Not “everything” is possible. And that’s the good news.

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You know that saying, “nothing is impossible?” 

Yeah, that’s not true. 

There are a lot of things that are, for all practical purposes, impossible. At least, impossible for you right here, right now, given the resources you have right in front of you.

I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade. Seriously. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I happen to think that most people don’t even scratch the surface of the things of which they’re capable, mostly because of beliefs they’ve developed about themselves, the world, and the future. 

That is, a lot more might be possible for us than we THINK is possible. 

But it’s silly to imagine we can, in the physical, practical universe in which we live, do literally ANYTHING we set our mind to. Just not going to happen. 

Why is it important to acknowledge this? 

Isn’t saying this just “defeatist?”  

Doesn’t acknowledging that not “EVERYTHING” is possible for us focus us on our limits, instead of our strengths and possibilities? 

I suppose you could look at it that way. 

I choose to look at it in a different way. 

I choose to believe that the FACT that not “EVERYTHING” is possible to us frees us up to focus on those things that ARE quite possible for us. 

It’s my observation that when we hear “nothing is impossible,” instead of being inspired, most of us are actually intimidated. 

We get to thinking, “Man…if nothing is impossible, the fact that I’m failing to do, have, or be ANYTHING I WANT must be MY fault. I must be a failure. I must need to work harder. Because, after all, this inspirational meme on the Internet tells me NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE!” 

Our brains like romance and fantasy and adventure. That’s why we go to movies. 

But let me tell you what our self-esteem likes: realism. 

Our self-esteem knows when we’re not being wholly truthful with ourselves. 

Our self-esteem knows when we’re living in the real world, and when we’re not. 

And our self-esteem infinitely prefers we leave the fantasies about accomplishing anything we set our minds to in the movie theaters…and that in the real world, we make reality-based and earth-bound decisions about how we’re REALLY going to achieve our goals and live our values in a world in which we DO have limits. 

A lot of personal growth teachers out there say things like “nothing is impossible” because they want you to FEEL good about your life and your prospects. 

I want you to feel good, too. But I want you to feel good because you’re living al life that is worth living and achieving goals that are meaningful for you. 

If you must cling to the “nothing is impossible” fantasy, then at least do me a favor and modify it a bit: believe “nothing is impossible,” if you must, in the big picture. But acknowledge that right here, right now, within the twelve months that constitute this next calendar year, you have some limitations. 

You don’t have unlimited time. 

You don’t have unlimited financial resources. 

You don’t have an unlimited attention span. 

In the real world, you need to make choices about how you’re going to prioritize all of those finite resources. 

You do not do yourself any favors by trying to deny that you have those limits because “everything is possible.” 

Believe “nothing is impossible” if you want to…but behave as if you only have what you have in front of you to work with. 

Contrary to what many people believe, I think that limits— including the real world limit of “there most certainly ARE things that are impossible to me right now”— are our best friends. 

Limits inform us of what we have to work with. 

Limits inform us of what we’re working against. 

Limits give focus and shape to our efforts in ways that fantasies like “nothing is impossible” never, ever can. 

Learn to love the fact that there are things that are impossible. 

It frees you up to actually make real progress in the real world on the things that ARE possible. 

 

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You can only do what you can do. And that’s enough.

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Do what you can wrap your brain around, TODAY. 

Don’t pressure yourself to do MORE than you can wrap your brain around. 

Some people, when they start to improve their lives, recover from addiction, raise their self-esteem, or meaningfully battle their depression or anxiety, suddenly feel a great deal of pressure to do MORE. 

A little bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy helped me, they figure, so I should do MORE, so I can get even BETTER. 

A little bit of twelve-step philosophy and fellowship helped me, they figure, so I should do MORE, so I can recover quicker. 

A little bit of mindfulness helped me be more aware and grounded, they figure, so I should do MORE, so I can be even MORE grounded and aware. 

Don’t get me wrong— I’m a big fan of observing what works well, and doing what we can to get more of that effective stuff into our lives. Observing what’s working and trying to increase that is an approach that works a hell of a lot better than observing what’s NOT working and being upset about it. 

(There’s actually a whole philosophy of therapy called “Solution Focused Therapy” that is built around strengthening the positive rather than combatting the negative— it’s a powerful paradigm shift for a lot of people.)

