I hated it when someone disagreed with something I did or said, and I felt resentful when they criticized me. But I exploded into orbit when someone actually disagreed with and criticized MY OPINION, usually hosing that person down with a golden shower of sarcasm. But if they backed it up with logic, facts, figures and a better argument? Well then I felt compelled to respond by providing that person with my speculation on the past and/or present sexual activities of their mother.
As children, when we were publicly criticized by a parent, teacher or other adult, we felt humiliated, defeated and shunned from the herd. We wanted to either lash out, or escape to a place where we were safe and free. So a neural pathway, or ‘mind road’ was paved as a negative response to criticism. As adults, we are our own worst critic. We’re usually engulfed in a fog of self-criticism, and when other people criticize us, our minds automatically jump onto that old mind road from childhood and we get that familiar feeling of hurt, humiliation, resentment or anger. So we either defensively respond in fight mode or we want to run and escape in flight mode.
When someone disagrees with us or criticizes us, we can consider the criticism, learn and grow from it, or leave it alone if we determine it’s just a differing opinion from ours, particularly opinions on politics, religious views or addiction recovery. We can consider that every person is a singular blend of inherited genes, inherent personality traits, childhood experiences and adulthood encounters that are unique to them. We can accept that this gives them very specific values, points of view and things that are important to them and different from what’s important to us.
But when we get into recovery, we’re faced with owning our mistakes that have blown up in our face and exploded our lives into pieces. This part of recovery is difficult because we’ve already spent the last few years putting ourselves down, criticizing ourselves for our mistakes and our addiction, or blaming others for it. It’s important to separate the events that were catalysts for our addiction into two categories – (1) those events where we were truly a victim and (2) those events where we could have made better choices. More important is to sidestep the mind road that compels us to negatively respond to criticism, whether it be from someone else, or from ourselves, and/or to run and escape with our drug of choice. Progress is impossible if we’re stuck on the road where we defensively respond to criticism, put ourselves down in defeat for our mistakes, or run. But the growth begins when we actually start to change and approve of ourselves.
Whatever we do in life, there is probably always going to be someone who wants to disagree with it and/or criticize it. The only way to avoid criticism is to never do anything, say anything or be anything. Criticism is often just someone else’s opinion that we don’t agree with. A true sign of inner peace is simply allowing people to disagree with us, even criticize our opinion, not react to it, and let it float by like scenery on a train. In the end, freedom isn’t being able to do whatever we want – freedom is the absence of ego, resentments and guilt. If people disagree with us, which they are certain to do, it just means that we’re in action, noticed and relevant.
We desperately struggled for self-esteem as kids. It seemed nobody listened to us or took us seriously. We felt like we were considered a disappointment because we didn’t live up to someone else’s expectations, with their constant negative comparison of us to others. Some of us were the “runt of the litter” and brushed aside in favor of siblings who seemed to do everything right, while we seemed to do everything wrong. We often reacted by acting out, in desperation of someone paying attention to us, even if it was negative attention. We started to become the “black sheep” of the family.
The low self-esteem we had as children, coupled with a black sheep stigma, became a recipe for disaster as adults. Many of us ended up in relationships with people who continued to keep us down, because that’s what we were accustomed to as children. Our feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and failure grew, picking up baggage of shame heaped on us by others and by life, which started to over-inflate a balloon of sadness and isolation. We found relief with alcohol or drugs, which we were drawn to like sad moths to a black light. Inevitably our substance abuse blossomed into full blown addiction, which just seemed to fulfill the destiny we felt that we were given as children. The crushing weight of addiction got added to the black sheep stigma stamp from childhood and soul-sucking people and events of our adult lives. When our self-esteem sunk to some low critical mass of isolation and despair, we collapsed, crushed under an oppressive blanket of failure and fault. And the balloon of our life exploded.
Euphoria from alcohol/drugs is magical instantaneous relief, and the creation of addiction to it goes from 0 to 100 mph overnight. But becoming non-addicted often feels like a slow, physically and mentally excruciating and draining exercise. It takes courage, resolve and strength to overcome it, much greater than normal people possess. A fuel of propulsion for recovery and self-esteem comes from the realization of how strong and courageous we are as recovering alcoholics and addicts. Retracing our steps back into childhood gives knowledge and understanding of what happened, and why we became what we became. All of this provides the necessary armor and ammunition to win the great battles between what we know and what we might feel. Every battle we win gives us increasing strength of character, which strengthens hope and creates or recreates the self-esteem we lost, or never had.
Every single person who goes into recovery from substance abuse, gains and maintains sobriety, is truly deserving of self-respect and high self-esteem. To carry a heavy weight from childhood, through the storms of adulthood, swim with it across an ocean of despair from addiction, and stand up on the other side is a miraculous achievement, worthy of high praise and self-love. As far as being the black sheep – consider that every single person out there is a black sheep who went astray – the ones who appear white are those who are good at pretending to appear white, and are content with their life of illusion.
