Today’s blog entry is from Amanda McLean, who has been a member of Café RE since November 2019. Amanda has been alcohol free since March 26, 2019 and is very active within her Café RE GO community.
“Another day one, I’m such a loser.”
“I’ve ruined everything.”
“I’ll never get sobriety to stick.”
In my journey with alcohol abuse and recovery, these are just a few common mantras that run through my mind. I am someone who chronically struggles with self-judgment and negative self-talk. I know that my inner critic can be harsh and unforgiving. Since our thoughts drive our emotions, this unrelenting internal talk leads to painful feelings including anxiety, sadness, and low self-esteem. For many people, this self-hatred inner monologue and the associated feelings can lead to relapse or other forms of damaging behaviors. In my personal recovery journey, I have learned that being kind and supportive to myself during times of suffering is critical in maintaining my sobriety in recovery.
Avoidance is the Enemy
As Paul states in Recovery Elevator Episode 274 – I Feel Your Pain “In order to shift stagnant energy inside of us, we have to talk about our emotions.” Avoiding our thoughts and feelings never ends the way that we hope it will. And experts agree that one of the contributing factors to addiction is avoidance. As a person in recovery, I am guilty of minimizing, invalidating, and negating my feelings. But the more we avoid distress or attempt to suppress it, the worse it becomes. The more energy we use to push emotions like anxiety or anger away, the more powerfully those emotions come back toward us.
Another disadvantage of avoidance is that our bodies interpret avoidance as proof of danger, and this signals our internal alarm system. When my internal alarm system is activated, I often crave something to soothe my nervous system. Historically, I used and abused alcohol to calm my painful emotions. Although this solution proved to be immediate, it came with long term undesirable consequences including more painful emotions and negative self-talk. And thus, the cycle continued.
Start with Validation
Rather than avoiding negative self-talk and painful feelings that we would rather not face, we need to make a shift. We need to remember that the thought and the feeling are not the enemy. We need to remind ourselves that our thoughts and feelings are allowed to be here. We can tolerate discomfort. This starts with noticing the thought and/or the feeling and then providing validation.
Validation is useful for addressing any uncomfortable thought or feeling. It starts with acknowledging or labeling the feeling. For example, “I feel like I fail at everything, and this feels rough” or “I feel like I can’t do anything right and my entire body is tense” or “My chest feels tight and I feel so anxious”.
Once we acknowledge what we are feeling, we can then tell ourselves why it makes sense that we feel this way. In other words, tell yourself the story about why it makes sense that you feel the way that you feel. For example, “It makes sense that this feels rough because I worked a long day and now I am cooking dinner for my family while my kids argue”, or “It makes sense that I feel like I can’t do anything right and I am tense because my boss just snapped at me”, or “It makes sense that I am feeling anxious because this is my daughter’s first day at her new school and I am scared she won’t make friends”.
I know that feeling. That feeling of shame. When I was abusing alcohol, I didn’t want anyone else to know the things I had done. This is exactly when we need self-compassion. Self-compassion reminds me that I made a mistake but that does not mean that I am fundamentally a bad person. I can separate my worth as a person from my behavior.
When I fail to validate and hold my feelings, when I shame myself, I cannot learn from my mistakes. Shaming myself through self-judgement and self-criticism shuts down the learning receptors in the brain. Shame freezes a person. Self-compassion allows me to acknowledge and validate my thoughts and feelings, commit to not making the mistake again, and then forgive myself.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, states that self-compassion is acting toward yourself the way you would act toward a cherished friend when you are having a difficult time, when you fail, or when you notice something that you don’t like about yourself. When something goes wrong or we have a difficult moment, avoiding or fighting against the suffering in that moment will only increase our anxiety, distress, and self-criticism. Self-compassion is a method for soothing or comforting our nervous system.
The 3 steps of Self-Compassion
When I was at the height of my alcohol abuse, waking up each morning feeling like a failure, the most common self-criticism that I heard in my head was, “I am such a loser”. More often than not, self-criticism caused me significant distress which led me to soothe my system with alcohol. In recovery, I have learned the value of self-compassion: giving myself kindness, care, and support.
Self-compassion involves three steps. First, I must hold the pain of my mistakes. This takes a lot of courage because I must acknowledge the pain I have caused myself and others. Second, I remember that pain and suffering are a part of being human and therefore other people have felt this way as well. I am not alone. Third, I must be kind to myself. Self-kindness means that I treat myself with sympathy, warmth, and patience.
Practicing these three steps may sound like, “I drank again and I was not present for my children and my husband. Other people struggle with repeated mistakes, and I am not the only person who has felt and experienced this pain. I have been through a lot this year and quitting alcohol is hard. AND I can do hard things.” From that space of openheartedness, I can do everything I can to commit to doing it differently in the future. This allows me to soothe my nervous system without using or abusing a harmful substance.
***By Amanda McLean; Café RE Go Group