The thing is, though, people in recovery sometimes get a little too ambitious or impatient…and, before they know it, they wind up overwhelmed. 

They don’t realize, for example, that probably one of the reasons they ended up depressed or anxious in the first place was because they had difficulty identifying and disputing destructive, distorted thoughts; thus getting into the habit of identifying and disrupting destructive, distorted thoughts— as one learns to do in cognitive behavioral therapy— is going to be a process. 

Put another way: it’s a HABIT that’s going to develop a little bit at a time…and trying to dive into the deep end right away might be setting themselves up to struggle. 

Similarly, some people in recovery don’t realize that one of the reasons they wound up getting their butt kicked by their addiction in the first place is because they struggled with self-honestly and connecting to others— the exact things that are corrected by participation in a twelve-step program. Thus, the process of learning to connect with others and be scrupulously honest with themselves every minute of the day is going to be a process. 

Again, put another way: these are HABITS that will develop a little bit at a time. Again, trying to dive into the deep end right away might be setting themselves up to be overwhelmed. 

You don’t have to do all of the things TODAY. 

Even if cognitive behavioral therapy (or any other kind of therapy) is helping you, you don’t have to learn EVERY CBT technique and apply them TODAY. 

Even if 12 step meetings and sponsorship are helping you manage your cravings today, you don’t have to read the entire Big Book and become rabidly active in your group TODAY. 

Do what you can do today. 

Push yourself a little, not a lot. 

Focus on mastering the basics of whatever tool you’re using…not becoming an expert at it. 

Identify the very basics, the very fundamentals of the techniques you’re learning, and what’s helpful about them for you…and focus on that. 

I’ve seen far, far too many people get overwhelmed and abandon their efforts at recovery…not because they weren’t dedicated to it, but the exact opposite: they got a little taste of success, and proceeded to bite off more than they could realistically chew. 

Something most people don’t understand is that life change is rarely a lightning-strike experience. It rarely happens in one brilliant flash. It’s almost never the case that a voice speaks to us from the heavens and changes us forever. 

Those stories are great in the domain of religious legends, but less useful to those of us who live in the modern world and need to figure out a way to exist day by day. 

Don’t feel pressure to do MORE. Do what you can do, TODAY. 

Actively resist the voice inside of you trying to guilt you into doing MORE. 

Actively resist the temptation to bite off more than you can chew. 

Keep it simple. Keep it direct. Keep it in the domain of what you’re capable of wrapping your brain and behavior around in this moment. Don’t think too far ahead; don’t get too wigged out by the big picture that you lose sight of the fact that your job is to manage THIS. PRESENT. MOMENT. 

Not the future. Not the past. 

This. Present. Moment. 

You can do what you can do, TODAY. No more; no less. 

And that’s quite enough…for today. 

 

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Say it with me: “patterns over time.”

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How do you know when to persist in a project, a prayer, or a goal, versus when to give it up and move on to something new? 

You won’t know. 

Not for sure, anyway. 

I WISH there was some easy way to tell when we’ve done everything we can do, and when it’s just time to let something go. As those who follow this blog know, I’m an enthusiastic proponent of letting things go when that’s the thing to do. 

It’s realizing that letting go is “the thing to do” that tends to be the tricky part. 

As much as I believe in letting things go, I’m also a believer that many people tend to give up too easily when their results aren’t as instant and gratifying as they expected or would prefer. 

Our culture, for better or worse, has kind of led us to this place where we expect instant results. We can barely handle the WiFi not functioning the way it should for a few minutes. 

The times when someone might be expected to persist in focus or prayer or effort for days, months, or even years seem very, very far away. 

Yet, persistence in the face of no immediate results is often exactly what we need in order to achieve the goals we’ve set. 

Around the Doyle Practice, one of our primary mantras is “patterns over time.” I encourage everyone who works with me, professionally or as a patient or client, to focus not on the immediate ups and downs they observe, but to focus on the patterns they’re observing over time. 

If someone is dieting, one instance of uncontrolled eating is one instance of uncontrolled eating. In itself, it’s barely a blip on the radar. 

Thirty five instances of uncontrolled eating over the course of a week is a pattern over time. That’s the target we’re interested in. 

