Soften the Inner Critic: A Path to Change

Make it all okay.
Make it okay that you procrastinate.
Make it okay that you are afraid of commitment.
Make it okay that you smoke when you stress.
Make it okay that you are scared.
Make it okay that you fantasize about someone besides your partner.
Make it okay that you want to run away from life’s current challenges.
Make the messy feelings okay.

There’s a tug-of-war going on. Sometimes we only need to drop the rope.

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There is often a divide within us between how we feel and how we think we should feel. Self-judgement. A conflict between our head and our heart. We feel _____, but think we should feel something else.

We are thinking about our feelings and often, judging them:
I shouldn’t have these feelings for my coworker.
I shouldn’t need to depend on my partner for support.
I shouldn’t feel anxious about starting a new job.
-Changing myself shouldn’t be so hard for me.

We aren’t born this way, but we internalize these voices and narratives about our identities and how we’re “supposed” to be. The “shoulds” in our self-talk are our clues. Our “shoulds” contain a wealth of information about how we believe we and the world are supposed to be.
-They shouldn’t be wearing that.
-They shouldn’t be behaving that way.
-I shouldn’t be feeling this.

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Gender roles are pre-supposed beliefs about what men and women are more “supposed” to do. We become conditioned to act in specific ways to please the people around us, so we adopt these roles we didn’t create for ourselves. In our current culture, men still feel the need to project confidence and mask vulnerabilities. Women need to convey beauty and a willingness to care for others. We challenge society when we challenge these “shoulds,” and culture expands as a result. We must challenge our individual “shoulds” too.

Our “shoulds” about ourselves are repetitive acts of invalidation and often look like self-criticism or being hard on oneself.

I shouldn’t feel this way.
I should have done better.
I should
be better.

The word ‘lazy’ for example, is common among self-critics. When people identify themselves as lazy, what are they saying about themselves? From the Oxford American Dictionary, lazy is defined as:

  • unwilling to work or use energy: ‘I’m very lazy by nature’ | ‘he was too lazy to cook.’
  • showing a lack of effort or care: ‘lazy writing.
  • (of a livestock brand) placed on its side rather than upright.’

The word seems to imply that one isn’t entirely moving with life.

What if it’s okay that we’re sometimes lazy? What if we didn’t label it good or bad, but we’re curious about what was underneath it?
If we’re not critical, we could wonder about the lack of movement.
What is life when it’s “placed on its side”?

We spend a lot of time identifying what “good” and “bad” is and what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” when we’re overly critical about emotions, that we’re not engaging in more in-depth conversations with ourselves.

What if it’s okay to feel how you feel, however you feel. What if it’s okay that you sometimes feel unsure of yourself, or at times maybe you even dislike yourself. Without being caught in the drama of it, we can ask, “what is all of this about?” What is the message, the lesson we are meant to learn so you don’t have to repeat it?

When we remove the critical lens of ourselves and our lives, we can ask about the change we seek.

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Self-critics can often convince themselves that being hard on themselves is a way to motivate change. Most of my clients say it feels ‘normal.’ But negative self-talk is like that nagging voice towards ourselves, even if just in a distant background, and can have a detrimental effect on well-being. The constant chatter of Work harder! How could you?! You’re a failure, Be better, or No one loves you. All the ‘always’ and ‘never’s we have about ourselves. It’s burdensome and heavy. Especially in the world right now, no one needs more heaviness.

Some of us have a more nagging inner voice that breathes over our necks about what we’re getting wrong. We get stuck on that it’s happening, believing that it shouldn’t be happening. Busy and caught in reaction to our feelings, we’re closed. We don’t let ourselves feel how we feel.

When we get so resistant to our feelings, we’re not open to the experience. We can become passive players in our stories.

Inside feelings of self-shaming, when we’re convinced we’re not allowed to have our emotions, we become insecure with who we are. Soon after, anxiety or depression show up at our doors. A panic attack, anxiety, or depression are warning signs. But we get so busy feeling ashamed for having them that we try so hard to push them away.

It can get hard to break out of that pattern inside ourselves. Inside depression, grief or guilt, we become self-obsessed and start to feel bad for feeling bad. Others tell us that we shouldn’t feel this way and try to cheer us up. Some of us are afraid to sound like a victim, so we brush aside our honest feelings about the pain we endured and the anger we have about it. Too busy judging our emotions, we’re not open to them. There is no solution when you’re not asking questions.

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Fortunately, we’re right where we’re supposed to be, in whatever stage of change. Because it’s okay however we feel. We need only to learn to soften the part of us that judges ourselves for how we are.

When we judge our feelings, we judge our experience, and that causes us to suffer. Our rich and messy inner worlds are what make us human, inherently and fascinatingly complex. It serves us better to create space and understand them, rather than ignore, deny or avoid them.

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Settling down and understanding the things that go on for us and how we feel in response to our inner and outer experience is a self-evolution process. We can acknowledge that this is how life is right now. However life is. We accept how things are and how we feel about them. We are not trying to change, fix, avoid, or sabotage anything. When we can soften our inner critics to learn about what’s going on for us, we step towards feeling freer within ourselves and our lives.

Do you judge yourself for having certain feelings?

Capitalism doesn’t want you to be aware

For a socially just society, we need individuals who are introspective and consider how they interact and impact their environments and the people around them. In a multitude of ways, 2020 has slapped us across the face, forcing us to notice that individually we affect one another. Together or separate, we form the collective: we’ve made the mess, and we’re in it together. We’ve elected leaders who divide us. We’ve tolerated systems of inequality. What others do, affects us, and we’re mad about what the others are doing. 

