Nine Questions to Ask If You Are Having Trouble In Your Recovery

How your attitudes can affect your recovery

Are Toxic Attitudes Limiting Your Recovery?

Toxic attitudes interfere with our development by supporting the growth of the false self, rather than the real or authentic self. They falsely instruct us to pursue goals that are unattainable and unrealistic. Often these toxic attitudes are based on cultural myths that we believe are true until something happens to cause us to question their validity.

There are several toxic attitudes—myths and flawed assumptions that can wreak havoc in our lives. If these harmful attitudes are not questioned and replaced with more nourishing ones, they will eventually sabotage your recovery from addiction.

For example, the idea that desire equals ability is a toxic attitude. Our culture emphasizes the notion that we can do anything as long as we set our mind to it. That myth tells us that if you have enough desire it will magically create that ability. Now an important thing to keep in mind is that toxic myths often possess a partial truth. While it's true that desire can motivate you to develop a particular ability, the reality is that it takes more than desire. It takes effort, natural talent, good instruction, a certain attitude toward learning, and many other crucial variables. Desire is not enough. It's an important ingredient but not a sufficient ingredient in and of itself.

And that delusion can hamper of our enjoyment of life. For example, I love tennis and play it whenever I get a chance. Over the past three decades I've developed some decent abilities on the court, but I guarantee you that I will not be playing in the final or even the first round of the US Open next year. My desire is strong enough, but my serve, forehand, and backhand just aren't good enough. If I believe that desire is all I need, then when I realize that I'll never reach that level, I could easily give up and not enjoy playing tennis any more.

I believe this delusion kills countless well-intentioned plans. We want immediate results, we want to instantaneously master things, and we don't want to put in the hard work and practice to develop the skills that we actually do have. In fact, Dr. Harry Tiebout observed this about alcoholics in particular (1999). He noted that certain infantile characteristics persist into the adulthood of the alcoholic, such as wanting to do things in a hurry and wanting immediate results. He was observing that we need to challenge our immature beliefs and grow up.

I couldn't agree more. Becoming aware of our toxic attitudes and replacing them with nourishing attitudes is crucial to getting and staying sober. Let's first review the differences between toxic attitudes and nourishing attitudes, and then we will explore several toxic attitudes that sabotage recovery and questions you should ask yourself when you find yourself having trouble in your recovery from addiction.

The Difference between Toxic and Nourishing Attitudes

Toxic attitudes are an outgrowth of the false self. We become tyrannized by these attitudes, which dictate how we should feel or act. We can recognize them because they always contain ridiculous and unattainable standards by which we measure our behavior. You know the ideas I mean: I must always look or feel great; I should never make a mistake, especially in public; I must be the best at everything—I am not worthy of love unless I reach an ideal weight, earn more money, run in the right circles, and so on. These standards make it impossible to develop any true self-esteem, or a cohesive and solid sense of who we are.

These attitudes are based on concepts we have swallowed whole without critically examining their validity or relevance for our lives. We don't digest or integrate these attitudes into our personality because they're like foreign bodies. Remember, embracing toxic attitudes is like swallowing walnuts whole without removing the shell. Nevertheless, these attitudes drive our behavior so that we play a false role counter to our true self. It can feel like these shoulds are running our lives as our true self passively stands by.

Toxic attitudes interfere with our freedom to experience ourselves, our world, and our recovery in our own way. They cultivate fear, shame, and alienation from others, and create a fragmented, rigid self that is unable to cope with life on life's terms. On the other hand, nourishing attitudes foster freedom, a passion for living, heightened awareness, authenticity, and acceptance of our individuality and that of others (Greenwald, 1977). They encourage us to embrace our uniqueness rather than demand conformity to some external standard.

Nourishing attitudes create emotional sobriety and encourage the growth of our true self. They stimulate feelings of joy, centeredness, contentment, serenity, flexibility, and creativity. They foster the development of a strong, cohesive self that can cope with disappointments and success and can keep our unhealthy demands in check. They generate the resilience and humility that can help us maintain our emotional balance and take responsibility for our feelings, actions, beliefs, and choices, all of which are the building blocks of self-esteem.

Attitudes That Undermine Recovery

Some of the most common toxic attitudes that can sabotage recovery are:

  • "We are selfish and inconsiderate when we put our own needs ahead of others."
  • "All I need to stay sober is AA" (or NA, SMART Recovery, you name it).
  • "I just want to be happy: happiness is what life is all about."
  • "I am incapable of dealing with my mistakes, shame, or other emotional pain."
  • "I shouldn't have any stress if I want to stay sober."
  • "We've all heard time and again about how bad stress is"
  • "Marriage or relationship trouble always means that something is wrong with my recovery."

Nine Questions To Ask If You Are Struggling In Recovery

If you are having trouble in your recovery, ask yourself and answer the following nine questions:

  • What part of my problem is caused by a toxic attitude?
  • What role are my unrealistic beliefs and expectations playing?
  • What role are my fears playing?
  • What part of my problem is caused by my avoidance?
  • What aspect of my problem is caused by my insistence that I have to be right?
  • What aspect is caused by my emotional dependency?
  • Is my passivity contributing to the difficulty I am having?
  • What role is my need to control playing?
  • What part of my problem is caused by my lack of faith in my ability to be flexible and grow?

If you can't put your finger on what you are doing to contribute to the problem you are having, get some help from your sponsor, a trusted loved one, or a counselor. You can't see what you can't see.

You will learn that the toxic attitudes can carry with them the idea that you shouldn't need help, or that you can't face the painful truths (or become the capable self) that help might bring about necessary changes in your recovery from addiction. If this applies to you, try to put those ideas aside long enough to get the help you need.

Read more from Allen Berger: How Passivity Can Sabotage Your Recovery.

Excerpted from 12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, by Allen Berger, PhD

Allen Berger 100x115Allen Berger, PhD, is a psychotherapist who has written extensively about the experience of recovery, emotional sobriety, and the psychological forces operating within the Twelve Steps. A nationally recognized expert on the science of recovery, he has, for more than 30 years, been on his own journey in recovery while helping thousands of others discover a way of life free from addiction. He is author of 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone and 12 More Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.
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