Thursday, January 15, 2015

Daily Recovery Tool: Support the Vulnerable Self

It's a familiar part of everyday life: something happens that gets under our skin. We don't want to dwell on it, so we gather ourselves and move on with the day. Later, we may not even remember what bothered us--or perhaps that we were even bothered at all.

It's called adulthood: we don't have the luxury of whimpering over every little bump and bruise inflicted upon us by life. And we don't particularly want to dwell on the negative.

This way of coping works fine--most of the time. But there is a downside, particularly for those of us who are vulnerable to mental and physical health struggles, including addiction. 

We get so much practice that we get too good at ignoring our own distress. The problem is, we feel bad about something, and although we may think we've moved on, something inside us lags behind, still stuck in the distress. We try to focus on on what we think we've moved on to, but someplace in our body the strain and tension festers. The uncomfortable feeling pulses on, just below the threshold of consciousness. 

Distress that goes ignored may not fade. It may linger and fuel all kinds of dysfunction. 

To clear out this kind of toxic tension and distress, I encourage some of my clients to engage in the following practice twice a day. You can do it in five or ten minutes.

1. Tune inward and ask, what's eating at me today? Is there something--anything--making me feel off or out of sorts? 

2. Answer the question--mentally, aloud, or by writing, typing, or texting. Something along the lines of, "It bothered me when..." or "I feel bad that..." 

3. Support that vulnerable part of you that just voiced distress by empathizing and validating those feelings. For instance, "I get why that's eating at you. I can understand why that doesn't feel right. It's understandable that your feelings got hurt by that." 

4. Tune in to your body. Notice what you feel physically. The action is often in the gut or chest. sometimes the throat, shoulders, jaw, fists. Your eyes might water, as though you're about to cry. You may place a hand on that part of your body where you feel the discomfort or tension with the intention of conveying compassion by way of your touch. "Yeah, I feel that. I hear you loud and clear."

5. Whatever feelings come to light, simply sit with them for a minute or two. 

As you attend to your feelings, they may deepen or ease. Either way, your objective is not to make the feelings go away. Simply attend to them.

Don't worry, you're not creating pain or making it worse by dwelling on it. A part of you has been feeling this distress all along, you're simply shining the light of compassionate attention on it. We are being present with a part of us that usually operates outside our awareness. We're bringing onto the stage of consciousness what was previously happening offstage. 

There's no threshold of pain or relief that indicates you're finished. You're not on the lookout for an a-ha moment. Just be present with yourself, stay with what you're really feeling. Like you might sit with a friend who is hurting or in need. 

After a brief few minutes of this, then you're done. Go on with your day. 

Here's an email I got from a client, a junior high school teacher, sharing his experience with this exercise. I've added the numbers so you can see how his process coincides with the steps described above. 

Today was my first day back to school after the holiday break. Arrived a bit later than usual and sat down at my desk to look at lesson plans. I felt a heaviness and realized there was a feeling of some kind there that I could sit with. 

1. Ask: I closed my eyes and said, 'Okay, what's up?' 

2. Answer: 'Students will be here soon. There coming! I don't want to be here. I don't want to work! I want to relax, go have a nice breakfast. I want to be away from people. I want peace. I know I just slept in, but I want even more rest... warmth... to snuggle up, maybe even hibernate. Yes, that's it, I want to hibernate. Avoid everything, especially people.

3. Support: 'I get why you feel that way. What you're feeling is real. It's important. I'll sit with you while you feel that.'

4. Body: Still feel that heaviness. That's all over, but especially in my chest. And there's this clench in my throat. I placed one hand lightly on my throat, the other against my chest. 

5. Attend: I just sat there and let myself feel. 

A minute later I realized that this was the same way I used to feel when I was younger. I'd complain that I didn't feel well and sometimes my mom would let me stay home from school. I'd lay on the couch under a blanket and watch "The 100,000.00 Pyramid" her. She took care of me. I didn't feel like it was okay to avoid school, but I sure didn't feel up to going. There was some guilt over staying home. I felt ashamed that deep down I wanted to avoid. I had to hide the fact that I sometimes played up my symptoms. Then my brother would come home and say, "He's not sick! You make me go to school unless I'm in the hospital!" So today, it was different to sit with the feeling of wanting to avoid instead of trying to immediately pull myself together and put my nose to the grindstone. It was bittersweet. It felt like I was sitting with a younger part of me that had long ago been exiled. 

