Into the Abyss Part V

Step 3: Getting Real – A Daily Practice

The most concrete step in this spiritual approach to addressing unwanted habits is the development of a reflection and accountability practice. Ongoing accountability allows us to face our ourselves and develop strategies to draw awareness to our progress, and to process our thoughts and feelings when we fall short. These reflections are followed by an effort to better understand what is going on inside; specifically the legitimate needs that have driven us to misbehave.

This type of accountability and self-honesty is accomplished through a daily journaling practice. The use of a journal is recognized throughout the world as a powerful tool which fosters self awareness and mental health. Journaling has many associations so we will be explicit about which form of journaling we mean. The most common association of journaling is utilizing the journal as a free association tool, based around writing out what occurred in our day etc… This is not the sort of journaling we are suggesting here, rather, we mean a practical and solution oriented form of journaling that entails 5 parts.

Part1: In order to orient our minds to a place of humility and positivity we open the journaling exercise by compiling a list of six things we are grateful for. Keep this list simple, if it looks the same everyday that’s okay, but mixing it up with new things to be grateful for will only help the process.

Part 2: The next aspect of our journal will be tracking our progress by acknowledging our success on that given day. Again, keep it simple; was today a successful day or not. By successful we specifically mean tracking a count of consecutive days of success in maintaining our goals as relates the unwanted habit we are seeking to address. [1]

Part 3: The next component of accountability comes if and when we encounter setbacks. Here we must face our regret. (We will specifically explore how we can enhance our capacity to experience our regret effectively and functionally in the next article, but we will need to utilize this practice at this juncture as well.) After a deep breath, we acknowledge our mistakes and our resolve to do better. Often a verbal expression of our disappointment and commitment for the future is most useful. Once we have made this simple acknowledgment, it is critical that we move on and not allow ourselves to get bogged down by excessive and morbid worry.

Part 4: The next component of our journal will be to write out expressions of our feelings to G-d/Our higher power. This might entail an expression of sadness or remorse, or of joy and thankfulness. It is important make these expressions relatively brief, three sentences is a perfect amount, (though at certain points (success or failure) a longer note might be warranted). The main thing is to keep this as a simple and quick exercise. If we feel the need to write more and to express things in a more intense manner, perhaps writing it elsewhere would be useful. It is important to reiterate and keep in mind that we are engaging a “long short way”, which more often than not means small and subtle steps toward a solution, not intense and ecstatic events meant to change things quickly. It is critical that we keep this process simple and manageable. In order to do that, it’s important to keep it short and to the point without over-dramatizing it. (It is also useful to point out that the function of not over-dramatizing the exercise is it to train ourselves to maintain a more balanced reaction to setbacks and even success. Remember, the world is not falling apart if its been a few tough days, and everything is not fixed forever just because things are going well for a short time. This balanced attitude helps us to practice a down to earth and matter of fact acknowledgement of what is, without making too much or too little of our situation.)

Part 5: Having given validation and expression to our feelings we are now ready to reflect practically on the mechanisms behind failures or setbacks, to understand what is going on inside. This aspect is important as an affirmation that we deserve to treat ourselves well and to more adaptively address our needs. When we starve ourselves of nurturing and support, it only triggers a greater and more powerful urge to seek out outlets in areas that don’t meet our ideals. As we gain a greater sense of awareness of the reality of our needs and some semblance of a theory of what and where those needs lie, we can better adapt and make efforts to fill those needs. To eat when we are hungry, to rest when we need a break and to treat ourselves when we need a little boost. This simple awareness becomes integral to developing mastery.

These efforts to take better care of ourselves, are also ways that we signal to our bodies that we are on the same team. It affirms that we are dedicated to fulfilling our needs and nurturing ourselves in ways that reflect our ideals. Though our bodies seek and desire nurturing from things that we don’t like, when we provide for those needs, our bodies are not at odds with our conscious selves. Mastery of any area of behavior requires this. We cannot expect long term results by leaning too heavily on our bodies with discipline and limitation, we also cannot gain any ground if we only indulge our bodies like spoiled children. We must develop a balanced environment of discipline and nurturing that signals to our bodies who is in charge, yet also lets our body know that he or she will be taken care of.

