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Being Right…in times of crisis

When faced with an unknown the first instinct is often fear. For many of us, with the recent pandemic, economic instability and the recent issues around race, it might appear that the world we have come to know is changing. And change isn’t always comfortable or welcoming. “A new normal” is the phrase of the year 2020. But what exactly is that new normal?

When looking at the last several months from a mental health perspective, we are definitely at some unique and trying times. When the pandemic first began to arrive, it had never happened in our lifetime and was something new that none of us were truly prepared for. One moment it was rumors, and the next…full lock downs of entire states. Familiar restaurants and stores shuttered their doors. Many people found themselves at home…with nowhere to go.

It seemed that with the pandemic there also came with it a strange conflict. With the news, internet and social media people took their sides. The first group felt, in their hearts, that it was (or perhaps is) an over-exaggerated news cycle. These folks just simply don’t accept nor believe that it is any more dangerous than the flu. To quote “the fear is more dangerous than the COVID”. Angry that the country had been shut down, they refuse to wear a mask and feel it’s their freedom and decision to guard their health and shouldn’t be decided by a government or “fake news”.

The second group was at the other end of the spectrum. Watching the daily reported numbers of cases across the world exponentially increase, the deaths in the United States alone crept up faster and faster, passing 200,000 dead in just a few short months. Left unchecked, eventually it would completely overwhelm the hospitals. Shutting down the country to save the country is not a small price to pay. And so, many of these people hunkered down, some refusing guests or even family members. Wearing a mask and only leaving the house when absolutely necessary, they felt not only a responsibility to their own health, but to others as well.

And then there is the third…somewhere in the middle. Feeling that the pandemic is dangerous and limiting their contact with strangers, but they are not necessarily so cautious among their own family or friends. Perhaps wearing a mask in a store, but not in other places. A family barbecue can be had, but avoid crowds. This group is the somewhat cautious group, but only in their own way.

And now we have it. Three distinct groups with three completely different belief systems. All three feel that they are right, and that the other two groups are being a bit “ridiculous” or in some cases, dangerous. All of this would be ok, from a mental health perspective, if these groups never encountered one another. But the world has many overlaps. And in some cases, all three types of people are now living, not only in the same world, but sometimes…in the same home.

Three completely different belief systems now under the same roof. How does one operate in such a place, especially when emotions are extreme? Perhaps Dad feels its all an overreaction. “I don’t care what the news says, I need to work. It’s all propaganda. And no one is going to make me wear a mask to go to the damn store.” A right to his own opinion. But maybe mom doesn’t agree. She feels that the pandemic is deadly and wants to protect herself, her family and her own children. And each day she watches him leave, without a mask, powerless to do anything about it. In some cases mom keeps quiet. In others, arguments occur. What does one do, when these situations arrive? Move out? Break up what was only a few months before, a happy family? Or just pray and trust. Add the stress of staying inside together for much longer than before and resentments build.

The mental health crises that we are seeing goes above and beyond the trauma of never before seen danger and change. It is happening in between each other as well. A nation becoming polarized in so many ways, opinions rage at one another on social media. Every so quick to point out who is right and who is wrong.


So, what to do?

It’s interesting what people who have never had counseling before think that marriage counseling really is. Often, when asked, they feel that you come together and talk about your disagreements, and perhaps the therapist might point out who is more right or more wrong. Maybe dad yells too much and the therapist will tell him that’s wrong. Or mom drinks to much, so that might be the topic.

In reality so much of therapy and counseling isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong. In marriage counseling it’s often about regaining (or in some cases, gaining for the first time) the ability to COMMUNICATE in a healthy way. Two “always right” individuals coming into therapy and learning that there is a better way. Oftentimes the first step is to learn to listen. To truly try and empathize and hear what someone that you might possible disagree with. To budge a little from the side of being “100% right” to becoming a “100% listener”. To be able to speak without anger. To be able to learn to compromise. To honor the differences and not always see a differing opinion as wrong or a threat.

Perhaps what the world needs most right now…is just one darn good marriage counselor. To sit down with all of the people with their “right” opinions and teach us that somewhere along the way, although we may have the greatest of intentions…we have just simply lost the ability to hear and honor the opinions of another.

Pandemics, economic instability, issues around race. Maybe the answers aren’t one side or another. Maybe the miracles will happen when two opposing viewpoints, in a home or on social media, can truly see the other person and say “I hear what your saying…and I can respect that.”

Perhaps the real pandemic isn’t a virus. Perhaps its that we have lost the ability to see and hear each other. I certainly hope that we get it back. For when working together, even with differing opinions, we can create magic.

Dealing with Shame in Recovery

For many people a life of addiction causes a huge amount of shame and it doesn’t automatically “go away” once we enter recovery. Perhaps it’s major shame based upon embarrassment at some of our behaviors while drinking or using. A family gathering that ended up in disaster. Wrecked cars, stolen money and judgment from those who were once closest to us. Entering into recovery we begin to deal with the shame of our addiction. Starting treatment or support groups we have fellow recovering people that also have disappointed themselves or their loved ones countless times in the past. We feel better and we begin to open up. In our groups we share some of the things we did and find support. In other cases, we end up with a bit of gallows humor. Some might be surprised that we laugh when talking about the time we ruined the wedding or the party or…just another Saturday. We’re not necessarily laughing out of spite or who we hurt. Its the laughter found when we realize that our situations weren’t that unique. We laugh at the ridiculousness of our addiction.