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Blaming others for our life’s problems is our most cherished pastime, but it gets us nowhere beyond pointing fingers and division. Individually we contribute to the world we live in, and cleaning up our part is the surest way to foster progress and improve society. We must recognize that there is no going back- there’s only waking up. Raising our consciousness through self-insight helps our collective community. The whole is only as good as the people a part of it.

When you know yourself well, you hold significant power and insight over your emotions, behaviors, patterns, triggers, and reactions. The impact of such knowledge can improve many areas of your life, allowing you to take things less personally. Less reactivity frees you up from massive emotional responses to challenging situations, like a breakup or a virus. In deep versions of self-study, you may learn to tolerate various forms of uncertainty. 

Through self-study, you learn about how you connect and disconnect from life. You start asking better questions. You notice problematic ways you relate to others, and how you may unintentionally cause yourself and others harm. Improving your self-communication ripples into other parts of your life, and you learn to communicate with others better.

Naturally curious beings, humans regularly study our relationships with others. We love to vent, gossip, blame, envy, fantasize, and engage with or reject other people. We’re a relational species; We wouldn’t have survived long without someone else to help us into our life. As a result, we’re wired to spend significant amounts of energy focusing on our relationships with other people. In the age of capitalism and addiction, proactively studying our links to the more subtle parts of our internal worlds is negligently rare. 

Studying your relationship with your feelings is one of the most profound ways towards self-knowledge, and yet, self-knowledge is not encouraged in our society. When our normal has become a constant stimulation of “noise” like news, sounds, and technology, it’s hard to tolerate space with nothing to do. We can’t sit still, experience silence, or wonder what’s going on within. We don’t ask ourselves important questions. 

It’s not our fault: it’s comfortable to live smoothly through capitalism, a system that fuels and indulges narcissism, a subtle yet potent defense. When occupied all the time, we’ll never question many things. Capitalism offers us many short-term yet effective way of avoiding what’s going on inside. We buy, indulge, occupy our minds, and busy ourselves; we’re often either connected or consuming. Collectively, we’re an addicted society. We’ll turn to different avenues to soothe the imbalances we feel within ourselves. 

The field of mental health continues to be stigmatized, making it unpopular, and often labeled for people who need to be ‘fixed’ or self-indulgent, while disproportionally accessible for the privileged. When there is massive resistance to anything, I’m prone to get curious: What might happen if we all were a little more aware? 

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Curious. 

You don’t have to go to therapy to work on your mental health; all you need to do is create space and get curious. Observe yourself, and notice your mind. Make sure to investigate any judgments that arise. It’s hard to see anything clearly with a negatively skewed lens. Cynical lining cannot manifest self-awareness or peace, only shame, and division. Challenge the perception, and try to stay curious by working to remain open to what you find. Be careful not to attach to any doctrine of idea or script firmly, or you may live unconsciously, in-authentically, and out of alignment. 

Notice the relationships you have with your possessions, body, environment, substances, and beliefs. These areas hold rich information into understanding yourself, and they so often go unconsidered in our daily lives. 

In studying your relationship to your body, you get to understand better how your body feels when you take care of it, neglect or punish it, under or overfeed it. You learn what kind of foods your body likes and which it doesn’t. You can challenge specific questions or ideas about how your body should look, asking yourself where those ideas came from, and if they hold value? 

You could consider your relationship to exercise. Does it feel like a way you care for your body? Or is it a place you go to punish yourself? Does it feel like something you “should” do, but don’t, and feel bad about it? You learn a lot about yourself by studying any one area. When you expand this way of thinking, you can learn more about your life in all realms. 

In studying your relationship with your environment, you begin to understand what feels good to have around you, and what doesn’t. What do you see around you, and how does it make you feel? You might start to see that clutter makes you feel anxious, or it might instead be a reflection of your anxiety. What might feel good in your home might irritate the hell out of me. I may neglect my environment and treat it poorly because I prefer to put my energy into my career and travel. At the same time, you might maintain indoor plants and care for your pets, while never leaving your hometown. You can study your relationship with anything: money, time, sleep, the news, sound. Self-analysis is an exam; the secret answers reflect who you are. What do you have going on inside?

In today’s world, it’s crucial to study our relationship with screens. Technology often makes many aspects of life more convenient and gives us a sense of connection. However, in becoming mindful of how we use social media, not just how much we are less prone to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression as a result of our use.

It’s helpful to regularly review your relationships with alcohol or drugs. How does it help you? What does it give you? Does your consumption harm you or others who you love? How would it be if you didn’t have it? What’s the feeling that comes up just before you feel like you need it? 

In studying your feelings, consider the range of human emotions and notice what you tend to feel or defend against feeling. You might ask yourself about your anger. Do you skimp on recognizing your boundaries or perhaps indulge yourself in rage in destructive ways? How do you navigate feelings of anxiety: do you procrastinate, shut down, or overcompensate? 

The relationship between our lives and the things we’ve put inside our lives either makes our experience supportive or causes problems. Your ties to anything is personal to you, so it must be a prime focus for one’s attention. Focus on your process- your relationships; don’t avoid your work and distract yourself by analyzing others. 

If you aim to be a more conscious human being, live better for yourself, and others, look within. Depth work is sometimes frightening, often painful, and may temporarily evoke shame. However, self-work can wipe the lens of your perception of the world inside and around you, potentially leaving you more accepting of what’s happening. When we understand what’s going on inside us, we can better navigate what’s going on outside around us. The path to becoming self-responsible is an ethical route towards creating more social balance and peace. 

Substance use addiction will enter your life

Change your perspective now.

