Codependency and Abandonment

Series Three: Blog Thirty-nine

One of the great fears that exists in relationship life is that of abandonment. It is scary to become emotionally naked to someone. Many people never achieve deep vulnerability to their partner or anyone else for that matter. There is an underlying fear that if you know what I know about me you will run away from me. This fear is often disguised when people say I don’t want to tell this truth because it will hurt the person I love. It can be true but underneath the stated qualm is the distress that if you expose the truth about yourself you will be abandoned.

The fear of abandonment is kindling for most codependent acts in relationships. Codependency is a gnarly description in relationship life when people try to control another’s behavior in ways that are extreme. Everyone wants to be loved and accepted. Yet, when people go to the extreme of lying, manipulating with niceties, tolerating abuse, losing their identity, or ignoring painful experience because they desperately want to be accepted or loved, it is hurtful. This behavior is identified as codependent. Codependent behavior is always motivated by traumatic experience both present and past. When someone offends you, it is common to hesitate or judge your response based on past experience of being hurt by others. Putting up with the intolerable is endured because of the fear of losing something or someone you don’t want to live without.

Both addicts and partners participate in the trauma response of codependency. It varies in degrees of expression. While it is suspect to put everybody in any one category, typically both parties fear abandonment. Extreme is defined in a myriad of behavioral responses. Ultimately, people act in certain ways to protect themselves from the hurt of abandonment.  When you scare your partner with betrayal behavior, the cascading emotions triggered by betrayal is immense. Obsessional thoughts triggered by treasonous actions is common. So is trying to control what you cannot, to the extreme. The pain of deceit is so deep that compulsive codependency takes over to avoid further trauma. Many respond with codependent response at the onset of betrayal while for others historical codependent response from past trauma is magnified by present betrayal trauma.

Addicts avoid telling the truth from a fear of abandonment. Pressed with the crisis of telling the truth or losing a relationship, an addict is forced to do disclosure. Some tell the truth because they are serious about ending their destructive addictive behavior. Others piecemeal the truth, mistakenly thinking that if I just tell enough my partner will be satisfied and I won’t have to face the fear of abandonment.

After disclosure, many addicts avoid sharing their emotional truth about how they experience their betrayed partner triggered by shame about their addictive behavior and from a fear of abandonment. 

However, if there is not a process that moves a relationship to sharing emotional truth, codependency motivated to avoid abandonment will lead to the realization of what both fear the most—a relationship break up. Codependency is accelerated when a couple does not tell each other what they feel or think because of a fear that if the other knows it will crush them. When a couple concludes that it is their responsibility to protect the other from truth that is deemed hurtful, they create the reality of what they fear most–desertion.  In fear of abandonment, a couple can either tolerate unbelievable loneliness and emotional pain, or divorce. Either way it is possible to never address the fear of abandonment.

In order for codependent behavior to stop, the fear of abandonment must be faced. Here are some considerations:

  1. When you fear saying it straight, you must face the greatest fear you want to avoid. If the greatest fear is that you will be embarrassed with your lack of knowledge, face that first. If your ultimate fear is that if I say to my partner what I really believe, h/she will leave me, you must face that first. If your greatest feat is that your real truth is that you do not have the physical or emotional strength to achieve what is required, then you must face that first. Go to the place you fear the most and practice letting go of what you cannot control and then return to the here and now moment. You likely won’t be facing your greatest fear in the present. But, inside you react as if you will. You must uncover your greatest fear as if it is present in the now moment of your life. When you do this you will be able to address your present moment fear of abandonment.  This requires engaging the letting go and surrendering process of Step 3 of 12-step recovery. You must admit that you cannot control or prevent you partner from walking away from you. You will need help but facing this reality is first toward overcoming codependency around abandonment. It is also true about fear in other aspects of your life. You must face the fear of failure and know that you will survive on the other side. When you do this you will be able to manage the anxiety of the present moment.
  2. When you are stuck and paralyzed with fear of abandonment in a relationship, you will need to address past unresolved traumas. Most people don’t want to do this. I hear “I don’t have any past traumas in my childhood or life”. Sometimes peoples say “I don’t want to live in the past” or “I let that go a long time ago”. Yet, the fact that you are reacting to your partner on a level of intensity of 9 or 10 (on a scale of 1-10), but this issue would normally be a 3 to 4, tells you that you need to stop and figure out where the over reaction is coming from and address it. Addressing it means to go back to the point of pain and scrub the wound. It might be a present wound that must be addressed and it can be a childhood wound that has been left unaddressed. Essentially, you need to grieve the loss and the pain. You will feel worse before you feel better. When there is a medical intervention it is common to feel worse before you feel better. Abandonment requires that you go back and scrub the wound. Simply acknowledging, reading or talking about the loss won’t be enough. You will need to give back pain and feel the hurt of whatever occurred that paralyzes you with fear. PCS, The Meadows, Hoffman Institute, Onsite and a host of others specialize in this important grief work.
  3. Be your own best friend. The feeling of abandonment is a most lonely, scary feeling. The reason many people don’t stand for principle is that it feels so lonely to do so. In a moment of aspiration many say “I don’t care what anyone says or does, I will do what in my heart is right”. But, when the moment comes to stand for principle, it is lonely and scary to do so. Yet, life has a way of bringing us all to that moment of recognition. In that moment when you need to stand for principle while facing abandonment, you must be your own best friend. Others can be supportive. But, no one else can be there with you in that moment of truth. So, be gentle with yourself and bathe yourself in the predetermined affirmations that breathe life and inspiration into your moment of fear. You can do this. Pause and breathe deeply and know that when others abandon you, you will never abandon yourself again! Once you do this, then you can rely upon others to remind you of your personal commitment to yourself and hold you accountable with love and support.