As I finish up I still feel tight in my throat and heavy in my chest. Feels like life is so harsh, it needs to be avoided. I'm a tender soul walking around like a turtle outside its shell. Life can be too bright and too harsh and too much. Okay, back to my day anyway!

The benefit of this exercise is not that it necessarily helps you feel better. Rather, it's that we stay connected with ourselves rather than detaching. And self-awareness is correlated with self-control. As we stay grounded in our actual experience of life instead of dissociating from that experience, we also keep a better hold of the steering wheel of our own lives.

Try it for yourself: A couple of times a day over the next few days, take five or ten minutes and go through the steps. Then let us know how it goes for you.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

He Sees Now the Damage from Porn

"Sure, I really should kick my porn habit. But it isn't that big a deal, it's not doing that much damage."

That was Julian's attitude throughout the first seven years of his marriage.

But then his wife, Valerie, got fed up and they separated.

Three and a half months later, three and a half months alone, Julian had an entirely different take on the effect of porn on Valerie and on their relationship. Together we made a list of the negative consequences of porn:
  • Decreased the trust she had in me
  • Fed an incredible sense of loneliness in her
  • Impaired our bond as a couple
  • Decreased the sense of connection we felt
  • Hampered my spirituality
  • Interfered with our friendship
  • Diminished her attraction to me
  • Diminished my attraction to her
  • Decreased the romantic feelings between us
  • Fostered my selfishness
  • Diminished our hope for the relationship and our future
  • Got in the way of my ability to be present
  • Led me to lie (for example, told her I was working on it when I wasn't)
  • Our ability to have and work for common goals fell apart
  • Worsened her body image
  • Fostered her depression and anxiety
  • Traumatized her
  • Diminished her trust in the entire male gender
  • She couldn't turn to me as a spiritual support or leader in the home
  • Attacked her faith
  • Harsh communication increased (I was more irritable)
  • We fought more
  • Eventually led to a desire to separate
  • Led to unrealistic expectations for a relationship
  • Decreased my ability to experience gratitude, appreciate awesome things about her
  • Got in the way of me being authentic
Can you relate to the damages Julian listed? As you consider your own experience and that of your partner's, are there any items you would add to this list?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Catch Zombie Mode to Reduce Risk of Relapse

It was Sunday afternoon and Joseph's wife, Mindy, was concerned.

"What's going on? Is something wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing's wrong. I'm just playing League of Legends. Is there something wrong with that?"

"I usually don't have a problem with you playing," she said. "I don't know why it's bugging me today. I guess it just seems like you've been in zombie mode for the last few hours. You seemed off even before you got on the computer to play."

Joseph got off the computer. He was annoyed about it at first. But then he realized he should sit down with Mindy and unpack why he'd gone into zombie mode. What had been eating at him before he detached?

He knew that this is the way it had often gone when he used to relapse with porn: he'd feel some kind of underlying negative emotion, he wouldn't address it, he'd start playing games or escape into some other screen activity, and after a while he might move into the realm of porn.

So he sorted through the events from earlier in the day in search of it: was there some underlying negative emotion he'd been trying to escape?

Their pastor, Steve, had asked them all to volunteer at least an hour each week over the holidays to in their church's food pantry. He'd told himself that with the extra hours he was putting in at work this month and the demands of their young family, he wouldn't have time. But then he'd started feeling bad about not helping. He'd laid down to take a nap once he got home from church, but he couldn't fall asleep. He just ended up feeling lethargic. He played a game on the iPad with his oldest son. Then he'd gotten on the computer to play.

