When you relapse…even AFTER a long period of stability.

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Sometimes, you’ll be doing well…and then you’ll be doing not so well. 

We often expect relapse— that is, an unplanned deviation from our recovery plan, whether we’re recovering from trauma, addiction, depression, or anything else— in the early stages of our recovery. 

It makes sense that when we’re new to using tools and skills, that those tools and skills will be tougher to use and yield less consistent results. We get that. 

But when we have a significant amount of time in recovery— years, for example— and we experience a relapse, it can really shake us up. 

We don’t expect relapse after we’ve been in recovery for a meaningful period of time. 

It surprises us. 

It discourages us. 

It triggers thoughts, such as “I obviously wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was doing…was I doing well at ALL?” 

Yes. Yes you were. Relapse doesn’t take away the positive steps you took. 

It triggers thoughts such as, “Will I ALWAYS be just on the cusp of relapsing, no matter how much successful recovery time I get?” 

No, you won’t— but that’s a more complicated question. People who have experienced trauma or who are vulnerable to depression or addiction ARE always at a heightened risk for relapse…but that DOESN’T mean you’re always just on the cusp of a nosedive. 

Relapse happens. 

It’s nobody’s fault. It doesn’t mean you did something “wrong.” It doesn’t mean your progress was “phony.” 

What does it mean, then? Well, it could mean lots of things. 

It could mean you encountered a trigger that you didn’t expect, didn’t know was a trigger, or were underprepared for. 

It could mean that because you’ve achieved a certain level of symptomatic stability, your brain considers it “safe” to let you remember things you’d previously been dissociating— and the shock of that switch threw you for a loop. 

It could mean that you had a stressful life event that temporarily overwhelmed your ability to cope. 

It could mean that you just underestimated your ability to withstand a specific stressor or trigger that, on paper, you thought you had licked. 

There are a lot of reasons why we might relapse after a period of stability or recovery— even a long period of stability or recovery. 

The key, as always, is not to let a relapse freak us out. 

The key is to remember that, once we relapse, we can’t take it back— it happened. 

The key is to pick ourselves up as soon as we can, and start employing the tools and skills we can remember. 

And above all, the key is not to let a relapse convince us of things that are not true. 

Because a relapse is not the end of the world. 

It is a bump in the road. 

it might be a painful, jarring, even damaging bump in the road— but it does not have to flip the car over. 

Think of it this way: when you’re in a fender bender after years of safe driving, do you then pull the car over and set fire to it? 

No. That’d be an overreaction. 

It’s the same with relapse. A fender bender— or even a worse accident— is no fun, and we do everything we can to avoid having them. But when accidents do happen, regardless of why they happen, regardless of how irritated we are that they happened, regardless of how damaged the fender is…we take the car into the shop to get it fixed. 

Easy does it. 

A relapse does not invalidate you or your recovery. 

Just do the next right thing. 

 

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You have a right to exist. Period.

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The other day, I posted a simple statement: “The world is better with you here— and it would miss you if you weren’t.” 

And something happened in response to that post that I think we all need to pay attention to. 

Many people responded by saying “thank you.” 

But others responded by objecting to the premise of the post. 

They said that they doubted that anyone would miss them if they weren’t here. 

They said they doubted the world was better for their continued existence. 

Their responses to that post demonstrate how cruel we can be to ourselves. 

They demonstrate how thoroughly we can buy into old programming. 

And maybe most importantly, they demonstrate why we cannot always trust our feelings…because feelings are not facts. 

There are times you may feel worthless. 

There are times you may feel like you do not contribute to the world. 

There may even be times when you feel the world would be better off without you. 

Those are not facts. 

Everyone deserves to be here— whether they feel that way or not. 

Everyone makes a contribution to the world— whether they feel that they do or not. 

Feelings are not facts. 

The problem with some feelings is that they are based on old conditioning. 

They are based on the feedback we got, often when we were young, from people who didn’t realize what they were programming into our brains…or maybe they did, but they didn’t have our best interests (or even the truth) in mind. 

It was, and is, heartbreaking to me that someone, anyone, feels like they do not “deserve” to continue existing. 

And even beyond that: it makes me angry. 

Not at anyone who thinks they don’t contribute to the world, mind you. Nobody asked for that programming. 

It makes me angry at the people who were SUPPOSED to nurture and support them. 

It makes me angry at the people who were either so careless or so mean in what they said and did, that a kid grew up to be an adult who believed they were born to suffer. 

It makes me angry that there are people out there who have to fight, every single day, against the programming they received when they were young. 

It isn’t right. 

It isn’t fair. 

What I want is a world in which people can truly accept that because they feel something, doesn’t make it so. 

Feelings are one source of information— but they are not an infallible guide to what’s real. 

