To be clear, there is no easy way to take a hard look at ourselves and accept our failings and weaknesses. Looking at the “bad” things we’ve done and not internalizing the shame that can results from the reflection is not an easy proposition. But, in order to move towards a healthier place, it’s imperative that we not only look at our behavior, be we also need to reflect upon the circumstances in which we behaved.
Take “Jack,” a forty something Hispanic male who recently entered into recovery from an addiction to alcohol. When Jack entered treatment, he knew he wanted to be rid of his addiction, but the shadows from a divorce and from his subsequent alienation from his children hung over him and caused him to be a very shameful person. Jack is a talented and capable person; before his addiction took over his life, Jack earned a decent living as an auto mechanic. However, the more he slid into alcoholism, the less he was able to work. After the loss of his family, Jack pretty much gave up on holding a job all together. A DUI conviction forced Jack into treatment. Jack wore his shame like a suit or armor.
While I do approach treatment from a strengths perspective, I also recognize that if we do not assess our actions, we can are prone to repeat harmful and unhealthy behaviors. This is not to say that we should wallow in our past mistakes; we shouldn’t. However, we need to see that our actions tend to be the result of inaccurately processing our external circumstances. For Jack, he thought that having a beer after a hard day’s work was rewarding. He failed to value his family who begged him not to drink so much and as often as he did.
Jack was lucky in that he qualified for Vivitrol treatment. The Vivitrol helped with his cravings (may have been placebo effect, but who cares) and he was able to significantly scale back his drinking. As he did, he was able to see that he was mirroring behaviors he saw in his father. Jack felt that it was “ok” to drink in spite of his family’s concern because his father acted as he wished without regard for his own family. It wasn’t that Jack was a jerk; it was more that he thought he was acting in accordance with how a father was supposed to act.
As his thinking became clearer, Jack was able to mourn the loss of his marriage and find solace in the fact that his children were being cared for by someone who was strong enough to act on their best behalf. While he saw that his drinking led to significant loss, he also saw that he did not value his family or his work enough to make appropriate changes towards health. Once he corrected his erroneous thinking he began to act responsibly towards the people and activities that he really valued.
Jack’s been sober for almost five years now. He never mended fences with his ex, but he was able to salvage his relationship with his children. He found dignity in looking at his failings because he was able to recognize the context in which he failed was a result of his own upbringing. I think that this recognition neutralized his behavior; though Jack did feel guilty, he was no longer was ashamed of himself
Therefore, I think the way to look at our past failings is to understand them in context and then correct processing that led to the failures. Then once we understand the context and have corrected our thinking, we can then live with full knowledge that we have the power to change our behavior in context.