"Yeah," he acknowledged to Mindy, "I'm feeling pretty burned out with all of these demands bombarding me. Seems like there's always something that's not getting done. But more is still piling on top of me all the time, regardless of what I've gotten done or still have left to do. Plus I guess I've been wanting to set aside all the trivial demands of life and do some meaningful service activity, so when Steve asked us to do that part of me was like, 'Yeah, this is perfect, it's what I've been looking for.' I guess I shut down that generous, giving part of myself and maybe part of me was feeling bad about that. It's a drag when life is all about the grind, very rarely about doing something extra in a meaningful way."

Later Joseph said to me, "It was good to talk it all out with Mindy. Once I unpacked all of that and realized what had been troubling me, it made more sense why my brain wanted to go into zombie mode."

These days Joseph, with Mindy's help at times, is getting better at catching zombie mode and evaluating why he is detaching before it ever reaches the point of sexual temptation.

That's good, proactive recovery.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Step Back from Your Addiction and Toward What Really Matters to You

Two essential processes can foster recovery from addiction: stepping back from the cravings and hopelessness associated with addiction and stepping toward what really matters to you. 

How to take a step back from your addiction.

I like the way Ekhart Tolle suggests doing this. When you start to feel a pull, say to yourself,

"There is that voice in my head telling me I can't pass up this opportunity... and here I am standing back, listening to that voice, watching it. 

Or perhaps, 

"There is that voice inside me, telling me that I'm a loser because I gave in again... and here I am standing back, listening to that voice and watching it."

Don't just wait until you get feel susceptible to urges or to guilt. Practice at least once a day stepping back from the voice inside your head and listening to it, watching it. You'll notice that it tells you all kinds of things: That you're a failure in some other aspect of your life. That you should withdraw from situations where you don't shine. That your efforts are futile. That other people are leaving you out of something important. 

Once a day--or perhaps a few times--step back from your mind see those thoughts for what they are: not realities, thoughts.

How to take a step toward what really matters to you.

Pick something off your value menu and do it.

To create your personal value menu, 1) identify some of your values and 2) brainstorm brief actions you can take that are consistent with those values.

1) To identify a few of your values:

Consider what makes you you. Are you caring? Enthusiastic? Clever? Passionate? Those are some of your values. 

What are the key elements of those activities you find deeply satisfying? Do they enlist your creativity? Is it the rewarding interactions with other people? Is it the solitude? Novelty? 

When your life is over, what will look back and be very glad you did? Scratch your kids back at night? Work hard to support your family financially? Sing in a choir? Serve soup to the homeless or serve in your church? Care for that feral cat in the neighborhood? Make delicious food to feed your loved ones?

Come up with just a few answers to these questions, and you've identified some of your values. 

2) Now, brainstorm to identify three activities you can do at almost any time that helps shape your life in a way--even if only in a very minuscule way--that is consistent with one of those values. 

One of Heather's values is generosity--she wants to be a kind, caring, loving person. One activity on her value menu is sharing eye-contact and a smile with someone. If she finds herself getting sucked into a dark, downward spiral as she sits at her desk in a middle school advising center, she will look for a chance to catch the eye of one of the students who seems to need it and smile at them.

One of Rodney's values is physical fitness. If he finds his energy sagging and his vulnerability to relapse heightening, he'll take a 2-minute walk around the complex where he works. 

One of Greg's values is family recreation. In a spare moment he may quickly check out one of his favorite travel blogs or mentally plan a family activity for the week like roasting hot dogs in the backyard fire pit. 

One of Celeste's values is peace. Since a messy office interferes with her inner peace, one of her quick value activities is to take one piece of paper on her desk and do what's needed to get it off her desk: put it in her "to do" stack, her "future reference" file, or throw it away.

Once you have listed three brief value-oriented actions you can take in the heat of the moment, your value menu is complete. Treat it as a working list, and occasionally add a fresh item to the list to replace a familiar one once it's gotten stale.

How to put these into practice:

At least once a day, take a minute or two to step back from the mind and put into words what it's saying to you at that time. Then consider the three items on your value and do one of them. 

Let me know what you discover as you put this one-two recovery punch into practice in your life.

Monday, November 24, 2014

All Because He Had the Guts to Get Real with Her

Chad had a regular porn habit from age 13 to 31. Eventually he got into strip clubs and erotic massages. Off and on throughout that entire time he tried to quit acting out sexually, but never could stay away from it for long.