And feelings are DEFINITELY not a reliable guide to what’s real when you’ve grown up without the support that human beings need to function well. 

Please do not believe the voice in your head that questions your worth or your right to exist. 

It is the voice of old programming. And it is lying to you. 

 

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Dialing back the drama.

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We are not “creating drama” when we set boundaries. 

In fact, setting boundaries is an effort to head off drama. 

Real drama— that is, unnecessary, unpredictable, turbulent ups and downs— is nurtured by the absence of boundaries and accountability. 

A lot of people are uncomfortable with boundaries and accountability. 

To them, boundaries and accountability are concepts that smack of restriction and punitiveness. 

And they are right, to a certain extent. 

When we set boundaries with and insist on accountability from the people in our lives, we ARE placing restrictions on them…that is if they want to be in our lives. 

We are saying to them, “if you want to be in my life, there are some things you cannot do.” 

If that is a statement that rubs somebody the wrong way, or if that is a statement that someone cannot live with…it may not be the worst thing to not have them in our lives. 

Many of us, in our modern world, have become kind of addicted to drama. 

There’s a part of many of us that actually LIKES the dramatic ups and downs. 

There’s a part of many of us that likes the unpredictability. 

When you ask people to describe their ideal relationship, many of them will include among those descriptions that their ideal relationship would be “exciting.” 

If you look to our popular entertainment, you’ll see that for centuries, humans have loved stories of complicated relationships that are not infrequently as painful as they are nurturing. 

For a long time, many peoples’ description of ideal love has been one in which the other person fulfills a ridiculous number of idealized roles in someone’s life. 

Conversely, when you ask many people what they want to avoid in their relationships, a common answer is they want to avoid being “bored.” 

Popular entertainment and social media seem to compound these instincts, and glorify versions of relationships and “love” that are, above all…dramatic. 

Don’t get me wrong: relationships are complicated enough by nature. 

Human beings are complicated enough by nature. 

I’m not saying that all complicated relationship dynamics are a result of humans’ unhealthy, unnecessary appetite for drama. 

But I do think that many people underestimate the extent to which they invite unnecessary, painful drama into their lives by how they conceptualize their own lives and how they think about their relationship needs and preferences. 

If you think of your life an epic poem…don’t be shocked when ogres appear in it. 

If you think of your ideal relationship as a potential fairy tale…don’t be shocked when dragons and witches appear in your life as frequently as knights. 

How can we avoid veering toward the unnecessarily dramatic when thinking about our lives and relationships? 

First thing’s first: we need to think about what we need in our lives in practical, everyday terms. 

Our lives are not epic poems or fairy tales. 

We need things other than passion and hyper-connection in our relationships. 

The relationship that may be healthiest for us probably won’t be perfect. It might not always be exciting. It certainly will not fulfill every one of our needs at all times. 

And that’s okay. 

Cutting down on the drama in our lives by setting boundaries, expecting accountability, and revising our romantic thinking about relationships is not always fun. 

But it is the pathway to less anxiety, more productivity, and ultimately more peace and energy. 

It’s a tradeoff that is worth it. 

 

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Submission, discipline, and accountability.

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If we are going to win at life— if we are truly going to achieve meaningful goals and live well considered values— then we need to submit. 

We need to play by certain rules. 

We need to be accountable— to ourselves, and likely to another person as well. 

Those who are categorically unwilling to submit rarely achieve their goals— if ever. 

Achieving goals isn’t peripherally about discipline— it’s entirely about discipline. 

We only ever achieve goals if we’re willing to regularly do things that we’d maybe prefer not to do. 

When we’re melting down, we don’t FEEL like using our tools and skills. 

When we’re presented with a pleasurable activity, we often don’t FEEL like passing it up in order to do the thing that will nudge us toward our goals. 

When we’re tired, we often don’t FEEL like pressing on. 

When we do the things we need to do to achieve our goals and live our values DESPITE the fact that we don’t feel like doing them— when we submit to the necessity of doing those things regardless of whatever we’re feeling in the moment— that’s when, paradoxically, we achieve freedom. 

The only way to achieve meaningful freedom is through submission— but not just any submission. 

For submission and discipline to be empowering tools for us, they must be thoughtful. 

They must be intentional. 

They must be chosen from a place of autonomy and personal power— not forced on us by someone trying to coerce or bully or exploit us. 

Many of us have complicated histories with the concepts of submission and discipline. 

For many of us, especially those who survived trauma or abuse, those words trigger old feelings and reactions linked to times in the past when certain people tried to manipulate, smother, or use us. 

Many trauma survivors then grow up to decide that, because unchosen submission and discipline were used to harm them in the past, that they’re not going to allow those concepts anywhere near their lives as adults. 

