How to Go From Surviving to Thriving: More is Possible!

If you’ve been seeking and not finding, I get it.

photo credit: Isaac Davis

If you’ve been on a journey of self-discovery for years and are wondering, “Is this all there is?” I get it. If you’ve gotten temporary relief from acute emotional pain, but the pain keeps coming back and you’re wondering, “why does this keep happening?” I get that too. That was me before I got into 12 step recovery. We have two sayings in 12 step recovery that address these issues.

“Discovery is not recovery” and “Relief is not recovery.”

They refer to the fact that deep, lasting change that deals with causes rather than symptoms is possible. Recovery has been the cause of deep, lasting changes for many, including me. I’ll get into all that by first sharing why I think recovery works. Then I’ll share a bit about me to illustrate these concepts, and dive into what I mean by “discovery” and “relief” as opposed to “recovery.” Hopefully, this will help you understand why the discovery phase you’ve been in for years hasn’t worked. Or, why the relief you’ve gotten is temporary and the pain keeps coming back. My point is to make you aware that the deep lasting change you’ve been seeking is possible.

I’m not saying that 12 step recovery is for everyone, or that everyone needs 12 step recovery. What I’m saying is that there are many tools, tips and tricks I learned in recovery that I never heard of in all my years on a self-help journey. It’s time those tools, tips and tricks make their way out into the world. My writing, podcast, trainings and coaching are all part of my attempts to share what I’ve learned from recovery that so dramatically improved my life, on a very deep level. These tools are not specific to 12 step recovery, they’re for anybody.

One thing I learned from 12 step recovery is that I had deeply entrenched patterns that were not serving me. Most of those patterns (if not all) were outside my awareness. Almost 40 years of discovery did not reveal any of them to me, despite me being incredibly introspective. That meant not much was going to change, and by and large it didn’t. In some ways, things actually got worse over the years.

Why recovery works.

I’m going to use the word “recovery” here to indicate that deep, lasting changes have been made in your life. It’s not just reserved for those in 12 step recovery programs. Keep that in mind as you read on.

Discovery is important but recovery is the focus. We can discover many helpful things. But we cannot read ourselves into changing. 12 Step recovery programs are programs of action. Another one of our sayings is, “We cannot think our way into right action, but we can act our way into right thinking.” This is true in my experience, and in the experience of the people I’ve seen recover.

That’s where another 12 step slogan “Act as if” comes from. The idea is that your dysfunctional thinking is what got you into recovery in the first place! Instead of trying to think your way to a better life (which hasn’t worked yet!), try acting as if you were someone whose life is better. In other words, engage in the behaviors that people who are happy and healthy and thriving engage in. For example, healthy people communicate directly with others, they don’t engage in indirect communication like those who gossip.

Becoming an information gatherer (which is what discovery is all about!) is a form of control. We think if we gather enough information, we can reason out a solution without doing the actual work of recovery. We cannot. If we could have, we would have! This is why many recovery meetings end with the whole group saying together, “It works if you work it, so work at you’re worth it.” It’s not, “It works if you read it” or “it works if you think it.”

And we cannot recover alone. 12 step recovery programs are group programs where there is a community of people who struggle with the same kinds of issues as we do. We recover together. We are compulsive and obsessive in isolation, yet we heal in community. Interacting with others in recovery helps us to practice the principles and tools that bring about real recovery.

The key to moving from discovery to recovery.

The key to moving from discovery to recovery is the desire to recover from whatever repeated patterns aren’t serving you (even if you think they’re other people’s fault!). With desire comes willingness. My experience is that willingness and a Higher Power will get you through (or over or around) anything. I heard this about willingness once and it was really helpful to me, especially in the beginning of my recovery:

“I am willing to use a needle to remove a splinter from my finger. I don’t want to use a needle to remove a splinter, but I am willing.”

And so it goes with recovery. You don’t have to want to do the things you’re asked to do in recovery, but you must be willing. Willing to do whatever it takes. Recovery takes effort. Sometimes it takes monumental effort, which is why we need a power greater than ourselves.

If you think about it, the dysfunctional behaviors we engaged in before recovery (like manipulating, gossiping, controlling, lying [yes, withholding information counts!] cheating, people-pleasing, etc.) also take effort. Lots of effort and lots of energy. If you steer that energy toward recovery and you tap into your higher power to help you, that will be enough. And you will have plenty of strength left over to enjoy the new avenues that open to you due to your new way of life.

