Beyond Abstinence

How to flourish in addiction recovery

Stare Down Those Inner Demons and Rebuild Your Life

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough & doggone it, people like me!” Stuart Smalley

Maybe Al Franken, the comic actor who created the TV self-help guru on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1990s, was on to something.

For the uninitiated, his character, Stuart Smalley, would look in the mirror and offer his "Daily Affirmation" in a noble effort to stave off his more typical thoughts: "I'm a fraud ... tomorrow, I'm going to be exposed for what I am, a big imposter ... I just want to curl up and lie in bed all day and eat Fig Newtons."

Was it just a broad comedy premise, or was there a little bit of Stuart in Al? Al Franken, after all, has followed his show business career with an equally successful career in politics, now serving as a U.S. senator from Minnesota.

Dipping his toe into positive psychology certainly hasn't hurt Sen. Franken. Now we’ve found a stronger dose of positive psychology can help give addicts the foundation they need to recover, though often that road is bumpier for men.

While the daily affirmation bit was certainly funny, it made the important point that we all have self-doubt. It also demonstrated that there is strength in being emotionally aware, in confronting self-doubt squarely and openly, face-to-face if you will, and saying, "Thanks for sharing, but you're wrong. I'm OK, and I belong!"

That takes strength - even when practiced by the comically “overly sensitive” Stuart. He was the epitome of the cultural perception, even more pervasive 20 years ago, that men who are in touch with their emotions are sissies. That stereotype continues to keep many men from acknowledging their self-doubt and fear, and from reaching out for help, from sharing and discovering that they are not alone. It is actually a sign of strength to reach out, because only by recognizing those “inner gremlins,” a phrase I borrow from Dr. Brené Brown, do we learn how to address them head-on.

So by taking on self-doubt every day, fighting back thoughts of hopelessness and setting his sights firmly on the positive, Stuart Smalley was no sissy.

The truth is, our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative. It's a survival thing. In our ancestors' world, daily threats (predators, natural disasters, etc.) were much more urgent because they directly impacted survival - the price of missing the signs of a nearby predator (you get eaten) were much worse than missing the signs of prey (food). An animal's responses to negativity are far stronger than responses to positivity.

Springing forward thousands of years, this heavily trodden path to negativity often leads to stress and unhappy feelings, even though there are many positives in our lives. We are naturally wired to find and react to threats, violations and setbacks. Brain scans teach us that our brains automatically react more strongly to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. 

The negativity bias is best described by Benjamin Franklin when he said: “We are not so sensible of the greatest health as of the least sickness.” For example, how often do we notice that a toothache, a sore back and so forth, is all we have? All of our attention focuses on what's wrong without realizing how much is right. We got this way because our ancestors passed on their successful genes, which recognize that positive experiences (food, shelter or mating opportunities) were good, but placed a premium on threats and dangers. In other words, positive experiences are nice, but if we missed out on a chance to experience some of these, chances were high that we would have another opportunity because we had avoided dying. It's a pretty sound strategy for survival if you think about it. But it can easily be taken to extremes.

Numbing the Pain

Negativity and feelings of hopelessness are often the gateway to addiction. Mind-numbing chemicals offer a source of escape from the torturous self-doubt and insecurity dialogue that happens inside the head. But they’re a cheap fix - they don’t take much effort. Sitting in discomfort is hard work. It is taxing and expensive from a self-regulation perspective.

The recovering addict must learn to focus on what is positive within him or her while fighting to overcome the inevitable resurgence of the crippling self-doubt and negativity that made drugs or alcohol seem to be a safer haven than living life.

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, put it this way:

Look, the truth is that many days -  no matter how successful we are in therapy -  you will wake up feeling blue and thinking life is hopeless. Your job is not only to fight these feelings but also to live heroically: functioning well even when you are very sad.

In short, be like Stuart Smalley. Look in the mirror and heroically face your gremlins. Drive them back. And seize the day.

Since 2006, Dr. Jason Powers, MD, has served as chief medical officer for Right Step in Texas. Before coming to Right Step, Powers had a private medical practice, and worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. In 2003, Powers re-dedicated his career to helping addicts and their families after he personally faced addiction. Powers is board certified in family medicine and certified by the American Board of Addiction.

Jason Powers, M.D., is certified in addiction and family medicine and serves as chief medical officer at Right Step and Promises Austin.
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