The great Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron once suggested in a recorded talk that we hang a sign in our kitchen that says, “Abandon hope”. At the time, I agreed with the listener who exclaimed, “That’s outrageous!”
Hope is of course essential to peaceful, purposeful lives. The lack of it can lead to despair or nihilism. Hope offers solace in stressful times, a balm for chafed nerves; it often marks the road forward.
But there’s a catch. Hope, like fear, is usually about the future. Fear says, “Something bad is likely to happen”. Hope says, “It won’t be so bad, in fact it might not happen at all.”
Notice that both statements are about the future, rather than the now. Too much focus on the future can create a detachment or dissociation from the present, on one’s current feelings, perceptions, or overall experience. But experience is our greatest teacher. If someone is mistreating us, it is our bad feelings which tell us so; if we’re feeling loved, it is our emotional and psychic experience which tells us we’re safe, cared for, and so on.
We also learn from our present needs and desires which path to take, which roads on our personal “map” look promising. Passionate suffering, or positive relationships with others tell us whether we’d like to stay where we are, or seek safer ground.
I’m not suggesting we wallow in emotionalism, but rather become attuned (or seek help in doing so) to our own emotional experience, to interpret the language of the heart and spirit. For it is our current experience which, with some discernment (since these things are often subtle), tells us what to do and where to go.
This is one reason why we therapists and psychologists are always repeating that cliché, “Get out of your head”. We can fantasize so much about better scenarios in the future that we fail to take action in the now. Living only for the future, or fearing that the future will only be a repetition of the past, creates paralysis, which in turn creates cynicism, self-loathing and bitterness. These things push away opportunities for growth and prosperity of all kinds, be it emotional, financial or otherwise.
I see this all the time with clients who love, and live with, people with addiction. Life in a house or relationship where addiction is present can be so painful that, sometimes, thinking of a better future is the only way to tolerate or survive. It’s horrific now, but it will be better when…(fill in the blank). The only problem is that “when” may – like Godot – never show up.
Thus, too much future-focus leads to present despair, which only creates obstacles for change. Cynicism, for example, gets us thinking, “well, why bother doing anything at all…things will never change, life will always stink, guess I’m screwed.”
Interestingly, this line of thinking parallels the rationalization of someone abusing substances – i.e., “it’s a stupid, unfair world, so who cares, might as well get loaded.”
Why bother changing, if change is meaningless? May as well keep doing what you’re doing, and getting what you’re getting (i.e., misery).
In spite of any bitterness, spite or rage you might be feeling, if you’re living with an addicted person, the desire and need for a more unified, loving connection pulses somewhere beneath the surface. I’ve never failed to find it, however faint, in anyone I’ve been honored to work with in my practice, even folks who come in saying, “I give up, it’s hopeless.” (I always congratulate them on their strength and courage in seeking help.)
The bottom line is that something, or rather someone, needs to change, in a situation rife with stress and heartbreak. As the old adage goes, “if you want something different, do something different.” Usually the members of an alcoholic family freeze with anger or fear at this point, as if to say, “Sure, we need change. You first!”
Why not you?
Clinical observation in the mental profession has shown repeatedly that if one person changes, the entire family “system” changes. And addiction always adversely affects the system as a whole. The system becomes chaotic and volatile, yes, but patterns and routines – or homeostasis – emerge. The idea here is that something, no matter how small, must be done to shake up the system. But why should the non-using person take that step? Isn’t that the responsibility of the one drinking or using?
Partners or families of people with addiction are always shocked at how hard it is for them to adjust, when the partner gets sober. They report to me high levels of fear, sadness, anger, or other intensities – because holy heck, their partner is actually listening! They, like the addicted one, are “de-thawing” from a traumatizing eco-sphere where feelings get ignored, rejected or stuffed. It’s understandable, albeit naïve, to think that, if “they” get their act together, “I” will be much happier. Changing one atom affects the whole molecule, even when that change is positive.
Sometimes families of addicted people say to me, “I don’t want to rock the boat” by seeking help for themselves. I say, “Yes, you do!” Because if addiction is present, the boat is likely to hit the iceberg anyway, with or without you. Why not increase the odds of positive change by doing some rocking, to see if you can wake the captain and crew from their slumber, and change course?
It may sound a bit counterintuitive. In many areas, when we’re unhappy with a situation, we change it from the outside. Don’t like your grocery store or gym? Find a new one. Have a headache? Get aspirin. Don’t like that show? Change the channel.
But this is different. Not only because you can’t trade your partner or family in for a new one (though there are moments you wish you could), but also because there are circumstances wherein the only thing you can change is yourself, your own thoughts, feelings, perceptions, to jar the overall “system” towards healthier functioning.
To expose denial. To set healthier boundaries. To start telling your authentic emotional truth, without rage or fear. To say to yourself, “No, I’m not crazy, things are really messed up around here and I can trust my observations and feelings.” To get some support for standing up for yourself, against the abusive patterns of addiction.
It really is possible. Of that I’m hopeful…
© Copyright 2011 by By Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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