It’s a common enough story: A person quits drinking and stays sober for months or even years. All signs point to success—they seem happier, healthier, and have a new enthusiasm for life. Then, one month later, they’re struggling with alcohol again and feel like they’re back at square one.
Lasting recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD) is very much possible, and happens all of the time. But, for most people, sticking with sobriety or moderation takes ongoing commitment, hard work, and self-awareness. One of the biggest reasons for this is that the challenges of recovery evolve over time. Complacency is one of the major pitfalls that can emerge later in the game, and is a common reason why people in long-term recovery relapse.
What Is Complacency?
The definition of complacency in recovery is best summarized as a sense of self-satisfaction, accompanied by a lack of awareness around potential dangers or shortcomings.
It is human nature to become complacent after some progress. For example, after losing 10 pounds, many people feel they can start eating junk food again—even though cutting out junk food is how they achieved their weight loss to begin with.
In recovery, it is tempting to become complacent after meeting one’s goals for a period of time. Many people become overly confident, and become less consistent in following the strategies that got them into recovery. In my experience as a coach, aside from unmanaged triggers, complacency is among the most common reasons people fall back into unhealthy drinking habits.
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What Are the Dangers of Complacency In Recovery?
Many people I’ve worked with in recovery have shared stories of how they are able to reach their goals, but aren’t able to maintain them for more than a few months at a time. The six month time frame seems to be the danger zone for someone becoming too complacent in their recovery.
Many have shared that when they become complacent they stop practicing self care, because they feel better about themselves and their situation. Oftentimes, individuals in recovery might willingly place themselves in triggering situations because they become too confident. They may go to bars, or start associating with heavy drinkers again, which can lead to unhealthy decisions.
I have a saying for people to follow in recovery: “Be Smart, Not Strong.” In other words, don’t intentionally place yourself in risky situations to “test” yourself in recovery unnecessarily.
Tips For Avoiding Complacency
Aside from avoiding unnecessary risks and triggers, here are some other useful tips for avoiding complacency in recovery:
- Always have a healthy concern about returning to unhealthy habits. Understand that many times a relapse can happen “quietly” for some time before the actual relapse happens. Be mindful of individual red flags such as lack of self care, unmanaged stress, etc.
- Maintain self care and coping skills, even when things are going well. Self care should remain a permanent lifestyle change, even when things have improved.
- Do something that helps you remain mindful of your recovery. This might mean attending support groups like SMART recovery, or other online or in-person groups.
- Maintain a healthy support system, including other people who understand recovery and can provide positive support.
- Remember that recovery is about maintaining goals, not just achieving them. Avoiding complacency isn’t just about getting to where you want to be—it’s about staying there.
Online programs are another solution for getting some long-term support. You may no longer need the same level of care as you did at the beginning, but access to online groups and coaching meetings might be valuable in keeping you on track. Maintenance medications like acamprosate and naltrexone are also useful in reducing cravings and avoiding relapse.