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!
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”.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
My work in this field took a huge leap forwards when I took on board the complex nature of being a human being! I often remind my clients that when we say ‘I’ we are using a complex statement! So the core principle here is something like ‘you are always working with what is between your ears’! To start using our daily experiences and challenges to grow into our recovery we need to understand what is happening during difficult moments and the relationship between our brain and our mind.
So I want you to consider the idea of differences. Internal differences. Can you accept or even consider the idea that there are parts of you that do not see things the same way you do? That do not have the same beliefs that you do?
There is no more difficult moment for my clients than when they are recounting some ‘crazy’ thing they did or said. Describing it as something they are ashamed of or how it was ‘just not like me’ can be one of the most challenging things for people in early recovery. But once they understand the way their brain works when threatened they have a coherent method to work with.
Before my clients enter treatment their options are limited. They can either attempt to fight these compulsions (conflict) or attempt to deny their existence (fragment). Only when they enter treatment and understand why these things are happening can they accept themselves (harmonise). Let’s take these options one at a time so you can check out if this is what you have been doing.
When we take the fighting option we are led into conflict, but it’s okay because it’s conflict for a good reason, right? There are so many articles and books about how to win and how to be strong and how to fight that you may think of it as an obvious thing to do. So you try to banish the negative thoughts or to aggressively replace them with ‘positive affirmations’.
Sound like you? Let me ask you something, did it work? The fact that you are reading this is pretty good evidence that it didn’t. Let me tell you something. If you want these inner negative voices to get stronger, keep exercising them. It’s your resistance to them that is making them stronger. You need to harmonise not argue.
But these books are talking about our relationships with others not ourselves. Then we might think it works for the relationship with our self just the same. You see I fully agree that conflict and it’s resolution is the key to personal growth (on the outside). Please click this link for my take on this. But our relationship with ourselves needs a different approach.
So in relationships with other people difficulties are good. The problem is that things are very different on the inside. When it comes to yourself conflict is not the way forwards. I always remind my clients that “Your mind runs your life…. on licence from your brain”. So when you are dealing with a part you are dealing with a child. But a child that is much stronger than you! Overpowering it is not an option!
Our brain protects us
Now this understanding doesn’t mean that we should just allow all kinds of hateful and demeaning language to go on in our heads. It doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to control ourselves in challenging situations. It means that we should understand that we have parts of us that are trying to protect us and do not necessarily think the same way that we do about things. For instance you as an adult may genuinely want to stop drinking but a younger self does not!
You see there is a very good reason why the mind and brain relate in this way. The brain is much better at helping you survive genuine danger! It is faster and more ruthless in it’s decision making. And it does not waste time philosophising or meditating, being mindful or even things like hunger or desire. It makes the decision that you are in danger and simply shuts your mind down and takes over, at lightning speed! Once the danger is passed, you are given your licence back and can start making decisions again.
Once we get the idea that we have younger parts, and that these parts do not have the same maturity wisdom or experience that we do we can start to approach these things from a more effective angle.
Whilst it’s true that nothing works for everybody, we can also say that everything seems to work for a while! Even the worst ideas can appear good in the short term. Denial fits into this category because it would be everybody’s short term pick. Just pretend it didn’t happen! Just convince yourself it isn’t true! For as long as it works it’s the perfect solution since there’s no effort, no cost and no time wasting on solutions. If you have felt the effects of long term denial then you know what I’m talking about. For this article I want to show you the damaging effects of fragmentation.
Denial in addiction is like trying to pretend that an embarrassing relative actually does not belong in your family. As long as you are convincing yourself and others that you don’t know this person you don’t have to feel the shame of what they do. But you are tearing yourself apart.
The start of integration
I help my clients to be grateful for what the ‘part’ is trying to do. I help them to understand that when they were very young they had limited knowledge of how to handle a dangerous situation and so they could not expect much in the way of growth. These were what I call survival strategies and their only aim is to keep you breathing! My clients learn that they are no longer in a war zone and so the survival strategies are no longer appropriate. What they need now are flourishing strategies!
So you will take a very different approach once you acknowledge the part of you that is trying to help you and to start to work with it. I call this ‘integration’. Here are three things we say about our ‘parts’
1 They are created by trauma
2 They are triggered by threat
3 They are always trying to help you survive
So why is it they screw things up with what they have me saying or doing? “I behave like a madman sometimes”. “I say I’ll never do it again and then there I am, at it again”. These are very typical things to hear in my line of work. Let’s apply this new understanding of our ‘parts’ to these stories and see what happens.
Inner harmony begins to be created once you assume that anything you do that is out of proportion with the situation is being decided by a ‘part’. In other words you start from the assumption that your ‘adult’ is not only able to handle things in a measured and grounded way but that your adult will always make the best decisions based on the circumstances. Inner harmonising develops when you accept the three things above and work with your younger part to deal with whatever your brain is perceiving as a threat.