But as black sheep in recovery, we are the real deal, admitting our mistakes and working to correct them. We have genuine sympathetic and empathetic hearts that truly care about other people. So when we show our true shades of white, it’s authentic and something that’s unique to all of us “black sheep”.
“You are such an ugly pig – you’re fat, you disgust me and nobody wants you” – how many people would stay with a spouse or partner who said that to them from sunrise to sunset? How about a best friend who said to you, when you’re feeling down, “Nobody likes you and everybody talks shit about you behind your back” – would you keep that friend? What about a boss who always said to you, from the time you started in the morning until you went home, “You are an idiot – you never do anything right!” – would that motivate you to do better? Maybe some of us actually have people like this in our lives. But unless someone is a glutton for punishment, not many people would want to be around anyone who constantly puts them down, humiliates and insults them in every way like this. Yet that’s how many people, particularly those in recovery, tend to treat themselves. It’s always this constant, judgmental voice, always accusing and forever criticizing. We would NEVER treat someone we loved the way we treat ourselves. We would NEVER be that insulting or demanding.
When I first got into recovery, my self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect were at zero. I was carrying around 100 pounds of shame on one shoulder, 100 pounds of guilt on the other and another 100 pounds of blame on my back. I would engage in humiliating self-deprecation immediately followed by self-pity and despair. I started in recovery with learning to treat myself in a positive and uplifting way with any situation in life that arose. To encourage myself the way a loving parent would talk to a child who is sad. To counsel and support myself the way I would a best friend who is feeling down and struggling. Doing all this with reactions to my thoughts that were positive and interactive instead of just feeling sorry for myself. This really worked. It started to change my attitude towards myself, and life in general, and rapidly created positive growth.
There is enough pressure and demands put on us by other people, we don’t need to turn around and kick our own ass, especially when we’re down. Life can be enough of a bitch as it is, we don’t need to be a bitch to ourselves. We DO NOT deserve that. It’s easy to learn to be a comfort and a friend to ourselves, because that friend is always going to be with us. We need to be our own best friend – we DO deserve that!
We had dreams, hopes and visions of our future, what we were going to be, and how the novel or our life would be written. Somewhere we got entangled in the past, our efforts in the present became devoted to untying that knot, and suddenly our vision of the future blurred. The novel of our life seemed to get stuck on the same page.
Let’s say we were in the east and knew that the answer to all our dreams were thousands of miles to the west, but the only way to get there was to walk. It seemed unfair that some people got to drive or fly into their future on an easy ride, but our lot in life was to walk. Somewhere along the line, we ended up in a long tunnel that stretched for miles. We kept trudging along for years. After awhile we looked back, but felt like we were as far away from the end of the tunnel as we were from the beginning. We ended up walking in circles in the middle of the tunnel, making the same mistakes over and over, and screaming with despair.
Finally, with help, we decided to turn around and press on, sometimes even crawling. Eventually we made it out of the tunnel, but as we looked towards our destination, we saw it was still a long ways off. The journey out of the tunnel left us feeling exhausted. We still wanted to get to our western destination, but now 10 years had gotten behind us. We continued walking, but we encountered distractions of life as we went along. When we allowed those things to affect us negatively, we found that we would either be walking backward, walking sideways, or walking perpendicular away from our path. In all cases, we ended up spending all this time and energy just to get back to the point where we were when we encountered those distractions and let them negatively affect us in the first place. We found that it was important to always keep pressing on and moving forward at all times, even when distractions came up. After awhile, we looked back and saw that we had walked for thousands of miles, realized just how far we had come, and how many distractions we had fought through to get where we were at.
We became proud of ourselves and got energy to keep moving on. We also realized that we kept getting stronger each time we moved forward through these distractions. As we got stronger, we were able to walk faster, eventually run, and our destination was getting closer and closer. But we also came to understand that there was tremendous enjoyment in the journey itself. We could still keep moving towards our goal, but we could enjoy and embrace the people, places and things we used to call distractions as we kept pressing on, because the events of our lives were only distractions if we allowed them to affect us negatively. If we embraced them with a positive attitude of gratitude, these weren’t distractions, but fuel for the journey and a source of enjoyment in the journey itself. Wherever we were in life, we were needed by someone then and there.
The more we satisfied those needs, the closer we got to where we wanted to be. Because in the end, happiness didn’t just lie in reaching the goal, but also in the journey itself. It never matters at all how old we are or at what point in life we’re at. We can still achieve what we originally set out to do, if our hopes and dreams were realistic. It’s never to late to chase them. The future we wanted is still there waiting for us and getting closer if we’re walking the straight line and embracing life as we go.