Yesterday’s Guilt

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Seven

Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt.”- Plautus

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night swimming in yesterday’s guilt. Things that I have done that hurt others years ago and have forgotten. Now, I remember them as if I had done them the day before. I tell myself that I have already made amends to others for the destructive behavior but guilt lingers. Sometimes it was something I did that I never told anyone about. I am the only one who knows. Recovery and activity over the years buried the behavior way down deep and now it somehow has worked its way to the surface of memory and I ponder what to do with it at 3am! Do you ever have bouts with yesterday’s guilt?

Guilt is not a pleasant experience. It’s the hound dog that never loses its scent and always relentlessly pursues.  There are overlays of guilt. You wake up each morning with the desire to do right. Yet, before noon you have already acted out with addictive substance or process. Your heart descends from your chest to your stomach. There is a bitter taste of failure and guilt that seems to permeate every cell in your body. There is an overwhelming desire to be someone else somewhere else. You feel sad, lonely, desperate and guilty.

Guilt is a feeling experience that dominates most addicts. Even in recovery guilt becomes a nemesis that is difficult to shake. Addicts feel guilt about the destructive things they have done and the good things never completed. Lying in bed replaying the things you did that were so hurtful. Like a nice warm glass of regret, depression and self-loathing, guilt powerfully dominates the present with past memories of hurtful behavior.

How to manage guilt when you are committed to a life in recovery? Yesterday you stumbled. Maybe you did worse and fell off the edge of the cliff. You got drunk and killed someone driving. You had a sexual affair with your brother’s partner. You molested a child. You broke your partner’s heart with addictive behavior that created unbelievable pain for people you really love?

How do you deal with the guilt that dogs you every waking moment?

  1. What happened yesterday, belongs to yesterday. There is an old saying in recovery that “yesterday ended last night!” This is true. Guilt is caused by too much past, and not enough present. Wallowing in the mud memory of past destructive behavior will never help you live free and clean in the present moment. Every day is a new day. It takes discipline to wipe the slate clean and live in the here and now and not be dominated by yesterday’s failure.
  2. Guilt never rectifies past behavior. Guilt serves to remind you that you did something that hurt you or others. Sociopaths often don’t feel guilt when they hurt others. You do. Let guilt do its work and then discard it. Upon becoming aware that your behavior was hurtful to another recognize that guilt is no longer useful to you. Feel it and let go. This will take daily discipline. Each day guilt will visit you. Practice forgiving yourself which means that you choose to not hold past behaviors against yourself and are committed to walking in the opposite direction from destructive behavior. Recognize what you are doing to rectify hurtful behavior with healing action and then dismiss guilt by taking action that demonstrates guilt free living. Practice letting go of guilt moment by moment.
  3. Make amends. The 8th and 9th steps of the 12-Step program suggests that you make a list of the people you have harmed and make amends to them. These two steps pave the way to clear and release guilt. Amends must be a daily practice. We hurt each other continually both intentionally and unintentionally. Amends create flexibility in relationships. It is unnecessary to defend your intentions, simply own the reality that your behavior hurt someone and make it right with a simple apology. In this way, you eliminate the environment that breeds guilt.
  4. Learn to love your enemy. People tend to alienate unwanted feelings because they are uncomfortable. Guilt is one of those feelings. Radically, when you embrace guilt and love it for its worth, it will help you become more sensitive to ways in which you hurt others and the environment you live in. While it is not meant that you brood with guilt, it is helpful to listen to the message that guilt is sending and take positive action toward resolution. Proper management of guilt produces compassion for self and others. Guilt feels like an enemy to the soul. However, learning to love your enemy (guilt) will cultivate deeper appreciation and love for self and others.

Guilt can be redemptive and can trigger love. Hating yourself and the feeling of guilt within intensifies the possibility of unwanted behavior. The power of self love builds bridges to the destiny of future healing and positive actions.

The Sacred Fire Within

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Six

It has been nearly 26 years since Muhammad Ali stepped back into the spotlight to ignite the Olympic cauldron with fire during the opening ceremony in the midst of battling Parkinson’s disease. The lighting of the Olympic cauldron fire motivated and united people around the world with perseverance whose inner fire flickered with debilitating illness. It underscored the sacred fire that exists within each of us.

Fire is a symbol of many things. It points to eternity in the measure of time. It highlights continuity as symbolized with the Olympic flame. It points to hope, rebirth and resurrection of dreams and possibility. It represents the deep passion and desire within one’s spirit.

Fire can also represent destruction and symbolizes the place of Hell. It can be destructive or creative. Its use is dependent upon personal responsibility.  Managed irresponsibly it destroys forests and devastates dreams. When responsibly directed, inner fire rekindles creative thought and fuels personal passion. Love for another often reflects a “fiery, consuming passion” that knows no bounds. Athletes often speak of their determination to excel in terms of a fiery passion that exists deep within their spirit.

Life requires a sacred fire within to procreate, to create connection with others in community and to explore the spirit of the unknown. Every human being comes into the world with a sacred fire to live and survive. There is no recovery without a sacred fire within that longs for a different way of life.

Life is a braiding of highs and lows, bitter and sweet, gains and losses that impacts the intensity of the sacred fire within. The inner flame must be continually fanned and rekindled. Sometimes it must be restarted. 

The indigenous Algonquian Potawatomi tribe of the Great Plains, Upper Mississippi and western Great Lakes region identified themselves as the “True People” who were “keepers of the sacred fire”. They established a confederacy with the Objibwa (Chippewa)and the Odawa (Ottawa) tribes. They interacted with each other like members of the same family. They forged their relationships between tribes with the fires of mutual interest and brotherhood.

Addiction is a fire that is out of control. It consumes and destroys anyone in its path. There must be a sacred fire that longs to stop within the heart of every addict to end the destructive behavior and experience healing. When it is not present or has been snuffed out, it must be rebuilt and sustained.

Listed is information to guide and maintain the sacred fire within.

