How to Get Past the Trap of Self-Loathing

Who in recovery from addiction doesn’t have skeletons in his or her closet – well, not actual skeletons, but actions, thoughts or words we now find repugnant, disgusting, disloyal, illegal, immoral and much more? The truth is that you can’t go through the horror of addiction, then treatment, and into recovery without facing squarely some of those memories you’d much rather forget. And facing them takes courage. Not facing them leaves you at a stalemate: not able to progress, but not yet sliding backward either. But how do you get past the trap of self-loathing? Is it just a matter of time, or are there specific things you can do? The answer is yes to both questions. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Isn’t it always? Don’t worry. There’s nothing here that you can’t do. It’s more a matter of wanting to and doing it.

Recognize the Emotion

When you despise yourself, hate what you’ve done in your past when you were strung out on drugs, spent your days in an alcoholic stupor, gambled away the family finances, ignored your loved ones while you immersed yourself in work, or engaged in multiple sexual affairs, it’s a lot to take in. Your first impulse is to bury it deep, squash it down so far that it will never surface. Your first impulse is wrong. The fact is that you can’t keep self-loathing buried for long. It will always surface, and it will do so in ways that you not only can’t predict, but you’ll feel helpless to counter. Worse yet, extreme self-loathing can precipitate a relapse. So ignoring the emotion is decidedly not the wise thing to do. Think of recognizing self-loathing as opening up the windows and letting the fresh air in. What you’re doing, in a manner of speaking, is recognizing the despicable nature of the acts, thoughts, and words from your past that creep up unannounced and waylay your current activities, plans, how you feel and/or interact with others – just as you’d recognize stale air from a cooped-up house and do something to freshen it up. You have to recognize these powerful emotions and then give them the boot. They won’t stay once you’ve recognized and acknowledged that they are here now, but they’re just remnants from the past. They have no basis in the present. They don’t belong in the new you in recovery.

But it Hurts

No feeling of self-loathing would be worth its trouble if it was just a fleeting negative thought, would it? So saying it hurts is one of your first clues, if you really need any, that this is self-loathing come knocking at your present. Clamoring for attention, self-loathing seeks to distract you from your recovery plan, your daily schedule, to knock you off your game, to sidetrack your intentions. For many, it does a good job and accomplishes its nefarious goal. When feelings of self-loathing hurt too much, you start to feel worthless, powerless, and helpless. Granted the bad actions or words or thoughts you had in the past were just that. There’s no denying it, and acknowledging what you did, said, or thought is part of the road to recovery. And we all know how painful overcoming addiction can be at times. So, too, is the path to recovery. But as a common saying goes: “No pain, no gain.” A little hurt (okay, sometimes a lot of hurt) is necessary as you gain the strength and confidence to move forward in your recovery. You can also look at feelings of self-loathing another way. The sting you feel is a temporary reminder that you still have some things to work on. This is true today and it will be true tomorrow as well. That’s because you never know when the painful reminder of something from your past will pop up. It could be next month, next year, or 10 years from now. Likely as not, there’ll be intermittent barbs of self-loathing. Understand this, and work on dealing with these negative emotions when they occur. Here’s another picture that may help. Think of the cartoon devil poking at the unsuspecting person while the haloed angel seeks to calm. The person makes the choice between the bad and the good in this instance – and in recovery. Sure it hurts when the devil (self-loathing) pricks you, but it feels better when you listen to your angel (your new way of looking at you in recovery). You make the choice: stick with your self-loathing, or get on with your recovery.

Make a List

After you recognize self-loathing as the burbling up of negatives about your past, and feel the pain of its sting, what should you do next to get on with your recovery? It may help to write it all down. Yes, make a list. And you should be quite familiar with list-making assignments from your time in treatment. This list, however, is strictly about the kinds of negative thoughts you have that trigger self-loathing. You might separate it into categories of people, places, and things, or thoughts, words, and actions. Do whatever works best for you, whatever makes it easier for you to categorize what’s coming up in your thoughts and making you feel self-hatred. For example, you might have a recurring thought about the money you stole from your employer to finance your drug or gambling habit. Not only are you constantly worried about being found out – if you haven’t been already – but you secretly harbor a lot of anger and hatred toward yourself for stooping so low. It really doesn’t matter if you rationalized to yourself that your boss was a thoughtless taskmaster or the company would never miss it. That wasn’t you talking, it was your addiction. So, back to your list: put “stole money from employer” on your list as one of the items. Another example of what you might put on your list is the painful reminder that you lost your family due to your infidelity and drinking. Put “lost spouse and children due to cheating and alcohol.” Other examples: ruined friend’s reputation, was violent and abusive to my children, killed or seriously injured someone as a result of drunk driving, squandered my children’s college fund to finance my addiction, and so on. Take time doing your list. You may not think of everything in one sitting, so be prepared to add to the list whenever you find yourself dwelling on some particularly nasty memory of what you did, said, or thought in the past when you were in the throes of addiction. All of this will add up. You may be overwhelmed by what you see on your growing list. Don’t let it rattle you. Remember that these actions, words, and thoughts occurred in the past. They are not in the present. They can’t hurt you if you don’t let them fester, if you take concrete action – like making this list – to do something to move past them.

