Warning: This article is not intended for those who are afraid of their own shadows.
By Cat Saunders
Since addiction work is difficult for most people, I purposely try to “sneak in the back door” at the House of Compulsion. After all, the front entry may be blocked by years of accumulated defense mechanisms.
Denial, resistance, and boatloads of unprocessed feelings may stand in the way of change. While I generally recommend a gentle back door approach to healing addiction, there are times when this isn’t enough. Sometimes when you need to break a stubborn impasse. In such times, there’s nothing like a cold dip in the icy waters of Brutal Truth.
Before I go further, let me assure you that when I talk about confronting the Brutal Truth of your addictions, I’m talking about facing your own truth about them. I’m not talking about you allowing others to impose their opinions on you without your permission.
In pursuing your own understanding of the Brutal Truth, then, I trust you to know when it’s right for you to do the exercise offered in this article. Don’t take a dip in those icy waters unless you’re ready, willing, and able to withstand the jolt. This is supposed to help you, not hurt you.
The first step in telling yourself the Brutal Truth about your addictions is to set the stage by creating an envelope of kindness.
First, find a place to write where you will be free from interruption. Take a few moments to tune in to your heart. Ask yourself if it’s a good time for you to face your fears about a specific addiction that has been bothering you. If it’s not a good time to proceed, don’t!
If you get the go-ahead, ask yourself what you need before you begin your truth-telling. Find out if there’s anything you can do now to increase your safety and comfort, knowing you’re about to confront some shadow aspects of your character.
For instance, you could surround yourself with soothing music. Or you could arrange a phone check-in with a good friend for later, so he or she can give you a dose of support to help you warm up after your icy dip into Brutal Truth.
If you’re not an experienced shadow dancer (i.e., if intense feelings are scary for you), I also suggest that you set a timer the first few times you do this exercise. Limit your dips to ten or fifteen minutes, then build up your time gradually.
It’s smart to go slow with addiction work. That’s because when you start messing around with your habitual rituals, you’ll stimulate all the repressed feelings and needs hidden beneath the armor of compulsion.
For now, I’ll assume you’ve created an envelope of kindness and you’re ready to dig in. Begin by thinking about your addictions. My definition of addiction is this: An addiction is anything that stands in the way of total awareness and acceptance of yourself, others, and the world.
Using this definition or one of your own, select one of your most troublesome addictions to examine now. When you’re ready, get some paper and a pen, and start writing down the Brutal Truth. That is, write down everything you don’t like about your addiction. Write down everything that disgusts you about it.
If you really want to go for the jugular, write down everything that you absolutely hate about your addiction. Write down what you hate about all the ways it causes pain in your life (despite its short-term pleasures).
Then write down what you hate about how your addiction hurts your body, your mind, your emotions, your work, and your creativity. Write down what you hate about how it affects your relationships, your dreams, your passions, your sexuality, your spirituality, your safety or the safety of others, and your overall goals in life.
As you continue writing, stay tuned to your envelope of kindness. Stop writing if you lose the ability to hold your hate as a mere part of the whole. If you start seeing the Brutal Truth as the whole truth, you’ve gone too far. Take a step back and go do something else, hopefully something fun and engrossing that doesn’t involve your addiction.
Remember that this exercise is about getting clear. It’s not about masochism or melodrama. Maintain a warrior’s perspective on your truth-telling, or don’t do it at all. The point is to turn your hate into an ally, not a bludgeon.
If you have trouble with the word hate, consider this: Sometimes hate is simply a passionate offshoot of love. Now obviously, that’s an intense statement and a lot of people will be offended by it, so let me give you a few examples.
I hate rape because I love respect. I hate child abuse because I love children. And I hate war because I love peace. I hate environmental degradation because I love Mother Earth.
As you can see from these examples, this kind of hate can be honored alongside love, because they both simply reflect the depth of my passion in different ways.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no place in my heart for hate that shows up as bigotry, intolerance, and other forms of prejudice against people or other beings. I reserve my hate, such as it is, for rebellion against certain ideas or actions. Yes, this means that I make judgments about things, in terms of discerning the best course of action for myself.