1.Sacred fire requires taking personal responsibility. Becoming a fire starter means that you must organize and gather kindling. You must gather tinder which includes fine twigs and a nest of dried grasses or shredded bark. Then you must cut plenty of logs and construct your fire so that it gets plenty of oxygen. A single match fire-start, in less than ideal rainy conditions, is no small order. It requires preparation and determined work.

Cultivating a sacred fire within also requires personal initiative. As an addict there must be a time and place where you are done. It is common to identify that place as “hitting bottom”. Like Charlie Brown who tries to kick the football and Lucy pulls it away at the point of contact, leaving Charlie sitting on his duff on the ground, he finally concludes “no more football”. An addict, too,  must  say “No more football” meaning no more acting out.  Typically, this is an every day declaration with a commitment to follow through. This is the beginning of building the sacred fire.

In addition, the kindling and fuel for the sacred fire is in storytelling. The sacred truth is that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story. Telling your story and listening to others’ stokes the sacred fire within. The greatest healing truths are uncovered only through unpacking the intricate details of one’s own story.

2. Every fire requires a spark. Once the kindling is in place, the beginning of a fire requires the spark of a single match. There is some risk that when you strike the match, the spark will not be enough to engage the kindling provided and there will be smoke but no fire. Yet, when the kindling is right the single match ignites the tinder and soon a fire begins that  creates embers that burn for a long time.

In recovery, sparks are the crisis addicts create that trigger a jump start into recovery. However, many sparks simply fizzle. There may not be enough kindling and tinder to allow the fire of recovery to gain traction. So what happens is that an addict will start recovery but will flame out. The spark will only create a sacred fire when the addict commits to kindling recovery with the fuel of an in-depth recovery program. Without this spark, healing will quickly die.

3. Recovery requires a fire keeper. Unless you maintain the fire, it will soon burn out and become cold. Some indigenous people learned to maintain fire with shkitagen (pronounced- skit-a-gin). Shkitagen is a tinder fungus used as a fire keeper. Once an ember meets shkitagen it will not go out but smolders slowly in the fungal matrix, holding it’s heat. Even the smallest spark, so fleeting and easily lost, will be held and nurtured if it lands on a cube of shkitagen.

In recovery, the “shkitagen” for sacred fire is found in the wisdom of mature guides and sponsors. Protecting the sacred fire within means to cherish the wisdom and knowledge of the elders in recovery and those who maintain a deep commitment to sobriety and emotional growth. It means to remain closely connected to those who have guided you to a place of sobriety. There must be a commitment to remain hungry for sobriety, spiritual and emotional growth or the sacred fire of the heart will wane. Many who have experienced long term sobriety have left their “shkitagen” in recovery untended and as a result no longer have a hunger and thirst for personal growth. Their sacred fire has burned out and is now cold.  The fire within must be renewed. Others have allowed their sacred fire to burn toward materialism and self absorbed living. They have lost their balance and allowed their fire to burn out of control with little perspective. They endanger their sacred fire to be suffocated and risk the positive attributes attained in recovery to be destroyed.

Recovery fueled by a strong sacred fire within will stand the tests and tribulations of addiction recovery. However, it will be necessary to maintain the sacred fire by burning the underbrush of resentment and other distractions that threaten to extinguish the sacred fire of recovery.

The Way of the Windigo

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Five

The Windigo is a legendary monster of the Anishinaabe native American people. It is the villain of a tale told on freezing nights in the North woods. As the legend is told, during cold freezing nights you can feel the Windigo monster lurking behind you as you walk thru the woods. It is a being in the shape of an outsized man, ten feet tall, with frost-white hair hanging from its shaking body. With arms like tree trunks, feet as big as snowshoes, it travels easily through the blizzards of the hungry time, stalking its terrified traveler. The hideous stench of its carrion breath poisons the clean scent of snow as it pants behind. Yellow fangs hang from its mouth that is raw where it has chewed off its lips from hunger. Most telling of all, its heart is made of ice.

Windigo stories were told around camp fires to scare children into safe behavior.  Windigos are not born, they are made. They are human beings who have become cannibal monsters. Their bite transforms victims into cannibals.

Addicts, too, evolve into cannibals of life experience like the Windigo. They never get enough of what they really don’t want. Addictive craving pushes them to care more about satisfying their own addictive urge than anything else.

The truth is that there is a Windigo nature in everybody. We all need to learn to recoil from the greedy part of ourselves. There is a dark and light side in everyone’s life. It is important to recognized the power in the dark side of life and to learn not to feed it. Habits that become overindulgent and self-destructive represent the Windigo nature. Seeking out to fulfill lustful desires for possessions and acquisition, not for the need but for the greed triggers the Windigo nature to flourish. Ultimately, your heart will become more like ice and you will begin to distance yourself with indifference to other people’s experience of life. The trials and tribulations of others become simple facts and you become less connected to others around you.

Compulsive overconsumption fuels the Windigo monster that lives within each of us. People live their lives with the fallacy that human consumption has no consequences. Indulgent living that was once considered wasteful is now considered success by many. A consumption driven mindset is presented as a high quality lifestyle but it eats away at the core being within. People never get enough. There is a craving for more and more. It is a like a black hole of the stomach that never gets filled.

When you are not careful you allow the “market” to define what you value.  The common good depends upon lavish lifestyles that enrich the seller while bankrupting the soul and the resources of the earth.

It is helpful to assess the Windigo thinking that exists within your life experience. Addicts who have learned to come to terms with their own limits are signposts to the rest of the world to manage the Windigo monster that lives within.

Simple Surrender

Series Three: Blog 36

We live sophisticated lives. People multitask and move about with jet speed. When things don’t go as planned we obsess about fixing what is broken. The amazing world of technology has helped to fix many things. We call people around the world on our cell phones. We text our messages and have conversations back and forth with people in various areas of the globe. I have planted new sod in my backyard. Today I am traveling and am concerned about the need to continue to water the new sod while I am gone. No problem. I simply purchased a timer for my water hose with a wand and can start and stop it with an app on my phone. Farmers in western Kansas who till thousands of acres operate their irrigation systems in the same manner. Today’s technology is amazing!