Figure Out How to Make Amends

Self-loathing stands in the way of self-forgiveness. You need to get past the trap of self-loathing long before you can begin to forgive yourself for your past. One way to do this is to make amends wherever you can and when it will not cause harm to others. But figuring out how to make amends is not always easy to do. How can you make amends, for example, for a person you killed as a result of your drunk driving? What if the person you stole from, or the spouse you cheated on, is no longer living? What if the company you embezzled from is now bankrupt? What if your family was so hurt by your actions that to try to see them again to make amends would cause incredible pain? The strategies and techniques on how to make amends are something that you will learn through your participation in 12-step groups. Suffice to say, making amends is one of the 12 steps, and in order for you to be successful in your recovery, you need to actively work the steps. Your sponsor and fellow 12-step group members can assist you with this particular step, along with all 11 others. They do this in private conversation, readings, lectures, group discussion, and through sharing of personal stories. What worked for one person may work for you or may spark an idea how you can modify the tip to better fit your own circumstance. Once you figure out how to make amends, write it down on your list of items that trigger self-loathing. While making amends may be included as an action item in your recovery plan, it’s helpful here because it shows that you are putting what you learned into action to give the boot to specific self-loathing emotions. And, after you’ve made your amends, if applicable, to a particular item on your list, cross it out with a big green X. Use green because it indicates growth, as opposed to red which symbolizes a trouble spot or problem. If what you need to do is an ongoing thing, you may wish to circle the item in yellow. These are just suggestions, of course, and you don’t need to do them at all. But it may prove helpful to see on paper (or in the computer, if you decide to prepare your list this way) what you’re dealing with in the way of self-loathing emotions, and what you’ve identified as how to make amends, or move past them. Needless to say, this list is probably best kept to yourself. Or you may wish to share some of it with your sponsor. But no one else really needs to know the specifics of everything that’s on your list. If you do decide to talk about it, do so only with the intention of either a) getting support or encouragement from your 12-step group members or b) helping another 12-step member with tips and techniques that have proven beneficial to you in getting past the trap of self-loathing.

How to Talk with Your Spouse

No, this isn’t a primer in specific words to say to your spouse or just how to go about discussion the issue of self-loathing. What it is, however, is a recommendation that you begin to have an open and ongoing dialogue with your spouse or partner about what’s going on with you, what’s bothering you, what may be holding you back. Why do this? Isn’t it enough that you went through treatment for your addiction and are now back home getting acclimated to your new life in sobriety? Actually, it’s because you’re getting acclimated again that you need the ongoing support and encouragement of your chief ally – your spouse – as you tackle each day’s challenges and opportunities. You already know the consequences of burying your emotions. They only come back to bite you – with a vengeance. Keeping mum about your struggle to deal with self-loathing may send a signal to your spouse that you’re hiding something or are turning away or don’t want to share some aspect of your life with him or her. Above all, you don’t want to alienate the person who may be the most important in your life at this time. Just as you’d make an appointment to have any important discussion at work, or to see the doctor, or have your car’s oil changed, it’s vital that you don’t just spring such a discussion on your spouse or partner. Arrange for a time when the two of you won’t be disturbed, or one or both of you isn’t involved in getting the kids off to school or getting ready for work or church or to go out to do errands. Whether it’s the morning, an afternoon on the weekend, or at night after dinner (but well before bedtime so you don’t have unpleasant thoughts before your retire), make it a time that’s mutually agreeable. If you prepare your spouse or partner for the idea that you want to keep him or her informed and part of your recovery plan, it will likely be met with a positive reaction. That way, whenever you want or need to discuss something about your recovery, it’s not seen as a negative. In fact, it’s anything but that. By sharing and being open with what you’re doing to remain in sobriety, you’re giving a gift to your spouse. You’re letting him or her know that their opinion and support is valued and necessary, that it’s an expression of love that the two of you share.

Will Self-Loathing Ever Completely Go Away?

The good news is that self-loathing is primarily concentrated in the early stages of recovery. This is when you’re still fresh from treatment and haven’t yet become practiced in the strategies and techniques you learned from your therapists and in groups. You’re still reeling from the sudden freedom – no more constant monitoring, you can come and go pretty much as you please, no one’s saying it’s time for group or meds or the urine test. But with that freedom comes the gnawing (at first) anxiety that you might not make the right decision, or that you don’t know how to combat cravings and urges, or deal with the feelings of self-loathing that wash over you in waves. After the first few days and weeks of recovery, while you’re setting your daily schedules, attending 12-step meetings, going to see your therapist or counselor, gradually feeling more self-confident, you’ll probably find yourself greeting each passing day with a little more zest. You will make plans for activities that you look forward to doing. There’ll be the recognitions you get from your 12-step group for your first 30 days of sobriety, and then your 60- and 90-day awards, and then your one-year anniversary. Over time, self-loathing thoughts will gradually diminish. You may think they’ll completely disappear, but that’s not realistic. As previously mentioned, you never know when some reminder of your past may trigger a bout of self-hatred. But with your, by now, well-established ways of dealing with unwelcome thoughts, self-loathing won’t ever hold the power over you that it once did – so long ago in early recovery. When you are able to recognize the fleeting thought as a self-destructive reminder about the past, you’re firmly into successful recovery. Remind yourself, silently or on paper or talking to yourself in the mirror, that you are living today in sobriety, healthy and happy and fully committed to being a loving spouse, parent, employee, and friend and to doing good deeds for others without expectation of reward. As a matter of fact, when you live your life as an expression of love – both for yourself and for others – you could say that that’s really all that anyone could ever ask of themselves in recovery. When you love yourself, you do what’s right and good to keep healthy and productive and sober and free. When you love others, you are always doing and saying things that will make their lives happier, easier, and healthier. So, final thought: Stop thinking about despicable me and get on with taking steps to get past the trap of self-loathing. It’s easier than you think. And, yes, you can do it.

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