In our lifetime, addiction is likely to touch every one of us, either directly or indirectly. Almost 20 million American adults battled a substance use disorder in 2017One out of every eight adults struggles with both alcohol and drug addiction simultaneously. While the COVID-19 pandemic eroded our normalcy, jobs, routines, outlets, and connections, alcohol use rose, and the opioid epidemic rages onward. If you don’t already know someone who struggles with alcohol or drug use, you will at some point in your life. It might even be you. 

Drugs have been around for centuries, but addiction is a more modern phenomenon. Medicines that have become more potent over time offer an antidote to an emotional intolerant culture that also provides increased isolation, inequality, and oppression. When in pain, we seek relief.

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The year 2020 has highlighted many of our country’s obvious systemic problems. Common among them is the flawed and harmful disparities is the unequal treatment between privileged and oppressed—our dysfunction highlights where we’re getting it wrong.

Misunderstood by outdated and yet-all-too-popular narratives, substance users are still shamed and judged for their attempt to cope. With different environments that offered outlets for their needs, relief through drug-use might not have been a necessary path. Yet trauma, oppression, and limited resources that predated drug use often go unnoted in incarceration sentences.  

Notably, shifting our understanding of trauma and substance use, a broad range of helpful or harmful coping skills might make more sense. What helps someone get out of warped cycles of pain and attempts to cope with that pain? Support. Sadly, addicts receive a lot of confusion, frustrations, and judgments, sometimes from people who love them. 

It’s not an easy feat to be in a relationship with or love someone abusing drugs or alcohol. Life can sometimes feel unsettling, frightening, and at times, enraging. Witnessing someone self-destruct or harm themselves can be excruciatingly painful, leaving you feeling helpless and afraid. In our confusion and anger, we naturally want to either deny that it’s real, try to make it stop, fix it, or avoid it. We turn away, and we shut down out of fear and misunderstanding. The emotional responses to loved ones’ addiction are valid, but they’re cannot be the focus solely. Drug use and the harmful behaviors are problematic, but so are the typical responses from people in relationship to them. 

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Relationships are like systems: different players have roles and interact with the other, causing a chain of reactions that either function well or don’t. Like in any organization, if your foundation is strong, navigating turbulent times isn’t stressful. However, if the foundation has flaws, as soon as something goes array, like a blown circuit, deadly virus, or substance use, problems inside the system will be apparent.

In play of addiction, the user and the drug often play the scapegoat. 
When problems surface in the relationship, and the addiction often gets the spotlight. It’s easy to blame the drugs for issues that were already there. Illicit drug use is an easy target to blame for many problems within our individual and collective systems. 

One client often talked to me about the pressure she felt to get out of her addiction primarily to calm her family’s anxiety about her heroin use. Meanwhile, other family members denied their unaddressed problematic relationships with different drugs; Highlighting her drug use deflects others’ issues. My client’s family distress left her preoccupied with anxiety and distracted from her treatment. She felt caught inside a family pattern where she prioritized others’ care, neglecting herself, and feeling like a failure. Heroin was the only place of relief from her mind that told her she was a shameful problem and utterly messing up her life.  

Ignoring the user’s need for compassionate support, the tension in the relationship causes friction and sometimes ruptures ties completely. The misunderstanding of drug addiction and problematic responses from the environment around drug use is the biggest tragedy. Both parties are often frightened and misaligned with what is helpful; both are harming their relationship. When in recovery, most substance users take much of the blame and responsibility for problems of the past, branding themselves with the given and shame-filled label “addict.”

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We are powerless to change relationships problems until we accept that all issues are co-created.  Society’s response mimics the family’s view of drug addiction, with an attempted war on drugs and glaringly unequal access and funding for treatment. These views and approaches, dangerously narrow and shallow, are not working. The movement to change our approach to how we respond to substance use is long overdue. 

One of the best things you can do to help change addiction is to open yourself to education about the complexities of the struggle. We don’t blame someone who gets diagnosed with cancer, cut off from them, makes attempts to control them, or demand they take responsibility before offering support. We treat their illness with kindness and attention, and we should provide the same approach to drug use addiction. 

In most of our life’s problems, our messy feelings are what usually get in our way. We can cause real harm when we act on those messy feelings, whether we use drugs to cope or react to people who use drugs. 

Never pausing to consider bolder questions, shift perspectives, and open to curiosity, relationships remain fractured, insight untapped, and nothing changes. We can’t fix something in a system until we know what’s not working. As a society, we have not been curious enough about substance use disorders or ask what the dysfunction is trying to communicate. As with most things in life, you can never understand anything until you get up close to it. Drug use or not, as a human, it will undoubtedly serve you to understand your messiness. 

There are massive numbers of humans who are hurting and turning to drugs for relief. They have suffered trauma, live with oppression, and lack primary resources like compassionate care and direct human support. They often don’t have outlets to express themselves. Where we invest our energies, we can grow and change. Curiosity and kindness is the fertilizer for helping addiction treatment, which could have a profound impact on the opioid epidemic. Longer-term perspective shifts around drug use and has the potential to foster a healthier and just society. Offering a compassionate perspective to anyone, whether they use drugs or not, our world would be a vastly different place. When substance use addiction enters your life, mind your preconceived notions, and stay open to all you don’t fully understand. It will matter more than you know.

Deeper Questions for Treating Addiction

To be human is to experience a vast array of messiness. Life is inherently complex, and experiences and relationships are varied and dynamic. It is much easier to affect progress and change when we make sense of these intricacies and complexities. It is with the understanding that we afford ourselves compassion for that which we don’t personally experience. We can’t change anything if we stay far away from it. We need to get up close.  

The topic of substance use or addiction often turns people off. Illicit street drugs are a topic that most of society likes to avoid. It’s an area that psychotherapists and social workers tend to steer away from; many therapists feel they cannot conduct therapy until the addiction is resolved, as if they were two separate entities.