However, technology fuels an illusion that we have a sense of control when we really don’t. With all the gadgets, apps and evolving automation that is present in our world, we have precious little control over the people we love. If only we could make them robots and do exactly what we programmed them to do! But, it doesn’t work that way. When children choose to disobey or live a lifestyle which we disapprove, no matter how hard we try we cannot make them do what we think is best. Yet we try so hard! We deceive ourselves into believing that if we caretake, our loved ones eventually do what we want them to. We tell ourselves they will be so glad and grateful that we paved the way for them. Like Ralphie in the Christmas Story who daydreamed that he would be the teacher’s star pupil and be adored and loved by her and every other student in class, we have to wake up and smell the coffee. You cannot control anyone other than your own attitude and actions in life. It is a simple but powerful reality.

Most people don’t believe this. If I set the alarm, I can remind my husband to go to the AA meeting. I will set all of his medication in a daily pill box next to his bed on the nightstand, and then he will not forget to take his meds. Surely, if I remind him how old he is, he will realize he cannot do what the doctor has already warned him not to do. If I walk on eggshells, then maybe she won’t blame me for everything under the sun! With fury I will rag and nag on my loved one about their sugar intake when the doctor told them that as a diabetic they will need to change their relationship with sugar! But, it never works! Yet, we continue to do more and more of what was never effective. Still, we trudge on thinking that this time or perhaps today my loved one will see what they never saw before and change their ways. There is not gadget, app or other form of technology to make you let go of what you cannot control. Control is as addictive as any process or substance ever was. I know people who have lost their health and their very lives intent on controlling what they cannot. Gabor Mate in his book The Body Keeps the Score shared his research of women and men whose poor health with cancer and autoimmune diseases were correlated to their extreme codependent behavior. They were trying to control what they cannot control to the extreme.

Listed are a few helpful considerations:

Listen to yourself. It’s not the behavior of the other guy that is driving you crazy, it’s you! When you stop and listen to yourself, you hear the lament and complaint that has built to a level of explosion inside you. With exasperation, you tell yourself no matter what you do, you can’t get h/her to do what is right. You are correct. So why do you keep doing what doesn’t work and what causes you to burn emotional BTU’s and even destroy your health? They are not the problem anymore. You are because you won’t simply surrender and let go of trying to control what you cannot. You need a reality check. Go to a Codependency Anonymous (CODA) 12-step meeting, or an Adult Children’s Anonymous (ACA), or an Al-Anon meeting. Listen to what people who struggle with what you are battling and simply do whatever they tell you.

Let Go of what you cannot control! Letting go is like jumping off a 60-foot cliff into a lake. It’s far enough to think about it on the way down. No one wants to experience the sensation of free falling. Grasping for thin air is not only exasperating, it is scary as hell. It is overwhelming and you won’t be able to do it yourself. You need to go a meeting, sit down listen to the stories, tell your own, and then with cursing, tears and resignation simply surrender to a Higher Power. It is simple but who said simple fits with easy?

Build boundaries to care for yourself not to control the other person. By now your intelligence tells you that what you are doing is ridiculous. It tells you that if you operated your professional life with the strategy you are trying to control a loved one’s behavior, you would have been fired a long time ago. So stop and build a boundary with consequences to take care of you. There are no boundaries without consequences. You only have a request. You haven’t set boundaries which is why you are in the predicament you are in. So, sit with your 12-step support group and ask them to help you figure out the boundaries you need to establish around the issue of control that has rendered you stuck. Carefully consider appropriate consequences that fit the situation and that you are willing to follow through with. This is the toughest step with surrender. It will trigger all the abandonment issues that you ever had. Lean into the fear and pain of abandonment. If you need to take a timeout and do inpatient work on your own stuff, then do it. Unless you face and address your historical abandonment and neglect issues you won’t follow through with boundaries. Boundaries are life-giving. You can lecture about them to your loved one, but they only become effective with quiet implementation on your part.

Simple surrender is seldom a one and done experience. Surrender is not like some Christians describe as being “born again”! Surrender requires daily practice. It becomes a daily exercise regimen that you practice every day. Learn to live your day in tight 24-hour compartments. Live out each day one hour at a time, practicing surrender each hour. Some days will be smeared with a lot of failure. You must take yourself by the nap of the neck and surrender the other person again and again. Your commitment must not be to perfection but to circling back and renewing your commitment, to let go of what you cannot control, and to never give up coming back to surrender.

Celebrate your brave step of surrender and enjoy the empowerment that it brings. Letting go is relieving and releasing a 900-pound gorilla from your back. It does feel like being “born again”. You will see life with renewed energy and perspective. Even though the challenges around you remain the same, you will be empowered to do what you need to do to care for yourself. Surrender is not letting go of caring for others. It is prioritizing self-care with effective life giving boundaries. Do it! You matter! No one is going to come and rescue you. You are the lifeguard. Save yourself and celebrate life.

