In the third season of the television series Breaking Bad, protagonist Jesse Pinkman winds up in a recovery program for methamphetamine abuse. When his group therapist explains how addiction ruined his life—causing him to kill his six-year-old daughter—Jesse asks how he came to terms with the tragedy.
“I did hate myself for a long time,” the counselor replied. “But it didn’t stop me from drinking and getting high, it just made it that much worse. Self-hatred, guilt, that accomplishes nothing. It just stands in the way … [of] true change.”
Unfortunately, most addicts aren’t blessed with the same advice. They’re sometimes told they “chose” the path to addiction, that their problems are their doing. They may feel personally responsible for criminal offenses, marital strife, or workplace confrontations sparked by their alcohol misuse. They watch their lives crumble into never-ending dramas and feel helpless to stop the chaos.
And at the end of the day, they know the word “addiction” might as well mean “inadequacy.”
Alcohol and shame have a chicken-and-egg relationship. On one hand, many drink to numb negative emotions. But this quick fix rarely lasts for long. After drinking, most find themselves repeating common, booze-fueled mistakes—such as showing up to work hungover—and mercilessly beat themselves up over it. As the regrets build, so does the urge to drink once again.
The cycle not only locks problem drinkers into a perpetual downward spiral, but sours their self-esteem. Many find themselves tangled in a sticky web of self-loathing, so instinctive that they don’t notice it from day to day. This state of mind can foster feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and dejection.
As the group therapist in Breaking Bad implies, the key to recovery isn’t being more disciplined, more self-critical, or “better” in general. Instead, one must foster new ways of coping with painful emotions and hush his or her vicious inner critic. In short, the key to recovery is self-compassion.
The term “self-compassion” gets tossed around a lot these days, but what does it mean, exactly? Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness and non-judgement, even when one believes he has failed beyond repair. It also means becoming sensitive to one’s inner emotions.
There’s a reason self-compassion has debuted in addiction recovery programs as of late. By accepting misfortune and moving on, one gradually learns that he or she doesn’t need alcohol to cope with feelings of helplessness. In her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Dr. Kristin Neff describes three steps to achieving self-compassion:
- Consider how you might treat your best friend if she was in a difficult situation. You would probably listen intently as she vented; reassure her for trying her best; empathize with her feelings; encourage her to push forward; and remind her that you’re always there for her. Dr. Neff suggests treating yourself with the same kindness during tough times.
- Recognize the common humanity in your struggles. Everyone is imperfect and everyone makes mistakes. We all experience agony and regret from time to time. Although you might feel like a massive failure, remember that you are not the first person to have lost a job; started an explosive argument; disappointed a son or daughter; or fumbled in some other way. Knowing you’re not alone can alleviate overwhelming feelings of isolation.
- Trying to control your emotions is like trying to stuff toothpaste back into a tube: the longer you’re at it, the more of a mess you’ll make. Instead of ignoring, exaggerating, or pushing away uncomfortable emotions, you must learn to be mindful of them. When a painful thought comes to mind, for instance, you can practice mindfulness by simply tolerating and reflecting on it—in other words, letting it pass just as naturally as it came.
In many ways, mindfulness is the crux of self-compassion. Rather than getting rid of negative emotions, mindfulness helps us improve the way we respond to them. In particular, it allows problem drinkers to pause and think before reaching for a drink—an essential tool for lasting sobriety.
Take the following scenario for example. Let’s say you’re lounging on the couch, leisurely flipping through TV channels, while waiting for your wife to come home from a long night at the office. Getting bored, you absentmindedly gaze at the door and check your phone. You can’t help but feel lonely.
Suddenly and inexplicably, old resentments start to crop up in your head. “She never makes time to see me, always cooped up in that cubicle. It’s like she doesn’t care about our marriage.” Feeling foolish and helpless for having to sit around, you experience a strong urge to drink. Never mind that you promised you’d quit, or that an argument will be full speed ahead if you do.
If you were to think mindfully about the situation, you might slow down and take a deep breath. The moment you noticed a judgmental (or potentially misleading) thought, you might focus on the pounding of your heart; the quickening of your breath; the nature outside your window. Yes, you would still feel pain, but you wouldn’t have to do anything destructive about it.
Mindfulness might seem too good to be true, especially if you often wrestle with all-consuming emotions. Indeed, mindfulness requires you to step outside your comfort zone, but you might find it easier than escaping or inflating your feelings. Here are some ways to incorporate the practice into your own life:
- Every time you start to feel resentful, hurt, or unappreciated—feelings that often precede relapse—keep in mind that “thoughts are not facts.” Try writing down thoughts you suspect are irrational (i.e., “this job is a waste of time”), along with evidence for and against the claim. Is the situation truly black-and-white? Could you be misinterpreting it or assuming wrong?
- Similarly, try reassuring yourself when overwhelming feelings arise. You could say something like: “Feelings are only temporary; actions have consequences,” “I may not be able to change the situation, but I can still take care of myself,” or “You’re strong enough to get through this.”
- Try a mindfulness meditation routine next time you feel upset. This involves focusing on a sensation, such as hearing, and then on your emotion. Keep repeating the cycle with new sensations until your feelings start to lose intensity.
- Make a goal for yourself next time you attend an event. Do you want to drink one or two glasses of wine, max? Do you want to have a pleasant time without starting any fights? Although negative feelings often come up out of the blue, you can choose not to act on them by remembering your goal. Afterwards, you’ll feel much more empowered than before.
- Maybe you drink every time you feel rejected or criticized. Next time, try a new coping strategy. This could mean calling a friend, taking a walk, listening to music, gardening, or just sitting down and thinking silently. Experiment to find out what feels best—the sky’s the limit!
- If you often have trouble regulating your emotions, consider visiting an addiction specialist or taking a mindfulness-based skills class. Examples include Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Ria Health also helps problem drinkers achieve their goals, both drinking-wise and emotion-wise. For one, our team combines CBT techniques with personalized feedback. We also help members find better ways of coping than falling down the bottle. By providing weekly support and encouragement—even amid setbacks—our coaches remind members that they haven’t failed, but are instead withstanding the hard (yet rewarding) path towards a better lifestyle.
To learn more about what we do and how we can help you or a friend, visit our website or speak to a friendly representative today.
Kimberly Nielsen writes about health issues, and has written for various scientific newspapers and blogs. She is currently studying biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in Public Health.