatter to a kind of limp lifeless silence once Georgia has left the room.

It was fascinating to me that in her interview with Bobbie Wygant Marsha confirms that she did not have alcoholism in the family, but had seen people who did not realise that they were embarrassing themselves with alcohol. Neil Simon grew up during the great depression and was said to have had a volatile upbringing with the family splitting up several times, but alcohol l was not the problem. So, again, they were derived from observation and human understanding.

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Far from the madding crowd

I can’t finish this brief look at these patterns and themes without a mention of Mark Clark. A character most of us can recognise in our lives. In Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the madding crowd, he introduces the character briefly. 

“True, true; it can’t be gainsaid!” observed a brisk young man–Mark Clark by name, a genial and pleasant gentleman, whom to meet anywhere in your travels was to know, to know was to drink with, and to drink with was, unfortunately, to pay for.

In Hardy’s novel this character is portrayed as somewhat more universal, as if he would have the same effect on everyone. And there are some that appear to have this effect, but most people have different effects on different people. 

The Prodigal.

The greatest example of this family pattern comes from the Bible and is found in the Gospel of Luke. In Chapter fifteen we read the story of the Prodigal Son. Possibly the most famous story in the Bible. Along with Noah and the flood, Adam and Eve in the garden, the Prodigal is so well known that people of all faiths and no faith are familiar with it.

Of course the typical way this story is taught and understood is in the context of the Fathers love for his sons, and this is clearly the main idea, but there is another underlying theme here and it is so important that when I am teaching counsellors and Church leaders about how to help people in their recoveries, I say that everything we need to know about addiction, rock bottoms and recovery is in this story! It’s all there if we dig a little deeper.

So we see all the usual suspects in this tale. Isolation, selfishness, poor decisions, chaotic behaviour and wild living. Rock bottoms and repentance. Acceptance and reconciliation. But wait! There is also another theme emerging right at the end! Look at the way the older son is so angry at the reconciliation that he refuses to go into the house. The Father goes out to him but he will not be comforted. This issue is so serious that we do not even see the resolution of it in the story. 

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Learning from our greatest teacher

Well, what is the older brother’s complaint? What is the problem? Shouldn’t he be happy that his younger Brother is back in the family? Well, if all his work, contributions and commitment were genuine, he would be. But his issue is exposed right at the end of the story when he cannot contain his resentment. He did not get the outcome all his efforts were aimed at. So here it is again. Two siblings from the same family, with the same Father, the same environment and the same history. And yet they grow up in completely opposite ways! One trys to gain acceptance and success by following all the apparent rules and meeting everyones expectations. Whilst the other escapes into selfishness and thinks only about what he can get! Looking at this story again through this apparently ‘modern’ lens is fascinating. It shows us that this family pattern has been around forever and will continue to emerge wherever families are formed. 

I really hope that this brief journey into art and the way it has reflected life has given you some food for thought, Especially if this is a subject you are struggling with yourself. Our aim in recovery is to improve all our relationships. With everything, and everybody! This means achieving a balanced position in relation to our boundaries with others. This can be very difficult and take time, so be patient with yourself. Take another look at this post for guidance on balance and what it looks like.

Thanks again for taking the time to read this. All the best with your progress.

Would you rather be excited or contented? 

Would you rather be excited or contented? 

The pressure to be excited

We live in a world where we are encouraged from all sides to be excited about everything. This is a part of a cultural shift towards hyping everything. This has become extreme now so that when passing someone the salt we are no longer surprised to be told ‘fantastic’. If we agree to shift an appointment time is now ‘perfect’. When anyone presents something on social media or general media, they are now “super excited” to be here. Of course, this cultural shift is affecting the younger members of society the most since they cannot remember when people’s reactions were more measured. As these youngsters get into relationships therapists like me see the issue of ‘excitement expectation’ more and more. 

Excitement is a marketing ploy 

Marketers have known for decades that excitement produces action and motivation. If you produce marketing that shows people who are excited about the product, it is more likely to produce action in the prospective buyer. 

In “The Psychology of Social Shopping,” Paloma Vasquez says: 

“In a state of excitement or arousal, people think and behave very differently. Emotional states trump rational thinking; it’s easier to sell to consumers when they are excited”.   

Seinfeld noticed this and brought it to his routine. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Excitement brings energy and we understand that success in life needs energy. So, the link with success is made and people naturally want to be associated and connected with success, even if this means buying something they do not need. 


Your body, run by your amazing brain, is constantly working to balance everything out and return to a normal (regulated) state. This force is called the homeostatic force. This is the first problem with excitement as a goal. However excited you get your brain will quickly return you to a normal state. But wait, it’s worse than that. Not only does your brain work tirelessly to return you to a normal state, but it also learns quickly from your behaviour. In other words, the next time you do the same thing, your brain will act much more quickly to regulate you. This is called the law of diminishing returns and is probably the biggest reason that excitement is not a good aim. Of course, this idea also includes drinking and drugging. Whatever the effect of the drug your brain is working hard to regulate you and reduces the effects massively over time.