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To suffer addiction is to experience shame- a sense of self-disgust. Individuals are often embarrassed to enter treatment, feeling embarrassed and dysfunctional while wrestling with their desire to recover. Families often feel frightened by the drug, or their addicted love one’s behaviors and try to cut off from or control their using loved one. In recovery, families may feel uncomfortable, maintain suspicion and distrust, and attempt to monitor their every move. Ironically, this makes it more difficult in treatment and recovery. 

Very quickly after I began working with people who are struggling with substance use addiction, I realized that I was only frightened by something I didn’t fully understand. I saw humans who were suffering and trying to soothe emotional pain: isolation, anxiety, loneliness, trauma, depression, fear, and shame. Taken through a new lens, the complexities of substance use addiction are genuinely captivating. One could understand so much about a person if you looked into the relationships inside the dependency: the patterns, the triggers, the set, and setting. With a wealth of depth and psychological information, it perplexed me why so much of the subjective understanding of this population remains shallow? 

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Before the COVID-19, the major epidemic (defined as a sudden widespread occurrence of an infectious disease), the opioid garnered only some intermittent attention. In 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. People in leadership responded to the virus of the opioid epidemic with a band-aid solution, responding to the problem, instead of addressing the root issue. This response indirectly communicates that people struggling with addiction didn’t deserve consistent attention or help. Substance use and people who struggle with addiction are often treated less than humane, drawing an invisible circle of shame around the population.

The complexities and misunderstandings of substance use addiction limit the potential for positive change and outcomes. Due to the narrow views of addiction, devoid of curiosity, society stands far from the humanness of addiction—people in power and patriarchy benefits from limited understanding. As long as we view addiction in a shameful light, specific populations can easily target “addict” labels, maintaining their oppression. Negative views of addiction and illicit drugs keep the patriarchy going strong. 

When we’re ashamed of addiction, it’s because we’re afraid to expose that we’re embarrassed about our way of surviving. We’re so scared others might not accept us if they knew the truth. What does it reflect about a society that so many people are currently struggling with addiction? 

Internalizing the messages from society, those inside their addiction feel their shame magnified. Punitively labels affect individuals and their capacity to heal. It’s as if there is a subtitle that reads: flawed, broken, defective, or troubled. If shame brings someone into addiction, society’s view of addiction mirrors that shame, which makes it harder to get out. 

When clients internalize the shameful stigma about themselves and adopt the beliefs of the people around them, seeking treatment is disgraceful, and people often try to avoid it. It’s hard to ask for help when you believe you need fixing and feel ashamed about it. 

Narrow views on addiction focus on the behavior of the person and the harmfulness of the drug. This view leaves out a massive part of the story: the pain. This approach forgets to ask about how and what the substance was soothing. It neglects to consider the environment, lack of resources, and society’s failure in modeling how to tolerate painful emotions.

How using helps.

In the addiction cycle, the use plays the side that feels emotionally easy: soothing, relief, and pleasure, experiences the user believes are otherwise inaccessible in their current life. At its core, using drugs resolve the pain of isolation. Users can bond with other users to create a sense of connection. While the drug can also become the buffer to intimacy, blocking the relationship’s realness. When otherwise feeling hindered from self-exposure, using lets down our guards; Many people are more comfortable exposing their inner worlds through a substance. (See: drunk-dial confessions.Using alone can feel soothing for one’s inability to regulate their feelings: without others to turn to, the drug becomes the console. 

When using harms.

When the harmful side of use starts showing up: loss of finances, ruptured relationships, job loss, incarceration, violence, homelessness, and walking closer to the line of death, some people decide something needs to change. Afraid of their current life, they begin to want more for themselves. Some come in for treatment due to an ultimatum from another. It’s a humbling and courageous act to walk into treatment for addiction, recognizing that there might be a problem with one’s way of coping, especially if that coping mechanism is shamed by society.

Treatment           

Treating the physiological aspects like withdrawal through detox or medication-assisted-treatment (MAT) is one part of the equation for recovery for opioid addiction. Stabilization temporarily manages the use-withdrawal spiral by interrupting the compulsive cycle to avoid withdrawal and the shame that arises once sober. Depth counseling for substance use recovery (whatever the substance: alcohol, sex, porn, cocaine, etc.) is an opportunity to develop more resources and dive into shame. With open and non-judgemental questions and curious listening, we’d bring ourselves closer to the struggle. From this stance, no matter what we get close to, our perception is often inclined to widen and to change.

Most treatment and recovery programs focus on the destructive ends and frighten people into making a lasting change. For a while, this may work. However, if treatment doesn’t address the medicinal qualities of the use, relapse is more likely. Without understanding the root of the drug use and addiction, we walk in shallow waters, always afraid to fall into the deep again. 

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We hinder recovery if we aren’t willing to look at both the benefits and consequences of using as a way to cope. In studying the deeper intricacies of the central tug-of-war, we might ask: How can this thing feel so good, and be so destructive? It temporarily makes life feel better, but, in the long term, ruins everything around me. How long can I resist such a thing that I know makes me feel so good? When you know something soothes, bring comforts and calms you, how do you give it up?

If our approach to anything centers on the harmful aspects, we miss out on understanding the ambivalence that is a natural part of being alive. We may know that something is dangerous or wrong for us, yet our bodies and minds may still seek the relief that the experience provides. We all know that certain food is not healthy for us, but we may again eat it anyway because it tastes good and will make us temporarily feel comforted. In recovery, ambivalence and conflict show up throughout: there is always a choice to make. By anticipating and planning for it, sustaining recovery is more likely. 

