Radical Self-Acceptance and Recovery
It's a new year, and with it comes an opportunity to reflect and consider who we are, who we want to be, and how we feel about ourselves. Most importantly, it's a chance to understand that how we feel about ourselves is a key component of a healthy recovery. In this first of a two-part series, Carmel shares with us what "radical self-acceptance" is, and how it has impacted her sobriety.
What have you found to be some of the common emotional pitfalls of substance abuse recovery?
I would say that one of the most common emotional pitfalls I have found is the idea that an individual in recovery “should” know how to handle and overcome unexpected or difficult situations even though they may have no prior experience to draw from. This idea alone causes major unnecessary strife in the recovering person. The unrealistic notion that we ought to somehow know ahead of time, how to feel or respond to situations that may arise in the future, becomes an obstacle when we are also seeking to practice the life-saving spiritual principles and steps. This idea often compels the imagination to drag us out of the present moment into some imagined emotionally charged guessing game where we/others are victims or villains, anticipating losses or struggles, making up scenarios in our mind that for the most part do not serve us.
Another pitfall I have experienced and noticed in other recovering individuals is the belief that one has to earn love, respect and feelings of goodwill from oneself. Oftentimes the habit of unconsciously withholding unconditional love and acceptance from oneself perpetuates feelings of separateness and promotes thoughts and beliefs of inadequacy and unworthiness. Becoming aware of the various ways, both subtle and obvious, that we are conditional when extending love to ourselves and acceptance of ourselves allows for a new experience of vulnerability and intimacy which is an essential aspect for ongoing fulfilling sobriety.
Describe "radical self-acceptance," and how it's related to your recovery?
Radical Self-Acceptance is the revolutionary stand that no matter what thoughts we may have harbored or what we may have done or not done, and no matter what experiences or traumas we may have incurred or feel culpable in, we willingly choose to extend unconditional love, positive regard, and wholehearted acceptance towards ourselves. Radical self-acceptance reconciles those painful stories and beliefs that we hold about ourselves and chooses to extend an olive leaf branch, embracing those places within that we have rejected and named unlovable, not good enough, and unacceptable. The very human need of belonging and being accepted has been put in the hands of others, whether its family, society, peers, and community, to such a great degree that we have unknowingly relinquished the privilege and work of accepting ourselves fully. Of course we come to this through no fault of our own. The conditioning that has shaped us through family dynamics and also culturally, is that we must earn everything, whether through sacrifice or hard work and maybe, just maybe we will be appreciated or acknowledged or unconditionally loved. The need for acceptance is essential to our ability to thrive and we arbitrarily hand it over to just about anybody, except ourselves.
In my own work I recognized the need to get “radical” with self-love and self- acceptance when my former husband chose to end the marriage. I was devastated but had acceptance around his decision because I truly loved him so I could let him go. Of course my work began there but the urgency actually emerged when I found out he was leaving because he had fallen in love with another woman. Up until that time I was under the impression that “most” of childhood pains, the confusion, and the self-loathing I had discovered through step work had all been neatly understood and healed and put in a nice box with a bow. Boy was I mistaken. The wounded (zero to twelve year old) girl within me reared her head back and screamed in condemnatory pain. Slowly the inner critic began whispering in my ear, “He left because something is wrong with me. I’m not smart enough, pretty enough, good enough, etc. I should have been more fill in the blank. It’s my fault. I blew it. What’s wrong with me?!” That noise got louder and louder and I noticed my usual gratitude and joy, the carefree spirit I enjoyed expressing, had slipped away little by little and had been replaced with a painful internal battle.
Recovery had already shaped me enough to know that it was because of my own thinking that I was suffering. I tried to “think it away” with my recovery know-how and of course my own experience, strength, and hope. That solution left me even more frustrated. After an especially difficult day I came home to a broken swamp cooler in the middle of summer and I had no idea how to address is. My former husband had been the fix it guy and I had conveniently (mistakenly) acquiesced my responsibility in caring for such things. So I call him and I am told that calling him is no longer an option and I immediately feel a loss of dignity and self respect. Ugh I can’t believe I did that, I say to myself. Another demoralizing blow and I berate myself relentlessly in the mirror. All tendencies for kindness and gentleness are gone. Angry tears are flowing and I am having it out with myself fiercely. I am yelling all the mean things I have been afraid are true about me and suddenly I catch a glimpse of myself. I stop yelling and stare into my eyes. I see the tears, the anger and fear, and the confusion and pain. All of the sudden and without any conscious effort I feel a softening occur within me. The softening is evident in the reflection in the mirror and what was just a few short moments before, a fierce penetrating stare, is now a gentle gaze. There was a resounding silence that left me speechless. The feeling that came over me was of a deep and abiding compassion. I felt a familiar resolve. It was reminiscent of the moment I consciously accepted the gracious gift of sobriety and committed myself to honor it as it would remain in my care. With this same resolve I gazed into my eyes and lovingly apologized to myself. I promised that I would never call myself names again nor would I abandon myself in that way. With my hand on my heart I dedicated myself to unconditional love and the honor of accepting myself, as I was and as I was ever becoming. I smiled at myself in the mirror. I don’t know how long I stood there. The woman who had once stood there was made anew. It was a powerful transformative moment for me. A truly necessary experience and one of my favorites.
Based on your experience of developing radical acceptance, what would you tell someone about it who is newer to recovery? And what would you tell them even if they've been in the program for a long time?
I would first invite them to be willing. Be willing to open their mind and heart to themselves. Then I would invite them to get curious and self-reflective and consider the idea that the whole time they were descending into alcoholism and addiction, in the attempt to alleviate their own pain and suffering, in truth they were seeking to love themselves. That would be a good start into the conversation of radical self acceptance. The notion that, although we are generally mistaken about how to go about it, we are seeking to help ourselves.
We will be posting Part 2 of this two-part series next week. Stay tuned!