All drug users and drinkers know this and have experienced it in their addictions and dependencies. As a therapist that works with many young couples, I see it just as much as a component of relationships. 

I have lost count of the young people who have sat in my counselling room and complained that there is no excitement in their relationship anymore. This is often said after only a couple of years of marriage. I always work with them in the same way. I question the idea of excitement as a useful aim within a profound, intimate, and lasting relationship. That’s not to say that excitement does not play a part in life, or relationships. But like happiness, it’s best to think of excitement as a consequence rather than a cause.  Of course excitement forms a part of what couples therapists think of as the first of three phases in substantial relationships. This is known as the honeymoon phase. 

Contentedness is a much better aim because, as a state, it includes experiencing both positive and negative experiences. To be content is to be happy whatever happens. Accepting good and bad in life.

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Contentedness over happiness   

So what’s the problem with happiness? Happiness is a word that stems from other words like what ‘happens’ and old words like ‘happenstance’. This means that happiness is a state produced when you like what happens. But do you always like what happens? 

If happiness is your aim, then you are going to put your partner under the sort of extreme pressure that no one could bear. No one can live up to this pressure. A big part of healthy relationships is coming to terms with the difference between you and your partner. Learning to compromise and sacrifice, to create equality with committed communication. To enter a lifelong journey of learning about each other and celebrating the difference. This is why contentedness is a much better aim than happiness. But does it beat excitement?

Contentedness over excitement 

So what’s the problem with excitement? excitement is a heightened state of being, produced by chemicals from your brain. This is not easy to control or produce. It is generally easiest to produce through new experiences. This is why ‘one night stands’ can easily produce excitement, and why one night stands or the temptation of affairs are such a big problem for people wanting to be faithful in their marriage. When presented with the opportunity for an affair, we are often unwittlingly put in the position of comparing the most exciting version of one person, with the most boring version of another! So you can see how temptation is often so difficult to resist.

When I ran Rehabs, working with thousands of clients over the years, I often worked with young people who were frustrated because the old drugs were not working any more. But they had been unable to find any substitute that matched the excitement of the first few drug experiences. Often they would only feel the final vestige of the excited experience, which was the feeling of waiting for the drug dealer to turn up! This happens because the memory of the dealer turning up with the drugs goes back to the original experience of using the drugs. Whilst the act of taking the drugs themselves is a current experience that is chemically reacted to by the brain. Very frustrating for the addicted person!

So happiness and excitement are consequences rather than causes. Contentment itself can cause them. But only contentment is profound, long lasting, and something that can be deepened over time. So ask yourself now, how content are you? What is it that you are unhappy about? I am not suggesting that you do nothing about your unhappiness, it is a sign that something is wrong. I am suggesting that excitement has no future, and that it is not your partners job to excite you, because excitement comes from you, not them! Because excitement is a consequence, not a cause. If you are discontent, consider talking about this rather than acting out of it. Whether you are struggling with addiction or in your relationship, look to contentment as your aim.


Consciousness and the observer position

Consciousness and the observer position

Have you ever stopped to consider the idea of consciousness? And what part it plays in your recovery journey? If you have, you will have been using your consciousness to do it! But what is it? What makes us aware that we are aware? Neuroscience is around a hundred years old now and has helped us make massive strides in our understanding. One of the most puzzling discoveries being that our consciousness is not created in the brain.

Since our brain contains the matter in which consciousness resides it has seemd obvious to most that the brain is also the creator of the phenomenon. New theories are now emerging that include relativistic understanding, reminding us that it is the position that we observe from that is key to our understanding. This is the basis of the observer position that I will be looking at in this piece. But first you need to understand more about the difficult position of having to use our consciousness to explore our consciousness!

“This is quite a mystery since it seems that our conscious experience cannot arise from the brain, and in fact, cannot arise from any physical process.”
Dr. Nir Lahav

Relative Parts?

The new theory claims that past notions of consciousness have been wrong because they have not taken account of the observer position. That consciousness is not an absolute or an illusion, but is in fact a relativistic phenomenon. In other words it will be understood differently from different positions. I suppose this is another way of saying that consciousness is best understood by other consciousness! Certainly your consciousness will not make any sense to unconscious beings.

Whether you understand consciousness as arising from God breathing his spirit into Adam (Genesis 1:26) or the natural step for us in our evolutionary journey, it is obvious that consciousness is the start of everything human. It gives us our appreciation for great beauty, love for others, and the pain and suffering that comes with addiction, among other things. In this piece I am not going to go any deeper into the question of consciousness itself, rather I am going to offer you a way of using your consciousness to help you to make progress. Remember that we recover by outgrowing our problems, not by defeating them. 

The Profound Observer 

The Bible gives us the original statement about this observation of consciousness. In Psalm 42 verse 7 it says that “Deep calls out to deep”. Reminding us that our recognition of God and his creation is the greatest miracle of all. Even if you don’t have any faith in religious ideas, you will probably have a deeply felt appreciation for the mystery of your consciousness. Now that we know that the brain cannot produce consciousness by itself, well, it has to come from somewhere, right?