Finding a support group can help to diminish the shame, but that is often only the case in a support group bubble. Inside the bubble is one thing, but the world outside isn’t always a safe protective space. Whereas those of our recovering fellows might forgive our past, for those directly affected in our lives, that forgiveness isn’t often as quick. The boss who had to deal with us constantly calling off, or the spouse who had been let down time again, or the parent who’s money disappeared when they forget to hide the purse or the wallet…these aren’t so quick to believe us just because we now have a few weeks or months without a disaster. For some they just don’t believe that it won’t happen again. Whatever successes we might have, deep inside they just seem to feel that it’s only temporary. They’ve been let down too many times. And so, they bring it up, again and again, reminding us that no matter who we might be now, we’re still “that” person who did those terrible things. “Sure you’re sober now, but how long is this going to last. I’ve been let down too many times before.”

It is important to understand that for many of us, shame is often the driving force of our addictions, and often started long before we ever started abusing drugs or alcohol. Shame is a powerful thing. It doesn’t say “I am sorry for doing that bad thing.” Shame shouts loudly “I am sorry for who I am.” For many of us growing up shame took an early root. It could start in many different ways. Unhealthy or abusive upbringing, being poorer than others, social awkwardness, not fitting in, bullying in school, not doing well in school…there are a thousand ways the voice of shame has whispered to us “there is something wrong with you. You aren’t good enough compared to them.”

When shame takes root, recovering/addicted people have a natural tendency to deal with it in one or more of three distinct unhealthy ways:

  1. Avoiding anything that triggers the shame. In an attempt to avoid re-experiencing the painful emotions that come up with shame, it is not uncommon to simply avoid situations where the shame can be re triggered. For example, if one has experienced shame due to social awkwardness, just avoid social situations. Sitting quietly at the support group meeting, we pass instead of sharing because we don’t want to sound stupid. Avoidance takes so many different forms. Ironically, drugs and alcohol abuse can be examples of avoidance of shame. A common cycle that happens with people new in recovery is that they find when sobering up that not everyone is now free from judgment of their past life. And what happens is that they tend to seek out and go back to the one place free of shame: the local drug house, using friends, or bar scene. Not only do the drugs erase the shame, but the drug and alcohol culture is often the one place that won’t throw darts at their addiction past or present.
  2. Overcompensating to not trigger the shame. When we have experienced shame in the past, another unhealthy way of dealing with it is to overcompensate so that the particular shame doesn’t become re triggered. For example, if one grew up poor and was often bullied as result of it, then often times that same person will focus all their energies in buying expensive clothes, making more money, or having the nicest of homes. Rising “above” the shame trigger, isn’t actually dealing with it, it actually is just another symptom of it. A common thing that early recovering people can do, is to become “hyper-perfect sober” people. Overly committed to doing everything right, they can be the one who outwardly is doing “well” in treatment. Following all suggestions, and “making up for lost time” and becoming super responsible, super sober, high functioning individuals. Focusing all their energies on getting a job that makes a lot of money, a relationship and new clothes so that they can feel right on the outside. But that hyper-perfection often comes at a price. When the job, new relationship or anything doesn’t go perfectly…the feeling of failure is amplified, often derailing someone and driving them into relapse. When we are working so hard to convince ourselves and the world that we are “better” it becomes almost impossible to tell anyone that we’re not ok.
  3. Self punishing to validate the shame. The final unhealthy way of dealing with shame is when the person secretly believes that they “aren’t worthy” then they will often seeks out relationships, situations and behaviors that validate the low self-worth. If you feel deep inside that you really are a failure, then getting the promotion at work doesn’t feel authentic. So we self-sabotage. Seeking out sordid places or abusive relationships is common. Falling back into drugs because ironically, for many newly sober people, doing well…doesn’t feel like its deserved. We destroy the wonderful things we’ve built up in in recovery because it doesn’t feel authentic to us. When the outside doesn’t match the inside, we’ll change the outside to fit the inside.

All in all, shame is one of the hidden drivers for addictions and many different unhealthy or abusive behaviors. Sooner or later, the shame in our lives, whether from our addiction or before, has to be faced. Ideally this can happen organically with a support group or through slow and steady work. But if you are like many who struggles with maintaining sobriety for any length of time, then it’s probably shame driving the bus. Professional help in facing and looking at the deep work around shame can bring and end to so many cycles.

Until you can find that mentor, support group friend, sponsor or therapist to be able to open up and share our vulnerable shame then what usually happens is that we end up gravitating towards the one place where there there is no shame….our old addiction and lifestyle.

The magic of recovery is once you face and work through your shame it no longer owns you. It becomes an integrated part of who you were, but not necessarily who you are. And then, one day, you can find yourself sitting across from someone struggling in their addiction and say to them “I know exactly how you feel. Let me share a part of my story.” And the person who was once filled with shame can now begin to lower their guard, become vulnerable and share a piece of theirs. And their recovery goes to a whole new level.