If a couple has an argument or exchanges harsh words with each other, that’s one occurrence. It may not mean anything in itself. 

If a couple is mostly communicating via arguing or exchanging harsh words with each other, that’s a pattern over time. That’s the target we’re interested in. 

If you get freaked out and neglect to use your grounding skills one time, that sucks and is probably unpleasant, but it’s just a thing that happened. 

If every time you get freaked out and neglect to use your grounding skills, that’s a pattern over time. That’s what we need to change. That’s the target we’re interested in. 

Patterns aren’t going to shift overnight, nor should they. That’s why the whole phrase to remember is “patterns over time.” Time seems to be the one tool so many people in our age of instant gratification simply refuse to use, often because they feel like they shouldn’t “have” to. 

“Shouldn’t have to.” Says who? 

It’s not that I’m a glutton for punishment, by the way. I don’t believe in hitting one’s head against any given wall for any longer than one might have to. If you can produce a result in quick, emphatic fashion, be my guest. 

Teach me how to do it, in fact. 

But the quest for excuses to neglect the “time” part of the “patterns over time” equation usually winds up with people hurt, frustrated, and— most importantly— with their goals unfulfilled. 

Maybe you won’t know exactly when to abandon the quest to change a pattern over time. It’s true that we’re often called to abide and persist and believe in a state of results-less purgatory for what may seem like intolerable periods before we start to see shifts. 

But it’s also sometimes the case that when we don’t see results after a period, it’s a sign that we might need to reevaluate our goals and priorities. 

That judgment call is yours, and it’ll sometimes be imperfect. 

Let it be imperfect. 

Perseverance in focus, prayer, and effort; hacking away at patterns over time; judiciously choosing to switch up your goals or reevaluating your priorities; these are all tools you have available to you in building your life experience. 

None of these tools is inherently better than any others. Just like the array of tools in a physical tool box, they each have their purposes and limitations; they have things they’re good at and intended for, and things that you can’t do with each of them. 

And knowing when to use each tool takes training and experience. 

Give yourself the time to learn to be a craftsperson. 

And remember: patterns over time. 

 

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Don’t let a “guru” ruin you.

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Many times, people are sold a vision of what “success” requires that includes running oneself ragged; not sleeping much; working oneself into the ground. 

We’re told that we have to “pay the price” for success, which involves “working hard” to the tune of sacrificing our basic mental health, let alone rest and comfort. 

Sometimes we’re told this by mentors or gurus who claim to have experience in guiding people to success. 

“No days off,” we’re told. “Embrace the grind.” “Go all in.” 

I’ll be the first to affirm that for every result, there is a price. These gurus aren’t wrong in their basic premise that nothing of value is free. 

However, anyone who tries to tell you that “success” in any field requires the sacrifice of those things that make life worth living might want to reevaluate their expertise. 

Put another way: anyone who tries to sell you on a vision of success that will leave you exhausted and myopically obsessed with your goals 24 hours a day, might not have figured out a path worth following. 

Sleep, for example, is not a luxury that can be sacrificed in the service of achieving goals.

Sleep is necessary for survival.

It’s a period of time in which our brains cleanse themselves from toxins (a process they physiologically can’t do when we’re awake) and consolidate and process the experiences and memories from the day (a process that is necessary to literally remain sane). 

Would you trust a mechanic who blithely advised you to not put gas and oil into your car? That’s what gurus who are telling you to “sleep less” are advising. 

Similarly, gurus who tell you to do without rest and recreation, who tell you that evenings and weekends should be spent working instead of spending quality time with families and hobbies, don’t seem to understand the essential roles connection and recreation play in creative thought and productivity. 

Cutting time for rest and play out of our lives is one of the WORST things we can do if our goal is to be successful. 

Trying to go without enough sleep is one of the WORST things we can do for our intelligence and judgment. 

Why do some personal growth gurus offer such bad advice? 

Part of it is, they know very few people are willing or able to follow their advice to the letter.

They know it’s unrealistic to ask most people to go without sleep and fun and connection in the way they’re advising— so when those people fail to reach their goals, the guru can always point to this and claim, “Well, you weren’t willing to go ‘all in’ and ‘pay the price for success’…what did you expect?” 

