How to Live a Life of Principle in Recovery

Striving to live a life of principle is good advice for all human beings, but it’s especially important when you’re in recovery. It doesn’t matter whether you’re just beginning your life in recovery or have a few years under your belt. It always helps to add new strategies and techniques to ensure that you remain true to your goals. When it comes to the matter of principle, however, you might be unsure what it really means or where to start.Definition of PrincipleVarious definitions exist for the word, “principle,” but the one we’re concerned with here is the one that pertains to a rule or code of conduct, a standard of moral or ethical decision-making. Principle is always a noun, say the experts, and it’s very often confused with the word principal, which is both a noun and an adjective and generally refers to a person who plays an important role or holds a high position.

When we refer to a life of principle in recovery, then, what do we really mean? In essence, it means living your life according to a rule or code of conduct that you’ve set for yourself in your recovery. It may be a moral principle or it may be ethically-based principle. The point is that you have a principle upon which you base your everyday actions, how you live, what you think and believe, and how you want your life tomorrow to unfold.

Easier said than done? Not really. Here are some suggestions on how to live your life of principle in recovery.

Make Belief in Your Recovery Your Highest Principle

It’s a fundamental psychological tenet that an individual must first believe in himself before he can heal, make progress, or gain the self-confidence with which to tackle challenging tasks or overcome emotional burdens. Much of the work addicts do in treatment for their addiction has, at its core, the goal to lift up the individual’s spirits and allow this belief in self to resurface or to develop. Some addicts have never believed in themselves, having grown up in families with a history of addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, and/or myriad social, psychological and familial problems. Others once believed, but lost their sense of self long ago, buried under years of self-destruction caused by addiction.

In addition, while the counseling that addicts receive in treatment seeks to build up this belief in self, it also has a lot of other profound issues to grapple with – things like deep-seated fears, remorse, guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness. You know all this. You’ve been there. But you can still come through treatment and not yet believe in you.

The fact is that believing in your recovery begins with you believing in you. As a recovering addict, you need to make this central to your way of living. It’s imperative that you truly believe in your recovery. This is the bedrock, the foundation of your life from today forward.

Do you have all the answers? No, of course you don’t. No one does. That’s not the issue. What you need to concern yourself with is not how you’ll do all the things you need to or want to for the rest of your life. Rather, believe that whatever goals and course you set for yourself you will find the strength and the wisdom to make the right choices according to your principles. And principle begins with what you believe.

If you believe in yourself and you believe that living a life of sobriety is what matters most – this being your personal code of conduct – then that’s all you need to start.

Take the Long View

Why saddle yourself with a laundry list of goals that are seemingly impossible? This is a self-defeating tactic that many in recovery employ. The trick is to make goal-setting both reasonable and achievable, and to lay out a series of short-term and long-term goals. The old saying of Confucius, “The longest journey begins with the first step” is applicable here. If someone thinks about walking from coast to coast and the thousands of miles and difficulties likely to be encountered along the way, what right-thinking person would start the journey? If, however, the individual takes it one step at a time, one day at a time, the journey or goal is much more manageable. Surely you can take small steps, make incremental progress toward your goals. Ultimately, while you’re taking small steps, you keep the long view in sight.

How do you set your short- and long-term goals? Think back to the end of your treatment and the goal-setting you worked on with your counselor. If you didn’t go through formal treatment, you can still create your list of goals now.

Go back to the idea of living a life of principle. With this as a starting point, write down goals that you’d like to achieve this week. This can be as simple as deciding that you want to achieve 7 days of sobriety, or go to a 12-step meeting every day, or take on an important project at work, go out for a brisk walk for 30 minutes daily, or whatever. Brainstorm and write your ideas down.

Next, do the same thing for what you’d like to accomplish in one month’s time. Perhaps this includes looking for a new job, beginning or resuming your education or getting vocational training, starting a hobby, applying for financial aid, beginning to restructure your debt, etc.

Think in terms of 6-months, then a year, and 5 to 10 years down the road. Write down anything that comes to you that you think you want to do, accomplish, or become. Don’t censor yourself – just let the ideas flow.

Now, put the list aside for a day or two. In the interim, other things will come to you. Feel free to add them to your list. Give it a few more days. All during this time, believe it or not, your subconscious has been dreaming up ways for you to accomplish your goals – or trying to sabotage them, as recovering addicts know all too well. Now it’s time for you to get back to your list and jot down what you need to get each of them started. Include any training that may be required, or financial aid you may need to secure. Perhaps on your list is repairing a damaged relationship or spending more time with your children. Put down what you need to do to make these goals a reality. Again, don’t censor yourself and don’t give up because you think it may be too difficult or impossible to achieve. Nothing is impossible. It may take a while and it may evolve into a slightly different goal, but all things are achievable.

Use your list of goals as an aid to help you take the long view. Remember that you can revise it anytime you want. It’s only your guide. It’s not etched in stone. Change it according to what feels right to you. This is your life of principle in recovery.

Strive Always to Help Others

“It is better to give than to receive.” How many times have you heard that in your life? There’s good reason for it. When you help others, you are getting outside yourself, out of your own problems, and turning your focus instead toward on how you can give. This is both noble and indicative of living a life of principle. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with religion, although religious principles do advocate such generosity of self. In fact, for the purposes of living a life of principle in recovery, helping others is really a means to an end.

