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Addictions Anonymous, 9: How Attitudes, Beliefs And Values Create Vulnerability

 article about ideas that make life miserable

This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.


If you're miserable you probably know it even if you think you can't control it, and you can very likely tell exactly what is making you miserable. On the other hand, some people have been so miserable for so long that they actually don't recognize or appreciate their feelings. And that's why, upon first exposure to trigger, they may experience a profound feeling of relief and happiness.

The amazing truth is that we don't even have to remember or gain insight into the remote causes—the risk factors—behind our misery in order to change. We can start practicing healthy ways of thinking and acting anytime we like, anytime we have the courage and determination to change. People waste time trying to get insight when they should be changing their attitudes, values and beliefs in the here and now.

 article about ideas that make life miserable
We are flexible creatures with many ways of repairing psychological damage. Most of the bad experiences we have in life just sit there in the past doing very little to influence today's behavior. You can probably think of some awful situations or events that actually seem funny now. Other events have been forgotten among the trivia of life. But, a few will stand out and, when they come to mind, may again produce some of the negative feelings they once did. Our attitudes, beliefs and values are learned from experience; they can keep some certain events on a kind of psychological back burner.

Any two people may have had very similar experiences, but we find that one of these two has somehow escaped long-term emotional problems related to the event while the second continues to be affected. The difference is probably in how these two different people look at the past event, what they believe about its importance. "Nothing is so bad but thinking makes it worse," as the old saying goes.

Remembering a nasty event is usually not hard, but recognizing the behaviors and attitudes left by the event can be difficult because our behavior becomes habitual and automatic over time. We may not have the old event in our consciousness when we act in ways that started there. For example, let's suppose that as a child you were abused and beaten by a strange man who happened to have heavy facial stubble. At the time, you felt helpless, angry and fearful. Years later, without realizing the connection, you find yourself uncomfortable in the presence of any man with heavy chin stubble. If the robber happened to have other characteristics such as being a black man or having a facial scar, these features may also become what we might call personal icons, stereotypes that cause anxiety, agitation and even fear. Opinions and values form around these personal icons. Perhaps you find yourself angry at times without really knowing why. You may or may not remember the traumatic event at any given moment, but by now you don't associate your automatic discomfort with that old event, and you tend to assign the anger to some current situation. So, if your boss or someone close to you fails to shave, you may find yourself unhappy and angry and not sure why.

What is really important is being able to deal with dark feelings in the here and now, not being able to dig back into the past to recovery the origin of the icon. Rummaging in the past can be an excuse not to change for the better today.

Of course, when some awful event happens over and over, its chances of controlling emotions are much greater. Anyone raised by an abusive alcoholic is likely to find alcoholics especially annoying. Alcohol on a person's breath can be very obnoxious. For a variety of reasons, the children of alcoholics tend to have more problems with addiction than others, but often, in a desire not to be like the alcoholic adult, the offspring find some other addiction saying, "I never want to be like . . ."

So, it certainly is true that old traumatic events can and do influence present attitudes, emotions and behaviors. It is not true, however, that rummaging about in the bin of remote memories during years of psychotherapy aimed at gaining insight fixes the problem or eliminates the bad feelings.

We can't change history; we can't go back and eliminate the risk factors. What we can do is recognize self-defeating attitudes and ideas. It may be very hard, but with effort we can trade in our old ideas in favor of more useful ones. Consider two important changes that took place over many years in the United States: changes in race and sex prejudice. We have gone from segregated restaurants, restrooms and schools to a society in which racial acceptance is the norm. Not that racial prejudice is eliminated, but enormous progress has been made.

Another example of a major change in thinking: women—not long ago relegated to the roles of homemaker, secretary or seamstress—can now enter any field their abilities and desires suggest. Again, the battle for sexual equality in our society is not over, but the progress has been great. On an individual level, any idea or emotion you hold can be changed if it is causing misery, but it's often difficult and it takes time.

My point is that values that once seemed impossible to change can, in fact, be changed. Change in fundamental beliefs is possible, even for those who had lifelong ideas that had to change. And the changes take place in our minds before they take place in society.

Attitudes, beliefs, priorities and values color most of what we do; sometimes they bring happiness and sometimes they cause misery and produce what I've called dark feelings. Much of the work of the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps is designed to deal with self-defeating attitudes. Buddhist philosophers tell us that we create our own misery and therefore misery is optional if we just stop creating it. Of course, only the owner can change a mind, and that task often seems impossible or unacceptable on first consideration. Since our attitudes, beliefs and values cause so much of our personal misery, we may have to change them in order to encourage our normal, everyday happiness.