To be alive is to be naturally torn, we crave feeling good, and yet life can bring incredible pain. We do what we need to do to get by with whatever resources we have; some of the ways that humans cope with surviving our lives are labeled better, and others are stigmatized. Each journey into addiction and recovery varies. The substances and the relationship the user has to them tell a vast story. We only need to be willing to become curious, and listen.

Question Your Thoughts

Don’t believe everything you think. 

To be a functional human in society, we’re encouraged to use our minds: it serves us well to know how to make decisions, plan for the future, and to think critically. Unfortunately, we can also often spend significant quantities of time analyzing, judging, reacting, planning, fantasizing, and criticizing ourselves or others. 

Problems ensue when our minds go into overdrive: we automatically start believing everything we think. We’re continually crowding our psyches with addictions, compulsions, impulses, and reactivity so that we have no space to examine what’s going on upstairs. We’re too afraid of what comes up in the gap between feeling, thinking, and acting. So we spend our times occupying ourselves from listening to ourselves.

The danger in holding tightly to our thoughts

When we can’t sit with our thoughts and feelings and tolerate them ourselves, we project them onto the people around us, destroying our relationships and harming our communities. Projection ricochets everywhere, and reactions and sparks often follow. When our ego is in the way, psychological systems get blocked and stuck in an unhealthy and painful dynamic (see: the power-oppressed relationship.) We can see this in a collective realm, as well as interpersonal relationships. Under stress rarely do we reach for curiosity; we’d rather dig our heels deeper into our position, waiting for the other side to change. Neither party is trying to understand or consider another perspective. We are holding tightly to our thoughts and believing them to be true. 

Holding tightly to our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us causes huge systematic and interpersonal issues. It’s extremely dangerous when people in positions of power react on their impulses; believing and acting from the ego-drive mind leads to violence and war.  

The news, the principal place where people pick up their “thoughts” and formulate their beliefs, skews towards the terrible. We believe what others say and align with the voice that gave us our “thoughts” (see: CNN or FoxNews groupies.) Drama and fear are far sexier, more enticing, and hold our attention longer. If we never question the story and believe everything others tell us, we can delude ourselves into thinking we’re acting consciously. We may adopt conspiracy theories, gossip, and decide who is right and who is wrong. Intending to be “right,” we push away from others who choose differing beliefs. 

Driven by our emotions and impulses, humans end up reacting instead of responding. Society doesn’t encourage us to pause to question our thoughts or think for ourselves. It requires intentional restraint to challenge yourself.

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Never questioning our minds can be dangerous and disastrous. When we don’t learn to challenge our thoughts, we believe everything our minds tell us. If you tell yourself you’re ugly and unworthy, you’ll eventually convince yourself and start to feel ugly and shameful. You let yourself think that you’re better than others, you might become convinced that you’re above the law, and your actions will follow suit. 

When you find an adequate balance of observing your thoughts and choosing which ones to believe and from which to act, you will develop into a more self-aware human being, and you’d be in more charge of your own life, causing less harm towards those around you. Self-confidence is knowing and accepting yourself, and treating others with respect.

We inherit our minds from the world around us

In less than optimal environments, people may start to believe everything other people say about them. Movies and media send us messages of what makes someone acceptable, by who is portrayed in which sort of light. We mostly see thin, beautiful, white bodies in movies, so we start believing this is how we’re supposed to be and look. Only recently have these society-based scripts been challenged. Most media convinces us that everything should have a happy, conclusive ending. Whether through Hollywood, or our personal lives, we’re often unsatisfied if the story of our lives doesn’t go the way we hoped, so we throw our personal version of a fit.

We define ourselves based on the prescribed standards our parents and environments gave us. In U.S culture, young girls often receive messages about their worth and value rooted in their appearance and how they nurture others. Without exposure or other perspectives, or opportunities to question these scripts, we maintain these beliefs, brainwashed about their value and our life. The girl will grow up finding her value only in caring for others or prioritizing her appearance, dependent on other’s for her self-worth.

At some point, it made sense to adopt other’s views in childhood- it helps us survive to maintain attachment to others who had this view of us. If that same child becomes a woman who unconsciously neglects her needs by prioritizing others, she can become confused and depressed. Inherited scripts cause various problems later in life when they aren’t from your choosing. If we don’t choose to think about what we want for ourselves, we’ll take whatever is served. It’s like not truly knowing what you want to eat in life, so you let the chef send you yesterday’s leftovers. 

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If you never question things, you end up living unconsciously. If society, your culture, or your caregivers told you what you’re supposed to do to live a “good” life, it’s easier to follow that script. Not questioning life takes less work; reflecting, reviewing, and finding a way to discern our beliefs about the world and ourselves takes effort and patience. The work, however, is your ticket of freedom: peace of mind. 

How to re-align with your mind

If we don’t question aspects about ourselves and our minds, we’re automatically subscribing to a personality we didn’t choose. If we never ask ourselves about our thoughts, we can’t honestly know ourselves. Our minds are steering us sleeplessly through life. We are often caught and identified with our thoughts. For example, if we have anxious thoughts about the future, fear impending doom, and we give our thoughts a lot of weight and power – we believe everything our mind says – we let our minds take over our lives. It’s as if our brain has the lease and is walking us.

Getting quiet and stopping with your automatic impulses creates a space. In that space is the gift of noticing. In noticing, you can examine, investigate, question, and decide to re-write. When we see clearly, we can stop reacting and start responding intentionally, getting into the driver’s seat on the road of our life. 

Recently, a client told me that he needs alone time to reflect at the end of his day. He finds himself reviewing, thinking critically, and often wishing he had done a few things differently. Occasionally he’d toss throughout the night, thinking he truly fucked something up. I asked him if he believes everything his mind says- a nonstop talker, this question made him pause. He never put his mind on trial, keeping him in a mental prison, with a routinely harsh sentence.  

