"Only with ongoing mindfulness can we make and sustain crucial changes to our brain."

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Episode 115 -- May 20, 2021

The Case for Commitment

In his book A Gentle Path through the Twelve Principles: Living the Values Behind the Steps, Patrick Carnes presents twelve guiding principles essential to long-term recovery. Carnes offers a practical approach to help create more successful recoveries and fewer relapses. He does this by demonstrating how we can use these principles as a guide to a new way of living—letting go of our old ways of thinking and acting, and accepting that change in our lives is both ongoing and inevitable.

This excerpt discusses the principle of commitment and its vital importance in (and to) this process of growth and change. Carnes teaches us how becoming an inner observer and being mindful of our thoughts, behaviors, and histories can help us redesign our relationship with recovery and transform our fears about commitment into energy and passion for doing the next right thing day after day.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Creating a sustainable recovery involves much more than merely creating sobriety. It's a qualitatively different effort. It's the difference between 2-D and 3-D. Between liking and loving. Between involvement and commitment.

Commitment is absolutely critical to sustaining recovery. Our addiction rewired our brain to sabotage us, to constantly pull us back into our illness. In order to maintain our recovery, we need to continually re-engineer our brain—not once, or until we reach a certain goal or threshold, but on an ongoing basis, day by day.

Although commitment is partly about attitude, it is most about what we do—how we show up, what responsibilities we shoulder, what decisions we make, and what actions we take to sustain those decisions. Recovery is a team effort that requires multiple commitments: our determination to build a new life, the mindfulness of our inner observer, the help of trustworthy people, and the guidance of our Higher Power.

In Step Eight (Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all), we mentally redesigned our relationships with all the people we had harmed. As we live Principle Eight, we mentally redesign our relationship with recovery. We no longer see recovery as something we practice; it becomes part of who we are. We see that the Principles of recovery are also the Principles of living, and we commit ourselves fully to them.

We addicts already have deep and intimate experience with commitment. When we were caught in our addiction, our commitment to it was nearly absolute. We got very skilled at obtaining whatever substance or experience we were addicted to. We committed great time and energy to planning and organizing these efforts, as well as to covering up our addiction.

Our commitment to recovery needs to be equally thoroughgoing. This means bringing to resolution everything unexamined, undisclosed, unaddressed, or unfinished in our life. It also means asking ourselves, moment after moment, What is the next right thing I need to do? As we live the Principles, our commitment to recovery broadens and deepens into a commitment to the world.

The Commitment Equation

As children, we learned from our families how to be responsible and accountable—or else how not to be. Many of us addicts were raised in families that had serious accountability problems. If we grew up in a family with lots of inflexible rules, we learned to get through life in one of three ways:

  1. We bought into all the rules and became as inflexible as our parents.

  2. We got very good at pretending to follow the rules, while living a secret life in which we did whatever we pleased. (Other family members probably did this, too.)

  3. We became very, very rebellious.

In all three cases, we developed an unhealthy view of accountability and commitment.

As children, many of us addicts did not have a bonding experience with a loving adult. We grew up craving this bonding in our very cells, yet we lack the skills or experience to bond with others. This creates a cycle of yearning and frustration that either becomes an addiction in itself or drives us to try to soothe ourselves through some compulsive activity. Our injured brains, our accountability issues, and our failure to bond combine to create deep pain and confusion around commitment. As a result, commitment may feel threatening, or suffocating, or beyond our reach.

As we live Principle Eight, however, we slowly unravel this delusion and make commitment our ally.

Commitment and Your Inner Observer

Suppose that you drive the same highway to work every day and always get off at the same exit. One morning you need to deliver a package to a friend who lives three miles further down that highway. Without thinking, out of habit, you automatically take your usual exit. You don't even realize your error until you're halfway down the off-ramp.

Our brain is always creating these kinds of shortcuts for us. It tries to be more efficient, to do more with less energy, so it can free up as much mental bandwidth as possible for other tasks. Much of the time, these shortcuts help us. But when we need to do something different—such as get off the highway three miles later—our mental shortcuts can get in our way.

