Why Do We Self-Sabotage in Recovery?

Self-sabotage in addiction recovery is common.

Being in recovery for the last ten years has taught me a lot about myself and other recovering addicts. While we’re all unique individuals with different, often dysfunctional, histories, we also have a lot in common. One of the most common similarities that I’ve seen time and time again is our ability to self-sabotage.

Addiction itself is a form of self-sabotage. When we’re in our active addictions, we depend on our drug of choice to help us escape dealing with life’s issues, which usually leads to bigger problems and more devastating consequences. Active addiction is self-destructive, isolating, and it destroys everyone who is caught in the wake of the disease. Yet, we often go back to it over and over. I know I have. Even after nearly seven years sober, I relapsed last year, reverting to old coping methods that I knew didn’t work.

Why do we do this? I think there’s a simple reason for this complicated behavior. Even though it’s so destructive and chaotic, self-sabotaging feels comfortable, familiar, like wrapping ourselves in warm security blankets, even in recovery. It’s what we’ve always done – it’s what we know. And even worse, it’s what we think we deserve. In active addiction, we feel like the pain, guilt, shame, and negative consequences are warranted. We deserve to lose our progress, our relationships, our dignity, our sanity because we’re not worth anything better. Unfortunately, that way of thinking doesn’t just go away when we get sober. It takes time. And it takes vigilance to not let it sneak back into the soundtracks of our lives.

I think there are numerous reasons that we self-sabotage our recoveries. Some that we may not even realize until much later. I’m certainly not professing to know all the answers, I’m speaking from my own experiences and from what I’ve learned from others in recovery about the art of self-sabotage. That said, these are some of the most common reasons that I think we undermine our recoveries:

Inability to cope with excessive stress. When I was in active alcoholism, the only coping skill I had was to check out of my life by drinking to the point of blacking out. Since then, I’ve learned how to deal with stressful times more effectively, but I’m still no expert. It’s easy to fall back into old behaviors when life gets really rough, and if I’m not paying attention, that can lead me to some dark places.

Guilt and shame. My drinking made me a different person, someone who was unrecognizable to me and to the people who knew me. My behavior created so much guilt and shame in me that I thought I would never be able to let go of my past. Fortunately, working the 12 steps of AA helped me work through a lot of it, especially steps 4 and 9. In step 4, we take a personal moral inventory of ourselves and in step 9, we clean up our side of the street. Through those actions, and God’s grace and mercy, I’ve been able to forgive myself for many of the bad things I did and said. Not all of them by any means. It’s a process, and it takes time.

Fear of missing out. We see booze everywhere; it’s ubiquitous and it’s usually associated with having a good time. It’s no wonder that there have been times, especially in my early sobriety, when I romanticized drinking and all the “fun” that goes with it. Why can everyone else drink and enjoy themselves and I can’t? Well, it’s because when I do, bad things will happen. Just like when someone with diabetes eats too much sugar, bad things will happen. There is nothing romantic about ending up passed out beside a dumpster at Circle K after a night of drinking. I have to “play the tape to the end,” as they say in the program, remembering what happens when I drink.

Stuffing emotions. Oh boy. I am a champion at stuffing emotions and finding distractions to keep myself from feeling them. Of course, my main strategy to stop feeling used to be drinking. Nothing stops an uncomfortable emotion like a couple (or twelve) shots of tequila. The thing is those negative emotions will still be there when the booze wears off, and so will whatever additional messes I created by drinking. When I was in rehab, I remember that my therapist told me, “Your emotions won’t kill you, but your alcoholism will.” That was pretty eye-opening at the time. These days, after much therapy, I am better about sitting with my emotions, talking about them, and working my way through them instead of around them. I do still use distraction sometimes when I’m uncomfortable with my emotions (I’m a TV show binge-watching ninja), but they’re healthier distractions, and I don’t wait as long to get back to what’s bothering me and deal with it.

