Emotional turmoil can wreak havoc on your best intentions in recovery. No matter how recent your experience in rehab or how long you’ve been in effective sobriety, when your emotions tie you in knots, there are bound to be some negative impacts on your life. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, there are things you can do to get yourself back on a more even keel and reassert the balance you so need in recovery. Here are some suggestions on doing battle with your emotions and being able to make substantial headway in recovery. Let’s take a look at some of the more common – and self-destructive – emotions that may be threatening to take you down and impact your recovery. In addition, we’ll offer some tips on how to better manage these emotions and regain your equilibrium in recovery.
Of all the emotions that could affect you in recovery, anger is one of the most powerful and potentially the most self-destructive. Whether you have mismanaged your feelings of anger or simply don’t recognize the signs that anger is taking over, you can learn to be more proactive in dealing with anger and its aftermath. First, it’s important that you learn how to recognize when you are angry. This is more than the times when you feel like throwing something against the wall or you blurt out angry words to others. It is also when you feel all bottled up and like something is about to erupt inside, much like a volcano, with rather predictably unpleasant or nasty results. Maybe you’ve been able to deny that you are angry, rationalizing that something else is going on. But this may tend to drive those angry feelings even further underground where they will fester and boil up again, probably at the most inopportune moment or when you least expect it. When you do find yourself getting angry or suddenly realize that you are filled with anger, are you able to “own” that anger? Do you have successful coping methods for dealing with it or do you just tend to ride it out until the anger subsides? What are the signs that you are becoming angry or are, in fact, already angry? Do you tend to rattle your words off in rapid-fire? Are you exceedingly sarcastic or biting in your comments? Do you have a mounting list of various pains: stomach, back, neck and head? Do you ever resort to violence when you are angry? Do you have to physically leave a room or get away from others so that your anger doesn’t boil over into a physical altercation? How do you deal with angry feelings currently? Do you hide away or isolate yourself so that anger doesn’t jeopardize relationships, your job, or other situations? Do you find yourself engaging in other types of compulsive behavior to help mitigate anger, now that you’re not drinking or using drugs any longer? Now, think about what precipitates the anger. What causes you to become angry? Who were you with when you became angry? What else was going on with you at the time? Were you lonely, stressed out, feeling ill, or exhausted, hungry or scared? When you can pinpoint those situations, you will be better able to deal with the emotion. After going through the process of recognizing when you are angry, listing the signs that show you are angry, and figuring out what causes your anger, you are ready to do something constructive about it. The most important thing to remember is that you decide how you will behave. You can make wise choices or poor ones. It’s up to you. By weighing and balancing one behavior choice over another, you should have enough evidence to make the right decision. In a way, this is akin to talking yourself through a difficult decision. Use reason and be calm. If there is another person that you can talk to about your feelings, do so. If you need professional counseling to deal with your anger, get it. Bottom line: Don’t let anger hold you back from moving ahead in recovery.
Being so scared of taking action that it results in a state of paralysis is no way to live. When you are in recovery, it may sometimes feel as though anything you say or do is enough to bring on the cold grip of fear. Not only does fear prevent you from going ahead with action plans in pursuit of particular recovery goals, it also has a negative cumulative effect on your recovery – or it can, if left unattended. You may be afraid of going back to work, fearful that others are going to treat you differently, to exclude you from conversations, and even to go out of their way to avoid situations where they come into contact with you. You may be afraid that your performance will suffer and this may jeopardize your job or cause you to lose out on a promotion. Fear about how to control your impulses and what you’ll do when overwhelming cravings and urges strike is another damaging emotion that you may need to deal with. At home, just returning from rehab may fill you with fear. Will your spouse be clingy or distant? Will things go back to normal or will you feel as though everything is on edge, like you are walking on glass barefoot? What about being petrified of opening up in the 12-step rooms of recovery or, for that matter, even finding out what it means to live a life of effective sobriety? As with the powerfully destructive emotion of anger, the key steps to overcoming fear is to recognize when you are afraid, to identify the signs that tell you when you are afraid, and figuring out the causes of your fear. Then, you decide how you will conduct yourself when you are afraid. Determine the best strategies to use, varying them and modifying them as circumstances and situations demand. Maybe something you used in the past worked well to help you overcome fear but it isn’t working now. Be willing to be flexible, to adapt and create new coping strategies. Bottom line: Fear will overcome you if you let it. But most fear involves things that have not happened yet or may never happen. Get past fear by letting go of the future. Live as much as you can in the present. Owning the fear and learning how to proceed despite feeling fearful will take the negative power out of it and make you stronger.
