Recently I had a long conversation with a friend also in recovery. The conversation was about the challenges and benefits of being in relationships with people not in recovery.
We affectionately refer to people who do not have similar challenges of trauma and recovery as “normals”. I understand that this terminology may seem self-loathing or judgmental to others, but that is not the intent. We’ve both reached a point where it is possible to joke about our challenges and not take ourselves and others so seriously. In our context “normal” is a convenient descriptor for those in our lives who find some of our challenges difficult to understand or relate to for the simple reason that they do not have those shared experiences.
I see having more people like this in my life than ever before a good marker for my own mental health. I believe there is truth to the fact that you are more likely to attract people to you who match your frequency (for lack of a better word). I see it as encouraging that I am interacting with more “healthy” people, hoping that it also suggests my mental health is improving.
However, there are also challenges in these relationships. I know I’m not alone in that change is an ongoing process and that self-improvement takes daily effort and attention. There are times that I revert back to my old behaviours, thought processes, and difficult belief systems. In those moments, the differences between myself and the “normals” are underlined. There are times that I need space and time to override my instincts and approach my interactions thoughtfully and compassionately.
It is painfully difficult to explain this process and the “why” it came to be with people who haven’t had this challenge or experience. I’ve noticed that although many of these newer connections care deeply for my wellbeing, constantly explaining my status to them also drives them away. It seems to present me as this deeply sensitive being and makes them wary of interacting with me. It makes them self-conscious of their interactions and suggests I need more special treatment than I do. Often the only special treatment I need is a few moments of compassionate time and space.
I realize that mentally healthy people do not need to constantly bring up their past as a justification for their present actions. They exist and they appreciate the moments as they come with confidence, humility, and presence.
Among other things to come from this open discussion was our attempt to approach explaining what recovery from codependency is like to someone with no relatable experience. It came out something like this:
“A long time ago, before I was able to defend myself, a person I cared about very much told me lies about myself. I believed them and, until recently, built my life based on those misconceptions of myself and what I thought I deserved. I chose people, places, and things that enforced those ideas and rejected anything that suggested it may not be true. Some day I would like to be like the happy looking people in the coffee commercials, but currently I’m more like the mucous in the Mucinex commercials”
Recently I re-entered the dating scene. I’ve attempted this a few times since the end of my relationship with my addict, and truthfully, I wasn’t ready. Those experiences were disastrous and left me feeling more insecure, pitiful, and dejected. Following the last disappointing date, I decided to take another break and threw myself into recovery full time. Six months later, I feel like a new and improved version of myself, with the bulk of my baggage neatly sorted and stored away.
Reflecting on my relationships, I’ve always been drawn to the most emotionally unavailable and wounded people in the room; both as friends and romantic partners. Although not a conscious thought, I realize this is because I found them comfortable. My “normal” is not love that is freely given. My “normal” is love that has to be proven time and time again through obligation, sacrifice, and strife. Anything else feels insincere.
For the first time, I find myself faced with someone that wants to be with me and tells me so freely. He makes no effort to hide his attraction and admiration. He is patient and understanding when I say I want to slow down and seems invested in giving us the opportunity to grow together, at whatever pace I choose. His actions do not feel conditional or with the expectation of reciprocity; it sincerely feels like he is trying to have a good experience and is hopeful that things will work out. He is making space in his life without me asking and treating me like I have value worth respecting. Unlike my experiences in the past, he is available and not forceful but softly and persistently reassuring.
The insecurity gremlins warn me that this is probably a con, that love should not be so freely given, that I should be hustling and am not deserving…
But, for the first time, I’m not listening. I understand that everything has an element of risk and reward. That I may get hurt and there’s nothing I can do to change that. I understand that my part is to show up, be present, and participate as authentically and directly as I can manage. No more, no less. I understand that it’s okay to be optimistic and that worrying won’t do anything but make me miserable when I should be joyful.
I also understand that whether this works out or not, I do have value and I am deserving of love that is freely given. I understand that it is one of the easiest things for us to provide each other and most of us hold it back selfishly in our romantic and non-romantic relationships alike. I understand that we do this out of fear and to protect our misguided notions of love with obligations. I understand that for many of us, it is easier to hate than love because that is most of what we’ve known ourselves.