There is space here for only a limited number of common ideas that make life miserable. You may think of others. I encourage you to make your own personal list keeping in mind that what we most need to change is often what we are least likely to think of changing. If you've been doing and feeling something for many years, any new idea will seem strange and uncomfortable at first. That's how you know you're learning.

Helplessness: My life is controlled by others or by circumstances I can't change. This set of ideas can arise from a prolonged childhood illness or from early training. Perhaps a parent's attitude kept a person feeling helpless and incompetent, or there may have been a history of early school failure. It doesn't matter how the self-image got started, if you work on change—work on developing a feeling of mastery and competence over small things at first—a change for the better may begin. It takes courage to control a life, but it is your life and no one else should have the responsibility.

Entitlement: I deserve a lot better than life gives me, I'm special and have a special purpose in life. Well, who told you that? There are a few people who think they were chosen by God for some special mission. They're often a pain in the neck. Then there are those who somehow learned or were told over and over how very special, wonderful and gifted they are. Maybe they are, but those with real accomplishment are often humble and grateful people. If you had a doting and loving grandma, good for you, but don't believer everything she told you.

Great expectations: I can do anything I set my mind on doing. Well, actually, no you can't. That's just crazy. Get over it. It can make you miserable. Before you do anything, do what needs to be done right now. The truth is that you certainly can do anything you set your mind on doing in terms of making everyday life a lot better. Put off changing the world for now.

Perfectionism: I can't stand people and things that are less than the best. Some adult in your past probably had that attitude, and you picked it up. Learn some tolerance for human error and weakness. Stop trying to make over the world and its people in your own image. One sure path to personal misery is to make a lot of judgments and then try to convince others of your wisdom. Learn to accept and appreciate reality. Stop telling stuff to others and learn to ask thoughtful questions instead. Then learn to listen to the answers.

Chasing the dream: I know a wonderful life is just around the corner. Maybe you've been reading too many fairy tales or have seen too many happy-ending movies. Dreams and ambitions are important, but if they're not realistic, misery follows. Find the wonder in what's all around you, in everyday life. Chasing dreams and day dreaming are common among depressed people. Deal with the depression in direct ways.

My way or no way: Things have to go the way I want or I'll be miserable. The way you did things may have worked for you, but don't expect your way to work for everyone. Give people some room to explore their own ways. Let go of your self-centered perfectionism. There are many different ways to success and happiness, and many different ways to see present reality. Some members of self-help groups refuse to believe that anyone could escape addiction without their kind of group. Others claim psychotherapy is necessary while still others argue that religion is the answer. Use what works for you and don't hesitate to try out new ideas.

Worthless me: I'm such a worthless failure, I don't deserve better. Well, it's not anybody's job to convince you otherwise. It's not against the law to go around feeling like a worthless failure. The payoff here is often that you can escape responsibility, at least for a while. If they told you this when you were a kid, you're still letting them control your life.

Wonderful me: I'm such a really great person, bad stuff shouldn't happen to me. Wonderful or not, there's only one way out of this life, and it's not a happy thought. If you really are wonderful, others will tell you so based on you actions, on your worth to them.

Dogmatic beliefs: I've taken Jesus as my personal savior, and you must do so if you want to be saved. I don't really want to touch this one, but it is sort of the ultimate dogmatic belief others try to force on people. Dogmatically, I believe there are 360 degrees in a circle and that five comes before six. But that's just until someone shows me a better way, and that often happens in science, art and politics. Hang loose, believe what works and what makes your life here on earth better.

Phobias: My life is so limited by my fear of (choose one or more) failure, spiders, flying, sex, heights, intimacy, strangers, and on and on. You don't overcome fear by running away from it. Start small, perhaps with a skilled phobia therapist, and keep working on your deep fears until they are no longer disabling, until they no longer cause constant anxiety and depression. Again, it doesn't matter how the fear got started. All that matters is learning how to calm yourself.

More and bigger is better: I never seem to get enough of what I need and want. Can you say, "Less is more?" Take, for example, the frenzy of Christmas shopping that gets you so depressed every year. Stop giving presents and just pay a personal call or send a card. Make life simple. Simple, after all, is legal. People don't like you for what you give them, they like you for what you are. Stop asking for and expecting presents yourself. Live with less bit by bit. Simply tell people you are getting out of the gift giving habit and ask them not to give you things. Now, there's a big project.

