From Sorting the Pieces of Your Life, A Woman’s Guide to Simplicity, Order, Renewal, and Trust
“Our bodies are speaking to us all the time from a depth of wisdom beyond our comprehension. In fact, the body is one of the wisest and dearest friends we will ever have.” – The Gift of Our Compulsions, Mary O’Malley
I began my journey of recovery from addiction with a promise to God: I would not indulge in my addiction for 30 days. That seemed reasonable. It was difficult, but I was making great progress. And then, at midnight on the 28th day I relapsed. I was devastated and disgusted with myself.
I headed to my bed where I planned to completely cover myself with the blankets as if hiding. “Who am I kidding,” I thought. “God knows I have failed again.” I knew I would feel more ashamed if I didn’t at least acknowledge that I had broken my promise.
I fell to my knees, already confessing on the way down, “I’m so sorry, I broke my promise . . . .” The whispered words had barely left my lips when warmth, as if an embrace, enveloped my entire body along with the reply, “I am so proud of you for making it 28 days.”
That great Divine kindness opened my heart to the importance of compassion on the journey of change.
For many of us it is easier to offer compassion to others than to ourselves. Somewhere along the rocky shores of life we got the idea that we can prod ourselves into change by being hard on ourselves. By beginning to hold our behavior with compassion and curiosity, we accept change as a process not an event. Relapse, an inevitable part of that process, becomes an opportunity to learn about the need our unhealthy behavior is trying to fill.
Our dysfunctional behavior is an unconscious attempt to solve something. Once we identify what we are attempting to solve through our addictions, compulsions, and bad habits we have the key to our healing. These behaviors are not who we are, they are something we struggle with, a counterfeit attempt to fill a legitimate need. To let go of such behavior requires recognizing our needs and finding healthy ways to fill them. As we do, we reclaim our true self and natural joy.
So how do we discover the needs underneath our negative behaviors?
We learn how to develop awareness of, and attention to, our emotional states.
Emotion is simply a sensation in the body overlaid with thoughts and stories.
The body and the brain are intimately intertwined via the nervous system. A feedback loop exists in which each are continually communicating with each other. The brain is constantly scanning current reality against the sum total of our experience. In a nano-second it makes a decision about how to respond to the needs of the body and the experience of life. Our different emotional responses are products of this process. For example, if we are suddenly exposed to danger the brain instantaneously shuts down digestion, sex drive, and other processes that are unnecessary for the moment. It increases heart rate and breathing and sends cascades of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol into the blood stream resulting in a fight or flight response. There may truly be danger, or the brain can make a mistake and what was thought an intruder sneaking in the back door in the dark, is really Uncle Jim who often fails to knock!
In summary, emotion is created by a perception of experience in the brain and then revealed to us by sensations in the body. When we feel the first rustling of anxiety, depression, or fear, we often deal with the body sensations created by those feelings by fixing, ignoring, blocking, or escaping them; unless we’ve been taught better. Our escape routes include alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, overworking, overeating, obsessions, fantasizing, viewing pornography, and other sexual behavior that becomes compulsive.
By becoming aware of and kindly attending to the emotions underlying our negative behaviors we finally come home to ourselves, after a long season of self-abandonment. This allows us to more freely exit our addictions.
“You are hearing the vote of a part of yourself long ago disenfranchised,” Jungian Therapist David Richo writes in his book, How to Be An Adult, A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration.
Often we are so disconnected from our bodies we may not even notice our emotions, but suddenly find ourselves with a host of unhealthy cravings. Acting on them is only a temporary distraction and we return to ourselves feeling worse and now facing bigger problems than the initial trigger. As they say in Narcotics Anonymous, “one pill was too many and a thousand were never enough.”
And in Alcoholics Anonymous they have a word for trigger moments: HALT! It is actually an acronym: Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? This early warning system connects a person to real need disguising itself as the desire to drink. When the person uses ‘HALT’ they give themselves the space to assess what the real problem is and address that.
This is where the power of mindfulness finds its place. In mindfulness training we are taught the importance of checking in with ourselves, taking a few breaths, and just noticing where we feel sensation in our body. A rapidly beating heart tells us we are anxious. A heaviness in our chest may signal sadness. The visceral urge to yell or punch lets us know we are angry.
What our body needs is our presence showing up in the form of awareness, attention, curiosity, and compassion.
How can we do that?
An invaluable tool called, ‘The Four Questions’ is offered in the book The Gift of Our Compulsions, A Revolutionary Approach to Self-Acceptance and Healing, by Mary O’Malley. When we are feeling the familiar urges to indulge in that which can be harmful to us we are invited to stop and ask: In this moment what am I experiencing? This is an invitation to take a moment and do a quick internal body scan of all the sensations that are showing up. Is there a buzz in my head? Tension in my neck? Rapid breathing? The feeling of a trapped humming bird in my stomach?
We move onto the next question: For this moment can I let this be here? This is where we make the decision to not abandon ourselves, but simply allow for our feelings while gently noticing and acknowledging their presence.
The third question asks: In this moment can I touch this with compassion?
I call our response to this question a willingness to offer ourselves “there, there” energy–those soothing words a mother might say to her crying child as she holds her, pats her back and simply says, “there, there.” We can acknowledge with kindness and patience that we are anxious, afraid, angry . . . There is no ‘should’ about having these sensations or not, this is just what is actually happening in this moment. We may begin to feel a little calm return.
And then we ask: Right now, what do I truly need? Instead of a drink, a drug, some unhealthy food, or some other escape we will often find we just need to sit down for a minute and take a break, go for a little walk, call a friend, say a prayer, write in our journal, doodle, turn to words of encouragement, walk outside and notice the solid earth on which we stand.
Eventually I did make it 30 days, and then 300, and then years, and now I barely count . . . I just live! And bask in the joy of feeling fully alive while I am still living.