Like most life events post-recovery, dating is lending itself to reflection and introspection as I balance living in the moment with self-awareness. One day at a time, I’m working at putting my new healthier strategies in play and keeping the gremlins in the penalty box.
When I first started this journey, I was under the impression that eventually I would be cured. I understand now that isn’t the whole story. The more I practice, the more automatic things become as I get more confident and trusting of the process. But I also understand that this is a lifelong journey. The gremlins never totally go away, with considerable effort they loose their power and urgency.
And that’s okay.
At the suggestion of a friend, I recently re-read the blog from start to finish. I was, and am still, in shock of how different my writing is. I am less scattered, desperate, and hurt. It actually reads to me as almost peaceful in parts. I understand that I’m up to the challenge of continuing this process for the rest of my life; that it is possible to grow and overcome and it will be just as rewarding 10 years from now as it is today.
To those of you that continue to come back, who reach out, who share your journeys with me and also who maintain your own blogs chronicling your path: thank you. You inspire me by sharing those hard lessons, the backslides, and the successes. You help keep me grounded and remind me why there is value in growth and recovery. As hard as this process is some days, I wouldn’t change it.
Let’s not go back to sleepwalking in the land of scarcity.
Traditionally, my idea of closure came with an airing of laundry. I’d fantasize about blowouts where both parties would come together, say anything and everything, bury the hatchet and everything would be perfect. The underlying issues would disappear and life would go on.
I would use my fantastic overthinking abilities to script these confrontations, painstakingly cataloging and rehearsing all the events and ideas I would bring up to ensure that the encounter would go my way.
I admit this with profound embarassment but total honesty.
One day at a time I fight that impulse because I understand this is part of the conditioning that drives me to try and control everything around me. It is a coping strategy designed to curb my fear of the unknown and try and protect myself from risk and pain.
It is also totally unrealistic, ineffective, and serves only to prolong the length of time that I hold on to things. It impedes my ability to let go and get on to bigger and better things. It steals my energy and my serenity.
If you’ve had experience with someone in the mid- to late-stages of addiction you understand there is a lot of unethical, selfish, and baffling behaviour. You’ve probably been hurt in ways you didn’t think possible by someone’s apparent disregard for your needs and feelings. You probably feel that you deserve an apology..
And you do.
But the funny thing about words is that they are cheap and easy to deliver. I choose to believe that most people don’t knowingly and hurtfully deliver promises they don’t intend to keep or words they don’t really mean. I choose to believe that most people intend what they say in the moment, but that many of us have lost sight of what integrity of speech really means and don’t take the time to consider the weight of what we are saying.
There are unfortunately many times when people say or promise things they are unwilling or unable to deliver.
There is a chance that the words you are waiting to hear may never come from the person you feel owes them to you. There is also a chance that if they do, they will lack the appropriate action and change in behaviour that makes them meaningful. Because, really, an apology without those things is totally worthless.
But, because I understand that grief needs release and a catalyst, I wanted to share this letter that I stumbled across early in my recovery journey.
You didn’t deserve this.
I am an addict, representing all addicts. I might be your daughter, your son, husband, wife, mother, father or friend.
You might be reading this because you are searching for answers, hope, encouragement or some kind of comfort. You are hurting, yet you continue reading, because you have a loved one you really care about and maybe you even wished many a time for things to change. This loved one, may be better known as; the lost cause, the underdog, the pain bearer, the hopeless one, the destructor, or any other negative name, but finally this loved one, is better known as the addict!
As I go through the process of getting my act together and getting clean, I am not only struggling with the physical, emotional and mental withdrawals, but the regret, guilt, shame, agony and pain of what I have put you through. Dealing and facing what I have done and caused is breaking my heart into a million pieces in the very same way I, the addict, have caused your heart to break so many times. Regretfully, I want to apologize and say that I am sorry, for you did not deserve this.
I am sorry for the years of hell which I put you through; the many arguments, the fights, the screaming, shouting and the calling of names. I am sorry for breaking down your entire human being. You did not deserve this.
I am sorry for all the lying, stealing, robbing, cheating, breaking of our vows and for deceiving you. I am sorry that I have traded you for my drug of choice. I am sorry that I stole your inner peace, your sanity and for breaking your trust in me. You did not deserve this.
