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Addiction’s Blind Spot

Constancy, overconfidence and conscious recovery

When talking about systems of addiction or compulsive dependence, one of the greatest obstacles to recovery is overconfidence. Overconfidence tends to prompt a decrease in self-regulation. This, in turn, informs the ‘blind spot’ that can trigger both relapse and pro-lapse—the replacement of one addiction or compulsion with another, even if that replacement behavior is apparently adaptive.

Overconfidence in recovery, oddly, comes out of constancy—it’s no coincidence that Alcoholics Anonymous has a 90-day rule. The idea is to establish a baseline around sobriety and abstinence, which is intended to promote momentum over time, or constancy.

The challenge arises as, through this constancy, we get more and more comfortable with idea that we have some semblance of control over our behavior. That comfort breeds confidence, which is good, propelling recovery forward. But it can also sometimes lead to an overconfidence that underlies the illusory notion “I can have one beer.” or “I can buy one lottery ticket.” or “I can short this bill to pay that one.”

One of the keys to avoiding this trap of overconfidence—which might be construed as ego—is self-regulation. Not just self-regulation attached to abstinence, but more a system of self-regulation that compasses an understanding of our personal antecedents to compulsion preceding an addictive trajectory.

On a concrete, and somewhat prosaic, level what we’re talking about are triggers, but that’s something of a simplification. It’s more than just triggers—it’s context, set-ups, setting ourselves up, introspective self-awareness, rituals, structure and the lack of structure, as well as a host of other factors. The task before us is not just recovery, but conscious recovery.

Conscious recovery entails much more than just not doing. In fact, it involves quite the opposite. It involves maintaining an awareness of ourselves and our surroundings—in a word, mindfulness. This particular kind of mindfulness begins with a certain degree of self-acceptance.

Mindfulness means being—and staying—in the present moment. Addiction and compulsive dependence are, summarily, expressions of an effort to escape or avoid the present moment—or the anticipated moment, or the past moment or even ourselves. The first step on the path of conscious recovery is developing a certain level of personal comfort with us in our own present moment.

Here’s an interesting exercise: even if you do not struggle with addiction or compulsive dependence, try sitting still in a chair for 10 minutes with nothing to occupy you. No noise, no cat, no phone or book or TV. Not so easy, right? Now, imagine trying to do this when your gesture toward being present is primarily impelled—at least initially—by a need to escape.

If we look at sitting in that chair as a metaphor for our larger existence, we begin to see the challenge of, first, establishing the path of recovery and, second, being mindfully attentive to maintaining its course.

Considered in context, establishing the path to recovery is fairly simple. It is a conscious choice not to engage in a particular behavior. This choice is usually driven by the recognition that the consequences of engaging in the behavior have come to outweigh the payoff. Getting to this point of self-responsibility, while never truly easy, for some can be obvious, while for others takes greater intention.

Having gotten to the head of the trail, so to speak, staying on the path becomes the real challenge. This effort is informed, in part, by our degree of self-acceptance, which by necessity begins with an examination of what we are trying to escape.

Addictive behavior is not an end in itself. It’s a symptom of a larger dynamic that can be motivated by any number of human needs. Sorting out what specific need or set of needs informs our personal compulsion or addiction provides us with a point of reference for maintaining our perspective. This, in turn, provides a context for the mindfulness that supports our efforts to stay the course.

© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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