Aware and mindful of our behavior, and better able to tolerate admitting our setbacks without getting lost in shame, we can reflect back at the entirety of an episode of failure and ask; “what was I looking for which I actually need? Was I lonely, anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated, resentful or over stimulated. What can we do better next time? How can we better process and handle our feelings of frustration, sadness, loneliness, anger or resentment? Who could we talk them out with? How can we better tolerate our bodies drives?”

These will be important questions to answer, and it might be most effective to ultimately speak them out with someone else, but personal reflection on them first is important. The main thing is to recognize that we are no longer managing a problem, focused and fixated on bad behavior. Instead we are seeking to engage a solution oriented process, which focuses on taking steps to prevent future setbacks by making proactive and honest accounting of what we can do better. This means being nicer, kinder and better care takers of ourselves. It means being patient with ourselves when we have setbacks. It means practicing empathy and compassion for our emotional or child self, acknowledging the kinds of conflicts we experience and feel, and taking measures to fill those gaps the best we can, tolerating the parts we are not able to fix yet. Not all uncomfortable emotions can be managed or soothed away, but the first step to not being dominated by emotions, and in turn by the behaviors they demand, is to acknowledge that those feelings exist, and then take whatever steps we can to address them. This is where the support of a guide, sponsor and or therapist can be helpful. Having somewhere and someone with which to proactively process the underlying aspects behind setbacks is a powerful and useful way to take back our lives.

A practice of reflection by ourselves, though, before we go to a guide, is a way for us to be empowered at being the driver of a solution in our lives. Going to a guide with the question; “I seem to struggle with handling myself around loneliness, what can I do?”, is much different then; “I am hopeless I can’t stop acting out”. The second is disempowering, the first taking back our lives. The second is problem centric, the first solution oriented. Being mindful and honest about what’s going on creates an environment where practical positive action becomes possible. Stepping out of the abyss of repetitive shame and onto the path of proactive self-growth becomes possible when we develop a practice of daily self reflection.

[1] Because this concept is often misunderstood, it is important here to clarify the implication of “counting days” of abstinence or compliance with an ideal. The purpose of “counting days” is not to build a streak. The reason we count our consecutive days of success is that it represents our ultimate goal. We are not seeking a temporary fix, but rather a long term and sustainable solution. A solution which free us from the angst of constant trial. This kind of success is measured by three variables, an absence of obsession and preoccupation, an ease with casting aside the impulse to act out, and lastly sustained abstinence or compliance with an ideal. We therefore measure our ongoing success by acknowledging our consecutive days free of acting beneath ourselves and our ideals. In doing this we honor our ultimate hopes and our faith in a solution that is sustainable. Lastly, it is important to note that a function of counting days is also to honor the challenge of the first days and weeks that follow a “slip”. If we only count big number success (whatever we think a big number is) we minimize the great victory of early abstinence or compliance. Therefore, we count day one with as much gratitude and pride as we do day ninety etc…, perhaps even more.

Practical Action: Carry out this five part practice on a daily basis. Start with a commitment to journaling three days in a row. It is useful to strategize ahead of time the specific time of day that is most feasible for you to do this (beginning or end of the day are most useful). As you see you can be  successful at three days, try a week, then three weeks etc… With diligence this kind of practice can become second nature, and the benefits of it emerge with a regular routine.

About the Author
Menachem Poznanski, LCSW is director of The Living Room, a clubhouse for Jewish young adults in recovery from Alcoholism and Addiction. Menachem is co-author of Stepping out of the Abyss: A Jewish guide to the 12 steps (Mosaica, 2017) and the editor of both Consciously and The Light Revealed, two social media initiatives focused on the messages of Jewish recovery and spirituality. Menachem resides in Cedarhurst, NY with his wife Naomi and their children, Zoe and Tani.
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