I am sorry for the many nights I have robbed you from your sleep, for stealing the car in the middle of the night, for all the time you spent driving around searching for me. I am sorry for all the phone calls I never answered, for shutting you out and not letting you know where I am. I am sorry that I have placed you in danger so many times. You did not deserve this.
I am sorry for all the suicidal attempts and the accidental overdoses. It was never my intention to hurt you, but the desperation to kill this addict inside of me. You did not deserve this.
I am sorry for neglecting you and our children. I am sorry that I never had the time to care for you or show you just how much I really love you. I am sorry that I was never around when you needed me. I am sorry that I did not fulfill the role I was meant to do. I am sorry for crushing your spirit and then walking all over it. I am sorry. You did not deserve this.
I am sorry for the heartache, the ocean of tears and all the many worries I have caused. I am sorry that my habit was the reason that we lost it all, the house, the cars, the furniture, our family and our friends. I am sorry that I have even lost you in the process. I am sorry for placing a financial burden upon you. I am sorry that I, the addict, caused that you also have lost it all. I am truly sorry and wish I could undo all I have ever done, but I cannot do so. All I can do is to say that I am sorry, for you did not deserve this.
I, the addict, acknowledge my powerlessness against addiction. I reached the point, crying out: “Please, please, I need help, I need healing, I want it to stop, I want to get off!”, but so also, you cried the same cries many a time. I have placed you in a position of powerlessness yourself, not knowing what to do, or where to go from here anymore. I am infected, but I know that in every area of your life, because of this addict, you were also affected. I am sorry, you did not deserve this.
The real me, searching for answers, has stopped playing the blame game; everything I did was my choice. I never thought that one time of using would turn me into the monster I became, yet, although it is hard to acknowledge, everything I did was my own choice. You had nothing to do with it! I was not your choice; it was not your fault, you have not caused any of this! Therefore I am pleading with you, that you would stop playing this blame game too, for it is the addict which caused it all. It may sound harsh, but I want to ensure you that your healing will also start, if you decide to forgive yourself for the things which were out of your control, as I was the one who made my own choice. You may even need more time, more healing, as I the addict need to restore because of the things I have done. I am sorry for the guilt or thoughts I have placed in your head that you were the reason for my addiction. I am sorry for doing that to you, you did not deserve this.
I cannot make any promises, because my words were nothing but emptiness before. How many times did I promise, I will never do it again and honestly meant it, yet the addict had a stronger hold then I thought. Today I understand things better, and if you are willing, I want to show you who I have discovered and who I really am. Thank you for a second chance, a third, a fourth and even a hundredth time. I am thankful to God and for the opportunity of another chance in life.
Whatever you do to find your own healing or restoration, I will respect and accept that. You may never trust me again, nor respect me, and I know too well that I deserve this. Should you decide to police me, or watch me like a hawk, set limits, boundaries or rules, or even decide to move on without me, I will understand and know that it is because you love me and only want to protect me as well as yourself against the addiction which stole our love, our relationship, trust and bond. I am sorry for even putting you through this, for you do not deserve this.
Therefore I ask. Will you please find it in your heart, to forgive me for everything I have done, caused and put you through? Will you allow time to pass to learn that I really have changed until even I am fully aware of my full identity of who I really am? I do not deserve this.
I am so, so sorry, for you did not deserve any of this.
With both love and much regret,
The addict (Posted by MercyChild on April 16, 2012)
I’ve alluded fairly often to developing boundaries in relationships to improve the quality and health of connections. But, I’ve been vague because this is very much a work in progress and something I am still trying to understand and implement, one day at a time.
I need to organize my thoughts and I think that others could benefit.
First of all, it is important to understand that boundaries are not intended to be a tool to manipulate others to act a certain way. They are limits that we set out for how people act and behave around us. They define our behaviour when these limits are exceeded. Boundaries reflect our core beliefs, values, perspective, and opinions. They are like invisible bubbles, protecting our sense of self and wellness.
Boundaries are necessary because if you don’t define what you deem to be acceptable, you will be at the mercy of others. This means they will be able to tell you how to act, think and feel. This can result in you spending all your time and energy catering to what they want, which may or may not line up with your own needs and at its worst can result in emotional, physical or spiritual abuse. Over time, this can build to feelings of depression, isolation, perfectionism, people-pleasing, guilt, anxiety, lack of personal decision making skills, over or under-sharing, victimization, lack of identity and ability to express yourself.