When someone is introduced to these ideas they can be a little difficult to take in. When someone is struggling to take it in I ask them which football team they support. I tell them that I support another team and ask them if it seems crazy to have two different opinions in the room? Of course there is no problem and so I go on to ask if we can still talk and get on? Again no problem.
Sometimes I ask them if they always believed what they now believe. “If we went back in time to when you were ten, would you have the same beliefs or understanding you have now”? Of course they would not, and this helps them to make sense of what is going on between their ears.
Understanding your parts
Your ‘parts’ screw things up because when your brain perceives a strong enough threat your mind is ‘shut down’ and a much younger part of you is pushed out there to deal with whatever is going wrong. Imagine a six year old having to come up with a solution to your ‘grown up problems’. Here are three things I want you to know about the way your younger parts think
1 It is always about now (they don’t think about the future)
2 It is always naive (they do not think about the health consequences or any other consequences)
3 It is always radical (If one adult proves untrustworthy, don’t trust any of em)
Look for these things in your ‘triggered states’.
Integrating your ‘parts’ is part of your recovery journey
In a process I call ‘self-parenting’ or ‘self-management’ you will learn not to fight with your parts who are only trying to help. Nor will you deny your role in things when a part takes over. Rather you will learn to parent yourself as part of your growth into recovery. I go into more detail in the links to podcasts below but I will say a little about how this is done here.
The actual trauma that created this particular ‘part’ may not be known to you or be very obvious to you. Remember that trauma is how something affects you, not something we can measure by the size of any particular event. But even if you can’t remember anything it can still help to have a picture of yourself at a certain age (photos work well). A nickname can also help since the first move towards integration is to develop a little separation (ironic I know).
Now ask yourself “when things got hard for me at that age, what could I have really done with from my parents but didn’t get”? This gives you a starting point for self parenting. When feeling ‘triggered’ by anything you can now apply this parenting from your adult self and integration of your ‘part’ begins.
I will leave a link to a three episode series I’ve done on ‘inner child work’ that will go into more detail on this approach.
Finally, if you are interested in learning more about this approach or running a group based on these ideas, please watch the video below
So one of the main principles of growth is…… growth? I know, it seems a silly thing to include. But the importance of this demands that it gets its own section. Let me first extract the principle here so that we have a context for the rest of this section.
The only way to authentic recovery is to outgrow your difficulties
This then reflects back to the whole process. Where it also becomes a part of the process is when we look at the day to day attitude we have towards our life and experiences. You will not be able to say that you have accepted growth as a basic principle until you stop seeing your daily experience as problems you need to solve and start seeing it as lessons you need to learn!
Have you been trying to recover and clean up your act without accepting that you need to grow? Every time you do that you are in conflict with yourself (or should I say parts of yourself that do not want to stop. You are having to manipulate others into changing to suit you. And let’s not forget that you are having to work with the resources you started with.
Growth builds resources so you get more as you go. Now I’m not looking at you when I say this but, there are lots of people that pay for a gym membership and then don’t go! What does this mean? It means that, on some level at least they believe that just paying will do it. Just wanting it will do it. Just agreeing to it will do it. Of course none of this works but it is revealing how many people must struggle with these sort of ideas.
It’s the same with your recovery. Recovery is the healthy consequences of growth. Addiction is the unhealthy consequences of not growing.
Psalm 40 – Being lifted up
“I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings”. The King James version includes the ‘horrible pit’ and so I included it even though the language is a bit obscure for the modern reader. The NIV says
I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
What ‘horrible pit’ is the psalmist referring to? Clearly this is not a physical place and ‘miry’ refers to the type of prison the Romans had in Athens and in Rome where there was just one hole at the top but you could never get out because of the clay and mud. You could never get a foothold to climb and so you were trapped in a place where you could make no progress.
You must be ‘lifted up’ in order to make progress. That means firstly that you need help from outside yourself. Through Gods word and his ways. The power that resides in his eternal truth. Put more simply, you grow when you face the difficulties of doing things the right way.
But first you must acknowledge your problem. Until you ‘Cry out in your distress’ you don’t enter that relationship where you can be helped. As long as you maintain that everything is alright you will never accept radical solutions. These only look possible from a position of extreme circumstances.
Growth is permanent
As long as you are feeding your habit whether it is substance or behaviour you are running to stay still. It will become increasingly hard to maintain this position and keep this ‘groundhog day’ going. It takes a lot of energy to stay where you are! You are now learning from this that the ‘static view’ of things flies in the face of reality. Your natural place is to grow and develop.
Growth is not temporary. Anything that has created genuine growth will benefit you for the rest of your days. You will not shrink back to how you were. In every situation and issue we bring all that we are to the moment. Growth is all about being able to bring more to the table when facing responsibilities and challenges. It’s cumulative in that you are not only using your growth resources but you are also creating more growth as part of the process.