The work towards mental freedom is by loosening the grip of our minds, and our thoughts. One can start this journey by asking better questions, steering yourself deeper into what you know is valid for you. Tune out the noise of the outside world and get quieter within. Stop listening to other’s voices and begin to create your own. 

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Your mind has insight and helps you regularly make decisions throughout the day, but on a deeper level, it’s not always steering you in the right direction. By deepening your self-awareness, you learn to discern yourself from your unconscious, change impulsive reactions, and free yourself. It takes time and effort. The benefits are in the freedom to think for yourself, separate from others, and live a more confident and fulfilling life. 

Someone else gave you a script. It’s your job to challenge it. 

What do you tell yourself about yourself? What have others told you about you? Do you believe these things to be true? If so, how does that affect your well-being? 

How to help an addict

Focus on the relationship.

Mis-perceptions of addiction, and an overemphasis of drugs, combined with the undervaluing of relationships, majorly impact the outcomes in treating addiction.

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In drug use addiction, the drug often overshadows the importance of relationships in any form of recovery. Evolving historical beliefs about substance use frighten people. Society does this on a large scale, by throwing people addicted to drugs in jail and calling it reform. Commonly family’s action responds from a reactive and fear-based state and punishes or tries to control the user. Both approaches miss the point entirely, and neither is supportive or fostering progressive change. Society completely misunderstands substance use and substance users. As a substance abuse counselor who works intimately with society’s most marginalized addicts, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective.

Narrow views of substance use often focus on substance as a form of avoidance, with an underlying shame towards the user. Focusing solely on the drug user’s harmful coping mechanisms usually leaves the idea of substance use with a nasty flavor in our mouths, and furthers judgment towards the users. 

While there is significant escapism in drug use, it is only one part of a very complex equation. Many people escape from difficulty feelings all the time, some in more fashionable ways. We tend to rate addictions hierarchically based on a number of factors including, how much harm is caused, and if some corporation profited off of the use. No one ever got thrown in jail because they were addicted to their smartphone or ate too much sugar; many people don’t stage interventions with friends about how much coffee they are drinking. In the drama of society’s problems, illicit drugs are the scapegoat.

As a psychotherapist at a substance use treatment problem, I work with people addicted to illicit drugs. All of my clients have used opiates like heroin, oxycontin, or fentanyl, and many have used stimulants like methamphetamine or cocaine or alcohol to self-medicate their depression, anxiety, abuse, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Clients often talk about the judgment from family members, peers, and primary care doctors; they even get judged while in recovery. Many families have adopted society’s views towards drug use, and as a result, struggle to understand the complexities of how their loved one is struggling with addiction. Worse, many clients in treatment adopt this judgment towards themself, which makes a recovery a bit more isolating, and strenuous. 

No matter where they are in their recovery, clients often make sure to hide aspects of their past or current use from their social circle. It was as if their addiction was a dark cloud hanging over them that needed to stay in the closet of their lives.

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Listening to client’s share their family’s views of their use, treatment, and recovery, saddened me. I witnessed clients working towards recovery, finding difficulty addressing their shame, only to be re-triggered by their family’s dysfunctional belief system. Misunderstanding substance use leads to stigma, resulting in a hindrance to recovery.

While often well-intentioned, those in relationship with substance abusers often have difficulty managing their anxiety and shame, and project their fear onto the person addicted. Loved ones can sometimes shame or try to gain control over drug use and the user. Even if they share the intention to find a way out of the drug-use cycle, these attempts at shame and control often lead a person to use more. Neither side wins, and the pattern continues. 

We cannot solve the problem with the same approach that created it, and so more understanding of substance use on a collective level is necessary for any real reform to occur. Broadening our understanding of addiction and drug use is a critical first step, especially while battling the opioid epidemic. We can all do our part to understand addiction better. 

A significant part of healing in recovery is the support and relationship around the user, and an overconcentration on the drug sidesteps this fact. If you know and care about someone who is battling addiction, offer a different kind of assistance by considering a new perspective: 

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Understand that addiction and substance abuse is an attempt to coping with pain.

Coping mechanisms are our outlets when we need to manage painful physical or emotional sensations. Have a headache? You could take an aspirin or drink some water; If you feel sluggish in the morning, you might get a boost of energy from caffeine. Stressed after a long day, you might have a drink or decide to exercise. Homeless and concerned about sleeping on the street? A stimulant might do the trick to keep you awake all night. All are varying degrees of coping mechanisms. If we recognize that there is pain involved in addiction, we are more likely to bring a compassionate understanding of the struggle of conflict with the person who is abusing drugs. When we focus on the drug as a problem, we lose sight of how it is a medicine.

People who use substances are navigating a way to manage their emotional pain, often in isolation, and without support. The escape into the drug is self-soothing. It allows the user to avoid the pain that might come without the narcotic.  

Shifting your perspective and understanding about drug use and addiction will be a significant step towards helping people in addiction or recovery. 

Take the focus off the drug and put it on your relationship

I work at a medication-assisted-treatment (MAT) program, and at the beginning of treatment, I focus on getting to know my clients as human beings. Using a humanistic, harm-reduction approach, I have no overt or covert views of their use. I don’t attempt to gain control over their use or tell them to stop. I know these attempts would be futile and hinder our relationship. I’m especially mindful of any power dynamics; I focus on creating a relationship where they can talk openly about their use. 