After two decades addicted, Chad's been sober for just over a year now. When I asked him what has helped most, he identified some key fundamental changes:

  • He has deepened his connection with his values, goals, and sense of purpose in life. When temptations hit he has a distinct sense: "That's not me to get involved in that stuff anymore. That's not where my life is going." When he feels the draw of temptation, he turns his attention back to what he's trying to accomplish in life.
  • He no longer spends time roaming the internet. He uses it for a specific purpose and then gets off again.
  • He has worked to develop a some helpful ways to manage his stress. When he's not able to wind down at night, he will use one of the relaxation videos he found on YouTube. When he's confused or weighed down with burdens, he writes in a journal. When he gets anxious and sick to his stomach, he practices a mindfulness meditation technique. 
  • He has made a real effort to stop objectifying women. He looks them in the eye. He considers who they are as individual human beings with thoughts and feelings of their own.

Despite how much the above changes have helped, he claims that one final, key change has made the biggest difference of all:

One year ago Chad opened up in total honesty and got his wife, Samantha, involved in his recovery.

Here's an example of how it goes for them these days:

"At work I took a quick lunch with a buddy. As we chatted in the break room, on the TV screen behind him there was a scene of a woman taking her shirt off. Combined with all the long hours I've been working, that made for a rough day. I noticed a heightened susceptibility. It felt like my mind was weaker and I was less able to hold my focus on work tasks.

"I called Samantha and put it out on the table. It helps to talk to her about those kind of things. She was understanding. She appreciates it. It helps her to feel included.

"In the beginning I really had to face down my shame in order to bring up something like that. It's become routine for us now though. The moment I talked her about it, things shifted. It was like the temptation was neutralized in some way. The wildfire was stopped in its tracks and it didn't spread anymore.

"It was so hard to start letting my wife into my thoughts. I was accustomed to hiding not only my actions, but my temptations and cravings. But communicating about it has definitely had a positive influence on our relationship. We're more connected. I'm no longer keeping those walls up. We're in it together, I'm not grappling with this alone anymore. It's an 'us' thing now."

Even now that Samantha knows everything about him, she still loves and supports him. In fact, they're closer than ever. His transparency has elicited her support, and her understanding makes it easier for him to open up.

I can see the difference this has made in Chad. He carries himself with more dignity. Instead of hanging his head, feeling like a terrible person with a shameful habit, he seems to see himself more as a respectable guy who's dealing with a fairly common struggle. His sexual issues no longer define and isolate him. They're something he's learned to manage--with the help and support of a loving wife.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How He Helps When Her Wounds Get Reopened

She tried to call him on his cell phone, but he didn't answer. It was 4:30 Friday afternoon. She tried again, no answer.

An old familiar sick feeling swept over her.

Emily pinched her eyes closed, trying to ignore the tidal wave that had just swept her up. She dialed the number of his desk phone. With a lump in her throat and her heart pounding, she waited. Dennis picked up after two rings.

"I've been calling you. Why didn't you pick up?" She was doing her best to sound calm.

His stomach dropped. He looked down at his phone. "Sweetie, I don't show any missed calls." He braced himself.

Talk about bad timing. He was heading to South Carolina on business the following Tuesday and still had so much to do to get ready. He had been planning on leaving the office around six. But now, who knew when he'd get out of there? This could take hours. Even worse, it could ruin their weekend together. 

But Dennis also knew that this was an ordeal of his own making. He settled in for the process. He reminded himself, "This takes her right back to when she couldn't reach me before. She thinks I'm involved with other women again." 

Instead of accusing Emily of overreacting and throwing up his hands, he sat and pondered the reasons her worries were justified. He coached himself through it: "I need to be humble and patient. Eventually the truth will win and she'll know that I haven't gone back off track. But right now she's upset, she's doubtful." He reminded himself what he'd been reading in Philippians: Don't worry. Pray. God will provide what's needed. 

"I can't explain why the call didn't ring through," he said, "but... I'm sorry you have to feel this way because of my old behaviors."

