Letting Go of Expectations
Despite the ideals of connectedness, family and merriment, holidays can be a tough time for anyone. This is exceptionally so for families who have loved ones in treatment. This certainly wasn’t “the plan” was it? John Lennon’s lyric from the song Beautiful Boy rings true, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” Evaluating our beliefs about what it is supposed to look like or what “should be” is really an integral part of the process. The clients in my group spend a lot of time assessing their patterns of thinking. The disease of Addiction requires a circuitous logic that allows the addict to justify, minimize, externalize and rationalize their behaviors. Under every drinking problem is a thinking problem and the process of recovery requires us to step away from our own best problem-solving. The concept of letting go is a central theme in recovery literature. Letting go of expectations is especially important. We often say that expectations are premeditated resentments. When we have expectations of ourselves, others, or situations, we are planning in advance to be upset when things don’t go the way we expect them too.
Routinely during the holiday season, I hear from clients in the field something like, “I can’t be here for Thanksgiving” or “This is going to be the worst Christmas ever” or “Every year for the holidays my family goes to… and I am stuck here. This is going to suck.” The emotions run the gamut from sadness, anger, remorse to righteous indignation. And then, something unexpected happens. The holidays come and go and the clients are okay. Every year, someone in my group says to me after Thanksgiving that it was the most meaningful holiday they can remember. The one thing they couldn’t fathom came to be. Often, how we thought we were going to feel is different than how we actually feel.
Dr. Daniel Gilbert explains in his book Stumbling on Happiness that our ability to predict how we will feel in the future is flawed at best. The term "affective forecasting" was coined by Gilbert and fellow psychologist Timothy Wilson. Their early research tended to focus on measuring emotional forecasts and subsequent studies examined the accuracy of forecasts. Their research reveals that people are surprisingly poor judges of their future emotional states. In short, how we think we are going to feel in the future is rarely how we will actually feel.
For fear of how we will feel in the future, we engage in behaviors to mitigate that risk. “Defense mechanism” is now part of the lexicon of every arm-chair psychologist. Our beliefs about how we will feel lead us to avoid feeling: we numb ourselves out. We stay where we think we are the safest. For addicts and alcoholics, it’s in our drug use (comfort in the moment at the cost of our long term health is the hallmark of an addiction). For a co-addict, it’s in our worry and attempts to control behavior. We stay stuck in patterns that are familiar so that we can avoid discomfort. I am often amazed at our ability to tolerate medium levels of pain over long periods of time so that we can avoid high levels of pain over a short period of time. Addiction is a great example. An addict will choose the mid-level misery of active addiction to the gates of insanity or death in order to avoid the seemingly insurmountable misery of getting sober.
This type of thinking is known as “The Streetlight Effect” and is a type of observational bias where people only look for whatever they are searching by looking where it is easiest. The search itself may be referred (appropriately enough given our subject matter) as… a drunkard's search.
The parable goes something like this: A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the dark scary alley a few blocks away. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is.”
This is where the light is?! Of course! It is addictive logic at it's best, “If I just stay comfortable, it’ll work out”. It’s safe there under the light post. We can see there. It is familiar. Yet, while it feels safe, it will never allow us respite from the problem. We will never find what we are looking for in the comfort of the light—we have to venture into the unknown. Our logical selves know this is insane and yet, there is nothing logical about addiction. Addiction takes all logical parts of the brain offline. If we are going to get better we have to look in the place that scares us most. We have to let go and have faith that we will be okay lest we be marooned by our own need for comfort. In a twelve-step model, we say “turn it over” because it is exactly our best thinking that keeps us stuck in our problem behavior.
One of my favorite quotes from Carl Jung, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore unpopular.” (e.g. we look for the keys in the light instead of going to the scary place). Recovering from an addiction requires a great deal of effort. Shame tells us to hide. We fear being seen. We are afraid of what we don’t know. We are afraid of what others will think. We will be overwhelmed. It will be too much. When we operate from these beliefs, we stay stuck in the same patterns of behavior that got us there in the first place.
Many people believe that therapy is about learning to be happy (imagine figures of light). The very notion that it is only okay to feel happy is addictive by definition. “I only want to be high and I never want to feel low.” I would contend that therapy is about learning to be sad. Therapy is about increasing our awareness of, and learning how to be present with and mindful of our unwanted emotions. Brené Brown writes in her book The Gifts of Imperfection that, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” The inverse is true as well: if we want to feel our joy, we have to step into our sadness.
Kahlil Gibran writes in his prose poetry essay, The Prophet, that, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?...”
Our ability to be happy is in direct correlation to our ability to be sad.
In essence, if we are going to be happy then we will have to be able to experience our sadness. Hence, the therapeutic truism “lean into the discomfort.”
In my group, we go about learning to do this by utilizing the 12-step model. One of the readings we often discuss is called “The Promises.” “The Promises” comes after the 9th step and there is a ton of arduous work that is involved getting to that 9th step.
If we are painstaking about this phase of our development we will be amazed before we are halfway through.
We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
We will comprehend the word “serenity” and we will know peace.
No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
Self-seeking will slip away.
Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us.
We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Are these extravagant Promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.
Emphasis on the word “painstaking.” If we are willing to get uncomfortable then some really wonderful things can happen to us. When we let go of staying in the comfort of our old behavior, a whole new world opens up to us. If we do what we've always done, we get what we've always got. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. Getting vulnerable is heavy stuff. Recovery requires some heavy emotional lifting. We only get better by practicing. It’s not just an idea or a concept—it requires taking action. We cannot think our way into better action; we have to act our way into better thinking. An intellectual understanding does not necessarily translate into ability.
I have a brain disease. And, I am genuinely grateful for that fact today. Never would I have predicted that this is the way I’d feel. Being grateful for my addiction/alcoholism is a concept that many of my clients have a hard time understanding, especially at the beginning of the process. It is difficult to see how the story unfolds. Through my experience in addiction and recovery, I have had an entire psychic change. My whole attitude and outlook of life has changed. And to a client in the early stages of recovery, this whole concept feels far-fetched, pie in the sky, unattainable and maybe even undesirable. Who wants to have a brain disease? What person in their right mind would want to be an addict? Who would choose to be in treatment? Especially over the holidays!? Probably close to no one. And maybe while it isn’t what we want, it might be exactly what we need. We might just find the keys we’ve been searching for in the very place we didn’t want to go. We might start to feel more connected to the people we love being able to talk about where we hurt. We might just increase our happiness by learning to embrace our sadness. When I was active in my addiction I never had that ability. I am genuinely grateful for my disease today because it puts me in a position to feel connected in a way that I never imagined possible. It’s not easy, nor is it a static notion: it requires a lot of work. If we are willing to work for it, we might just find something incredibly beautiful that we never knew we were looking for.