If we develop too wooden a religious understanding then we will tend towards a more ‘parental’ or ‘judgemental’ view of our profound observer. A bit like an angry parent looking over our shoulder at everything we do, leading to regrets and guilt, shame and depression. This will naturally connect with our vulnerability which will either have us acting out addictively or feeling overly responsible for others (addiction and reverse addiction).

Of course, if the voices or parts lead us towards an unhealthy, selfish or otherwise criminal or immoral direction, then the Church would deem them to be ‘evil spirits’. Which would then need exorcising or, at the very least, prayed out of us. But this is not the only view we have been subject to. Science, through the medical model has added another perspective.


The External Observer 

The medical model offers us a more psychological idea of the observer. Seeing these ‘voices’ or ‘parts’ as introjects, strong influences from our parents or care givers that we internalise. And there is no doubt that these influences are hugely important in our development. Including the idea mentioned above in the way we can blend the idea of God with our parental relationship. No less a figure than Freud was the first to introduce this idea but the fact is that this view was challenged pretty quickly by his colleagues in the field.

Taking the medical position, the ‘parts’ influences are then understood as mental illnesses or problems. Constructing them once again as things we need to be rid of. Ultimately, whether we demonise or pathologise our parts, the same position is reached. That we need to be rid of them, albeit for very different reasons. The main effect of these influences which have been around for several hundred years, is to prevent people from creating a good starting point in their recovery journey. So much of your behaviour, attitude and thinking will make sense to you once you understand that the multifacted self is the normal and healthy human condition.


The embarrasing Observer

So, the Church and science have culturally soaked us in these ideas for hundreds of years. As a result, most of us would hesitate to admit to having anything like an inner part or a voice that was not us, or did not agree with us. But have you ever said “I don’t know what came over me”? Or “I’m in two minds about that”? What about when you talk to yourself? Who is talking to who here? The truth is that our brain sometimes takes over, and not always in a way we appreciate. Have you ever had to say sorry after “I just saw red”? In order to make real progress in your recovery journey you need to see these occassions as just one of many ways that your brain attempts to protect you. It takes over when danger is perceived.

Even though the medical and religious approaches attempt to reduce you to one thing, neuroscience has now shown us that the idea of the human condition as more complex and, in effect, multifaceted. How many times have you been driving on the motorway and your brain has seen some sign of danger that you have not? Taking action which is designed to save you from that danger. Your brain is watching at all times and is always concerned for your safety. When it perceives you to be threatened it shuts you down and takes over. This doesn’t happen because you are somehow broken, mentally ill or possessed. It happens because your brain is working fantastically well!  

This doesn’t happen because you are somehow broken, mentally ill or possessed. It happens because your brain is working fantastically well!

Your brain is your friend

So a big step in your understanding comes when you get the idea that your brain is always trying to help you! It’s not trying to screw up your life or damage you. One more point, if this threat came from when you were very young, then there are two things you need to know. Firstly,  you will not always recognise the threat from your adult experienced position. Remember that the threat your brain is reacting to is a threat to your younger self, not to you. Secondly, The brains reaction is to reproduce the feelings, experience and attitude of when this happened. So you will often notice changes in your thinking as well as in your state.


Consciousness defined

So the best working definition of consciousness is to think of it not as yourself but as the medium or filter through which you experience your self or ‘selves’. Remember that when your brain takes over you still experience this through your consciousness. This is what leads many to mistake one of their parts for their true self. 

You may be spending much more time in a soft triggered state than you think! Let me offer you one of the most common reasons for this so you can get a picture of how this might be affecting you. At work we play a role, it’s a performance. The receptionist at the Hotel does not always feel like smiling, but they always do! If you have been doing this role for years you may be performing it from a soft triggered state, especially if you feel more skilled or effective from this position.

So ask yourself, when I am at work, do I feel calm inside, not just look calm! Am I feeling confident or just acting confident? Am I really connected or just available? This will help you to understand your state.


person walking on beach during daytime

The Real Observer Position

man covering face with both hands while sitting on bench

So how should we understand and use the idea of the observer position in relation to our consciousness? The first thing as I said above is to understand that your multifaceted nature is normal and not a result of anything abnormal. The second thing is to realise that your consiousness has two functions. Firstly it is the filter through which all meaning is made. This includes how you ‘hear’ your parts and understand their feelings and protective nature. Secondly it is the potential to be you! It can be truly you, the authentic you, including all your natural resources of calmness, clarity, creativity, curiosity, confidence, courage, connectedness and compassion.

So the way to use this more accurate understanding of the human condition is to raise awareness of your state. Once you have described your state, the next step is to acknowledge that the part of you that is doing the observing is calm! This can be quite a revelation, even though your state might be confused the observer is often clear. This is your ‘true’ or real self which includes all the resources you have to manage yourself.  

So work with your parts from this ‘observer position. Speaking to them as someone who is willing and able to manage the situation, if they will let you. Remember, request, never demand. With practice, you will develop better relationships with your parts and they will trust you to handle situations in which they took over in the past.