by Patrick Meninga
When I first got clean and sober I realized that I had a big problem.
I slowly figured out that I was taking my anger against others and turning it inward, focusing it into self-pity. I would feel sorry for myself. That was my brand of poison. If I felt sorry for myself then I had all the excuse that I needed to go get drunk or high. Self-pity was really my tool of addiction.
I realized this very slowly, and I also realized in early sobriety that I was still doing this in my head. I was still looking for opportunities to feel sorry for myself. My problem was self-pity, and I had to come to understand what my mind was doing in order to fight back against it.
The first thing is that you must acknowledge that you have the problem. You can’t solve your problem until you acknowledge that it exists.
Furthermore, you must realize that it has no use for you at all in sobriety. Realize that it only is helpful if you want to rationalize your drinking. And of course you have decided to stop drinking, so that no longer makes any sense for you. Self-pity is now useless, so you don’t need it any more.
So far, so good. The next step is to raise your awareness of the self-pity so that you can notice it automatically when it arises on a day to day basis. Awareness is key. If you do not know that you are engaging in self-pity then you are powerless to do anything about it.
How do you do this? I would recommend that you write in a journal each day and put down how you are feeling and make a note if you noticed any self-pity for the day. This will force you to become more conscious of the problem. You will train your brain to “watch” for it.
The next step is to implement a solution for the problem when it arises. How do you react when you find yourself feeling sorry for yourself?
During your early recovery you made a decision. You decided that you were not going to drink or use drugs no matter what. Zero tolerance. The same intensity can be applied to this self-pity problem. You need to make a decision to eliminate self-pity with that same level of intensity. In other words, zero tolerance.
If you struggle to do this then there is one more piece of the puzzle that can definitely help you: Gratitude. Gratitude is the simple trick that can help you to do just about anything in recovery. It is like magic.
The ancient Stoic philosophers had a way of doing this that seems a bit counter-intuitive.
The way it works is to imagine something worse, and then be grateful that this worst case scenario is not reality. So maybe you are feeling sorry for yourself because you are out of work and you struggling to find a job in recovery.
Well, the Stoics would say: “Did you eat today? Do you have shelter? Are you alive and breathing? You could be struggling so much worse!” Imagine yourself in those situations for a brief moment, really picture yourself in those struggles. Then be grateful that this is not reality.
The Stoics knew a trick, and they used it to help them gain perspective and gratitude. You can experiment with the trick as well, and see if it serves you or not. Try it for a week and if it is not helping then simply discard it and move on.
The exercise above of “negative visualization” is not the only way to practice gratitude. If you are trying to achieve long-term sobriety, one of the most important things you can do is to practice gratitude every day. The most powerful technique is the simple gratitude list.
Gratitude is a powerful form of relapse prevention. You don’t relapse when you are grateful. It’s not possible. So you want to be good at this.
Don’t just write out a list of 13 things that you are grateful for and then never make another list. Instead, go nuts. Practice. Gratitude takes practice. Write down 50 things every single day and do it for 30 days straight. At the end of that you will be a gratitude ninja. And you will have a new line of defense against relapse.
So in summary:
- Realize that self-pity is a problem for you.
- Make a decision to eliminate the problem.
- Raise your awareness of self-pity, so that you can catch it quickly when it is happening. Practice awareness.
- Make an agreement with yourself that you will not tolerate self-pity at all, ever again. Zero tolerance.
- When you notice self-pity happening, use negative visualization to shift your perspective and realize some gratitude out of the situation. Turn a negative into a positive by imagining a worse case scenario.
- Make a habit of practicing gratitude every single day. Practice, practice, practice.