Having Difficult Conversations with People You Love

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Four

Recovery is messy. Having a conversation with someone you love about relational
experiences that you have hurt is difficult. This challenge includes every
relationship but is particularly difficult when the harm and hurt involves betrayal
and broken trust. Much has been written regarding broken trust. In the world of
addiction recovery, families and partners decry that it is the lie and deceit that
unravels safety even more than the destructive behavior itself. It is so difficult to
converse about relational recovery issues without getting stuck with defensiveness.
Defending your position will block the possibility toward healing at a deeper level.
No one matures in recovery to a place that they are able to eliminate defensiveness.
Here are a few things to consider that can help you manage your own defensive

  1. Take time to acknowledge your own tendency toward defensiveness:
    In context, cultural history underscores that there is a great fear of rejection and being disconnected from community. Historically, to be disconnected or disfellowshipped meant death. People do not survive without connection with community. People tend to minimize, deflect and rationalize their behavior to avoid the anticipation of rejection from others. It is helpful to embrace your own tendency to avoid the fear of rejection through defensiveness. Tell on yourself to your partner and your family. Take time to share with your partner and family an experience and take responsibility for it in a good way that is restorative to a relationship. Simply tell on yourself.
  1. Create an atmosphere that adopts collective responsibility: Everyone is responsible for their own actions, for sure. Regardless of environmental influence, each person in a relationship to community is accountable for their behavior and actions. However, when sitting down to discuss relational problems, it is important that each party identify behavioral change that can promote a different outcome. This is difficult. When betrayal occurs because of addictive behavior, the injured party is hurt and it is difficult to focus on what they might do to improve the
    relationship. This is not the same as the injured party looking at what they did to cause the harm. Relationship healing requires that each take responsibility for their own contribution to relational distance. From this position, both addict and partner can create an improved environment that fosters a healing outcome. Healing requires collective responsibility.
  2. Rather than defend, spend time listening to your partner’s harm. It must go both ways. When you or your partner has been harmed, it is important to listen and validate. Focus on listening to the story of the one harmed. Spend as much time as they need to validate h/her story of harm. Acknowledgement comes from listening. It breeds validation. Once you have heard their pain and they feel validated then you can share your experience. It might take awhile. It will feel like a slow way to a shortcut. But, when you hear the depth of loss and pain felt by your partner
    because of your offense, it will be healing and will create a sacred safe space for rebuilding trust.
  3. Practice amends making. In recovery, amends can be difficult. Sometimes amends are symbolic. Other times they are actual. You don’t have to know which needs to be employed. This is when you trust the collective process between you and your partner and your community of support. A commitment to amends will lead to a healing action that will emerge as a result of collective dialogue.
  4. Evidential change: Shifting away from defensiveness leads toward essential change. For healing to stick, there must be the evidence of commitment to doing things different. This does not require perfection. But it will employ circling back to make amends of behavior when you backslide into old destructive behaviors. The commitment to change is a focus on eliminating the destructive response so that when the hurtful behavior appears, the behavior itself becomes more important than the point you are trying to make. You work to eliminate the destructive response. In this way you build an “I care about you” environment.
  5. Recognize that the current reaction often has historical roots. Subconsciously, your over-reaction that initiates defensiveness may have roots with past experiences of feeling dominated at other times in your life. Particularly, you need to pay attention to those childhood experiences that fuel mistaken beliefs in the here and now. This is a subtle awareness that requires introspection. During the magical years of childhood, you will make emotional conclusions about relationships that are harbored throughout your life. Even though you grow and develop physically, intellectually and socially, you can get stuck with an emotionally immature belief that was cemented during the vulnerable years of childhood emotional development. So, if you felt that you did not matter as a child, it is likely that you will be vulnerable to respond like a child when your partner treats you in a way that triggers that childhood experience. Being aware of this is a beginning to shifting away from childhood conclusions and embracing adult empowerment when you feel defensive.

Overcoming defensiveness requires that you treat your partner with dignity and
respect when you have harmed them. When you hold presence for your partner’s
pain, you establish an environment to deconstruct shame and blame. When you
feel defensiveness coming up in your conversation, privately identify it as like heat
coming through your body. Sit with it and speak to yourself with care and
compassion until it passes. Don’t say or do anything until the heat of defensiveness
subsides. Recognize the difference between intention and impact. Work to change
what you are doing so that your intention matches your impact of action. Then
respond in a different way.

Congruence: The Hard Work of Recovery

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Three

It is my experience as a recovering addict and professional who has treated
addiction for 28 years, congruent living is difficult. Everyone is inconsistent,
hypocritical and incongruent in some area of their life. Addicts in recovery struggle
to be consistent with word and action. They clash with saying one thing and doing
another. Double life living is a daily conflict that most addicts battle to overcome.
That said, it is not as if we should give up and make excuses for these flaws in
human behavior.

Congruence is the pathway to connection which is a key part of the foundation for
spirituality. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, poet and Catholic priest once
said that “the virtuous soul that is alone and without community, is like a lone
burning coal; it will grow colder rather than hotter”. Congruence is cultivated in
the context of community. Typically, it remains elusive without accountability.
Here is a common example for an addict who struggles with congruence. In group,
h/she may announce with conviction that they need to end a romantic or friendship
relationship that is destructive. However, relational decisions require dynamic
sensitivity and not rigid black and white conclusions. Add to the mix that an addict
begins to feel emotionally needy and then begins to rationalize that the absolute
relational cut off announced to group was too much. What should be done? Often,
an addict will make a decision to renew the connection without being accountable
to the support community. It could be that they wanted to avoid the conflict with
others or the embarrassment of walking back the decision that was previously
announced. At any rate, they live incongruently to their values and their word by
acting opposite to what was rigorously declared.

With sexual addiction there are a myriad of examples that underscore incongruity.
An addict decides alone that masturbation, porn, or getting massages is now
healthy without checking in with their support community. When they do check in
they either talk about their behaviors with vagueness or they announce with
defensiveness and clarity that the decision they have made is resolute and right.
They indicate there is no room for discussion!

Many addicts fear that in recovery they cannot make their own decision about what
they want to do. They worry that they must ask for permission in order to do whatever they would like. They tend to enter recovery circles with shares that do not tell the whole picture. They paint the picture they want others to see in fear that someone will tell them what they have done or decisions they have made were wrong.

Even addicts in recovery who are not acting out, continue to live with a root attitude of “I want what I want when I want it”. Many have not surrendered to living in consultation with a support community. Others surround themselves with those who do not confront current recovery issues with themselves or others. Consequently, these addicts proverbially “put a cork in the bottle” of addictive behavior but continue with manipulation in decision-making that leave them incongruent to their values.