Another part of it is, many of these gurus have business models that depend on their clients buying more and more expensive services from them— and people who aren’t getting enough rest and don’t have a lot of diversion in their lives are easier to sell things to. 

There is a subset of personal growth teachers who are very big on dietary supplementation with vitamins and other substances.

Many of these teachers don’t have training or credentials in nutrition or biology, of course, but they often swear by their supplementation regimens and advise their clients to follow suit. 

There are often a few reasons for this. Sometimes, gurus have an economic stake in the nutritional products and vitamin supplements they’re recommending. 

Other times, they know full well that the clients who are most amenable to taking their nutritional advice are probably feeling pretty lousy physically in the first place; thus, when their recommendations don’t pan out, the guru can point to the basic discomfort the client was already in as the primary culprit. 

Personal growth is a touchy industry. By its very nature, self-help products and pages (like this one!) invite audience of seekers who are probably in some degree of pain or discomfort.

When people think they might have found a way out of their pain— such as through the teachings or recommendations by a guru— they can be more willing than most to invest money in this potential escape…and more inclined than most to blame themselves if the remedy doesn’t work out. 

I know I sound like a broken record on this blog, but I’ll say it again: check out the credentials, experience, and basic soundness of individuals who put themselves out there as “experts” in the field of personal growth. 

Many “gurus” are great at building feelings of hope within their potential client base…then using that sense of hope to push basically (or profoundly) unhealthy recommendations on them. 

The truth is, the best advice offered by the best experts do not require massive departures from what is commonly known about mental health and well-being. 

The truth is, the best advice offered by the best experts does not require you to purchase things or transform your very self to take advantage of. 

The truth is, the best advice offered by the best experts brings you back to your strengths and what you have done WELL or RIGHT in your life…not your weaknesses or your shortcomings. 

You’re smarter and stronger than you think. Don’t let any guru convince you otherwise. 

 

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You can afford the luxury of a negative thought. Really.

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“Negative thoughts” don’t make you a “negative person.” 

They make you a normal person who has normal thoughts. 

When people in therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, begin learning how their thoughts impact their moods and behaviors, they very often start to worry that if they have negative thoughts, let alone more negative thoughts than neutral or positive ones, that they’re doomed to being depressed and anxious indefinitely. 

Relax. Even the most well-adjusted, positive people in the world have negative thoughts at times. 

Especially when we’re going through periods of stress or when we’ve experienced trauma or losses, negative thoughts are a normal part of life. 

Recovering from depression, anxiety, post traumatic disorders, and addiction doesn’t mean we don’t have negative thoughts. It would take the removal of some pretty important parts of our brains in order to accomplish that. 

Our thinking patterns do change in recovery…but you’ll always have negative thoughts. 

The difference is that when we’re in recovery, we don’t allow ourselves to be controlled by negative thoughts. 

We don’t allow our decisions to be made exclusively by negative thoughts. 

We don’t consider negative thought to be objective barometers of where our lives are or where they’re headed. 

When we’re in recovery, we’re able to keep negative thoughts— as well as positive and neutral thoughts— in their proper perspective. That is, they’re just thoughts…no more, no less. 

We wouldn’t want to banish negative thinking from our brains even if we were able to. Some negative thinking is pretty important to our survival. 

For example, if we’re about to cross the street, and we notice a bus barreling in our direction, we might have the “negative” thought, “Hm, if I cross the street right now, there’s an excellent chance I’d wind up flattened.” 

I would recommend you pay attention to that thought, as “pessimistic” as it might be. 

Similarly, we’re going to have thoughts about what might happen if we make certain decisions, or experience certain losses, or if things go a certain way. They might be “negative,” pessimistic thoughts…but they might also illuminate to us what’s important to us, or what the stakes are to a given decision. 

The problem isn’t with negative thoughts. 

The problem is when we begin to assume that negative thoughts are somehow more true than positive or neutral thoughts. 

An even BIGGER problem is when we lose sight of the fact that all thoughts— negative, positive, and neutral— are simply thoughts. Because we’re thinking those thoughts doesn’t make those thoughts irrefutable facts. 

When we lose perspective and forget that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts, that’s when we really get into the soup. 

