Velvet Steel

By Ken Wells - 05/15/2017





“Nobody ever beat themselves up to a better place”


As a parent of kids who played Little League baseball, I experienced the importance of being gentle with the kids who played the game. I watched kids cry when they struck out and feel devastated when their team lost because of an error they had made. As a professional therapist there were times that I seen adults literally pound their heads on the wall because of an addictive act out in behavior. So much self despise and very little acceptance.

Over the years I studied both, athletes and addicts around this dynamic of getting down on themselves when triggered by shame over a mistake or destructive behavior. I soon learned that those who were successful long term were individuals who neither ignored the destructive behavior and mistake nor condemned themselves with excessive self criticism. They were able to stay the course, nurture their wounded psyche to a better place of stability in order to gain traction and face the next challenge.

Those who did not learn this important self care skill usually beat themselves up to another mistake or act out experience. For example, when I was in junior high, I loved to play basketball and became pretty good at shooting the ball, enough so, that I made the starting 5. During those days of my young life, I’d run out onto the court with the best intentions to contribute to my team’s success only to screw up in some way. I’d miss a shot, make a bad pass or forget where I was suppose to be on defense. Then while running to the other end of the court, I’d scream at myself for screwing up. In time, I learned to automatically beat myself up. Even when I was successful, I told myself I could have done better. My own self trash talk took its toll and soon my performance began to suffer. To no surprise, I soon was sitting on the bench long forgotten and bewildered. Coach Waltrip one time said “Wellsie, you will get to play more when you learn to get your head out of your butt”.

It wasn’t until much later as an adult that I was able to understand that “nobody ever beat themselves up to a better place”.

I must admit that one of the great skills to be mastered in recovery life from addiction is that of “Velvet Steel”. By this I mean to understand and implement the dynamic of being gentle (Velvet) with yourself where you need to be gentle (i.e., with personhood around mistakes/wrong choices we make). In juxtaposition, there is a commitment to being tough (Steel) where I need to be tough. Such places include doing the next right thing in order to sustain recovery so that I do not continue the cascading plunge down the slippery slope of relapse.

So many times athletes and addicts get it mixed up. They tend to be gentle where they need to be tough and tough where they need to be gentle. This dynamic always leads to self sabotage and ultimate defeat.

In the book of James of the Bible there is a description of wisdom that is from God in contrast to wisdom that is not. One of the characteristics of wisdom from God is translated “consideration”. The understanding of the background of what is being suggested is that wisdom from God has a kind of “sweet reasonableness” to it. It is likened to a parent that carefully weighs when to apply the strict letter of the law and when to go gentle when a child behaves inappropriately. The emphasis demands sensitivity and intuition. Rather, than it being a static formula of step one, two or three, the idea is that it requires the parent to cultivate the art form of “velvet steel” and to carefully administer sensitivity to the spirit of the child. This art form is necessary for long term sobriety as well. The athlete also needs to better understand when to go gentle and where to be tough.

I have learned that the most important aspect of maintaining life balance and long term sobriety as an addict is this art form of velvet steel when it is honed and mastered by the one in recovery.

Trauma has a way of knocking the wind out of life energy. When it occurs, panic stricken behavior dominates an individual. It feels like the rug being pulled out from under you. As you scramble you wonder how will you ever be able to survive? It happens when a partner to an addict discovers betrayal or it is experienced by the addict when relapse occurs. There is this fearful frenetic cold sweat that breaks out as you scramble to get your feet underneath you. No one escapes this experience- whether athlete, addict or otherwise. It is crucial that I learn to stay the course by positioning myself with poise in order to do the next right thing. It requires that I “steel” myself in order to focus my thoughts in the here and now. It demands the consideration of executing the gentleness of healthy self soothe.

This dynamic never unfolds with any appearance of textbook description. Mastering velvet steel will drag you through uncertainty, intense anxiety and a sense of groundlessness. It only can be employed by those who are willing to brave the embrace of emotional bewilderment and unpredictable outcomes.

Velvet steel is the essential framework that is necessary to embrace the reality of forgiveness. Without healing gentleness (velvet) toward self there is no letting go of shame around poor choices and behavior. We get stuck with the focus on self disgust and contempt. We settle for being harsh and tough where gentleness is needed. Ultimately, we carry out trying to beat ourselves up to a better place wondering why it doesn’t work.

It is only the power of compassion applied through gentleness do we heal ourselves from our moments of mistaken judgments and dubious behaviors. Destiny fulfilled requires Velvet Steel.

By Ken Wells, MA, LPC, CSAT-S, LISAC


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