Think about what happens when you do something for another person. And this means genuinely doing something for another because of good intent, not out of a sense of obligation. To do something for others requires conscious thought: I will do something good today to help another person. You may not think the actual words, but the idea is there. If it isn’t, help it along. You can prime your thoughts to lead you in this direction by simple affirmation. Say the words aloud, to yourself. Once you decide that you will look for ways to help others, you will find them.

As always, start small. Hold the door for another person. Say thank you when you receive your meal or latte or receive a compliment. Be courteous and listen to what others have to say before you jump in with your own comments. Give others the benefit of the doubt and try to empathize instead of being judgmental. While these suggestions may seem inconsequential, they aren’t. They’re examples of how you can put yourself in the mindset to get outside yourself and think instead of what will benefit others.

Your neighbor may be incapacitated by an illness. Offer to run errands for him or her or bring over a home-cooked meal or take-out. Help a co-worker who’s struggling to complete an assignment on deadline. If one of your acquaintances at a 12-step meeting has become a friend and is in need of someone to talk to, extend yourself to lend a compassionate ear.

Where this really comes into play is later on in your recovery. One of the principles of recovery is to help yourself and others to lead a clean and sober life. At some point, usually when you are two years sober, you may wish to become a sponsor to someone new to recovery. Just as your sponsor is and has been so instrumental in your own recovery, those new to living a life of sobriety need the same constant encouragement and support. This is truly living a life of principle in recovery – helping others to achieve their goal of sobriety just as you have achieved yours.

Look Past Minor Setbacks

Will it always be a straight path forward? Again, the answer is no. Life simply isn’t like that. There are so many challenges and unexpected occurrences in each of our lives that nothing is pre-ordained or prescribed. No matter how rigidly we try to follow what we’ve laid out for ourselves – our goals, our course of action – there are bound to be times when a slight detour is necessary.

One strategy that may help when you find yourself encountering a setback is to see what you can learn from it. Maybe the setback is that you were passed over for a promotion you rightly deserved or even were promised. This is a blow that happens to everyone at some point in their lives. It doesn’t matter if you are in recovery or never had an addiction. Who knows what’s behind who gets a certain promotion, job, title or raise? Who knows what’s behind anything? Why lament over political correctness, favoritism, or real or perceived discrimination (I didn’t get the job because I’m too old, or they’re holding my addiction against me)? If you can prove it, then you may have a case. If you really believe you are being discriminated against, by all means pursue whatever legal action you are entitled to. But, and this is important, the setback may be an opportunity in disguise. This is how you should look at it.

What about relapse? Addiction treatment professionals recommend that you take relapse in stride. This does not mean that it isn’t a serious blow to your recovery, but it does happen frequently – especially to those in early recovery. It means that you may not have mastered your coping techniques to your fullest, or that you still have unresolved issues that are standing in your way of maintaining your sobriety. In any case, you need to look at what went right in your efforts to stay clean and do more of those. Figure out where things went haywire and change your behavior. Utilize the help of your aftercare counselor, if you have this as part of your overall treatment program. If you do not have aftercare or access to a therapist, talk with your 12-step sponsor. He may be able to offer some assistance in this area – having been there. At the very least, he may point you to some resources that can give you the guidance you need.

Setbacks are merely that – a short detour along the road toward your goals. They are not the end of the world, not even if they involve relapse. It isn’t what happens that counts. It’s what you decide to do about it. Go back to your belief in your living a life of principle. You want to live your life clean and sober. That’s your goal. Double up on your strategies and coping mechanisms that work. If they were successful before, they’ll work again. You can modify and expand on them to make them come second-nature to you, so that you’re not flailing about with what to do about recurring cravings, for example.

Bottom line: Don’t let setbacks derail you. That’s a trap that too many addicts in early recovery fall into, and it’s a dangerous pit that you can easily avoid. Pick yourself up and get back on the path to sobriety.

Evolve and Find Joy in Every Day

Thinking about life as a continuous journey means that you are constantly evolving along the way. Life isn’t static. No matter how hard you try to hold onto something, it’s going to change, to evolve. The best way to approach being able to accept change is to embrace it. You are not defined by your disease of addiction. You have already come through the tough part. You’ve learned about your addiction, developed and practiced coping strategies, learned how to deal with relapse, and how to chart your course for the future in recovery.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Some days will be easier than others. You will gain strength the longer you are in sobriety. There will come a time when you don’t wake up and automatically wonder how you’ll make it through the day without having to fight off cravings for alcohol or drugs or gambling or whatever your drug of choice was. You may not believe this now – especially if you are in early recovery – but it is true.

Along with evolving into the person you choose to become, it’s important to find the joy in every day. You can find joy in little things, like the smile of your baby when he or she awakes, the sound of birds as you go out to the car or do gardening, the sights and smells of nature, of good food, the sound of laughter at family gatherings. Be joyful for your health or for improvements that you are achieving in your health as a result of changing your lifestyle to incorporate healthier behaviors.

When you experience joy in your life, you open yourself up to the possibilities to receive even more joy – and love. Ultimately, living your life of principle in recovery will bring you more and more opportunities to experience your full potential. One final tip is worth mentioning. When you feel joy, give the gift of joy to others. Reward strangers with kindness. Help a friend. Do something unexpected for a loved one. This is living a life of principle that keeps on paying dividends throughout your recovery.

Posted on June 5th, 2010

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