Monday, June 11, 2012

Willpower Boost #3: Live by Choice

Here's a dynamic that can perpetuate addiction: You spend a lot of time and energy trying to satisfy others, accomodate their preferences, meet their needs. Or perhaps you respond more to an internal sense of how you should be living, the right things to do, the worthwhile ways of spending your time.

Of course there's absolutely nothing wrong with being generous and trying to do the right thing, in and of themselves. However, you may be among those who find that if you operate with these guiding principles always at the forefront day after day, you burn out. If so, it might help to ease off those efforts, relax, and enjoy yourself in a balanced way, in a way that complements your usual effort and selflessness.

But what if you're not in the habit of allowing yourself that balance? At some point your resolve may weaken to keep living the way you "should." You may get sick of doing for others and find yourself more and more focused on yourself. You may find that you care less and less about what's right and become more and more focused on what would feel good.

You may find that you can't sustain your efforts to deny yourself forever, and at some point the pendulum swings. You become selfish to an extreme, throw off the usual restraints, and even thoroughly flout your own conscience.

If this cycle sounds familiar, please recognize this: the problem isn't just in that final collapse. It's also in the buildup before the collapse. As men with similar struggles establish a life of recovery, we see them do something very important: Give themselves permision to choose between doing for others and doing for themselves.

Charles, for example, was focused 99% of the time on doing for others and meeting their needs. His sisters-in-law raved about what a dream husband he was, always the first to change his kids' diapers and entertain all the cousins at family gatherings.

Everyone at his law firm came to him with difficult problems. He'd put aside his own work to help them navigate a tough case, even if that meant staying at work past midnight sometimes to get everything done. It was not uncommon for him to mediate problems between partners at the firm. Charles was the glue that held things together.

His siblings and parents often looked to Charles as well. If someone needed extra money to pay their bills, they'd call Charles. When one sister started a project the rest of the family thought was crazy, she knew she could count on Charles to take her seriously. He even pitched in some funds to help with start-up.

Nothing wrong with any of this, except that Charles could only sustain it 99% of the time. Then there was that blasted other 1%. Those were the times when he found himself burned out--exhausted and depleted. Sometimes, in the middle of a day like that, a judge would postpone a hearing or there'd be some other unexpected change in his schedule, leaving him with a couple hours of time where he was not accountable to anyone.

Charles had the freedom to sneak out and ride his bike or fly a remote control airplane, if he'd been so inclined. But he just wasn't very good at doing things for himself. In fact, he was quite clumsy about it. Instead of doing something along those lines, Charles would drive downtown and pick up a prostitute.

He hated this habit and had tried to kick it from the day it had started twelve years ago. However, he didn't have much luck until five years ago, when he started to take better care of himself in his everyday life.

He still pitched in around the house and put the kids and his wife first, most of the time. But sometimes he admitted, "I'm exhausted," and walked into the bedroom first thing after getting home from work, and laid down for a nap. This was very hard for him to do, because he knew his wife, Carrie, wouldn't be happy about it. At least at the time. But as he pushed through that discomfort and more often did what he felt like doing, he found that she got over her upset pretty quickly. In fact, she knew he was tired because of everything he was doing for their family. Most of the time she appreciated him and supported his efforts to take care of himself.

It was hardest for Charles to feel like he was letting Carrie down. It was not quite as difficult, but still a stretch, to say no to one of his partners when she brought an inner-office conflict to him, expecting him to jump in and help resolve it. Instead he listened, nodded, and expressed his confidence: "Go back and keep trying. I'm sure that you and Sherm will find a way to work it out between the two of you." And they did. At least she never complained of the matter to Charles again.

He crossed a final hurdle the next time a family member approached him for financial help. His big brother was upside-down on a truck he'd purchased a couple of years earlier, and had fallen behind on payments. Could he get a little help? Or better yet, did Charles need a new truck? He empathized with his difficult situation, expressed full faith that he'd find a way to work it out, but declined to give him money or take on the truck and the payments. It was so freeing to walk away from that interaction feeling love for his brother without feeling like he'd taken on his burdens. He accepted that his brother may resent the lack of help, but even that burden would not be his to bear, but his brother's.

It's very freeing to live by choice rather than out of pressure or to meet expectations or in an effort to keep up appearances. We free ourselves from the buildup of resentment and feelings of rebelliousness that can put us at greater risk for relapse. When we choose how we're going to live and take responsibility for those choices even in the face of pressure, we more fully emancipate from all of the controlling factors in our life--even our addiction. Here's why: as my mentor, Craig Berthold, taught me: our addictions often serve as vehicles of emancipation. Once we emancipate legitiately and courageously, we no longer need those old illegitimate and ineffective vehicles. Once we can say to everyone in our life: "I love you and I want you to be happy... but I am no longer going to let you control my life. I get to choose--I have to choose!--how I am going to live. And now that I am, I love you more than ever, because I no longer resent you and the power I used to give you over me!"


  1. hey nice post meh, I love your style of blogging here. this post reminded me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog: Setting Deadlines For A Goal .
    keep up the good work friend. I will be back to read more of your posts.


    1. Daniel,
      Thanks for your kind words. I checked out your blog. Keep up the great work over there, too!