Contributor: W. Travis Stewart, LPC, NCC writer for Addiction Hope
“Where have you come from and where are you going?
– John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress,
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
~ Step 8 of The Twelve Steps
Where have you come from? It seems like a simple question but, to consider the answer closely is a daunting task that can make the most confident man or woman tremble with fear.
Where have I come from? What is my story? What has shaped me, harmed me, excited me, or caused me to despair? What names have others called me? Why do I do what I do? Why do I believe what I believe?
Fear & Shame
So why do it? Why face the past at all? And why, of all things, make a list of people you have harmed?
A friend of mine once went to see a counselor in order to stop addictive behavior. The counselor told him, “I don’t care why you started the behavior. You just need to quit it.” He’d tried that and it hadn’t worked.
The past has long tentacles that continue to reach into the present. In Disney’s movie The Kid, Bruce Willis’ character who goes to see a therapist.
In the first session he tells her that he doesn’t want to talk about the past because, “it’s in the past.” She responds, “It seems like it doesn’t want to stay there.”
The behaviors you do today are shaped by your past. You don’t need to set up camp in the past but, in order to change compulsive behavior, you do need to understand the dynamics that set it in motion.
Psychologist Dan Allender agrees and writes in his book, To Be Told, “to know our plot is the first step in changing it.”
Change Takes Wisdom
Mark McElmurry is the Associate Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO. Each year, new Master of Divinity students who enroll in the seminary participate in Cohort Groups which lead prospective pastors through the process of telling their life story to a small group of other students. You may wonder, as some of the students do, how this helps prepare young men and women for ministry.
“We believe a key to mental and emotional health is understanding the ways your family and life experiences have shaped you. If pastors don’t have an understanding of this they will be more vulnerable to burnout, depression and moral failure.” says Mark.
In the same way, if you want to recover it will be important to face the past harm done by others to you and done by you to others. This will help protect you from relapse.
Learning to be present emotionally with pain
This may be the most common feature of all who struggle with addiction — a struggle to be present with discomfort and strong (especially negative) emotions.
“[I]t is natural to want to avoid distress, seek out pleasure, or feel relief” says Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz in his book You are Not Your Brain.
He goes to say, “The problem with satiating these cravings or quelling that upset is that your brain then becomes hardwired to automatically choose unhealthy behaviors to calm you down.”
What does looking into the past have to do with learning to be present with emotion? A significant part of the emotional pain results from current circumstances interacting with past experience.
For example, if your boss treats you in a demeaning way, it is not only painful in its own right but, it may also trigger wounds from a parent who shamed you as a child. The current pain is deeper because of past experience – like someone slapping you on the back when you have a sunburn.
Another other reason is to learn to change your response to the pain.
As we experience life, and particularly when we experience trauma or pain, we instinctively try to make sense of it. We create a narrative.
This narrative helps us make sense of things that seem unthinkable – such as our parents getting a divorce or being sexually abused.
Many children in these instances end up blaming themselves. “I must be bad – that’s why my parents are getting divorced” or “I must dressed inappropriately – that’s why I was raped.” This provides not only an explanation but also a strategy to avoid future pain.
Facing your past with the help of an objective and kind person will help you reframe some of the explanations you told yourself and open the door to forgiving others and letting go of self-blame for things you did not do wrong.
But what about the pain I have caused?
Looking into the past may be painful because you have been hurt by others. It will also be painful to look at the hurt you have done to others. This can result in shame, a central factor in the maintenance of addictive behaviors. And it grows in secrecy – like a mold that grows in darkness.
Gerald May, in his classic book Addiction and Grace, says of this repression, “Not only does this take considerable energy; it also means the person cannot be comfortable with himself. He must always keep his mind either occupied or dulled” which of course will lead to more addiction.
The only way out is to tell the truth. To tell the truth you must face the truth. This will be difficult but, it is the path to freedom. Partially because addicts tend to believe that, at their core, they are not strong enough and that they cannot handle pain.
By entering into the pain done against you and the pain harm you have caused others—with the help of trusted friends, therapist and sponsors—you can rewrite your story and learn that you do have strength, which is the beginning of recovery.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
Facing your past is part of addiction recovery. Did facing your past provide immediate results or did healing happen after time? What encouragement would you share with someone that is facing their past?
About the author:
Travis Stewart earned a Master of Arts in Counseling (2001) and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (2003), both from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, MO. Travis is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Missouri and a writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions and co-occurring disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals. We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 18, 2015. Published on AddictionHope.com