A little bit about my journey of recovery.

If you’ve been on a self-help journey your entire life and are always striving to be better, get better, have better relationships, more joy etc., my experience might resonate with you. I took every possible assessment I could get my hands on. Some of them include:

  • The Myer’s Briggs Type Indicator
  • The DiSC Assessment
  • Career interest surveys
  • Handwriting analysis
  • Strengths Finder

You name it! I probably tried it in an attempt to understand myself. I also read a gajillion self-help books. I tried workshops, therapy, etc. and I got lots information about myself, some of which was helpful. But the quality of my life, and especially my relationships, didn’t really change.

There were many things I was doing that I didn’t realize until I got into recovery. The patterns of my behavior were buried deep in my subconscious. As I said, I didn’t know they existed and I needed the process of 12 step recovery to unearth them, and the tools of recovery to change them.

For example, I had a long string of dysfunctional romantic relationships before I got into recovery. The only part of mine I was able to see in those dysfunctional relationships was that I had a bad “boyfriend picker.” It was almost like I had a lever that was broken (“my picker is broken”). I didn’t understand the part where I not only picked them badly, but then I stayed with them! I stayed in most of my dysfunctional relationships for way too long. And I always blamed the other person. I didn’t realize that I was 50% of the problem, despite telling friends numerous times about their relationships, “You’re 50% of the relationship, so you’re 50% responsible for the state of it.”

Many of us have no idea how dysfunctional our lives are. Or, said differently, just how amazing our lives could be. This is especially so if we have no close-up models for how fantastic life can be, or how true intimacy works, or how important direct communication is in every human relationship. So we set out on a journey of discovery, but we never get any recovery. The difference, in my experience, is vast. Discovery is surface level, temporary and intellectual. Recovery is deep, long-lasting, emotional and psychic. By “psychic” I mean having to do with the psyche, the elements of your mind.

The solution is to do some serious thought work, and to take action in the physical world. I’ve written about thought work here, so I won’t repeat that again in this piece. As incredibly important as the thought work is, it’s not enough. In order to undo deep patterns of entrenched behavior, you must change the way that you act. Behavior change is imperative.

There is deep work involved in making true, lasting, behavior change. Deep work requires serious introspection and action. Changed behavior. But you need to understand which behaviors are not working so you know what to do less of, and which ones are working so you know what to do more of. Before I go on, I want to clarify what I mean by relief and discovery as opposed to recovery.

What relief and discovery looked like before recovery.

I didn’t really know what my patterns were, but I knew what some of the symptoms were:

  • A string of dysfunctional romantic relationships with emotionally unavailable partners
  • Many friendships over the years, most of which faded away
  • Uncomfortable and dissatisfying relationships with family (sometimes estrangement), friends and colleagues
  • Drug and alcohol abuse, overeating (often while isolated)
  • Seeking and striving for decades with very little improvement
  • Debt problems, and perplexity at other people’s ability to pay for things I “couldn’t afford” even though I was much older than them and/or made more money than them

I spent my entire adult life and some of my adolescence trying to discover who I was and how to be better. Now I understand that I needed to heal. Back then it was vaguely about being “better.” I thought if I just read enough books, went to enough workshops, seminars and retreats, completed enough workbooks, joined enough groups and practiced just the right kind of spirituality I would “arrive.”

I honestly didn’t know how far I really needed to go before I would “arrive” until I came into recovery. I simply had no idea how dysfunctional I was until then.

I grew up learning dysfunctional ways of thinking and of relating to others that were so deeply entrenched that I couldn’t really see them. Like a fish not being able to see water. Those patterns that I could see I thought were good. I didn’t realize they were dysfunctional. In fact, I remember thinking that I’d inherited the good qualities of both of my parents, and none of the bad! Recovery showed me that I also inherited the dysfunctional qualities of both of my parents!

People-pleasing is a good example of something I thought was good. I thought I was nice. I discovered through recovery that I was a people-pleaser and that it was a dysfunctional pattern. I was trying to manipulate people with my behavior, trying to get them to think certain things about me. Like “Barb is nice” or “Barb is helpful.”