The people who ten to be the most psychologically and emotionally healthy aren’t those who never have negative thoughts. Rather, they tend to be people who have highly developed reality testing skills. 

They know that not everything that crosses their mind should be believed. 

They know that feelings aren’t facts. 

They know that thoughts are only their brain’s interpretations of input, and might be mistaken. 

When we spiral down into depression or abreaction, part of what’s going on is, our reality testing has been compromised. We’re suddenly buying into thoughts like “things will never get better,” “I must be defective,” or “the world is out to get me.” 

There are people who have those thoughts, but who don’t spiral into depression or abreaction— because they can keep those thoughts in their proper perspective. 

Some people are afraid that if they get into therapy, their therapist is going to tell them to just think positively all the time. That the version of psychological “health” that is offered by therapy and therapists is one of delusion, because we’ve simply trained dour patients to ignore or overlook negative thoughts. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

I’ll never ask my patients to try to blot out negative thoughts. 

Nor will I ever ask my patients to blindly buy into their positive thoughts. 

I will, however, always, always, always ask my patients to keep their thoughts in perspective. 

I’ll ask my patients to reality test the hell out of their thoughts. 

And, above all, I’ll train my patients to dwell on thoughts that support their goals— rather than letting their thoughts control their focus by default. 

We can’t always control our thoughts, and this isn’t a particularly big deal. 

We can, however, often influence our focus. 

 

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There’s no magic to therapists or therapy.

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It’s important to remember that progress is rarely, if ever, found in momentary flashes of brilliance or insight— but rather in the daily grind of habit and incremental gains. 

There is a large subset of people who think that therapeutic progress is made in the room with the therapist. That in therapy sessions, things will be said or done that will suddenly make everything “click,” thus enabling huge leaps of progress all at once. 

It almost never works that way. I WISH it worked that way. 

Important things are said in therapy sessions, no doubt about it. In fact, part of the point of therapy sessions is to create an environment in which it’s more likely that important, helpful things are said and talked about. 

But no matter how important or profound anything that is talked about in a therapy session may be, the therapy session still has to end, and the patient has to return to the real world. 

It’s out there, in the real world, where 99.9% of the actual work takes place…and the actual progress is made. 

Why do people keep persisting in believing there is “magic” in a therapy session, or on the inside of a therapy office, that somehow doesn’t exist in the outside world? 

I think part of it is, it’s not interesting or sexy to contemplate that real “progress” is actually the work of minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, of grinding, grinding, grinding away at our lives, working to change our habits and patterns. We like the idea that there are shortcuts to making changes in our lives, that shift the focus away from that daily grind. 

Thinking there’s something “magic” about therapy or a therapist is a way of making the progress seem less boring, less tedious, less centered on nose-to-the-grindstone work. 

It’s not that people are lazy, understand. To the contrary, most of the people I’ve known who have had the courage to honestly engage in psychotherapy are some of the most industrious and motivated people I could possibly ever HOPE to meet. 

It’s just that, when given the choice, people prefer the idea that there’s some sort of magic or mystical answer to their problems, rather than an answer that signs them up for day after day of hard work. Hard work that is often unrewarding in the moment. 

Believing that there is “magic” in a therapist or in the therapy session is also, I think, for some people a hopeful thing. They’re hoping that the answer to their problems lies in some bit of obscure knowledge or expertise a therapist has, that can only be revealed within the sanctum of the psychotherapy session. It’s the same impulse that draws some people to mystical gurus on mountaintops. 

They want their answers to be found somewhere just outside of their understanding, because we’re conditioned to believe things that eclipse our understanding have the power to transform us more profoundly than things we already know. 

The truth— that we will mostly be transformed by applying, day in and day out, in sustained, habitual ways, things we already DO know— seems prosaic and uninspiring by contrast. 

I’ve seen some therapists and hospital programs take advantage of the belief of their patients that there is something special and sacred that happens within their clinical space that cannot happen without it. It’s an unfortunate fact of the mental health field that some providers really do cultivate an air of mysticism about how and why they work, without which patients would be at an existential loss. 

Spoiler alert: no matter how much you like your therapist, now matter how attached you are to a particular program, your ability to recover is only incidentally related to how good your therapist is or how effective a particular program is. 