I investigate client’s use with them by asking them, “How does use help you?” “When do you feel the need to use?  and “What does the drug give you that you can’t find anywhere else?” These questions surprise my clients because not only have they not heard this question before, many have not considered the thought themselves. They often know they are finding relief, but many hadn’t pondered from what? A drive for relief tells us that something is needing to be relieved. 

I aim to create a space where clients can trust that I intend to engage in a collaborative relationship with them, not to change their use, but to understand it better. My purpose here is the relationship paired with safety; my goal is not to alter their use but to work with them to understand their use and find safe practices. This approach offers a place where clients end up reducing or abstaining from harmful practices on their own. 

After they feel they can trust me to be honest about themselves, clients start relying on me more, disclosing their deeper struggles, and finding healthier practices in other parts of their lives. With this trust, we can talk openly about any cravings, and consider the outcome if they act on their impulse. Through the relationship, we create a space to think through their feelings and reactions to those feelings.

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Whenever we heal something, be it a physical wound or an emotional heartache, it comes from the recovery environment. Offering an emotionally, safe, and respectful relationship can help people struggling with substance use and addiction recovery much faster. 

Focusing more on the relationship in addiction recovery will often breed much more positive and safer outcomes. We cannot shame or punish anything into sustainable recovery, especially something like substance use addiction, which originated out of shame.  We must shine light into the spaces that are frightening and traditionally dark. We can do this to some extent on our own, and we can do it in relationships with one another. 

Recovery is the process of regaining something that was lost. In terms of substance use addiction, the primary aspect that needs to recover is a loving and supportive relationship. With love, acceptance, and curiosity, healing can happen in relationships, and finding relief in potentially life-threatening ways is less necessary.  

Growth from Shelter

Take back your power. Use curiosity to battle anxiety and discomfort. 

One of the most frustrating parts of the current COVID-19 is continuous unknowns. We can’t know what the future looks like because there is so much we still don’t understand. We don’t know when there will be a vaccine or when we can return to a “normal” life. We aren’t clear how many more people will be affected, and we can’t identify who is a carrier, which makes it extremely difficult to predict the course. For two months, we’ve been trying to grab a cloud of invisible smoke.  

At times, unknowns make life feel uncertain. Too much uncertainty leaves us feeling fearful and anxious. When life feels eerily unsettled, we can adapt by focusing on what feels predictable. For example, you may not know when you can see your friends in person again, but you can predict that you’ll put on real pants tomorrow. While in a place of uncertainty, we have the predictable and monotonous routine of staying indoors. The shadow side of this predictability leaves us unstimulated and bored. We’re consistently unsatisfied. 

Almost two months of a lot of sameness, time feels disorienting. If you’re unemployed or working from home, days start to bleed into one another. Without a change of scenery, every day begins to feel the same. Sunday can look just like Thursday. There’s only so much Netflix, home projects, and walks around the block you can relish in. “Groundhog Day” unites us together, at once both validating and frustrating. We may start feeling increasingly frustrated or irritable. 

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Without school, the calendar year doesn’t allow families and kids to track progress and fantasize about the promise of summer plans. Without a defined end in sight, we only have a murkiness of our hope and more unanswered questions. 

Perhaps you’re safe enough now, but still worried and confused about the future. The rumbling of frustration and itch to get back to life stirs us up. We may protest, rebel, or search for more clues about the future. 

In the northern hemisphere, spring is creeping out from just beyond our windows; the sun beckons us to come out and play. The seasons change, the natural world is birthing life in spring. Mother nature mocks us with her moving forward. 

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As humans, we reach our mental limits. We’ve had about just enough of the people inside the same walls. We crave newness or change. We want what used to feel normal; We want to return to “life.” We want to move with the seasons. 

Stuck inside our homes, and inside our minds, we search for reassurance. Old familiarity feels like water to our dehydrated minds. We reminisce about before and fantasize about the future. We’ll do just about anything except sit still. We resist the time of stagnation; we don’t want to hold steady, and as a result, we miss the opportunity inside of it.  

If you can meet your basic needs, and there isn’t an immediate danger to your health, there is a privilege in hunkering down and sheltering at home. We can take this pause on life seriously, and use it to our advantage. There are many benefits to time out. Our earth is healing, while the majority of humans take time out. Climate change and slowed: the earth repaired its most massive ozone layer hole. Let us each take the opportunity to heal something in our world.

When life squeezes in an unfamiliar way, grab a microscope. Instead of letting our frustration get the better of us, use this opportunity to reflect and consider what needs updating. What can you actively work to heal personally? If you are healthy and safe and your biggest concern is boredom, and a longing to return to life, use this time out to reflect. 

Inside your home, have an inner conversation; Get radically honest with yourself. 

What parts of your life could be improved? What part of the structure of our society needs to change? How will you step into that role after COVID-19? While you’re sitting through the pandemic, where can you take more responsibility for yourself and the direction of your life? 

Where would you like to redistribute your energy? Has this time helped you organize your perspective and priorities? 

Maybe you had more time for home cooking, and you realized you enjoyed it. You might have been surprised that baking bread isn’t that hard, after all. 

Maybe you ended up buying less, and feel better about reducing waste and finally have some money in the bank! 

Off the grind of day-to-day, perhaps you met neighbors, and now you feel a better sense of community. 

Maybe you realized that some things you could go without, and other things were quite essential for your mental health. Or perhaps you noticed you take a lot of your anger out on your partner or kids. Or possibly you see that when you’re bored, you like to check out and binge on food and social media.

Under stress, we feel emotionally squeezed, and many things long-buried away rise to the surface for our review. Instead of focusing on the worries about the struggles, get curious about the message inside.

