The Emotional Dimension of Recovery, Part 1

Part Two

A Christian friend once told me, “Well, why even talk about feelings, because you can’t trust them anyway. The Bible says, Have faith and don’t trust your feelings.” Well, that’s not really a healthy attitude at all, because feelings are real. Denial is all of these repressed and stuffed emotions, and part of sobriety and getting better means that all of a sudden all of the pain that has been pushed down. And anger, and everything else that has been there, is going to start rising to the surface, and these people will start feeling depression and loneliness and fear. And we need to be prepared to hear those things and to respond to them in a supportive, kind way. It doesn’t mean that — and some of those feelings are not accurate at all, but still need to be respected and accepted. It has to be there.

Addiction affects the whole person; body, soul and spirit.

Persons who are high on the Self-Awareness theme are in touch with their own emotions. They can name the feelings that are surging through themselves. The emotional dimensions of their behavior enables them to remember the things, the exciting things, and the difficult things, that happen over a period of time. As they grow, they can discuss their emotions with other people and they will tend to express them to other people rather than keep them inside. Then, they can talk about how they feel about their own life and its hurts, they can say that and then ask for help in making the corrections. They can own the bad things that have happened to them in their life, and they can know the good feelings that they want to achieve.

When the Self-Awareness theme is limited, people tend to be patently unmotivated. They have little that excites them either positively or negatively. If they have feelings, they are confusing rather than something that drive them to action.

Children from addicted families have learned to survive by suppressing their emotions. They are told that their perceptions are wrong and that their feelings are not acceptable. So, we need to let them know that it’s OK to have feelings and that they won’t be rejected for having them.

Growing up in an alcoholic family is certainly traumatic. In these homes, children experience a daily environment of inconsistency, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial, and real or potential violence. Survival becomes a full-time job. PTSD also leads to a condition called “psychic numbing” experienced as a sense of estrangement and being detached to the point of feeling there is no place or group to which we belong Emotions become constricted, especially in the areas where intimacy, tenderness, and sexuality are involved. Is it any wonder that these children are eight times more likely become addicts themselves or to marry an alcoholic or drug addict.

The best way to help these children is to lovingly assist them to “break the rules” of their dysfunctional family. These rules, according to Claudia Black in her book It will Never Happen to Me are “don’t trust, don’t feel, don’t talk.”

In 1992, the Knox Area Rescue Ministry commissioned a study of recovery from homelessness by the SRI Gallup organization. This survey identified six critical “life themes” that separated those homeless people who recovered from those who did not.

Anyway, not stuffing my feelings is part of self-care, and that is a big part of it because that’s that whole shame-based thing that I know and I learn through the Scriptures that God loves me and I’m forgiven and that gives me a worth. That is a big part of the spiritual things we teach at the mission. I just want to add that there is a big difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is a feeling related to a specific wrong behavior or attitude. That is what guilt is. Guilt is tied to behaviors, basically. It is a signal from my conscience. That is what guilt is. But shame is something very different. Shame is a perspective on me that is a self-rejecting, self-hating thing. It is an inner sense of worthlessness, of no value, of being bad. Not the healthy kind of guilt that the Bible gives us, but a sense of I am bad and unredeemable and hopeless. All those are messages that come from shame.

For me, that’s probably been the most gratifying, important aspect of my personal recovery. Growing up in a painful, dysfunctional family, the way you survive is the way Vietnam veterans survived in the face of their situation, and that is, you can’t live by your feelings. You can’t let feelings interfere with what you try to do. So, to survive, you take your feelings and you push them down until they’re not there any more, because you can’t live with the pain that you feel otherwise. It’s interesting that Dr. Tim Cermack in his book about adult children of alcoholics has a whole chapter of relating the experience of adult children of alcoholics to the Vietnam veterans and dealing with people from dysfunctional families actually from a post-traumatic stress disorder model. And what is post-traumatic stress but being in a dangerous situation that is out of your control, and all the ways that you adapt to that situation just to get through it. So many of us who have grown up in dysfunctional families, we might be adults, but we’re still coping with life through the skills that we learned in that dangerous situation.

For me, one of the greatest gifts of God that I got through recovery is to feel again. When I was drinking and using, I had two feelings — good and bad. As my addiction progressed, I only had two feelings, too — bad and worse. Basically I used to feel bad so I wouldn’t feel any worse. So here I get myself into a situation where I fall in love and have to live with a woman who wants to know what is going on in my heart and needs to know where I’m at emotionally. I remember so many times early in my marriage where Carmen would say, “Well, what are you feeling?” and I would just say, “I don’t know what I’m feeling. Nothing, I think. I don’t know.” A lot of times we call that living life from the neck up. You can’t be a whole person if you’re living life from the neck up.