It’s a survival impulse— and a very understandable one, at that. 

Sometimes some people express frustration at how “stubborn” trauma survivors are? This is one of the reasons why. They’re not trying to frustrate the people around them; they’re reacting to what they went through at the hands of monsters in their past. 

Part of reclaiming your life, is reclaiming your right— and your responsibility— to choose how submission and discipline are going to function in your life. 

You’re an autonomous adult now. 

You get to CHOOSE who or what gets your submission now. 

You get to CHOOSE how the tools of discipline and accountability are going to function in your life. 

Submission, when it is not chosen, can be poisonous. It can psychologically cripple a person. It’s what the condition “complex post traumatic stress disorder” is all about. 

In order to recover, we must make peace with the concepts of submission, discipline, and accountability. 

We need to reclaim those concepts from our pasts. 

We need to recognize these tools as the fundamental tools for personal development that they are— when they are chosen and engaged thoughtfully, intentionally, and congruently with one’s core values. 

In order to live the life we want to live, we really have to submit. We really do have to play by the rules. 

But we get to choose what outcomes are worth making those sacrifices for. 

We get to choose if and how we’re going to value something enough to submit. 

We get to choose to whom and how to be accountable. 

Thoughtful, intentional, values-driven submission is the opposite of slavery. 

It’s the only thing that truly sets us free. 

 

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Slow down your decision making.

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It’s true that we very often have to make poor decisions, and work through the consequences of those decisions, before we have the data and the experience to make better decisions. 

It’s true that, as the saying goes, good judgment is the result of experience, and experience is often he result of bad judgment. 

But that doesn’t mean we should head out TRYING to make poor decisions just for the sake of the “experience.” 

That doesn’t mean our decision making should be impulsive or half baked. 

There is a certain kind of motivational speaker who really wants us to believe that “leaders make quick decisions,” even with “incomplete information.” 

That “leaders” can afford to make and act on these quick decisions, because they are also committed to assessing the consequences of their decisions, making adjustments, and making better decisions. 

Supposedly this mindset is the antidote to the paralyzed overthinker, who never makes a true decision because they’re worried about risk. 

Every single time I see this viewpoint advocated in self-help circles, I want to ask the person who is promoting it: “Do you really think it’s that simple?” 

I do not happen to think it’s that simple. 

I do not think more damage is done by people taking an extra breath, taking some extra time, and being more thoughtful about their decisions. 

I do not think that most people suffer more from the paralysis of overthinking, than they do from the consequences of impulsive, half-baked, emotionally driven decision making. 

The fact is, MOST people make MOST of their decisions fairly impulsively. 

They do this because they don’t feel like our modern world gives them a chance to breathe, let alone do serious, nuanced thinking (let alone soul searching!) about their decisions. 

Most people face a great deal of pressure every day. 

Pressure to “be” a certain person. 

Pressure to achieve certain things. 

Pressure to make a certain amount of money. 

Pressure to weigh a certain amount or fit into certain sizes of clothing. 

Most people live in a pressure cooker…and that pressure cooker does NOT lend itself to reflective, focused, values-driven decision making. 

Thus it baffles me that motivational speakers— especially those who do not have training in the behavioral sciences— think that most peoples’ problem is that they’re being TOO deliberate in their decision making. 

A big part of my job is to get people to be MORE thoughtful, MORE nuanced, and MORE deliberate in their decision making. 

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely felt a great deal of pressure throughout your life. 

You’ve maybe developed a lot of defense mechanisms to cope with that pressure— some of which have served you well, some of which may have created more problems than they’ve solved. 

What I want you to know is that you can develop the skill of slowing down. 

You can develop the skill of pushing the pause button. 

You can develop the skill of stepping away from the pressure cooker. 

It’s not easy, especially in our culture, and no one’s saying it is. 

But do NOT fall into the trap of believing that your desire to pause, to think, to consider, to check in with your goals and values and experiences, are actually part of the problem. 

Those instincts are not part of the problem. 

They are, quite literally, the solution.  

 

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Grieving takes as long as it takes, and it’s as hard as it is.

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Grieving takes as long as it takes, and it’s as hard as it is. 

We can’t rush grieving. 

Many people try to rush it. They think they can wait grief out by refusing to acknowledge it. 

Not acknowledging grief does nothing but prolong it. 

We grieve when we lose people. 

We grieve when we lose pets. 

We grieve when we lose well-established relationships or experience changes in well-entrenched life patterns. 

Grief is the mind’s and the body’s way of processing loss. 

When we lose things that are important to us, we’re not just sad that those things are no longer there. 

Loss forces us to look, squarely in the eye, the reality of the passage of time. 

The reality that everything is temporary. 

The reality that we will never be able to settle into a routine indefinitely, because the only fundamental constant in the world really is change. 