"I was doing fine," Emily said. "But now I can't stop shaking."

"Oh, Sweetie," he said. He cried for her, for what he'd put her through.

Later he thought, "I've spent three years in therapy trying to get to where I can do that: open up, try to understand where her feelings come from, receive them. Mark's been reminding me that for our relationship to heal, I need to show up so that she has someone who's THERE to bond to. No matter where we are, even if it's in hell, if we're there together and there's understanding and closeness, we're still connected. And that's what matters most, being together through it all. If I hang in there and stay with it, we can get to the point where that closeness matters even more--and carries more weight--than all the hell I've put her through."

They talked for 45 minutes. 

Later, they spent the whole evening together and had a good time. 

In bed, with the lights off, she said, "It made a big difference, the way you handled it when I called. You didn't get upset. You didn't raise your voice. You didn't defend yourself." During the call she could tell that he stayed tender and connected to her throughout. When his voice cracked and she knew how distraught he was over it, she'd realized that she wasn't going through it alone. She didn't have to go through that hell alone anymore. "If you can keep reacting this way, we'll keep working through whatever comes up. We'll make it."

Hearing Emily say that meant more to Dennis than anything. "We will make it," he promised. "No matter what comes up, we'll work through it together."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Trade Your Addictive Ritual for a Healing One

After struggling for days to resist the impulse, an addict shuts the door to his office. His heart pounds as he enters a search term into the internet browser on his phone, launching yet again into the ritual of his addiction. 

A ritual is a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order that we follow regularly and invariably. Our addictions owe some of their potency to their ritualistic nature. Instead of simply doing nothing when we're tempted to act out, it can be easier to abstain from our self-defeating ritual if we put in a positive ritual in its place. The following is a guest post by my friend, Jason Webb. Some of my clients have tried the practice he prescribes and found it to be helpful. 

We need to be in the right state of mind to be truly effective and to avoid problems. It is too easy to fall into anger, impatience, compulsions, hurry, apathy, etc. To avoid those, we need to be in a state of mind that is more centered, gratitude-based, in the moment, confident, in-tune with divinity, and open. 

There are lots of techniques to change your state of mind, like meditation, affirmations, etc., but they seem to only get you part of the way there and each take time. It turns out that many of them can be combined into a prayer of about 2 - 5 minutes and you can end your prayer in a wonderful state of mind that makes it much easier to be patient, warm, persuasive, caring, thoughtful, careful, etc. and to make better choices in general.

The prayer starts with getting in a comfortable position where you can take deep breathes and have some privacy.  It is hard to be in a good state of mind when you are in pain or discomfort. I sit cross-legged and it seems to work well. Then close your eyes so it is easier to focus on how you feel.

Take a couple of deep breathes, in through the nose and out through the mouth. When you breathe out through your mouth make a little sound that feels natural. I will usually make a "ooooh" sound naturally.  The "ooooh" sound is usually associated with stress, pain, etc. How you feel impacts your body and vice-versa. I am also usually a little hunched over, too.  This is a position of stress, too.  How I comfortably sit and the breathing sound I make tells me a little about how I am feeling deep inside.

Use your body to help feel a little better. Change the natural sound to a more confident sound.  "Ahhh" is usually a good confident sound, so I use that. Change your posture to a more confident posture. I pull my shoulders back, sit a little straighter and move my head and arms so that I am facing the world. I do that until I start to feel more confident and strong.  It usually takes several breathes.  I also notice that when I am feeling confident and strong, I can pause for longer between breathing in and out with more calm. This also floods your brain with oxygen and we want your brain to be active for what comes next.

Then, connect with your feelings and with the moment by focusing your attention on the physical sensations you are feeling in a specific part of your body. I usually pick my big toe unless some other part is distracting me with pain or some other strong sensation. If I have a hard time focusing my attention, I will touch my toe and maybe rub it slightly until I can focus on it. I do that until I feel like I can focus and not be easily distracted. The more focused you are during the prayer, the more of an impact it will have for you.