Low self-worth. There’s no doubt about it, when I drank, I felt like I was smarter, prettier, funnier, and more outgoing than my quiet, sober self. Of course, I know that isn’t true, but booze gave me the self-confidence that I’m pretty sure I was born without. Liquid courage, I’m sure you’ve heard it called, and I had it when I was drinking. When I got into recovery though, I no longer had that artificial boost that I needed to feel like I was interesting or worthy of anyone’s time, and that’s a lonely place to be. That feeling of low self-worth led me back to the bottle many times when I was first trying to get sober. Now that I’ve been in recovery for a while, I do feel better about myself a lot of the time. When I don’t, I can turn to my husband, my friends in recovery, and God for encouragement.

Addiction is a dangerous disease without us adding to it with self-sabotage. But our ability to make things worse is huge, in active addiction as well as in recovery. In both, self-sabotage starts the same way, with destructive thinking patterns. That thinking, left unaddressed, leads to self-destructive behavior, and then it’s only time before we are masters of the art of self-sabotage.

When we get into recovery, we have to recognize the importance of working with a new medium. We need the willingness to try new techniques that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable for us. We need the confidence to use new, healthy tools that paint a whole different picture. And we need the courage to see the canvas as it really is. True recovery means that we have to embrace the art of self-awareness and leave self-sabotage in the past where it belongs.

Winning the Shame Game

I write another blog on the HealthyPlace.com website called Trauma! A PTSD Blog about my experiences with posttraumatic stress disorder (please check it out). My latest post there is about dealing with the shame that comes from being a victim of trauma. That got me to thinking about the shame that accompanies alcoholism, and I thought that it was worth writing about.

I have lived most of my 44 years with a deep sense of shame. Part of it came from the household that I was raised in, I’m sure. Another part of it came from abuse that I suffered later. And still more came from my active drinking days. Now I know that the shame I felt because of things that happened to me was unwarranted – I didn’t ask for any of that. I’ve worked through a lot of that in therapy and with my sponsor. But the alcoholic junk? That’s harder to let go. I caused all of that myself, so shouldn’t I be ashamed?

The answer to that is no. Should I have felt guilt over those things? Yes, definitely. Guilt and shame usually go hand-in-hand, but they are two shame2very different emotions. When I feel guilty about something it’s because I have done something wrong, or even bad. When I feel shame about something it’s because I am getting stuck in the belief that I am wrong or bad – inherently. It’s a feeling of being defective and worthless. While feeling guilty can be useful (unless we stay there too long), causing us to make amends and right wrongs, shame really serves no useful purpose. All it does is break us down and make us feel helpless.

It’s easy to see why shame and alcoholism go together. They feed off of one another and create a vicious cycle of self-destruction. When I was drinking, part of the reason was to shut down the feelings of shame that I had, to escape them. And it worked…briefly. What happened though, was that my alcoholism caused me to create huge amount of wreckage in my life, which gave me more to feel shame over. So then I had to drink more, and then I had more to feel ashamed about, so then I had to drink more…and so it went for a long time.

I know now, intellectually at least, that even with all of the bad choices I made, and the bad behavior I displayed, I am not inherently bad. I am a person who has struggled with many things, has had many regrets, and has had plenty of reasons to feel guilt, but I am not worthless or irredeemable or broken beyond repair. The thing about shame though, is that it still sneaks up on me. The other day I was going over some step work with my sponsor, reading my responses to some questions, and she stopped me. She looked at me and said, “But Jami, you are enough, you know that, right?” I didn’t even realize that the answer I had read was full of shame, until it was pointed out to me.

That’s what I’m talking about when I say that shame is sneaky. I have to be mindful of what I am telling myself about me, and when I slip into that shameful thinking, I have to remember that I am enough…just as I am, right now…and no matter what you have gone through, or are currently going through, you are enough too. Don’t let shame tell you otherwise. 🙂