This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.
No one really teaches us the whole story on how to live in the world. We learn some of what works and some of what causes pain. We learn what people like and dislike about our behavior. Unfortunately, we don't have teachers who teach us how to live comfortably in the world, how to develop and keep the everyday euphoria that is our right. If we knew what to do to reduce self-inflicted misery, we would probably want to learn it because we need something better than the School of Hard Knocks.
What we decide to believe has a lot to do with our comfort level. Beliefs affect our sense of control over events. Beliefs can encourage an optimistic outlook on life. They help us calm ourselves and regulate the emotional matrix in which we live. Values and beliefs can even affect our intelligence, flexibility, and resourcefulness. Relationships with people close to us can cause enormous misery if we have unrealistic expectations and mistaken values surrounding our role in a family or with friends. What we choose to believe, what we accept as basic truth, can build or destroy self-discipline and self-esteem. Beliefs affect how far we can go in our careers, what hobbies we undertake, and our tolerance for isolation. There is no area of life that is not affected by our choice of beliefs.
We acquire a host of values and beliefs as we grow and experience life, but we seldom sit down by ourselves and weigh the value of different belief choices. For the most part, we seem to accept our personal values system as a set of unchangeable givens. After a while, they become part of us, a part of how we define ourselves.
A very important part of a therapist's work is to remind clients that no law requires them to have and to hold any given belief. Without question, many of our beliefs are based in fact and experience. Many others, however, are entirely arbitrary. Beliefs based in fact help us to survive and avoid pain; it would be foolish to stop believing that fire hurts or that gravity always operates. Some beliefs work all the time, some only part of the time, and some never work but are just as hard for some people to change as beliefs that work all the time. It is said that nothing fails like prayer, and this is insulting to religious folk, and yet study after study has failed to demonstrate any prayer-induced result, good or bad. When something doesn't work, some people stop believing in it and try something different. Other people keep doing what failed, and failure makes them do it longer and harder and more often. This is not, in my opinion, a happy choice.
Of course, there are those things we believe in not because those beliefs work but because, like prayer, they are comforting and make us feel better. Some things are believed because a conflicting belief seems too horrible to contemplate.
Oddly enough, something that works some of the time may be more persistent than something that works all the time. It's one of the laws of learning psychologists have discovered. Another important point: a belief or conviction that seems to work may not be the result of a cause and effect relationship and may depend on a happy accident or coincidence. All of this says that a frequent inventory and evaluation of all of our basic beliefs might be very helpful in building the good life.
Listening to clients talk about their lives led me to make up an exercise that I hoped would help people see with some clarity the choices they can make about important ways of being in the world. The choices they brought with them, I decided, often led to vulnerability to addictions. I organized my belief choices into pairs in order to point out the stark contrasts we often face in making such choices. My own recommendations may be apparent as you read on, but I want to be very clear that the reader has the sole power of choice. Don't believe something just because I or anyone else said it is so.
The list below contains four main categories: reasoning, emotional control, social style, and sense of self. These categories resulted from defining specific areas in which addicted people sometimes seemed to differ from non-addicted people.
Area I: Reasoning
Reasoning includes problem solving, expectations, ideas about time, thought style, perceptual control, world view and much more. The items below were not developed to measure all reasoning characteristics and abilities, only some that seem most relevant to addictive vulnerability. The following are posed as values conflicts. In each of the sixteen pairs, two extreme views are given with the intention of having the you indicate your personal preference. The questions are not designed to be standards of what is right or wrong, good or bad in any absolute sense. The concern is what values will work best to support abstinence from addiction. and make the world easier to be in.
From each pair of statements below select the one (A or B) which most closely matches your own personal beliefs, values, or attitudes up to this point in your life. Make your decision before you read on. Even if neither choice matches your ideas perfectly, just select the one that is closest to your opinion.
1. A. Life should be exciting, rewarding, and fun if it is to be worthwhile.
B. Sorrow, grief, and pain are common events and parts of normal living.
2. A. If I can't do something well, I would rather no do it at all.
B. I can learn from mistakes; besides, nobody is perfect.
3. A. I do things the way I think is right and make no compromises.
B. I appreciate the ability it takes to arrive at a good compromise.
4. A. Extreme points-of-view bother me, they seem too simple.
B. Everything comes down to black or white, good or bad, yes or no.
5. A. Past errors and future goals dominate my thinking.
B. Whatever is going on at the moment usually gets my full attention.
6. A. I see many things I might want to change about myself.
B. Change, for me, will be difficult or impossible.
B. I am usually very aware of even my smallest thoughts and acts.
8. A. If I were not so weak and lazy I would never go to excess.
B. When I over-indulge I let it go and try to do better the next time.
9. A. New information is needed for good problem solving.
B. New information sometimes just causes confusion and distraction.
10. A. It is best to avoid making a quick judgment when meeting new people.
B. First impressions can be very important.
11. A. Actions are best determined by the facts no matter how one feels.
B. Feelings are often a better guide than mere facts.
12. A. I would rather ask for help too soon than too late.
B. When I do ask for help, things often seem to get worse.
13. A. In new situations I get involved with details right away.
B. In new situations I tend to look for some overall organization.
14. A. I like to work on solving complex problems.
B. I keep work simple to avoid distractions.
15. A. I frequently lose track of time.
B. Even without a watch or clock, I am usually aware of time passing.
16. A. I am often too generous and kind to others.
B. I tend to keep what I have earned for myself.
Area II: Emotional Control
People most prone to addiction feel themselves bound by and unable to change many deeply held ideas and ways of reasoning. They are held prison by their own feelings believing that they have no ability or right to control or change how they feel about critical life questions. It is a common characteristic of immaturity to feel that one is a victim of strong and uncontrollable emotions. Strong moods may seem to come and go leaving the immature individual depressed, hopeless and wanting a tonic for misery. The idea that one might take personal control of ones own feelings seldom occurs without special support while growing up or in later psychotherapy. The tendency to blame one's moods and dark feelings on people, places, and things is extremely common even in sophisticated adult situations.
17. A. I tend to run away or to attack when frustrated.
B. I'm pretty good at managing my anger.
18. A. Moody people are interesting; even tempered people are boring.
B. Even tempered people seem to get along better than moody people.
19. A. I am usually pretty accurate in figuring out how others feel.
B. The way others react emotionally often surprises me.
20. A. Emotionally, I respond pretty much as do others.
B. My feelings are often different from those of other people.
21. A. When I am upset, I know it right away.
B. It often takes me a long time to figure out my true feelings.
22. A. When I am under great stress, I can't enjoy my usual activities.
B. I use exercise, recreation, companionship, or rest to deal with stress.
23. A. I know pretty well how I am going to feel in most situations.
B. I can never really predict how I will react emotionally.
24. A. I often have to take something to calm my nerves.
B. When I get upset I enjoy trying to figure out why.
25. A. Sometimes I seem to experience panic or anxiety attacks.
B. I seldom find myself controlled by fear.
26. A. A loud noise can really make me jump.
B. Loud noises really don't bother me.
(To be continued.)