Know Your Shadow

When people go to treatment or engage in some sort of addictions counselling, they sometimes feel a pressure to not have any urges to use.  Some people actually don’t have urges once they seek help but most do.  The ability to discuss this has not always been open.  I’ve watched many clients behave in ways and say certain things that show they are still ambivalent and think about either using or the culture of using.  But they don’t express what they are truly feeling because they want to be socially accepted; or they want to deny to even themselves that these feelings creep around underneath the surface.  There becomes a stigma in treatment that one should not have feelings or thoughts about using because why on earth would they be in treatment if they wanted to use.  This is all unsaid and gets reinforced even by practitioners that subconsciously feel like failures if their clients still want to use.  Much of this is due to a long time of poor knowledge of addiction, as well as, extreme judgment of addiction.

It needs to be more accepted that changing takes time.  Most people have either thoughts or dreams of using soon after they stop or enter treatment.  There is nothing “wrong” with this.  It might be disconcerting to those who just want it all to go away but it is also very normal.  Intense desires such as those that fuel the process of addiction are not shed overnight.   The other drawback to this unsaid phenomenon is that substance abusers trying to quit start to feel like failures when they have cravings and urges!  How debilitating!  You are not failing or bad at recovery if you have urges to use, even intense thoughts.  You are also not failing recovery if you lapse or relapse.  What? How so?  You do not have to go back to ground zero if you relapse.  You just need to turn around and observe what you just tripped on then keep on going.  Brush yourself off.  You do not have to delve deeper into a full-blown relapse or beat yourself up.  Natural feelings of guilt will arise as your behavior is going against your values of wanting to quit, but it does not have to carry deeper into shame.  Shame is feeling bad about yourself while guilt is feeling bad about your behavior.  Therefore, just having dreams, thoughts, and cravings to use does not mean you are doing recovery wrong.  It means you are a normal person trying to quit something that has had strong chemical and psychological holds on your whole person.  It also means it has been the number one way to cope and deal with everyday life and until your newly acquired skills are fully developed, you will sometimes want to resort back to what feels best.  But remember, just because you WANT to resort back and want to use, does not mean you HAVE TO use.

This idea or line of thinking that I am describing goes for so much more than just addiction.  In our society, we hold addiction to an unintelligently different standard of expectations for change.  Most people take a while to change behaviors/states such as anger, upset, smoking, eating, exercise, depression, anxiety, workaholism, sex, etc.  These same people relapse MANY TIMES!!  But for some reason people with substance abuse problems should get over them more quickly than everyone else who has unwanted, unhealthy behavior.  Interesting, huh?

I encourage clients to discuss both sides of their ambivalence: the side that wants to quit and the side that isn’t quite on board yet, or sometimes the side that really enjoys using and doesn’t want to stop.  Carl Jung (famous Depth psychologist) talks about a concept called Shadow which holds aspects of ourselves we suppress away that we don’t want to see or express.  Eventually, our shadow finds ways to be seen.  It is easier to reflect on the unwanted parts of us and get to know them.  Sometimes they will teach us things that no other part of ourselves could teach.  It is like the saying, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” which illustrates the idea that you can do something about your shadow side of cravings and urges if you know them and explore them.  If you hide them and push them away they will find weird ways out that do not reach your conscious mind.  Basically you won’t know what you are up against.

My thoughts are you might as well talk about what you feel/experience because you are already feeling/experiencing it. Don’t be afraid to explore all parts of you because they all lead to healing.  Just because we have thoughts that scare us doesn’t mean those thoughts are who we are.  Those of you early in recovery or even long time in recovery, allow those thoughts to come to the surface and find a safe person to share them with.  Find a way to give them voice so that voice becomes less powerful. Do not feel like a failure, or that you won’t succeed in treatment or recovery because you have urges, thoughts, feelings, even yearnings about your using life.  You are always up against the choice of how you want to live your life and the more choices you make in one direction the more ingrained that way of life becomes.  It can always be changed.  So let yourself be open to the exploration process of all parts of you and there will be less shame.  Put it all on the table so you know what you are working with and you’ll be further along than if you didn’t.


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