Loss reminds us of dreams and ambitions and plans we once had. 

Loss reminds us of relationships and bonds we once had. 

Loss reminds us of past times, both good and bad…but which are gone forever. 

Grief is how we try to deal with being reminded of all of those things…and how we begin to accept the loss of those things. 

Our brains struggle with the concept of “acceptance.” 

When we experience something that is painful, we’re not great at accepting the reality that that painful thing even exists. Our first instinct is to reject the reality of that thing, in a futile hope that our rejection of it may cause it to not exist. 

Things exist whether or not we accept them. 

Loss definitely exists whether or not we accept its reality. 

Grief is a series of emotional reactions that help us bridge that gap between wanting to deny that loss exists, or that loss is painful…and the reality of needing to accept that loss simply is. 

Refusing to let yourself grieve, because you fear the pain involved, is a cruel thing to do to yourself. 

The pain of loss exists whether or not you allow yourself to grieve. 

But trying to deny and disown that pain leaves you feeling fundamentally unseen and unheard. 

If we are to consider ourselves important, we need to consider all parts of us important— including our pain. 

If we are to build self-esteem, we need to listen to ourselves. 

We need to console ourselves. 

We need to honor our pain— which is different from celebrating or glorifying our pain. 

Grief will not kill you. 

But trying to hold back your grief— your true feelings— for a prolonged period of time will do violence to your emotional health. 

It’s impossible to be at peace with yourself, or the world, if you’re actively trying to deny and disown an experience as powerful as grief. 

Loss is hard to accept. 

But trying to ignore the feelings it causes is not an option. 

Part of you carries that pain, whether you acknowledge it or not. 

And not acknowledging the pain of loss is an excellent way to develop a relationship with yourself that involves a lot of resentment and distrust. 

Be kind to yourself. Be compassionate toward yourself. 

Acknowledge your grief. 

Give yourself what you need to grieve. 

Take the time you need to grieve. 

 

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‘Approval addiction’ lives up to its name.

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If your plan for building a life of happiness and satisfaction is to please everyone else— or, at least, avoid displeasing everyone else— there are a few things you should know. 

One, it’s not going to work. 

And two, you really will lose yourself in that project. 

Building a large chunk of your identity on making other people happy just doesn’t work, for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, what pleases other people tends to change and vary. Often unpredictably. 

What pleased someone one day, may not please them the next day. 

And what pleases one important person in your life, may not please another. 

Your very best case scenario is that you’re constantly left trying to shift back and forth, frantically trying to adapt to what you think will please most of the people in your life, most of the time…and never fully succeeding, due to the impossible, futile nature of the task. 

Not to mention, you’ll only ever be kind of guessing at what pleases others, anyway. 

You can’t read other peoples’ minds. All you really can do is try to discern their likes and dislikes from the feedback they give you…and even then you’re still operating at a disadvantage. 

Basing your personal identity on guesswork and projection is a bad idea. Not to mention an exhausting and depressing idea. 

And all that is aside from the fact that you really will lose your sense of personal identity and integrity if you build your life around trying to build other people. 

Self-esteem is literally the esteem in which we hold ourselves. It involves our own perception of our ability to accomplish things in the world (self-efficacy), and our own perception of whether we deserve good things to happen to us (self-worth). 

If you’re out there trying to please everybody, all the time, your self-esteem is going to crumble. 

Your sense of self-efficacy will take a hit, because you simply won’t be able to please enough people, enough of the time, to scratch the itch you’re trying to scratch. 

Your sense of self-worth will take a hit, because it will begin to feel very conditional— i.e., you won’t feel as if you’re worthy of happiness unless you can make other people happy. 

Trying to please everyone else, as a life strategy, is just an unworkable proposition from front to back. 

I know, you may feel you NEED to please everyone else. 

You may feel the only way to stay SAFE is to try to please everyone else. 

You may even feel pressure from other people to devote your life to pleasing everyone else. 

But building real self-esteem— and the real capacity for satisfaction and enjoyment in your life— is going to mean giving up your addiction to the approval of others. 

Like every addictive substance, approval is a drug that can turn deadly if it becomes your only way to feel good. 

Like every addictive substance, approval can rob you of options in your life. 

Like every addictive substance, approval makes false promises about what it means and what its value is. 

When you feel the obsessive pull to please others, get in the habit of pushing the pause button. 

Get some breathing room. Take a moment. 

Get some space between stimulus and response. 

And, if necessary in that moment, go back and read this blog entry from the top. 

Remind yourself of why people-pleasing, in the end, doesn’t work as a life strategy. 

Pushing that pause button within yourself, and reminding yourself of the real factors involved, is a skill. 

Use it. As often as you need to. 

 

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