A therapist and/or a program can teach you things you need to know. A therapist and/or a program, ideally, can also provide you with an environment in which it’s safe and effective to learn and refine your ideas about what what works and what doesn’t. Therapists and programs absolutely have their place in recovery. 

But in the end, it’s not about the therapist. Its not about what happens in session. It’s not about what happens in group. 

In the end, your recovery is about what happens when your therapist, group, or program ISN’T there. 

Your recovery is about how well you can take whatever insight you derive from your therapy or program into our everyday life and USE it. 

In the end, if your therapist and/or program isn’t equipping you to function without their everyday support in your life— or if you find yourself developing a belief that you can’t function without the “magic” of a person or program— it might be worth looking at what’s really going on there. 

None of this is worth thinking about in black and white terms, incidentally. I think the role and effectiveness of all of our supports and tools— therapists, programs, groups, philosophies, whatever— should be in a constant state of evaluation and revision. I’m not a fan of making hard, black and white decisions about “I don’t need this support” any more than I’m a fan of making hard, black and white decisions about “I do need this support.” What supports you need at any particular time should be determined at that time, and should be determined by looking at the evidence. There are plenty of shades of grey involved. 

That said: remember where the “magic” really is. 

It’s in your everyday habits. 

It’s in your everyday routine. 

It’s in the work that goes in day in, day out, when nobody’s watching. 

The magic, always and only, is in YOU. 

 

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No one else can cure your addiction. It’s on you.

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I cannot cure your addiction. 

No one else can cure your addiction. 

You cannot cure anyone else’s addiction. 

Whether we’re talking addictions to substances, to behaviors, to ideas, or to people, there is a stubborn myth that we can cure someone else’s addiction by simply “loving them enough.” That by sheer force of our commitment to a person, we can change their patterns and needs profoundly enough to “snap them out of it.” 

Likewise, many people hang on to the myth that somehow somebody will come along to cure their addiction for them. People think that if they get just the right therapist, or just the right guru, or just the right lover, or just the right dietician, that they’ll finally have the impetus they need to do the work of recovery. 

That’s not how it works. 

(If it were how it works, I’d absolutely get in the business of “saving” people from their addictions, because I’m betting it’d be pretty lucrative.) 

Don’t get me wrong: people can help us along the way. 

Words matter. Influences matter. Ideas matter. Philosophies and therapeutic approaches and spiritual paths matter. 

But in the end, it’s on us. 

One of the things I like about the Christian spiritual tradition (stay with me here, this isn’t a religious comment, this is about psychology) is that in several of the Gospels, when Jesus heals people, he takes care to remind them that he, actually, isn’t the one who healed them. Over and over and over again, he tells the people he heals that it is their own faith that has healed them. 

Similarly, it’s not Alcoholics Anonymous that gets people sober, or cognitive behavioral therapy by itself that yanks people out of depression. It is peoples’ willingness to actively understand and USE the tools offered by AA and CBT that does the trick. 

I have a pretty good track record as a therapist for helping people like their lives and achieve their goals better. But it’s not about me: it’s about them. 

It’s about you. 

There are PLENTY of people who see my posts and who read my blogs, but who don’t get “better.” 

The difference between them and the people who read my material and who DO experience some benefit has nothing to do with the material itself. I’m the same Dr. Doyle day in and day out on this blog and on my Facebook page. 

The difference is whether and how someone is willing and able to think about and USE what they’re reading. 

The good news is: we don’t need to wait for someone else to save or cure us. 

We don’t have to wait for the perfect therapeutic approach to be developed and researched. 

We don’t have to wait until we read just the right book or stumble upon just the right guru. 

We don’t have to restrict ourselves to the teachings of just the right therapist. 

All of those things might help, and believe me, I know what a godsend it is to stumble upon just the right tools at the right time to help us get where we’re going. 

But the fact that, in the end, our recovery is 100% dependent upon us is excellent news, in my view. 

It means we don’t have to wait. 

It means we don’t have to trust in someone else’s commitment or faith. 

It means we can start right here, right now. 

It means we can keep going even when certain people or approaches disappoint us. 

Thank goodness I can’t cure your addiction. 

Thank goodness it’s all on us. 

 

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