I am committed to my work as a coach; supporting my clients in their recoveries from substance use and addiction disorders. I strive to create a safe and empowering space, free of judgement and advice, where my clients can learn, grow, develop and get well. Sometimes that's a confusing place for people who think that they are broken and need to be fixed, or if their partners and families see them as somehow damaged and needing to be fixed. One of the biggest challenges in my work, is helping my clients to connect with themselves, understand and accept that they are not broken, and don't need to be fixed. We're not cars! And whose terms of "alrightness" are we measuring ourselves by to begin with!?
I hear all too often people referring to themselves as needing to be fixed; like recovery is a process whereby we remove the bits that are not working, and replace them with something that functions better. Of course in recovery it's about learning new tools, practices and approaches to being well, but it's not about fixing anything. The idea that you are somehow dysfunctional, sick, and less than who you are, is so judgemental and self-deprecating. You are not a disordered person, as much you you might be a person with a disorder. Whether that is a substance use-, mental health- or pain disorder, you are not your diagnosis.
Of course in these cases there are areas of our behaviour or coping where we are looking to improve our skills, make healthier choices and respond in a way that better serves ourselves and the people around us, but what is essential here is to be able to reframe how we see, and feel about, ourselves. The terms addict and alcoholic are so stigmatised, and even scathing. People seem to have very fixed ideas about what these terms mean, without considering the impact of this on the person who is trying to recover and be well. And we use these same terms on ourselves, often at the expense of all the other parts of self. These are the judgements that come in the form of whispered conversations by our friends and colleagues; the family WhatsApp group that has been created to discuss our "situation", but excludes us; and the soft, sympathetic tones of people inquiring as to "How are you?" as if you are going to meltdown at any moment; mostly well-meaning, but layered in all sorts of bias and a lack of understanding.
Having a substance use disorder does not make people incapable of anything "good". Many people have achieved high levels of personal and professional success during their time of actively using, misusing and abusing substances. Not every person who develops an abusive or dependent relationship with substances is unable to to do anything, but there are the extreme cases that we've all seen on TV, in movies, read about in books, or heard harrowing personal stories of. This is not always the case, and it has tended to be used in the dark seductive lure of the afore-mentioned. These cases are tragic, dramatic and not necessarily the norm.
Many of the people I work with have developed dysfunctional behaviours in relation to their substances, but are not completely dysfunctional people. They have raised healthy children, held high-level professional positions, started and run successful businesses, graduated from high school, college and/or university, and the list goes on. But for some reason everything is overshadowed because there have been periods of substance abuse or binging. And without sounding like I am completely negating the damage that is done in these times, I don't think that everything that doesn't work out is about the "identified addict's" behaviour.
If I didn't believe that things needed to change, why on earth would I do the work that I do? Of course I believe there is room for change, transformation, growth and development. I know first hand the pain that our using can cause in relationships, schools, families, work places and communities. And in my work I have been on both sides. The person managing a substance use disorder, as well as the person who loves people with substance use disorders. But what I am committed to doing is recognising that we are not our illness. That the people in my life, both clients and lived ones, are not bad, broken people who knowingly and willingly set out to destroy their own lives and the lives around them.
What I do see is inner pain; a lack of self-worth; an inability for people to see their own beauty and contribution; ineffective coping skills; unresolved trauma; low levels of personal and professional meaning and purpose. And those are just some of the more common reasons that I've encountered or read about.
I do believe that if we are able to reframe how we see ourselves, we are more open to the healing process of recovery. If we are able to work through our spiritual, emotional and mental wounds we are better able to see ourselves as deserving of being well. We're always more willing to give time, support and compassion to the other people in our lives; less quick to chastise and judge those around us that are struggling. But god forbid we have a bad day... Then the barbed-wired whipping stick comes out and we beat ourselves until we bleed. No room for error in our own lives and processes.
Imagine if we measured self-worth differently?
Not by the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the money we make, the address we live at, the job we have, or how many days we've been clean and sober. Imagine if we measured self-worth by how compassionate, kind and courageous we are. What about if we measured self-worth not by our dress size or our bank balance, but the ability we have to soothe and affirm ourselves, and the people around us? What if honesty was the currency of relationships and not gifts on Valentine's Day? What is integrity and humility are how we measured the success in our communities and organisations, and not how much they bottom-line was? What if we started to look at self-worth as self-worthiness, and used that to decide how we felt about ourselves?
I know a lot of people who would immediately start to feel better about themselves, if they stopped using the externally imposed metrics of what it means to have worth. The difference between worth and worthiness "is that worth is (countable) value while worthiness is (uncountable) the state or quality of having value or merit." I love this reframe! And why the hell not? Who is anyone to tell us what we are worth, based on a set of random ideas and measurements? If we decide to measure our worthiness, then what I see as being important starts to become how we see ourselves in the world. According to Laurie Santos of Yale University, our minds have four annoying features, and one of them is that "Our minds don’t think in terms of absolutes; our minds judge to relative reference points". So if we are going to judge ourselves in reference to others, wouldn't it be better to compare our worthiness to our worth?
It's not that I am flying in the face of the conventional idea that self-worth isn't about our value, but I believe that simple reframes can create massive shifts in our thinking.
For instance, there is a difference between referring to yourself as a sick person, rather than seeing yourself as a person with a sickness. They are not the same thing. The spiritual teachers and social scientists talk about not overidentifying with our thoughts and emotions, so too should we try not to become what we are trying to change. The relatedness of referring to yourself as an addict or alcoholic in a twelve step meeting, does not mean you need to walk around in the world referring to yourself in these terms. Certainly not; not when many people who are not attending these meetings do not fully understand what the words actually mean.
I am a woman with a substance use disorder. I am also a businesswoman, coach, teacher, partner, friend, daughter, thinker, writer, student, seeker... I am not "just an alcoholic" and since I am not a member of AA, I choose to refer to my condition differently; and in a way that is self-loving and mindful of the work that I have done on myself. I am not a car and neither are you. You can't be fixed, but we can get healthier in how we respond to life, communicate, cope, problem solve, manage conflict, deal with stress, connect with people, take care of ourselves, and show up in our lives.
Substances work to reduce the pain, forget about the trauma, avoid the conflict, ease the mind, increase pleasure and reward, escape from reality. But over time they don't work as well, and the rewards start to come at a very high cost. Not simply a physical cost, but also emotional, mental, social, and spiritual. And the choices we need to be making aren't as instant and maybe not as pleasurable and gratifying (especially in the beginning), but over time the longing eases, the cravings diminish, the pain lessens and we are able to respond to life with clarity and connectedness. And if we start to build on the idea of self-worthiness, then it becomes an internally driven process. One in which we make choices and decisions that serve us, and in the doing starts to have a kinder, gentler, more compassionate effect on the people around us.
I am not a car and I don't need to be fixed...and neither are you. I am a person who practices not what is always easy, but sometimes what is hard, and in this I am clear on the value that I being to myself and those around me. So I get up, make choices, practice what I know is helpful, try to respond more than I react, and lean into my meaning and purpose as a way to sustain my wellness.
What do you need to focus on to create self-worthiness in your life?