Mission in life: I know I have some special mission in this life. Well, what if you didn't have a special mission? Would that be so horrible? You could just to relax and enjoy simple things like family and friends. If you like misery, take up some impossible and poorly defined cause and make that your first priority. It will make you feel like a frustrated failure. We never really know in the beginning what our final mission or purpose will be. Just live right in the present moment, and insight will come eventually.

Rebelliousness: I've always rebelled against authority. Authorities come in all flavors: good and bad, kind and cruel, helpful and harmful. Maybe you had a rebellious parent and are just following in his or her footsteps. Maybe you had unreasonable authorities as a child. Find an authority you trust; that may be hard for the really rebellious soul. Practice obeying an authority that is good for you and, rather than rebel, avoid authorities that would exploit you. Never stop listening and never stop learning. No authority is so perfect that it demands an uncritical, worshiping attitude.

Competition: I can't rest until I'm the best. Personally, in getting my exercise, I learned that I had to walk or jog alone. Anyone else was either faster or slower, and I hated being pushed or pulled out of my own, selfish, comfortable pace. I think this applies to a lot of life. By escaping the ever-present tendency to compare myself to others, I avoid whatever unnecessary dark feelings competition can produce. To measure progress, I compare myself to my own past performance. If you're obsessed with the competitive drive, where did that come from? Where did you learn those values? Do you still need or want them? Cooperation, rather than competition, gets more done in most cases. Anything worth doing well is worth doing for its own sake, not as a way to please or impress others.

Bad relationships: I can't stand being with so-and-so, but I can't leave. That, of course, is what you think, but you can probably leave any time you like, anytime you can trade the misery of a bad a relationship for the problems of independence, or for loneliness, feelings of guilt at having left someone or wanting to have someone dependent on you. Yes, indeed, you can really fire your mother, father, brother, grown daughter, spouse, even your boss if you don't mind looking for a better job. One of the saddest things I ever saw in clinical work was the abused wife who could not bring herself to leave her bum.

Magic: I depend on astrology (vitamins, hypnotism, superstition, the tooth fairy or whatever) to guide me in making important decisions. All of these and things like them depend on your own beliefs, not on facts. Perhaps the worst authority is intuition that changes minute to minute. Magic is great fun, but the world runs on facts. Accept it and give up magic solutions.

Fundamentalism: Every word in the Bible (or any other given bit of religious scripture) is the absolute truth. Unfortunately, religious beliefs never fail to create arguments, even wars. There was a reason my dear old Granny always said to avoid religion, politics and money in any casual conversation. Fundamentalist beliefs can cause extreme personal misery and conflict. Be as flexible as possible, leave religion at home or in your house of worship, and just learn to be compassionate without trying to be an evangelical to the world.

Black and white, all or nothing: Everything has to be ‘yes' or ‘no.' Compromise is for wimps. Not true. Reaching a middle ground is difficult, but it is the foundation of democracy and of a contented life on earth. It's good to examine extremes, of course, but most things can't be reduced to black and white. Doing so is either a result of ego or of laziness. It always overlooks the important issues and causes more misery.

An Assignment Make a list of your three most basic beliefs and attitudes, things you think you could never change. When your list if ready, ask yourself: (1) where and from whom did you learn each, (2) what happiness each gives you, and then (3) what, if any, misery each causes you in life. If you really had to change one or more, what would you choose to believe instead remembering that beliefs and attitudes are always matter of choice.

Conclusion: Our personal beliefs and values become a part of us, so if we're asked to change one of them it seems impossible, even unreasonable. But, if we harbor a lot of dumb, unrealistic ideas, misery will be our companion. When beliefs, values and priorities fail us, dark feelings arise. In the next column I will explore these dark feelings that promote vulnerability to addiction.

If you start to change your behavior—the ways in which you respond the things that make you miserable—a side benefit probably will be that others will slowly change the way they treat you. At first, some people close to you will be uncomfortable with your efforts to change; they may want you to stay the way they've known you for years. For example, if you have been dependent on someone, that person may actually feel less important, perhaps even unloved, as your independence of thought and action grows. So you must be prepared to have others, in some cases, begin treating you with more respect while, in other cases, you may be told to stop acting as if you had a brain of your own. Then, too, you may find that others assign you more responsibility, expect more from you and ask for even further growth. Change isn't simple but, all things considered, life is better being a responsible adult.


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