As I said earlier about rescue missions, the need to focus on cognitive learning. Well, what is that? It’s only from the neck up. I had tons of right information, but it didn’t effect how I lived and didn’t give me real freedom inside, because it wasn’t just from the neck up that I needed it. It was all the way down to the heart and to that emotional dynamic of my life. And as I’ve grown in recovery, I found out that there are hundreds of different emotions, from humiliation to exhilaration, and that’s a really beautiful thing.

Now you talk about recovery programs, that’s an important dynamic that we cannot forget, that we manage a process and we maintain an environment where people can begin experiencing feelings and expressing feelings in a non-judgmental way.

On a personal note, with little or no sense of control of my circumstances, if I am passive in the face of dangerous systems, guessing at what is normal, if I avoid social support and am out of touch with my feelings, I’m a mess. If I’m an addict and I’m homeless besides, I’m in pretty sorry shape. Basically, that is where everybody is. So, I conclude that there is only one thing left that God can use for folks like me, and that’s pain. That’s about the only thing. If what I’m doing hurts so bad that I’ve got to change, then something will happen in my life.

Out of touch with emotions.
How does this happen? Most people who become addicts are like me, from a alcoholic, dysfunctional family. We grew up stuffing our feelings as a means of survival. Living in the “heavy” emotions that result from being in a home where one or both of the adults are out of control with their addiction. You might think that all the pain we experienced would make us hate everything about drinking. Some do. But, most of us follow our parents in the “better living through chemicals” approach to coping with live.. The first time we use drugs or alcohol we discover why our parents do – it works! Boy, I feel great and I don’t feel those “heavy” emotions at all when I’m drunk or high.. Managing one’s emotions through chemicals is one of the primary indicators that a person has moved from substance use to substance abuse. As this becomes a way of life, addiction sets in.

Somewhere, if you start managing your emotions through chemicals, you’re going to run into some consequences, aren’t you? For me it was getting caught by my mom, and I got a heck of a lecture. “Hasn’t your father’s drinking caused enough pain around here?” You know, that one. And other things began to happen. And there are some people that when those consequences hit, that’s the last time they drink. But, I needed some what to manage my feelings and drugs and alcohol was the only thing I knew that worked.

And so what begins to happen, then, is the process of denial begins to develop, because the consequences really are emotional consequences. But if I’m not responding to them in the proper, appropriate, healthy way, all these feelings get pushed down even farther. As a result, I get more out of touch with who I am and what I feel. And so you see what begins to happen, then, is along with the denied emotions, also you couple that with rationalizing and blame-shifting and minimizing, and that’s also part of denial. Not only are these emotions getting stuffed down, but rather than taking responsibility for what’s going on, I begin to look outward and forget them, and blame others for what’s going on. Because I don’t what to give up the one thing that seems to be working and making me feel better. That can’t be the problem here — it’s got to be something else! So I minimize and blame shifting and rationalizing.

So what happens after awhile, of course, is the consequences get greater and greater until what happens is you don’t — you get out of that elation high period, and you just use to feel normal. And that’s where you lose control. Because you’re so stuffed full of denial and heavy emotions that have begun to pile up on you as your using gets worse, that you use more. Pretty soon the problems that your using to solve are the problems that using caused, and there you are — addicted. And you’re stuck! And that’s what this bondage is all about. And that’s why we’re so out of touch with our emotions, that’s why we can’t see what’s right in front of us. That’s why we blame others, that’s why we keep hurting ourselves. And you know, the reality of this whole thing is we know Christ is the answer, and He’ll bring the things that the addict is looking for, but we’ve got to bust through that denial for them to really see Jesus. Because I know in rescue ministry there are people who will take Jesus and integrate them into their denial system. You know, there are many alcoholics out there who can quote more Scripture than the average rescue mission worker.

Emotionally Safe
A sure sign that a person is beginning the process of genuine recovery is the return of the emotional life. They begin feeling again, and much of what they feel is pain and grief. To continue to recover, they must feel supported and know that they are in an environment where they can safely and freely express the struggles they are experiencing.

The fourth thing I would say is that it is a place that is emotionally safe. Now I mentioned before that denial is basically the way that addicts keep from experiencing the pain that they had before they became addicts, possibly, and then the pain they had now because they were addicts. So one of the things that is going to happen, and we need to realize this, is that pain is going to be part of the recovery process. And a lot of these emotions and feelings that have been pushed and stuffed and avoided for so long will have to resurface if healing will ever occur. But people who are in a program that’s not emotionally safe will not have the freedom to be honest and to share. And so some of that, let me just make a list real quickly of some of the things that are needed for a place that is emotionally safe.