And I could have stopped there — just discovering that I’m a people-pleaser and that it’s dysfunctional. “Ok, good to know. People-pleasing is dysfunctional.” But discovery is not recovery.

I see many people come into 12 step recovery who are just on a journey of discovery like I was for decades. Once they “discover” what their problem is, they think they’re done. So they leave the rooms of recovery. Or maybe they stick around for a while, but they never work through the 12 Steps. One of my former sponsors likes to say, “Coming to a 12-step program and not doing the steps is like having a winning lottery ticket and not cashing it in.”

I was in the discovery phase for almost 40 years before recovery. I learned a little something here and there, and I changed a little bit here and there. But there is a huge difference between Discovery and Recovery. I’ll talk about that difference in a moment, but first — the difference between relief and recovery.

RELIEF: Here’s what “relief” looks like.

Relief is incredibly important, especially when you’re in acute emotional pain. But it’s not enough. It’s about surviving rather than thriving. It’s possible to have more than just temporary relief from extreme emotional pain. There’s a chart below that shows what I mean by “relief is not recovery.”

Chart that shows the many ways relief is very different than recovery (it’s much more shallow and tempoary)

The reason we have the saying “relief is not recovery” is that many people come to recovery in excruciating emotional pain, get some temporary relief and they leave. They don’t understand what’s actually possible for them — that they can change the patterns that have been causing them to be in situation after situation that causes extreme pain. They don’t get that the pain can end. Well, the bulk of it can. No one can live a pain-free life. But you can drastically reduce the emotional pain associated with dissatisfying and dysfunctional relationship patterns.

Some of the people who don’t stick around in recovery might leave because it’s just not for them. For many, though, they’re probably afraid of facing their fears. For others, it’s possible that simply having an understanding of what their issues are seems to be enough for them. They think they’ll be able to manage now that they know what the problem is.

When I first got into recovery, I found an enormous sense of relief almost immediately. I had no idea what was in store for me down the road — just how deeply changed for the better I’d be. That initial relief came from a variety of things, including:

1). Understanding what my real problems were

2). Where they came from

3). That there were others like me who had the same kind of struggles I did

4). That there was a systematic process I could go through to heal and change

5). Others had used this systematic process and changed their deeply entrenched patterns and eventually had healthy, fulfilling relationships and found peace and serenity in their lives

Now I’m going to get into the difference between discovery and recovery.

DISCOVERY: Decades of therapy and self-help books just weren’t enough.

In all my years of therapy and a wide variety of self-help interventions, I never learned any tools. Or at least, I don’t remember learning any tools. I got lots of understanding, but no concrete changes occurred. Actually, now that I say that, I didn’t really get that much understanding either, because I always thought other people (and the world) were the sources of my problems! But that thought was not entirely conscious. This is why thought work was so vital. I got tons of tools in 12 step recovery, including how to do thought work productively. Recovery enabled me to clean up the wreckage of the past. It also gave me an entire “tool shed” for how to manage day-to-day life which used to drive me crazy (like traffic) so now I’m able to go with the flow!

The problem is, my discovery phase lasted for 37 years! From the time I started therapy at about 15 to the time I came into recovery at 52 I’d been on a long journey of self-discovery. Much of that work was about discovery — discovering what was going on with me. But that’s where much of it stopped. Don’t get me wrong, discovery is very important. It’s just not enough.

Victim mentality — it might not be what you think.

I learned lots of things about myself in the discovery phase, but one thing I didn’t discover was how many deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors I had. It wasn’t until recovery that I saw the magnitude of my problems. The largest of which, I think, was my mentality. That is, I had victim mentality.

Briefly, victim mentality is when you think things should be happening in a certain way (i.e., your way) and you get upset when they don’t. It’s as if you see things happening to you as opposed to just “happening.” Traffic is a good example. I acted as if the highway should be cleared of traffic whenever I was driving, even though highways were made for traffic! Yet I didn’t realize any of this. That mentality was so pervasive that it affected every single area of my life:

  • my relationships (romantic, platonic, family, colleagues)
  • my finances
  • my housekeeping
  • my health (mental, physical, spiritual, emotional)
  • my hobbies
  • my thought patterns (black & white thinking, judgmentalism, control, perfectionism)
  • my sleep
  • my self-care (or lack of)
  • my driving…

It wasn’t until I got into recovery that I learned I had victim mentality, and that was a game-changer for me! It literally changed everything. To this day, I still occasionally indulge in that mentality (until I realize it, then I stop). I’ve moved from being someone who reacted to life as it came along, rather than someone who was proactive about life. Today I live my life on purpose.