So.. a lot of really crappy stuff.
Boundaries can be set for: personal space, sexuality, emotions, thoughts, possessions, time and energy or culture, religion, and ethics.
Things to consider:
Healthy boundaries attract people that are willing to respect you and want good things for you while poor boundaries are more likely to attract people who want to manipulate you.
It is good practice to reassess your boundaries over time; being too rigid can be damaging by not allowing the freedom to adjust our limits as we grow. For example, I used to hate avocado, it was a hard boundary. Now I want it on everything. Growth and a boundary shift.
Boundaries are intended to protect your joy by ensuring that the things you choose to do match with your values and allow you to conserve energy for pursuits you find meaningful.
Sharing complex feelings and experiences gives you the choice of breaking boundaries, when the time is right, and being vulnerable. Shared vulnerability brings people closer over time. Vulnerability should not be confused with constant oversharing (a sign of poor boundaries) which can be a covert method of manipulation by holding a person emotionally hostage or pushing a relationship in a direction prematurely.
TMI red flags
posting personal rants and attacks on social media
no filter or regard to who gets a download of daily dramas
sharing personal details with new people in hopes of hurrying the friendship along
dominated, one-sided conversations
expecting on-call emotional therapy from friends and family
Spend some quality time getting to know and understand yourself. This means easing up on the self-judgement and using mindfulness exercises such as meditation and journaling.
Be wary of asking for help in this exercise; it is possible that if you suffer from poor boundaries a number of your relationships will be codependent. This means that those people will be invested in you taking care of their happiness, which creates a conflict of interest in getting their input. If you need guidance, try someone without personal investment in helping you, like a therapist or councilor.
Be sure to consider your basic human rights, such as: the right to say “no” without guilt, the right to be treated with respect, the right to prioritize your needs, the right to make mistakes, and the right to refuse others’ unreasonable expectations.
Re-connect with your gut. If you are having a physical and / or emotional reaction to someone else’s behaviour, that’s an excellent sign that a boundary is needed.
So, you’ve done the work. You’ve taken the time to identify where boundaries are required in our life and we are ready to roll them out. How?
Focus on being assertive, not aggressive. Use language that is clear and non-negotiable without blame or threat. Focus on using “I” statements, such as: “I feel crappy when you ask about all the details of my dating life because I value privacy. What I need is space to organize my thoughts”.
Learn to say no without explanation.
It is possible that people will respond poorly to your efforts to enforce boundaries. That’s okay, remember that much like taking chemotherapy to reduce the size of a tumour, the greater good of setting healthy boundaries offsets the discomfort and the risk of pissing people off.
Learn to take time to tune out. No matter what the demands on your time, you are entitled to time to tune out, protect your privacy, and prioritize your needs.
Boundaries can be even harder to set with a person who lives with mental illness (such as addiction). If you are experiencing problems setting or asserting boundaries, reach out to a mental health professional.
Finally, just as important as developing and protecting our own boundaries is the effort to respect the boundaries of others. Time to connect with your intuition again and watch for social cues and body language that the person is negatively impacted by what you are saying (i.e. lack of eye contract, nervous gestures, folding arms, backing away, etc). If in doubt, ask people to be honest if you are pushing their boundaries. Often this can seem scary, but you may be surprised that people will appreciate your respect of their boundaries and consider you a safe person to be vulnerable with.
For some more information and another perspective, I enjoyed this TEDTalk by Sarri Gilman.
It’s common for a person who loves someone suffering from addiction to reach a point in their relationship where they start asking questions like:
I’ve done X, Y, and Z for them! Why don’t they see how they are hurting themselves?
Don’t they care?
Does anyone ever recover?
How do I know this is their rock bottom?
I remember this point. It was the worst period of my life to date. Essentially, I was trying to decide if I would stay or let go. I was trying to figure out how much longer I would have to hold on, how much more pain I would need to endure in order for him to realize he needed to change. I was trying to decide if it would be more painful to stay or start over.
I couldn’t admit it but all I wanted was for someone to tell me it was going to be ok.