When I feel ready, then I start my prayer and I speak out loud for the whole prayer (normal voice). Any words that you say or think will impact you, but spoken words are more of an impact. I invoke Deity and ask that my word will be heard. You can invoke the divine however you want, even if you are an atheist. 

Current research shows that there are parts of our brain (I call them the "god-seeking" parts) that regulate how we handle contradiction, disappointment, lies, paradoxes, unsolved problems, the unknown, etc. and that seems to be a major driving force in our drive to religion (e.g. why do bad things happen to good people, what happens after we die, how do I know that I should marry that person, should I take a risk and start this business, how do I deal with this diagnosis from my doctor). It also is how we can adapt to almost anything that life throws at us without going to a "blue-screen of death" like computers will do when stuff doesn't make sense. This part of our brain influences what we believe about ourselves and our situation in life. Also, these parts of our brain have many more connections and brain cells devoted to them than the rational parts of our brain and they are more directly connected to our feelings and the unconscious regulation of our body. Whether you believe in God or not, this is a powerful and important part of your brain that finds divinity/mysticism to be useful, so even if there is no God, it is helpful to access that part of your brain by seeking the help of something beyond you. Doing this will wake up that part of your brain and let it pay attention to the rest of the prayer. If there is a god, then all the better.

I then check how I feel.  If I have medium or stronger feelings, good or bad, I talk about them one at a time (if not, I skip this part). I will first explained what happened to cause the feeling (be specific).  Then I will explain how that made me feel.  Then I will talk about the need that was not met (or was met) by what happened to cause that feeling.  Doing this will reduce the effect of your negative feelings and increase the effect of your positive ones. Here is an example of me having two feelings and going through them one at a time:  I came home late last night after working hard all day and was excited to have some fun but when I got home then things were a disaster. That made me really frustrated and I still feel that way now. I need fun with my family and when I didn't get the fun, that made me frustrated. Also, this morning I woke up and didn't have a headache. That made me happy. I usually wake up with a headache and I need to feel comfortable, so waking up in a comfortable bed free of pain made me happy. 

Next comes gratitude.  Say, I am grateful for .... Pause between each one and get a sense of what you are really grateful for.  Don't just go through a list of things that you usually say.  Have it be based on your feelings right now. Do it until you feel like you are done.  Don't feel like you have to be grateful for your kids, spouse or job just because you should be. Only express gratitude for things that you feel grateful for at that moment.  If you can't think of anything, then sit there quietly until you can.  If that gives you feelings, then talk about your feelings. People who are grateful are happier, have more hope, are solution oriented, willing to take more risks, more fun to be around, etc.

Next comes your future self. Pray that you will be the things you want to be.  Phrase it in a way that allows you to say the phrase "I will ..."  Try to feel that way or feel what it would be like to be that way as you say each thing.  As an example, I say, "Please bless me that I will be fun today, that I will be careful of other people's feelings, that I will find joy in the moment today, that I will help others, that I will prosper, that I will be clever, that I will make good choices today, and that I will be a good parent."  I pause a little between each one and try to feel that as being true. This helps you remember who you want to be and helps your attitude be pointed in that direction.

Next comes everybody else. All the research I've seen says that people who are truly happy are those who lose themselves in something else or someone else, usually in the service of others. So now we want to turn our focus outward. I will pray for people that I know.  I will say things like: "Please bless soandso that they will be safe on their trip; please bless my children that they will learn good things, please bless that I will be able to find clever solutions for the needs of my customers; and please bless my customers that they will find the things that they need to be successful." This will turn your attention away from yourself. Also, since the things you are now praying about are usually things over which you have little to no control, without the divine it is not logical that your words will have any meaning. This is illogical and inconsistent with a godless reality. That strongly activates the "god-seeking" parts of your brain to help cement the good that your words have been doing for you. There is a lot of research that shows that the human brain will do almost anything to make the world make sense to it, so by saying these things that don't actually make sense in the context of a prayer if there is no divinity, you call on that ability. Doing so turns your attention to others, away from yourself, and bring the power of your subconscious to bear on everything that you have said and done in the prayer.

Then I close the prayer and get up.  I'm done and I usually feel very centered, calm, and positive for a several hours.