For instance, I hate the taste of avocados and therefore choose not to eat them. But this doesn’t mean that I think avocados are wrong! This is the point that some people miss when they get carried away with judging judgment, or decrying all forms of hate. They forget that if you can’t make judgments, you lose your capacity for discernment. And if you forfeit your ability to hate, you lose the full spectrum of your passion.
I realize that at the “big picture” cosmic level, everything is perfect and I couldn’t possibly improve the universe. But let’s face it, I don’t hang out at the cosmic level all the time.
While I try to remember the overall perfection as I go about my life, I’m also aware that I live in a mundane, physical world of duality. This world requires me to take a stand and to choose a course of action. Even the choice of inaction is a choice that cuts a path.
Thus, I encourage the judicious use of judgment in order to facilitate choice. And I advocate the compassionate use of hate in order to harness the power of this primitive emotion. Hate can be especially helpful when you must make choices that require extreme levels of motivation. Let me explain.
Basically, everyone makes choices according to two primal motivating factors: the urge to move away from what causes pain, and the urge to move toward what brings pleasure. These two primal responses are hard-wired into our brains because they support survival.
If you think about these basic urges, it’s not hard to see how helpful forms of hate and love can arise from these two natural tendencies. The question is: How much awareness do you have when you choose what to move away from and what to move toward?
Arny Mindell says, “Know what you’re doing and do it!”
Thus, I’m asking you to write down everything you hate about your addiction so you can know what you’re doing in regard to it. If you can’t bring yourself to look at what you hate about your addiction, you won’t be able to take full advantage of this powerful source of motivation.
This is the high side of hate. You can use it to ignite your passion to move away from whatever causes you pain. In this way, hate can be your ally when you’re ready to choose out of addictive behavior.
Of course, some people won’t even face what they love about their addictions because this, too, can reveal uncomfortable feelings. Facing what you love about your addiction can uncover unflattering resistance to taking responsibility for your actions. Most people are embarrassed to admit their attraction to spacing out, numbing out, or checking out.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to go unconscious now and then. However, even this can be done with awareness, as paradoxical as that sounds.
Unfortunately, most people reach for their habitual rituals at the first sign of distress, without even thinking about it. More often than not, people may not even be consciously aware of their discomfort before they automatically turn to their favorite addiction. Does any of this sound familiar?
As hard as it may be for people to face what they love about their addictions, it may be even harder to face what they hate about them. This isn’t only because people have difficulty with the word hate. It’s also because if people face what they hate about their compulsive behavior, they might be motivated to stop doing it.
While this may seem like a positive thing, it’s not so positive to the part that doesn’t want to change. This is particularly true if change means letting go of comfortable habits and stepping into more responsibility and more freedom. As long as people stay on automatic, they can avoid the responsibility that comes with greater freedom of choice.
Never underestimate the power of addiction and its flip side, the fear of freedom! The combination of these two forces can keep even the best of us stuck in self-destructive habits for years.
If you still can’t bring yourself to look at what you hate about your addiction, then try another approach. Perhaps you can work with what you fear about it instead.
Write about how you’re afraid that your habit might be detrimental to your physical health, your mental clarity, and your emotional balance. Express your fears about how your addiction might be affecting your career, your creativity, and your dreams. Maybe it’s hurting your sex life, your spirituality, your safety or the safety of others. And maybe it’s preventing you from moving forward with your goals.
For example, are you scared that the strange pain deep in your body might be some awful disease caused by your habit? Then write that down. Are you afraid that your friends have been avoiding you lately because your addiction is getting in the way? Write that down, too.
Are you concerned that you aren’t getting ahead in life because multiple compulsions are keeping a damper on your energy? Write it down. Write it all down. Be specific. Tell the truth as if your life depended on it—because maybe it does.
When you’re done writing about your fear (or your hate), take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned about yourself and your addiction. Jot down a few summary notes.
Congratulate yourself for your courageous truth-telling, and remember to seal up your envelope of kindness by doing something actively supportive for yourself once you’ve finished the exercise.
Then, when you’re ready, step back into your everyday life, and see how your dip into the Brutal Truth changes the way you act.
This article is a chapter excerpted from Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available at Amazon.com).
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).