Congruency is the pathway for the brave. It is difficult for addicts to look themselves in the mirror and tell the truth about a choice or decision when there is resistance to that reality. One of the most difficult points of maturity to attain is to be honest about a deep emotional issue. It is difficult to admit to yourself and others that you simply do not want nor intend to stop a particular destructive behavior. It is uncomfortable to confess that you depend upon that destructive behavior to get you through difficulty. You are able to make grandiose declarations about other areas of life that are less threatening. However, congruency requires that you go deep and face what you don’t want to do and be honest and accountable with yourself right there! Embrace your unwillingness, failure and desperation. This challenge is not only true for addicts but it is true for everyone. Think about your world. Maybe, there is someone you won’t seek forgiveness and reconciliation because you are afraid to face the ugly resentment that breeds distance between you and that person. You tell yourself that you made an initial reasonable effort toward forgiveness in the beginning with an unsatisfactory response. You reason that there are others who do appreciate and love you. You wonder why should you go further. Yet, the truth is that you need to address your feelings of resentment that are growing deep within you. Congruence requires that you be brave and honest with yourself, even when it is not noticeable to others.
Recovery requires that you tell on yourself to others in your support community. This is difficult. Without this practice, congruence is impossible. When you meet with your sponsor or support community, it is important to begin your share with the last thing you want these people to know about you, and that is the first thing you lead with! Why? It is the practice of congruent living. I have noticed when my son Sam goes kayaking that one of the first things he does when he jumps in his kayak is to immediately roll the kayak and submerge his entire body in the ice cold water. It seems to be a ritual of preparation for the water to come. I believe that is what we do in our recovery community. We jump right in with the deepest truth-telling. It takes a commitment to practice telling on yourself in this radical way. Congruency requires that you establish clarity and commitment to your concrete values about life. You will never be congruent if you are not clear about what you believe. Addicts struggle with this. For an addict, what has been valued is anything in the moment that helps them get what they want. You can stop acting out in your addiction but still live life with this mindset. You won’t be congruent until you do a deeper dive into what values matter most to you. Likely, you will need time, and a mentor (sponsor, spiritual guide, etc) to create these deeper values. Do the hard work. Go deep and hammer out what you believe, cherish and value. Only then, do you have the necessary framework to practice congruency.

Finally, congruence requires that you embrace the defeated moments, moments of paranoia and fear, and that you lean into counterintuitive behavior. This, too, is difficult. First, defeat hurts and carries shame with it. The human tendency is to run from shame and minimize the defeat experience. These are moments that are juicy for congruence. These are times to know yourself best. Being honest in defeat is a mark of maturity and congruence. Wisdom and life lessons can only come from this space. Paranoia and fear are common experiences on the journey of recovery. Sometimes recovery feels like free falling, as if you are totally not in control. It’s true. Things can go wrong and you get paranoid, waiting for the next shoe to drop. Congruence requires that you sit with these difficult experience and practice
counterintuitive behaviors. With congruence, you learn to let go when you desperately want to hang on! You learn to die to what you don’t need in order to live! You learn to win by losing what you recognize is no longer important! You practice embracing what you don’t know that leads to be settled with what you do know.

Congruence is a core paradox that is fundamental to the recovery journey. The
only way to find peace in your unsettled world is through grasping the thin air of
congruent living in the context of accountability and community support.

Live Broken Open

Series Three: Blog Thirty-two

“Deep love, deep healing come with a deep emotional price. Those who pay are enriched in the deepest way”- Anonymous

I listened to a friend who was overwhelmed with humiliation.  I spoke with another friend who triggered anxiety, anger and frustration. I heard from another friend who was paralyzed with fear. I received a call from one with overwhelming sadness from the loss of relationship. Even, yet another who spoke of bewilderment and uncertainty about direction for a beloved family member. There was bitterness and resentment connected to overwhelming defeat. 

How are you suppose to live in recovery when you are whipped around and turned upside down? Every day life experience can turn you inside out like a glove. The compass needle never stays still in recovery. You go back and forth. One moment you are centered and the next moment you are like a pin ball between bumpers. You must learn to shift from living in fear to fear living in you. We don’t avoid it. We learn to not allow fear to dominate. How do I right size fear?

No one does recovery clean. It is messy. Like the bully, you choose to either beat up or go down another street to avoid, your behavior is still governed by the bully. You must learn to face and address the bully of addiction in your life. Consider the following: 

  1. Live broken open: Wounds won’t heal unless they are exposed to air and light. When you are deeply injured or paralyzed with feelings of betrayal and fear, it is healing to drop your inner and outer mask and openly live broken. Broken open requires listening to honest friends. It is a way to shelter in place. Face your shadow and blindspots by bringing them to light in the presence of a support community.
  2. Make prayer a foundation stone in your life. Prayer is more about listening than it is about requesting. Slow your life and your mind. Listen to what God, the universe is telling you about you. Many treat prayer like a request line to God. “How should I pray?” “What should I ask God for?” It is as if I am putting my order in as clear as possible so that I get the right thing back. Yet, whether you believe in God or not, prayer is most effective when you listen to your feelings and life situation and discern what the universe or God is trying to tell you. Rather than verbalizing a prayer of thanksgiving for your meal, take time to listen to what the universe or God is telling you. Receive the insight and take in the connection to the plants and animals that sacrificed their lives so that you can eat. Listen and find the connection with the moment rather than filling the moment with your words. It will add intention to living broken open.
  3. Connect don’t compare with others. Subtly people constantly compare themselves to others. The things we compare about ourselves to others is endless. Comparison creates “us” versus “them”. Connection with others tells us to never forget that we belong to each other. There is no they. We are they. Mark Nepo wrote a powerful poem to remind—“Those who awake are the students—those who stay awake are the teachers—How we take turns”
  4. Treat life as sacred. Sacred comes from a willingness to make change. Sacred conversations brave the depths of radical change in the way you live. When I keep insisting on doing what I once was able to do but now cannot I will continue to break down what is sacred which is the possibility of change. Showing up and being present for every single moment is sacred. This is the focus in sacred community.
  5. Tune your recovery as you experience day to day life. Every day brings its own challenge. Recovery practice suggests that you manage fear and anxiety, stress and strain by constantly bringing yourself back to center. You learn not to turn against yourself. At the helm you will constantly make adjustments to avoid turning against yourself. Rather than life being a set of rules, or a specific formula to follow, recovery is a finely tuned dynamic with adjustments as you make your way through life. When you don’t know, no matter how much you dwell on what you don’t know, it doesn’t improve. It’s like searching for something you misplaced. After exhausting all the avenues, when you let go and surrender, the lost item uncannily shows up. Tuning recovery involves a kind of search and surrender. 