Most of us have some harmful mental shortcuts as well, such as the ones created by our addictions and our dysfunctional upbringings. For example, when we see a police officer, we may feel an automatic twinge of fear and panic, even though we know the officer's job is to protect and serve us.

In recovery, we work with these mental shortcuts in four ways. First, we train our inner observer to spot them and let us know when they have begun to kick in. Second, we teach our inner observer to tell us when we're in a situation that might trigger an unhealthy shortcut. Third, we learn to stop ourselves from taking certain shortcuts, and to instead act mindfully, based on the particular situation. Fourth, over time we create new, helpful mental shortcuts to replace some of our old unhelpful ones.

This process takes time, effort, and lots of practice—but our recovery requires it. Only with ongoing mindfulness can we make and sustain crucial changes to our brain. Sticking with this process requires commitment. But the process also creates commitment: once it starts to yield positive results, it becomes self-reinforcing.

In practicing the first seven Principles, we developed our inner observer into a reliable, mindful presence that monitors and manages all the traffic in our brain. Now, as we live Principle Eight, we also make it responsible for monitoring and managing our daily practices of recovery. These practices differ somewhat from person to person, but they typically include prayer, meditation, personal reflection or writing, and reading Twelve Step materials.

We also give our inner observer the responsibility of managing our moment-by-moment practices of recovery. This includes alerting us to:

  • Potentially dangerous situations, such as an invitation to a friend's birthday party in a bar, or a Facebook friending request from a former girlfriend.

  • Physical or emotional states that make us vulnerable, such as loneliness, disappointment, frustration, exhaustion, or hunger.

  • Thoughts or impulses that can get us into trouble, such as a desire to take a walk past the casino, or a brilliant new plan to limit our partner's drinking.

  • Mental shortcuts that are inappropriate or potentially damaging.

  • Signs that our addiction has reappeared in a new form.

This mutation of one addiction into another is quite common and represents yet another cunning and baffling aspect of the disease. Even with years of successful recovery under our belt, we can suddenly find ourselves thinking like an addict. Something that had never been a problem for us before—eating, dating, shopping, computer gaming—begins to take on compulsive overtones. These are signs that our addiction has re-emerged with a new focus and is trying to hijack our brain. Our inner observer's careful monitoring can stop this hijacking in its early stages and help us return to the path of recovery.

We also give our inner observer one other important responsibility: helping us create and maintain new, healthy shortcuts and habits. These are often called unconscious competencies. They are unconscious because, once we have integrated them into our life, we do them automatically, without thinking. They are competencies because they are always sane and helpful. Common examples include:

  • Listening intently without criticism, judgment, or interruption.

  • Asking someone who is obviously in distress, "Is something wrong?"

  • Asking our Higher Power for help when we need it.

  • Being grateful for the good things in our life.

  • Asking ourselves, What is needed here? How can I be of service?

Your Commitment Map
In Step Eight we made a list of all the people we had harmed and made an internal commitment to make amends to them all. As our recovery deepened, we learned that we also need to make amends to ourselves, because we are one of the people our addiction harmed the most. Now, in living Principle Eight, we expand this commitment be­yond making amends to doing the next right thing. Often this means setting something right with another person, even though you did nothing wrong and don't need to make amends. Sometimes it means setting things right with yourself.

About the Author:
Patrick J. Carnes, PhD, is an internationally known authority and speaker on addiction and recovery issues. He has authored over twenty books including the bestselling titles Out of the Shadows: Understanding Addiction Recovery, Betrayal Bond, Don't Call It Love, A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps, and A Gentle Path through the Twelve Principles.

Dr. Carnes's research provides the architecture for the "task model" of treating addictions that is used by thousands of therapists worldwide and many well-known treatment centers, residential facilities, and hospitals. He founded IITAP (International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals), which provides CSAT (Certified Sex Addiction Therapist) training and certification as well as cutting-edge information for addiction professionals.

Dr. Carnes currently serves as a Senior Fellow and Executive Director for the Gentle Path Program at The Meadows in Wickenburg, Arizona. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter: @drpatrickcarnes.

© 2012 by Patrick Carnes
All rights reserved