Your world may look interesting and exciting, but if it doesn’t have living relationships in it, it actually looks like this.
The attraction of the dead world
I spoke about in the last episode on isolation about the ‘dead world’. There is another reason why this world attracts people who are suffering. It’s not just about the lack of scrutiny and accountability that makes it attractive. The dead world also attracts you because it doesn’t move! One of the main shifts I made when I started to study the ‘systemic approach’ was the challenging idea that the world is in a state of ‘flux’. That means that everything is going somewhere, all the time!
It made me think about my world view, which was definitely a ‘static’ one. I viewed the world as full of static objects that basically stayed wherever they were put until someone or something moved them. In my training I was connected up with the very challenging idea that the natural state of the world was change! This basically blew my mind and it took some getting used to. Ask yourself now, which is your world view closer to? Static or changing?
How this changes everything
Once I believe that change is the natural order of things I have to deal with two big ideas. Number one, I have to allow change in others and accept that brings challenges to me. The first of which is to become sensitive to those changes. Number two, I have to accept that I have been putting a lot of energy in staying the same! Staying the same may feel safer and more secure but remember that you are going against the natural order of things. this can be exhausting and for a while gave you a sense that you were doing something. Ultimately you are running to stay still.
The consequences of staying the same
Once you were in the groove, now you’re stuck in a rut
You are probably right in the middle of facing these consequences right now. So you know what they are already. But here’s a recap just so we can be clear. There are health consequences, relationship consequences, family consequences, financial consequences and career consequences.
as the addiction and dependence on unhealthy survival strategies continues, the consequences get worse. there is a strong connection between attitudes and physiology. You develop illnesses and health problems. These can get very serious and life threatening.
recovery generally begins in an active sense when the ‘cure becomes worse than the disease’. Don’t forget that what now may seem like a problem started off as a solution! You did it because it felt better! Like any unhealthy strategy, the consequences grow and grow until… yes, the moment when you realise that it’s no longer worth it. It’s time to stop. Are you at that stage?
By staying in the same place you are getting into a habit of reacting the same way to things. Denying, avoiding, procrastinating, stealing, lying, arguing. All these things become reinforced over time as they become your only option. When ponds become stagnant the problems are obvious. It’s the same with you. Ask yourself now. Is there still a good reason to be ultra safe? To never change and grow? Is the war still on?
The war is over – be grateful that you are still alive
Finally surrendered forty years after the war was over
Years after the Second World War was over Japanese soldiers were still being discovered on remote islands. They had lived for years thinking that they were in a war that had finished decades ago. Are you thinking you are still in a war that is actually over?
The need to become stagnant was a ‘survival strategy’. If the war is over then it’s time to develop ‘flourishing strategies’. In order to do this you need to realise that what you did was necessary. You may have developed these strategies as a result of being abused or mistreated. Having to live in a home with mental illnesses or addiction. Mistreatment. Children cannot leave like adults and so you had to survive. You used your child’s resources and came up with a plan that got you through. It worked! You survived. Now you need to acknowledge that the war is over.
Honour your child self for helping you to survive. Be grateful that it worked. Appreciate what you have done for yourself. One of the first challenges i recovery is developing this better attitude towards yourself. You have been taught that you are not worth caring for and you look back on your past with self loathing because of what has happened. You must find some appreciation for what you have done for yourself.
Survival strategies work best in times of crisis, times of war. When survival would be a result! They come from a time in your life when they were completely appropriate. You must ask yourself now, are they still?
Here is the big problem with survival strategies. They do not bring any growth. As long as you are still breathing at the end of the day they have worked. It’s as simple as that. Ask yourself now how would you feel if someone did not appreciate you when you saved their life? When all they asked of you was to survive and when you were 100% successful, they resented you! If the war is over then swap those survival strategies for flourishing strategies. Choose life!
Here are a few pointers towards the flourishing strategies. Remember that you should go at your own pace. I always recommend 5% growth aims for my clients. Don’t set yourself up to fail by rushing into something you are not ready for.
1 Communication – When you don’t say what you want and don’t ask for what you need, you are saying that you are not worth anything. Try improving your communication by getting a little closer to what you want to say. Here is an exercise you can try.
2 Authenticity – I often say to my clients “you need to go home and let them know who you really are”. When you think you will be rejected or that you are not worth anything you will not show yourself. Again, making small shifts works best. Here is a blog on the subject.
3 Vulnerability – If you have been hurt or abused in the past then you will not show any vulnerability. I couldn’t be wrong for thirty years because I ‘knew’ what would happen to me if I was. it would be used against me. Again, a survival strategy. Rather than attacking people or starting another argument, try saying where someone has hurt you or how it feels when someone says ‘those things’ to you. Here is an article on the subject of relationships affected by addiction.
Hope that helps and thanks for taking the time to read this. The final episode in this series will be the fourth one and it will be on self management.