We all have feelings, but if we’re not really in recovery and growing, then we just are out of touch with them”, and we can’t — like I said, I could say, “I’m feeling bad,” but I can’t tell you whether it is jealousy or anger. I can’t tell you whether it’s I’m disappointed or depressed. I don’t know. It says then, it says, they can talk about how they feel about their own life situation and if it hurts, they can say that and then ask for help in making the corrections. They can own the bad things that happen to them in their life, and they can also know the good feelings that they want to achieve. And that is one of the important aspects of this coming into emotional freedom. If I am out of touch with the bad feelings, I am also out of touch with the good feelings. If I can’t feel like — if I can’t feel depressed, I am usually not going to feel joy, either.

Some people feel that you shouldn’t put so much emphasis on feelings. Anybody say that to anybody? What is that saying? Somehow there is some moral issue here about your feelings. But if you really look at feelings, they’re not moral. Feelings are just an emotional reaction to the way I perceive a situation. A lot of times my feelings can tell me more about what’s going on than my mind can. That’s a whole area of our lives that we need to have freedom in if we’re ever going to grow and feel good about our lives and really experience happiness.

We operate by faith and not by sight. That’s what Scripture says. There are some counselors who say, “Don’t go with your feelings.” Here’s the solution to that. We need to realize that feelings may not always be coming from a correct perception. How I perceive things is really where my feelings come from. As I grow, my feelings get more in line with reality. So it’s almost like you have to do what you know is right, now matter how you feel, because you’re feelings have evolved from so many past experiences that you might not even know what it is that’s triggering the emotional response. The other angle of that is that your feelings are an important key to how you perceive life. If I don’t fully understand the emotional signals I am experiencing in my life, I’ll never truly know what’s inside of me and what makes me tick.

Too often our reaction is just to stuff our feelings aside and forget about them — deny them. When we do that, we’re cutting ourselves out from a whole area of life that needs to be explored and experienced if we are ever going to have freedom. A lot of times we have emotional reactions to things that have nothing to do with the present situation. You’ve been in situations, I am sure, where somebody is coming at you with a very strong anger reaction, and it’s much more violent and stronger than warrants the situation. You see that so often in people who are sexually abused and strong fear reactions when it comes to even moving forward. What does that mean? The emotional reaction is an indicator that a lot of work needs to be done in different areas, so you have to make sure that you take that into account.

The less we are aware of our feelings, the more likely we are to react on an emotional response. That’s an amazing thing, but it’s very true. For the longest time one of the most difficult feelings I had to deal with was the anger reaction. It wasn’t until much later in my recovery that I began to realize that my anger reaction had a lot to do with my dysfunctional family issues relating to personal boundaries. I was the family hero. I was my mom’s surrogate husband, because I was the oldest son. In a dysfunctional family system, the border between you and me gets pretty blurry. Sometimes I can’t tell where you start and I end. That’s why so many people who are codependent and have dysfunctional family backgrounds get real reactions.

Early in my marriage, I didn’t feel I had a right to tell people when I thought they were stepping into my boundaries and getting into my stuff because of the shame message I had. It was really something for a 35-year-old man to have in his life, but it was kind of like, “I’m not allowed to tell you to get out of my stuff.” That sounds like a really simple thing, but that was one deep insight that crippled me for many years. Here you’re a Christian, and it says “Deny yourself,” and be the world’s doormat. That is a way some interpret that. In other words, you’re not allowed to have personal boundaries. That’s a primary issue to anybody with a shame-based identity from a dysfunctional family background. Where are my personal boundaries between me and you? What’s my stuff? What’s your stuff?

Through personal counseling and understanding that anger reaction, I finally got that insight that let me to understand that yes, I can have personal boundaries, and that my anger reaction basically is kind of like an emotional trip-wire that when you get into my boundaries, the trip-wire goes off, and that’s where my anger reaction comes from. That’s perfectly healthy. That’s a survival mechanism that is God-given. When I learned to adjust my boundaries in a comfortable way and life within those, I found out that I had a lot less anger. Because emotions are simply reactions — indicators of perceptions. Some of the perceptions emotions indicate are not right up here in front of our minds. I can’t write my boundaries here. Yet, ignoring them, denying them, stuffing them, means I’ll never get to the bottom of where they are coming from.