I remember vividly how painful, hard and desperate that place is. Looking at my life now, I hardly recognize the person I was then. I am still dealing with the shame, fear, and guilt from the actions I took in that dark place.
When I ended the relationship with my addict, I had not gotten any help or support. I’d essentially shouldered everything alone for the better part of a decade. I’d long since stopped the little bit of talking I did about our relationship; essentially because I didn’t like the feedback that I was getting. I was in denial of his illness and was clinging to a lot of more convenient, but false, justifications for what was happening.
I ended our relationship impulsively.
One day, he did something so blatantly unethical that I couldn’t ignore it and, like a rubber band, I snapped. There was no more discussion, no more compassion; I needed him gone and I executed that in a desperate, dramatic, and disrespectful way. I know deep down I hoped that would push him into getting help, but manipulation and coercion (even with good intentions) rarely gets good results.
I did a whole other post on why I try not to give people advice (find that here), but I wanted to share some things I learned; things I wish I’d known before I exercised my choice to stay or go.
Don’t Hate the Person, Hate the Disease
Anyone who has lived with an addict understands that there is a haunting duality to this condition. One minute your loved one is a caring and thoughtful Dr. Jekyll and the next a malicious and cruel Mr. Hyde. This is part of what keeps us stuck in these relationships, we catch heartbreaking glimpses of what appears to us to be our loved one fighting to get out. We cling to this idea when Mr. Hyde comes out to play with increasing frequency.
There is some controversy around this point; some people say that addiction is a symptom of the very serious and incurable personality disorder of narcissism, but I personally think that, in most cases, the narcissistic and unethical action we see are symptoms of addiction. An addict’s awareness is foggy and their priorities are always in a state of flux: their substance of choice is number one and everything else is ordered and reordered based on what is falling apart the fastest.
It’s not that they don’t care about you, you just can’t be their number one priority. Addiction doesn’t share, it is not a reflection of your worth.
Some People Don’t Get Better
I would love to tell you that your loved one will get better, but the truth is nobody knows.
A friend once told me a story about an alcoholic who passed out drunk on some train tracks. During the night, both his legs were severed by a passing train and, miraculously, he survived. If ever you would think there was a rock bottom moment, this would be it, right? While getting discharged from the hospital, this man was more concerned with the logistics of getting to the bar in a wheelchair than anything else in the world.
I don’t know why someone one day looks at their kids and decides they need to get better. I’m not sure why faced with the loss of their career something finally clicks for another person that they need to get some help. I’m not sure why others can lose everything and still not change.
I just don’t know.
What I do know is that addiction is a progressive and deadly disease and that as long as someone is sick they are putting their lives and the people in proximity in danger for a drink, a smoke, a big gambling win, Big Macs, working themselves to exhaustion, or sex with a stranger. That is the inconvenient truth.
Stopping is Only the First Step
I used to think that recovery was as simple as choosing not to drink, not to smoke, going on a diet, not gambling, etc. I thought it was about willpower and discipline.
Stopping is essential. In order to recover, you need to regain awareness, you need to stop numbing. You can’t have clarity leaning on something that protects you from appreciating the gravity of your situation.
However, that isn’t all of it. There are many reasons why we numb ourselves. I saw a meme not too long ago that said “trauma is the real gateway drug” and that resonated with me. I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to choose numbing over dealing with pain. I also think there are many other reasons that lead people down the path of addiction.
Understanding this now, I wish I’d known it then. In evaluating what I needed for myself and how to help my partner the right way I wish I’d understood that it wasn’t as easy as stopping. I wish I’d understood that real help for someone in recovery is supporting them (not enabling them) while they maneuver the long road towards mental health.
It is also very unlikely that recovery is possible without some kind of outside and unbiased help. If you’ve spent your whole life coping a certain way how could you be equipped to change without outside guidance? You’ve never learned how to think another way, why wouldn’t you need guidance? Also, it is next to impossible to be able to objectively take the right kind of help from someone who is personally invested in your recovery (e.g. family, friend, spouse, etc).
There are no shortcuts. There are no quick fixes. It is not as simple as stopping the behaviour, a person also needs to deal with whatever is driving them to do what they do in the first place. This is how we reduce the chance of relapse; but it is also worth stating that recovery often includes relapse as people are confronted with the gravity of change and revert back to the comfortable and familiar.