Amid the chaos of the crisis, we have an opportunity to see the insecurity of our individual and collective foundation. In those moments of confusion and emotional difficulty about still being stuck at home, with life on pause, use this time to your benefit. Deepen your insight, notice your insecurities, and identify where you may need to adjust your agreements. 

Post-COVID-19, whatever the world looks like, how might you like your life to be different? As David Hollis writes, “In a rush to return to normalcy, consider what’s worth going back to.” Use this time out to consider how YOU would like to show up in your world. 

In the seasons changing, mother earth reassures us that while we’re feeling confused and troubled about the direction forward, life continues. Our outside lives will resume one day, and it will look different than it did before. Let’s not be startled by the unknowns of this crisis- let us try and understand the opportunity inside of it. Consider the privilege- the gift- the potential opening inside this time out. We can use it to reorganize our world and ourselves and consider how we’d like to progress it. 

The Space to Be

How do you use your space? Do you give yourself any? 

Reading the news leaves us with daily bombardments with messages of what else we need to do more of: “More exercise! More vegetables! More self-care! More civic engagement! Floss more!” Paradoxically, we get a similar message of what we need to less of: “Eat less [sugar/fat/gluten]! Use less plastic!” Drive less, sit less, use fewer chemicals, and by the way, make sure you don’t worry so much. It’s hard not to get lost in the space between more and less of how we should be living our lives. 

Humans are more depressed, anxious, and unhealthy than ever before. Despite our beliefs that we’re making progress in many areas like technology, our over-consumption and busyness leave little room for space, silence, and rest, which likely contributes to our decrease in well-being. 

In our current society, with so much emphasis on connecting, consuming, and producing, we often have little room to be. With so much external pressure to be “doing,” we’ve begun to equate doing with “living.” Alternatively, we may label making time for non-doing as indulgent, selfish, or lazy. We may even fear space between all the doings, and become unknowingly addicted to doing so much that we avoid not-doing things: we create, we play, we give, we connect! We sidestep silence and space between all the doings.  

Consuming can be thought of as any form of taking in: (eating, reading/learning, watching tv, listening to others, scrolling social media.) Producing is a form of putting out (presenting, teaching, speaking, creating, providing for others.) An unbalance in either without space between the two often leads to instability in a person’s overall wellbeing, and often leading to anxiety, depression, relationship problems, low self-worth, compulsions, and addiction. 

For example, an unemployed person, who lacks a fulfilling opportunity to produce, may turn towards extra consumption: eating more food, watching excessive tv, or playing voyeur on social (and comparing one’s life against others who seemingly have it better.) Too much of this imbalance can result in feelings of depression.

New parents and caregivers of all types often a heavy hand in producing for their dependents, which leads to burnout, drain, depression, poor health, and relationship stress. It’s probably easy for you to identify someone in your life who fits this description: they appear as very caring, thoughtful, and reliable to others. Commonly, caregivers fall into the guilt trap that they are not “doing enough” and try to overcompensate by giving more, with little time to consume or have space for themselves. 

Our current generation of students can feel overwhelmed with the pressures to absorb information as well as produce good marks to keep their academic life afloat and yield good grades. This cycle can repeat itself after one lands a job: Start-up culture is notorious for the competition of who is giving of themselves more, so as not to be outdone by another co-worker.  

Sometimes we consume and produce to avoid that which is unknown to us. Those who identify as a people-pleaser and a caretaker for others might ask themselves what they might be doing if you weren’t so busy focusing on others? We can get so busy taking care of others that we forget about and neglect ourselves.

How many days of the week do you consciously make sure that you have nothing planned? How many hours in a day? If your schedule allows you a lot of unscheduled time, how often do you fill that with something either productive? In what ways do you fill in the gaps in your life? 

We are often uncomfortable in the spaces between consuming and producing. Next time you notice yourself in a conversation where silence appears, see what happens for you. We pick up our phones, might laugh anxiously, ask another question, feel all sorts of awkwardness, or find a reason to exit the situation. Space can feel scary. Anything can contact unnerving when you are not used to it. 

When you allow yourself space that is neither consuming nor producing, over time, you can consciously increase your awareness through noticing, reflecting, and beginning to understand yourself much more. 

Please make no mistake: this will not always be comfortable, nor luxurious; often, it will allow uncomfortable feelings of loneliness, grief, anger, and fear to surface. However, in allowing these thoughts, sensations, and emotions to surface, you have an opportunity to give them space, and attention so that they may release their grip on you. 

When you no longer fear the gap between all the doing of being human, you recognize the gift that life affords you in the being. You can become a witness to the experience, appreciate the preciousness of being alive. As a result, you feel more fulfilled in consuming and producing even more. In essence, you start to recognize when your acting in a way that is avoiding. In turn, this space will enable you to be more able to both consume and produce deliberately and with much more presence. You show up more fully to your work, your relationships, your life.

We might consciously create it to turn inward to understand ourselves more. If we don’t rush to fill in space with producing or consuming, we might find something new, surprising, uncomfortable, or even something buried away in our subconscious.  

Psychotherapy is a place of reflecting, between the consuming and producing; it’s a place of noticing the feelings of all that goes on inside us while we’re busy living the lives outside. Despite the increase in social acceptance of psychotherapy, there is still a collective stigma about creating a space to reflect each week. Many people feel ashamed, ambivalent, or fearful of seeking therapy as if there is something ‘wrong’ with them. Sadly, some may label others who go to psychotherapy in a category as ‘needing help’ in a derogatory sense, that only people who need “fixing” would go meet with a therapist. I have often wondered how it could ever be a negative thing to understand yourself more. I would argue that this world could use more self-awareness, if only so that we would be less inclined to react unconsciously, harming ourselves, others, or our environment. 

Give yourself some space. Space to breathe, to think, to listen to yourself.