Recovery is a way of getting free from addiction. Kierkegaard wrote that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. Wisdom in recovery is a way of sorting through the vast options of freedom that are before you. Wisdom does not exempt you from the journey It is provided to support you in the journey. It will help you deepen your inner roots to face difficult times and live broken open. 

Masturbation and the Sex Addict

Series Three: Blog Thirty-One

Masturbation is a healthy sexual experience shrouded with a cloak of shame. People make wisecracks about it. Religious institutions demonize it. Young kids have been terrorized for doing it. Children are told by their mothers or fathers “not touch yourself down there!” You would think we would have vast colonies of blind people as a backlash from those who were told that if they masturbated they would go blind!

Christianity’s roots for opposing masturbation is found in the Old Testament. There is a reference to Onan’s sin which essentially depicted him pulling out before ejaculation during the act of intercourse. It is assumed that “spilling your seed” included men who pulled out and finished orgasm with masturbation. The Roman Catholic church still officially condemns masturbation as a mortal sin.  It is uncertain how you would conduct accurate research to determine who does masturbate and who does not.  People honestly reporting their sexual practices in a shaming social environment is difficult to gather. Religious leaders are reticent to disclose their practice regarding masturbation. My sense is that you would be hard pressed to find a priest or Christian minister who has not masturbated. As a therapist, few Christian ministers discuss their sexual behavior, particularly their practice about masturbation. The subject of masturbation usually triggers a lot of embarrassment and shame when discussed in the confines of most Christian churches. There is a tendency to lie if asked “do you masturbate?” I have always wondered if Jesus masturbated? Of course, I will never know if he did. Nothing is ever mentioned about his psychosexual development. Jesus was described as being a spiritual and human being. Yet, how could he relate to being human without being a sexual being. There is nothing in the New Testament that mentions anything about the sexual experience of Jesus.

In the medical and psychology world it is generally understood that masturbation is considered healthy. It is described as a positive self-nurturing behavior that offers relief from muscle tension and stress. It provides emotional and physical comfort.  

That said, what about a sex addict who chronically masturbates? Can masturbation become problematic? Can masturbation become a substitute for sexual connection and intimacy in a committed relationship? The answer is, of course! When this substitute becomes a chronic pattern of behavior, relational intimacy suffers. Self-soothing behaviors become problematic when they are compulsively engaged to avoid unwanted emotions. Someone who enjoys ice cream and compulsively eats more and more every day to escape unwanted feelings is creating a problem with ice cream.  The same can be true for masturbation. Addiction can be understood as a pathological relationship to a mood altering substance or process that has life damaging consequences without the power to stop the destructive behavior by yourself.  Masturbation and ice cream and a myriad of other substances and processes can fit this description of addiction when abused.

I have treated clients who have compulsively masturbated to the point of causing their penis or clitoris to bleed and continue to do so in spite of the pain and physical injury. Obviously, this is unhealthy.

When treating sexual addiction, there is no one suggestion that fits everyone. For many sex addicts, masturbation is off-limits. The reason is because masturbation became an organizing principle in their life that was utilized to avoid unwanted feelings. Eventually, it became a block to healthy emotional and sexual intimacy with their partner. Why take the risk of pursuing their partner for sexual connection when it was easier to simply masturbate to porn or a mental sexual image? You can be in total control and have orgasm exactly when you want to without needing to risk rejection or engage the responsibility of meeting your partner’s sexual needs. This is a common response of those who are addicted to masturbation. For many sex addicts, masturbation to fantasy is foundational to an explosion of sexual behaviors that are destructive. It becomes linked to destructive behaviors that betray their own values and/or commitments made in a monogamous relationship. Not all sex addicts are addicted to masturbation. Compulsive and problematic sexual behaviors are varied and wide. For the many who struggle with compulsive masturbation treatment is necessary.  It’s not that masturbating in a committed relationship was betrayal in and of itself.  However, fantasizing about being sexual with another through masturbation triggered many to act out sexually with other people. When this occurred they violated their vows and agreements in their committed relationship who did not agree to an open sexual relationship.  Masturbation became the fuel for infidelity. For these individuals, masturbation became a powerful rehearsal to the sexual pursuit of others.  For these sex addicts, abstaining from masturbation was necessary.

In recovery, masturbation is a bottom line behavior that is not practiced for many. Some introduce it later in their recovery program. When this occurs it is important that an addict do this with consultation with a therapist, sponsor and their community of support. When addicts do this without consultation it usually triggers a slip or relapse. It is important that an addict carefully manage addiction thinking in making this choice; thus, the need for consultation.  Some addicts do not need to put masturbation in their bottom line or inner circle of behaviors because they do not struggle with it or it did not figure into intimacy disability with self or a committed partner. There is not a one size fits all suggestion to recovery.  When it does apply, recovery maturity is needed to sift and sort when it is healthy to re-introduce masturbation. Generally, most sex addicts who are in the earliest stages of recovery, are wise to abstain from all sexual behaviors for a period of time in order to establish the practice of meeting emotional needs in ways other than sexual self-soothe. It is helpful to strengthen impulse control and to learn other healthy ways to meet emotional needs other than with sexual behavior. For some, masturbation without the involvement of a committed partner is always an acting out behavior that leads to a slippery slope of more destructive sexual behaviors. Here is a list of considerations regarding masturbation for an addict working a recovery program.