Recovery is a roller coaster. That is just the nature of profound change.
So what now?
No one can tell you how any of this will turn out. If they do, they aren’t being honest. There are no guarantees in life and there is no simple solution to this situation.
Some of you will decide to stay and others will decide to go. There is not a right or universal answer to every addiction scenario. There is no reliable checklist of symptoms that will help predict if someone will be successful in recovery, or if they will even get that far. There is also no guarantee that they will not relapse.
I understand there is an immense amount of guilt around these kinds of decisions. I understand the feeling of being crushed under the weight. I remind us all that we didn’t cause the addiction, we can’t control it, and we can’t change it. Like it or not, we all have the free will to make all kinds of poor decisions. True help for an active addict is learning to detach with love and interacting by helping not enabling action. I would challenge you to consider that not being able to accomplish this is likely hurting the addict more than saving them; that in this case, leaving may be the most compassionate and loving act even if it immediately appears to make the addictive behavior worse.
Finally, I will suggest you seek support before you have to choose. It is possible that there will come a point where that is a reality. Speaking from my own experience, leaving or staying was just one step in my recovery — but a very significant one.
Reflecting on my choices and their consequences, the only lingering regret I have is not that I wish I’d stayed. My only regret is my certainty that I would have been more confident and less traumatized making that choice if I had already been working a recovery program.
Welcome back! This week, more musings inspired by Jordan Peterson. If you haven’t already, I recommend starting with last week’s post which discusses how our perception is developed and how it can shift depending on our goals, expectations, and beliefs.
Returning to Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to chaos, he makes the profound claims that we are all corrupt and capable of doing damage to others. He explains that where we fall in that spectrum is a direct result of our beliefs and experiences which in turn impact our perception.
He argues that people all have the same potential; that things like nice and mean are dependent on the situations that we find ourselves.
“The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”
Peterson, with a flair for impact and drama, also makes the provocative suggestion that we should all get in touch with our “inner psychopaths”, putting a big exclamation point next to the suggestion that we are all capable of horrendous things.
I find this idea compelling because it underlines the need for compassion and understanding, both for the self and others but it also lends itself to other strategies we’ve discussed (such as the suggestion that everyone is doing the best they can, see that post here).
It is also relevant to this discussion because it has interesting implications to extreme theories involving law of attraction, like those suggested in Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book “the Secret” which claims that anything can be manifested with the right mindset.
While I do believe there is some truth to the power of thought and that being a decent and mindful person will ultimately give you a more satisfying life, I don’t think that this is the whole story. Frankly, if that was the case, there would be no hardship in the world and we would all be living in a minimalist off-grid cabin with a Jason Momoa lookalike (insert your fantasy life here). Unfortunately, being nice and doing good deeds does not mean that you will be without suffering, and being a tyrant won’t necessarily bring you bad fortune.
Peterson explains how this idea plays into building a life around happiness as a goal, and how that can be a problem:
“Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”
In the last chapter of the book, Peterson talks about his family’s struggles following his daughter’s diagnosis with a rare bone disease. For years, the family fought through surgeries, recovery, and adapting to the necessary changes that had to be made to their lives and expectations for the future. It is clear that this and the subsequent events were a great source of darkness for Peterson and his family.
Peterson also talks about how emotions like grief are a product of challenges to our perception and expectations. In his own experience, thinking that he would have a happy and healthy child only to come face to face with the reality of the uncertainty of his daughter’s health.
Imagine that you have built your life on a frozen lake. While you have a fundamental awareness of the dangers of ice, falling into the frigid water is an abstract risk and something you easily ignore. You have confidence that the lake is frozen and you can go about your life in relative security. Now, imagine that tiny fractures in the ice have been spreading under your feet for some time until suddenly it cracks and you are submerged. Not only do you need to deal with the consequences of falling through the ice, you have the shocking realization that the solid grasp you had on your situation was not so solid. The fundamental belief you had in the reliability of your situation is gone. The ice was not safe, and there was nothing you could have done to make it so.
It is no wonder that the process of grief is so challenging and cyclical. It is layered, including not only grief for the surface loss but also requires the underlying beliefs system to be overhauled.
