Every week during a group counseling session I facilitate, people go around and check-in about their current thoughts and feelings. What I’ve been noticing since I started is not something so different from what happens outside of therapy, which is that people will say what they think you want to hear. When going around the group, I will hear people describe their current hardships for several minutes and then finish their check-in with “but, other than that, I’m ok.”
We’ve all been guilty of doing this type of thing. In one sentence, we rationalize, accommodate, and negate all of our previous experiences. We go on for 5 minutes describing all our troubles and then negate it with a simple “but I’m ok.”
The first step is to speak your truth. Are you really ok? What does “ok” even mean? Does “ok” mean that you stuff the feelings associated with all the negative things for just a few minutes to get through it, but in reality, the stress of everything shows up in other ways (e.g. drugs, eating, alcohol, gambling, shopping, anger, etc.)?
Maybe “ok” means that you acknowledge all the difficulties going on in your life, but that you also acknowledge that there are some pretty good things too (e.g. good health, satisfied relationships, a good friend, money, etc.). If this is the case, why not devote some attention to these instead of swiping it under the broad category of “ok.” It’s so easy for our focus to drift towards the negative, but it can be just as valuable to focus on the positive. What are the things that are “ok”? The positives can often be great teachers for the negatives. How you get to the positives in one area of life can teach you how to get to the positives in other areas of your life.
Whatever “ok” means, speak your truth. If something is difficult, sit with the difficulty, acknowledge it by name, and describe it. You don’t have to live in the pain, but you also don’t have to deny it. It’s easy to jump from situation to situation without taking time to realize what is going on. Life happens. We’re betrayed. We’re lied to. A loved one dies. We’re fired. Where we get into trouble is that we ignore all these hardships and say things are “ok,” but then the hardships show up in ways that we didn’t realize. They show up in our relationships, in our anger, in our impatience, how we talk to other people, and more importantly, how we talk to ourselves.
The second step is to speak the truth of your experience for better AND for worse. If you’re having a hard week, nothing can be more satisfying than saying “I’m having a really difficult week because of X, Y, and Z, and I don’t know how to get through it.” It’s ok to not have the answers. Part of what the path of sobriety, and life in general, is about is building tolerance to life’s difficulties and finding ways of dealing with them in healthy, and ideally, productive ways. Research suggests that our lack of tolerance to life’s difficulties may partially account for alcohol and marijuana problems (Buckner et al., 2007).
If you’re having a good day, what is going well? If you’re having a hard day, still what is something that is going well or has been going well? Speak your truth from both the positive and negative perspective. The balance comes in asking ourselves, “How can I effectively navigate and deal with all the stress in my life, while still realizing, appreciating, and savoring all that is going well?
It’s hard to acknowledge the hardships because once we acknowledge what is happening, it’s out in the open. And when it’s out there, we often feel like we have to do something about it. However, it often takes time to realize what to do. There are things that can help though, such as journaling or talking to a trusted friend or therapist. Whatever path you choose, let honesty drive you through it all - honesty in your experience; honesty in your difficulties; honesty in your accomplishments. Don’t be confused by the word “accomplishments.” It doesn’t have to be some grand accomplishment of lifelong sobriety, but it could be being sober for one day.
Whatever your truth is, I’ll leave you with a quote by Iyanla Vanzant who said
“The truth will set you free, but you have to endure the labor pains of birthing it.”
What is the truth that you need to speak? How can you begin to cope with that truth? More importantly, how can you be patient through the process of birthing the truth? What is going right in your life and what could be going more right?
Rubin Khoddam is a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Southern California whose research and clinical work focuses on substance use issues. He founded a website, Psych Connection, with the goal of connecting ideas, people, research, and self-help to better connect you to yourself and those around you.