  1. Establishing boundaries around all sexual behaviors must be addressed with a therapist, sponsor and recovery community. It is unwise to make solitary decisions without input from others.
  2. When it is determined within the community of support that masturbation is not a part of a sex addict’s acting out behavior, it should not be listed as an acting out behavior (bottom line, red light or inner circle).
  3. When masturbation is determined to be an acting out behavior it should be listed in the inner circle of a sobriety contract.
  4. Masturbation should only be re-introduced if it is supported in consultation with the therapist, sponsor and group members. An addict must demonstrate recovery growth in relationship healing that merits the inclusion of masturbation. This takes considerable growth in recovery.
  5. Edging is a term used in recovery circles for those addicts who have masturbation as an inner circle behavior and touch themselves but do not orgasm. Is it acting out or not? This decision will vary from addict to addict. It is more important to practice identifying what are the emotional needs that must be met underneath the sexual urge. Then it is important to work toward addressing this need in an emotionally or physically healthy way. Judging edging behavior as acting out or not can become a head game that misses the opportunity to initiate healthy self parenting. 

A Need for Unity and Connection

Series Three:  Blog Thirty

We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” —J.K. Rowling, (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

There are forces in life that divide and separate. Race, class, religion, income inequality and many other designations categorize and label people and their life experience. Because of these divisions, our understanding of each other suffers. As a result, we isolate and fail to see the connections that we all share. Comparison and competition also divide people. Children learn to compete and compare very early. There is a place for competition, and it is commonplace for people to compare. Without checks and balances, competition and comparison become a cancer that eats away at the fibers of life that connect and create community. Forcefully, the energy of competition forges a zero-sum mentality of winners and losers, haves and have nots and us versus them. When the emphasis of comparison and competition become imbalanced, the spirit of cooperation shrinks.

Feelings are the network that connect people. Sadness, loneliness, fear and insecurity bond the wealthy to the poor. Only when we focus attention to our different conditions do we separate. We become judgmental which isolates. Certainly, inequities must be discussed and remedied.  We are more likely to create resolution when we can find a common thread that weaves our hearts together. Emotional experience is the tapestry that weaves the hearts of us all together as one. Oppression, suffering, and struggle are common stuff that make up life for everyone.

Everyone suffers defeat. We all experience disappointment when things do not turn out the way we hoped. Like a river, there is ebb and flow in life. When defeat and disappointment are minimized or ignored, it fractures the spirit of community. We begin to pretend that life is different than it really is. We hide the hurt and pain and begin to separate from others who we think are successful. Our failures begin to magnify. We conceal our pain, and loneliness intensifies. Study the following considerations.

Listen: Take a deep breath and slow the frenzy of life. Take time to focus on listening to another’s plight and circumstance. Don’t offer suggestions for solution. Just walk alongside and identify with the life experiences shared with another. Contemplate being in their shoes with their perspective. Avoid judgment, and just be with the other person. Practice being in their skin the best you can.  Sit with the discomfort of not knowing a resolution and feel the burden of another. Healing happens through connection of feelings, not through cold rapped out counsel of what to do next.

First feel before you try to fix: The emotions that come with uncertainty are scary. There is a compulsion to rush toward fixing a problem shared by another. It is easier to argue about how to solve the problem of poverty in the world than to sit with those who suffer and experience the overwhelming feelings of loss of power, food insecurity and life. The deeper we connect with the emotions of those who suffer, the clearer a solution will arise on the horizon. When counseling someone suffering from addiction, it is helpful and healing to simply sit with the feelings of desperation and loss. It is tempting to want to immediately set up a recovery program to fix and rebuild a healthy life. Taking time to feel the emotions that an addict experiences can easily get lost in the chaos that is presented. However, it is healing to sit with the groan and the moan of emotional pain.

Bond through Identification: It takes courage to identify with someone who suffers in ways that scare you. It means you must crawl inside their shoes and walk through what they have experienced. Emotionally, this takes hard work. Others’ behavior can feel repelling and disgusting. It is much easier to judge and label people. Addictive behavior can be this way. When people relate to an addict with pronouns like “they” or “this population” it can create distance from the individual. Yet, the essence of being an addict is “wanting what I want when I want it”. Everybody knows what this experience is like. An addict is simply powerless to stop the compulsion without help.

For the past 27 years, I have treated sex offender behavior. I can honestly say that I have never listened to a story of sex offending behavior that I could not relate to. It is not because I have struggled with wanting to sexually offend someone or that I can relate to a particular sadistic offense. Rather, it is because I know what it is like to want what I want when I want it. So can you. Every sex offending story that I have heard included a need for control. Everyone can relate to this need. The capacity to identify lies within each of us. In the field of treatment of sex addiction behavior there has been a stronger need to define the difference between sex offending and sex addiction. Of course there are differences between pathologies. However, I have experienced more healing with clients through identifying likenesses than underscoring differences. While being a sex addict does not necessarily mean that you will break the law through child molestation or sexual assault, it is an offending behavior. Partners to sex addicts will substantiate this reality. Bonding through identification means only that you are willing to connect through common shared brokenness.

We all share the same river. It flows beneath us and through us. When we connect to the whole of life, it has the power to soften and open our hearts to each other. We may speak different languages, and live very different lives, but when the river swells through brokenness and struggle it pulls us toward each other. May we never forget the power of connection through common shared brokenness.

© Psychological Counseling Services