The worst part was that I didn’t realize any of this. I thought I was relatively “healthy” especially in comparison to how I used to be and others I knew. Until I was about 40, I drank really heavily and smoked tons of weed, so my mentality was, “at least I’m not doing that anymore!” For years I hung out with alcoholics and addicts, and at least I wasn’t that bad.

How did something as huge as victim mentality escape all my years in the “discovery” phase? And how did all those years of therapy never touch on the vast majority of the things I was doing to make my life worse rather than better?

Much of the self-help world, including therapy, just didn’t go deep enough for me. They barely scratched the surface for me. The same might be true for you. I had no idea just how much better my life could be until I got into recovery.

My experience with the many therapists I’ve worked with (except two) was that they were just sounding boards. They might ask an occasional question that was fruitful or recommend a book that was good. But that was it. They weren’t teaching me anything. I didn’t learn what I was doing that wasn’t serving me, and I didn’t learn any coping skills.

I’ve made a table to show what I think are the differences between discovery and recovery. Then I’ll end with a bit more about what recovery has looked like in my life and suggestions for you if you seek recovery.

chart showing the many differences between discovery and recovery (discovery is temporary, shallow and passive)

What recovery looks like in my life.

There have been so many changes in my life as a result of my recovery, I’m going to put a bulleted below list to save you the agony of reading an exceedingly long paragraph. There’s actually much more than what’s listed here. If you’re interested in reading it, here’s the larger list (which is still incomplete, actually!).

  • I can tell the truth about what I really think and feel without fearing what other people think of me (i.e., I care more what I think of me than what others think of me).
  • I don’t feel like I have to have an answer for everything.
  • I don’t feel like I have to respond immediately to people (or maybe not even at all!).
  • I am able to say things like, “This is not working for me.”
  • I am able to hand over anxiety, tension, agitation, worry, etc. to my Higher Power and actually have it removed.
  • I am able to reach out for help and accept it!
  • I am able to tell the truth and not be manipulative by managing information or being helpful so I can get my way.
  • I am much more able to be vulnerable with people, and to be discerning about who is safe to be vulnerable with.
  • I no longer trust people who are untrustworthy.
  • I can share my opinion without being attached to the outcome.
  • I feel whole, no longer fragmented.
  • I feel a sense of peace and serenity most of the time.
  • Though I get disturbed regularly (after all, I’m a human), it’s short-lived because I have tools to become undisturbed.
  • My ups and downs are nowhere near as high or low, and are much fewer and farther between.
  • I don’t feel threatened or fearful about things I used to feel threatened or fearful about (e.g., authority figures, what others think of me).
  • I believe the universe can get along without me being in charge!
  • I don’t live with a sense of urgency 24/7/365

What now?

You may be wondering, “Ok, now that I know more is possible, wtf do I do?” The answer will be different for everyone. For some of you, just knowing that more is possible will be enough. You’ll find your way on your own. For others, talking frankly with your therapist and saying, “I know this is not all there is” will get you there (maybe show them this article to open up the conversation). For some of you, 12 step recovery will be the thing. There are scores of 12 step recovery programs out there, I’m sure there’s one for you if you feel you need it.

For others, life coaching might be the thing for you. We’re at a very exciting time in that there are life coaches for just about every topic you can imagine (for example, there are coaches for people with immune disorders, women with fertility problems, millennial entrepreneurs, plus-sized people who run or want to run, transgender coaches for people transitioning, Black women business coaching). And of course, there’s me. I coach people who want to change their entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior.

This is not all there is.

If you’re dissatisfied with your decades-long self-help journey, there’s a reason. The reason is that there’s more, so much more. It’s possible to change life-long patterns of dissatisfying relationships, thoughts, habits and behaviors. I’m living proof! Let my life be an example to you that deep change is possible (even after decades of searching). You can have more, be more, do more if that’s what you really want. Go ahead. I dare you.

If you like this article, you might want to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those who are struggling with their spirituality, or this page with free resources for people who have addiction or compulsion issues.

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