With so much that has gone wrong as a result of your addiction, it is only natural that you’d feel some sense of guilt as a result. People should feel remorse for their actions that have brought pain and harm to others, as well as themselves. But guilt should never be allowed to proceed unmanaged, as it is extremely counter-productive to effective recovery. What can you do to overcome guilt? Acknowledge the wrongs you have done and begin to make amends to those people whom you have harmed, to the extent that you can and it won’t cause further pain to those individuals. Talk over your feelings with a therapist if they threaten to overwhelm you. If you feel that you are using your guilty feelings as an excuse to go back to using again, this is a sign that you may be close to relapsing. Go into in-depth discussions with your 12-step sponsor as well, since your sponsor likely will have some helpful suggestions about how to get to work on making those amends and getting past feeling so guilty all the time. Bottom line: Don’t use guilt as an excuse to relapse. Do acknowledge what you have done wrong and set to work to make amends as appropriate.
Another powerfully negative emotion that often affects people in recovery is shame. Whereas guilt arises from feeling you have done something wrong, shame occurs when you believe you are wrong or that something is wrong with you. When shame takes over your life, you tend to have low self-esteem. You don’t value yourself very highly and feel that nothing you can do will make your life any better. Why? At the core, you simply don’t believe you are worth anything. Shame keeps you from getting the most out of life. It often results in fear, an inability to form close relationships, and an unwillingness to seek help, as if you deserve to feel this way. If you feel shame, you may not be able to enjoy whatever small successes you achieve. Becoming overwhelmed by shame, you may feel that the only way to stop feeling this way is to go back to using. Learning to overcome shame may require the assistance of a therapist. There is also a great deal of benefit that can come from talking with a trusted friend, your 12-step sponsor, fellow group members in the rooms of recovery, and your loved ones and family members. The key step to getting past shame is to build or rebuild your self-esteem. When you begin to feel better about yourself, the shame you once felt will begin to disappear. Some recovery experts recommend mindful meditation and keeping a journal to help individuals overcome shame. Bottom line: It is important to recognize that you are not your failures. Just because you may have had some setbacks – even very bad ones – this does not mean that you are a bad person. Begin to work on valuing yourself more highly and recognize that this may take some time, but the effort will pay off handsomely, especially when you find yourself more willing to tackle recovery goals.
People who are just entering recovery often feel like they have to isolate themselves so that they aren’t tempted to get into trouble again, aka, relapse. But steering clear of former friends who continue to use, while strongly advocated by most addiction recovery experts, can tend to bring on intense feelings of loneliness. Being alone and feeling lonely are not the same things. You can be alone and perfectly content to be that way and you can feel lonely even in the presence of many other people. Being alone is a fact. Being lonely is an emotion you feel. What are the dangers of loneliness in recovery? Beyond the obvious negative effect of keeping you away from interacting with others, loneliness makes you more susceptible to cravings and urges. It tends to keep you focused on all the negative things that have happened and may be continuing to happen in your life, instead of proactively taking steps to move forward with recovery goals. While the last thing on your mind may be to go out and be with people, when you are experiencing loneliness that is exactly what you need to do. Make the situation as pleasant for yourself as possible. That is, don’t put yourself in any situation that is likely to jeopardize or threaten your sobriety. Visit close friends who are supportive of your recovery or spend some time with loved ones and family members. Go to a 12-step group and just sit in the back, listening to what others have to say. Bottom line: Give yourself time to start feeling like you again. Recognize that it may take a while to erase these feelings of loneliness. But by being active and surrounding yourself with others, you will be taking the first constructive steps to being able to deal with loneliness so that it doesn’t derail your recovery.
In the heat of the battle with your emotions, it may be tough to be able to see past the current pain and to envision a time without feeling so miserable. Yet this leap of faith is quite necessary in order for you to begin to make some headway, although it isn’t out of the question that you can start to take action and reap the benefits even if you can’t immediately see the results. Often what happens is that someone may feel overwhelmed by an emotion or a combination of emotions and want to give up, believing that whatever they have been doing is ineffective and that there’s no use in continuing. This is completely wrong. The fact is that emotions tend to ebb and flow, varying in duration and intensity. Much like learning how to cope with cravings and urges, learning to deal with painful and powerful emotions involves having a ready toolkit of coping strategies, using them, and biding your time. Remember that you cannot will away your emotions. You cannot simply banish them forever. It doesn’t work that way. But what you can do, and what you must do in order to make substantial headway in recovery, is to learn how to manage them so that they don’t keep you from enjoying the life in sobriety that you have chosen. Recovery is a journey. It is not a race. There is no timetable or list of absolutes that dictates when and what is the only way to proceed. You will find what works best for you – but only if you remain diligent, have hope and faith, and are willing to put in the effort to achieve the results you desire.