The interesting thing I’ve found in talking to people who have navigated through these fundamental shifts in perception, done the work to process the events, and survived the ice cracking under their feet is that they appear much more calm. The acceptance of uncertainty, pain, and the temporary nature of most things comes with freedom. Through embracing the darkness there is an understanding that happiness comes and goes; it cannot be held and there are no guarantees for the future. This understanding liberates us to enjoy happiness as it presents itself and remain optimistic that it will return because we know it’s possible, we’ve seen it before.
Happiness is not a destination, but some of the scenery we get to see along the way.
I recently finished one of Jordan Peterson‘s volumous books. For those of you not familiar with Peterson, he’s a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He has a number of credits to his name but received widespread notoriety over the last few years for his controversial views on political correctness.
While I admit that I find some of Peterson’s views antiquated and not up my alley, I admire his tenacity and willingness to argue and support his viewpoints. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was not an easy read. It’s full of abstract principles supported by concepts borrowed from theology, psychology, philosophy and literature. It took me much longer to get through than most books I pick up, both because it is written in a heavy academic style (each chapter represents a rule and is an essay in its own right) and because I was trying to absorb as much as possible.
I think Peterson makes some really interesting observations and suggestions about how we develop our perception of the world around us as well as our expectations for how that world will behave.
He describes the famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment in which researchers showed test subjects a recording of a basketball game and asked them to count the number of times their team made a pass. During the game, a man dressed as a gorilla walks onto the court, pounds his chest and walks out of frame. Shockingly, more than 50% of subjects did not see the gorilla.
This study, aside from being both funny and disturbing, demonstrates the narrow field of a person’s perception. Peterson explains that perception is adjusted to your goals and reinforcing your beliefs (for more on this, please try my prior post on denial). In this case, most of the study participants are so focused on the goal of counting passes that their perception is narrowed and they are unable to see the unusual scene beyond their task at hand. This is a necessary strategy for all people. Although some of us have more capacity to take in and process external information, we all have a point where that capacity is exhausted. We need to prioritize what we pay attention to in order to be successful.
This (of course) is not a conscious process, but I think we can all think of a situation or two in our own life where perception was coloured by our mental state, beliefs, and goals at the time. For example, I’m not sure that 30 year-old Jess would find 15 year old pothead Kenny as alluring as hormonal teenage Jess did. Although some may argue that my taste of men has not changed drastically enough, with my shifting goal towards building healthier relationships my perception is focused and my tastes are slowly changing. For the first time in my life I am aware that my ideal partner does not include substance use in all their recreational experiences.
Peterson says that we are all born with an instinct towards ethics and a lust for attaching meaning to our experiences, but that it takes great courage and strength to carry the burden of moving towards those things. That is because doing this is a great undertaking that requires us to constantly evaluate and prioritize our goals, beliefs and expectations. This causes discomfort in moving our perception to meet those changes. This is part of what attracts us to underdog stories, they encourage these shifts by confirming that taking the high and long road gives us the hope and possibility of rebirth despite the inevitable suffering.
Peterson makes the point of showing the malevolence that awaits those of us not strong enough to take the torch and the higher path; we are jealous, resentful, and petty. Have you ever had the experience of sharing an off the cuff and out of the box idea with someone who immediately ripped it to shreds? While I like to believe that most of us do these things because we are trying to protect people from hurting themselves, we are effectively squashing growth and innovation as a result of our fear to a challenge to our understanding and perception of the world.
Can you imagine the reception the first guy that ate a lobster got? There is very little about those pinchy characters that look appetizing; but some guy was hungry, brave, and probably desperate enough to eat one and share it with others.
In my mind, I see his friends screaming “UGH! STEVE, DON’T EAT THAT!!” as he defiantly cracks open the shell, eventually pairing the meat with butter and winning people over by challenging their perception of what is acceptable behaviour.
… Thanks, Steve!
Approaching ideas by immediately pointing out the flaws and challenges discourages people from taking risks and entertaining change. We are not allowing them to do the work of figuring out if their idea is viable, we are dragging them back down onto the safe and flat ground with us. We are protecting our own perception at the expense of the expansion of theirs.
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Next week is part two in this series inspired by Jordan Peterson. We will examine how our beliefs, goals, expectations, and perception play into the pursuit of happiness. I hope you will return!