Don’t be a counselor unless you have good boundaries. If you have any indication of codependency in your life, get some help. One of the reasons we have such a hard time dismissing people from our program is because we feel like we’ve failed. If somebody gets drunk in my program, it goes through my shame grid to say, “You messed up. He got drunk because you weren’t loving, you didn’t say enough, whatever.” So we have to keep them there so that it doesn’t make me look any worse than I already feel.

A term I throw around a lot is “professional distance.” If you’re going to be involved with counseling of any type, and especially in a rescue mission, know what that professional distance is and be able to leave people and problems at the mission when you go home at night. My job is not to fix you. My job is to share what I found out and you can either take it or leave it. Whatever you do with what I’m sharing with you is your choice. I’m not going to own any of that for myself.

And so you could probably … you might say that passing from introduction into stabilization is the most risky phase of the whole thing. This is where you are most apt to lose them, this is where they are most apt to relapse. Because pain is increasing. It is getting riskier, it is getting scarier. Things are getting newer. You are moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar. And this is where they need lots of support and lots of time to talk. I was so excited to hear that Pete in Cleveland is going to have a daily support group and daily — what actually looks like more therapy, it looks to me, where they have time to talk about all the feelings and the new things that are going on as they are moving into stabilization, because it is a time for lots of talk, lots of support, lots of time to do, you know, to get a lot of feelings out.

Out of Touch with Feelings
Abuse and pain from the past – combined with the emotional impact of addictions – leaves them living life “from the neck up”

No. 11 is out of touch with feelings, or their own emotions. Now this is probably what I would call the second deepest wound of toxic shame, and that is, if you are a wounded person, your life has been filled with pain. And if you have experienced pain to a certain degree, there is a time, for your own sanity and survival, that you have got to shut it off. But the thing about this is, you can’t shut down your emotions and split them off from yourself in one area without doing it in your total emotional life. That means if I am not able to experience pain, I am not going to experience joy, either. If I can’t be sad, I can’t be happy. I’ve often told people that before I sobered up and entered into recovery, I had two feelings: good and bad. Then when I started using, I had two feelings: bad and worse.

Some of the things that John Bradshaw talked about as far as emotions, dysfunctional families, one of the dynamics in that kind of setting is you’re not allowed to feel. Your feelings are useless. They are worthless, they are not important. And when I tell somebody, your feelings are no good, I’m telling them, you’re no good. Don’t feel, don’t tell us anything about your pain because there is already enough pain here. Don’t make us feel worse by telling us how bad you feel. You see, all those kind of messages are what I grew up with. Feelings aren’t important. As a matter of fact, they are a problem. And generally speaking, why do people use? To shut down feelings. I use when I am feeling bad, medicate.

That’s right. Well, you see, again, when you see people with no feelings at all, that is a person who has been wounded. And that is the person that is a victim of this kind of an internal shaming mechanism. And, of course, it is bad enough if you have had this as a child, but if you pour chemicals on top of it, alcohol and drugs, it creates a split that is almost — a person will never be reconnected on their own. And I can tell you that in my marriage, my wife and I almost tore each other apart because we were both adult children of alcoholics and I was a person in recovery from addiction. And I was involved with group therapy and one-on-one counseling for about eight months a few years ago, just to work on this issue. Because the thing is, if I am out of touch with my own feelings, I can’t ever connect with yours, either, and I’m a robot. I am living life from the neck up, you might say. It is all here.

And it is a very sad survival oriented kind of way of life. And I would say for me, one of the greatest gifts that God ever gave me was the ability, the freedom, the permission to feel again. And one of the things that we have seen over and over again in recovery programs, usually the first emotion that people start feeling again, is grief. Where they get connected with the loss of their life. And let me tell you, I had a wonderful experience to be in a 5-day in-hospital program for adult children of alcoholics, and the biggest breakthrough that I ever experienced in that program was, for me, the doorway into a whole new life, was when I finally sat down with the fact that as a child I was totally ripped off from having a family, from having a childhood, from having a mother and father who loved me and cared for me. That … and I really felt it and I knew it in my heart, and I let myself feel. And this is one of the greatest gifts that we will ever bring to our men, so we need — but it is not going to happen on its own. It has got to be actively programmed into our activities.

Everybody has emotions, like Pat says, it’s just you are disconnected from them, you are unaware of them, you are unable to connect with them and experience with them. It’s a real sad internal divorcing of oneself. It makes a big difference, it’s a big mess, it’s disconnected from the emotional life. And maybe some of you are that way and feel numb a lot of times, and wonder why you are not experiencing the job and peace and that should be part of this Christian life. That’s part of it.

There are some things that talk about the emotional side of recovery and, you know, part of having this therapeutic environment in our program is having a situation where people are free to express their feelings.

Part Two