“To feel is perhaps the most terrifying thing in this society.” – Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor is a jazz pianist who just happens to also be a bona fide, all-around genius. This blog post isn’t about him or about jazz or about music, but it IS about FEELING. That’s why I opened with this quote: it is a profound insight that cuts right to the core of our innermost self. It’s also an uncomfortable truth we simply don’t like to confront. But let’s face it: for the most part, we HATE to feel, particularly when those feelings are difficult or painful.
Let’s enumerate a few of the myriad ways we utilize to not be real and to suppress and deny our true feelings: drug addiction, alcoholism, sex addiction, food addictions, shopping addiction, gambling addiction, pornography addiction, television addiction, interactive media addiction, a compulsive need for never-ending achievements, a compulsive need for ever-increasing amounts of power, status and wealth, a compulsive need to flaunt that wealth, power and status, a compulsive need to look good and ‘in control,’ a compulsive need to be ‘happy’ or ‘positive’ all the time, putting on a false front (trying to manage impressions), not being fully honest with significant others, trying to ‘manage’ (i.e. suppress) our emotions through compulsive use of ‘positive’ affirmations, and many more.
When we enter recovery, we find a bunch of new – but much more subtle and insidious – ways of suppressing our feelings. This is probably going to offend a few people in recovery, but the truth is the truth and needs to be exposed. Here it is: it is quite possible to utilize certain tools or disciplines or common practices of recovery programs in ways that are covertly dysfunctional and actually perpetuate the underlying addictive process. And, lots of people do it. It may, and will, appear to a great many people in recovery that these people ‘have a great program’ or really ‘have their act together’, and they may attract lots of sponsees, but all is not as it seems.
One of the most common is the compulsive need to come off as “having your act together.” The key word here is COMPULSIVE. It is perfectly okay to share how life has gotten better and how much you’ve grown through recovery. That’s NOT what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is COMPULSIVELY doing this – i.e. NEVER, EVER being open, honest and vulnerable about times when life is difficult, when you’re having a hard time, when an issue is kicking your butt – i.e. when your act is NOT together. This is problematic because it is dishonest, because it is hiding, and because it is an attempt to deny, control and suppress difficult and painful feelings. It may LOOK like ‘great’ recovery from the outside, it may make you very well-regarded in the rooms, but the rock-bottom truth is that this is NOT recovery. It is dishonesty, plain and simple. It is hiding and pretending and wearing a mask.
Another method of suppressing, denying and controlling your feelings is compulsive Twelfth Step work. I see this all the time. Again, I am NOT talking about having a normal, manageable, small group of sponsees, and doing SOME service work like sharing at rehabs and detoxes and such. Again, the key word here is COMPULSIVE. There are too many people in recovery who sponsor twenty or thirty people, who constantly offer private Step workshops, and who run from rehab to rehab every single night of the week. They do constant, compulsive Twelfth Step work as a substitute for the challenging work of building an actual, full, balanced, healthy life, and also as a method to suppress, deny, and control any painful and difficult feelings that may be present way down deep. Again, it may look really good from the outside, and these individuals may be widely admired and attract lots of sponsees, but it is NOT recovery. Paradoxically, it is actually avoidance of recovery. It is using the tools of recovery as just another addictive “feel good” strategy.
Another widespread method of avoiding difficult feelings is the compulsive utilization of spiritual practices in an attempt to ALWAYS feel good or ‘be happy.’ Again, the key word is COMPULSIVE. Spirituality is a rock-bottom human need that goes right to the core of who we are. So again, I am NOT counseling against spirituality. Such a criticism would fall wide of the mark. I myself need my spirituality like I need food and water and sunlight. So what am I talking about here?
There is a book out right now titled “Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters,” by Robert Augustus Masters that addresses this issue directly. Here’s a quote from a brief summary of the book taken from the Amazon.com web site:
“Spiritual bypassing—the use of spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs—is so pervasive that it goes largely unnoticed. The spiritual ideals of any tradition, whether Christian commandments or Buddhist precepts, can provide easy justification for practitioners to duck uncomfortable feelings in favor of more seemingly enlightened activity. When split off from fundamental psychological needs, such actions often do much more harm than good.”
I see this often in the rooms of recovery. For instance, I knew a woman in program who appeared to be one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever met. Her face ALWAYS beamed with apparent joy and serenity. She regularly shared how she meditated for two to three hours daily. Her sharing was ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS heavily and overtly ‘spiritual’ in nature. She was an extremely attractive person to many people, many of whom would go to her with their problems, and she sponsored an exceedingly large number of people. She became a bit of a revered guru. The problem was that she was a fake. She simply wasn’t real. She NEVER revealed her true, inner self, and she NEVER, EVER shared about any of her life problems or her difficult feelings. She pretended (mostly to herself) that she simply didn’t have any.
The problem was that a very small number of people knew the actual truth of her life, and the truth was that she had LOTS of problems. Her family life was quite unbalanced and dysfunctional. She was chronically under-employed, and her work was unfulfilling. She used spirituality compulsively in an attempt to ‘ride over the top’ of her problems and to avoid having to feel the painful feelings that were the truth of her actual life.
Here’s one of the most insidious and pernicious problems I’ve noticed: being an “Old-Timer.” This may not be true in your experience, but in my experience it is extraordinarily rare for anyone with a great deal of time in recovery to remain real, honest, and vulnerable in their sharing. They nearly all fall prey to the dangerous trap of the unwritten, but very real, beliefs in the rooms of recovery that if you have time, you’re ‘supposed’ to no longer have significant life difficulties, that you’re ‘supposed’ to be a case study in serenity, that you’re ‘supposed’ to be a fount of wisdom and share it all the time, and just generally be a constantly loving and benign presence in the rooms.
I say that this is dangerous because it’s a load of crap. The truth is that we NEVER STOP being human, which means being broken and imperfect and frequently bereft of insight or wisdom into our problems. We NEVER stop having painful and difficult situations and painful and difficult feelings, as long as we live. And it seems like the unwritten rule for old-timers is to cover that up and pretend that they’re “over it.” This is just another way of avoiding “feeling and revealing”, which is the very heart of recovery.
The root of the problem I’m addressing in this blog post is the paradoxical use of recovery tools and spiritual practices ADDICTIVELY – i.e. not as a method of uncovering and revealing our true feelings and authentic selves, but rather as a way to NOT do that – as a way to compulsively feel good – ALL THE TIME. In such cases, our ‘program’ ISN’T the solution. Rather, it is a continuation of the PROBLEM.
Recovery is NOT supposed to be ‘pretty’. It is not a popularity contest; it’s not about amassing the largest number of followers, or gaining a reputation for knowing the tools inside and out, or anything like that. Recovery is supposed to be about becoming REAL. It is about “feeling and revealing.” It is about radical honesty – with ourselves and with others – always and forever.